‘You think that it will never happen to you,’ said the television, ‘but it may well. Divorce affects up to 70% of couples and your marriage could be next.’
I span on my heel and pointed at the television.
‘Never!’ I said, ‘did you hear that, Honey-Bea? 70% divorce rate!’
Beatrice couldn’t hear me; she was looking for Jason’s lunchbox while Jason banged his little shoe on the floor.
I considered my son for a moment and then sat down on the balding sofa.
‘With our new formula of sheen-tastic dye FOR MEN, you can keep yourself looking good.’
A disembodied spinning head, covered in glossy chestnut hair, appeared on the screen.
‘Uh-huh,’ I said.
‘Bye,’ shouted my wife from somewhere near the backdoor.
‘Goodbye Honey-Bea,’ I replied, my eyes fixed on the spinning head.
I asked Miranda Jones what she thought about marriage in the cafeteria. We were eating white macaroni cheese and Miranda was wearing a blue blouse, made from incredibly transparent material.
Miranda’s lips are so plump that the bottom one actually droops down a little. I’ve jokingly asked myself before; is that lip about to fall off of her face? She sat and painted the lips pink after she had eaten a few tubes of macaroni and pushed the plate away; and she kept rubbing them together, the lips, when she was thinking about what to say.
‘You should try it some time,’ I said, drowsily.
‘Yeah, okay Richard, I’ll just try marriage,’ she said, laughing, ‘what, do I have lipstick on my teeth or something?’
‘No,’ I said, and I blinked.
‘Your marriage in trouble, Rich?’
There is a company in Milton Keynes called Trees for Love. This company take the two of your initials, for example, in our case, R.Y and B.Y and make a professional mould type thing, which they then stamp into a tree. The whole scenario is supposed to imitate the kind of thing you would do as a teenager, with your sweetheart on a summer evening, maybe after a dance or something similar.
When Trees for Love have marked the tree, they take a photo and send it right to your home address, and if you ever happen to be in the area you can go and check it out and it will most probably still be there, (assuming there haven’t been any property developments on the location).
For our tenth wedding anniversary I made an order and, as luck would have it, the picture arrived on the morning Bea’s family turned up, her parents and brothers, with their kids and a huge gift and all that. Tony and I knuckle punched, like we do, and then I got him a beer, and we sat down while Bea put all the juice and the sandwiches and everything on the table and took one of the kids upstairs to the toilet and then came back down smiling, with the kid on her hip. Bea had a bit of toilet paper stuck to the back of her skirt, so I went to pick it off, but she swerved my hand and walked away to put the kid in front of the television, with the paper still stuck there.
I thought about asking Tony the same question that I had asked Miranda Jones in cafeteria, but it was awkward because I’ve always kind of wanted to impress Tony, being that he knows a lot about sport and wrestling and that he is my wife’s father. So I just talked to him about football and what was happening to his lawn that year and, later on, when it came around to being time for gifts, I could see that Tony was made-up when Bea unwrapped the picture, which Trees for Love had framed with a really nice pearly border, and I was glad that I hadn’t asked him.
I didn’t need to ask him, I already knew all about marriage.
Bea was staring at the picture for ages, while everyone crowded round to see, and I guessed that she didn’t want to look up ‘cause there were tears in her eyes. So I took a couple of minutes to explain to Tony about what a great idea Trees for Love is and how there were thousands of trees, and ours was one of them, but then Beatrice looked at me coldly and asked me why I hadn’t just carved the inscription onto the oak at the bottom of the garden myself.
I spluttered a little and waited for Bea to laugh but she didn’t, she just kept on staring at me and I looked at Tony and said, “But…” and Tony just shrugged and said, ‘let’s eat.’
My wife was wearing a sarong when she told me that she wanted to join a pottery class.
I said, ‘okay now, what’s going on Honey-Bea? Is something wrong?’
She just shouted, ‘NO!’ and I went to work.
In the summer, just after Jason finished his exams, I drove from my home in Kent to Milton Keynes.
I wanted to see the tree.
The traffic was bad and I took a break at a service station on the way, to get coffee mainly, and then to smoke three cigarettes when I didn’t really feel like driving off again.
A man in a cowboy hat stopped to use the cash machine next to where I loitered, scuffing my shoes against the curb. The cowboy looked at me and I smiled awkwardly, the way men smile at each other: reserved. But after the smile, he kept on looking at me and I couldn’t think of anything to say until I said, ‘Howdy,’ and wished I hadn’t.
The cowboy observed me calmly and my heart beat very hard, once.
‘Howdy,’ he said.
The cowboy’s voice was buried in a thick German accent and his face was free of lines, almost absurdly expressionless, even with the smile. He waited for me to say something else but I just looked back at him.
‘Did you need something?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ I said, surprising myself, what did I need? ‘I mean,’ I was panicked, ‘do you have a lighter?’
‘Ya, I have a match,’ he said.
He looked for the matches in his jeans while I took another cigarette out of my pack.
“We are having our holidays,” he said, handing me a fold of matches from somewhere called Hotel Amour, and pointing across the pumps to where a Landrover rocked with the motion of children bouncing in the backseat. The German cowboy’s blonde wife was leaning on the steering wheel, her face to the children, fingers splayed out in animation, just like stars. The back door was open slightly and the lean foot of a teenage girl was cooling on the step. She was probably letting some of the noise out of the car, like you would let air out of a balloon.
‘Great,’ I said and I lit my cigarette. The matches had pink heads, like roses.
The cowboy pulled a thick wedge of notes out of the cash machine and turned to me,
‘Something else?’ he said.
‘What do you think about marriage?’ I asked quickly.
The German was quiet and his eyes dropped away from mine, like he was thinking, but then he just shrugged.
‘Don’t worry about it, friend,’ he said and he clapped his hand onto my shoulder twice.
I held out his rose matches.
‘Keep them,’ said the German cowboy.
Then he walked away.
It wasn’t like a normal forest at all because the trees were planted at the exact same distance from each other, and there was no grass or flowers or even dirt in between, just a short wooden guard around the bottom of each one. When I got further in, I saw that people had tied trinkets around the smooth bark and written little messages, as though the trees were graves or memorials. I didn’t like it much really, but I told myself that when I saw our tree, it would be different from the rest; that it would probably explain something, there was going to be a clue.
The trees were neatly initialed, each one roughly the same height and certainly the same kind (were they elm trees?) Each way I looked the neat lines disappeared to a point where I knew more trees stood, but I couldn’t find a logic to the way the trees were marked; the initials would jump from A.A, B.A, A.A, B.C to W.I., L.I, and the sun went down while I fumbled my way down through the wooden army, pulling gloom out behind me until I saw it, R.Y, B.Y.
The letters were printed perfectly and I stared at them for a long time, hoping they would tell me something in the symmetry of their curves, the smooth loops and lines. I’ll tell Beatrice, I thought; I’ll call her and tell her that I could never have made the letters so neat with my penknife. But after that, R.Y, B.Y. said nothing to me; this tree was just like all of the other trees, looming identically.
I sighed and ran my hand through my hair; the greys were starting to show now, not in silver streaks, but standing up like wire all over my head. There were stars twinkling at me calmly and a plane flew over the plot and over Milton Keynes and over, over, over, on and on. I thought about the German and his family on their holidays, I wondered where they were going and what there might be doing, right at that moment. The yard was getting darker still and, as a reflex, I reached into my pocket for a comforting cigarette. Hotel Amour.
I scratched a match back and forth across the grain and when the flame burst, the trees sprung up around me.
‘This is Richard and Beatrice’s tree,’ I said to myself, or to the tree, maybe to all of the trees and then, without really knowing why, I stretched out my arms as far as I could, touching two trees, four strangers, and, feeling the cool skin of these new friends, I closed my eyes to the sky.
‘What do you think about marriage?’ I whispered to the darkness, and before I could hear the answer, I ran quickly through the jumping shadows of the trees.
Alice Ash is the co-creator of blog Femmeuary and has just finished her first film, Doctor Sharpe. Alice has been published internationally and most notably in Mslexia, Galavant Journal and BOON.