The Golden Tree of St Francis

 

What the fuck was that? 

A woman was screaming.  Pitched halfway between fear and anger, loud and sustained. An adult woman, Dan thought, yet there was a note of petulance, the suggestion of a toddler tantrum.  It came abruptly to a halt.

He looked around as he spooned the last of the pistachio ice cream into his mouth.  The couple at the next table hadn’t reacted.  Dan looked down the street to where the sound seemed to have come from.  Seven people walked up together, chatting and laughing, three generations of a family.  Had no-one else heard?

*************

Dan had travelled with his family to Tuscany for a week in August to join his brother-in-law’s 50th birthday celebrations.  There were nine of them, plus the two dogs, staying in a beautiful villa near Arezzo.  A few days passed pleasantly, eating, drinking, swimming, reading and chatting, but soon he had become restless.

So after breakfast he had set out to explore the nearby town of Lucignano, parking just outside the city wall.  The morning was spent seeking the shady side of the ancient paved streets, sometimes finding relief in the air conditioning of the souvenir shops. He wandered into the rather faded Church of San Michele, where a dusty old funeral carriage was on display, accompanied by a hooded female figure in black.

His ancient travel guide proclaimed that the Golden Tree of St Francis or Albero d’Oro was “a masterpiece produced in Sienese goldsmith’s shops during the 14C-15C” and worth a detour so he navigated his way to the municipal museum.  As he waited to buy his entry ticket he had that sense of a chore to be completed which always accompanied his visits to museums and galleries.  So much information to be taken in, sifted, so many things competing for his attention, how could he be worthy to choose between them?

If history and art were so exciting, he mused, why did he feel this weight, this dull foreboding?  He would thrill at the rise of the curtain in the theatre, at the opera: hearing the referee’s starting whistle, signalling a tiny, unpredictable new chapter for his team, his chest would tighten.  When the lights went down and the cheers rose at a rock concert, Dan felt sixteen again.  Back in the day, even the old Pearl and Dean theme, for god’s sake, stirred anticipation.  Maybe museums just weren’t his thing: still, what else had he expected to find in the town?  Anyway, he was here now.

Before long he was standing in front of the famous reliquary: round boxes of irregular size hung from spindly curved branches.  He felt instant revulsion.  It was no doubt a superb example of the goldsmith’s art, but it seemed horribly ugly: over-ornate, and at the same time slightly shabby.  According to the descriptive plaque it no longer contained any holy relics.  Apparently it had taken 120 years to make it: expert craftsmen had spent years, decades of their lives working on it, knowing they would never see it completed.  Was that wonderful or was it ridiculous?  Dan was no Christian, but he knew that Christ had embraced poverty, simplicity.  How many of the people of Lucignano, of Siena, had died of malnutrition, had seen their children taken away for want of clean water, while on the orders of the Church the goldsmiths plied their patient and costly craft?  Slightly to his surprise he heard himself mutter a curse under his breath, hypocritical bastards.

Eventually he emerged from the gloomy museum, greeting the scorching sun in the square with relief.  It was half past one, and he was hungry.  He chose a narrow street at random, and after a few turns came to a trattoria with a couple of small tables in the shade, where he sat down and ordered a pasta dish and a glass of rosé.

***************

Dan had already settled his bill, so he picked up his bag and strode briskly up the street from where the cry had seemed to come.  He didn’t know if he was motivated by chivalry or curiosity as he climbed the steep cobbles, now in full afternoon sun.  There was no-one in view, but he thought he saw something dark disappearing up a narrow turning to the left, halfway up the hill.

He quickened his pace as he followed the shape up a flight of stone steps, once more just catching a glimpse of a figure in the distance.  Dan wiped his brow: all shade seemed to have disappeared from the town, but his curiosity intensified.  He had the impression of light, furtive movement ahead. The figure might be quite innocuous, but Dan wanted to see it for himself.

The chase was on. Whenever he turned a corner, he just caught sight of something vanishing, never a clear view.  The heat reflected mercilessly from the pavement.  He took turn after turn in pursuit, in frustration breaking into a run, the sweat now dripping from his forehead.  But it made no difference: he was no closer.  As if he was being taunted.  Once the figure took a turning just a few metres ahead of him, but when Dan turned the same corner it was already disappearing from few, seventy metres ahead.  How could that be…

He was the pursuer, yet he sensed perhaps he was being hunted…or led into a trap? This thing could have easily shaken him off, but no, at every corner it lingered just long enough to show him the way.  But Dan was not thinking clearly: he had started this game and he would finish it.  He felt his pulse thudding in his temple as he came back on to a main street: the sun now seemed to be directly overhead and he was surprised to notice that the streets and cafes were deserted.  As he ran, he realised he had lost his quarry: as he turned the corner this time there been no glimpse.

He slowed to a walk, then stopped and closed his eyes as he tried to regain his breath. He found himself laughing: this was ridiculous, a trick of his imagination.  How strange he must have looked, running through the scorching streets, chasing some ghost…he looked up and saw that he was once more by the Church of San Michele, and moved inside to escape the sun.  He wandered around exploring it again, trying to compose himself.

He looked at the funeral carriage again.  Wait, hadn’t there been a figure next to it?  Yes, there, to the left of the carriage, he could make out faint marks on the floor where the feet had been.  In a playful spirit, he planted his feet in the marks…

 

*****************

Signore, posso prendere questa sedia? 

Dan surfaced abruptly and waved the chair away, Si, Si. The ice cream dish was still in front of him. He was no longer seated in the shade.  The relaxed bustle and chatter of the trattoria resumed.  What a strange dream…but…

But now he was standing again…his vision constrained by something dark…he tried to turn his head, move his feet, but he could not.  He stared out passively at the dusty church…he tried to scream but no sound came back to him.

 

Midnight

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I had to bring Emily to this place, to this beautiful place, where my mother brought me twenty-seven years ago.  “Remember this time.  It’s the way life should be.” And I sensed, even at the time, she was telling me that happiness is elusive and fleeting, as she held me in her lap, as we sat on the sand and watched the waves rolling in under the moonlight, and as I examined the pebbles in my hand.

And now in her memory we come back to this same cottage, arriving late and in darkness after the working day.  Emily settles in bed and is soon asleep while I look out of her window towards the sea.  I’m tired, but sleep won’t come.  I get up, and look at the moon shining through the trees, the trees which border the track down to the beach.

And an open top car quietly pulls into the driveway, and there is Emily’s father, but as I first knew him.  I know he cannot be there, and also that he is, and that I am seventeen. He waves and opens the passenger door and gestures me into the seat.

I leave the cottage and go to him, and we drive off through the forest without a word passing between us, and the wind blows our hair.  My heart races with fear, with excitement.  He gets out and stands at the edge of the trees, looking down on the sea.  Suddenly I feel the deepest longing.  I follow him and he looks in my eyes and we kiss, slowly and tenderly.  He extends his arm towards the sea.

“But…”

He puts his finger to my lips.

“Shh.  There is nothing but you and me, the sea and the moon.”

And I see it is true.  So we walk to the waves, and paddle, and wade and swim.  And we play and laugh and hold each other in the silver sea.  Then as he looks in my eyes I feel myself being pulled down.  I struggle at first, but he smiles at me reassuringly, and I feel a sweet calmness upon me.  All is well.  All is well.

(Based on Midnight by Five Fathoms Deep, and The Big Big Sea by Martin Waddell and Jennifer Eachus)

The Restless Miller

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It was August 1989.  Debbie and I had just flown from Venice to the Côte d’Azur after the first week of our honeymoon.  We had flown in a small Air Littoral plane, looked after by an extremely efficient and immaculately turned out stewardess who appeared entirely competent to pilot the plane should the need arise.

We picked up our hire car at Nice airport and drove in the afternoon sun to the Moulin de la Camandoule near Fayence.  We had stayed there before and loved it: a lovely old olive oil mill converted into a small hotel.  It was owned and run by Wolf Rilla and his elegant wife Shirley. We later learned that Wolf had been a film director and writer, best known for directing John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Village of the Damned.  He made a slightly irascible host, but this seemed somehow in keeping with the mellow, slightly scruffy charm of the building.

We had fond memories of our previous trip to this place: one evening in particular lingered in the mind when the diners on the terrace were unsettled to see and hear a thunderstorm steadily approaching.  Wolf stalked around fretfully while Shirley quickly and quietly helped the customers move indoors, working her way down from the most anxious.  It was clear who kept the place ticking over.

This time we were met by a youth named Tim who appeared hungover.  I explained in my halting French that we had booked a room there for the week, and he stared back in a panic.  I muttered something to Debbie about the luggage in the car, and Tim’s face lit up.

“Thank God, you’re English!”

After unpacking, we cooled off in the pool, and strolled around reminding ourselves why we loved the place.  The beautiful stone, the old aqueduct.  Heavy black iron tools of unknown purpose still displayed in alcoves.  Nothing had changed.  Dinner didn’t disappoint either: an unfussy, delicious table d’hôte menu.  And perhaps a little too much wine.  It had been a long day, so we retired to our room for the night, and were soon asleep.

For a while.  Then I woke up sweating in the warm night air.

I made out a large figure looming over the end of the bed, breathing slowly and heavily.  There was a strong smell of wine.  He seemed to be waiting before taking some sort of action.  I told myself it was an illusion, and stared at the figure, expecting it to dissolve under rational inspection.  Instead the outline seemed clearer, and the breathing more laboured, as if he had just run up the steps.

I stared in disbelief and fear for some time, before I finally switched on my bedside light.  There was nothing there, and my wife of ten days was sleeping beside me.

In the morning I told her what I had seen.  As I described it, I realised it was only the sound of her steady sleeping breath that I had heard: yet the same sound coming from someone awake would have sounded heavy, threatening even.  Half waking, I must have built the menacing image from the sound.

Relieved to find a rational explanation, I put my experience down to wine and rich food.  So we spent the week exploring the area, reading by the pool and cooling off.  Just being together.

On the morning of our departure, we were going for breakfast when Debbie looked back at our door and noticed traces of faded lettering next to our room name, Le Meunier.

Shirley came to the table with our coffee.

“Have you enjoyed your stay?”

“It’s been lovely, thanks.”  She set the coffee down.

“You’ve been lucky with the weather.”

“Really? I thought it was always like this here.”

“Oh…it comes and goes.”

“Tell me…Le Meunier…the miller, isn’t it?

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Did the name of the room change at all?”

“You noticed that?  Yes, when we bought the place it was called Le Meunier Agité – the restless miller.  We didn’t think that was a very relaxing name for a bedroom, so we changed it.”

“I can see why.  Do you know how it got that name?”

“Well…”  She lowered her voice confidentially.  “I don’t normally like to tell our guests…it wouldn’t help them sleep…”

“Do go on, we’re leaving today anyway.”  She smiled and pulled up a chair from the next table.

“According to the story, it happened about 1860.  The oil from this mill was said to be the best in the whole area. The miller was a large man called M. Tardieu, and one day he took his oil to market.  He’d only been at his stall an hour when the chef of a wealthy local landowner paid him a good price for his entire stock.  He bought a bottle of wine to celebrate, and drank it on the way home.”

“He got home about lunchtime, tired, hot and drunk, and went straight to his bedroom to sleep it off.  There he found his wife in bed with the apprentice.  He fell on the boy and started strangling the life out of him.  His wife ran out and found a heavy milling tool and hit her husband on the head.  He died instantly.”

“The story went that he still visits his bedroom sometimes.  Although I don’t know that anyone’s ever seen him.  Just a silly story, I think.”

Debbie and I looked at each other.

“Yes.  Just a silly story.”

The Fisherman’s Girl

The Isle of Mull is a long way from London, so Jennifer suggested we could break our journey home in the north east of England, a neglected but beautiful corner.  There is the dramatic coastal scenery, spectacular castles at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, and you can take the one and only Billy Shiel’s boat trips out to see the puffins and other bird life on the Farne Islands.  There are also beautiful beaches, although you might not wish to linger too long in the water.  If the kids are happy, they say, the grown-ups have a chance.

So we had booked a holiday cottage in Seahouses, a couple of streets back from the sea, and now we made a detour to pick up the key from the owner. Mrs McCready was a kindly but rather worried looking lady in her sixties, and I sensed her quietly observing our daughters as she handed over the keys.  At last we approached the cottage through tiny streets never intended for SUVs.  We squeezed the car into its space, and Rebecca and Charlotte leapt out to explore while I fumbled with the keys.  Once inside, Jennifer made the tea, put the welcome pack cookies on a plate and started working out a shopping list, while I brought the luggage in and the girls tore screaming up and down the narrow stone stairs.  It had been two fisherman’s cottages, converted into a holiday let as far as the architecture would allow.  Some of the rooms were cramped, but it was a charming place.

The weather was kind to us – not exactly warm, but mostly dry with plenty of sun.  Towards the end of the week Rebecca’s school friend Constance came to join us for a couple of days, and we picked her up at Newcastle station – after we had taken a wrong turn and spent some stressful minutes stuck in a bus lane.  Then we drove to a section of Hadrian’s Wall, and had a rather chilly picnic.

It was an agreeable week of castle visits, clifftop walks, cricket on the beach, fish and chips…and the girls spent many happy hours pottering on the wide, rocky foreshore at low tide.

On Friday – our last whole day of holiday – when we had just sat down for breakfast, we heard a commotion from the seagulls outside.  We left the table for a while to watch them swooping, diving and squawking, and agreed that something must have agitated them.  When we sat at the table again, Charlotte was staring at her cereal bowl looking confused.

“What…I…?”

“What is it darling?”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any milk on my Shreddies.”  She continued to stare at the bowl, and raised a hand to pull at her curly blonde hair.  There goes Cartoon Charlotte, I thought, always having her little dramas and adventures.

“Don’t be silly darling, how else did it get there?”

She said nothing and looked at the milk bottle.  Then gave a little shrug of acceptance, but seemed subdued while she ate her cereal.

 

Saturday morning arrived, and we squeezed five people and suitcases full of unused clothes into the car.  There were no parking places near Mrs McCready’s flat, so I left Jennifer at the wheel while I went in to drop off the keys.

“Was everything all right for you?” There was something anxious in her tone.

“Yes thanks, it’s a lovely little cottage.  I should mention, though, we broke a wine glass.”  I proffered a five pound note.

Mrs McCready waved it away.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, they’re only cheap ones.  But, tell me, did anything unusual happen while you were staying there?”

“Unusual?  I don’t think so, no.”

“Oh good.  It’s just that…there have been a few incidents over the years.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a story about a girl who lived there in the 1820s. Quite a sad story.”

“Really?”  I tried to sound interested, but couldn’t stop myself glancing back at the door.  We had a long journey ahead, and Jennifer would be getting impatient.  But the lady wanted to tell her story.

“She lived in the lower cottage, which she had inherited. She got herself pregnant by a young lad who went out in the fishing boats.  Her parents were dead, and there was no-one else who would help her.”

“But the young fisherman stood by her, and promised to marry her.  But three days before the wedding was due, his boat was lost in a storm.”

Mrs McCready paused and looked out to sea, as if expecting the boat to return.

“The girl managed to have her baby.  But she had no help, and the boy’s family would have nothing to do with her.  It was winter, she was nearly starving, and she couldn’t feed her baby properly.  The poor scrap didn’t last a week.  The girl was found washed up on the beach, with the baby wrapped inside her coat.”   She stopped and seemed to be waiting for a reaction.

“Oh dear, that’s dreadful!  Did you say there have been…incidents?”

“More stories and rumours, really.  But there’s a kind of tradition that she still visits her cottage sometimes.”

“No!  She doesn’t sound like the chain-rattling type.”

“Not at all.  The story goes that once every few years she comes into her old kitchen, and makes sure the children have enough milk to drink.  The poor sweet girl.”

 

“What took you so long?” said Jennifer as I got back into the car.  She looked over at me before starting the ignition.  “Are you all right?  You look a little pale.”

“It’s nothing.  She just wanted a chat.  Let’s go home.”