Authors: Sonia Tilson
Copyright Â© Sonia Tilson, 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
The monkey puzzle tree / Sonia Tilson.
Issued also in print format.
PS8639.I557M66 2013 C813'.6 C2012-907644-9
Edited by John Metcalf
Copy-edited by Tara Murphy
Typeset by Chris Andrechek
Cover Designed by Kate Hargreaves
Biblioasis acknowledges the ongoing financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage, the Canada Book Fund; and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Arts Council.
Gillian’s mother, propped against
the pillows, rapped the inhaler on the tray in front of her. “Why are you just standing there with the bottle open in your hand?”
Gillian jumped. Clumsy with jet lag, she fumbled at the little blue vial of
spilling some on her fingers.
Her mother raised her eyebrows. “I would like a spot. That is, if there’s any left.”
Gillian wiped her fingers, dipped the stopper back into its bottle, and touched the bulbous end behind each of her mother’s earlobes.
“Now put a little rouge on my face, there’s a good girl, and do my hair for me, would you?”
Quirking her mouth at the idea of being a girl at fifty-five, good or otherwise, Gillian smoothed the peachy powder onto her mother’s cheeks, and fluffed up the sparse white curls. At a nod she applied a touch of lipstick. Her mother rubbed her lips together and studied her reflection in the hand mirror Gillian held for her.
“Isn’t she wonderful, at her age, to take such care of her appearance!” Sunita, the nursing assistant, had said when Gillian arrived earlier that morning at Saint Anne’s Nursing Home; despite a couple of private reservations, including that seventy-seven did not seem nearly as old to her as it obviously did to Sunita, Gillian had, of course, agreed.
A rattling cough shook her mother’s rib cage. Smoking, taken up she said in the stress of the Blitz, had left a legacy of chronic bronchitis. According to her, a stay at the nursing home would enable her to go back to living on her own, but looking at her, pale and gasping after the coughing fit, Gillian had her doubts. She might recover. Apparently she had bounced back often enough before, albeit a little lower each time. Then again, she might not.
Her mother spat into a tissue and took a deep breath. “That’s better! Now pass me my silk bed jacket and a hankie. The doctor should be here any minute.” She examined her nails. “Perhaps you’ll sit in the hall while I talk to him.”
Gillian eased on the delicate garment, controlling the urge to give it a yank, and left the room. She might as well humour her, she thought as she settled into the brown vinyl armchair by the hall window. She could talk to the doctor later. She winced, remembering her mother’s earlier greeting. “My goodness, you’ve aged!” the old woman had said, receiving Gillian’s kiss on her tissue-paper cheek. “I couldn’t believe it when your brother told me you were coming. You must have thought I was dying, and I wouldn’t have thought you’d have come even then. Anyway, it’ll take more than a cold to see me off, you’ll be sorry to hear.”
Gillian had left Wales for Canada at twenty-two, feeling that she might as well put an ocean between herself and her mother. Now, sitting out in the hall, she was already regretting the panicky rush from Ottawa that had followed Tom’s phone call the day before.
He had met the early morning arrival at Heathrow, greyer and stouter than when she had last seen him in Ottawa, fifteen years before, but beaming with delight as he enveloped her in a bear hug before seizing her luggage. At his insistence, they had set off immediately for Swansea.
“It’s lovely to see you, Gill! You’re looking well.” He kept his eyes fixed on the M4 as they flashed past fields of blinding yellow canola. “How’s Bryn?” He overtook a mover’s truck at terrifying speed.
“He’s okay, and so are Carol and Alice.” The thought of her son and daughter-in-law and her five-year-old granddaughter calmed her somewhat until Tom entered on what seemed to be a drag race with a motorcycle.
“How’s that Simon?” he shouted as the motorcyclist finally blew past, turning his head to grin.
“He’s fine. He’s lovely. But slow down, Tom, please!”
He chuckled. “We don’t poke along the way you do in Canada you know. But look here, Gill, I’ve got something to tell you.”
He slowed minimally, and looked across at her. “Vanna wants to see you.”
“Vanna does? After all these years?”
“She wants you to have dinner with her tonight at her place, just the two of you. Something quick and simple, she said, because you’d be tired.” He looked across at her. “You will go, Gill, won’t you? I’ll take you there and pick you up.”
She glanced at his still-handsome profile. “You haven’t given up then?”
He picked up speed. “Never!”
“Okay, I’ll go. I’d love to see her again actually.” She sat back and closed her eyes, opening them with a start as he gunned the engine to zip around a Volkswagen. “Hey! Take it easy!”
“Sorry! Look here, Gill, you’re tired. Bag of nerves! We’ll go to Langland first, to Mum’s bungalow. You can see her later, after you’ve had a rest.”
Only her body resting, she lay on the over-soft bed in the curtained gloom of her mother’s bedroom amidst faint smells of mothballs and aging cosmetics. She had been sure for most of her adult life that she and her mother had nothing more to say to each other, but evidently she had been mistaken, about herself at least. Why else had she left her family, and Simon, to rush back here after over thirty years’ absence? Nearly knocking a frilly, pink-shaded lamp off the nightstand as she pushed away a pillow, she turned on her side, hoping a change of position might entice sleep. She lay prone again, trying to concentrate, first on breathing deeply and evenly, and when that failed, on the swish of the high tide washing against the cliff. Finally she had to accept that there was still something left for her to do, and that, moreover, she knew what it was. She owed it to her mother, as well as to herself, to try to turn that deeply buried stone. If she succeeded, it could help explain the reserve and even hostility she had always shown towards her mother, which she knew must have made her hard to love. Possibly she could hear her mother’s side of the story too: why she had kept her only daughter at arm’s length throughout her whole life.
She had showered and changed, and told Tom, dozing in the chintz armchair by the beige-tiled fireplace, that she was ready to go.
Trying to distance herself
from her mother’s rancour, she looked down from the nursing-home window onto slate rooftops sloping towards the glinting sea, a view almost the same as that from her childhood bedroom in the house where she had been born, just up the hill from Saint Anne’s: the five-mile sweep of Swansea Bay stretching in a perfect arc from what used to be the docks on her left, now a marina, to the Mumbles lighthouse on the right. Around the coast from the lighthouse lay Langland Bay, where her mother’s bungalow perched on another hillside.
Closing her eyes, she leaned back, wearily rubbing a hand over her face. The intense, flowery perfume on her fingers, the essence of her mother, overwhelmed her, sweeping her back nearly fifty years to the night of September the third, nineteen thirty-nine; her last night at home before being evacuated, and the last time she had spoken to her mother with an open heart.
A glimmer danced on Gillian’s
bedroom wall. She could hear the silky whisper of her mother’s dress and smell her perfume curling like an invisible mist around the half-open bedroom door, a fragrance which she knew came from a little blue bottle lying amongst the wonders of her mother’s dressing table. She had held it like a round flat pebble on her palm just the day before, studying the label and puzzling over the letters.
“J-e R-e-v-i-e-n-s,” she had spelled out. “What does that mean, Mummy?”
“It’s French. It means ‘I will come back.’” Her mother had put on her lipstick and rubbed her lips together making a kissing noise before saying, “Stop fiddling with my things, there’s a good girl. You might break something.”
As the flickers of light became brighter, and the scent grew stronger, Gillian raised her head and whispered, “Mummy, I can’t sleep!”
Darkness fled into corners as her mother entered the bedroom. The folds of her blue dress gleamed as she set the stubby brass candlestick down on the night table. “What’s the matter Gilly? You ought to be fast asleep by now.”
Gillian sat up, took a deep breath, and looked straight at her mother. “Why do we have to go away, Mummy? Why do we have to go to the Macphersons’? Why can’t we stay here with you and Daddy?”
Her mother sighed and sat on the bed. “You know why, darling. I told you. It’s because of the bombs. All the children have to be evacuated. It’s the law.”
Gillian grabbed her mother’s skirt. “But couldn’t you come with us then? Like Auntie Vera’s going to Canada with Josephine and Tony?”
Her mother stood up, removing Gillian’s hand. “No. I have to stay and look after Daddy and help with the practice. And, before you ask; no, you can’t stay with Grandma and Grandpa either. Grandma’s still not well enough after her operation. You have to go to the Macphersons’, and quickly too, and that’s that.” She moved towards the window.
Gillian’s chin began to wobble. “But Mummy, what about you and Daddy? Will you be bombed?”
“No, no. Don’t worry about us. We’ll be all right.”
“Then we’d be all right too, if we stayed with you, wouldn’t we?” Gillian grabbed her frizzy mop of hair, pulling it hard, trying not to cry. “Please, Mummy, don’t send us away!”
Her mother turned around. “For shame, Gillian! A clever girl like you! You’re six years old, not a baby. I expected more of you. You know there’s a war on, and we all have to do our duty, even you children. And your duty, Gillian, is to be brave and not whine, and to look after your little brother. Now leave your hair alone.” She loosened Gillian’s fingers. “You know I’ll come to see you. It won’t be long before this silly old war is over, and then we’ll all be back together again.” She turned to the window and yanked the thick black curtains to make doubly sure no chinks of light could escape
“Now lie down and go to sleep, there’s a good girl.” She kissed her cheek quickly and left the room.
“Don’t go, Mummy! Stay with me!” Gillian whispered, but her mother did not come back.
Since their father
with the practice, their mother drove the children to the little village of Croesffordd
‘Crossroads’, by herself. Everyone, or at least Olwen, the maid, and Mrs. Jones, the daily cleaning woman, had told Gillian that she and Tommy were very lucky. Their parents had connections, so they didn’t have to go on the special bus like the other evacuees. Their mother would drive them all the way from Swansea, even though that would use up a whole week’s petrol ration. They did not have to stay down in the village either, with families living in the cottages around the crossroads. Olwen, who knew someone there, said those people were
, a word Gillian thought about a lot, and that she should be glad they were going to live with Dr. and Mrs. Macpherson up at Maenordy, “the manor house,” the big house up on the hill.
Mrs. Jones’s daughter, Gladys, however, who was nearly seven and knew more about everything than Gillian, had not been so nice about it. “Ooh, there’s
!” she said, her black eyes flashing as she slammed a ball against the garden wall while waiting for her mother. “You’ll be able to see the flames lovely from up by there.”
Gillian dropped the ball. “What flames, Gladys?”
“The flames of Swansea burnin’, silly.” She ran off laughing, taking the ball with her.
Arriving at Croesffordd,
they made a turn between a sweetie shop and a grey chapel with the word
carved over the door, and drove up a steep hill. A winding drive, edged by mauve rhododendrons, led to the house where they were to live until it was safe to go home.
It was indeed grand, Gillian saw. It was tall and white, with a dark slate roof and small windows, their blinds part down like half-shut eyes. On one side was a rose bed and a lawn, and beyond that, a view of a far-off river winding its way through fields towards distant hills. Just over those hills, Gillian thought, Swansea might lie. She tried not to think of flames. On the far side of the house stood a wooden barn shaded by a clump of leafy trees.
They pulled up near the front door, under a very different sort of tree. Gillian stared at it, her stomach still queasy from the long drive. It didn’t seem like a proper tree at all. It looked dark, almost black, its branches like giant bottle brushes sticking out at crazy angles. All wrong somehow.
“Look!” said their mother, taking out the suitcases, “A monkey puzzle tree! How unusual! Isn’t that nice! Aren’t you lucky children to be coming to a lovely place like this?”
Mrs. Macpherson, tall and pale, with black hair in a bun and sharp little dark eyes, stood at the door of Maenordy. Even though it was hot for September, she was wearing a tweed costume. On her lapel was a brooch made from an animal’s paw, like a little furry hand with a wide silver cuff around the wrist. In the shadowy hall behind her loomed black furniture on a shiny, dark wood floor. Gillian could smell polish and carbolic soap. Tommy clutched her hand.
“Now, my darlings,” their mother stood behind them, putting her hands around their shoulders, “This is Mrs. Macpherson, who’s going to look after you while the bombings are going on. You must be very, very good and not give Dr. and Mrs. Macpherson any trouble.” She hugged the two of them and kissed them. “Take care of each other, sweethearts, and be sure never
to make me ashamed of you. Do you promise me now?”
“No Mummy, we won’t. We promise.” Gillian was echoed by Tommy as they struggled to control their tears.
“That’s my brave darlings! I’ll come back to see you as soon as I can.” She kissed them both again. Hurrying to get back to Swansea before the blackout, she jumped into the little grey car and was gone.
Mrs. Macpherson looked down at them, sighing hard through her nose. “Come along then.” She picked up their suitcases. “Follow me.” She led them across the hall, down a cold, mouldy-smelling stone passage, up a steep wooden stair-case on which she bumped the suitcases at every step, making cross puffing sounds, and along another gloomy passage to what was to be their bedroom. After showing them the way to the bathroom and telling them to stay in their room until she came back, she left them.