Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Mort Legger had come to regard the London suburban Avenue that he lived in religiously. It was as finally tree-lined gentle ascent to a small plateau. Since Mort lived at the bottom, his eyes, were, willy-nilly, turned up wards. So perhaps his gaze, over the years that he had lived here, had, by dint of seeming pious, become so.

Mort Legger’s Avenue was not at true avenue, nor was it, anywhere other than in Mort’s imaginings, in any sense religious or possessed of any sacred significance. It had trees growing along both sides of it, through the pavements in front of the mainly semi-detached houses that made it up; but the trees were not evenly spaced now, although they could once have been, perhaps when the street was originally planned and planted. As the majority of the trees were London planes, which could easily grow fifty feet in height before a baby human had had time to become an adult, it seemed likely that many more had stood together, before the shell bursts and snipers had thinned them out.

Sometimes new replacement trees were planted, sometimes gaps were left. Most recently, the Council had implanted many slim young trees of species unknown to Mort. These novices were not always up to the job. Early one afternoon Mort had stepped outside his front door. This event was usually responded to the announcement “CAW” from one or other of the crows perched on neighbouring roofs. On this particular occasion as a strong gust from an unseasonable late May gale blew down the Avenue, Mort heard a “CRACK” followed immediately by the ripping, tearing sounds of severance.

Mort recognised these sounds because the last time that he had heard them, he had lifted the rip-saw in his hand from, a partially cut Medlar tree bough. Crude saw’n’axe surgery by Mort made the main tree unable to sustain the weight of the branch which crashed down from it into a lawn in a cloud of dust, twigs, leaves and dislodged insects.

In the May gale Mort saw the storm, rip a young council-planted tree which had had a trunk thicker than one of Mort’s legs, into two parts. A shattered stump still rooted in the ground, and the fully-leaved, blooming wide crown of the tree which crashed to the pavement and into the roadway in another unremembered and happening confusion of dust, twigs, leaves and dislodged insects. And knocking over grey plastic council wheelie bins, like a fictionally slow motion gangster, being shot with fake bullets up the end of an alley in a bad movie.

At the time Mort contemplated going to his garage and getting out his timber saw to scavenge bits of tree for potential sculpture, but he didn’t because his sculpture vulture belly was already overfull. By three hours later when he limped back up the road dragging an overloaded shopping trolley from the supermarket, the Council had purged all evidence that the tree’s fall had been due to storm damage. Only a cleanly cut off tree stump was still there. Mort mused that many taboos seemed to have vanished from British social mores in his lifetime, but death, money and even some aspects of sex remained out of bounds for polite middleclass conversation.; perhaps now with the impending impact of global climate change, the fact that humans might be exposed to danger from weather, and could not be protected from it by their own pompous political, devices might be a fact that Council lorries and chainsaws could attempt to sprees.

So that is how gaps and irregularities in the Avenue began and perhaps persisted as trees were or not replaced.

Mort assumed that the London plane, an Iberian immigrant, which was now the majority large species in the Avenue, had always been in the majority. Unlike some nearby roads which maybe ran along old field boundaries, so that an occasional oak, which might be two hundred years old or older, survived in a pavement or front garden. The only tree’s in Mort’s avenue that might have predated the planes, were two tall willows. Until ten or fifteen years ago there had been three of them.

Willows had a notorious hearsay reputation for thirst and Mort supposed that one of the three had inserted a guzzling tap root into a main drain or an underground stream or something, and that it had thus threatened the structural stability of the house it grew nearest to, or the integrity of the road itself.

It took the Council three years to get rid of that willow tree; the whole operation had many inexact parallels with some twenty first century neo-imperialist wars. A massive shock and awe offensive was mounted with seemingly invincible and unresisted force. Tree surgeons had hung down from ropes and in one afternoon filled with the racket and smell of their chainsaws, removed the branches of the willow and sliced its thirty foot trunk into sections. The tree became logs and sawdust; it was put into trailers and lorries and taken away.

A year later and it was clear that the stump that was left behind had been neither sufficiently shocked nor awestruck, but that the impact of the first attack on it had actually made it re-group, re-organise and counterattack. The initial Council offensive had had the paradoxical consequence of shortening an over-extended enemies' lines of supply and a pressing motive to resist existential threat. Or to put it less portentously, and militarily, any gardener knows that a good way to simulate growth is to cut a plant back hard.  Within twelve months, the willow had sprouted new branches, the trunklets of a thicket of new trees. Some by midsummer, were about eight feet high and in full leaf which almost blocked the pavement.

The Council sent the tree surgeons back in. They now cut the willow down to the ground, leaving behind a circular disc of wood in the pavement. Yet this still lived and regrew again in the following year, this time not getting to eight foot, but making a willow bush about a yard in height.

The Council’s final solution was to dig up as much of the underground roots and stump as it could and then, pour cement, and probably poison, into the hole, which was then capped with tarmac. This kind of thing might have worked for Imperial Rome at the end of the Punic wars when it eradicated Carthage, but it still didn’t quite pan out on Mort’s avenue, next spring a few small willow shoots came up around the edges of the tarmac plug, but didn’t make it much beyond that, or weren’t allowed to. Perhaps the expense and extent of the Willow Wars made The Council decide to leave the two remaining willow trees in the avenue alone.

The two Willows were as tall as the planes, but that did not mean they were of the same age, they could have been older as the planes were regularly pollarded and they were not, but the planes were not pollarded in any particular order. Newly pollarded planes are a first glance, an ugly sight. This drastic cutting back of protruding branches can make the tree look like some mutilated wooden hand or paw that has had fingers or claws amputated. Seen against a setting winter sun, they could seem, to Mort, to be reaching out in some sort of prayer of the wounded like some of the shell-shattered trees painted by war artists in 1914-18.

In spring each pollarded knuckle sprouted numerous thin withies that shot up green and skyward, two or three feet, before beginning to bud into leaf. Mort projected religious significance onto this. Silhouetted before a grey and china blue sky as a gale blew across, the slender new twigs seemed like a web of prayer being grown into the sky to catch the start of summer, or even a first swift migrating back from Africa, and trap it and keep it on earth in Britain, instead of letting it blow over and away again.

There was almost no end to the superstitions that dribbled through Mort’s dreamy brain as he looked at the plane trees. He wondered as he hobbled up the Avenue, on his twice weekly walk for treatment by his local Doctor if he was like some ancient British pilgrim limping along one of the avenues leading to the central healing place at Stonehenge or Avebury. The summer leaf cover got denser as he got further, so one could, were one as daft as Mort, feel a sense of being drawn further and further into a web, or something. The trees spreading overhead became a sheltering presence, not enough it was true, to prevent Mort get soaked if a cloudburst came, but enough to provide a little shelter during such a wet and relatively rare event.

The trees were more closely planted as Mort worked his laborious way up the hill so Mort sometimes thought that he entered a quasi magical, mystical glade. This feeling was enhanced by two particular features of this small area. One of these was the tallest man in the world who was about eight foot in height, and dark skinned. He was a Somali, who tended to wear white flowing robes. His figure could loom up before Mort with his head and shoulder disconcertingly appearing in a zone where Mort expected to see flying garden birds or the tops of passing vans.

The other strange feature was a dog that answered Irish commands. If this hound came up to sniff Mort, one of its owners, (one of whom was a galloping man), would call the tame beast to heel with a terse Erse injunction.

Mort enhanced the feeling of sacredness that came over him as he walked up the Avenue by inventing silly little private practices that he preformed when he rested, leaning against a plane trunk. Here he often found a piece of bark about to totally flake off the tree. Sometimes the hint of a touch would detach this bit of treeskin. Other bits might require a firmer whack or tap to send them down to the pavement; and then there were those flakes that almost did not “know” that the were flakes for themselves as well as flakes in themselves and need to be prised of the tree trunk by one of Mort’s fingernails in order to join the rest of the tree dandruff. At each tree, Mort felt that he had to detach at least three flakes of bark, to merely knock or pick off one or two was to him, unlucky; and if, having picked off three pieces, he accidentally dislodged a fourth fragment, Mort would not then leave, he continued removing bits until the total was nine, or sometimes even twelve or fifteen. Mort tried to ensure that the number of fragments that he picked off any one plane tree at any one time was a number divisible by three. Occasionally, as this numerically disciplined mini ritual took place, Mort might be rewarded by a tiny vision, in the form of living, curved, bright red letter “w” made by the body of a millipede which started to crawl towards more under-bark darkness after Mort had ripped the ceiling off its universe.

This omen was now all Mort could think of; he did not now know where he was or what he was doing. He woke in deep night to see before him four or five nurses struggling to control what looked like an H.R.Giger Alien, but was actually a very old, very tall, stark naked man on a hospital bed that he seemed to be trying to get out of. He looked like The Alien, because he had had oxygen mask over the lower part of his face and this mask had a long, concertinaed hose hanging down from it. The hose was writhing about like a serpent as the man moved. All the man’s flesh had shrunk and it seemed to have pulled his hand s and limbs into insectoid shapes of bone and sinew. He was festooned in part with wires and tubes and that had been pulled out and bandages unravelled in his struggles. He thrashed about, at times seemingly randomly, at others seeming to attempt to take off his mask or hit at the nurses who were attempting to restrain him, and keep him in the hospital bed with his mask on.

It was futile battle, futile in the sense that the nurses would “win", because of their numbers, strength and unity and clarity of purpose; and also perhaps because sedatives were taking effect on the man. Nothing that was said mattered, but things kept being said. The nurses said things like "Now, now, you’ve got to keep the mask on Mr James.” Mr James’ replies were initially loud, frequent and totally inarticulate.

Watching from his hospital bed in an opposite corner of the ward, Mort hoped that if he could go to sleep and dream hard enough he could go back to his Avenue. Dying was easier for him think about there than to witness here.

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