Tree by Lewis Blair

Photo by David Vig on Unsplash

Randolph Minster woke up squint on Monday morning. Although his bed was straight on all three plains, and although he was relaxed and sunk flat when he awoke, it seemed his body was bent to the right and determined to stay that way. When Randolph stood at the toilet to void yesterday’s liquids, he stood askew. When he padded around his little kitchen making boiled eggs – five minutes for large soft boiled, toast notch three on the dial – he was undeniably squint, as if gravity’s pull had moved a little, but always to his right.

Randolph assumed that as the day progressed his body would right itself, or left itself, to be more precise. He cycled to the university with a rucksack full of half-finished musical scores for medieval Polish folk songs, the project of the most precocious of his PhD students. His pedalling seemed more forceful on his right and as a result he narrowly avoided what would have been a comedy crash into Mr Bloomquist the baker, who was carrying a crate of Danish pastries into his little shop on the high street.

At the university, having chained up his Sturmey Archer, Randolph felt a growing unease that the squint had not unsquinted itself. He did not feel ready to face his tweeded comrades in art, so he diverted to a café where the students would be too absorbed in themselves to register his bent demeanour. From the rack of newspapers, Dr Minster chose the Mail for a change, its thick black headlines promising a fresh outpouring of incredulous outrage. Randolph found himself nodding along to the home secretary’s latest denunciation of the feckless dodgers of virtuous work, though a keen observer could have reminded Randolph that, only the week prior, he had called the home secretary a bulbous piranha feeding on the finest British prejudice and pride. He drank his black coffee and tried unsuccessfully to get the text to appear parallel to the table.

“Ah, Minster,” bellowed Professor Gregory when Randolph entered the main office of the music faculty. “Supping with the youngsters again? Trying to deny the inevitable march towards middle age obscurity?” Minster found that the Prof was always a little too close to the truth for comfort.

“Yes, yes, yes, as you say, very good,” Randolph muttered through a sheepish smile, carrying on towards his office-as-sanctuary. He wondered if anyone could see his lean, and the wondering made him even more conscious of it as he swayed around bookshelves and desks to escape the communal space.

By lunch, Minster had almost given up swivelling his distractible mind towards the chapter he was trying to write on the use of counterpoint and dissonance in the operas of Claudio Monteverdi. His concentration was made worse by the fact he had slept poorly for three nights running. He could not avoid remembering the reason why.

The ineffective academic escaped for lunch to the lesser patronised cafes on the north of the campus, though he still ran into an acquaintance, Broxburn from English.

 “How goes it, Minster?” the quietly spoken Broxburn asked.

“Oh, could be better, could be worse,” said Randolph. “To be honest, the old back is playing up.” Might as well flirt with honesty, he thought.

Broxburn nodded in sympathy, though Randolph was fairly certain that Broxburn would not be able to empathise with the origin of his particular discomfort. Nonetheless, he appreciated the sentiment.

“What are you working on today?” Randolph asked him.

“Oh, just exam questions on political works for the first years. Hard to be original these days.”

“What are the texts?” Randolph asked.

“Well, you know how it is. Start with some classics. 1984, some Solzhenitsyn, Aldous Huxley, that kind of thing. I’ll probably set a question about the different uses of language in 1984 or some such safe bet, you know? A bit uninspired though.”

Randolph chewed the crusty bread that accompanied his ham broth and applied himself to Broxburn’s problem.

“How about making the question about the role of silence instead of language?”

Randolph suggested.

Broxburn gazed at Randolph, then out the window, then back at Randolph.

“Mm. Mm-hm. I like that. A different angle. Not easy to find. Not bad at all, Minster. Sometimes it just needs a different perspective. Well, better get back to it. Thanks. Hope the back gets better.” And with that, Broxburn hurried out, leaving Randolph to his thoughts and his broth.

Back at the office, Randolph called his doctor. He phoned at just the right time – a free slot had opened up at teatime. Randolph hoped the doctor would prescribe something for his squintness. As to the cause of it, well, that might be a more oblique matter.

That night, Randolph dutifully set out to follow the doctor’s orders. On Westburn Avenue, two streets away from his own flat, he hung around one of the large leafy elms that sprouted through the pavement and lined the long avenue. He bent to tie his shoelaces every time someone passed. An observer would have thought his lace-tying skills exceptionally poor.

At the first moment the road was bereft of vehicles and pedestrians, Randolph climbed haltingly up the wide tree, grateful for the thick foliage that more or less concealed him once he was about twelve feet up. He found the strong limb he was looking for. It struck out from the trunk at about forty degrees, the end dipping and curving like a shepherd’s crook. Randolph nestled himself along the branch on his left side, ensuring not to look behind him. The position was uncomfortable and his bent back protested. Through the thick mass of twigs and sappy leaves he could see only fragments of the nearby tenements, all red sandstone and luxurious curtains. He tried to pass the time by counting branches and twigs, and was briefly entertained by the question of what distinguished one from the other. He was continually tempted to cast a glance behind him, but a twist would be worse than a bend and he used all his powers of self-discipline to keep his gaze south.

Randolph had almost reached his allotted time when the unfortunate event occurred. He shifted his weight for the umpteenth time, for the crook was unnatural, and the branch creaked loudly in what would have been silence had there not been two sets of footsteps approaching. One set of footsteps stopped, then the other. Randolph kept as frozen still as he possibly could, though the temptation to look down was tremendous. The footsteps gathered around the base of the tree.

“Hey! What are you doing up there?”

Randolph felt like he was eight again – that horrible lurching of the guts, prickly heat rising through his skin, his mind whirring uselessly in neutral. And worse, he recognised the voice. He dipped his head over the branch and looked down, and there indeed was PC Fairfield whom he knew from the community council, and with him a female PC, the icing on the cake. Both stared up at him, their expressions a mixture of suspicion and embarrassment.

“Dr Minster. It’s PC Fairfield. And this is PC Parker. What are you doing?”

In the few short seconds he had to think, Randolph lighted on the popular image of the mildly batty academic. Something uttered from his lips might seem vaguely possible, that, uttered by a postman or a nurse, would be dismissed as nonsense.

“I, erm, I’m sorry, this must look very strange,” he said. “But I’m trying out something that one of my university students is researching. The, um, relationship between time spent in nature, and, uh, musical creativity, so to speak. So, strange as it may seem, this is part of our studies.” Randolph waved an arm to denote the tree, though he needed it for grip so he cut the gesture short. “And this is the closest nature I could find in this… urban conurbation.” (He hadn’t used the phrase ‘urban conurbation’ since Higher Geography thirty years previously – why on earth was it still in his vocabulary?)

Randolph lied so rarely he had no idea if he was any good at it. He watched for the constables’ reactions. They spent an interminably long time looking at each other and communicating only with their eyebrows. Both PCs looked up at the tenement windows. To Randolph’s horror PC Fairfield appeared to have noticed the warm amber light spilling from a first floor window on the other side of the street, the only window without curtains drawn or blinds rolled down. To his further horror, Randolph saw that PC Parker had now also clocked it. In an act of supreme kindness that Randolph would never forget, PC Fairfield spoke quietly to his colleague, they conferred a few moments, then PC Parker walked a few yards away and stood with her thumbs in her police vest looking the opposite way. PC Fairfield moved to the base of the tree, and with greater ease and sprightly confidence than Randolph had shown, shimmed up the first few branches of the tree. Whilst Randolph stuck frozen on his branch looking south, his tender back worsening with every passing minute, the canny policeman looked north, across the street. Through the first floor window at number forty-three, PC Fairfield saw a cosy living room lined with bookcases, an Edward Hopper print above the fireplace, and above all, in the bay window, a woman sitting at what looked like an ornately decorated piano. The woman was tall, slim, with straight fair hair verging on grey, and hidden within her precise staccato movements there seemed a strong hint of harnessed passion. She stared straight ahead as she played, oblivious to her observers in the tree.

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Randolph knew now that the policeman had seen it. It was surely obvious why he was there, facing the wrong direction notwithstanding. It was PC Fairfield who spoke first.

“Dr Minster. You can’t be doing this. It’s not right. I can see her you know. Facing the other way doesn’t fool me.”

Randolph sighed.

“You think I want to be facing this way?” he said, and his quiet tone was plaintive.

PC Fairfield looked quizzically at him.

“He told me to lie this way. The doctor.”

PC Fairfield shifted his weight and sighed. “Why don’t you explain to me what’s going on here, Dr Minster.”

The defeated tree-dweller sat up, found a more comfortable position, and faced the policeman squarely for the first time, a ragged representative of absurdity versus the arbiter of normality.

“I woke up squint this morning. Couldn’t get straight. Everything’s been askew, out of line, off-kilter. My body won’t straighten up. Nor my mind. So I went to the doctor and told him everything.

“For the last three nights I have climbed this tree to watch that woman play her harpsichord. I have climbed this tree, staining my cords and losing shirt buttons. I have lain on this branch, this particular bent branch,” he looked at it with a little disgust, “because I need to be high enough for the foliage to hide me but not so high that I cannot see into her room. I watch her play, and then, when she stops, I go home. She plays from 8:30 to 9 o’clock every night, not a minute more, not a minute less.

“The doctor told me the only way to solve my problem was to come here for one more night, at the same time, but to lie on the same branch facing the other way. And not to watch the woman play at all. He said that would correct my squint and cure my obsession.”

PC Fairfield looked away as he tried to suppress a smile.

“So that’s what I was doing when you chanced upon me. Trying to solve the problem.” He couldn’t help but sound defensive.

“Why don’t you just ask her out, Dr Minster? Instead of skulking about, watching her from a tree.”

Randolph stared at him, mouth open, brain stalling, then eventually smiled a smile of incredulity and delight. “I think you misunderstand, PC Fairfield. I’m not remotely interested in the woman. Have you not noticed the instrument? Look at it! It’s a Ruckers, in almost perfect condition as far as I can see!” At this he held up his binoculars which the policeman had not noticed before now.

“Look at the lines! The vibrancy of the painted figures and the repeating Renaissance patterns, even after three centuries! Look at the paintings on the lid. Could be Brueghel, or even Rubens! I’ve seen them occasionally in prestigious academies of music, but look, here, in an ordinary flat in my neighbourhood! What are the chances?”

PC Fairfield scanned the academic’s face for bullshit but found none.

“You’ve climbed this tree three nights in a row, risked life and limb and possible ridicule and arrest, to ogle a harpsichord?”

“Must you put it like that?” Randolph protested. “Would you describe visitors to Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ or Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves as ogling? Would you describe the woman who climbs a hill at daybreak to watch the sunrise as ogling? That instrument is an incredibly rare piece, a quirk, a one-off, in this artless country at least. Yes, the woman plays it elegantly. I can tell by her movements. But I’d be just as happy watching it be played by a wrinkly old man.”

PC Fairfield still looked sceptical but the moment passed as he turned again to watch the woman, her silk blouse twinkling lightly as her arms flowed and her long fingers caressed the keys and her body was pulled ever so slightly this way and that by the meanderings of the melodies and the bass chords. It looked now as if her eyes were closed, lost in private pleasure. Both men passed the remaining minutes of her practice watching the controlled artistry, their minds filling in the blanks of what it might sound like in that room as tight strings plucked by plectra sent rich tones scuttling over wooden floors.

And then it was over. She stopped, stood up, and left the room, and the harpsichord fell silent for another day. Both men began to descend the tree, one a little less embarrassed, the other a little less sure of what had just happened.

“Well, can we trust you not to do this again, Dr Minster?” the policeman asked, regaining his authority now they were back on solid ground.

“Yes, yes,” said the chastened voyeur. “I didn’t quite manage the doctor’s thirty minutes but it’s done the job. Besides, I could no longer relax up here after tonight.” There was a sad nostalgia in his voice and in his eyes.

“Goodnight Dr Minster,” said the PC, and they went their separate ways, PC Parker falling into step with her colleague.

A few days later, Dr Minster had straightened up. As he sat with students coaxing whole cities of emotions from their instruments, he rummaged in himself for the vision of the Ruckers and layered its remembered beauty over the moments of his day.

When PC Fairfield was next on shift with PC Parker, they laughed a little at the strange loner in the tree and his story so strange it had to be true. Though perhaps PC Fairfield’s laughter was a little more muted than it might have been, and perhaps this was due to the pain in his back that he had not discussed with PC Parker, though she had noticed he seemed to be walking a little squint.

About The Author

Lewis lives in Glasgow and is relatively new to fiction writing. He works as a psychologist in the NHS and has two kids who write more imaginative stories than he does. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, working on a second novel, and submitting further short stories for publication. He also makes electronic music in his attic.

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