Local legend asserts that a puritanical priest once accused an old woman of being a witch. As luck would have it, he was right and she turned him into a tree.
You can’t blame her really.
The tree stood for centuries in the lower field of what is now my farm and served as a playground for generations of children. In my own formative years, it was a wonderland where boys became Blackbeard, Neil Armstrong, Tarzan or whoever else the fancy took them.
We built a tree house on a lower limb. I was 13 when I lured Shirley there. She was a few months older than me and looked like a wet flannel with her lank hair and brace-clad teeth.
One of the gang had liberated magazines from his parents’ bedroom and stashed them in the tree house. Shirley and I spent a few heady hours gawping and giggling at naked people and garnering a few more facts of life than we would ever learn at school.
I think that’s what set her on the path of becoming a fluffer.
The first time I met Jerry Granville, he showed me his cock.
‘This,’ he said, ‘is how I make my living.’
I leapt out of my chair. ‘The rent is six hundred a month with one month’s deposit.’
Jerry popped his cock away. ‘I’m sorry if I frightened you, Mr Delaney. It’s just that most people don’t believe I’m a porn star until they see my prime asset.’
‘It’s all right, Mr Granville,’ I told him. ‘You have excellent references. I really don’t need to see your penis.’
Shirley met Jerry on the set of a porn film. Her job as a fluffer was to help the male stars stay at the ready between takes.
It was while she was cupping Jerry’s balls in one hand and stroking his dick with the other that she thought to herself: this is the man I want to marry.
So my childhood sweetheart and her porn star husband became my tenants. They moved into the old cottage that sits in the valley below my farmhouse and there was many a night when I looked out of my bedroom window and pictured myself living there with Shirley Granville as my wife. I wouldn’t have minded that she fiddled with other men’s bits for a living. Just so long as we could share our lives, our loves and hopes and fears. Grow old together. Have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.
But it was not to be. The only girl I’d ever truly loved was someone else’s wife and comfort.
It didn’t seem fair.
For as long as I could, I avoided Shirley. When I was in my fields, I kept my back to the cottage for fear of catching a glimpse of her. I counted every day I didn’t see her as a good day, though it was a matter of much hurt to me that she never sought me out. Did I mean so little to her she couldn’t even bother dropping by ?
And then one day, she did.
I’d just finished supper when there came a knocking on my front door. It was a queer time to be calling and I couldn’t think who it could be. (In truth, it was not yet nine o’clock, but to a soul who rises at five every morning, that seems an indecently late hour to have one’s peace disturbed.)
For a perplexing moment, I did not recognise her though she was somehow familiar. With her jeans and baggy sweater and her face devoid of make-up, she was far from plain but neither did she have the raunch you’d expect of someone in her profession.
Then the penny dropped and my mind lurched into a new paradigm. ‘Shirley?’
‘Hello, Shaun.’ She smiled a Hollywood smile and I was reminded of the brace she used to wear. ‘Long time, no see.’
We sat in the kitchen, drinking gooseberry wine and unravelling the years. Talk was a time machine as we relived the golden days of our childhood. Memories so neglected they had become as tenuous as morning mist solidified once more.
Giggling like schoolchildren, we talked about the tree house and its library of purloined magazines.
Shirley mentioned the cigarette we’d shared and immediately I tasted the tobacco in my throat and suppressed a sympathetic cough for my adolescent self. And that memory triggered another memory: the rainy afternoon when we’d taken refuge in the tree house and she smelt of peppermint and strawberry .
‘You remember that?’ I asked. ‘When we tried kissing?’
‘You’d eaten red liquorice and looked like you were wearing lipstick.’
‘You didn’t say anything about it at the time.’
Shirley shrugged. ‘I liked the taste.’
‘But not the kiss?’
‘I was disappointed but…’ She hesitated. Suddenly she was serious. I could see in her eyes she was making a calculation about whether to speak or shut up.
‘What?’ I prompted. ‘But… what?’
‘It was all I could think off from then until the summer holiday.’
Ah, the summer holiday of that magical year when I turned 14 and spent a month in a caravan on the Isle of Sheppey. I met a girl there. Her name was Pam. We kept in touch by letter until I left school. Then I journeyed to Essex to ask for her hand in marriage.
I never knew where Shirley holidayed that year, and I never thought to ask.
We drank more gooseberry wine and talked about this and that and everything and nothing and for the first time since Pam’s illness, I felt life’s wonder flowing through me.
We drifted on languid tones into the early hours of day. A sudden drop in temperature told me dawn was approaching and I should be pulling on my Wellington boots and preparing to trudge through puddles of liquid excrement to round up the herd and bring them in for milking.
Why are you still here? I wondered, looking at Shirley. She was flagging. Should have been in bed hours ago. Snuggled up with her husband.
‘So,’ I said, topping up Shirley’s glass with the dregs of our fourth bottle of gooseberry wine, ‘how’s married life treating you?’
She shook her weary, sleep-deprived head. ‘Awful. Just awful.’
‘No!’ She waved away her words. ‘Forget I said that. I love Jerry. Everything’s wonderful. I couldn’t ask for a better husband.’
‘Leave it, Shaun. You wouldn’t understand.’
I drove Shirley to the cottage in my Land Rover. My eyes were on her more than the road. And I was thinking to myself: I loved you when no other boy would even look at you. I’ve spent my adult life thinking things aren’t right because there’s something missing, something that should be here but isn’t. And that something is you and you’ve gone and married someone who fucks other people for a living and I saw you last night and I sensed you understanding that we both took the wrong path at a crucial time in our lives.
I love you Shirley and I don’t really understand what that means beyond knowing that whatever keeps us apart is wrong, wrong, wrong…
‘Goodnight, Shirley,’ I said, pulling up outside the cottage. Wordlessly, she staggered through the front door. No need for a key in this part of rural England.
The oak tree was a silhouette. It triggered a memory of the day my parents had died in a car crash and I’d taken refuge in its branches, determined to stay there until someone owned up to playing such a ghastly joke on me. That in turn led me to recall something strange that happened when I was living in the cottage with Aunt Clarice and Uncle Tony.
It was a couple of years after I’d met Pam, my future wife. To be precise, it was Halloween.
Autumn had arrived in uncompromising fashion and the leaves on the oak competed with each other to produce the wildest splash of colours.
It was a time when change was everywhere and not just in the fields and forests and hedgerows. My schooldays were over and I was working full time on the farm under the tutelage of Uncle Tony. The farm was mine but my uncle had charge until he was satisfied I could run things for myself.
That night, Halloween was as it should be. The wind busily shepherded clouds across the sky. One moment the moon was hidden, the next shining bright.
I was at my bedside table, writing a letter to Pam. We hadn’t seen each other since the Isle of Sheppey but had kept in touch by letter and phone. In a biscuit tin beneath my bed were all the photographs she’d sent me. They were a pictorial history of her transformation from a boyish fourteen year old into a fetching young woman.
Because it seemed the romantic thing to do, I wrote by candlelight.
Through the window, I could see the top of the oak tree: a silhouette edged with moonlight silver. And it entered my head that I should carve a heart in its sturdy trunk. A heart with an arrow and Pam’s initials. It seemed to me midnight on Halloween would be the perfect time to create such a monument to my love. In which case, I hadn’t a moment to lose; midnight was minutes away.
Hastily, I pulled jeans and a jumper over my pyjamas and put on my shoes. I grabbed my sheath knife then opened the window.
The wind burst into my room with mischievous glee, causing the pages of my letter to dance in the air like insects in a courtship ritual. With a wild flicker, the candle went out and moonlight reigned supreme.
I launched myself onto the roof of the old outhouse. Then it was a quick shimmy down the drainpipe and I was running across the back yard towards the old oak tree.
I felt alive. Exhilarated. The wind grabbed the laughter from my mouth and tossed it about like confetti.
I was halfway across the field when I noticed something that stopped me in my tracks.
A shadowy form clung to the tree right where I intended to make my mark. This being Halloween and me being young and fanciful, I entertained the idea that a demon was at large.
I crouched and moved in slowly. Man, beast, devil or angel – whatever it was - I had a mission to fulfil.
As I came closer and my eyes adjusted to the dark, the thing took on a less sinister aspect. I saw dark hair and a black smock.
Closer still, I saw the creature’s face and felt a thrill of recognition. It was Shirley Connor - but not the Shirley Connor with whom I had played show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
After the summer of our tree house trysts, we had drifted apart. I was vaguely aware she was dating other boys but the knowledge had zero emotional impact on me. My heart belonged to Pam.
Somewhere along the way, Shirley had grown and I hadn’t noticed. Not only had she grown, she’d blossomed. Right there and then, I fell in love with her.
But what was she doing in the middle of a field at the witching hour? Why was she clinging to that tree, her smock hitched up at the front? And why the strange movements?
I hurried back to the cottage. Back to the sanctuary of my bedroom.
As I climbed into bed, I thought I heard Shirley scream but told myself it was just the wind.
For days afterwards, I remained confused. Though I wanted my dreams to be of Pam, it was Shirley who haunted them. And when I was awake, I was plagued by images of her clinging to that tree. I tried mightily to make sense of what I’d seen, but my mind refused to engage with the facts.
Eventually, I gathered up my courage and went to the oak. I recall the dryness of my throat and the hammering of my heart as I approached that ancient tree. It was a tree that had been there throughout my childhood and I thought I knew its lower reaches in quite some detail. But there – right where Shirley had performed what I believed to be a pagan dance – was a feature I had never noticed before. It was a gnarly protrusion, a stunted outgrowth devoid of bark.
And it was unmistakably phallic.
Years passed. I married Pam. We tried and failed to have children. And then she took ill and died.
People said I should remarry. I always said it’s too soon. And they’d nod understandingly and tell me my pain would ease and one day I’d find myself a good woman and be happy again.
But the pain grew and I could tell no one the horrid truth – that I didn’t grieve for Pam. Only for Shirley, the girl I should have married.
She and her parents had left the locality as soon as the education system had finished with her. Nobody seemed to know where they’d gone.
Whenever I saw the oak tree, I thought of her and wondered what she was doing with her life.
Well, now I knew. She was married to a porn star and was living in the cottage that had been my childhood home.
What a bastard Fate is. A clever, witty bastard; ironic and cruel.
Mr and Mrs. Jerry Granville went away for a couple of weeks to work on a film.
At their request, I visited the cottage each day to collect their post and check all was well. Every second in that cosy love nest was purgatory and I stayed no longer than I had to.
I knew if I ventured into the living room and saw one thing that was his it would be like a hot poker skewering my heart.
Then came that Sunday. I should have gone to church but I was in no mood to commune with my maker. Let others listen to the trite platitudes of the Reverend Morris. Let others sing about God being their shelter from the stormy blast.
I planned to get roaring drunk.
My mission was swiftly accomplished and as the bells in Dingle Marsh rang for morning service, I marched to the cottage, bottle of illegal hooch in hand, singing Onward Christian Soldiers. I entered the cottage heedless of the fact that my boots were covered in liquefied cow shit.
When I’d started drinking, it hadn’t been my intention to invade the cottage. But alcohol feeds perversity and before I knew it I was at the top of the stairs facing the door to the master bedroom.
Don’t do it, I told myself. You’ll regret it for the rest of your days.
You have to know, said the alcohol. Confront your demons, Shaun Delaney. Or they’ll never go away.
Common sense was never a match for hooch. I pushed open the door, half-expecting to see the bedroom of my boyhood.
The bed was scarcely visible beneath a mountain of skimpy underwear, rubber clothing, whips and manacles. Handcuffs dangled from picture hooks. The mantelpiece was lined with dildos, vibrators, butt plugs, electric fannies, cock restraints and nipple clamps.
Oh bloody double fuck. Why the hell did I have to go poking my nose into other people’s business like that? I might just as well have performed open heart surgery on myself with a rusty can opener.
Cursing myself for a fool, I staggered out of the cottage and made a beeline for the oak tree.
I sat with my back against the trunk. Autumn leaves crunched beneath my arse as I made myself comfortable.
There were a few mouthfuls of hooch left. I finished them and tossed the bottle aside.
Sleep, that blessed release from the cares of the world, began to descend like a theatre curtain. As my head lolled to one side, I saw the gnarly protrusion with which Shirley had fornicated all those years ago. And then I was asleep and lost in dreams of acorns, butt plugs and nipple clamps.
When Shirley and her husband returned, my hatred for Jerry grew and grew. So did my loathing of the tree – or at least that part which had penetrated my one true love.
One night, under the influence of alcohol, I fetched an axe, sharpened it on a whetstone and admired its wicked edge. The face reflected in the blade belonged to a maniac with a five day beard.
Whistling tunelessly, I set off down the road intent on separating Jerry Granville from his pecker.
The sobering effects of the night air allowed a modicum of rationality to take root. And I got to thinking maybe I should spare Jerry - at least until I’d devised a surer way to be rid of him. After all, chopping off his todger wasn’t guaranteed to kill him and there was every chance he’d be surgically reunited with his John Thomas. But my blood cried for vengeance and I loathed the idea of having sharpened an axe for no good reason.
Up ahead, I saw the mighty oak and knew what I had to do.
A dark cloud obscured all but a sliver of the moon, so I was almost upon the oak, axe raised and ready to strike, before I realised I was not alone.
Shirley’s naked body was pressed against the tree trunk. Her buttocks heaved back and forth, each movement accompanied by a grunt. Her hands stroked bark as if to stimulate it.
I dropped the axe.
Her movements became wilder and more vigorous, until with three cries of yes! she reached a shuddering orgasm. And then she rested against the trunk, her breath seeming to modulate the breeze, the sweat on her back glinting in the moonlight.
‘Shirley.’ Her name came unbidden to my lips.
She span around. Her love-making had left her too weak to run. All she could do was lean against the tree and look at me with defiance in her eyes.
‘It’s not my fault,’ she sighed, her breasts rising and falling like flotsam on a calm sea. ‘Not my fault.’
‘I know,’ I said, though I knew no such thing.
‘Not my fault at all.’
Without asking if I might, I picked her up. On the way to the farmhouse, she dozed in my arms.
I draped my raincoat round her and sat her in the kitchen. Then I lit the fire and made coffee.
For a while, neither of us said anything. Just sipped our coffee and gazed at each other across the table.
Finally, she spoke. ‘You must think me an insane slut.’
‘It’s not the first time, Shaun.’
‘I know.’ I told her about that Halloween night all those years ago.
‘I sensed someone was watching,’ she said, ‘I’m glad it was you. And now, I suppose, you want to know why I did it?’
‘You don’t have to tell me.’
‘I was ugly.’
‘Damn it, woman. There’s no one in these parts half as beautiful as you.’
‘Then why did you ignore me? You went away on holiday – to the Isle of Sheppey, wasn’t it? – and when you came back, you barely acknowledged my existence.’
‘It wasn’t like that.’ But it was and I knew it. ‘There was this girl I’d met.’
‘I know. One of the villagers in Dingle Marsh told me. You married her. It’s OK, Shaun. I understand. From what I hear, she was quite a beauty. And me? I was a real Plain Jane.
‘There’s a belief in these parts concerning that old oak of yours. People say if a girl surrenders her maidenhead to it at midnight on Halloween, the tree will reward her with the gift of beauty.’
‘Is that why you returned to the area? Because of that damned tree?’
She lowered her eyes. ‘I had many reasons for coming back, but the tree wasn’t one of them. In fact, it was the reason I went away. It was a constant reminder of things I’d rather forget.’
‘And yet tonight...’
‘Tonight I made love to it again.’
‘Because I was frustrated.’
I found that hard to believe. ‘Your husband is a porn star. On his website, he boasts he can keep it up all night.’
‘When I fluffed Jerry, his eyes were never on me. He was always looking at one of his fellow studs. I convinced myself all he needed was a good woman to set him right.’ She laughed a short, bitter laugh. ‘I thought I could cure him of being gay.’
Shirley took up my offer of the spare bedroom. In my own room, I moved my bed against the wall to be as close to her as decency permitted.
It took three glasses of whisky to still my thoughts and ease me into sleep.
The following day, I popped my head into the spare bedroom to see if Shirley was still there.
She lay outside the covers, using her hands for a pillow.
After I milked the cows and fed the chickens, I made a mug of tea and sat on the tree trunk I used for chopping wood. My head ached from too little sleep and too much alcohol. I felt lonely, bitter and confused.
Then I looked up and saw Pam. My dead wife was strolling down the lane, dressed in the jeans and duffel coat she wore when helping on the farm.
I felt a momentary frisson of delight, the way a person does when they chance upon a long lost friend. But reality was quick to slap my face and I recalled the clothes I’d left out for Shirley.
So there she was. The love of my life. In my late wife’s clobber, heading to my childhood home to be with a man who neither desired nor deserved her.
It could have been my cue to crack open a fresh bottle of hooch. But life had pushed me as far as I was willing to be pushed. It was time to push back.
I had no way of knowing when Shirley would next visit the oak tree but I was certain she would yield to its charms again. If not this night, then some other.
Whenever it happened, I would be there waiting to plight my troth. To tell her I loved her with a strength and certainty not even a mighty oak could match. Then I’d show her that a tree is no substitute for the love of a good man.
With these thoughts in mind, I set off for the oak tree. I was wood, most definitely wood. But I was also steel. Nothing, but nothing, could deter me or weaken my resolve.
I snuck into the front garden of the cottage. Around the side. Across the back yard.
The moon was high and bright. I smelt pollen in the air. And manure and compost too.
An owl hooted. A cricket chirped. And by the light of a silvery moon, I saw the husband of my beloved lower his trousers and present his arse to an ancient tree.
Bending almost double, he spread his bum cheeks and backed slowly towards the trunk. I could clearly see the contortions of his face as he impaled himself on the phallic stump.
His mouth opened into a big O and gave vent to a groan which rapidly morphed into something like a howl.
Jerry remained still as his sphincter adjusted to being stretched to its extreme limits. And then he moved his hips slowly back and forth.
Eyes closed, hands on knees, he uttered a litany of entreaties and names. ‘Yes, Mick. Take me, take me. Vinny! Do it harder! I don’t mind if it hurts! Pierre! You big French bastard!’
His prick was at full attention and for a moment, I formed the fancy that it was part of the tree, that a limb from the oak had speared his arse and erupted through his groin.
A voice whispered in my ear. ‘You see how it is, Shaun.’
Shirley stood beside me. Dressed in a white chiffon nightdress which rippled in the breeze, she had the ethereal quality of a wayward spirit.
‘The man’s an abomination.’
‘He is what he is, Shaun. It’s not his fault.’
The axe I’d dropped the night before lay on the ground. I bent to pick it up but Shirley forestalled me.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Don’t spoil the tree’s pleasure.’
Turning my back on Jerry, I put a protective arm around her. ‘You shouldn’t have to see this. I’ll take you back to the cottage.’
‘But it’s such a beautiful night. Let’s stay out for a while.’ She pressed her body against mine and wrapped her arms around me.
I looked down at her adorable face and before I knew it, my lips were on hers and Nature took its blessed, exhilarating, rutting course.
There was no finesse about our lovemaking. She yanked at my jeans, causing buttons to fly and my prick to spring up like a stepped-on rake. I hitched up her night gown and tore off her panties.
Maybe she pulled me to the ground; maybe I pushed her and followed her down. It was all a hazy blur. I don’t even remember the moment of entry, but there I was inside her, my first and only true love, pounding away, losing myself in her flesh, her scent, her warmth.
We came simultaneously. Me roaring like a lion, her screaming like a shriek owl.
Something howled back. At first I thought it was a wolf, though there were none in these parts. Then I wondered if it wasn’t some spirit roused from its slumber by the force of our lovemaking.
As my mind drifted down from its orgasmic high, I realised we’d heard Jerry reaching his own crisis.
I rolled onto my back and saw him fall to his knees. I swear there was something green and sticky dripping from his prick. It looked like tree sap.
After that night, the pretence was over. With Jerry’s blessing, Shirley moved in with me.
I helped him clear the bedroom of all the deviant toys he’d bought Shirley as a substitute for what he couldn’t provide. We burned what we could and fed the rest to my mulching machine.
At night, I often watched from my bedroom window as a figure crept from the cottage to the tree. And sometimes when I heard strange noises, I wondered if it was Jerry or just an owl.
Shirley stayed away from the tree though I often saw her looking wistfully in its direction. I made it plain I had no objection to her partaking of its services but she told me not to be silly.
And though I was happy for her to go on fluffing, she decided it was time to retire. ‘I’m in my mid-thirties. For a woman in the world of erotic entertainment, that’s practically geriatric.’
So we settled into a cosy routine and life was good.
One evening, we were having a roast dinner. A fire roared in the grate and the aromas of well-cooked food hung in the air.
Halfway through the main course, the telephone in the hallway rang and Shirley got hurriedly to her feet. ‘You keep eating, Shaun. I’ll be back in a minute.’
I was too intent on helping myself to roast spuds and meat to listen in on the call. But I don’t think Shirley said much anyway. Just ‘uh-uh’, ‘I see’ and the like.
In any case it was a short call.
As she returned to the dining room, she was putting on her coat. ‘That was Jerry. He sounded upset. Wants me to come down to the cottage immediately.’
‘I thought he was filming in Wales?’
‘He was. But he’s back early.’
‘What about your dinner?’
‘I’ll have it when I come back.’ She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘I’m sorry, Shaun. He really needs me.’
‘Do you want me to come with you?’
‘You stay and enjoy your meal.’
My evening ruined, I opened a fresh bottle of wine and took it out to the back yard.
It was a fine night. Autumn was beginning to show itself and stars dusted the sky.
Sitting on the chopping stump, I swigged wine and reflected that I was one lucky man. In a way, I was glad Shirley had gone to help her estranged husband. It showed she had a heart. A warm tender heart that belonged to me.
Down in the valley, the oak tree stood in its field, just as it had on the day I’d been born. I raised my wine bottle in salute to that wooden colossus and wished it many more centuries of life.
The fire in the kitchen had died down when Shirley came back. Her dinner was in the oven but her look as she threw her coat over a chair told me she was in no mood for food.
She held up a small video cassette. I recognised the format as mini-DV. ‘Will you fetch the video camera,’ she said without so much as a hello or how was your evening? ‘There’s something you have to see.’
As I sat at the kitchen table watching the tape on my camcorder, Shirley paced behind me. The tape contained unedited shots from Jerry’s latest film and she’d run it on to what in the porno trade is called a cash shot. To you or I that’s where the male star shoots his wad.
In this case, Jerry was taking aim at the face of an adorable blonde with a button nose. She was on her knees with Jerry standing in front of her, pumping himself to an orgasm. The young lady opened her mouth in anticipation. Seconds later, Jerry yelled ‘I’m coming!’ and ejaculated. Most of it splashed on to her left cheek but some of it landed in her mouth.
I paused the tape.
Shirley saw my look of bewilderment. ‘No, Shaun,’ she said. ‘Your eyes do not deceive you.’
I set the video running again. Whatever had shot out of Jerry’s penis was not semen. It was green and sticky. Like tree sap.
As the girl in the video realised something wasn’t right, her face registered first bafflement then fear and finally disgust. She screamed blue murder.
I turned the camera off.
‘My God! That was truly horrible.’
‘He has a permanent erection,’ Shirley said, ‘And that stuff keeps oozing out of the end of it.’
‘It’s that damned tree. This is what he gets for sticking things where things have no right to be stuck.’
‘Of course it’s the end of his career as a porn star. Even if whatever he’s got clears up, nobody in the business is going to go anywhere near his cock. And in the meantime, he’s got a belligerent stiffy that won’t stand down.’
‘It must be really painful. Has he tried the obvious?’
‘Without success. He thinks he knows how to get rid of his wood, but he needs your help.’
I suppressed a shudder. ‘You’re not going to ask me to fluff him?’
‘Of course not. He just wants you to drill a hole.’
So there I was, in the middle of the night with my tool box, drilling a hole in a tree and enlarging it with a chisel.
Jerry stood behind me. His impressively-proportioned todger poked out of the fly of his trousers. Every now and then, he wiped it with a tissue to get rid of the sap. He’d gotten through two boxes of Kleenex and was halfway through a third when he started slapping his manhood.
‘I do wish you wouldn’t do that,’ I told him. ‘Makes it hard for a man to concentrate.’
‘The damned thing’s covered in greenfly. Lord only knows where they’re coming from.’
I got my metal ruler and checked the dimensions of the hole. ‘That looks about right, if you want to give it a try.’
Jerry rushed to the tree trunk.
‘Careful,’ I warned. ‘There could be splinters.’
‘Oh yes,’ said Jerry, a look of relief on his face as he got the first couple of inches into the trunk. ‘It’s a bit tight but it should just about do.’
‘Perhaps I should have lubricated it.’
‘No need. There’s plenty of sap.’ With a grunt, Jerry sheathed his weapon to the hilt and began thrusting.
Embarrassed, I contrived to find something interesting about the contents of my tool box.
Jerry’s grunts were all I needed to tell me where he was in his love-making. At first they were soft and unhurried. Getting louder and faster, until – with a sudden scream that scared the crap out of me – he shot his wad.
‘Oh lordy, lordy, lordy,’ he muttered. ‘The relief.’
I heard a soft plop as he withdrew his pecker from the tree.
But that, alas, was not the end of Jerry’s troubles. Every night, just before midnight, he would get a boner which nothing but a visit to the tree could alleviate. At other times, when his prick was flaccid, sap oozed from its tip, causing him to smell like newly mown grass. Wherever he went, greenfly followed.
As Shirley had predicted, he was effectively finished as a porn star but that was the least of his problems.
He pointed to a patch of rough skin on the inside of his thigh. ‘What would you say that was, Mr Delaney?’
I bent down to get a closer look. ‘It looks like eczema, Jerry.’
‘That’s what I thought. But it’s not.’
‘You could be right. Eczema isn’t usually brown, is it?’
‘Touch it, Mr Delaney.’
Reluctantly, I placed the tip of my finger on the rough skin. ‘It feels hard and – well…’
‘Go on,’ urged Jerry. ‘Say what it feels like.’
‘I think you’d best get a medical opinion.’
‘It feels like wood, doesn’t it?’
‘I’m afraid it does, Jerry.’
‘To be precise: like bark.’
‘Aye,’ I agreed. ‘It definitely feels like bark.’
To my relief, Jerry pulled his trousers up. ‘Yesterday it was half the size. And the day before, half the size again.’
‘It’s probably not what it looks like.’
‘You think so? Take a look at this.’ From his jacket pocket, he took a pen knife and opened it out. Before I could stop him, he ran the blade across the back of his arm. Green slime oozed from the wound. ‘See that, Mr Delaney? That’s my blood.’
He was alarmingly calm.
‘I want you to do me a favour,’ he said, putting his knife away. ‘I want you to keep this a secret between ourselves. It’s best Shirley doesn’t know.’
‘I’d go away if I could. But I need the tree.’ For a moment, he looked like he was going to cry. ‘I’m going to hide in the cottage until I’ve got this thing fixed. Tell Shirley I’ve booked into a clinic and expect to make a full recovery.’
‘I’ll do that, Jerry.’
‘Thank you, Mr Delaney. You’re a good man.’
One evening, there came a storm.
The wind threw a tantrum. It rattled windows and caused every timber in the farmhouse to creak and groan. From outside came the chaotic sounds of things being torn apart and smashing into walls.
Shirley and I huddled on the settee in the living room. Each bang caused her to jump and me to wonder if I’d still have a farm in the morning.
Every hour or so, I had to leave Shirley to check my livestock. When I did so, I took my life in my hands as I dodged flying debris and falling roof tiles.
Things got worse just before midnight when the rain got in on the act. From the living room window, I watched my back yard turn into a pool of mud.
Shirley by this time was in bits. I did my best to reassure her. Told her I’d seen out worse storms and we had nothing to fear.
As if to call me a liar, from upstairs came an almighty crash. It was followed by the sound of something landing heavily.
I rushed upstairs and - fighting the wind – pushed open the bedroom door. As soon as I was through, the door slammed shut again.
There was a branch on the floor. The wind had tossed it into the room and destroyed the window in the process. Broken glass lay everywhere.
The window looked out over the valley. I could see the cottage and took some comfort from noting that the roof seemed intact.
To the right of the cottage, the oak defied wind and rain. It will lose a few branches, I thought, but will shrug this storm of like I shrug off an April shower.
A moment later, lightning swept from the sky and sliced through the tree. There was a crack like a rifle shot and flames erupted from the canopy. The tree trembled as some of its massive limbs cascaded to the ground.
And then the wind, with the hardest gust of the night, lay into the tree. As the smouldering oak tipped over, I saw a figure run from beneath its branches. Its gait and movements reminded of a wooden marionette.
The storm finally abated and we grabbed what sleep we could in the spare bedroom.
When the alarm clock rang, I switched it off, afraid it would wake Shirley. But she was dead to the world and would have slept through the Last Trump.
I, on the other hand, could not afford the luxury of further sleep. Today looked set to be the busiest of my life and the sooner I got cracking the better.
The animals were my first priority. I had them milked, fed and mucked out in record time. Thankfully all had survived unscathed though the chickens seemed somewhat subdued.
Working like a Trojan, I patched roofs and mended fences and walls. Few of the repairs were likely to last but they would do for now.
Shirley got up in time to join me for lunch. Having escaped – in her eyes – certain death, she was in a buoyant mood and talked about the previous night’s events the way a football supporter would talk about a great match. For her, the only downside was the demise of the oak tree. She spoke of it in the hushed tones of an undertaker.
As I finished up my cottage pie, she mentioned her husband. ‘I’m glad he’s in that clinic. It would have been terrible for him to have been alone in his cottage last night.’
With a flash of guilt, I realised I’d forgotten all about Jerry. ‘I’m going to see if the tree can be saved,’ I lied.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Shirley.
‘Too dangerous. One of those branches could drop off at any time. Let me make it safe and then you can have a look.’
‘OK. I suppose I ought to get on with the housework. It’s going to take a while to get that bedroom sorted.’
The road to the cottage was effectively a river of mud, so I drove down in my tractor. When I got there, the front door was open.
I searched the cottage. There was no sign of Jerry.
Well, I thought, if he ain’t here there’s only one other place he’s likely to be.
I sloshed my way across the back yard and navigated the lower field, each step hindered by clinging mud.
Even on its side, the oak remained impressive. Its exposed roots reached as high as a two storey house. If its trunk had been hollow, I could have stood inside it.
I walked around the tree, half expecting to see Jerry trapped beneath a branch. Perhaps unconscious. Maybe even dead.
From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw movement. I turned but could see nothing out of the ordinary. And then another movement drew my attention to a well-camouflaged figure lying on the fallen trunk. It was Jerry, his skin completely turned to bark. Little green shoots had taken the place of his hair, and leaves grew from the tips of his fingers.
He was clinging to the oak, his groin directly over the hole I’d made for him.
He looked at me with green eyes loaded with misery and despair. When he spoke, I could see his teeth were the colour of freshly-stripped willow. ‘Help me, Shaun,’ he said. ‘We have to save the tree!’
I have never felt so wretched as when I had to tell Jerry the shocking truth. ‘We can’t save the tree. It’s too far gone.’
‘No!’ Jerry wailed. He pounded his fists against the oak’s unyielding bark. ‘Live, you bastard! Live!’
I put off getting rid of the tree for as long as I could.
By day, Jerry hid in the woods. And every night, around midnight, he would come creeping across the lower field, climb onto the fallen tree and hump it for all his worth.
The tree clung to life longer than expected but after two months it started to rot. Once the decay began, it accelerated, and soon the wood was so far gone it crumbled to the touch.
Finally, I could put off its removal no longer and hired a contractor.
The night before the tree was to be taken away and mulched, I waited for Jerry beside its putrid hulk.
At midnight, he came scurrying from the woods and did what he had to. I don’t think he noticed my presence until he climbed off the trunk.
It was hard to read the expression on his wooden face, but I think it was philosophical. ‘You’re here to tell me that the tree’s going, aren’t you?’
‘I’m sorry, Jerry. But I have no choice.’
‘It’s OK. What must be must be.’
As he walked back to the woods, I thought I would never see him again. I was wrong.
The next day, Shirley and I watched a gang of workmen attack the tree with chainsaws. They laid into it like army ants, hacking off limbs and slicing the trunk into manageable segments.
Diggers, grabbers, cranes and a bulldozer carried off the pieces and dumped them onto a fleet of lorries.
The operation was carried out with ruthless efficiency and was over by lunch time.
As the last lorry took away the last of the tree, I turned to hide my tears.
Shirley put her arms around me. ‘So brutal,’ she pronounced. ‘I know it’s silly, but I wish we could have given it a decent burial.’
Without its mighty oak, the field looked as empty as my heart felt. ‘All things pass,’ I told her, as if that was any consolation.
‘You have to plant another tree, Shaun. Even if we never see it fully grown, our children will. And their children too.’
It was the first time she’d ever mentioned having children. ‘The day our first child is born,’ I said, ‘I’ll plant a new oak and they can grow together.’
A tightening of her grip signalled her approval.
That night, Shirley talked about Jerry. She still believed he was convalescing in some remote clinic and it troubled her that she hadn’t heard from him for so long.
We sat in the kitchen, drinking gooseberry wine. As we chatted in an unhurried, freewheeling manner about everything and nothing, it felt like the years had rolled back and we were in the tree house again, discovering new things about each other and life in general.
After we’d done talking about the past, we talked about the future.
Shirley said as soon as Jerry came back – and she was sure he would – she’d start divorce proceedings.
‘I don’t want a child out of wedlock,’ she announced. ‘If our children are to know right from wrong, we have to set an example.’
We slipped into bed at 1 in the morning. Shirley immediately fell asleep and I lay beside her, luxuriating in her warmth and listening to the lullaby of her breathing.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Jerry. Was he out there, pining for his oak? Or was he running around the woods, brushing greenfly from his swollen prick and looking for a tree to fuck?
Poor Jerry. He must have been the loneliest man in the world.
For once, Shirley was up before me. She stood at the window, her marvellous form silhouetted by the rising sun.
Fuddled with sleep, I sat up in bed and checked the alarm clock. I had ten minutes grace before I needed to be up. On any other morning, my thoughts would have turned to what Shirley and I could do in that ten minutes. But I sensed sex was the furthest thing from her mind.
She was, I knew, gazing down at the lower field, mourning the loss of our tree.
‘Good morning,’ I said, slipping out of bed.
She turned her head, smiled briefly and then returned to her gazing. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t sleep.’
Standing behind her, I placed my arms around her waist and kissed her neck.
Shirley sighed. ‘We will be all right, won’t we, Shaun?’
‘Of course we will.’
‘And everything’s going to be fine?’
‘I promise you, Shirley. Everything’s going to be more than fine.’
‘It’s probably a trick of the light,’ she said, ‘but it looks like there’s something down there. Right where the tree used to stand.’
It was hard to make out in the twilight, but she seemed to be right. I thought I could see the silhouette of a man. There again, it might have been a random shadow.
After breakfast, my conscience compelled me to go look for Jerry.
When I reached the lower field, the shadow that had intrigued Shirley was still there. But now, with daylight firmly established, I could see it had solid form.
It was in fact a young oak tree, standing in the spot recently vacated by its much older sibling. From a certain angle, it looked almost human.
I noted the phallic outgrowth halfway up its trunk. It’s size and shape reminded me of my first meeting with Jerry when he had proudly whipped out his cock.
Now I knew I didn’t have to worry about him any more. He was going to be just fine.