They had been together for over 250 years, which even in tree years was quite impressive. Life had thrown so much at them; storms, floods, two Worlds Wars, the long hot summer of ’76, the Beast from the East and more recently a case of bleeding canker, from which they’d both thankfully recovered.
Every new challenge, every passing season, brought them closer together. They may have looked like a pair of gnarly old souls, but inside they felt like a pair of young saplings still madly in love.
To the locals they were known as merely ‘the big old trees by the gate’ – two enormous horse chestnuts listed as T6 and T7 on the council plans of Clissold Park. But beneath the grass and flowers and running track it was another world. Here they thrived thanks to a vast matrix of underground capillaries that enabled them to communicate, talk, eat, drink, exchange fluids, share feelings and yes, even have sex.
The visitors to the park loved them as much as they loved each other, but for different reasons.
Young couples carved crude hearts into their scaly bark in public displays of affection. The pretty Turkish girl and her Ed Sheeran look-a-like boyfriend were the most regular, using the trees’ canopy in summer for more private moments. The trees often lowered their branches a few extra inches to add more cover, shielding them from prying eyes.
Anxious millennials were big fans too, becalmed by the trees’ immense stillness. And on Sunday mornings it was the Brazilians from Wood Green to have their moment, twisting and turning tattooed bodies on the dipping elastic tied between the trunks, accompanied by the twang of the berimbau. The trees would very subtly lean back a few centimetres to make the elastic extra taught and aid a successful crossing, resulting in a nice big tree hug.
And of course there was much appreciation from all the waggy-tailed dogs sniffing and peeing all over their broad trunks.
It says something that even after being cut, stabbed, tied up with elastic and pissed on every day, you’re still the happiest couple in the park.
Charlie Bullock sat on the edge of his fake mahogany desk in the glass office, imagining he was the Wolf of Wall Street addressing a boardroom of traders in the City, rather than the three pale faced muppets gathered in front of him, who were his entire workforce at Watsons Estate Agents.
“Well, there’s only one thing on the agenda this morning, or rather two, these two…” He turned his Dell computer screen.
“…the bloody trees…screwing things up for this office right now. We’ve had 15 viewings at The Vistas…15…and not one bite. Nothing. Everyone is saying the same thing, ‘the view is spoiled by the trees’.
The trees hadn’t seemed a problem when the flats had been going up in winter, their skeletal silhouettes never really interrupting the view. But now with their full spring foliage they were two huge verdant blots on Charlie’s landscape.
He raised his eyebrows. “Any thoughts?” The three of them stared vacantly at the screen. Giles the failed-graduate now failing-estate- agent actually thought the trees looked quite magnificent, icons of his local park, but thought it inappropriate to tell his red-faced boss.
“Well?” Charlie’s heartbeat was increasing, the sweats had started. Too much coke at the weekend.
He turned away and slammed his mug on the table. Their cue to exit.
The commission from the sale of The Vistas was potentially huge and would cover his upcoming golf trip to Dubai and the final payment on the Range Rover.
There was only one thing for it. He called Terry.
They were lucky. Two horse chestnut seedlings meeting at the right time in the right place. It was meant to be. They could have been stuck on a pavement outside the park, like the silver birches on Riversdale Road trying to live amidst concrete slabs, tarmac, gas pipes and cables. Even the most cunning capillaries couldn’t work their way round that lot.
No, they were blessed, originally planted by Lord Clissold in 1770 to mark boundaries and bring topographical variation to his ‘big garden’ as he liked to call it, which he admired from the master bedroom in Clissold House.
These two horse chestnuts were his favourite trees in the whole estate. He’d noticed their trunks naturally leant inwards, giving the impression they were a couple. They reminded him of his beloved dogs Jack & Frieda, who’d been the greatest of friends. When the dogs passed away he’d buried them under the trees and re-named the trees accordingly.
Terry put his pint down, wiped his mouth with the back of his calloused hand and made the kind of statement he’d been making in the Highbury Barn pub for the past 20 years. “I’d get rid of Lacazette, he’s just not up to it, we need someone new up front, he’s not the same player he was 18 months ago.”
Charlie had heard it all before, the players’ names had changed but the chat was the same. This was a ritual they both knew well and loved. He nodded, “Never rated Lacazette, we should have gone for Martial from United – he’s more an Arsenal player.”
Normally they would’ve looked an odd couple – Charlie Bullock, tall, clean-cut, chinos, next to short, stocky, unshaven Terry Evans in t-shirt and jeans. but this was match day and any man could be chatting to any man, as long as it was about ‘The Arse’.
They’d been doing it since school and nothing was going to change now. Charlie picked up their empty pint pots and headed to the bar, wondering when would be the moment to divert the banter away from their centre forward towards to the burning issue of the day.
He nestled the fresh pints down and reached into his jacket pocket, flashing the purple silk lining, unfolding a brochure in front of Terry:
HIGHBURY VISTAS – LUXURY APARTMENTS AVAILABLE 2022
“Here we go, boasting again are we posh boy?” Terry rolled his eyes in comedic fashion, but he couldn’t help but lean in to get a better look at the glossy front cover.
Charlie folded it out flat before his opening salvo, “Mate, I need a favour.”
Highbury Vistas were ‘the epitome of modern urban living’ the blurb claimed. ‘beautifully styled, with open plan spaces flooded with natural light, premium integrated ceramic hobs with brushed steel ovens and built-in microwaves.’ The brochure was full-on property porn, which kept Terry interested as Charlie tucked into the pork scratchings.
Terry read aloud in mock grandiose fashion: “The penthouse apartments on the top floor come offer uninterrupted views across Clissold Park.”
Charlie looked Terry directly in the eye: “Except the views are currently interrupted by two enormous bloody trees.”
Terry held Charlie’s gaze and then smiled, taking a sip of his pint and ever so subtly licked his lips. “I think I know where you’re going with this. The Vistas…with no vista.” Terry’s rapier wit kicking in.
Charlie looked around himself for a moment, but there was no chance anyone could hear them, the pub was packed with Gooners debating the Arsenal forward line, or maybe they’d moved onto the defence by now – either way no one was listening to Charlie and Terry who were about to plot the death of Jack & Frieda.
Terry had a glint in his eye. He always needed money, but it was the actual work he loved, chopping down trees to him was like a gladiatorial battle.
“Leave it with me mate.”
Of course as with all long term relationships, Jack & Frieda had their ups and downs. 250 years is more than enough time to have the odd argument. Frieda often berated Jack that he was too greedy, sucking up way more of the nutriments from the topsoil than was fair, meaning Frieda’s capillaries would have to work harder and reach deeper for supplies. No wonder he was taller than me, she thought.
Whereas Jack often thought Frieda was too kind to the kids who’d climb all over them, often breaking their falls with opportunely positioned branches and leaves – Jack thought the kids needed to learn the hard way and experience scrapes and bruises. Frieda felt she was only doing what Mother Nature wanted.
Their latest row was one of their main topics of conversation: the weather. Jack being taller and broader than Frieda meant he felt the elements first, the early morning sun on his bark, the first splashes of rain on his crown and the wind in all its variations. Storms were the biggest worry causing lasting damage, often snapping large branches which took an age to regrow.
Jack would always warn Frieda giving her time to tighten her bark, push her expanded roots further into the soil and brace herself for what was to come. But on this occasion Jack had been dozing when the wind got up and Frieda, unprepared, lost two of her longest limbs. Perhaps they weren’t as sprightly as they thought – no tree lives forever.
Arsenal were beaten by lowly Southampton and 60,000 grumpy Gooners were streaming out of the Emirates. The natives were restless. All except one who was quietly grinning to himself in the May sunshine. Throughout the game Terry had been considering Charlie’s proposal and realised he had a way in. He knew the local tree officer Colin Crabtree, who seemed a solid member of the community with his Horticulture degree from Plymouth and tidy cardigan from Next. But Terry had known for years he was dodgy, selling logs illegally from the back of his car in Epping Forrest. At £50 a bag it was a nice little earner.
Terry had him by the balls, or rather by the logs. Colin didn’t take well to Terry’s slightly threatening phone call later that night, but if it meant getting Terry off his back for good he was prepared to do it. Colin knew the trees had previously had a bout of bleeding canker and if he claimed the potentially fatal disease had returned it could work.
It was a close vote, but Colin’s meticulously written report swung it, along with the desire from some council members for a ‘more aesthetically modern foliage’ aka ‘out with the old in with the new’. A notice was placed on the trees to notify members of the public of the imminent removal.
And a lynching date was set.
It seemed like any other day to them. Sunlight peaking from behind the church spire, squirrels tickling their trunks, parakeets darting from Jack to Frieda and back again.
Early mornings were their favourite. With an empty park, they could subtly stretch the very ends of their branches towards each other and experience the most gentle but heartfelt touch with their hand-like leaves. This fragile act was a pleasure only they knew, a gentle tickling, life-affirming moment to start any day. They’d love it to last for hours if they had the chance, this gentle caress … but they were normally curtailed by the park keepers doing his rounds or the first jogger of the day.
Today was different. They weren’t interrupted by an animal or a runner, but by a large white van driving directly into the park from Green Lanes and parking right next to them on the sloping verge.
Terry had his apprentice Danny marking out a large 200 square foot area on the field in front of Frieda with yellow and black hazard tape.
“Are we starting with T7?” asked Danny.
Terry reached into the pocket of his cargo pants and unfolded the death warrant. He nodded “Yep that one first,” pointing at Frieda, “then its mate” pointing at Jack.
Danny continued with the prep, positioning the chipper and laying out the rigging ropes.
Terry reached into the back of the van grabbing his helmet and ear muffs. He paused for a moment, testosterone starting to pump round his capillaries before he fired up the chainsaw. The parakeets gave flight from the metallic scream and didn’t return.
Frieda sensed something was wrong and made her bark super tight, but it didn’t have much effect. Terry’s specialist tree surgeon boots could climb El Capitan in Yosemite if need be, so what chance did she have.
Jack was worried, receiving pulses from Frieda’s capillaries at a frightening rate.
Terry climbed to the crown and strapped himself in to the cradle position from where he could start working methodically downwards, first the limbs, then the body. He squinted up at the sunny sky, a vast blue canvas cut by a single jet stream.
Frieda’s elegant, elongated limbs, were severed one by one. The pain was excruciating. Terry had adapted his saw and sharpened with a square, not round file, enhancing both the velocity and sharpness of cut. Frieda didn’t giving up easily, desperately pumping out small clouds of leaf toxins. The dry bitter chemical attacked the back of Terry’s throat.
He started to choke, gasping for breath. He pulled up his visor, turned away from the tree, needing air. “You ok mate?” shouted Danny, holding the rigging ropes below. Terry regained his breath, gave the thumbs up and on the slaughter went, the limbs guided down by Danny’s ropes, a mountain of bones on the grass verge.
Frieda’s capillaries were fading. Her first panicked messages to Jack had been filled with pain and fear, but now there was only one message: goodbye.
It had been a lynching, a public humiliation, ripping her down, reducing her to a carcass in front of him. A life of 250 years wiped out in under two hours. It didn’t seem real. Surely this is a bad dream, thought Jack. But the silent and lifeless capillaries now told the awful truth and he knew deep down it was over.
Terry took one last drag of his cigarette and stubbed it out on Frieda’s stump – to him it seemed an innocuous action, but it triggered underground forces never previously experienced in the park’s history. The ground beneath his boots literally shuddered for a moment like a small localised earthquake.
A huge dark root slowly burst the surface of the turf, tiny flecks of soil spraying the back of Terry’s neck.
Terry was totally oblivious. He was high on adrenaline and nicotine – thinking about money and beers waiting for him in the pub. He strode off to catch up with Danny when his boot got caught in the loop of Jack’s raised root.
It seemed a minor irritant at first, but after a moment he realised his foot was stuck at a weird angle. The ground had fallen away below the raised root making a small crater where Terry’s foot was now trapped at an angle.
The pain was acute. And as he tried to break free his heel actually dug itself further in. The foot was jammed. Terry felt the thick snake-like root tighten around his ankle, slowly crushing the bone. He tried to shout, to scream for help, but nothing came. His throat still coated with Frieda’s toxic leaf dust. He felt another pull, this one more more forceful from a deeper place and down he went.
The posters went up all over the park: ’MISSING’ along with an image of Terry Evans: “Last Thursday night Terry Evans a local tree surgeon went missing in Clissold Park after felling a large horse chestnut by the Green Lanes entrance. If you have any information on Terry’s whereabouts please call our hotline.”
That night, as dusk fell, the bark on Jack’s trunk slowly contracted, the sinews squeezing and pushing together to force the pins holding the MISSING poster out, Terry’s face fell to earth.