Bare trees branch forlornly

Blood vessels feed a dirty cotton wool sky

And smoky clouds are passing by.

Maggie read the words again then, after polishing her reading glasses on her apron, she looked at the questions that followed:

1.  What does ‘branch forlornly’ convey to you?

2.  Why do you think the poet uses blood vessels as a metaphor for ‘feeding’ the sky?

3.  What do the descriptions of the sky tell you about the weather?

4.  Assume these are the opening lines of a poem.  How would you complete it?

Maggie sighed and glanced at her teenage son, dyslexic and disorganised, busy ferreting in the fridge.  ‘What other homework have you got?’

‘Oh, just some maths.  Easy-peasy  What’s for supper?’  Simon was always hungry.

Maggie read the English homework again.  She knew Simon would struggle to make sense of it.   He was brilliant at maths and anything to do with computers but spelling and English language were not his strengths.  The poem was unattributed but Maggie suspected that Miss Phillips, Simon’s doe-eyed English teacher, had written it herself.  She made no secret of her ambitions to become a published poet.

‘When does it have to be handed in?’

‘Monday.’  Simon, having abandoned the fridge, was now helping himself to a large chunk of bread with lashings of raspberry jam.

‘Well,’ said Maggie knowing she was wasting her breath, ‘don’t leave it until Sunday evening.  Get it over and done with so that you can enjoy the weekend.’  Simon always left his homework until the last moment hoping, against hopeless odds, that the passage of time would somehow make it disappear.

The next day Maggie enjoyed her usual lie in.  It was her Saturday treat after working all week as a receptionist at one of the local GP practices.  She had been a single mum for six years ever since, soon after Simon’s ninth birthday, her partner, Simon’s father, had upped and left without warning and without leaving any trace of his whereabouts. By the time she got out of bed, Simon had helped himself to breakfast, his cereal dish and an empty milk carton abandoned on the kitchen table, and gone to play football in the park.  After football he usually went to a friend’s house to play computer games, rarely returning  before supper time.  

Maggie, still in her dressing gown, made herself a cup of coffee and pottered about unhurriedly.  She gazed out of her kitchen window.  Her fenced-in garden consisted of a patch of grass, a shed with roofing felt that needed attention and a mature aspen tree.  The tree was far too large for her small garden but she loved watching it change through the seasons; the soft new green of spring, the endless trembling of its leaves throughout the summer, the blaze of yellow in the autumn and its skeletal branches in the winter. 

One rainy afternoon with nothing better to do, she had Googled ‘aspen tree’ and was intrigued to discover that Jesus had been crucified on a cross made from aspen wood and that the Celts believed the shimmering leaves meant the tree was busy communicating between this world and the next.  For Maggie the tree took on a new significance: she now knew it was a very special tree, a magic tree. 

Unfortunately the neighbour who owned the property beyond the tree, a detached Edwardian house with a large garden, viewed the tree quite differently.  He had often put notes through her letterbox grumbling about its size and its overhanging branches.  The unfriendly notes, always signed ‘Percy Wallace, JP’, complained about the way the tree cast long shadows over his vegetable patch, coating it with fluffy, cotton-like seeds in the summer and masses of yellow leaves in the autumn. 

Maggie always ignored his requests to have tree ‘attended to’, but eventually a note arrived demanding that the tree be felled to make way for a new fence.  Apparently Mr Wallace had discovered that the tree was encroaching on his property, with half the trunk in his garden, not hers. 

Maggie, distressed at the prospect of chainsaws, and feeling sick as she imagined the ease with which they could slice through a tree surgeon’s thigh, had sought advice from a local counsellor she knew through the surgery.  He, imploring her not to tell anyone, had suggested she should apply for a Tree Preservation Order and Maggie had been delighted when an order was forthcoming.  Predictably, an indignant Mr Wallace had immediately appealed for the order be revoked.  However, despite all his pompous huffing and puffing, the order had been confirmed and the fence had to be constructed with a kink in it to accommodate the trespassing tree trunk. 

During the intervening two years, hostile notes from Mr Wallace had ceased, though he continued pointedly to ignore Maggie when she was in her garden and confiscate Simon’s footballs whenever they went over the fence.    

At tea time after a lazy day, Maggie smelt smoke from a bonfire.  Mr Wallace often had bonfires in the autumn but this one was particularly intrusive.  She closed the kitchen window and hurried upstairs to Simon’s bedroom, tripping over piles of discarded clothes to reach the window with a better view. 

She could see Mr Wallace burning old timbers from what had once been a substantial greenhouse.  As the flames licked greedily around the dry wood, a woman burst out of the house and ran down the garden, shouting and waving her arms.  Maggie couldn’t hear what she was saying but it was obvious that she was highly agitated.  When she reached Mr Wallace, the woman pummelled his chest but he pushed her aside.  Maggie watched as the woman, tottering backwards, tripped over a pile of timbers and fell.  She lay flat on the ground with her head in the bonfire.  Mr Wallace hesitated momentarily then grabbed the woman’s outstretched arms and pulled her clear of the flames.  Her hair was on fire but Mr Wallace quickly extinguished the flames by smothering them with his bare hands.  Together they staggered back to the house and disappeared inside.

Maggie stood there, hardly believing what she had seen.  She felt helpless, incapable of deciding what she should do.  Phone the police?  Rush round there to see if she could help?  As she stood there, her heart pounding, she saw the flashing blue lights of an ambulance arrive in the road beyond.  Meanwhile, the unattended bonfire continued to burn enthusiastically.

Maggie took a deep breath and attempted to pull herself together.  She was about to go downstairs to retrieve her mobile phone when a section of Mr Wallace’s precious fence started to smoulder, suddenly igniting as if someone had doused it in petrol.  The flames, like nimble squirrels, leapt up the branches of the aspen tree, its yellow leaves curling and writhing as they succumbed to the heat.  At last Maggie sprang into action.  She rushed downstairs and phoned 999. 

The flames had died down by the time the fire engine arrived, leaving the aspen tree scorched and charred.  Fireman, unable to reach the bonfire with their hoses, hacked a hole through the damaged fence and poured buckets of water over the dying embers, steam hissing into the gathering dusk.

Maggie kept an eye on the Wallace’s house over the next few days, but it stayed dark with no signs of life.  She wondered what hospital they’d been taken to and imagined their burns swathed in soothing bandages.  Meanwhile, the leaves on the aspen tree that had escaped the flames, fluttered ceaselessly and Maggie smiled to herself, confident they were busy relaying their story to the other world.

‘What happened about your English homework?’ Maggie asked Simon the following weekend. ‘Did you manage to complete that poem?’

‘Yep,’ said Simon, breaking open a packet of chocolate digestives.

‘Let’s have a look at what you said.’

Simon, half way through one of the biscuits, fished around in his rucksack and produced his English Language exercise book with doodles all over the cover, including some sketches of Miss Phillips with exaggerated eye lashes. 

Maggie turned the pages until she found the last entry.  Simon had written:

My mum shouted, ‘what the hell

That’s next door’s bonfire I can smell’.

A neighbour my mum can’t stand

Allowed his bonfire to get out of hand.

Then, the daftest thing you ever heard,

The silly old fart set fire to his bird.

My mum’s big tree caught fire too

Beyond the reach of the fire crew.

The branches now are black and bare

Looking much the worse for wear.

Maggie smiled. ‘What did Miss Phillips say?’

‘She said I wasn’t much of a poet but that I certainly had a vivid imagination.’

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