Short story: Love Among the Branches

Short story: Love Among the Branches

by Tamar Hodes.

Love among the Branches, by Southampton author Tamar Hodes, was originally commissioned for Radio 4 back in 1999. Look out for an author profile on In Common, coming soon.

Richard stood at the open door, planks of timber stacked at his side like skis.

“I’ve come to build the treehouse,” he said. “Is this the right place?”

He’d been surprised on arrival to find the small, terraced house in an ordinary street and the garden compact, too. Somehow the woman’s voice on the ‘phone and the request for a treehouse for her son made him think he was going to some smart residence with a large garden. Far from it.

“Oh yes,” said Milly, wiping her paint-smeared hands down her old shirt and then sweeping her unruly hair back. “This is it. Come through.” The way she said this, with a wry smile, made Richard realise that it was not exactly Sissinghurst. And it wasn’t. A small patch of grass, no flowerbeds, but in the centre, dominating the space was a huge oak. Richard patted the trunk and nodded. That would be good support.

“I’ll unload my truck and start right away then,” he said and began. 

Back at her easel, Milly carried on with her latest piece: David defeating Goliath. She had been struggling with it for several weeks. Painting the giant had not been a giant task but capturing the figure of David was hard. She could picture him: diminutive, strong, the rock poised in one hand, the sling in the other but each time she tried to create the figure, she failed. The background was typically Milly – bright purple, relating more to the emotion of the painting rather than anything realistic in the landscape.

From the corner of her eye, Milly could see Richard working on the treehouse. Not a tall man, he worked steadily, quietly. There was something very attractive about him, his curly dark hair, bearded face, almost biblical in look, his grey eyes, healthy cheeks. In dirty jeans and baggy, old jumper, he toiled away, sawing planks of wood, measuring, nailing, holding screws between his closed lips until he needed them one by one. Milly enjoyed the rhythm of his work, the way his arms moved and his hands laboured: a human machine. By lunchtime, Milly could see the timber structure begin to take shape outside, like the evolving of an architectural fantasy. And Milly’s painting was evolving, too. The outlines of David were appearing, sketched in with pencil initially, a small figure, dark-haired, bearded. She found herself looking from Richard in the treehouse to David on her canvas. The curve of that beard – yes. A touch more dark paint – there. 

Milly stopped for pitta bread and humus at lunchtime, wondered whether to offer Richard some, left it, saw him sitting in the half-built treehouse, eating his sandwiches. Probably some loving wife had cut him a couple of rounds of cheese and pickle that morning. Wrapped them carefully in foil, she imagined.

Milly missed Harry on Saturdays but it was her only day to paint. One day without teaching or preparation. One day without teenage kids reluctant to do anything adventurous in her lessons. One day without Harry asking painful questions about the possibility of mum and dad getting back together again. One day to do what she really wanted. Usually painting came quite easily to her but not this one. Not surprising really. Stress at work. More legal wrangles over Harry. Simon ‘phoning her at odd hours. Unsatisfactory affairs with men Milly didn’t really like and had no desire to see again. 

After lunch, though, the painting came to her in the way it had done before when things were going well. There was an inevitability about where she put the brushstrokes, which colour to use, how much white to mix in. It seemed effortless – the solution coming to her rather than her having to seek it out. 

Milly enjoyed the afternoon, had some music on for a while – Ella, Gershwin, Duke Ellington – found herself humming, then worked in silence. She enjoyed the activity outside and within: Richard hammering away, her painting indoors. His ability to work moved her forward. She could see his progress, hers. 

David had now taken shape, small besides the giant, yet strong. Milly had more to do, could see the way ahead now, but found her arms aching mid-afternoon. She took a break, made a large pot of Earl Grey, put two mugs on a tray and went out to the garden. 

Richard, it seemed to her, was at the same stage with the treehouse as she was with her painting. Four fifths of the way, probably.

“How are you doing up there?” she called, stretching her neck to where Richard crouched in his treehouse like an eco-warrior, campaigning against the building of a new bypass. 

Richard smiled down at Milly. 

“Tea?” she asked.

“Wonderful,” he called back.

Milly had never tried to reach a treehouse before. Carrying a tray up the narrow ladder was weirder still, like some bizarre game show task. Can you balance this while climbing up? Richard leaned out from the wooden platform, the floor of the house, took the tray from her and held out a hand shyly to help Milly up. It felt strange, as if she were entering a magical green world, an imaginary land. Branches above her crossed and overlapped; new leaves jutted out from unlikely places. The sky peeped through sporadically, glimpses of blue behind green, behind brown. 

Suddenly she realised that it was spring. She had been too busy to notice it. From there, she could see sprigs of blossom on the trees in neighbours’ gardens, like fairy lights wrapped around the branches. There were daffodils and primroses, spots of light and optimism in the grass. She was aware of new possibilities, of potential. She could smell it in the air.

They sat for ages in the tree house, drinking tea, looking out on the world from a different angle. She could see her own little house, lit from within, her painting standing on the easel, the tiny kitchen. It all looked strangely attractive.

“You’re getting on really well,” said Milly speaking to herself as much as to Richard. 

He smiled. “When do you want it finished by?”

“Harry normally comes back about five. He sees his dad on Saturdays.”

Richard smiled again, recognition. He explained to Milly how he was also separated from his wife, saw his two children at the weekends, the difficulties, the negotiations. Richard had worked as a carpenter in the theatre in town for many years but had been made redundant when the place had closed. Lack of funds. Now he had his own company, building treehouses. It was his advert in the local paper which Milly had spotted, cut out, dithered over and then decided to follow up. On the ‘phone Richard had sounded pleasant and helpful. Milly had liked the design he had sent her in the post. Yes, it was a bit pricy but Harry was worth it. An early birthday present for him. A magical world within their rather unmagical garden.

Milly enjoyed speaking to Richard. He was slightly shy, his good-looking face betraying years of hurt and problems. Something vulnerable there.

Milly and Richard talked and talked. Drank more tea. They had so much in common. Separation, children of similar ages, work, the enjoyment each derived from creating in their own ways, books, jazz. Richard spoke quietly, listened well. Sometimes Milly would look away from his beautiful eyes and catch the branches above her, the evenness of the treehouse planks smooth among the jaggedness.

She smiled when he told her how he had watched her that morning, absorbed in her painting. She had not realised that, of course, he could see her in the small room, by the window (she needed the light), only thought that she had been watching him. He said he liked the way she lost herself in the work, paused, paintbrush in air, then began again, as if before each new commitment thought was needed. Milly admitted to Richard that she had watched him too. She looked down now to the house and the easel standing by the window. Me watching you watching me, thought Milly.

They drank all the tea. Earl Grey tasted particularly good ten feet up, Milly thought. She wondered what it would taste like in an aeroplane, in a cave, a mine, underwater. Her mind wandered to strange possibilities but this was the way she was. She began now to imagine Richard living in the treehouse permanently, her in the house and Harry moving between one house and the other. She liked the thought. One home, another home. A woman, a man.

They laughed together, shared stories, but then Richard said, “If you want this finished by five, I’d better get on.”

Milly didn’t want to leave the treehouse but was pleased that Richard wanted the job finished. Reluctantly, she climbed back down the narrow ladder, Richard stretching to pass her the tray and smiling to her as she made her way back to the house and her painting.

The next two hours passed quickly although thoughts of Richard kept filtering into her mind. She felt torn between her painting – nearly finished now – and him. She could see him in the tree, nailing the last few planks to the side now. It was a wooden castle in the air – an oak tree shelter from the difficult world. It seemed to her that they were both people who had had to wrestle with life. And both were now triumphing. She was finishing her work; he was finishing his treehouse. 

Milly put the last brushstroke on and stood back. The wet paint gleamed in patches where the fading light caught it. The paradox of the story seemed to come out – David, small, brave; Goliath, large, frightened. They faced each other and the unlikely one would win: triumph overcoming adversity.

Milly wanted to celebrate. She had finished what for her had been one of her toughest projects. She went to the ‘fridge, found a bottle of white wine, opened it, put two glasses on a tray, a thick white candle and matches, her tape recorder with Dave Brubeck playing and made her way to the treehouse. 

“You’ve won,” he said. “Finished before me.”

“I’ve got some wine,” called Milly. “Are you licensed?”

Richard laughed, helped her once more up the narrow ladder, took the tray from her. Milly lit the candle, watched the flame rise and dance in the slight breeze, smelt the wax, the paint on her clothes, the newly-sawn wood.

Milly sat and listened to her tape for fifteen minutes while Richard put the finishing touches to his work. An extra piece of wood here, sanding down there. Milly felt very happy sitting there. There was a serenity in the hideout. She felt as if she were in a refuge, that nothing could harm her there. It was darkening now, the branches a complex maze of crossovers and thick black lines, scoring the sky.

When Richard had finished he sat down and they drank wine together.

“Cheers,” said Milly. “To the finished treehouse!”

“To your finished painting,” said Richard and they touched glasses. 

“Dave Brubeck,” said Richard, pointing to the tape. Milly smiled.

Richard seemed much less reticent now. Maybe the wine helped, thought Milly, maybe the satisfaction of a completed job. He asked about her painting, wondered if she’d like to go to a jazz concert with him or if they could go out some time. Yes, she’d like that. Maybe his kids would like to come and play in the treehouse with Harry?

“You know,” said Milly, “I don’t wear these clothes when I go out for the evening?”

“Don’t you?” said Richard. “I just go like this.”

They looked down at themselves, at each other, laughed at his dirty jeans and sawdust-covered jumper, a few wood shavings lodged in his beard; Milly’s stained shirt, her wild hair refusing to keep in place. She thought how strange it was that so many times she’d been asked out and she’d taken trouble to dress in a way which wasn’t really her, had gone to a restaurant, tried to be someone she wasn’t and the evening had led to nothing but polite goodbyes, Milly angry with herself for wasting time and wishing she’d stayed at home and painted instead.

And now, in her old painting clothes, she’d met a man in her own garden, sitting in her tree, him in old clothes, too. Effortless. No chat-up lines. No stress. And here they were, sipping wine, laughing, confiding. Up in the air.

And how natural it felt when Richard leaned over and kissed her, just once, lightly, slowly, on the lips, and sat back. Milly put her paint smeared hand on his dust covered one. No, he laughed when she asked him, he didn’t normally kiss his clients, yes, he wanted to see her again – please – yes, he was so happy that he had met her. Milly wanted to scold herself, mid-forties, single parent, many times disappointed, did she really want to get involved again – with this beautiful builder of treehouses, this man who’d brought magic into her garden? Yes, she answered herself, yes, yes, yes.

Between them they drank the whole bottle, found themselves touching hands, kissing again. Then they stood up and danced to the music, Richard more relaxed now. Milly wondered for a moment whether they were being watched, whether someone would make a complaint to the Neighbourhood Watch Scheme about her flirting in the tree. Well, they were used to mad Milly and her zany ways, her funny paintings, her loopy ideas. 

Milly and Richard a heard car pull up outside. 

She climbed carefully down the ladder and ran over to see Harry. Simon waved and drove away. She hugged her son. How she loved it when he came home, always felt he looked bigger than he had in the morning, loved his large hands and smooth face. 

“Did you have a good day, lovely?” she asked.

“Okay,” said Harry.

“Well, I’ve got a surprise for you. Two, in fact.”

Harry grinned. What was his nutty mum up to now? She took him by the hand and led him down the drive.

“I’ve got something very special for you in the garden,” said Milly. “And there’s someone I want you to meet.”


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