by Andy West
The downpour departed like a lover called urgently away, leaving behind the musk of its interaction with the earthbound. This smell was complex; a potent mix of emanations from soaked soil, damp bark, sodden mats of fallen leaves, the citrus tang of living green, along with various other wetly liberated organic odors. Late October’s sunshine broke through retreating skirts of grey, at a stroke returning depth of color and bejeweling the entire park.
Alan Bradley ventured out of his hut, and grimaced. Too much rain, he thought. Too much rain and too much heat, after a long summer of both. It wasn’t right. Already wraiths of steam rose up from the ground, as though to give warning. The scientists said it was climate change, caused by us. Global warming.
He stomped off to complete the job interrupted by tense weather’s fit of tears, skirting the lake on his way. Pale carpets of water forget-me-nots seemed to draw their blue straight out of opening portals to a new sky, but from Alan pulled only a frown. They were escapees, creeping out on the rising water table, over what in years past had been dry beds where his dwarf asters had flourished. Now that whole area was degenerating into a marshy wilderness.
Asters weren’t the only casualty of climate. Alan’s mind rotated through its regular litany of the setbacks. Other annuals had been frequently battered from above, until their bright but withering petals lay strewn across the ground like fallen troops in some great Napoleonic battle, fought out all summer. Though denuded of most color, the remaining stems had flown tattered flags in defiance until only about three weeks ago.
And then the Iris reticulata were failing; light, dry soil conditions were essential for their proper spread. Even some of the crocuses seemed to be struggling during the last two or three seasons. It was little compensation that the lilies were expanding their domain and the Magnolia virginiana was prospering. He disliked the cloying scents of both.
He reached his goal, the stand of rowan trees, and felt a familiar tightening of his jaw and a bitterness like bile in his mouth. These slender forms of dark amber topped by autumn clouds of deep purple and copper and flame like a sunset, were a citadel of his psyche’s empire, and they were under siege. It was becoming too warm for mountain ash, and the increasingly waterlogged state of the low-lying park made matters much worse.
The roots of one tree had rotted some time back. After a long fight, he’d lost another to disease last year. Now just four of them remained. Four upon which he concentrated all his care and defense. Yet enemies had slipped in overnight, mounting what looked like a deliberate attack. Flammable liquid was used, its penetrating smell still hanging in the air, together with a heap of rubbish and dead wood piled against one of the rowans.
Alan could hardly contain his rage. But contain it he must, working swiftly to repair the damage and disguise the scene. Hard experience had taught him that if evidence of vandalism was left lying around, it quickly encouraged still more acts of the same. Burnt-out cars were the hardest to deal with; he had to beg for priority on a council tow-truck, not to mention having to dig over and turf those terrible black blotches left blighting the land.
He finished scraping away the charred section of bark. Fortunately the damage was less than he’d feared. He guessed rain had come along to spoil the wanton act of savage youths. One enemy defeating another. At that thought an ironic smile flickered briefly over his lips.
He painted his own recipe of thick gunk over the wound. It contained ingredients to cleanse and nourish the tree, plus it hardened into a protective coating. After digging in some new soil around the root system and removing all traces of the fire and its debris, he stepped back for an appraising view.
No-one would guess what had happened here. Relief unclenched his jaw and his anger dissipated somewhat. It was a close call, but in the end not a fatal incident. Maybe there would be some evidence on the CCTV, he hoped, although he doubted the police would treat the case seriously. They rarely did.
After checking the camera footage and unfortunately finding nothing useful, he spent the rest of his day rather restlessly driving the mower about, assessing the large domain he’d looked after for over ten years now. He fitted in a few odd jobs along the way.
Being a workday, there weren’t many visitors in the park; a few mothers with young children by the lake, a group of shifty teenagers skiving from the local school. He rang the education inspectorate from his hut and gave the latter’s location away. Later, as the light ebbed away, he took a final, long look at the rowans, before heading for home.
* * *
The house was empty, seeming gloomy and cold despite the mild breath of the season. He tried to chase away its shadows and depression by turning on all the lights, also the TV. Then he re-activated the central heating for the first time since last winter, though it wasn’t really necessary yet and the comforting whir of the pump only lasted a couple of minutes, at which point the system decided to lapse into quiescence.
He thought about Gwen, probably having a wild time out in Australia at her sister’s place. Except of course she would still be sleeping at this particular hour. He wished for the umpteenth time they’d had enough money for the whole family to go, not just Gwen and the youngest of their two daughters.
A stab of guilt pained him; perhaps he shouldn’t have worried so much about the budget. Perhaps he should have been bolder and more generous, sweeping them all out there into adventure anyhow. Then again it was him who had lost out. The arrangement suited Abbey, who didn’t seem to like spending a single moment away from the company of her giggling college set or her precious boyfriend. He assumed she was with one or the other right now, possibly both.
Perhaps unreasonably, he felt quite unwanted. At odds with the whole world too.
He perched on the edge of the sofa and dabbed at the PDA he’d forgotten to take along that morning; it was still lying on the coffee table. The warm orange of its display lit up and informed him there was a message. Savoring the moment, he didn’t access it straight away. He put the PDA into projection mode, using a patch of nearby wall as his screen and the table top for a full-sized virtual keyboard.
He still thought of these powerful projection PDAs as new-fangled, but in fact this was an old one cast off by Abbey when she upgraded three years back. She’d impatiently taught him how to work the voice-text and voice-messaging modes as though he was a rather dull child, but he still preferred using a keyboard as he had learned to do on PCs at horticultural college, many years before.
Since that time he’d avoided technology as much as possible, staying outdoors and keeping his fingers in moist earth as often as he could. Gwen ran their home accounts and other domestic computing on her own device. It always amazed him that the little PDAs had a higher performance than any of the older desktop machines used in the Parks Department office, were massively more capable than anything he’d worked with in his student days.
The message was from Julia. He didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. He liked getting text from her very much, but sometimes she just sent jokes or circulars and not proper communication, which often left him feeling strangely flat. With a title that read: “A really wonderful message,” no doubt this was one of those. Today though, it was much better than no contact at all from anyone, he eventually decided, which otherwise would be the case. He opened it.
At first he read swiftly, but the insightful lines snagged at his curiosity and finally captured his full attention. He went back to the beginning and started again, at a rather more measured pace. To his surprise, he felt quite moved by the end. The phrase: “We’ve warmed the climate and chilled our hearts” perfectly expressed the sour emotion that had built up in him all day, acting like a safety valve to relieve internal pressure.
Yes, there was no doubt, it took a chill heart indeed to set fire to a living tree. And the other lines were all so true too! It was amazing no-one else had expressed this stuff before. Perhaps no-one had mustered the courage.
For once he was very glad Julia had forwarded him one of her pearls of wisdom. Most of them were too sappy for him, but this gem of philosophy seemed to shine and it highlighted at last that his frustrations with the modern world were true and real, not just imagined.
The mild depression and loneliness that had settled on him, evaporated. A warm feeling crept over him instead, intensifying almost to elation. The verse had truly inspired him and he felt deeply grateful to Julia for sending it. She was one of his oldest friends and though he saw her quite regularly at the boules club, he recognized it was very kind of her to keep up contact in-between. Despite the nature of some texts she sent, he truly did appreciate it. He dashed off a quick reply to thank her.
Still buoyed up and wanting to share this feeling, he forwarded Dr. Icson’s insights to some of his closer colleagues at work, also the suburban circle they’d known since early baby-sitting days. Then the second surprise-attack of guilt that evening flickered through him. He remembered the end of the verse and wondered when he’d last communicated with Gwen. He hastily wrote a couple of paragraphs for her, and Emily too, emphasizing how much he loved them and missed them, which he certainly did. Having sent these, he relaxed back into the sofa and contemplated the whole ‘Paradox’ message again.
He decided it might calm his frustrations at work to have a printout of it pinned to the wall of his hut, above the place he did the potting. He instructed the PDA, but it came back saying the printer was out of ink once more. The kids monopolized the various peripherals scattered about the house; their only printer inevitably found its way into Abbey’s bedroom for heavy service in support of her art projects. He smiled. It didn’t matter. He’d do it next time he was in the office, or maybe he could get another cartridge on the way home from work tomorrow. He remembered how beautiful and intriguing some of Abbey’s art was, and pride made him glow.
He rose and headed to the kitchen to heat up a microwave dinner, cracking open a beer too. Then he settled back in comfort to watch a good film.
* * *
“Paradox and Truth in Our Era” text: public domain.
Copyright © 2007 by Andy West