A fiftieth wedding anniversay outing provides more than this couple expected!
‘Been a long time!’
‘Yeah, a long time.’
‘Guess, it is.’
Joan smiled at her husband after his last comment. Guess? Of course Fred would know. It was where he’d proposed to her after all!
Fred drove the four-wheel drive over the dirt track that led to the picnic area next to the river. Joan gasped with delight as she saw the tree.
‘It’s still there… after all this time!’
‘Gums live a lot longer then we do love.’
‘I know that dear… that’s what makes it so beautiful.’
‘Oh, nothing important, Fred.’
Fred was a little deaf these days, so Joan was used to the fact that he only heard half of what she said… or was it ‘selective’ deafness?
The old couple eased themselves out of their car and walked quietly, almost reverently over to the large river gum that stood at the edge of the river.
‘It’s much bigger than I remembered ,Fred.’
‘Well, it has been fifty years, love.’
‘Just think about it, Fred.’
‘This tree will still be here in another fifty years holding our memories long after… we’ve gone…’
‘Christ Joan, stop being maudlin’…’
It stood tall and proud, dwarfing them. The large gnarled limbs spread outwards, holding smaller branches that swayed in the warm autumn breeze. There were telltale blackened scars on its trunk from a bush fire. The red river gum, a tree renowned for being a strong and hardy survivor of the Australian bush, able to withstand, fire, storm and floods by regeneration. Its life cycle could span across generations of the land’s human inhabitants.
Fred leaned out, hanging onto the branch that hung out over the river. He looked along the smooth surface that had been laid bare when the bark had stripped off decades earlier.
‘You bloody beauty!’
‘It’s still here… look!’
He pointed to a patch on the branch where he’d carved their initials lovingly into the tree half a century earlier. Joan peered at the crude carving of a heart, which enclosed the initials, FR and JM.
‘You know Joan, the other day I told the blokes at the bowls club that we were going to revisit the place where I proposed. Mac thought I was nuts!’
‘Reckoned that it was crazy trying to find an old gum tree with initials on it. He said that it would probably have been burned down in a bush fire by now. He’s wrong… It’s still standing… strong as ever.’
They both fell silent admiring the old tree and basking in the warm autumn sun. Their special place and tree seemed to glow, reflecting the warmth of their love on this special day together. The air became still. Everything was silent.
‘Almost magical eh, love?’
‘Don’t be silly, Fred… Must admit though that this place hasn’t changed much, after all this time… You’re right in a way…it’s special isn’t it? But magical? I don’t know…’
She paused. The truth was she couldn’t find the right words to express her feelings. They stood silently, almost venerating the river gum. A magpie yodeled in the distance breaking the spell.
‘Come on Fred, let’s take that photo… that stump over there will be perfect to sit the camera on.’
After four false starts, lots of giggling and laughter as the camera’s automatic timer miscued, the happy couple was finally captured in filmic posterity, standing under the gracious gum. Both had big grins.
‘Just as well trees can’t talk eh, Fred?’
He grinned at her and blushed.
‘Yeah. Just as well. This country air is making me hungry, Joan. Let’s go to Meg’s Cafe for a bite!’
They took another long silent look at the scene before returning to their car. The little township of Riddells Creek was only a five-minute drive from this idyllic scene.
Fifteen minutes later, they were sitting outside in the cafe’s fernery area devouring a homemade vegetarian pie each and sipping a piping hot cup of freshly brewed tea.
‘A perfect day, eh, Fred?’
They continued eating in a contented companionable silence. A gentle breeze sprang up and brushed through the fernery. Joan became aware of an aroma of eucalyptus that seemed to be drifting in from behind her. Turning, she noticed a tall elderly man standing, staring at them. The sun then disappeared and it was turned cool and dark amongst the ferns. The breeze made an eerie whistling noise through the old rickety door.
The old man smiled at them. He was lean and appeared very old. Keen green eyes peered at them from his leathery face. A mop of unruly hair was stuffed under a broad bushman’s hat. Shirtsleeves, green and ragged were pushed up over his elbows, revealing strong rugged arms. His motley moleskins had patches of blackened stains. Remnants of dried red clay clung to the sides of his threadbare boots. He walked stiffly towards them, then paused next to their table, towering over them. He smiled again and in a husky, whispering voice said,
They were dumbfounded. How did this stranger know? Who was he? Why hadn’t they noticed him when they first arrived? He smiled again, his tanned, leathery face creasing into dozens of craggy lines, as he croaked,
‘It is your golden wedding anniversary today, isn’t it?’
Joan finally found her voice and stuttered,
‘Y-y-yes…Err thanks… but how did you know?’
‘Oh I know a lot of things about this area… many things that others have never seen…or heard…or felt… By the way, I’m Red…Let’s just say that I’ve been around here for over fifty years…and I’ll be here for many more…nature willing.’
Fred swallowed his last mouthful, stood up, and shook Red’s rough gnarled hand, completed the introductions, then added,
‘Sorry mate. I don’t remember. Did we meet you when we last came here fifty years ago?’
‘Not officially… I saw you both here, many years ago… Glad to see that you’re happily married… Some of the young don’t even get married these days… All they seem to want is a moment of passion and then disappear.’
The old man’s presence made them feel uncomfortable. How much did he know about their last visit? Fred cleared his throat and asked,
‘Do you know the old picnic spot down by the river next to the huge red river gum?’
‘Ah… Yes…That’s my special place Fred. I spend many, many hours there. Quite beautiful isn’t it… so peaceful… I saw you there all those years ago… the day you proposed and carved your initials as a sign commitment… There’s a perfect place for making love in natures soft, long grass next to the river, under the gum...’
There were looks of astonishment, then an embarrassed silence finally broken by Fred, who asked,
‘But, we were alone…I mean… err…yes, it would be a perfect place… I um…’
Red wheezed with laughter. His faced seemed to creak and crack. Joan noticed that he didn’t appear to have any teeth. The musky smell of eucalyptus permeated the area enveloping them.
‘As I said…I spend many, many hours by the river… I was a captive, accidental observer once, many years ago… At the time it was best to keep silent.’
Joan intervened, to change the topic. She couldn’t help liking Red. Fred obviously had warmed to him too. She wanted to continue their conversation.
‘Care to join us for a cuppa?’
‘No thanks. I must go. I’ll have a nice long drink of water back at the river. Please come back again. Show your children and grandchildren the place by the river… They should know about the initials… Its nice to know people who enjoy my spot, as much as I do.’
Fred went to get up, but Red’s powerful arm gently stopped him. He saw an image on that strong arm. It was a ragged heart-shaped scar with initials.
‘Hey, mate… where do you live exactly?’
‘By the river, Fred…I must go now… Please come back sometime… Again, congratulations!’
Fred got up immediately after he’d departed. Red was nowhere to be seen.
‘Where did he go Fred?’
‘Cripes, I don’t know love. He’s sort of disappeared!’
The sun appeared again, bringing its warm glowing light. The clouds scattered and the whistling breeze stopped as abruptly as it had come. Fred went and paid the owner for their lunch. He looked puzzled, when he returned.
‘Are you alright dear?’
‘Yeah, I’m ok… Bit of a mystery fella that Red.’
‘Meg’s parents have never heard of him!’
‘Old age can fade memories Fred. They’re older than we are. They’re not exactly spring chickens.’
‘Neither are we love.’
‘Been a long time!’
‘Yeah, a long time.’
Wendy Laing © 2000
Site: Wendy Laing
Reader Reviews for