Here’s your lunch,’ says Frances Meadows.

Predatory in her 88-year-old peering, Celia Meadows eyes the tray.

     ‘What is it?’

     ‘A peanut butter sandwich. What you asked for.’

Frances is 50. Caring for her mother has gone on far too long. While Celia eats, Frances escapes to sit on the wooden bench under the camphor laurel. This is her peaceful place. She gazes up through the canopy where raucous creaks and rattles announce the hidden mynah birds. The tree is a city of tourists, a traveller’s rest. It pleases in its seasons, berries, new leaves, clean scent. Its venerable age (unlike Celia’s) adds to its beauty.

Of course Celia hates the tree. There is much she hates, these days.

 

Next door to the Meadows live Neville and Hannah Gordon and their beloved old cat, Fluffy. They are a dear couple, married 47 years in March. Clean-living, neat and clear in matters of politics and salvation, they attend the local Adventist church, where Hannah makes a rich Caramel Slice for the after-service gathering and Neville donates surplus cucumbers and tomatoes to the needy. Over the fence, Neville and Celia discuss the camphor laurel’s crimes.

     ‘Any fool knows it’s no tree for a suburban garden.’

     ‘How true. 110,000 seeds can be produced by one mature tree in one year.’ Neville collects statistics and writes a weekly word quiz for the local paper – as he says, an erudite column for an eclectic audience; or, as Hannah privately maintains, big words nobody uses.

     ‘110,000? Disgraceful,’ Celia agrees. They enjoy a pleasant assassination of the tree’s 

peccadilloes – the staining berries, the messy leaves, the invasive roots that crack the

concrete and invade the drains.

     ‘I’d have it removed, but a tree this size would cost a fortune.’

 

‘Leave it to me,’ suggests Neville, whose vegie patch is suffering in the shade.

 Maelstrom is his word of the week – not totally accurate, but giving an idea of the outcome he has in mind when that evening he injects a litre of Round Up into the overhanging branch.

 

Frances goes shopping. She buys 6 jars of peanut butter on special, and a secondhand copy of The Herbalist’s Handbook.

     ‘What do you want that for?’ asks Celia. ‘Do you plan to poison me?’

The postman delivers the mail. Frances takes the bills and gives her mother the postcard from Clifton. Rosy ovals bloom on Celia’s cheeks. Clifton is her old flame. She prises herself from her chair and lurches to a better light. How whimsical! A reproduction from some art show; a winged cow with three udders. Just the kind of thing Clifton would find amusing. She guesses at the message, then thrusts it at Frances.

     ‘Is he coming to stay?’

Not if I have anything to do with it.  Frances has a distant memory of a short man with whisky breath and a loud voice. ‘He says he’ll be travelling through, some time in the next few months. I wonder what he wants.’

Celia is piqued. ‘He wants to see me.’

Well, obviously he doesn’t want to see Frances.

    

On a Tuesday in March, Frances would rather be anywhere than with her mother in the clothing department of Myers. Buying clothes is not her thing. Celia’s arthritic knee is giving her gyp. Clifton’s planned visit notwithstanding, she groans as she disrobes from a magenta skirt.

     ‘Made in China. Runty people. They must think we’re all midgets.’
The Asian saleswoman who has been so patient and so polite enters the fitting room to remove yet another heap of garments. She smiles approval for a good Western daughter who doesn’t abandon the old ones.

     ‘May I bring anything else?’ She gathers up discarded tops and slacks.

     ‘Leave that. Why is everything too small? Saving on material, I suppose. I want something made in this country.’ Celia speaks slowly and loudly to the saleswoman who bestows a loving smile as she departs. ‘Frances, hand me that.’ She writhes the pleated wool skirt over her hips and scowls at the mirror image. ‘Drab. Made for old people.’
      You are old. Of course she didn’t say it.  Lavender and camomile. Frances feels disconnected from those figures in the mirror – the withered half-clad crone, the sorrowing, heavy woman in her saggy tracksuit. Could she walk away and leave them there?

      Here is the saleswoman, this time bearing silver-grey taffeta, the sort of outfit Lauren Bacall might have worn for a presentation award. Celia drags it over her head, exposing white roots among the golden wisps. Lipstick stains her furrowed chin. Has it marked the dress?

     ‘Well?’

     An opinion is required. ‘It’s a party frock.”
     ‘Parties, ah yes, those days! Who gives parties nowadays?’

Is Frances really the person to ask? These days. Those days. Which are worse, the endless long complaining weary duty-ridden days of Now; or Then, when Celia careered about the stage and knew the world was her oyster, and everybody else mere grains of sand born to support and irritate her?

     ‘The zip’s stuck. Undo me, Frances. I don’t like any of it. We’ll go for lunch.’

 

On a Wednesday in April, Frances brings Celia’s peanut butter sandwich. The day is cold. Celia has declined a suggestion to eat outside. She predicts a storm and fears thunder and lightning. There are many things she fears, these days.

     Frances escapes to the yard and gazes at the Wuthering Heights sky. A wildness stirs in the camphor laurel tree. Excited leaves are quivering. The air, a breeze, is all at once a gust, inciting the dervish dance above. Branches lash and toss. Leaves whirl round and round. The rain comes, stinging and horizontal on the tailwind of the cyclone to the north. Below the chaos in the canopy, the trunk of the old tree stands straight and sturdy as a totem pole. Frances huddles close, feeling the furrowed bark against her cheek. She shelters there, perfectly happy, until Celia’s frantic caws summon her.

     The storm lasts for hours. Next day the camphor laurel is sedate. Damage is apparent up and down the street. Whole eucalypts sprawl across carports and picket fences. Rooves have caved in. Power lines lie in woolly tangles. Neville’s pawpaw tree has flattened his toolshed. Seventy green fruit roll about like milky footballs on a muddy playing field. He gathers them and carries the buckets in to Hannah. She will make chutney for the Bring and Buy.


 

It is Saturday. Celia and Frances are watching Dancing with the Stars. Stage lights dazzle; a driving tango rhythm plays. The competitors appear. The males are lean and darkly clad. Beautiful women toss their hair and challenge with their gaze. Sequined torsoes stride out on long stilettoed legs. On cue, the audience goes wild and the judges  smile.

Celia sighs. ‘I was once like them. I’m ready for my Milo.’

Frances in her slippers limps to the kitchen to heat the milk.

At 8.30 they go to bed.

 

‘I am tired. I’m growing old,’ says Celia in May, as she turns 89. Her eyesight is worse, though she still has all her wits about her. She knows when Frances has been shopping. She has seen the funny things Frances buys and stores in her botttom drawer: the tarot pack, the book on ballroom dancing.

     The make-believe celebration is attended by Celia’s son, his wife, their child and Frances. Celia’s other family and friends are dead – or, like Clifton, of unknown whereabouts.

Frances has laid out the food and prepared the centrepiece, a bowl of pretty autumn leaves. Celia mistakes them for biscuits and her granddaughter laughs out loud.

     ‘That is not polite, Briannon,’ says her father. ‘Tell Auntie Frances about your dancing class.’

     ‘I have a tutu,’ the child says and Frances smiles at her.

     ‘I would like to come and see you dance.’

How fortunate! Owing to new work commitments, nobody else is free to collect the little girl.

     ‘Frances can do it,’ Celia says. ‘She has nothing else to do.’

     ‘Nice cake,’ says Edward. He takes another slice.

     ‘I’d just as soon have a peanut butter sandwich,’ Celia says. Her hearing aids are whistling and she takes them out.

 

Now, on Fridays, Frances drives to the dance class on the other side of town. She

stands at the back of the hall, her caftan covering her built-up shoe. The children are

planted about the room, being trees.

     ‘Bend and sway.’ The teacher demonstrates. ‘Feel our branches reach up. Be the wind blowing in our leaves.’

Frances wishes she could be a tree, hosting birds, shedding berries, wearing fresh foliage, making fruit or flowers. Knowing where you stood. She is sorry when the class ends and the trees revert to giggling, squabbling children.

     ‘Did you enjoy your class?’ she asks Briannon as they walk to the car.

     ‘I would rather have an electric guitar. Do I have to come to your place now?’

     ‘Yes. Just till dinnertime. Mummy and Daddy are at work.’

     ‘How come you don’t work?’

     ‘I’m lazy. I lie in bed and eat chocolate.’

Sarcasm is lost on the six-year-old. ‘Mummy and Daddy go to bed and drink wine.’

     ‘Bully for them,’ says Frances. Bend and sway repeats like a mantra in her mind.






 

The camphor laurel sheds berries and copious leaves. Frances sweeps and rakes. Healthier than ever, the tree greens and spreads. Only the branch that overhangs Neville’s garden looks unwell. Parrots flitter by. Mynahs take up residence.

     ‘Hateful birds,’ says Celia. ‘They are foreign, and have driven out our native species.’ Put like that, it does sound bad, the case against the mynah bird. Frances looks up and sees the flash of pale breast feathers; the busy yellow beak and perky eye. Is it hateful to be born and obey the drive to live? She carries her mother’s sandwiches to the shady corner of the garden.

     ‘Not peanut butter again!’ says Celia. ‘Why must it always be peanut butter?’

There is a crack; a tearing groan. The dead limb has fallen into Neville’s garden. Frances is alarmed and Celia smiles. But, clearing the debris, Hannah and Neville find Fluffy; cause for grief. A merciful release, they say, but they see each other’s ugly, honest tears and hold each other painfully.

 

News comes, via a distant telephone call. Clifton has died of emphysema.

     ‘Leave me alone,’ says Celia to Frances. She stumps outside, her stick hostile as it taps. What do you know of love? You have never married, you have never raised children. Celia sits alone under the camphor laurel tree. Clifton is dead. It’s for the best, perhaps. In memory, he is bold and cruel, with wit and crisply curling hair. Much, much better to think of the night they were together and the peach tree wore white blossom.  For he would have changed; become ugly and stooped, as she is. He could be grubby, shabby, in a drooping tracksuit and dirty sandshoes that only the poor used to wear. Could there still be a tear left in her dried-up old body? Yes, she is weeping. How sad life is! What if she is talking to herself? There’s only a wretched tree to know. The tree! Her last bastion of power, her right to rule. Its canopy has shaded her rose garden too long. Nothing is flowering. It steals all the moisture from the soil. Its leaves block gutters and litter the yard. Its branch has killed poor Neville’s cat. She will have it removed. She rings the Council and demands that an inspector visit.

 

 

A parcel comes for Frances. Inside is the dowsing course, with a book and divining rods and copper sticks coded in red, yellow, violet or blue paint. Celia insists on peering into the box.

     ‘Sometimes I wonder where you came from,’ she tells Frances.  ‘Not one decent outfit in your wardrobe, and you waste money on nonsense. Do you think a man is interested in such things?’

     ‘I am interested,’ says Frances. She studies the book and watches the DVD after Celia has gone to bed. She learns about interference lines and geopathic stress. Next day she takes the rods outside and paces the perimeter of the property. As Neville continues to repair the damage to his shed, he looks over the fence and sees her walking in her awkward gait, two sticks pointing to the front. Poor soul, he thinks. Discombobulated was his word last week. Frances feels his gaze and lays down her tools. Neville calls out that he and Hannah have by fortuitous coincidence acquired another cat – a stray. Frances is pleased to hear it. She wonders why people cannot be like animals; a scattering of biscuits, a little plate of milk, the only offerings needed to create understanding. Conversation is so obscure, so terribly obscure. Can people possibly mean the words they spout in geyser gushes of cruel nastiness? She waves awkwardly and wanders away, leaving Neville to ponder. Since the storm and the sad demise of Fluffy, he feels a Last Days intuition. Next week’s word is toying with him, trying to be heard. What then?  Panoply? Obvelation?

 

The Council inspector surveys the tree. He agrees that it is a noxious weed. But the property is old and has a heritage listing, which means the tree is also heritage. The matter will have to be examined carefully. In due course, Celia will be notified.

Frances has no answer. She takes her dowsing tools outside and practises. Whenever she is parallel to the camphor laurel, the rods swing 90 degrees and point straight at the tree. Frances consults the book. Later she takes several blue-tipped copper sticks and presses them into the earth. She adds a yellow stick for good measure. The rods no longer turn.

     The Council meet and give their answer.

     ‘Fools! It’s old! Why won’t they chop it down?’ fumes Celia. She rages all night. In the morning, refusing breakfast, she rushes outside, seizes a hatchet and assaults the ancient bole. Giddy, she stumbles. Her mind blurs and her arm grows heavy. The tree receives her fall. She lies nested beside its base until her daughter runs to her aid and calls an ambulance.

     All day Frances waits at the hospital by her mother’s bedside. Finally, Celia has no unkind words to offer. She lies quietened by the mystery that is taking place. Perhaps she sleeps.

The doctor is grave.

     ‘When?’ asks Frances.

  He shakes his head. Who knows? It could be days. Perhaps Frances should go home and rest.

     ‘I’m leaving now,’ Frances tells Celia and nervously she bends and kisses the waxy cheek. There is no response.

 

At home, the house is silent. Nothing feels familiar. Where is duty, and the familiar monologue of demands? Abandoned by resentment, she can find nothing left. Celia’s chair is empty. The day is over. Darkness will be here.

     Frances escapes into the garden’s weird illumination, where every living plant seems revealed of a secret inner life. The camphor laurel has shed the browns and olives of its workaday raiment. Orange radiance colours its bark; jade and emerald hues flicker through the canopy where lazily twittering birds prepare to rest. Neville, shifting frost-tender pot plants to the shelter of his greenhouse, looks over the fence and sees Frances. Why, he thinks, in that eldritch light, she has a look of grace.

     She wipes away her tears. Gazing up through the lemony transparency of leaves, she understands the tree will be her comfort. She knows its shape like a reflection of herself. Strength courses through that constant trunk. There is an embrace in that fond curve of branch. Frances lifts high her arms, and bends and sways while a leafy susurration murmurs to her as though she is a loved, light-footed partner.

 

 

 

 

 


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