It happened all the time when he was out at night and met someone new. He would say he was an arborist, and she would cover an ear against the thump of the music, lean in and yell: An artist?
No, an arborist.
Oh, she would say, a bit deflated. You mean like a lumberjack?
Or: You mean like a logger?
And, eyeing his small frame: Is that not very physical work?
The woman on the phone – Mrs Shepard – had been firm. ‘I just want it gone,’ she’d said.
He’d asked her for the particulars. A small beech tree, maybe five metres high. The sharpness in her voice discouraged him from asking why she wanted the tree gone. He guessed it was a dispute with a neighbour.
He mentioned his fee, and heard her pause.
‘I know, it’s not cheap. Look, I should probably tell you – a tree that size, a handyman could probably take care of it. Or really anyone who’s good with tools, who knows what they’re doing. Mr Shepard, maybe?’
He could hear her steady breath down the line. ‘No.’
‘A friend, a neigh– … a relative?’
‘There’s no one,’ she said briskly. ‘Does Tuesday work?’
There wasn’t enough space for the truck in the driveway at the address he’d been given, so he parked on the street, taking up half the narrow suburban road. The door was answered by a lanky, dark-haired girl, wearing black skinny jeans, a knotted T-shirt and a would-you-ever-just-fuck-off expression. She was beautiful in the sulky, knowing way of teenagers, and much too young for him.
‘You’re the tree guy?’ she asked, and he found himself nodding. ‘Come in, so.’
The house was small and comfortable – the clutter had a look of curation about it. The girl led him through to the kitchen. Glass doors opened onto a decking area and a small, ragged garden. He could see the condemned tree, the only sizeable one out there. A woman sat at the round kitchen table reading the newspaper, hands wrapped around a coffee cup.
The girl lifted herself up with the heels of her hands to sit on the countertop. ‘Mam, this is the guy.’
‘Of course.’ Mrs Shepard’s hair had probably once been dark, like her daughter’s, but now it was blonde. She was in her late forties, perhaps, with a determined slick of pink lipstick on a thin mouth. Her face was deeply lined, but in a way that suggested good living.
‘Nice to meet you, Mrs Shepard. We spoke on the phone.’
‘Alice, please.’ She shook his outstretched hand but did not stand up. ‘Emma, would you show him?’
The girl eased herself from the counter and slid open one of the glass doors. The cool spring air ruffled her hair, and he saw her nipples cresting under her T-shirt.
‘That’s it there.’ She gestured vaguely.
‘I figured.’ He shuffled a few steps into the yard – the doorway was framing them too close together. ‘Do ye know when it was planted?’
‘Sorry?’ Mrs Shepard inclined her head, but did not look at him.
‘The tree. It’s pretty young – I was just wondering if you planted it yourselves or was it here when you moved in?’
She blinked. ‘It was here.’
‘Oh. Okay. Just curious.’ He shifted his weight. ‘I’ll get the equipment.’
When the job was done and he had loaded all his gear back in the truck, he took off his gloves and goggles and dusted himself down. Feeling foolish, he rang the doorbell. He hated this part.
Emma answered the door: ‘I’m having the strangest feeling of déjà vu.’ She led him back to the kitchen.
Mrs Shepard was staring at the newspaper, motionless.
‘Mam?’ Emma prompted.
‘All finished up now,’ he said.
‘You need to pay the guy, Mam,’ Emma said quietly.
‘Right!’ Mrs Shepard jerked to motion; some of her coffee slopped onto the glass table. ‘Umm … is a cheque okay?’
‘A cheque is fine. Perfect.’
Emma slouched into the adjoining room. Left in awkward silence with Mrs Shepard, he gabbled, ‘It was a fine little tree, all the same’ – as though he were sympathizing.
When Emma returned, he released a breath. She placed a chequebook and a pen in front of her mother, then stood over her as she filled it out. The shape they made – they reminded him of politicians signing a treaty.
He was suddenly giddy at the prospect of getting out of this bright kitchen, away from the brittle woman and the smirking girl. Something was out of place, unnatural. The longer he stayed, the more he felt he was standing not in a house but in a life-size diorama: Suburban Semi-D, Early 21st Century.
His gaze drifted behind the women, out the glass doors to the yard, to the hole he’d made in the view.
‘You’ll get great light in here now,’ he said, attempting to fill the silence. ‘Ye won’t know yourselves.’
‘That’s true,’ said Mrs Shepard absently. She was bent over the cheque, intent on her task.
‘Oh hang on – I meant to ask. Do ye have a wood-burning stove here?’
Mrs Shepard’s pen was poised in the air. ‘What?’
‘Because I could cut up the trunk for you, if you’d like. For firewood.’
Mrs Shepard looked at him, and then began to shake. The pen dropped to the glass table-top with a hollow clatter. Instinctively he made to move towards her, then pulled himself back.
‘Are you alright?’ he eventually blurted.
Emma glared at him – a signal to be quiet. She put her hands gently on her mother’s shoulders. ‘Mam … it’s okay. Head between your knees.’
Mrs Shepard obeyed, slowly slumping forward. The word felled sprang to mind. The kitchen filled up with her slow, deep breathing. Emma rubbed her back and whispered soothing phrases. It was unbearably intimate. He put his back to the wall and tried to disappear. After a moment, Mrs Shepard – still trembling – got up and walked slowly into the hallway. Her eyes skimmed over him as she passed. He heard the slow fall of her feet on the stairs, and then over his head.
‘Was it something I said?’ It sounded like a punch line. ‘I mean, is your mother alright?’
Emma shook her head. She shuffled from foot to foot like a boxer. ‘She’s always had panic attacks. They’ve gotten worse since Dad died.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I –’
She gestured behind her loosely. ‘She found him … out the back.’
He stiffened. ‘Oh Jesus.’
‘Yeah. She walked into the kitchen that morning and …’ She trailed off, and he thought she might cry, but she scraped her hair back off her face and he saw that she was more angry than sad. ‘The thing is, she keeps seeing him. That was why she wanted the tree gone.’
‘Of course.’ He nodded. He needed to leave. ‘I’m sorry, I’ll get out of your hair now …’
‘Hang on a second, we’ve to pay you.’
‘No need – it’s on the house.’ Again he cringed at the words he heard himself speaking. He was inching towards the door.
‘Hey. You weren’t to know.’ She said it fiercely, as if reminding him that this wasn’t about him. She dropped into the chair her mother had vacated, like a charmer’s snake coiling back into its basket. ‘I just realized I have no idea how to write cheques.’
He laughed, too loudly, and was relieved to see her smirk.
‘Do you have a cigarette?’ she asked. ‘You look like the kind of guy who’d have a cigarette.’
He patted his shirt pocket for the three neat roll-ups he’d tucked there. He put them flat on his palm. They looked like little shrouded corpses. He offered one to her.
Emma stepped outside. He watched the smoke dribble out of her mouth. He noticed a small birthmark on the inside of her arm, so dark and precisely shaped that he initially mistook it for a tattoo. She was frowning at the yard, trying to make sense of the new line of vision. She sat on the edge of the decking and, after a moment’s hesitation, he went out and sat beside her.
‘So is this a normal day for you?’ she asked.
He shook his head. ‘I don’t make a lot of house calls.’
‘I mostly work for the council. Pruning branches that grow too close to power lines, spraying trees against diseases, that kind of thing.’
‘So, mostly you cure the trees. Not cut them down.’
‘You’re, like, the tree whisperer.’ She laughed. ‘Sounds like a reality show or something.’
‘It’d be very boring.’
‘Probably. What sort of diseases do you deal with?’
‘You seriously want to hear this?’
She blew a smoke ring and waited.
‘Okay. Well, at the moment there’s this fungal disease attacking ash trees. Causing all sorts of problems.’
‘Yeah. I heard something about that on the radio. Dad was freaked out about it. Said, what are we gonna do for hurleys? We’ll end up importing them from Bulgaria or god knows where.’
He smiled wanly. He wished he could say something to acknowledge her mention of her father, but he knew nothing about hurling.
‘We’ll fix it, don’t worry.’
‘Tree whisperer to the rescue.’
He stole a sideways glance. She was mocking him, gently, and he found that he liked it. He took a chance. ‘So, your dad liked sports, huh?’
He thought he’d been giving her an opening, but she looked irritated. ‘Don’t all dads?’
‘Mine didn’t. He did like gardening, though. It’s got to be one of those two, right?’
‘He went running every morning,’ she said, as though he hadn’t spoken. ‘Even that morning. We found him in his running clothes. I’m not sure if he was on his way or had just come back.’
He tried to imagine Mr Shepard’s last morning, found he could not. The canal bank near his apartment was swarming with runners. He thought of them as brave – unafraid of discomfort, or of their own thoughts. He’d made a half-hearted decision to become one of them, but got exactly as far as making an inspirational running playlist on his iPod.
A silence grew between them, and he knew he had to ask. ‘How are you holding up?’
She started dragging the rubber-capped toe of her runner in the gravel, making an ever-darker line. ‘You know the two things I kept hearing people ask? Like, whispering, at the funeral? How did he do it, and was there a note.’ She was staring at the trench she’d made in the gravel. ‘I suppose people just want to understand. But, well. I kept hearing those two questions skittering up and down the aisles. At the wake, even. None of them had the guts to ask me.’
‘What would you have told them, if they had?’
She shrugged. ‘To fuck off, I guess. But I would have respected them more.’
The sun went behind the clouds and she shivered as the wind picked up – a sudden, violent shiver, like a sneeze.
‘He’s at peace now, that was the other one. They said that one to my face alright.’ She stubbed out the cigarette and cast it into the bushes without looking. ‘But I never knew what to say back, ’cause all I felt was – why the fuck does he get to be at peace? What about us?’
She stared at him, eyes wide, head shaking slightly. He broke eye contact first.
‘I’m sorry if I upset your mother,’ he said. ‘I hope she’ll be okay.’
‘Don’t worry. Not having to look at the tree will help. Jesus, what a fucking place to do it.’ She fished a flat silver strip from her pocket, unwrapped the gum and put it in her mouth. ‘You want one?’
She picked up a small stone and pitched it cleanly through the gash where the tree once stood. His hands were sweating. It would be so much easier if she was crying, he thought. He could slip an arm around her hunched shoulders. He didn’t know how to deal with this splintery anger.
He slapped his hands off his knees and started to get up. ‘I should probably head.’
She nodded and led him back through the kitchen and hallway. The house had become eerily familiar, as though he had lived there as a child and knew every creaky floorboard. At the front door he turned back. She was leaning against the staircase, arms folded. She must have sensed that he wanted to touch her.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again. ‘And – thanks. And – take care of yourself, okay?’
She smiled, a smile so sad and tender it had to be for her father, not him.
He saw her again, months later, at a house party that he was too old for. He had thought of her so often he felt as though he’d conjured her.
‘Would you look who it is,’ she said. ‘The tree whisperer.’
‘I’m gonna get that on a business card,’ he said.
They talked briefly, and she seemed well – giggly and warm, the way girls become when they’re tipsy or into someone.
‘How’s your mother doing?’ he asked, and her smile flickered. But she thanked him; Alice was doing okay, considering. They talked about other things, realized they knew some people in common and marvelled at the smallness of the world.
The party pulled them apart. Later he saw her dancing close with another guy, barely moving, beaming into his face. This guy was the reason for the lightness around her, he realized. Not bad-looking, but not what he would have thought her type. But then what did he think she was after – someone older, a daddy figure? Him? He had that tree’s sawdust on his hands.
He left soon after, emerging blinking into a still-bright balmy evening. There was a bus to catch but he was walking fast; he felt a sudden urge to run and gave in. He ran, feet slapping the pavement in time with his pulse, and felt that he could just keep going.
To read the rest of Dublin Review 63, you may purchase the issue here.