Dying Men and Growing Trees
Dying Men, and Growing Trees
A collection of recollections (mostly)
By: C. B. Smith
“It’s obviously impossible to take both roads. It’s only through artistic liberty that one can claim to know both destinations. Just as it’s equally irrational to even suggest there are only two roads unless metaphor is accepted. The metaphor is not just the redistribution of description. It’s more than just word replacement to cause representation. The choice of replacement has affect, the way it is presented is meant to have effect. Everything should be read as if there could be metaphor present which needs be deciphered, not just recited. ” I broke away from his gaze as he drank from his pint, accepting that perhaps I was being pedantic, if not loftily obscure. “I’m suggesting that the poetry can’t be taken literally, it’s poetry, it says nothing if it is not read as poetry.”
“Then leave the words be. Forget the actual lines; I can’t recite it word for word anymore, anyway. I’m talking about what the words are coming together to say.”
“That it all ends the same way?” The question is rhetorical; I’ve already grasped his position. “There is only one destination?” I drink from my own pint. Accepting that the alcohol, as per usual, has made us take ourselves far too seriously.
“Of course they are, Clay.” He sucks deeply on the stub of his cigarette. Smoke exhaled through his nose curls up through the tangles of a greying and untrimmed beard. I notice the whiskers in the corners of his mouth have stained to a mixture of forest browns and greens. The colours seem strange, almost unnatural.
Pulling my eyes away from the patchwork of his beard which matched the patchwork of his coat, I turn my head slightly to the side, encouraging him to continue.
“It all ends the same way, man. Everyone ends at the same destination; I don’t care if you’re Robert Frost or Rob Ford.”
I know where he’s trying (successfully) to pull the conversation, “You’re skewing the point, Tim. I’m not talking about physical existence.” I say this while accepting that my words would make no difference as to whether or not he continued on this road.
“Am I? Aren’t you?” A smile crests his lips, twitching the corners of his mouth in satisfaction. “The road is indifferent,” he continues, “the people that walk it may be different, but not even that matters. People, whoever they may be, have the same destination.”
He leans forward, gripping the edge of the picnic table as he speaks, his face briefly fills with an emotion that is more than common consideration: eye’s widening for a moment, brows arching and a simulated expression of amazement holds briefly on his face “We’re all mortals, Clay. We all die.”
“Okay,” I nod and drink deeply from my pint, my tone assuring him that I intend to continue. I look off to the side, not yet meeting his eyes as I gather my response. I inhale from my fag, exhaling the smoke in a thin stream through pursed lips. “But,” I say, looking back to find him tonging the edge of a Rizzla, his cigarette having gone out and his next rolled in the time my thoughts had taken. “What if the road changes the person? The same person starts the journey, but it’s the roads they choose to take that makes them who they are when the journey reaches its inevitable end.”
“But if the end is the same to us all, and inevitable to us all, does it even matter?”
“You’re playing antagonist, not even you are that cynical.”
“It’s not cynicism, it’s reality. I’m barely a blink of an eye, and you haven’t even started opening yet.” He shrugs, as if shifting the weight of the thought off of his shoulders, shoulders that have felt the weight of too many years and too many thoughts. “The roads don’t matter. That’s the point.”
“No, that’s your point. The point is that nothing actually matters, Tim.” I retort quickly. “But if anything is worth considering, if anything did matter, it’d be that.”
He held my eyes, looking out from beneath bushy eyebrows, unkempt with tangling colours of grey and brown. His look not yet satisfied with my response.
“If we’re going to believe in anything at all, it should be that the choices change us, and that who we are at the end is what matters at the end, whether that end is inevitable or not.”
I held his gaze as I churned the sentence out, noticing for the first time the flecks of green in his brown eyes. He smirked at me brightly the moment my sentence finished. Resting on his elbows he lifts up his pint and tips it towards me. “I think you’re starting to get it, boy.”
He laughs, deep and hearty, seeming to enjoy the company we found in one and other. His laugh leads way into a not uncommon coughing fit. It breaks neither of our smiles as we slug back ale grown warm from neglect during the conversation. He finishes his pint as if baptising the conclusion he had guided me to while simultaneously washing down his cough.
“Same again?” he asked.
It’s a day later, or a week, a month, or a year.
I’m sitting in the garden, the bitter end of a pint of bitter sitting next to a sloppily closed package of tobacco as I read silently amid voluntary solitude. The sunlight across my words is suddenly filtered, as if by a branch shifted in the wind, a slight groan and further shadows across my book makes me look up. Tim is taking seat across from me, placing a pint in front of each of us, a pint I hadn’t asked for, but one he’d correctly assumed I’d consume after asking the barman if I was in the garden. He sat down without invitation for invitations were something we’d lost need for some time ago. Wordlessly I folded down the corner of my book and turned towards him, both of us reaching for our tobacco.
The passing of time was registered with the clinking of glasses as a barman fingered empty pints from our table. I didn’t bother counting the number he took. I glanced briefly at my long since abandoned book and then at my watch, considering the fact that it was late afternoon and the day hadn’t quite gone as planned.
We both thanked the barman by name, and then I looked back to Tim, I dragged on my cigarette before answering his latest question.
“I’d write.” I said with confidence. “If death sentence were delivered: days, or weeks, or months were all that was left by some disease or cancer, I’d write. I’d put pen to paper and get down as many of my thoughts as I could possibly muster.”
Tim looked at me long and hard. Smoke like a permanent fixture curled around him, he coughed for a moment, just a spluttering, as if he was fighting back a deeper and inevitable fit. Wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his tweed-jacket he looked back to me.
“Bullshit.” He said simply.
I raised my eyebrows and one corner of my mouth in a half smile, stilly asking how he could so definitively decide my personal answer was incorrect.
“Clay, you’d do exactly what you’re doing right now.” He said with a gesture between us as if the answer was laid out upon the table itself.
I shook my head. “No, if I had such little time left I’d need to write, put down the thoughts I need to while I have the chance.”
“If that was the case, then that’s what you would be doing right now.”
“Right now, my time isn’t limited.”
“Don’t be so daft!” Sudden frustration in his voice caused him to cough again. I noticed, as he pulled his jacket sleeve across his mouth once more, that hues which almost matched the garden we sat in had further replaced the grey in his beard.
“Of course your time is limited. You’re smart enough to know that you will die. And you’ve lived enough to know that you can’t bet on it being later rather than sooner. Clay, you could be hit by a fucking bolt of lightning in the next rain storm.”
“I could, yes. But if it was definite that it would happen tomo-…”
“No, it being confirmed makes no difference because we don’t live our lives based on confirmations, surely you embrace that as much, or more, than I do. If you had anything that you needed to write so desperately then you would be writing it down right now, unless of course, you’re not intelligent enough to know you could die at any moment”
He met my eyes and shrugged, his last syllables came out slightly muffled, as if his words had gotten stuck in his mouth. He grunted to clear his throat, brought his pint to his lips and dislodged a leaf that must have been stuck to the glass, causing it to flutter down to the picnic table.
“But, we both know that’s not true.” His voice was clear now once more. “So, that means you’re not writing at this moment because you don’t have anything important enough to put down on paper. Or does it? I don’t know man, you tell me.” He looked down and began rolling another cigarette.
I considered this for quite some time, allowing a comfortable silence to hang in the air. I sipped gingerly from my pint and then lit another cigarette. “There are things I want to put on paper,” I finally said “I just am not yet sure how it is I want to put them down. However, if I knew my time was so limited, then putting them down at any capacity would be better than not putting them down at all.”
“Would it?” he said and chuckled gently, “If it’s not ready to be written now, knowing your expiry date wouldn’t change that. Sorry man, but looming death won’t make you a better wordsmith.”
I had no argument to return. I smiled to myself. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“All this talk of bucket lists and accomplishing something before we die isn’t reality. If we wanted to do those things we’d be doing them, man.” He spat the words out, sick of repeating them, and knocked ash from cigarette, underlining his point with his embers. “In reality every one of us would do exactly what we are doing. If I told you that you were going to die tomorrow, yeah, you might tell some people you love them, but they know it anyway. I don’t know if we’d even change that much of a day.” He arched his eye brows at me as if in disbelief, “If you were going to die tomorrow, you mean to tell me you’d go and write down some shit that isn’t ready to be written instead of sitting here and having another pint with me?”
I smiled more openly then. I said nothing in response but lifted up my pint and finished the last of it. I stood up and tilted my empty glass towards him, “Same again?”
He did not need to answer, and I did not wait for him to.
I turned and walked towards the bar.
It’s a day later, or a week, a month, or a year.
We sit on the small porch outside his house, night having settled in but the moist summer air letting us keep from shifting inside. I hear the door close after a slightly slurred series of goodbyes were echoed down the hallway. His wife returns to the porch step, where only Tim and I remain, having seen out our companions.
She glanced to the bottle that lay between us, the last of the brandy at its bottom. As if on cue Tim picked up the bottle and tilted it to her in offer.
She shook her head and in her characteristically soft voice declined, so Tim turned and shared the remainder between him and I.
“I think there is more brandy in the cupboard,” she offered.
“Do you want to stick to brandy, or do you want to have some of the whisky you brought along?” Tim asked me.
“Yeah, let’s move on to the Pig’s Nose.” I suggested.
Romey smiled and moved gently, but swiftly, into the living room in search of the bottle.
I glanced briefly at my watch, considering both the hour and the alcohol we’d already consumed as she agreeably went along to assist in our drinking endeavours. “You’re lucky she puts up with you, you know.” I said partially in quip as she walked away.
Tim continued to look out at his garden as he spoke, “She doesn’t put up with me,” a long drag of his cigarette, “she gets me.”
“Is there a difference?” I smiled at my own words and sipped my brandy, knowing I was blowing on embers. Embers always hot beneath our conversations, fire waiting to burn with only the slightest encouragement.
“You can only put up with someone so long, but getting someone, that doesn’t go away, man.”
I didn’t look at my cigarette as I wet the edge of the brown paper. “Getting someone can still require putting up with them, though. Just because she understands the why, doesn’t mean that she likes it.”
“Yeah,” he said slowly, “but not liking it, as well as not understanding it. That doesn’t last long.”
I nod in agreeance and share his gaze out to the garden, my mind wandering away from the moment far more quickly than I realize.
“Does she get you?” He asked, still without looking at me. His words pulling me back from the careening velocity of my train of thought.
“I don’t know. She puts up with me.” I realized my own words as soon as they tumble off my tongue. I laugh briefly, an exasperated laugh, the escaping of air for the lightening of a statement, “No, she put up with me. So I guess I do know.” I feel the corner of one side of my mouth dip down despite myself.
“Do you get her?”
“I tried, but I don’t know if I ever did.”
“Then why are you still thinking about her?”
“If I knew, I probably wouldn’t be.”
“Nah, you know, Clay. You know that she got you, you know she wouldn’t be on your mind if she didn’t.”
“Getting lasts forever, putting up with doesn’t last long.”
“Hey man, just because she’s not putting up with you, doesn’t mean she’s not getting you.” He drank from his brandy and let a ragged exhale escape. “And if you didn’t get her, then you wouldn’t care that she’s not putting up with you.”
I hesitate a moment and take another drink. “Maybe,” I shrug.
“That’s not you” He turned and was looking at me now. “Don’t say anything if you’re not going to talk.” He said, unsatisfied with my dismissive response. He coughed then; the sound was rougher than usual, like the brandy and the smoke had tangled together and trapped his words in his throat. He coughed up the words and shifted in his chair, bending over slightly into his sleeve. I watched as two, and then three leaves fluttered down to the ground before his feet. I glanced up to the tree above him where they must have fallen from. He finished coughing and waved his hand flippantly “You just don’t want her to get you.”
I waited before responding, letting it be clear that I was considering my words, but also leaving time for him to catch his breath. “And did you want Romey to get you?”
“I didn’t have a choice.” He said, and sucked on his cigarette, inhaling it like it would soothe the cough it was surely causing. “And neither do you. You’re just too stubborn to admit it.”
I smiled slightly, but didn’t look at him, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of being correct.
“And she knows that, man. She’s just waiting for you to stop giving her things to put up with,” he paused and waited for my eyes to meet his, “and start giving her things to get.”
I said nothing for a long moment. Part of me pondered my response; the rest of me debated whether or not to respond at all. “It was for the best. She needed to forget about me, move on, live her own life. It was never right to have her waiting on me.”
“But, do you really think she ever waited on you?” he said crossing his legs and leaning towards me now. “And do you really think she’s forgotten about you?” he asked with a rise of his eyebrows.
I noticed a spot of green in the corner of his mouth, perhaps food caught in his beard from a meal we had not long ago finished. I tried to wordlessly suggest this and wiped the own corners of my mouth. He followed suit as intended, but the remnant of dinner was not removed and I couldn’t be bothered to halt the progress of conversation and remark to this.
“I’ve heard that she has.” I said, glancing away from him, “Not forgotten, more gotten over. It makes me happy in a way: knowing that she’s not dwelling on me.”
“There’s a lot to be said about the space in-between what people say and what people mean, Clay.”
“It’s indifferent anyway. Those are words that weren’t said to me, they weren’t intended for me. I shouldn’t know them, let alone try to pull either comfort or sadness from them.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Whether or not you should hear them, depends on whether or not you’re going back.”
“And how is that?”
“Because: they’re either words of a widow, or words of an ex-lover.” He smiled at me then, I could see it from the corner of my eye, I knew he was encouraging me to look back to him, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it yet. “Having a home in two places – and I don’t mean to assume anything when I say that you’re at home here?”
I nod to make it clear that I follow.
“You have a rare opportunity to choose where you want to continue, and who with. I mean from her perspective, you can either stay dead here, or rise again there. Make her a widower or an Ex, it’s up to you isn’t it?”
I laughed then, quite abruptly realising how ridiculously serious we were being. “I’m not fucking Jesus, Tim.”
“Hey man,” He says, arms spread wide offering an open suggestion, “I don’t think Jesus had much a choice in all that business.” he laughs then and every expulsion of air is followed by a gentle cough as his own laugh made him choke on the life lived caught in his chest.
“What difference does it make? What’s the difference between an ex-lover and a widow?”
“There’s more choice involved in one than the other.” He shrugged. “A dead man should never listen to the words of his widow; they were never intended to be heard. A heartbroken man, he listens to an old lover’s words at his own risk.”
“Are you suggesting the widow’s words are kinder: making it more painful, or harsher: making it more painful?”
“Who knows, depends on the widow.” He smiles at me impishly. He speaks slowly as the smile loses its mischievousness and grows more knowing. “I’m saying that a widow’s words will only hurt, because there’s nothing you can do about it. This makes it relieving that dead men don’t have a reputation for being good listeners.”
“Nor do living men.” I hear Romey’s wind chime voice add in jest from the dining room as she gathered up the chaotic repercussions of the meal and drinks consumed earlier in the evening.
Me and Tim both turn towards her, I smile and he chuckles before turning back to one and other.
I debate briefly over suggesting the idea that perhaps dead man could listen. We’d hashed out the heavens and hells, the afterlives and lack thereof. We’d run over the grounds of consciousness continuing many times over, sometimes theologically, other times philosophically, sometimes just discussing if there was a difference between the two, and others times still: almost scientifically; as I tried to suggest that energy cannot be destroyed and that if consciousness was only energy perhaps it was possible for it maintain some of its past, its previous consistency, form, purpose, if you will.
Of course Tim was far too logical for such a suggestion, far too intelligent even, it was an idea he wouldn’t even humour (at least not again).
As if sensing the route I was debating over entering he spoke, “If the earth burns my body and it fuels a tree, yeah, my energy might be passed on Clay, but even if it is… a tree’s reputation for listening isn’t any better than a dead man’s.”
I could not help but hear something melancholic in his words, despite the smile he presents them with, less in their meaning, but more through their impact on his voice. A voice brusque from a cough was now raw from thoughts.
Smoke was vining out slowly through his nose, yet he did not pull the cigarette from his lips. Breathing circularly he did not tear his gaze from the garden as Romey returned with the bottle of whiskey, handing it me to pull away the seal.
I had not realized my glass was empty.
It’s a day later, or a week, a month, or a year.
I look to the bottom of my glass at ice cubes reduced to poorly sculpted ovals, stained a light purple from the sloe gin brine I had just drained them of. I look across the room as Tim tips his own gin down his throat. Morning light has found us in full force, piercing through the living room’s closed curtains. The T.V. still rumbled on in the background as post fight commentary lulled on, our own interest lost after the last punch was thrown. I glanced to one of our host’s whose eyelids had lost their battle against gravity and her head was tipping back against the couch. I look back to Tim and his eyes meet mine, I gently tilt my head to the side and give a nodding gesture towards the direction of the door, he nods back subtly. Polite goodbyes are exchanged as we step out into a crisp Sunday morning.
Blood, rich in alcohol, we walk on in relative silence. My house arrives earlier on the path than his. I reach the point of turning and glance up to a Sunday morning sun, “I’ve got some English whisky I’ve been meaning to try.” I say simply.
“English whisky…” he rolls the two words over in his mouth as if determining the taste of the syllables themselves, “well if that’s all you’ve got,” he says with his same mischievous smile.
We sit at the dining table, the sliding door partially open letting out some of the smoke from his cigarette as I precariously roll a blunt in fingers increasingly useless as the whisky disappears. I drag deeply on it before picking up the bottle and adding to both our glasses. The strong peat flavour of Chapter 11 sitting surprisingly well atop the copious amounts of beer, gin and more gin we had already gone through that night.
I hand him the joint, and then raise my glass before he smokes, “Happy Birthday!” I exclaim rather suddenly, having almost forgotten the date that we had rolled into after midnight slipped by.
He smiles back at me and we clink glasses and both drink deeply.
“Not a bad start to a birthday, I suppose.” I say, a few moments after both glasses had touched the table top once more, noticing a certain silence in the moment that is uncommon between Tim and I.
“I couldn’t ask for much better.” He smiles, but there is something less genuine about it.
I say nothing and sip my drink.
“My daughter is coming out from London for lunch,” he laughs at the word lunch as we both accept that the time usually associated with such a meal is only 5 hours away.
“It might end up being a late lunch.” I suggest.
“Nah, nah, I’ll be good for it.” he says as he takes another drag of the joint and hands it back to me. He begins coughing almost immediately. I toy with the regretful thought that I shouldn’t have rolled it, knowing it has a tendency to make him cough more than usual, and then dismissed my regret.
I smoke it silently. There is a conversation hanging in the room that I could not put my finger on. Words waiting to be said, words that were not mine.
“They’re good kids.” he exhales slow in a gentle kind of groan, “They’re not kids, they’re adults now, man. And they still put up with me. Haa.” He huffs and then drinks.
I hesitate longer than I usually would. “They get you.” I say simply.
“Yeah.” He agrees, but without the smile I expected to attain from referencing a conversation we had once had. “We did alright with them, I just let them do their thing. They turned out good, man. They get it.”
I say nothing, I smoke a little more and then lay the joint on the ashtray, roach towards him in an un-interrupting offer.
“They’re raising their own now, man.”
He was not looking at me as I raised my eyebrows gently. I began understanding what the words were which had been hanging in the air around us. I sipped my drink, letting the silence hold. I choose my words carefully, “Their own, will want to have you in their lives.” I say gingerly.
“Yeah. Yeah.” He nods in agreeance. He moves his elbows off the table and onto his knees. “And I want to see them grow, man. See them become something.” He smiles to himself then, no longer looking at me. “But, they’ll grow just fine without me. He’s like a little person already. He’s got a good dad too, he’ll do fine.”
I watch as he clutches his tumbler between his hands, slowly tilting it in a circle, letting the whisky work its way along each side.
“You’ve got another on the way. Another to watch become a little person.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll hang around to see it. I can hang on that long.”
I say nothing. He wants me to say nothing. Conversation was not what he searched for.
“I’d love to see them grow up, hear what they’ll have to say, ya know. But, I know they’ll do fine. I’ve got good girls. They’ll do good.” He sips his drink, “and desire doesn’t produce probability.”
I see a slight shiver pass through him. The room was not cold. Nor was the whisky.
“I’m scared, Clay. I’m not ready yet, man.”
I sip my drink, and stare absently to the ashtray, “It’s a good thing it isn’t here yet, then.”
He shakes his head softly, “It’s sooner than I want it to be. I’m scared, man. I’ve been scared lots of times, I’m brave, but I’m not stupid, I’ve been scared lots of times” he looks up towards the far wall, I see knuckles grow white as he clutches the tumbler tighter. Clutching it as if it held him there. “One time I was…”
He trailed off, was it a story he didn’t want to tell, or simply one he knew I’d already heard. Or for once was there not a story he’d lived that could relate to that moment.
“…I’ve never been scared like this, man.”
Silence hangs for a long time then. I clutch my own glass. Searching for words, searching for whether or not I should use them. “What are you scared of?”
“Ha.” He huffs, as if unamused by an ill-timed joke.
“No, seriously Tim, what are you scared of? Not saying it doesn’t make it any less real. Is it death, Tim? Are you afraid of dying?”
He huffs again, and he nods briefly then shakes his head. “Nah, it’s not dying; it’s not being. It’s the emptiness that follows that’s scary, man. It’s everything we leave behind, everything I’ve never finished and I’ll never see the end to.”
I could hear the tears in his voice before I saw them drop from a head hung low, downcast eyes leaked into a whisky he had lost concern for.
I lay my glass on the table. I lean forward, elbows onto my own knees. I put one hand on his shoulder. I do not squeeze like a priest offering comfort, I just lay it there, a friend reminding someone that they’re still present. “And things will end, Tim.” I speak slowly, softly. “Things well end, just as you will, and as I will. And things will start. And people will remember, and people will forget.”
I look away from him and to the far wall. Hand still on his shoulder. “And dead men can’t listen, and nor can trees.” I can feel the alcohol and THC combining to let my words fall out freely, “But, dying men can, and we’re all dying, and the trees are all growing.”
His hand shifts from his tumbler to his knee and I hear ragged breathing. I reach out and grab his hand, gripping it with more fierceness than I did his shoulder. He gripped back.
“Dying men are still living men. And a living man should spend time living, not fearing dying.”
“What’s there left to do Clay, if you won’t live long enough to finish what you’ve started, but you’re not dying soon enough to stop thinking about it.”
I looked down at our hands clasped, I saw the frailty in his hand for the first time. I saw the contrast in the years between us. I saw my lifetime stacked upon itself more than once to match his hands. I saw his fingernails stained with time and age, turned a yellow that seemed to darken abnormally to green.
“You’ll do exactly what you did yesterday, and what you’ll do today. The expiry date is indifferent” I leaned back then, letting go of his hand. “If we were told that we were going to die tomorrow, every one of us would do exactly what we are doing. If you were going to die tomorrow, you’d do what you were going to do today, anyway. You’d do it exactly the same. You’d go to dinner with your daughters and wife. And only after you’d had another whisky here with me.
“We’re all already doing what we would be doing. That’s all we could do. And it’s bullshit to say we’d do anything else.”
Tim looked at me, half a smile on a weathered face, “Did I say that shit?”
“I paraphrased.” I smiled back.
I picked up the whisky bottle. He held out his glass. I split the bottom of it between him and I.
It’s a day later, or a week, a month, or a year.
I’m walking absent mindedly towards the pub. Head heavy and thoughts clouded from the night before. A rare day off before me, a day intended to be used nursing my, more or less anticipated, hangover, although the reason I expected to have it escapes me. I see Tim standing in his standard position outside of the pub. Leaned back against the wall with one knee tucked up beneath him, half a pint in one hand and the stub of a cigarette in the other. He glances up and sees me making my way towards him. Half a pint becomes a third.
“Clayton” he says in acknowledgment. “Work or pleasure?” he asks simply. Inquiring which side of the bar I’d be standing on.
“Day off,” I answer, “intending to kill a hangover.” I glance at his glass and smile. “Or perhaps brew a fresh one.”
“Ahh, I think I’m going to work tomorrow.” I notice gruffness in his voice now, not the usual rough sound produced by vocal chords which have lived a life, but something else: a straining, his words came out almost muffled. “So I’m only here for a couple.” He continued, glancing down at his glass and then drinking, a third becoming a quarter.
“Famous last words” I smile. And look to his glass suggestively.
“Go on then.” He smiles back and then laughs. Laugh leading to a cough that seemed laden, even for him.
I stand outside the front of the pub with him, each of us half way through a fresh pint of Abbott, I toss the butt of my cigarette into the flowerpot made ashtray by my feet. I glance towards Tim and the other patron to whom he now spoke. I barely listen as their conversation slowly stomps its way across one aspect of English politics or another, a conversation I’m sure I’d heard before, a conversation I’m sure I’d heard the two of them have before.
I watched Tim as he spoke, his voice seemingly increasingly muffled. I notice there appears to be something in the corner of his mouth. For a moment my mind flashes back to a dinner we shared some months ago, and the food I’d thought he hadn’t managed to wipe away. The colour and consistency of the green matched, yet this now seemed almost woven into his beard. As I looked closer, I saw remnants not of food but of forest through his beard. Fractions of twigs, portions of leaves seemed to littler his whiskers, and even his thin grey hair. As I looked more closely I noticed that even his eyebrows seemed wilder than usual.
Another patron had joined the discussion now, and another uninformed and stubborn opinion was laid on the table of conversation. I watch as Tim immediately tries to retort, raising the hand which held his pint with one finger pointed towards the last speaker, but he appears to choke on the very first word. He coughs before more than a syllable is produced. Left hand, which had been tucked into his pocket, comes up to cover his mouth then, but before it has the chance, I am convinced that I see something in his mouth, something caught half way down his throat.
He coughs hard, violently even. I see a leaf flutter down from his covered mouth. It flutters down without explicable origin.
No one else seems to have taken heed to this as Tim’s coughing recedes and I see him swallow deeply. As he looks up, the conversation having continued without him, I notice that whatever crept through his beard from the corner of his mouth seemed to have made headway, creeping further into grey tangles.
I am caught in my own mind for a moment, trying to hold myself away from overthinking things. “I think I’m going to go and enjoy the sunshine in the garden.” I say more or less to the group.
I look up at the overcast English sky and hear a gruff laugh from one of the other patrons as he was passively entertained by my unintentionally amusing sarcasm.
“Yeah, it’s my round.” Tim says to me, “You fancy a brandy or rum along with that?” he asks, looking at his pint as if unsatisfied.
I need not look at my watch to accept the inappropriate time of day for such a suggestion. “Mount Gay, sounds alright.” I hear myself say, despite the hour.
Tim turns to go into the pub, I turn the other way and walk around to the back.
The rum’s descent had ceased to burn, the first couple we’d made our way through seeming to have coated my throat, or perhaps having just dulled my senses. I watch the vine in the corner of Tim’s mouth carefully as he tries to catch his breath from another coughing fit. Tim’s voice had grown coarser, more stifled again. There was something caught in his throat, when he opened his mouth to speak I was convinced I could see leaves cresting the back of his tongue. I stare at him as he speaks and wonder idly if I have drank enough already for my mind to be tricking me so elaborately
“Why, doesn’t matter.” He said slowly, “Why, is indifferent.”
I watched as he rocked slowly back and forth as he spoke, a gentle movement that was all too common after Tim drank enough rum. “There’s never an answer to why,” he continued. I notice the way his rocking motion seems to match the gentle breeze that washed over us.
“Why can always be followed by another why.” he shrugged, looking at me from under eyebrows that had grown bushier over the course of our conversation.
“How,” His voice seeming to have grown more muffled over the time taken to speak a single sentence. “How, is the only question that can make amends, why isn’t real.” He coughed as he finished the sentence and undeniably from his mouth a leaf was expelled, it came fluttering down onto the table, bright and green. I looked at it, and then to him. I did not mention it.
He drank deeply from his pint, almost finishing it, as if he was trying to wash back that which was creeping up his throat.
“Same again?” I asked almost rhetorically.
“Nah, nah,” he responded, voice slightly clearer after the last cough. “You got the last ones.”
“Yeah, but I finished first.” I said as I looked at the colouring of his skin, almost a green tinge taking his throat, his cheeks flushed a deep red. I did not want him struggling to get up to go to the bar.
He shook his head and made as if to stand.
“You get the next two rounds,” I say, and start walking towards the pub before he has a chance to present further protest.
As I walk back into the garden, a pint and a rum balanced precariously in each hand, I notice its emptiness, the lack of anyone other than Tim who was sitting at its very center, when I was certain there had been drinkers spread throughout it before.
As I approach him he does not look up. One hand still clutched a now empty pint glass, while the other lay across the table, fingers curling down into one of the gaps between the boards. The closer I get I notice the strange angle of his hand. I notice the way his fingertips seem to have extended. Nails that before had been stained with yellow and green now stretched further and further out.
I sat down across from him, he did not look up. His head hung down low, as if his neck was struggling to support the weight of his own skull. A beard already tangled and untrimmed now seemed all the more unruly. The vines that had crept from the corners of his mouth now reached beyond the beard itself, hanging down and seeming to pull his whiskers with it. The hair grew softer, lighter, as it extended downwards, turning into less of a beard and more of a gentle moss.
I laid the pint and rum in front of him, yet still no response came. He stayed in that same position for a long time, his body not moving, but instead slowly changing. His cheeks had turned from flushed to an ever darkening red, each wrinkle slowly became more defined before my eyes, carving deeper into his skin, segmenting his complexion with uneven squares. The green that had toned his neck extended further down his body as the wool of the jumper he wore seemed to match the expanding colour.
He grumbled something, as if trying to speak, but unable to produce words. He looked up towards me then. His eyes had reached a green I had never before fathomed possible, and his look had attained a sadness I wished was not possible.
I looked away from him, tore my eyes away from the scene unfolding as if I were a man looking politely away from a couple’s kiss, instead of a friend watching personification work in impossible reverse. I began reconsidering what he last said, and then looked back to him, speaking slowly: “But, we only desire to know how, after we have asked why. And we never ask why to find an answer.”
Again he tried to speak, but it was only a moaning that broke out, varying pitches as if within the sound words were hidden. What began as an attempted response was overshadowed by expression of pain, transpired into pain’s expression merely underlying amongst the creaking and cracking of tightly grown birch and the groaning of swaying oak trees in storm’s winds.
I met his eyes and as I held his gaze until his eyelashes forced their way further outwards, seeming to dip under their own weight and meeting the tangled moss of beard and hair that surrounded his face, hiding his stare from me.
Individual strands of hair became slowly thicker and stronger, lifting away from his head as they split and grew outwards, ends budding and then in an explosion, gentle in the way that only botany allows, a leaf appears from one hair evolved to twig, and then another.
He grew taller before me, despite his hunched stature his body seemed to increase in size. Each individual bone was growing in its length. Millimeter by millimeter each vertebrate was elongated and his body was forced further and further upwards. His skin did not match the expansion of his bones and it instead began to pull taut across his frame. The wrinkles that had come to segment his skin now cut their way across his body so deep that patches of his flesh seemed to be breaking away.
I watched in silence. I did nothing.
He parted his lips once more. I could hear him choking on his own breath, struggling to gasp for air as his open mouth revealed leaves and twigs in volume that would challenge what his hair had become: foliage in full was pressing its way up his throat.
Finally his attempts at breathing were silent and the sounds of a storm in a forest shifted to that of a breeze, the quiet creaking of branches in the wind.
His jaw opened wider and wider, the skin in the corners of his mouth cracked and tore, but not blood nor red flesh was exposed, instead the tears met the wrinkles and deep brown was revealed as his jaw unhinged and gaped open.
His neck stiffened and pulled from the great solid force pushing up through it. His head jerked backwards, requiring he look upwards to the sky, his jaw was jammed further apart as twigs and branches pressed their way out of his body. Each orifice was now evacuating branches and leaves, pulling away what remained of his flesh with it.
Fingers already grown long were now thicker than my forearms, stretching their way down into the ground before us as his arms joined to his body and two legs became one.
Taller, no, higher he grew before my eyes. Upwards away from the pint I had laid there for him. Skin and clothing now one had become nothing but aged and darkened bark, and as I watched branch after branch erupted from his skin, until what had been Tim, and what had not, was indecipherable, yet indifferent.
I sat for a long time, after all movement and changing had passed, after all sounds had grown silent. I felt the gentle breeze still present and watched it as it ruffled the leaves of the oak tree before me.
I sipped from my pint, and slowly, methodically, rolled my cigarette.
I smile half-heartedly at the tree that towers above me, tossing my thoughts over again in my head accepting that I’m taking myself too seriously, yet again.
“We ask why because we want more than what is offered; because sometimes what is, is not enough, what could be is never certain, and what could have been is only avoided by how, never answered.”
I wonder if he’d be satisfied with my answer, I try to imagine his retort.
I then wonder why I spoke a loud, when trees are not known to be good listeners.
It’s a day later, or a week, a month, or a year.
I looked at the pint glass and rum that matched mine across the table in front of me. My glasses both empty; his both untouched.
“Same again?” I say quietly before standing and walking back into the pub.