Tuesday 31 August 2021

Stunted Growth


by Laura Goodfellow

a sturdy mug of Russian Caravan tea

There it is, right in front of me, erupting from the mulch of decaying leaves and rich coffee coloured earth. A chaotic tangle of twisted branches spreading like the gnarled limbs of wizened hags from the belly-like trunk below. I wasn’t sure if I’d still be able to find it, but the route my eight-year-old feet had first taken all those years ago lingered on the cusp of my memory and brought me back to this spot, at the foot of the old oak tree. To others, it must look like just another oak, there's nothing much to tell it apart from its neighbours, but this is our tree. I know what secrets lie hidden beneath the patchwork of the red, gold, and deep chestnut brown of its autumnal blanket.

Through a tear-stained curtain of memories, I can see us running there after school, you and me, past the chippy, scooting across the murky patch of wasteland and into the woods beyond. It's all changed now; the chippy and the wasteland are gone, replaced by an exclusive housing development. Two rows of bland, brown brick boxes, with wooden blinds and shiny BMWs parked outside. They've put in a new path to the woods, running alongside the houses, separated by one of those slatted fences; it’s still covered in old crisp packets and empty cans though


Our oak provided a backdrop to our childhood. A deep gash in the trunk led to a womb-like void inside, big enough for us to stand in. It was our den, which we were prepared to defend, with violence, if necessary, when Barry and his gang used to try and take it from us. We’d fly out, howling like banshees, brandishing sticks we had sharpened with my dad’s Swiss army knife. Our hair was wild with sticky weed, our faces smeared with mud. Running at them, we'd momentarily see the fear in their faces before Barry would say,

‘Fucking weirdos, leave them.’

Relieved choruses of 'weirdos, weirdos' would follow before they all ran off laughing.

It was after one of Barry's failed coups that I first saw you cut yourself.

'We'll make a blood bond,' you'd announced. 'He'll never get the den off us then; we'll be too strong. I’ve seen it done in films, we cut our hands, then press them together so the blood sort of touches, then we’re friends forever.’

I remember how sick I felt as I watched the sticky red gash appear on your palm as you drew my dad's knife down it.

'Your turn,' you said, handing me the knife, expecting me to do the same, but I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to cut my hand. In the end, I picked one of the many scabs from my knee, which produced a few drops of blood which you pressed your palm against.

            ‘Blood is blood,’ you said, smiling.


Some days we swung from dangerously frayed ropes slung over the only straight branch the old tree possessed. You were scared of heights, so it was my job to crawl across the branch, twenty-foot above the ground, to try and loop the rope around at least once while you stood below, assuring me you'd catch me if I fell. I remind my kids about the dangers of climbing trees now. I forget that once I did the same with you, with all the childhood abandon of unwavering faith in our own immortality.

On other days, we’d scour the undergrowth for discarded porn mags and giggle as the women's breasts were revealed to us as we flicked through the crumpled, damp pages. I used to wonder if you had the same tingling sensations in your trousers as I did.

            We tried shagging after one magazine-filled afternoon, just to see what it was like. Christ, we were like two fish floundering on dry land; awkward, embarrassing touches, fingers fumbling as we tried to undo each other’s zips. We didn’t have a bloody clue, but there again, what eleven-year-olds do? We ended up sitting outside the den, looking at the stars, sipping chemical-filled cider from a plastic bottle, smoking roll-ups.


At thirteen, we shared our first joints in that den. We laughed so hard our cheeks ached as the tears streamed down our faces. What made us laugh, I can't remember, but in our weed-induced hysterics, it probably wasn't much.

It turned out you liked weed. It helped block out the voices in your head, you said. The voices that held you prisoner, with their dark, deathly demands and made you so unpredictable, your mood could change in seconds. Never mind a dark cloud descending; as they say, it was like the whole fucking storm had come and sat on your shoulders. One misinterpreted word, and you would fly up, swearing as your hands pressed so hard against your ears, you almost looked as though you could have squashed your skull with all the ease of squeezing a strawberry, which was the colour your face went.

‘Fuck off, leave me alone,’ you’d scream, but your anger wasn’t directed at me, but at the voices that you were finding it harder to ignore.

Often, I’d find you sat alone in the den, quickly trying to conceal the knife in your hand and the wounds on your arms. I could see the pain in your eyes, I'd try to reach out, but you'd turn away. I never asked if you were ashamed that I'd caught you or angry that I'd interrupted.? I didn’t really understand what was going on in your head, but I knew that I hated those voices and the control they had over you.


We spent more and more time, sat in silence in the den, me watching you retreating further and further away from those around you. I’d beg you to talk to me, but you’d shrug, shake your head, and go back to whittling a piece of fallen branch. Slivers of wood curled around you, like fallen leaves as your fingers worked deftly, carving soft curves and lines till you would throw over to me, a badger, fox, or a delicate spoon. I found it hard to comprehend that those hands that had just created such beauty were the same hands that carved deep jagged lines into your arms with the same blade.  

I never minded being there with you though, it gave me the peace and quiet away from my five younger siblings that I yearned for. I'd sit and read while you whittled away. I wasn’t a very sociable teenager; I was tall and gangly. My regular clothing of ripped jeans and a black t-shirt, along with a musical taste that I inherited from my seventies rock-loving parents, marked me as different from the norm. I was cast to the outer rings of teenage society, along with all the other misfits and weirdos, not included but thankfully not bullied either.       

            It wasn't the same story for you, though.  Learning came easily to me, but for you, each word on the page was a struggle for you to read. Along with your behavioural problems came its bedfellow of learning difficulties.

'I've got dyslexia,' you told me, after school one day, when you’d been assessed by a woman in a blue suit who had come into school specially to see you.

‘I’m gonna get me some help with my reading and writing,’ you continued. The extra support didn’t help you though; you were constantly in trouble. The other kids knew what buttons to press to make you react and react you did, lashing out with your fists as groups of boys and girls goaded you on.


By the time you were fifteen, you had been expelled. The school didn't know how to help you any more than me; your exasperated family, countless psychiatrists, psychologists, or other doctors you saw, did.  Each one would refer you to someone else or hand your mother a prescription for some drug or another that would help.

Each time, you would improve for a few weeks, sometimes even a couple of months, but then you would drift back to the dark places of your mind. Swimming in a fog of drugs and depression. Not even a light from the brightest of lighthouses would have offered any respite to you. I prayed for you, not to God; I didn't and still don't believe in God. But I cried out many nights to anyone that could hear me to help you. I felt you were being stolen from me by an unseen kidnapper that lurked in the dark places of your mind. I sat and watched as your world got smaller and smaller.


When I was eighteen, I was offered a place at university, two hundred miles away, to study English Literature. For days I sat with you, by our oak, under a makeshift shelter as a dry July gave way to torrential August rain, unable to find the words to tell you I was leaving. Your head drooped as I finally told you, but you smiled and said you were proud of me and that I should go and never look back.


I did look back and look in as often as I could. To begin with, once every couple of weeks, I would turn up at the den, and you'd be there, blowing out a thick cloud of grey-green smoke from the joint in your hand.

            ‘Want some?’ you’d ask, stretching as you offered it to me. I’d wince as I saw the new flashes of red crisscrossing your arm, angry and weeping as the scabs began to form. I’d always shake my head; despite enjoying weed a few times in my teenage years, it really didn't agree with me, and after one particularly severe bout of vomiting after a joint, I hadn't tried again. You never stopped asking, though.

            ‘More for me,’ you’d laugh before asking me about my life. I’d try and ask about you, how you were getting on, but you’d just shrug, flick your hand, as though you were flicking something dirty and contagious from your fingers, and press on with questioning me about my latest assignment or which book, I was reading.


I returned home one weekend during my second year at uni, and you weren't at the den. I sent you a text and called, but you didn't reply. I went to your Mum's, but she hadn't seen you either; she thought you had come to meet me. Panic coursed through my body. Where were you? I walked the streets, searching for you, reaching your answerphone, time after time, until finally, I heard your voice at the other end.

            ‘I’ve got a job,’ you squealed in delight, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t meet you; I didn’t want to tell anyone I was going for the interview in case I failed,’ you explained.

            ‘Asshole, you've had us all worried,' I replied, breathing a sigh of relief. 'Meet you at the den, and you can tell me all about it and ring your mum.’

Twenty minutes, later you were telling me all about your new job at the local animal rescue kennels, helping to walk the dogs and muck out the horses. There was a light in your eyes, the first flicker of hope that I had seen for a long time.

            'New tablets and a better shrink,' you explained, 'and I've given up the weed, got myself a counsellor to help me stay off it too,’ you smiled.


When I returned after my exams, you were there waiting for me at the den. Your new job hadn't lasted; you'd lost your temper with another staff member and broken a window in anger. Luckily, they had agreed not to press charges on the condition you stayed away and paid for the damages. The light had gone out again, the acrid smell of weed lingered in the air again, and you refused to talk. I left that day crying. I can't tell you if those tears were for you, for me, or for a friendship that seemed lost.


It seems cliched to say I’ll never forget the day, when two years after I’d left the den crying, your mother called me to say you'd gone, taken your own life; but I won’t, it is etched into my mind with all the permanency of an anchor tattooed on a sailor’s arm. When the spectre of depression and voices that had kept you shackled so closely to it for most of your life had finally become too intense, too painful for you to carry on living with, you hung yourself from our tree.

            Our tree? That made me fucking angry with you to begin with. I felt as though you had besmirched the sanctity of our childhood by choosing there to do it. Over time, I realised that there, at the oak, was the place you had felt safe, felt free. It was the only place you could have done it, really. Mostly, I felt guilt, guilty for walking away that day and not telling you the truth. I'd made excuses texting you to say I wouldn't be home when really, I was. I couldn’t face seeing you, you see. I was twenty, my uni life was entirely different from my life at school. I had friends, we went out to parties, I joined the university writers’ group and helped publish the university's magazine. I was no longer cast to the outer echelons of society, and I liked it.  Days rolled into weeks which rolled into months. You took longer to reply to my texts; I thought you were angry at me, you weren't, though, your ship was sinking, and you weren't even trying to bail out anymore.


Barry was at your funeral. He flicked back a rogue tendril of his slick-backed hair as he turned his tear-stained face towards me and nodded, a silent acknowledgment of the loss of a piece of our childhood jigsaw. We stood together, near the back, cringing as we listened to the vicar delivering your soul to God. Bellowing out All Things Bright and Beautiful, your mother’s choice, we squeezed each other's hands as the heavy red velvet curtain shrouded your coffin as you descended to the bowels of the crematorium.




And now, here I am, thirty years later, back at this place of ghosts and dreams. The branch I nonchalantly tossed a rope over, the same one you purposefully tied a rope to, has gone. Cut down. A dark circular scar is the only evidence of its existence. My fingers tingle and quiver as I stretch my hand towards it; I want to touch it, to touch you, but it's too high.

The bark is rough beneath my hands as I reach around the trunk, trying to encircle it with my arms, pressing myself hard against it, trying to reach into its very heart and find you. Are you playing in the trees now or hiding in the den? Perhaps you are part of the tree now? I can't help but cry; the sense of you of your essence lingers all around this place and overwhelms me. Tears of years of guilt, regret, and anger spill out all at once as I sink to my knees.


Time has drifted, and darkness is beginning to creep into the woods. Shadows dart amongst the trees, and I can’t help but wonder if they are the same shadows that took you from me. There were days when I wanted to follow you, you know, to escape the guilt and sadness that I felt. I don't know what I thought, but maybe if I found you, I could bring you back. My life juddered to a halt. I was held in the past, stuck like a fly twitching on a spider's web as my life slowly ebbed away. I finally understood then why you had to leave.

            Was that you? That sudden chill wind that wrapped around me, rustling the golden canopy above. Spiralling the leaves up from the floor, so they momentarily danced before stillness returned, and they floated back to the earth below. A feeling of peace seems to be growing around me. You are happy, I finally know that.


he time has come for me to leave you again; there are two small boys waiting patiently with Barry in the car. You'd probably laugh at the thought of me and Barry together. We kept in touch, and eventually, our friendship became love.


So goodbye, my dearest friend, my first love, fellow warrior.  I won't return here, at least not yet anyway. When I do, it will be to step through into the womb of our oak and sit in our den with you again.

About the author

Laura is a mature student, about to embark on the final year of her Creative Writing degree with the Open University. Between writing and studying, Laura enjoys kayaking in the beautiful surroundings of her North Wales home. She hopes to study for an MA in Creative writing in the future. 

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