And men myrtles, part three
William placed the glasses on the table and sat down. He hoped his solution to ordering one quarter of a pint of beer met with her approval. All of a sudden it felt like a challenge. A test.
The girl hesitated as though deliberately to prolong his unease. Then she reached out, picked up the smaller of the two glasses and decanted half its contents into the other. "Thanks," she smiled. It seemed he had passed the test.
Okay. What next?
For several minutes they sipped their drinks in silence and without eye contact. They might have been strangers, sharing no more than this small copper-topped table. Maybe he had wandered into his local on a sunny Sunday afternoon for a quiet drink and found her sitting here; asked politely if the other seat was taken, sat down warmed by the welcome in her guileless eyes.
Or maybe he was here first, choosing the table for the jewelled light that spilled in from the bottle-bottom panes in the tiny windows. Perhaps he looked up from his ale to find her standing before him, smiling from under that fringe and that hat, hand resting lightly on the back of the heavily varnished chair. "Is this seat taken?" Perhaps he returned her smile with a magnanimous wave of his hand. "No, my dear. Please. Help yourself." Old world courtesy in an Olde Worlde hostelry.
Don't be so bloody stupid.
This was the first time he'd entered a public house since he and Joan moved to Oxford. He had given up alcohol along with everything else. Not that he'd been one to over-indulge - not at least since college days; since he grew up - but in any case he could not have bought drink for himself, either in a pub or at the off-licence, while Joan dying stoically in her hospice bed.
When she died he might have started again but he had steeled himself against the urge to drown his emptiness. Only once he had let himself go: three bottles of whiskey in a mindless, tearless binge that left him ill for three days. He swore then, Never again; less from a sense of shame - who was there to care? - than the fear of losing control. Next time there might be no return. He was not ready for that; maybe one day but not yet. He had not yet suffered enough.
Wolvercote had forced him to rethink his attitude to alcohol, as to so much else. Other people used drink to escape the realities of their existence but William came to see his self-imposed abstinence as one of the structures he had constructed to protect himself from reality. Safe in his little realm of self-loathing he kept the world at bay by forbidding anything that might open the gate. Alcohol. People. Forgiveness. Gardening.
It hadn't worked. If he had been drinking that first Sunday morning in Wolvercote he might have convinced himself of the impossibility of his experiences - but that was surely the point. He had been ill that Sunday in the cemetery; giddy with exertion and lack of sleep, angry and affronted and more miserable than usual at his lot. But he had been stone cold sober on the day the impossibly real chose to burst in upon him.
In the months thereafter, as he tried to understand, William found himself increasingly immersed in the realm of Middle-earth: a world, it seemed, that was thoroughly steeped in ale. Its creator had liked a pint or two; so much was clear from his autobiography and it didn't seem to have done him any harm - nor countless generations of Hobbits, Men and Dwarves for that matter. William was confused. Should he drink or not? Abstinence was comforting in its severity, yet the very point of it had been turned on its head.
For two weeks he shuffled furtively past the supermarket beer counter, scanning the bottles with their strange names and inviting associations. Dragon's Blood. Hobgoblin. Old Peculiar. Until the day a new bottle caught his attention and he stopped short. The beer was called Hobbit Quest, though the label looked more Moria Orc than any denizen of the Shire. It was a sign. William reached one bottle down and set it in the basket amidst his meagre groceries.
That night he supped in the company of Merry and Pippin amidst the wreck of Isengard. Raising the bottle in what he hoped was the direction of Wolvercote cemetery he drank a silent toast to JRR Tolkien, author.
This wasn't Hobbit Quest he was drinking now in the pub but it wasn't bad. William placed his glass on the table and sat back. He had no idea what was going on, how he came to be there or what was going to happen next. He felt hot; a little light-headed. He glanced across at his companion and met her gaze; big serious sea-grey eyes staring out between her fringe and the top of her glass.
"What are we doing here?" His voice sounded cracked to him. Weak; a little bit desparate.
She took a sip and set her drink down beside his.
"How do you mean?" Her head to one side. Eyes all wide and innocent. Grey and blue like the sky over the sea.
"How did we end up here together like this? I don't even know where 'here' is!"
There's a sign on the wall ...
'Tolkien is the Truth' - wasn't that what it said, the chalked graffiti on the wall she had dragged him past? What the fuck did that mean?
I don't even know your name.
"We haven't come very far, you know." Serious again now. "From the cemetery," she added after a moment's pause, as if such clarification might be necessary.
... but she wants to be sure ...
Clarification or not, William wondered how literally he was supposed to take the claim. It seemed a long way to him, in any sense of the words.
Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
Christ, that was bloody Led Zep in his head now. Stairway to Heaven. Is that where you're taking me?
She was still speaking, her eyes distant now as if she was remembering something a long way off - or a long time ago. William struggled to focus on what she was saying. Stairway was still playing in his head.
William glanced around him. Everything seemed normal. Middle-aged couples dotted here and there enjoying Sunday lunch. Four "long-haired student types" at a table in the corner, heads together in earnest debate over their beer. A morose gent on his own with what looked like a gin and tonic, three empties on the table in front of him. And at the bar the two locals were locked still in conversation with the conventually well-endowed barmaid. Normality. So why did he feel so strange? The tone of her voice changed, catching him back into her reality.
"Sorry. Miles away." He attempted a smile without expectation of success.
"It's okay." Head on one side again, watching him. "I just asked how long you've lived in Oxford."
"How do you know I live here?" There was a defensive edge in his voice he neither expected nor intended. Why had he said that? Perhaps it was just a continuation of what he had been thinking. Where was here, anyway? Was here, in this pub with her, Oxford? Was it anywhere you could point to on a road map?
Now he felt stupid. "Yes. Well, where I live isn't exactly Oxford you know. On the outskirts I suppose. Like Wolvercote." Like here, wherever that is.
Silence fell between them. William took refuge in his beer. She seemed to be waiting for him to speak again. When he didn't she tried again.
"Okay. Not Oxford. Not exactly."
Her tone warned him that he still hadn't answered her question. How long? He thought quickly but knew he wouldn't be able to outpace her. He didn't want to talk about this. About Joan.
"Five years." Don't ask. Please, don't ask.
Another mouthful of ale. He wasn't used to drinking in the afternoon. Was his face beginning to flush? It was hot in here. He hadn't put on a jacket or tie in his rush out of the bedsit that morning but even the unbuttoned shirt felt tight about his neck. Didn't they used to hang people at cross-roads? He slipped two fingers inside his collar, loosened the material away from his throat.
"It must be wonderful."
"How do you mean?"
"You know - being able to walk the streets where the Professor walked. Where he worked."
"I suppose so." Fighting to focus on the conversation. In truth he barely knew Oxford. After five years it was still just the nearest city to where he lived. Pretty enough by the river but he had never taken the opportunity to explore. He only went into town when he needed to. The library once a week for a break from his bedsit and to continue his reading. The book shops. Maisie's tea room. These were his dreaming spires: the rest was background.
Of course he was aware of Tolkien's place in the City's history - and its place in his - but that hadn't seemed a thing of any great import. Until now.
And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune ...
"Have you ever been to the Bird and Baby?"
"Sorry ..." Off to his right a movement caught William's eye. A tall figure had entered the pub and was now heading down a narrow passageway towards what William imagined must be another bar.
Then the Piper will lead us to reason ...
William wasn't sure: perhaps it had been a woman in a long coat or dress but he could have sworn the pale-haired figure was a man; a man in a long blue-grey velvet cloak. Then he or she - or it - had disappeared into the gloom of the passageway and whatever room or reality lay beyond.
"The Bird and Baby". Through William's confusion he could see she was smiling. Laughing at him maybe. Was this another test? He dragged himself back to her. She was part of it; a part of whatever was happening to him. Right now, she was his hold on normality. Like that's supposed to comfort me?
"Oh, you mean the pub, don't you; the one Tolkien used to go to with the other Inklings? The Eagle and Child. St Giles."
She pouted in mock annoyance. "Oh, you - I thought I'd catch you out with that one! I should have known you'd know it!"
"I know of it. I haven't been there."
"Aha - I have! There's a plaque on the wall and everything. We should go sometime." She turned back the cuff of her knitted jacket, glanced at her watch. "Not today, though. I have to go soon."
William was in disarray. Had she just proposed a further meeting? Another date? Is that what this was? You old buffoon? Look at you! In any case it seemed their time together today was almost over.
She picked up her drink. There was maybe an inch of beer left. She drank half, returned the glass to the table. One more swig and it would be gone.
"Can you go round the Colleges?"
"I don't know." What was she talking about now? He felt suddenly very old and tired. His head hurt. "I imagine so."
How was she able to do this to him? He found himself starting to hate her for being here. For being so young and good looking. For speaking to him in the graveyard. Why couldn't you leave me alone?
Again Stairway playing in his head.
And if you listen very hard, the tune will come to you at last ...
It was coming from the jukebox. He wasn't going mad after all!
"Will you take me?"
The question caught him off guard; brought his mind instantly to sex. What? He raised his eyes from the table to her face, drinking in everything in between. Pale hands clasped loosely before her. Cheap silver rings on her fingers, one with a large white stone. Indian maybe.
The long knitted jacket hung open and partly off one shoulder. Underneath she was wearing a shiny purple top. No bra. She was turned towards him, leaning forward in anticipation of his reply and he could clearly make out the shape of her breasts through the thin fabric. Shiny but not silk. He knew silk. Joan used to wear silk.
He realised obscurely that he was sweating. If he reached for her she would see the dark stain under his arm. If she doesn't slap me first. His head throbbed. What was he doing? She was far too young for him - far too young for the thoughts that assailed him.
Above her perfect breast a circular device was screen printed in gold. It seemed to depict breaking waves beneath a flowering tree. His palms were wet too. He wiped them in disgust along his trousers.
Will you take me?
He knew he was staring; that she had noticed. He didn't care. What did it matter?
Tolkien's tales of Middle-earth had awakened in William the need to feel noble: an Aragorn or Faramir courting a fey princess. To live decently with honour and propriety.
Once before he had believed in that dream; a dream born in adolescence of Romance literature and the mythos of courtly love. When he met Joan years later it had still been like that for him. And the sound of your hair ...
It was a lie. In the real world there was no honour, no nobility. Love if you were lucky but love bought daily with the coin of duty and compromise. Such love there had been for him and Joan, and it had seen them through years of commonplace successes and hardships. He had thought it enough; but against the bulwark of Cancer the love they owned had broken impotently.
Come athelas! Come athelas!
He was no Aragorn. No king returned. He had failed her.
Life to the dying
His hands trembled now as he reached across the table for her. Tears welled silently behind his eyes; the waves and the tree a golden blur. Concern flickered in her face. Dark eyes wide beneath the fringe. She moved towards him instinctively, took his hand in hers but he pressed forward.
There was no Aragorn in this room, this land. No Faramir. No princes.
Her hand was still on his as he closed his fingers around her breast. He couldn't see a thing. Surf burst in his ears. Beech leaves on a carpet lawn. She was warm in his hand. Through the shiny stuff he could feel the heat of her. She stiffened, surprised. Clasped his hand tight but for a moment did not move it away.
Will you take me?
Then she laughed, a peal that broke open and innocent through the pounding in his head. She laid his hand back gently on the table. "Not like that, silly! Will you take me around the colleges?"
"I - I don't know ... Yes, I suppose so. Of course we'll go."
The words fell from his mouth. He knew he should feel remorse for the assault. Guilt. Shame. Something. But it seemed to pass between them without the burden. A girl her age ... You sick bastard. You don't even know how old she is ... How could it be all right?
He risked a glance around the room but nobody had noticed.
A bustle beside him. She rose in one movement, unhurried and elegant. He watched in despair as she walked away. Whatever had just passed between them was over. They were leaving. Or she was; he wasn't sure if he was supposed to go with her or not. He didn't know where the pub was. How to get home. Bloody hell. But instead of heading for the door she made straight across the room. Where was she going?
For a moment William lost her - the panicked glare on his face surprising a "Sorry!" from a middle-aged woman who chose that moment to edge between his table and the next. He half rose from his seat, caught the turn of her head as she entered the narrow corridor. The long coat swirled about her like a cloak. Like the cloak of the stranger he had seen earlier. Was she gone to meet him? The Piper from the cemetery?
Sod this for a game of bloody soldiers.
He grabbed the coat from the back of his chair and headed after her. He had to bow his head slightly as he entered the corridor. It was so narrow that his body blocked out the light from the room behind him and within a couple of paces he was feeling his way along the unevenly plastered wall. It occurred to him that he was no longer feeling ill. Her touch - touching her - seemed to have driven it away for the moment.
The passage-way was far too dark. How could the landlord leave it unlit like this and expect people to use it? He couldn't easily judge how long it was. He could still hear the jukebox - some thumping modern rubbish now by the sound of it - but the sound was muffled and distant. He had the unpleasant sensation that the tunnel, for such he now called it, was descending gently.
Then the dim glow in front resolved itself and opened up. The corridor made sharply to the left. Turning the corner William breathed a sigh of relief. It was no goblins' cave but a second bar with small round wooden tables and low benches. The only light came from a series of low wattage bulbs in sconces along the whitewashed walls. It had the ageless feel of a place where for centuries friends had met to talk and share a drink. It was empty. Where were they? Why didn't she bring me in here?
There was one other exit; a heavy wooden door adorned with cast iron furniture. It looked like oak and was undoubtedly genuine. William thought for a moment, elected not to try it. She had left that way - with the Piper, he had no doubt. He wasn't sure he wanted to know where they had gone.
He turned and retraced his steps to the public bar. This way it wasn't such a trial: twenty foot of passage lit poorly but adequately by the room beyond. Ahead of him he could see folk sat at their tables. Drinking. Talking. Laughing together. The din of music grew around him. The glasses had not yet been cleared from their table and he drained both before making for the door.
The weather had turned sullen but it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the relative brightness. He squinted at the sky suspiciously. It looked like rain. He had no idea of his way home. It no longer seemed very important.
William put on his coat and crossed the road. He dug his hands into his pockets and headed off in what he reckoned might be the right direction. That was when he discovered the acorn.
It was dark outside but William hadn't bothered yet to draw the curtains. He stood at the narrow sash window and stared at his reflection in the glass. It had been raining for hours; that and the shimmering of the street lamps beyond the paved yard gave the image an ethereal air as though it were less a reflection of something concrete this side of the glass than a window onto another realm beyond. It was the sort of feeling he had grown to recognise as significant, indicative of the changes that had taken place in his life in the past eighteen months.
He raised his hand and with his index finger drew the number 18 in the condensation. Little rivulets of water broke free and ran down the inside of the glass, palely emulating the torrent outside.
Was it only eighteen months?
A year from his first encounter with the Tolkien Society at Wolvercote to their return the following September. He had missed them that second time; found instead more than he had bargained for. More Otherness than he knew what to do with. And now it was March. Eighteen then. It hardly seemed enough.
He was standing in his pyjamas. A glance at his watch lying on the table. Nearly midnight. He shrugged and his ghostly companion shrugged back. William turned away and drew the cheap curtain across the window. It was time for bed.
He awoke to a morning both fine and fair and breakfasted on tea and toast, enjoying the novel sensation of excitement at the day that lay ahead. As he did every Sunday he opened his plaid holdall on the table and checked he had everything he needed. A stack of newspapers from the pile the other tenants left for the recycling. A pair of secateurs. His little green watering can, fork and trowel in their tidy case. How he had hated that set of tools. He could smile about it now - it was a mark of how far he had come - but there had been a lot of ire to bury with so small a trowel!
Their first Christmas in Oxford and their last. God knows who she found to buy it for her. One of the hospice staff probably. But when he visited Joan that Christmas Day she presented the box to him with a pale smile that almost hid the pain.
To my dear green-fingered husband.
William unwrapped the gift with a diffuse sense of dread mounting in his chest. It was a matching set of gardening tools for pot plants, all polished chrome and green plastic handles. He hadn't known what to say.
"They're good quality, Bill, look ..." She reached across the bed clothes, held them out towards him as if to verify the claim. As if that made it all right.
He had sold his beloved garden tools - all of them, some from his grandfather's time - when they moved to Oxford. He could neither afford nor stomach anywhere else with a garden and in any case they needed the money. There had been little enough choice in the matter but he had worn the sacrifice like all the rest. Penance for failing her.
The hands of the king ...
He reached now for the tools and placed them in the bag on top of the pile of newspapers. No doubt she had thought it a fitting gift, that he might grow something in his bed-sit. A row of pots on the window ledge, perhaps. A man needs a hobby. She had meant well, he could see it now, but at the time that cheap, garden centre, bloody tool set had lain bare the gulf between them.
As if tending some bloody pot plant in his bloody sunless bedsit could have replaced the garden he had given up, his haven. As if he would deny his sacrifice, the sole and pathetic harvest of the seed Cancer had sown inside him ... It was the final humiliation.
Thank you my dear. It's lovely.
In the coming weeks Joan would ask him if he had used her gift and he would dissemble, casually convincing. It wasn't the season yet for planting. In the summer ...
He had no intention of ever using the tools but before summer was over he found a use for them nonetheless in tending her grave. It had seemed a black joke to him at first yet in time the tools found a way of sitting in his large hands. Grudgingly he acknowledged their virtue and each week they were cleaned and put away in their case with no less care than he had once afforded his grandfather's tools.
He planted herbs on Joan's plot. Thymes and chamomile. Lavender. A straggling pink rose. Not everything thrived but each Sunday William came to tend them. Twenty times a week he covered the fifty yards to fill the little plastic watering can from the standpipe beneath the trees. Each step was a penance, each drop of water spilled a tear he could not shed. She was gone and he could do nothing except grow flowers on her mound.
Small flowers sprang there like countless stars amid the turf.
It barely sweetened the sourness of living without Joan, of living with himself. Still, looking back now he could see in those days the first promise of something new and green.
William picked up the bag, walked downstairs and out into the paved yard. He nodded deliberately to the holly that stood against the painted plaster-over-brick wall that separated the property from its neighbour. This was a habit he had fallen into since he brought his little oak trees outside, and something he could never have imagined his old self doing.
In all his gardening years he had shunned with contempt the conceit of talking to plants. Things were different now. Besides, though it stood no more than four feet high, roots strangled in its plastic urn, there was something venerable - fey he might have called it - about this one. Door-ward to the Perilous Realm or not, he was taking no chances.
His respects duly paid William looked down at his trees. The first, the elder by a twelve-month, stood three inches above the earth and boasted three pairs of leaves. At even so tender an age it looked like an oak tree. The other might have been anything: a green stick no more than an inch high showing two indeterminate leaves.
Were they ready? Would they survive the trauma of being transplanted? Yes, the time was right. William lifted each in turn and placed the pots together in a plastic carrier. They would be fine. He would look after them.
He thought of the trees as his but of course that wasn't true. They were hers.
She gave me the second one, he declared gruffly to himself. Put it in my pocket. He patted his overcoat as if to emphasise the point.
What has it got in its pocketses?
It was important to him that it was true; that the girl had gifted the second acorn to him in the public house. It must have been when I went to get the drinks. Important, because if she gave him the second seed it went some way towards alleviating his guilt at having stolen the first.
That first Sunday at Wolvercote he had watched unseen as the girl stood before the Tolkiens' grave; had seen her extend one hand in front of her over the plot and, after looking nervously around, tip something small and round from her palm onto the ground. The act had intrigued and puzzled him for - no matter how odd it appeared to him as an outsider - one thing was certain; to the girl it held particular meaning.
Once she had left William went over to the grave. At that stage he knew nothing of whose it was, hoped only to make sense of the events to which he had been witness. He stood in silence. For a long time nothing made sense to him. The simple plot was surrounded with wreaths and tributes, the trampled turf testament to the crowd that had gathered nobly to hymn the interred. He seemed to still hear an echo of their singing. Who was this man, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, to have gathered such tribute? He felt he should know the name but could not place it.
He was about to turn away when he glimpsed the acorn lying amongst the crammed and haphazard planting. From where he had watched her she might have dropped anything - a pebble like any of those littering the edge of the grave. Nevertheless, the acorn was hers, he was sure of it. In a moment he had bent, pocketed the thing, carried it away as a trophy. A token of her.
The seed had lain in his pocket for weeks. Each time he went out he would find it there beneath his fingers. As he walked he would stroke at it, play with it in his hand, knowing it to have been hers, a part of her. The dark-haired girl whose stare as she passed him beneath the trees still haunted him in unguarded moments.
Until one day returning to his cheerless room he took it from his pocket. It was an acorn to be sure; unmarked but otherwise nothing special. An everyday thing. He had known enough of them as a child. One ancient oak within a mile of his home had yielded each year cargo enough to fill the pockets of a young boy with a passion for growing things.
How many had he planted out in pots beneath the kitchen window? Far more than ever took. Yet each year one or two would thrust in the spring their little stems skyward. In time he had a dozen little trees which he planted one day with his father's spade at the edge of the local woodland.
None survived, for there were deer in those woods to whom tender oak-lings were a nibbled delight. The loss failed to stifle young William's interest in horticulture but thereafter he devoted his energies to the garden, where threats to his husbandry were more readily countered. Acorns, he decided, were too uncertain a crop. Until now.
As he stared at the acorn on his outstretched palm William knew that - young as she was - this was not the first she had cast. Each year she must come with that strange and noble company to honour Tolkien's memory and in solitude when all the rest had departed pay her secret tribute. Why she had not planted it properly in the ground he could not guess; maybe the uncertainty of success was a part of the offering. He could understand that.
William tipped his hand slowly as he had seen her do at the graveside. His palm was moist and the acorn stuck a moment to the skin. How could he have stolen this thing, the mute tribute of a child to her dead hero?
What kind of sick bastard does that?
The acorn slipped from his hand, fell onto the shabby carpet.
In that moment of guilt and self-loathing was born the notion that he would plant the thing himself. He could not erase his crime but he could at least attempt to atone for it. Not that she would ever know.
The odds of success could hardly have been above one in four and yet in its yoghurt pot on the window ledge, in earth cadged from the holly downstairs, the seed germinated and began to grow strongly. As if the matter had never been in doubt.
The opening of its first tiny leaves in the spring coincided with William's awakening into the appreciation of Tolkien's world. Day by day he read his way into Middle-earth, the strange and potent language overcame his lifelong mistrust of the "fantasy" genre.
Perhaps more than anything else it was Tolkien's description of the natural world - and trees in particular - that proved the key. As much as was beer, trees were clearly important both to Tolkien himself in the "real world" - a term the veracity of which William had never previously doubted - and within the realm he created.
The Party Tree. Old Man Willow. Fangorn and the Ents. The Mallorns of Lórien. Not an oak amongst them but William could no longer shy the burden of coincidence. The stolen oak tree, still no more than an inch or two tall, became important now less because it had been hers, than as a way in.
Into where? He wasn't sure; was afraid to think. But wherever it was, it was somewhere he had glimpsed that Sunday at Wolvercote. And so with no clearer idea than that the oak was an important part, the single piece to which the rest of the puzzle was missing, William tended it as he tended the plants on his dead wife's grave.
And he read. The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion. Tolkien's Letters and biography. A line could move him to overwhelming tears or sudden joy. The first time he read of the Lady's gifting of the box of earth to Sam, the single Mallorn seed, the nobility of the gesture so surpassed his own crime that he wept, openly and long. But of all the Company it was Aragorn he most revered, wished he could have been. Fearless in defence of his friends; sure in the coin of a love beyond death and beyond worlds. Lord of a noble line.
William sat on the bus, trees at his feet in the plastic carrier. It was the second acorn, the finding of it in his coat pocket where none but the girl - hardly Galadriel yet with something of the Elvish about her - could have placed it; that had made the difference.
After the Gifting, the Testing, his path had become clear to him. He would grow both oak trees and install them at the head of Tolkien's grave. In so doing he would make good what she had intended all along. Pay her tribute and his own to the man whose life and work had enriched and ennobled them both. It was something he could do. Something he was born for.
He had found his way in.
On his knees beside the Tolkien's grave William dug in the earth with his little trowel, planted the elder of the two trees. The Two Trees. He knew the lineage of the Two, their place and significance in the history - mythology? - of Middle-earth. Telperion and Laurelin. Laurelin the Golden, whose flower was the sun.
William sat back on his heels and cast his eyes to the sky. It wasn't a bad day, though somewhat overcast. Not too hot, which was good for the little trees. Again he wondered if they would survive. Nothing was certain in this world but he had a feeling these two would be all right. And he would keep a close eye on them.
He rose stiffly to his feet.
One more to go. The second. The one she had given him.
... the gift of Galadriel
And it came to him, hard and sudden. If the second acorn - this tiny oak tree in the plastic carrier at his feet - was the gift of the Lady then he was Samwise Gamgee. Not warrior but steadfast companion, whose hands were not those of a healer but gardener of a line of gardeners.
In that moment he saw himself through Joan's eyes. She didn't see - hadn't seen - him as a failure, hadn't hated him for failing to make the disease go away. They had been married twenty-seven years and he had been what she needed him to be. Faithful friend, truest companion on the longest road. He was her Sam.
Not Aragorn, damn his eyes. Sam. The hands of a gardener.
Bill Stokes, grower of things. He knew at last what the last tree was for.
An hour later he walked through the cemetery gate, plaid holdall swinging at his side. He glanced at his watch. His bus would be along in a minute. He thought ahead to a Sunday in September. He would not be late this time! He would wait for them beneath the old tree near the crossing of the pathways, by the old brass standpipe that guttered and spilt its crystal gift as the Lady once poured water into her silver bowl.
And they would come. Proud in his cloak of midnight blue the blond Piper would lead them past and as each face turned he would not look away but return their gazes as one who found himself amongst friends.
Last of all she would look at him with those velvet eyes and that smile, expecting him to be there. And he would say nothing because there would be nothing to say, but fall into step behind her as they followed the party down the gravel path to gather at the Tolkien's grave. There, at the head of the tidy plot, small still but proudly the little oak would open its leaves as William reached out his hand and found hers. She would look enquiring up at him until understanding dawned in those ageless eyes. That was how it would be. But before then he had a lot to do.
Stepping from the kerb, he did not see the car until it was too late.
The last Sunday in September was clear and cold and those who had come to honour JRR Tolkien, author did not linger as long as usual beside the grave. Two only now remained, a couple in their mid-thirties. They hung back a little from the plot, heads bowed in silence as they paid their respects. A chill breeze moved the cards on the wreaths that littered the grass to either side. To the Professor. From the Tolkien Society.
An hour before she had stood with them all, hands buried in the pockets of her long coat as the plainsong rose and fell about her like an ocean that threatened to engulf the world. Then tears had come and she turned away.
Now that the ceremony was over she walked alone, head down between the graves. Deep in her pocket she grasped the token she could no longer offer. Never again. She had looked for him, the strange one who had walked with her the year before, but he had not come. Perhaps he was late again. Perhaps I scared him off.
He groped you.
She remembered how pathetic he had looked when he explained he was late because he had missed the bus; laughed suddenly at the recollection. He was a sad old man. No harm in him.
He felt your tits.
It doesn't matter.
It does matter.
The acorn warm in her grasp.
Why had she done that, slipped last year's into the pocket of his overcoat in the pub? It was supposed to be for Tolkien: a simple gesture, heartfelt and unthinkingly cast. Not planted - she never expected the thing to grow: always hoped beyond reason that it would. But she had slipped it into the old man's pocket when he was at the bar, struggling with her ridiculous order.
No silly, a half a half - a quarter of a pint!
At the time she had been moved to the gesture, that was all she could say. It was the right thing to do. What came after - it mattered, yes. It was wrong. Yes. But in the twelve months since she had regretted neither her impetuous gift nor what had follwed.
Perhaps it had been a sign. She sighed out loud and the sound of it caught her by surprise.
She had waited for him by the standpipe until it was clear he was not going to turn up. As she joined the ranks of the Tolkien Society at the graveside she overheard three thirty-somethings muttering in front of her.
"Doesn't the plot look nice?"
"I know - the family keep it tidy."
"Just as well someone does! You wouldn't believe what some of those so-called fans get up to! Someone actually planted an oak tree a few months back - can you imagine? Only a little one it was, but honestly ..."
"They got rid of it, of course!"
"Some people have no respect ..."
A hundred times she had rehearsed what she would say to him when they met again. She had half expected him to be late: it hadn't occurred to her that he might not show at all. She was confused. She needed to talk to someone. About what happened. About the acorn. The oak tree.
You don't even know his name!
The memory of plainsong rose and fell about her like the ocean and her tears as they fell left little trails of cheap mascara down her cheeks. It was over.
As she headed for the path that would lead her out into the real world she pulled a tissue from her pocket to dry her face. She did not notice the acorn fall. It skipped on the clipped turf, scudded to rest beneath a line of dwarf lavender that edged one of the many graves along the path.
The plot was planted profusely but with little care as though the plants - thyme and marjoram and carpet chamomile - had recently been dug up and haphazardly replanted. In the centre of the grave a twisted dwarf rose looked particularly awkward, though perhaps its new location suited the plant better than its last, for two small flowers still hung on bravely, well past their summer best.
She passed them by without a glance. As she went the breeze caught the skirt of her coat, swirling it about her legs. She hurried on, lost in her thoughts.
The rose chose that precise moment to relinquish its last petals. Most drifted across the plot like pink confetti, two or three catching in the branches of a tiny oak tree standing hard against the simple headstone.