What if a brief workplace dalliance turned into something impossible?
He barely looks up when she walks past his desk. He is unsure, shy, reserved and cautious. All of the above. But he notices. Notices the way she strides with purpose, her notebook held firmly to her breast, her footsteps the sound of water slushing around in a bottle. He watches her surreptitiously for a fortnight, catching a glimpse of her trailing, bobbing ponytail as she bounces past.
One morning, he looks up at her and feeling bold, offers a strange, awkward idiot smile. He thinks she smiles back, if only briefly, but he isn’t sure. He spends the rest of the day thinking about it. Agonising. Did she? Was it? He cannot be certain. He decides it is best to not think about it anymore, but to simply choose. He decides that she did. Smile. He leaves work happy.
Bernard has a daily ritual. He opens his calendar, examines it, hopeful. And moments later, he closes it again, dissatisfied. One morning, as he’s slurping yoghurt greedily for breakfast, he notices an anomaly. He pauses, the spoon wavering before his mouth, the yoghurt precariously close to the edge. His calendar isn’t empty. This cannot be. It is always empty. He looks again, the yoghurt on the brink, and sure enough, there is an entry. And it is from her. He can feel his heart surge, sending little pulses through his body, so that his hand jolts as if shocked, causing the neglected yoghurt to splatter on his screen. A meeting. With her. He hopes he doesn’t make a fool of himself.
They sit opposite each other, their managers volleying ideas and counter ideas. He waits, glancing at her, watching her fidget with her pen. Was she just looking at him? What do you think Bernard? Huh? He looks up, greeted by expectant faces. He better say something. Seize the moment. Be cool. Be smart. He proffers advice, speaking passionately, incisively. Someone rebuts but he waves this away as you do a fly, with reason and evidence, displaying knowledge previously locked away. Finished, he becomes silent and scans their faces for reactions. The managers seem pleased, his especially. He locks eyes with her. They are curious, hungry. He smiles a deep, hopeful smile, but keeps it inside, keeps it to himself. He is sure she smiles back.
At home, Bernard distracts himself with mundane domesticity. He tries to. He cannot help thinking of her. They talk now. A lot. About everything. She tells him about her favourite writers, people he’d never heard of before, but really wants to. He tells her he has written a book; an unpublished one. She tells him about growing up in the country. He tells her he did too. And they laugh over the finer details. She tells him that she is going overseas soon, but doesn’t like talking about it. He tells her that he has no interest in talking about it either. She tells him she has a crush on him. He…does too.
One day Bernard is sitting at his desk, pretending to work. He finds it hard to focus. She asks him if he is free for lunch. He isn’t. He is meant to be meeting a friend. His pulse quickens, excited, nervous. He contacts his friend, tells them he cannot make it. Something has come up at work. He tells her that he is free. She is happy.
In a nearby park, they lay together, talking. He gazes at her, noticing how the sun, peeking through the foliage above, kisses her face, tenderly. He aches to do the same. He watches as her fingers fidget with the grass, and suddenly courageous, puts his hand on her back. She does not flinch. He begins caressing it, trailing his fingers across her shoulders, drawing pictures of a future he imagines for himself. She moves gently underneath, mewling quietly, then turns away, arresting him with her eyes. She takes his hand, her slender fingers flexing as they stretch to meet his. Like the branches of trees in dense forest, they tangle. She looks away and confesses to fantasising about them being together, properly. She sees them in a house with a beautiful library, the walls bursting with books and a large sofa where they can both sit together. Bernard watches her, imagines her sitting in the chair, his hands moving over her body so gently, as if too much pressure will break her. He tells her that he had a friend who lived in a house built around an old tree, the branches forming the foundation. She loved this idea and said she wished they could live in a tree house.
A month has passed and Bernard realises that he is happy. It is strange and unfamiliar. He can’t remember feeling like this before. He finds himself wandering around, his mind swirling, but his senses seem keener. He notices things. Things he never could before. Like the scrawl of a child etched in paving, or the way the sun would shine between two buildings, casting a small shadow on the wall, resembling a tree.
He spends more and more time with her, talking, touching, imagining. Stolen time. Each moment seems rushed and is never enough. He is never satisfied and he can tell she isn’t either. He yearns to kiss her, to tell her how she makes him feel, but he can’t. For once, he is not confident with his words. Afraid that he will ruin things by choosing the wrong one, saying the wrong thing. He prefers to write, speech isn’t his thing. He tells her this and she laughs and says he is silly. He agrees, but says only the right amount.
They speak on the phone and when she laughs at one of his stupid jokes, his heart triples in size. He feels it throbbing, pulsating and when he looks down he can see his shirt move with each beat, like a fist smashing repeatedly through his chest. It hurts, his skin stretching across the protruding organ, his muscles burning, but he revels in it, afraid of not feeling it. As they talk, he smiles. He is always smiling, but she is talking about the house again, so he smiles wider; a secretive smile. A knowing smile. He will tell her in time.
Bernard is busy. This is what he tells his family. They prod, probe, fish for answers. What are you doing? Where are you going? Who are you seeing? Why? Why? Why? Always why. Nothing he says. Nowhere. Nobody. I just have something to do he says. It is none of their concern. It is his business. No one needs to know. Not yet. In time all will be clear. But time is running out. So he works. Every moment he has without her, he is working. And it makes him happy. He is pleased with himself, it is going well.
She thinks about their tree house she tells him as they sit on the grass. His hand strokes at the curl of her fringe as it loiters over her eyes. She leans towards him, each stroke bringing her closer. He moves closer too, tiny movements. She feels his senses, overwhelms him. He wants to tell her what he has been doing. How hard he has been working. But the time isn’t right. It never is. Maybe tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow he will tell her. He is nearly finished. One more day is all he needs. Two at most. She checks the time and says that they should get back. They’ve been gone too long. He doesn’t care, doesn’t want to go back. He wants to hold her, keep her close, but does as she instructs, does as she wants. As they walk back to work, she tells him about her arrangements, how she has been packing, cleaning, booking flights. He had forgotten about her trip. Been distracted by his project, by her. He feigns interest, offers reassuring words, but his heart races as he thinks about her leaving. She catches his hand briefly, her finger lingering on his. Only two more days of work she says quietly.
It is night and Bernard is running out of time. He is working again. Creating. Constructing. He surveys his creation, almost satisfied. He gazes upwards, into the pale haze of city starlight. All it needs is a roof he muses. He can add that later, once it is in place. Once she sees it. He starts to dig, his fingers burrowing like worms into the earth. Handful after handful of discarded soil is heaped into a pile beside him. An hour passes, maybe two. Soaked in sweat, weary and hungry, he sits back and stares at the hole. Perfect. The light from his lamp flickers; shadows dance over the earthen floor, leaping into the hole, filling it.
He stands, his back moaning in protest, his hands rigid from work, and stumble steps over to a large plastic bag. He carries the bag back to the centre of the room and unravels its bindings, releasing a young elm tree. It bursts free, stretching toward the sky, twirling its leaves in anticipation. The salesperson told him that this tree was special. That it will grow faster than any other. All he needs to do is give it water, not much mind, just a little. And read to it. It feeds on words he said.
Bernard hoists the tree up, careful not to damage it, and groaning, tenderly places it into the hole. It sinks deep, frightening away the shadows. It seems happier, content. He hurriedly shovels the soil back into the hole, his hands stiffening with each handful. Finished, he snatches at his drink bottle and taking a sip, pours the rest around the tree. It stands erect, soaking the moisture through its roots. Bernard watches, amazed, as the branches change colour, become lighter, healthier. Smiling, he retrieves a book from his bag, one she leant him, and starts reading.
He reads softly, careful not to arouse attention. The tree shifts in its place, swivelling its trunk, bending its branches to snatch each word from his lips. It begins to grow, slowly at first, millimetre by millimetre, but as he reaches halfway, its ascent becomes faster. Spurt after spurt it bends and stretches and groans, its limbs scratching and cracking as it moves closer to the unfinished ceiling. By morning, it has tripled in size, the tips of its branches tickling the trusses of the roof. Tired, Bernard decides it is time to tell her. To show her.
At work, he waits to talk to her. Watching as she moves from well wisher to well wisher. He can see she is uncomfortable, dislikes the attention. It is the wrong kind of attention. She has told him this before. She walks past him, averting her eyes, her smile no longer visible. Barely able to breathe, he hurries away from everyone, seeks solace in a quiet room. The only one he can find. She is leaving and there is nothing he can do about it. A profound sadness seeps from his heart, flows through him, consumes him. Many moments pass until finally, composing himself, he returns to his desk, to a message waiting for him. It is from her.
She tells him that she is sorry that she has not been able to see him, that it has been a crazy, terrible day. She tells him that it has been very hard for her. She tells him that he means so much to her and that she will miss him dearly. She tells him that she wants to see him before she goes. He reads her words and doesn’t know how to respond. His fingers hover over the keys, but he is afraid to write. Afraid that the sadness within him will taint his words. Meet me at our place near the park after work he types and then leaves.
Leaning against the trunk of the elm tree, Bernard waits, admiring his craftsmanship. It is small and modest, but it is the beginnings of a house. The foundation. Two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Sketchy for now, but the idea is there. There is even a library, with wall to wall shelving, ready to be filled with books. And in the lounge is the elm tree, its branches reaching into the rafters, entwining themselves around the truss work, becoming part of the house. The sadness has retreated. He is excited. She will see what he has made. What he has created. For her.
His pocket shakes and retrieving his phone, reads a message from her. She cannot make it. She has been crying since she left. She is very sorry and will miss him. Dropping the phone, he is silent. Wind whispers mournfully through the open roof and plays with the elm’s leaves. The tree watches over Bernard as he sits, almost still. It understands his pain and wants to comfort him as he did it. It feels his despair seeping into the ground, his tears dripping into the soil. Hungrily it absorbs them, swelling its trunk, opening itself up. With great cracks and snaps it manoeuvres itself to be near him, its branches twisting and tangling among themselves.
Bernard, jolted by the tree’s movement, looks around at his house, her house, and looks up at the tree. It is bent over, hunched like an old woman, its branches straining to touch the ground, as if stretching to pick up a coin. Its trunk is swollen and buckled and houses a large opening in the centre. Large enough for a man to sit in. To rest in. Maybe the tree is hungry. He picks up the book she gave him, sits gingerly in the trunk and starts reading again.
He reads, the words trickle like tears and land at the base of the tree. He reads, his voice, broken and soft, filters through the branches, caressing the leaves. He reads, aware of nothing else, but the beauty of the writing and the withering of his heart. He finishes a chapter and pauses, inspecting the tree, hoping it is healing itself. But it isn’t. Quite the opposite. He watches as it trembles, weeping, its leaves falling softly to the ground. He tries reading more but with each word, the tree shakes harder, crying more leaves. Sadness tears through him again and sobbing, he falls deeper into the trunk, the book falling from his grasp at the foot of the tree.
It is late. She has been sending messages all afternoon, but he hasn’t responded. Worried, she follows his directions and walks to the place behind the park. She sees a small rudimentary building, or the skeleton of one. She doesn’t remember seeing it before. The walls are unfinished, it has no roof, but it looks like charming, has potential. She enters through the open doorway, the evening housing the entrance in shadow, and is shocked by what greets her. Inside is an elm tree. It is quite large, taking up most of the room, its branches half shaping the roof, half hanging limply to the ground. It has no leaves and its trunk is a sorrowful grey.
She approaches it, touching the bark. It is course but flimsy, breaking off under her hand. She notices a semi-closed hole in the trunk, the wood mangled and warped inside. It looks like someone has carved into the wood. An artist maybe, as she swears it looks like someone is resting inside. She examines it, touches it. It is wood, no doubt. But it is a perfect replica of a sleeping man. She traces the line of the carving with her fingers, from the torso up to the face, where she notices a single tear on the cheek. She touches it and shudders, sensing deep sorrow. She decides to leave and as she turns to walk, kicks at the leaves piled by the trunk, her foot hitting something solid. She picks it up and realises that it is the book she gave him. He was here. A sob escapes her throat and wanting to tell him that she came, takes a pen from her bag and carves a message into the trunk. Sorry I couldn’t make it on time. Will see you when I get back. I love you. She leaves the book and trailing her hand on the tree, walks through the doorway and disappears in darkness.