Roots, Sheffield, 2017

When you were lost, and buffeted about, when your own mother’s heart had iced over, Sheffield opened its arms, and you settled. You love your house, its honey coloured stone, and you love your tree, her lower boughs spreading towards your bedroom like a hug.

Buying the house is a struggle, teaching by day, bar work at night. The bar is where you meet him. He’s a charmer, a misfit, a drifter, but by the time you realise your mistake he’s moved in. You develop a sixth sense, reading the portents of his brutality. You learn to fit around him, to keep quiet. You learn to become invisible.

One day the bedroom heaves and sways around you, and your limbs fold, and you fall to the floor. While he calls for an ambulance you float outside, suspended in the branches of your tree, watching yourself die.

The doctors save your life. They explain that the embryonic mass they removed was not viable; it could never have been a baby. It had implanted in the wrong place, and outgrown its space. You are ashamed of grieving for something with no more feeling than a stone, so you determine not to think. People are unsettled by your brittle perkiness, your sharp humour. But he, apparently, did grieve. ‘He has difficulty with his emotions, he acts out when he’s hurting inside,’ his counsellor says, after he’s left. But it was your flesh he’d bruised, your arm he’d snapped like a twig.

It is only in your bed at night that you roost inside yourself, and dare to taste your own darkness, the tree your only witness.

Time passes. Your tree marks its swing. By now you know her very well. You are certain that she is female. Her glossy crimson buds, each raised like a plump infant fist, cheer your spirits. In the stagnant city heat you push open your bedroom window and lie on the floor, luxuriating as her lush green canopy dapples your body, until you forget where you end, and she begins. Occasionally you catch sight of a quizzical black eye, watching you. There’s the flurry of a secret nest, hidden among her heart shaped leaves. In the autumn she drops her sovereign coloured clothing, revealing her true majesty, and you know that her bare sturdy branches will protect you from the privations to come.

The world turns, and grows weary. You retire, and you volunteer at a food bank, the homeless centre, with asylum seekers; the voiceless, the dispossessed, the expunged.

Early one morning you are woken by lights arching across your bedroom ceiling, and a chaos of voices outside. At first you think there has been an accident. You wrestle your arms into your dressing gown, and with hair askew and sleep in your eyes you go out into the front garden, trembling in the frigid air. Men dart like wasps, their acid yellow overalls harsh against the violet sky. Nightmares still swarm your mind; a murder, an unexploded bomb. A group of neighbours has gathered now, dishevelled and sleepy. There’s a revving engine din, and you look up. High above, a helmeted man has harnessed himself to the trunk of your tree. He is severing her arm with a chainsaw. A squad of policemen prevent you getting to her. Fear paralyses you. Rooted to the spot, you watch as the man separates her limb from limb. When it is done he cuts down her body in swingeing slices. Timidly, you ask why. ‘It was dying,’ he says. ‘It needed felling.’ You do not argue. Close up, he’s not much more than a boy. He doesn’t understand about death. But you witnessed her humiliation, and you did nothing to stop it. You failed her.

When you get back to the house, you find that your pyjamas are stained with blood, although your cycle ended years ago. Exhaustion drags you back to bed. Outside, the sky no longer dances its changing shapes behind your tree. It stretches in one continuous sheet, the colour of a dirty dishcloth.

It is the pain, like a knife in the gut, which drives you to the G.P., then to hospital. You lie rigid on a slab as it moves you into a machine which cross sections your body. Scanning the results, the young doctor is solemn. The disease must be excised.

After the surgery, your recovery is harrowing. It leads you to a place where, for the first time, you see the shape and pattern of your life. It has been of no consequence; you have wasted it, colourless, shrinking back into the shadows. And now you mutely accept its extinction. You are going home to make your final arrangements, to tie up loose ends. Failed hope would be too bitter for you to bear.

The taxi driver is Pakistani. He dashes out of the cab and opens the passenger door for you. He has kind eyes. ‘I‘ll carry your bag for you, love. You just take it steady.’ You realise that what he is seeing is a broken old woman. You hang onto the shell of the car and cautiously, you lever yourself out. A sharp creosote smell catches your throat. The pavement has been rammed flat and black over the grave of your tree. Then you see it. The tarmac is erupting. A slender red stem is thrusting and waving its way through. The taxi driver continues to talk, noticing nothing. But the stem is growing before your eyes, pumping with new life. Now it thickens. Now she towers above you in all her exalted splendour. She’s sending out branches covered in shiny buds. The buds fatten and burst into a multitude of dancing leaves, emerald and lime and chartreuse, and the creamy blossom breaks, and the birds come, swallows and starlings and finches, quetzals, hoopoes and macaws, and joining in their glorious cacophony, you lift your arms high, and you shout out loud for the joy of living.

Kathleen Pardoe

Remembering

Do you remember
those nights where we danced
til our bodies ached.
The pain in our muscles reminding us we are lethal.
Squeezing in a single bed
glitter on our cheeks
holding hands
warm tears.
So happy and
so sad
to be born,
to be alive.

Do you remember
seeking love and comfort in men’s arms
making friends out of strangers
& strangers out of friends.

Do you remember
London rooftops
black skies,
snowflakes & soft
lips.

Do you remember
hours spent trying to
find answers where there are
none
trying to make sense out of non-sense.

Do you remember holding my hair
in a public toilet
between Sheffield &
Rotherham
putting your fingers down my throat
so I could breathe
again.

Do you remember how we
created our own culture and
how our friendship became religious.

Do you remember
us against the world.

Salomée Béranger