The Year of the Holly Tree
He couldn't believe that she could be so stupid! But there she was, standing there looking straight at him and telling him that he didn't know what he was talking about! Him--of all people! "You've got to be joking Beth." He almost gagged on the words: he was so angry.
"I'm not joking," said Beth scornfully. "You don't know A from a bull's foot about yachting, or sailing for that matter." He was so furious he couldn't say any more, so he just glared at her until, with an impatient "Hmph!" she scooped up the tea cups and carried them off to the kitchen.
Alone, she wondered how she could possibly stand the rest of her life if it was going to be like this. She'd heard aboutl the problems often caused by retirement in otherwise normal households, but as far as she was concerned, they hadn't told the half of it. Always hanging around the house, not knowing what to do with himself, demanding endless cups of tea--as if I had nothing else to do but make him cups of tea all day. From the lounge room his aggrieved voice attacked her again. "The reason you think I don't know about sailing is because you know so little yourself." There was silence for a few seconds, then, "I know enough to write a book, that's what!"
"Why don't you then?" taunted his wife. To herself she thought, I wish to heaven you would, it might keep you out from under my feet for a whille.
He diden't answer, in fact, he didn't say anything for several minutes, and she finally poked her head around the kitchen door to find him staring fixedly through the open window. There was a Holly tree growing just outside and it was tapping its branches against the window in the unpredictable spring wind, as though in sympathy with his anger. She left him alone.
Beth and George had married late in life--very late. There had been no children and so they concentrated all their efforts and interests into the business which had brought them together. George had suggested that they could earn a good living by pooling their resources and going into business together. Getting married seemed the most logical thing to do, and although Beth really liked George, and looked forward to the honeymoon, she had always had the feelling that it was just a matter of business to George. All of their conversation and most of their thoughts had been centered on work and it had engrossed them completely, leaving little time for anything else. They never talked about their lives before they met, not that there was time for reminiscing. They worked well together, and that was what seemed to matter most.
With retirement had come the realization that they no longer had very much in common. Bewilderment had turned to frustration, and frustration to irritation and bitterness. All we seem to do these days is snap at each other, thought Beth. Her cups and saucers washed and dried and put away she returned to the lounge room and was about to turn on the television when he said, "I think I will."
She sighed with exaggerated patience and said, "You think you will what, George?"
"Write a book!" he announced defiantly, as though it was the cleverest idea he'd ever had. She looked at him with a here-we-go-again expression, and he said, "You don't believe me, do you?"
She didn't , but she said, "Just let me know when you want to begin and I'll buy the writing pads for you." She then dismissed the whole idea from her mind, and got on with her dull, tedious, irritated life, coping with her retired husband as best she could.
Several days passed before she noticed, however, that he was not hanging around and getting in her way as much as usual, and that night, he actually got through dinner without a single complaint. They'd gone to bed and settled down for sleep with their usual "Night", mumbled to each of the anonymous mounds of bedclothes behind them, when suddenly he said, "I'll start tomorrow."
What now? thought Beth, then she asked aloud, "What will you start tomorrow?"
"My book. Will you get the writing pads for me, please?"
"Yes, alright." She closed her eyes again and was soon asleep, but he lay there for at least an hour, watching the moonlight slide into their room.
For the next few weeks George became very absorbed in writing on little bits of paper and putting them in his pockets; writing on large bits of paper and clipping them together; writing on sheets in his writing pads and tearing them out, screwing them up into tight little balls and littering the lounge room carpet with them. Beth complained bitterly at first about all the mess that George was making, but she soon got smart enough to realize that if she complained too much, he might stop writing his stupid book, and then things'd be just as bad as before--maybe worse! So she just picked up the llittle balls of paper and poked them into her cavernous apron pocket, like a pelican stuffing fish into its pouch, tight-lipped and silent.
One day she was emptying his pockets and dropping the garments onto four neat piles on the floor around the washing machine, when she found one of the swcrewed up pieces of paper. She opened the tight wad, smoothed out the crinckles and began to read what he'd written:
My father was singularly unimpressed with my decision to become a sailor so he began to treat me with the utmost severity whenever I mentioned anything to do with the sea or sailing, so much so that at the age of nine, I decided to run away to sea. Since we lived at Denman, which is quite a way inland from the coast, I decided to build a raft and sail down the Hunter River to Newcastle, and join a ship in Newcastle harbor.
For weeks I hoarded the necessary materials and implements I needed to build my raft. My pocket money was spent buying empty Kerosene tins from the local grocer's shop. I'd had the amazing good fortune to find a long length of good strong rope, tied in a neat bundle . . . probably fallen from the side of our neighbour's removalist van, but I'm ashamed to say I did not return it to him. I stole a sheeet from my mother's linen cupboard and 'borrowed' my father's axe, which I took into the surrounding bush to chop down saplings for my raft.
That's all there was on the crumpled sheet, but it was more than enough to awaken Beth's interest. She sank into a chair, the sheet of paper still in her hand. How little I know about him, she thought, and was astonished to recognize a pang of regret--a sense of loss for something she felt should have been hers but never was. She looked quite the picture of dejection sitting there amidst the piles of dirty washing, her cardigan slightly askew on account of the buttons being done up wrongly, and the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. A wisp of grey hair fell across her eyes and she reached up to push it back into place. As she did so, she saw him standing in the doorway watching her.
"How about a cuppa?" he asked.
"Alright love," she said, then smiled awkwardly, realiizing that the "love" had slipped out unbidden. She felt it strange, too, that she didn't in the least object to this interruption to her morning's busy schedule. It's not as if I've got to be anywhere else. The washing will still be there tomorrow! So, instead of just making him a cup of tea, she made a pot and buttered some biscuits and carried the try out into the sunshine.
"I was reading a bit of your book," she began, when they were seated beside the Holly tree. "What happened to the raft you started to build when you were nine? Did you finish it?"
He looked up, surprised at her interest, but couldn't hide his pleasure. "Oh, I finished it alright. I hoarded food and supplies to last me on the journey, and was all set to go. I got up early--crack of dawn it was--must have been about four o'clock, and crept out of the house and down to the river where I'd camouflaged the raft with branches from the willows on the bank. But when I tried to launch it into the river, the square tins got stuck in the sand, and it took me so long to dig them out that by the time I got the raft into the water, a local farmer drove by with his horse and cart, recognised me and collared me. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and hauled me kicking and squawking into his cart, and took me straight home--where I got a whale of a hiding from my father."
"Oh no!" said Beth in dismay. "Poor George!"
George laughed at her concern and leaned forward to pat her hand. "Don't worry love, it all came right in the end. I did go to sea when I was thirteen, as a ship's boy."
"Did you George?"
He nodded in satisfaction at the memory and sipped his tea, and the eyes in his thin leathery face had a glint in them she hadn't seen there for a long time.
They sat there then, just drinking tea and munching biscuits. "That Holly tree's doing well since I moved it to that new spot," he said
She nodded in agreement.
"It might even have red berries on it this winter."
"That'd be nice," she said. Then suddenly she sat up straight in her chair, and put down her tea cup. "George," she said, "would you like me to type out your notes for you?"
He stared at her in disbelief. "Would you, Beth?"
"I'd really like to," she said, and they smiled happily at each other.
The weeks that followed were very busy ones for George and Beth. They spent hours talking about the story line and many times they could be seen on the back lawn with their heads together over the growing piles of paper. Beth had even begun to neglect her housework: a thing she'd never done in her life before, but she told herself wisely that it was time she got her priorities in order. Then, one morning while they were hard at it, Beth said, "George dear."
He looked up in surprise. She hadn't called him 'dear' for ages. "What is it Beth?"
"I didn't know you sailed Schooners between England and Ireland before the war."
"Oh yes. We used to carry coal and bring back potatoes. Those Irish spuds were great."
"You never told me."
"You never asked."
They fell silent, each thinking their own thoughts and working quietly. The sun shone brilliantly through the open window, and made little shadows in the wrinkles around her eyes. She looked wonderingly at him, and his whitened hair as it was ruffled softly in the breeze which blew in from the garden. "I suppose we haven't had much time for talking, Georg," she said quietly.
"We have been a bit busy."
"Sometimes I think we made ourselves busy--almost as if we were scared to stop, for fear of what we might find in the lulls."
He didn't answer, but she knew he agreed. His blue eyes strayed through the window towards the holly tree, the way they always did when he couldn't find the right words, so she reached across the table and patted his hand.
Then, one day, Beth was typing the sequence about the small sailing boat they'd owned early in their marriage. Called the Honey Jumble, they hadn't had it for long because George couldn't find enough time to care for it properly, and Beth was really not interested enough to learn how to help him sail it, so after one or two outings Beth had insisted that it be sold and George had half-heartedly agreed. The Honey Jumble was sold and forgotten--by Beth at least. Now, as Beth was reading George's accoujnt of this episode, her mouth suddenly gaped open, she jerked her head up and almost shouted. "Hey George, what's all this about us making out on the decks of the Honey Jumble, in broad daylight?"
George muttered something unintelligible and suddenly found the need to sharpen some pencils.
"George," insisted Beth. "Explain yourself!"
"I just thought I'd add it for a bit of colour," he said sheepishly.
"But it's not true !" she said, stifling an incredibly strong desire to laugh.
"Could've been." muttered George.
Her eyes popped wide open and her eyebrows disappeared under the grey hair. "What do you mean, George?"
George removed his glasses and watched his wife's astonished face. "It would've been nice. I often thought about it."
"But you never mentioned it to me."
"I started to, once or twice. But you were a bit of a prude . . ." He turned back to his writing and pushed his spectacles back into place. "You wouldn't have gone for it." He looked up at her over the rims, "Would you?"
She looked away quickly, but she was smiling. "I might have. But you'll never know now, will you?"
He removed his glasses once more and squinted at her. "Is it possible that all these years I've been married to a wanton woman, and didn't even know it?"
"Possible!" said Beth, and gave him a wicked wink.
The postman arrived just then, or who knows what might have happened. But that night Beth put candles and flowers on the dinner table, and an obviously enchanted George suggested they turn in early. The next morning Beth was singing in the kitchen, and George was delighted to see that she'd taken some trouble with her hair. "You look very nice," he said, and was rewarded with a smile that simply glowed and glowed all through breakfast.
Throughout the summer they worked on the book, discovering more and more about each other as the piles of manuscript grew higher. He mentioned that he'd done a little painting in his youth. "So did I!" cried Beth. "Oh George, we could start again. Go for trips to some deserted beaches and paint seascaapes."
"Or down to the harbor and paint ships," suggested George slyly, at which they both giggled.
When May came with her box of autumn colours and left their garden dripping with red and gold, they had taken a little time off from the book to tidy up the flower beds. George was trimming around the Holly tree and spraying it for bugs and Beth was working nearby. "Remember that hike we took through the National Park?"
"Of course I remember, George. That was the day that you proposed to me."
"You got lost, remember?"
"I didn.t get lost. I simply got separated from the group."
"I thouglht you were lost," said George, and Beth, surprised by the strange note in his voice looked up from her weeding. "I'll never forget how I felt." He was almost whispering. "I really thought you were lost. It made me realize how it would be for me if you weren't in my life. I was so panicky--till we found you--sitting on top of that big, old rock."
"It was silly of me to go off like that."
He put his gnarled hands on her shoulders and said huskily, "You mean a lot to me Beth. You did then, and you do now."
She bowed her head and leaned against him. "And you to me, love," and a tear or two fell amongst the neatly mown grass.
Winter came, and her icy breath left the holly tree coated with sugar frosting. Their friends had noticed a change in George and Beth. "You do seem to be enjoying your retirement, Beth dear," remarked a close friend one afternoon.
"Oh,I am--we are," answered Beth joyfully. "I'm so looking forward to the rest of mylarssonslegend.com life." Then she and George looked at each other and smiled, and the Holly tree, bedecked with red berries, tapped joyfully against the lounge room window.