The Man Who Painted Trees (April story)

20160606_123828I used to love trees. I loved the whispering of their leaves and the way they swayed in the wind. I loved sitting in their shade in summer, their exotic blooms and wonderful smells. I loved the starkness of their bare branches against an opalescent sky in winter, the way raindrops hung shimmering and snow lay white against the darkness. I loved the rich, golden tapestry of autumn and the hopeful buds of spring. That was before I met Peter.

Peter was an artist, he painted trees.

I was a student working a summer job waiting tables in my brother’s café in the park. It was always hectic with families coming in for coffee while their offspring fed the ducks or played on the swings. The park was a hub of activity with children whooping and running in the sunshine, ball games, bicycles, noise and laughter.

I noticed Peter the first time he came in. Head-turningly handsome his sandy hair was tousled, his jeans paint spattered. A rucksack was slung carelessly over one shoulder and an easel hung over the other.  The women milling around the cake display case, barred his way. I watched him edge awkwardly around them. He waited patiently while the children in front of him chose their treats, first this one, then that one. They could never make up their minds. He smiled and caught my eye. I smiled too and somehow the day seemed brighter. I think I knew then that there was something special about him. He had an easy charm and a winning smile.

He ordered a coffee to go, then scanned the pastries in the cabinet on the counter. “And a Danish,” she said with a grin.

I served him then watched him stroll to a spot by the lake where he set up his easel. It would be the perfect place to paint the weeping willow dipping its fronds into cool water, as long as he didn’t mind the children throwing bread to the ducks all around him.

He came back in the afternoon, but I was busy waiting on tables. He stood watching for while, then waved goodbye as he went.

The next morning he came in for his coffee. “And a Danish?” I asked.

He grinned. “Why not?” he said.

Later that day I saw him by the cricket pitch. He sat a little way away from the line of Poplars that shaded the Pavilion. On the third day he was by the cycle track where a Larch stood proudly on a small hill. I strolled over. I was captivated by his long slender fingers plying the brush that brought life to the image on the page.

He turned to look at me. A wide spontaneous smile lit up his face. A thrill ran down my spine. “You’re very good,” I said. “Do you mind me watching?”

A twinkle of mirth danced in eyes that sparkled like sunlight on water. “I’ve watched you waiting on tables so I guess it’s only fair if you watch me,” he said.

I laughed. “It’s not quite the same is it?” I said. “I don’t want to disturb you if it puts you off.”

He chuckled. “You won’t put me off,” he said. My pulses raced.

That was the beginning. Every day I found myself drawn to him, eager to find out where he was working, eager to see him again. Whenever I found him my heart lifted a little.

“Why only paint the trees?” I asked when I noticed the tree standing alone on the page.

“People like trees,” he said. “They look good on the wall. There’s tranquillity and a sense of purpose with a tree. Each tree is different – like people trees have different personalities.”

I gazed at the Lebanese Cedar he was painting. It was my favourite tree in the park. I tried to see its sense of purpose and its personality but it escaped me. “Okay,” I said. “Tell me about the personality of the cedar.”

He stopped painting, put his brushes down and glanced at me. His gazed washed over me like a wave, pulling me under. My heart stumbled. He rose and stood beside me. I felt the warmth of his presence and the world tilted.

“Look at the cedar,” he said, “and tell me what you see.”

“I see a tree.”

He sighed. “Look how tall the cedar stands. Its branches spread across it like clouds. It’s a sturdy, serious tree. Even a strong wind hardly ruffles its branches. It’s enduring, coniferous and unchanging. Its roots are deep. It’s like a kindly grandfather, silent and wise spreading its branches to shelter those who sit beneath it.”

I held my breath. His passion was obvious. He saw it through artist’s eyes. All I saw was a tree.

“Don’t all trees do that?” I asked innocently.

He laughed and shook his head. “Think of the willow. It bends in the wind. It’s a secret, whispering tree. You can hide in the embrace of its dipping fronds but it’s fickle. If the wind blows it lifts its arms and you will be discovered. Never trust a willow, it bends whichever way the wind blows.”

I was beginning to see what he meant by the trees’ differing personalities. I even imagined the willow blowing in the wind. “All right,” I said. “What about the oak?”

He gathered up his things and packed away his easel. He gazed at me again, a speculative gaze as though studying my intent. “If you’re really interested, meet me by the oak tomorrow,” he said, hoisting his rucksack onto his back as he walked away. “Bring coffee,” he called over his shoulder.

The next day I learned that the oak was majestic but full of its own importance. Its size gave it charisma other trees lacked. It symbolised strength and power but also patience, perseverance and hard work.

Over the weeks he explained the virtues of the trees: the elder, which Peter said was feminine, wise and bountiful in its nature, the Birch; a symbol of new beginnings and the Ash with its healing properties. His voice warmed and he came alive as he talked about the Larch, which is said to ward off evil spirits and prevent enchantment. Unfortunately it didn’t prevent me being enchanted by Peter. I was smitten.

“Who buys the paintings?” I asked one day.

“People tend to buy the pictures of trees that most reflect themselves,” he said. “I can usually tell when I meet them which pictures they will buy.” He paused as if unsure then said, “I’ve an exhibition at a local gallery if you’re interested. I could take you tonight.”

Of course I had to go with him. It was amazing seeing his pictures on the white gallery walls. I saw what he meant about the people too. Every time a buyer was interested in a picture Peter told them about the personality of the tree and its history. A bear of a man dressed in tweed bought the oak, a thin, wiry, red-headed man bought the copper beech and a tall, middle-aged man in a suit bought the Larch which he said was for his daughter.

A tall spiky woman dressed in purple showed a lot of interest in the picture of a May tree in full blossom. It was beautiful.

“You have to watch out for the May,” Peter said. “Its blossoms hide thorns. Myths and legends surround it, making it dark and mystical. Cutting its branches and bringing them indoors is said to bring bad luck. Its flowers carry the smell of death.”

“I’ll take it,” the woman said. “It sounds right up my street.”

We laughed, but even then I saw Peter had a way with him. He was sensitive, intelligent and totally irresistible.

Every day, after I’d finished my shift in the café, I’d wander over to wherever he was painting. Then he’d pack his things and we’d spend the evening together. I’ll never forget the first time he kissed me. We’d gone to a club. The music was blaring, the air stuffy with heat and the sweat of a multitude of dancers. Neon lights flashed all around us. He casually put his arm around my waist and pulled me towards him. Fireworks exploded inside me as I melted into his arms. If I live to be a hundred no kiss would ever be as sweet.

I felt close to him, closer than I’d ever felt to anybody; the sort of closeness that brings a special kind of intimacy. I’m sure the scientists have a name for it but I just thought of it as magic moments when we could be together and forget the rest of the world.

All that summer I was lunatic with love. I remember endless galleries, late night chips in steamy cafes, balmy summer evenings watching him paint, or if it was too wet, long walks in the rain when we’d stand by the lake looking for the rainbow.

He gave me a painting of the Cedar, the one I had admired so much.

“The most stunning tree for the most stunning girl,” he said. But there was something elusive about him. Something I couldn’t quite pin down.

I hung the painting on the wall in the café so I could see it every day.

Towards the end of that summer, the leaves on the trees turning golden in the sun, he told me he was moving on. I looked into his eyes, shining with tenderness, and asked him why.

“It’s time,” he said. My heart crumbled like the dried up dying leaves.

I sighed and glanced around, biting my lip to stop from crying. “Will you come back?”

“I might,” he said. “Who knows?”

As the leaves on the trees fell that autumn my tears fell with them but I knew I had to let him go.

Autumn’s chill blew through the park, rustling the remaining leaves. The skies clouded over and that ‘end of summer’ feeling shadowed my heart. The café closed up for the winter. I was going on to uni, a fresh start and a new beginning. Not a day went by I didn’t think of him, his summer blue eyes, tousled hair and magical smile. Each summer I wondered if he’d return. He never did.

I thought I would forget him, but I never have.  I’ve moved on of course, met my husband George and got married. We have children who fill my life with joy and happiness, but they say you never forget your first love.

I look at the trees now and my heart aches. He was a free spirit who couldn’t be tied down, blown this way and that like the willow; I was the deep-rooted cedar, solid reliable and strong, but unmoving. What we shared was fleeting, like long summer days, and the more precious for being so. I still have the picture of the Lebanese Cedar hanging on my wall. I look at it now and then with fond memories of what might have been. I can’t regret the past, but I look at the trees with different eyes now; trees that held him more completely than I ever could.

(First Published in People’s Friend Magazine 2016)

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