A Freudian nightmare.
Jamie doesn’t like the Tree. He never has. There’s something about the way that it stands aloof from all the other trees in the garden, alone at the end of the narrow path that runs behind the garage. Then there’s the way that its roots reach beyond the circle of earth in which it is set, rising like a cluster of clenched, bony knuckles before digging back down into the concrete of the path.
The tangle of roots below is mirrored by the knot of branches above. Dark-barked and sparse-leaved, they seem indifferent to sun and sky. Come summer, come winter, the Tree retains its solitary aspect: a bleak and forbidding figure, unloved and unvisited. The only occasions on which Jamie makes its acquaintance are when a ball or Frisbee is dragged into its baleful orbit and needs retrieval.
When that happens, he inches towards its perfectly cylindrical torso, acutely aware of its looming presence, its grasping limbs. He pauses and stares for a long moment at its base, the black plastic of the dustbin blurring his peripheral vision. This standoff persists until he has demonstrated that he isn’t scared – to some imaginary spectator’s satisfaction, if not his own – and then he runs forward, scoops up the ball and returns to the garden laughing loudly at his escape, his body tingling with relief.
It’s just a tree. Never mind that his entire family refers to it as the Tree: one of the familiar landmarks of their familial psycho-geography. Jamie envies his parents’ easy acknowledgement of the Tree’s singular status. They think nothing of visiting it to fill the dustbin, even in the dead of night. He wonders if they know how he feels about it. He thinks not, but then he’s old enough to understand that they know a lot of things that they don’t acknowledge. Sometimes that understanding makes him feel grown-up. Sometimes it makes him feel alone.
Briony, on the other hand, definitely does know how he feels about it. For all that she’s four years older, and endlessly scornful of his childishness, she’s still enough of a child to understand his unspoken dread. The Tree provides a handy pretext for her to mock him when she feels the urge. “Jamie’s scaared,” she taunts. “Scared of the big scary treeee.” It hits a nerve: he can feel his face reddening even as he denies it. He wishes she would protect him, like big sisters are meant to. Like she did when he was little.
But then, Jamie suspects that Briony’s actually a little scared herself. He’s never seen her go anywhere near the Tree, except occasionally to make a point during a bout of teasing – and even then, he detects hesitation. But then, why would she? There’s nothing to see down there except concrete and bins. She always dares him to retrieve balls and the like; perhaps because she doesn’t dare herself, he thinks. That somehow makes him feel a little better: after all, shouldn’t boys go first when danger looms?
This sense of chivalry conspires with his bashfulness to stop Jamie from telling his sister just how much the Tree has begun to occupy his thoughts. By day, it is not so prominent; he’s absorbed with schoolwork and classmates. The trouble starts when he gets home, usually an hour or so before Briony, who has to catch the bus from her school. “Why don’t you go out into the garden?” suggests his mother, shooing him out of his nest on the sofa, away from the comforting babble of the television.
So it’s outside, to skulk in the falling half-light. There’s nothing to do but kick the ball back and forth: and the only safe surface to bounce it off is the garage door. He bounces it gingerly off the flaking paint, careful not to strike it into a tangent that will send it down the path to the Tree. He counts each time he kicks, each time it returns safely, ticking off the seconds before Briony explodes through the door in a frenzy of chat, discarding her shoes and raiding the fridge. He usually loses track somewhere around four or five hundred.
But it’s worst at night. The Tree, visible from his bedroom window if he folds back the corner of the curtain, has started making his way into his dreams. Or rather, it has taken them over, although he hardly dares admit it to himself. In the dream that he now has every night, Jamie is in the garden. It is dark and windy, but the air is warm. As he turns the corner, onto the path behind the garage, he sees the Tree illuminated by neither sun nor moon, but by the pale red glow emanating from a fleshy hole gaping between its roots.
Feet dragging, he paces unwillingly towards the Tree. He’s not sure why, but he feels compelled to look into the hole, even though he knows what he will see there. This is what the Tree wants. The hole looks warm, inviting, but he knows that it is a trap: the Tree wants only to press him into the cold mulch at its feet, pinioning him beneath its roots. He resists, but the Tree insists: he cannot help but advance, edging toward the hole despite the spreading cold in his chest –
– but then he wakes up, staring into space as his heart pounds and his fingers clutch at the covers. That’s how it is every night. How it is tonight. Jamie stares up into the darkness, knowing he will not dare to sleep again for hours. He is at once frightened and frustrated, tears welling up at the corners of his eyes. He thinks about shouting for his parents, but is reluctant to break their slumber. He’s getting too old for that now, anyway. Briony would mock him in the morning.
Suddenly resolved, almost before he is even aware of it, he swings up and out of bed. It feels good. The darkness is thinner now, less suffocating and more penetrable. He swings an experimental arm, finds no resistance. Stands up, bare feet on the carpet. This is it. He feels strong, like he does when he runs roaring across the playground pretending to be a soldier. It’s just a stupid tree. He’s going to prove it.
Quickly now, decisively, he moves across the room to the door. Opens it gently, astonished at his own audacity. In the corridor, he can hear the sussuration of his father’s breath and becomes aware that he is holding his own. He edges towards the stairs, starts down them, careful to tread near the edges of the steps to avoid creaks. From the bottom of the stairs, it is just a few quick steps down the landing to the kitchen door. He takes the key off the hook under the worktop, unlocks and opens the door, steps out into the garden.
The air is as warm as it was in his dream; his flannel pyjamas provide adequate protection against the breeze. The garden, though, is not the place of shadows from his dream. It is just the garden, albeit that it feels untenanted. He feels as though he is interrupting its secret, private business, then shakes it off and walks decisively down the path. As he approaches the garage, he falters. His heart is pounding again and his breath is whistling in and out. His gathered courage is seeping away.
He scrunches his hands into fists, closes his eyes tight and steps out beyond the protective corner of the garage.
There is the Tree, sere and dark in the moonlight.
And in front of it, her dressing gown wound tightly around her, is Briony.
Jamie cannot find his voice, but he feels his feet shuffling along the concrete of the path. He tries to pull back, but it is too late. And as he inches forwards, he understands that she has struck a bargain, made a deal. “I’m sorry,” she says. But as he steps past her, towards the embrace of the Tree, he looks up at her face. And in it he sees neither guilt, nor grief, nor remorse. ##