Authors: Henry Williamson
‘God made the country, and the Devil made the suburb.’
‘You are only young once; make the most of it, m’boy!’
Saying of Thomas Turney.
Phillip reached the Socialist Oak he found the fog thinner on the Hill; it had been thick, almost yellow, down in Pit Vale. He had hurried on his way from school, avoiding even the much-admired Milton after they had passed the Obelisk together, in order to be alone to think. A daring and tremulous idea had obsessed him all day: to send a Valentine to Helena Rolls, in disguised writing, of course, lest her parents find out who had sent it, a thing too awful to be thought about. He had waited in his mind, while hurrying up from Pit Vale, until he reached the Socialist Oak; and then, upon the rustic seat erected around its trunk, he sat down. The tree would do his thinking for him; it would put ideas into his head. For it was very old and wise, Mr. Mundy the Vicar had told him. It was older than the elms on the ridge, though much smaller.
During the previous summer Mr. Mundyâa sort of harmless joke in the neighbourhood, a genial ecclesiastical figure who wore, throughout the year, a black straw hat speckled with yellow, and rode a bicycle on the pavements of the suburb, and on the gravel paths of the Hill, despite the lawâhad explained to Phillip that the oak had probably been dropped as an acorn by either a pigeon or a rook, and there had taken root. There must have been other seedlings, said Mr. Mundy; but sheep, which grazed close, would have cut them off with their teeth. In those days the Hill had been glebe land; and it was possible, said Mr. Mundy, that the oak had started to grow in Queen Elizabeth's reign, more than three hundred years before. It was of starveling growth, as Phillip could observe for himself: and could he explain why?
Thereupon Mr. Mundy had launched out, much as Gran'pa did, into his rather funny way of talking about antiquarianism. There was something about smoke drifting from the factories in
the old marshland south of the river, and the acid dust in the atmosphere, which hung low with fog from the Thames and slowly poisoned the leaves of the oak. So it was stunted, fighting all the time for pure air, just like a human being. For a tree, Mr. Mundy told Phillip, breathed through its leaves. If the leaves were choked, a tree or plant would surely dieâor remain stunted.
That fact had moved Phillip; and ever since he had seen the Socialist Oak as more than a tree, a living thing ever trying to escape its fate of having to breathe acid air coming from London.
One day a wonderful thing had happened while he was sitting with Mother under the tree. A bird with a red head and green wings had flown to the oak, hung to the bark a few moments, and then with a sort of laugh, had flown away again. It was a woodpecker, said Mother. She had often seen them when she was a girl, at Cross Aulton in Surrey.
Mother loved the sunshine, and told him about the herb fields around her old home in Surrey, and the wonderful smell of burning lavender roots in autumn. Mother was always talking about how, when Father retired, she would perhaps realise her dream, and live in a cottage in the country, and have all sorts of herbs in the garden, with a lavender-border to the path, from the gate to the front door.
From his earliest years Phillip remembered playing under the Socialist Oak, near which men spoke to the crowds on Sunday afternoons. He remembered when his sister was too young to walk, and he helped to push her up the Hill in the mail-cart. He remembered Mother telling him that the round brown things on the twigs were called oak-apples; and about the torn paper kite on the very top of the tree, which dangled there on its twisted string, grey with soot. Mother had told him a story about that kite. It was always hoping that the wind would set it free, so that it could find the little boy to whom it belonged. Perhaps he was a poor little boy, and the kite was his only toy, said Mother. Had the little boy cried, Phillip asked, tears in his eyes. When Mother said she expected so, Phillip had felt sad for the poor little boy who had cried, and sad for the poor kite, all alone on the top of the tree. But he had hidden his tears from Mavis, who always pointed at them, and laughed.
And there the kite had remained, year after year, until only a little bit of twisted black string was left, tied to a piece of wood that had been part of the frame. Since then, Phillip had grown
up. He had won a scholarship and gone to a school on the Heath beyond Pit Vale; he had made and lost many newspaper-and-bamboo kites of his own in the eternally long summers in which it seemed that the sun was always shining; but the leaning black oak tree had remained his secret friend. Whenever he wanted to think nowadaysâwhich meant when he was unhappy or worried, which was oftenâsometimes he sat on the rustic-work around its base, and there, remaining still, waited until something told him what to do.
No thoughts came into Phillip's head from the tree, as he sat there in the dripping fog; and gradually his fears and apprehensions began to take shape. Dare he send a Valentine to Helena Rolls? And how could he disguise his handwriting, if he did so? For Helena must never know that he had sent it. She might be offended. He knew himself to be in the Rolls' bad books. One of the reasons why they never asked him and his sisters to their parties was because he was a swearer, and rude. They were much richer than the Maddisons, too, though Mr. Rolls could not be more of a gentleman than Father, for the Maddisons, Phillip knew, had once been high-up people. Although grandfather Maddison had been run over when drunk in London, by a heavy dray, and had been rather a bad lot, yet he had been Captain Maddison, of a crack cavalry regiment. Still, that did not make up for the fact that Father was, as he had often said, a poor man; that he himself was a scholarship boy, and, apart from his swearing, must be looked down upon by the Rollses on that account. Mother said it did not matter what you were, so long as you behaved yourself in every circumstance: but that was the trouble, he knew that he behaved badly in nearly every circumstance. And however hard he tried to be better, he never could be.
Milton was a friend of the Rollses. If only he could be like Miltonâwho sang anthems in St. Simon's choir, who was always one of the top boys in his form at school, and good at all games. Milton had fair curly hair; not almost black, like his own. Milton had good muscles, not skinny ones. He could dive from the high board in the Randiswell Baths; whereas he, Phillip, always went a belly-flopper even from the side of the bath, and water got into his nose and throat, choking him. Milton was easy and smiling; he himself was usually afraid, and unsmiling. Milton had regular, fine teeth; his own were crowded in front, his dog-teeth having grown over the others.
In dejection, Phillip sat on the seat under the Socialist Oak, hearing slow drips of fog from the branches above, and trying to think, while all sorts of pictures would come into his mind and spoil his thinking. He thought best in summer, alone in the long grass of the Backfield, lying on his back with his face to the sky, and seeing the red of his blood through his eyelids. That was the best way of all, to lie in the sun and let ideas float into the head, and imagine all sorts of wonderful things, while Helena Rolls' blue eyes were part of the sky, and her hair was gold as the sun.
The Valentine! Quick, before beastly Ching, who always tried to hang on to him, whom after leaving Milton he had dodged in Pit Vale, found him by the tree, and spoiled it all. Quick!âthink! Tom Ching always mucked things up.
Closing his eyes as he sat on the wet, soot-grimed seat, Phillip thought of Helena Rolls' face. Her eyes were blue as the bluebells under the trees of Reynard's Common, where he had gone by train with Mother and the girls for a picnic the year before. It was a Sunday, and Father had cycled out to join them. And thinking of bluebells, suddenly he remembered a poem which went
The rose is red,
The violet blue.
Both are sweet
And so are you.
Got it! Change violet to bluebell! In excitement he clenched his hands on the knees of his blue serge knickerbockers. He spoke the lines out loud, to the tree.
The rose is red,
The bluebell's blue.
Both are sweet
And so are you.
O maiden fair
To me be true.
That was it! That would do! Cousin Polly Pickering, staying with them, was a ripping painter, and if he swore her to secrecy, she would paint a bunch of bluebells for his Valentine, then write in the poem below, and nobody in the Rolls house would know who had sent it!
Getting up from the seat, Phillip said goodbye to the Socialist Oak; and tucking his arms into his sides, set off at a jog-trot
along the gravel path. Next month was the inter-House Harriers Race at school, and it was time he got into training.
Mavis and Doris, his sisters, were of course curious to know why Phillip asked Polly to speak to him alone in the front room, after tea.
“What are you up to now, I wonder?” asked Mavis.
“âCuriosity killed the cat'” he quoted one of Father's remarks. “Come on, Polly.”
He opened the sitting room door, and together they went along the passage to the front room. It was dark, for the gas-mantle in its rosy glass globe hanging from the hall ceiling was unlit. Usually this burned with a tiny light all day, the by-pass; and when you pulled the chain, the light popped and the mantle glowed. But when Mother had pulled the chain before opening the door for him, the by-pass had died out. He had offered to light it; but as usual, Mother had stopped him.
“No dear, perhaps we had better leave it until your Father comes home. You know how upset he will be, if the mantle breaks, as it did last time I tried to light it.”
“Yes, but you're not me! You let too much gas get inside it, and the explosion bust it. The tap should be turned on only a little. I'll do it. Where are the matches?”
“No dear, I would rather you did not, if you don't mind. If the fog thickens, and Father's train is delayed, he will be tired, and I would not like him to be upset when he comes home. It's entirely my fault, I pulled the chain too quickly.”
Remote muffled fog-signals on the Randiswell line during tea seemed to confirm the thickening of the fog. They were still thumping as Phillip went along the lightless passage, followed by Polly. He was glad it was foggy; it meant more time before Father returned. He closed the door.
“Well?” said Polly Pickering, standing still, and looking at him. Her face was faintly laced by the halo'd light of the street-lamp, two doors down, coming through the lace curtains. “Well? What do you think you're trying to do?” with a slight toss of her head.
Polly always spoke to him like that when he got her alone, a sort of challenging look. She had the same manner towards Uncle Jim, her father, especially when he flew into a temper with her, when she would not obey him. “That I won't!” she
would say, tossing her head, and stamping her foot. “That I won't! So there!” with toss of curls, and chin held up. Uncle Jim could never make her do what she did not want to do. Nothing would make her, once Polly had set her mind on anything. Uncle Jim would glare at her; then growl like a dog, and go away, leaving Polly with her head held high.
Phillip said in a humble voice, to get Polly on his side, “You are my friend, aren't you?”
“You know I am, Phillip.”
“Well, do you swear on your honour you won't give me away to anyone? And that includes Mavis. You know how she laughs at me.”
“What is it you're up to this time?” asked Polly, with a little laugh.
“Well, I've got a friend, who I promised to paint a Valentine for. Will you do it for me? I'll pay you for it. I want a bunch of bluebells, and a poem underneath. And remember, you've given me your solemn promise not to tell.”
Polly looked at him for a moment. “Who's it for?”
“I told you. A friend of mine. I promised I wouldn't tell his name to a soul.”
“Then why is it so secret?”
“A solemn undertaking is a solemn undertaking. I promised him I wouldn't split. He wants to post it tonight. Will you do it? For a penny?”
“Go on, be a sport, Polly. We're friends, aren't we?”
“You know we are!”
“All right, I'll do it, for you, but not for your friend. If you like to give it to him you can, but I don't want any money from you for it, see?”
“That's jolly decent of you, Polly. I'll take you tomorrow afternoon to the Electric Palace, if it's raining. Otherwise I shall have to play footer, as it's a House match. Will you do it right away?”
“Perhaps I will. You won't mind if Mavis and Doris see me doing it? I'll have to do it on the kitchen table, while they're doing homework.”
“No, it won't matter, so long as you don't say it's for me. Oh carramba, I'd forgotten! It's library night! I've got to take
back that bloody book on birds! What a fool I was to write on the pages! And with a relief nib, too, too thick to rub out! My God, if Father sees it, he'll take me to the police station! You won't split, will you?”
“Of course not. Don't you know me better than that?”
Phillip did not heed Polly, now that he had got what he wanted. Then an idea came to him.
“I know! I'll put on my Etons! Then the library assistant won't think of looking in the book when I return it. She wouldn't suspect anyone in those clothes.”
Polly laughed. “I think you're funny,” she said, as Phillip dashed out of the room, and into the kitchen.
“Mum! Have you got my collars mended? I want one to put on, now, at once!”
“Say âplease'”, his sister Mavis called out from the scullery. “Mother, you spoil Phillip. Let him get his own collars, why not?”
“They're in my bedroom cupboard, dear. I'll fetch them for you.” Hetty left the kitchen and went up the stairs, leaving the two cousins at the bottom.