“What happened to the elm tree?” asked James, staring through the window at the space in the row of trees bordering the far edge of the garden. A fine drizzle was frosting the lawn, upon which a solitary magpie rooted for worms. One for sorrow…..
“It was diseased,” said Louisa. “I had to have it felled.”
“Shame,” he said. And then, as she had known he would, “Do you remember the fox that made its lair underneath it? How long ago was that?”
“Four years ago,” said Louisa, almost immediately.
“You’ve a good memory,” he said. “Always did have.” His thin fingers plucked at the immaculate creases of his trousers, and she noticed the slight tremor of his elegant silver head, the droop of his shoulders beneath the cream cashmere sweater.
How could she not remember? The fox had appeared in their garden a few months before James had left her. For Carla.
She had not disturbed the fox, apart from leaving scraps of food and bowls of water beside the elm tree. But she had watched him, some days from the moment when the morning sun had touched the kitchen window, until a purple dusk crept slowly across the garden.
During those weeks the fox had distracted her from the tell-tale signs of a failing marriage – the late nights, the business weekends away, the unexplained telephone calls. Conversations about the fox had filled those awkward silences that had somehow replaced the normally easy banter between them.
And then one day, after an uncomfortable conversation throughout which she had stared fixedly at the fox’s lair beneath the elm tree, James had loaded up the silver Mercedes with his fine clothes, expensive golf clubs and computers, before driving off to move into Carla’s apartment down by the river. She was left alone in the big house that James, guiltily seeking exoneration, had insisted she keep.
Then within a week of James’s departure, the fox had slipped out from under the elm one morning, shadowed by a thinner, younger, but less magnificent vixen. Just as she had when she spotted James and Carla strolling hand in hand by the river, she realised that she was about to be abandoned. The fox gave her a nervous backward glance over his shoulder, whilst the vixen nudged him urgently with her nose, not looking at Louisa at all. Two more souls were venturing out on a journey into a world which seemed to have no place for her.
She’d had the elm tree felled quickly, lest the infection should spread to her neighbours’ trees. She’d assumed the roots would be removed too, given the price she was quoted for the job, but it was simply sawn through, leaving an ugly stump where the magnificent tree had stood. The workmen returned at weekly intervals to apply chemicals, and the discoloured stump had never shown any signs of life since then.
She had planted some laurels either side of the stump and eventually the bushes spread, and intertwining branches formed a screen. One might never guess a tree had stood there.
“Louisa,” James started nervously, as he had that terrible day four years ago, “I really am so dreadfully sorry, about everything.” She looked out of the window, noticing the silver cobwebs stretching from the kitchen window to the wisteria-clad wall of the outhouse. She could not bear to revisit the memories.
“Hush James,” she said, touching his cold, dry hand. “Would you like to go to your room for a while? Isn’t it time for your medication?”
He nodded, sighing, and she helped him to climb the stairs to the guest room, supporting him as he paused to catch his breath, his face grey. She closed the curtains in his room and turned down the bedspread.
“Try to take a nap,” she said gently. “You’ll feel better for a rest.”
“You really are so very kind, Louisa,” he said, lying down with a weary sigh. “What a selfish old fool I was. I never deserved you.”
Downstairs she cleared away the coffee cups and then strolled out into the garden where a pale sun was beginning to brighten the mist, pausing at the rotten tree stump, to push scraps of decayed bark off the lawn with her toe.
Only last week she had come down here to find that the red fox had finally returned, and was curled around the grotesque remains of the tree where he had made his shelter four years ago. His bleak yellow eyes, misted with pain had regarded her cautiously, though his rich, red fur still gleamed, reflecting the fine drizzle of the autumn morning. His greying muzzle had twitched nervously as she stood before him.
“And where is your fine mate now?” she’d murmured softly.
She had wondered how best she could help the creature. It was in her power to grant him a quick and merciful release, though in doing so she suspected that his last minutes might be full of fear and panic at the shock of human intervention.
Or she could let him die on his own terms, in the place he had once lived, a place he had remembered throughout his life, and where he had been driven, by some unknown force, to see it end.
She had made her decision that day, and on reflection, she felt it had been the right thing to do, difficult though it had been.
Squaring her shoulders, lifting her chin, she turned and slowly made her way back to the big house.
Published in Shine Journal, March 2011