Willow, Sweet Willow

by Isabel Dennis-Muir

The rehearsals were after school on Tuesdays.  Four until five-thirty.  Mum arrived early so she could take a peek.  Mrs Armitage said I swayed very well, but when mum was there I tried even harder.

‘Don’t sway from the waist,’ Mrs Armitage said, ‘put your whole body into the movement.  Imagine you are the tree.’

Layla was the duck.  She had white feathers stuck all around her and on the day of the real play she was allowed to paint her lips.  When she came onto the stage she had to sit at my feet for a while, then waddle to the edge of the water and slide in.

‘Be graceful,’ Mrs Armitage said, ‘like a swan.’

But Layla was a duck.

Mrs Armitage said the play brought the outside in.  Layla, Mo and me all giggled.  It sounded like inside out, but different.  Mo was a conker.  He had to bounce and roll.  He didn’t have the prickles of a proper conker, before you take the shiny part out from its case.  And he didn’t have to paint his face brown because it already was.

No-one spoke, but there was music.  Mrs Armitage said the music explained the four seasons. I thought spring sounded tinkling, as though it was afraid to get started.  Summer was like floating, but made me want to go to sleep, and winter was sad.  My favourite was autumn.  I could hear the wind blowing when the violins did something squeaky and it made me want to run and jump.  But I had to stand.

I stood at the edge of the water.  I wasn’t worried about getting wet, even when I swayed right down so that I was almost bent double.  The water was plastic and it was Mr Wright’s job to shine a light on it just so, to make it shimmer.

On Saturdays we went to see real trees.  Mum said it would help with my movement.  She said the weeping willow was her favourite.  I don’t know if it really was or whether she said that just to make me feel special.  She taught me the names of the trees and told me stories about their ages and the cycle of their lives.  It didn’t seem much like a cycle to me as much as a beginning and ending.  The sycamore could live for four hundred years.  Some of the oak trees were even older.  There was one that was as old as the Bible stories.

Dad had buttered crumpets ready for our return.  I laid my treasures around the plate; an acorn, a sycamore leaf, a pine cone.  The melted butter oozed out of the sides of the crumpets and dripped down my hand.

‘Don’t pick up the leaf with buttery fingers,’ mum said.  ‘If we let the leaves dry out we can keep them in a book.’

The next Saturday we stopped off at Martin’s paper shop on the way home and bought a scrapbook.  Each page was a different colour.

‘You can choose the colour to suit the leaf,’ she said.  ‘You don’t need to start at the beginning.’

I liked the idea of starting in the middle and spreading out both sides, so then there would be no beginning and no ending.  Or at least they would be all jumbled up.

Then one Saturday mum said, ‘I’m on crumpet duty today’.  And just like that it was dad and I who went to look at the trees, but it wasn’t quite the same.

‘Mum tells me stories,’ I said.  ‘She knows the names, their ages,’ I told him.

‘Well, I’ll have to learn then.  Perhaps you can teach me.’

It was the wrong way around.  Nothing felt right.

It was Tuesday again and I was saving my best sway for the end of the rehearsal, when I saw dad’s face through the small window.

‘Well done, Lottie,’ he said.  He took my hand as we walked home.

‘Did you see me?’ I asked him.  ‘Mum comes in,’ I said.

‘I’ll come in next time then,’ he said.  But it was mum I wanted.  She understood about trees.

It was tea time and mum’s chair was empty.  I put Bear on the cushion and pulled him into the table.  Dad smiled.  The TV was turned off and the radio wasn’t even on.   The quiet sounded strange.  I could hear the clock ticking and loud crunching noises in my head when I bit into my toast.

A few weeks ago when I wanted to watch the Magic Roundabout and dad changed the TV channel he told me, ‘News is important, Lottie.  You need to know what’s going on in the world, keep up to date.’

Dad liked the news, but today he didn’t.

Lots of things started to change. I read my bedtime story in mum’s bed.  She listened and made me do the voices like she used to.  I could do the high ones really well, but the low ones came out like a grumble. Dad bought me a book about trees.  I don’t know if it was for him or for me.  I read it to mum.  She asked me questions.

‘Lottie, how tall can an oak tree grow?  How deep are the roots of a sycamore?’

The answers weren’t in the book, but mum knew the numbers.  She told me and I remembered.  We talked about the ages of trees and she explained that the weeping willow lived a short but beautiful life.

‘Remember that Lottie,’ she said.

I practised my willow dance in her bedroom.  The play was just two weeks away.  Dad had bought two tickets.  They would arrive by taxi.  We always walked to school but dad said mum deserved a treat.  The taxi would cost two shillings.

‘We don’t want your mum catching a cold, do we?’ he said.

It was Friday 31st October and the hall was full.  Mrs Armitage told us all to try extra hard.

‘This is it, children,’ she said.  ‘A chance to make your parents proud.  Just concentrate and try not to fidget.’

I was practising my sway to the side of the stage one minute and then suddenly it was my turn.  I stood beside the plastic water and waited for Layla.  I bent down with my best sway and as I stood tall again I stared straight ahead.  The hall was full of faces, but the seat beside my dad was empty.  Perhaps mum didn’t like the taxi treat.  Dad had his camera and afterwards, when we walked home, dad said he’d show mum the photos. But it wouldn’t be right, photos are still.

It was autumn.  The best time for treasures.  I knew the footpath would be covered with chestnuts.  There would be leaves of every colour and shape to put in our book.  But we’re not going to the park.  Mum can’t do the crumpets, dad said.  We need to do them for her.  Except she didn’t eat them.  We sat beside her bed while she had porridge.  Every meal looked like porridge.  The only difference was the colour of the flower on the tray.

Bear and dad and me had tea and then it was time for my bath, but dad was still cleaning.

‘I’ll help,’ I said.  But as he turned to face me he was holding my mum’s hair in his hands.  If the hairdresser had been I didn’t understand why dad was crying.  I don’t think the hairdresser’s visit had gone well because mum looked sad.  She had wrapped her head in a leaf green scarf.  And then day after day she wore a different scarf.  Each morning I tried to guess the colour of the scarf for that day.

‘Tell the hairdresser off,’ I said.  ‘Get your money back.’

‘It’s like autumn, Lottie,’ she said.  ‘Just like when the trees lose their leaves ready for their winter sleep.’

It’s winter now and I walk to the oak tree.  Dad let me choose and I chose well.  In autumn I collect the fallen acorns and keep them in the house where I can see them.  Bringing the outside in.

I’ve left one page blank in my scrapbook.  That way there can be no ending.

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