credit: Tim Green aka atoach
The Boy in the Chestnut Tree
She could see him sitting in the chestnut tree, his dark head moving amongst the leaves. She could just make out the frown of concentration;almost see the pink of his tongue escaping from his pinched lips. He moved and the leaves rustled. Gone. There was no boy.
Once there had been a boy. He had sat, in the high branches of the tree, listening to the ships, far out in the Solway. The old tree had the best reception on the farm. The day his strange listening equipment arrived he had wandered all over the land looking for the exact spot.
He read bits out of the newspaper aloud to them over and over until Father had gone near daft with him and told him to forget this nonsense. Undeterred he saved all his pennies, did extra work for other farmers and sent off for the equipment. He kept trying to explain about Marconi, radio and why it was so important. He wanted them to see the new world he could see coming. To them it just seemed like a boy’s fad, soon to be left behind like the clockwork train set.
Her father went about the farm without his usual cheery whistling. The silence grew, harsh and tense. Only the boy was happy, dreaming in his tree. He had always been The Boy. His name was never used. It wasn’t needed. The softness in her father’s voice when he said “Boy” had meant more than any name.
There were weeks of argument after his birthday. He wanted to leave the school and get on with life. Mother had hoped for something grand, a doctor in the family, perhaps. The rector at the Academy said it was a shame to waste his talent for maths and science and spoke of university. His father would have been happy for the boy to give up his studies and join him on the farm but that was not what he wanted. The noises in the ether called to him and he wanted to be away. Now, at fourteen, he was near a man. He would go.
After a week a letter came from Glasgow. He was training and enjoying the work in the telegraph office. After a month a letter came from London. He was doing well and London was a fine place. The telegraph office was a fine job for a boy and he was happy. The letters called her Mouse, just like he had and told soon she could come and see the sights for herself. Her mother prattled on, consoling herself the boy was fine. London was not such a bad place. She lived there herself before her Andre had enough to claim her as his bride, a Scotch scullery maid become a farmer’s wife. Father said little, and nothing about the boy.
Then a letter came from France. They were not to worry. The boy could not have stayed. He was a strapping farm lad, big for his fourteen years. The girls in the office with their teasing had been bad enough but then there was a white feather on his desk. After that he had to go. The war needed men who understood the new world. He was a Royal Engineer, a sapper, no ordinary soldier. He would be safe.
All through the war the letters came. Once he even came himself and brought a London girl with him. Her name was Mabel and when all this was over they’d be married. Mouse would come and stay with them in Peckam and see the sights.
But the war went on and the letters changed. They were from someone she didn’t know anymore. A man who’d seen this he didn’t care to speak about. Sometimes they were cold and brisk, asking after their health, as if they were strangers. After he moved into the tanks the letters changed again.
Now they were always about the farm, the land and childhood, no mention of a future, only the past.He wrote of the mist on the Solway and the call of the geese at night.
The Armistice Dance was about to start in the village. She was getting ready when she looked out the window and saw a boy in a uniform cycle up the farm track, past the chestnut tree, and she knew. There was no Boy. Safe in his tank just a few hours before the cease fire he was blown to bits.
She didn’t go to that dance but she went to many others. Every step she danced she knew he’d never dance again. Everywhere she went she heard the sound of music and the voices he had only dreamed of were soon everywhere. Only the farm was quiet, only there was silence. Her father had become an old man. He didn’t understand this new world, he didn’t understand this wild new daughter. No one would ever call her Mouse again.
Looking up through the branches of the chestnut tree she could almost see him there, his head turned away from her, listening to something she could not hear. On the farm nothing moved. There was no boy. She turned away and did not look back. She would not remember him with silence but with life, and music, and the joy of the new world.
Sapper Andrew Thomas Wilson (Boy) 1900 – 1918