Potluck

 

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The Trees

 

 

            ‘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.

            I sat down on the balding sofa.

            ‘With our new formula of sheen-tastic dye FOR MEN you can at keep yourself looking good.’

            A disembodied spinning head, covered in glossy chestnut hair appeared.

            ‘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 what she thought about marriage in the cafeteria. We were eating white macaroni cheese. Miranda had some herbal tea that smelt like synthetic peaches.

            Miranda’s lips are so fat that the bottom one actually droops down a little. I’ve asked myself before; is that lip about to fall off of her face? I looked at her blouse, which was made from some kind of incredibly light material. It was blue. The peaches were making my eyes heavy.

            ‘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. It’s 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.

            When Trees for Love have stamped 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 even 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 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'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 and I could see that he was made-up when she unwrapped the picture, which Trees for Love had framed with a really nice pearly border. Bea was staring at it 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 all that 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.

 

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 I drove from our home in Kent to Milton Keynes.

            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 stood, blowing smoke at the sky. He looked at me and I smiled but after that 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, smiling.

            The cowboy’s voice was buried in a thick German accent and his face was free of lines, almost absurdly expressionless. 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 panicked, ‘do you have a lighter?’

            ‘Ya, I have a match,’ he said.

            ‘You just getting some cash out?’ I asked, stupidly while he looked for the matches in his jeans.

            “Ya. Family holiday,” 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 slightly open 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.

            I looked back at the man with the cowboy hat while he punched in his pin. He 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, looking at the black spot where I was grinding my match into the side of the service station.  

            The German cowboy shrugged.

            ‘Don’t worry about it, friend,’ he said.

            He clapped his hand onto my shoulder twice and then walked away.

 

I didn’t reach the Trees for Love plot until 8pm that evening but because it was the height of summer the sun still hadn’t given out to blackness.

            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. The sun went down while I fumbled my way down through the army of trees, pulling shadows out behind me. 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. I thought about the oak tree that was probably still standing in our old back garden and the pen-knife that I always kept in my desk in case any manly tasks needed doing, tasks that required a pen-knife.

            It was dark by the time I found our tree, R.Y, B.Y. The bark felt smooth like the granite on an expensive grave. 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 tell her that I could never have made the letters so neat with my penknife. But after that, the letters said nothing to me, they were just letters printed on a tree.

            I finished my cigarette and ran my hand through my glossy brown hair. The stars were twinkling at me calmly and a plane flew over the plot and over Milton Keynes and over, over, over, on and on. I stretched out my arms as far as I could, touching two trees, four strangers, and I closed my eyes to the sky.

            ‘What do you think about marriage?’ I said to the darkness.