The Mulberry Tree
Underneath the mulberry tree, the fruit has fallen. Dark red, and rotting, some fruits split open and spattered by the black beaks of crows. Smell the sweetness, the decay as you walk by on the pavement.
Up through the tree’s spreading branches grow the strong stems of a climbing rose, hooked with thorns. September now, so no blossoms on it, but in the early summer it weighed heavy with cups of clear pink petals. The last of them are now long since fallen.
Marie carried a bouquet of those roses at her June wedding. Megan wrapped the stalks around with foil and white ribbon, but still a thorn pricked Marie’s thumb. ‘Oh, look,’ she said to David at her side. ‘Blood.’ A round drop of it, welling to the surface of her skin. She hated it, that blot on the day’s perfection, and in her haste to be rid of it she wiped it on her skirt. You can see the mark of it in the photos, there, see, that dark spot there on the white lace of her gown.
In this photo on Megan’s mantelpiece you can see how the stain spread.
As the thing within David did. Marie cradled his head on her lap, she sang to him. They drew the curtains against the ticking by of each day and lay together on the sofa in the half-dark, her couched against his belly, the two of them hiccupping with laughter as they watched old films.
Megan would drop round with nourishing casseroles, and iced cupcakes topped with cherries. ‘Oh, Mum, you’re making me put on weight,’ Marie complained. But David’s continued to fall away. Even Megan’s homemade chicken noodle soup was no bulwark against his condition.
So the following June the stone church in the village was once again festooned with swags of lilies and roses, snapdragons and forget-me-nots intertwined with ivy. Lots of friends in gaudy shirts and flower-printed frocks – the football crowd, the old schoolmates, the work colleagues – they all came to say goodbye. So young, they disbelieved, mortality weighing heavy on them.
At the crematorium it was just family. As the coffin slid in a woman – was it Megan? the voice was so contorted with grief it was hard to tell – jumped and yelled, ‘Stop mucking about, David. This joke’s gone far enough. Sit up, get out of there, before it’s too late.’ People grabbed her arms. The curtains continued to close.
Marie took a job commuting. She travelled alone and she liked the morning press of people around her shoulders, the standing in the evening crowd to queue to get down into the underground, the way a stranger on the homeward train might couch his head on her shoulder and sleep.
It was nine months before she relearned to sleep.
She liked her work with old prints at the museum. Botanical prints mostly. Her two favourites on the age-speckled paper were, firstly, an illustration of a pink climbing rose, the thorns on the strong stems brown and so sharply hooked they might catch in the skin of your thumb if you weren’t wary.
Her second favourite was of a spreading mulberry tree in full leaf, already ancient, its lowest branches supported by three props, fruit fallen to the ground; inset, a detail of the globular fruit, cut open to reveal its heart.
She loved the precision and exactness of the prints, their order, the sense they made. So unlike human lives. She learnt how to conserve them, the chemicals to use, the humidity, the lack of light.
The stuffed uniform in the corner of her gallery, she discovered when after six months he joined her for coffee in the staffroom, was called Paul.
‘After Paul van Brussel?’ she asked, head still full of her work.
‘After my grandfather,’ he said.
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