As Daniel sits and opens his laptop, Ruth takes a sip from her well-earned glass of white and looks at the little oak tree that has planted itself in the flowerbed at the bottom of the garden. Against the darkening sky, its leaves look almost black. From where they’re seated on the patio, the swaying of its branches makes the stars behind them seem as if they’re really twinkling.
‘It says here that some species of oak tree can grow up to two-and-a-half feet in a year.’ His eyes still on the screen, Daniel reaches for his beer, but before he can knock it over, Ruth slides it across the table and into his grasp. His lips quirk acknowledgement, and after taking a long draught, he peers over the top of his glasses at the tree. ‘What is it now … eight feet tall?’
‘About that,’ Ruth replies.
‘That means it could be as tall as the house in what … seven years?’
‘Only if it’s the fast-growing kind.’ After twenty-three years of marriage, Ruth knows exactly what he’s going to say next.
‘It’s definitely the fast-growing kind.’
In the coppice on the far side of the fence, an owl ke-wicks and her mate hoo-hoo-oooos.
Laughing, Ruth shakes her head. ‘Let me guess. You want to pull it up.’
‘It’s the sensible thing to do,’ he says, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head. ‘We should nip it in the bud before it gets too big.’ He chuckles. ‘Nip it in the bud. See what I did there?’
Ruth sighs, but she can’t help smiling at him. In the light from the lanterns spearing the lawn, the lines on his face and the grey in his hair are all but erased. Apart from his slightly sagging jawline, he looks much as he did when she first met him, and she wonders if the light is being as kind to her.
‘This is nice,’ he says, nodding as he picks up his beer again. ‘Just you and me. No kids.’ He pauses and raises an eyebrow. ‘No neighbours.’
Before she can respond, they both hear a door slam.
‘Great.’ Daniel throws his hands in the air and sits up straight. ‘I knew it was too good to be true.’
‘Don’t do it,’ she says.
But he does it anyway: he starts counting. ‘One, two, three, four …’ and by the time he reaches ten, the doorbell chimes. ‘Leave it,’ he says.
‘Oh, come on, Dan. She’s just lonely.’
‘She’s just lonely every night at 9pm. Leave it.’
‘I can’t. She knows we’re in.’
‘Well then maybe she’ll get the message that we don’t want her around every evening.’
‘You mean you don’t want her around every evening.’
‘What? And you do?’
‘All right, I’ll talk to her.’
The doorbell chimes again, and without another word, Ruth rises from her seat. Iris is old and alone. Her children are scattered across the globe, and her pension won’t stretch far enough to bridge the distances between them.
As she opens the front door, Ruth can hear the feet of Daniel’s chair scrape across the patio, and by the time she and Iris emerge from the house, he and his beer have disappeared. His laptop, though, remains, and Ruth’s glass still holds enough wine for it to be rude not to offer Iris a drink.
‘Just a small one,’ says Iris, sitting down. Despite the rising night’s breeze, her silver curls stay pressed to her head. ‘Where’s Daniel tonight?’
Above them, Ruth hears the sticky thud-hiss of their bedroom window opening. ‘Oh, he’s inside somewhere.’ Pouring Iris’s wine, she watches her eye the laptop. It’s still open on the webpage about oak trees. The title reads: Will Tree Roots Damage My House? The owls in the coppice call to each other again. ‘What time is it in Tokyo?’ she asks, sliding the laptop toward her. She opens another tab and brings up the world clock. ‘We could Skype Andrew.’ She tuts. ‘Oh, it’s only 5am. What about Canberra? Ah. Just gone six. Do you think Layla and the girls will be up yet?’
‘I shouldn’t think so, love,’ says Iris, twisting her cardigan’s top two buttons through their holes. ‘They don’t start school until 9.30, so they’ll still be tucked up in bed.’
‘That’s a shame. Tell you what. I’m not in the shop tomorrow morning. Why don’t you pop round after Daniel’s gone to work and we’ll Skype them then?’
‘I don’t want to put you to any trouble.’
‘It’s no trouble. I’ll just potter around doing chores while you and the girls catch up and then you and I can have a quick coffee before I head off to work. How does that sound? We could make it a regular thing if you like. Say every Friday morning?’
‘That sounds wonderful, love.’ Iris picks up her wine. The beads of condensation cupping the outside of the glass tremble. ‘Thank you so much.’
Later, as she slips into bed and tucks her corner of the duvet beneath her chin, Daniel rolls over to face her. His head is a dark mound on the pillow, but his eyes catch the light from the streetlamp shining through the landing window.
‘I read that website about tree roots damaging houses,’ Ruth says quietly. ‘It said it seldom happens as most foundations are able to withstand the odd tree root, and as long as the trees are more than 16 feet away from the house, there shouldn’t be any subsidence.’
After a moment, Daniel replies, ‘you think we should leave it where it is, don’t you?’
Ruth strokes his arm and closes her eyes. ‘I do,’ she says, and in the coppice on the far side of the fence behind the little oak tree, an owl ke-wicks and her mate hoo-hoo-oooos.
About the Author
Natalie Bowers is a story scavenger, perpetual student and professional volunteer who lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children and a growing collection of ukuleles. A gregarious loner and shameless eavesdropper, she can often be found haunting the dark recesses of coffee shops and cafes, her pencil poised above paper. Many of Natalie’s stories have appeared in print and on-line. She is also the editor and publisher of the flash-fiction website, 1000words.
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