Jimmy Kills The Trees

  I was sitting opposite my oldest friend when he suggested it. We’d been sitting there, around that small scratched oak table, for hours. I used to play cards there with my old man, gin rummy, poker, twenty-one.  We used to gamble with change and he’d always let me win just enough for whatever it was that I wanted that day. Gambling knowing you were going to win; no finer a feeling as that. We used to play in the same light as it was now, dim enough that you could only see the outline of the face opposite you and no more than that. A face as if sketched by a stranger. Not allowing for the lines that creased your skin when you smiled or the slant of your eyes when they turned with worry.

  I felt a little like that with my friend now that I sat with him. We had been close, closer than brothers for the longest time. We knew each other’s shadows. But time had eroded us. The old jokes we told were the only ones we knew. There was a time when all we seemed to do was talk. We used to stream our conversations together with exactly no point at the centre and in that way we thought we could talk forever. But time, as I say, had eroded what we once had. Even with drink, the nearly empty bottle of whiskey that sat between us, had not brought us back into out old ways. I looked up and saw the face I’d known all my life. Just a stranger I’d known all my life.

  He tells me to get a haircut. He says his girlfriend, who is in the next room, consoling my sister, recommends people in our frame of mind do it all the time. I remember my friend and his girl before this happened. They used to fight like cats and dogs. They didn’t fight even. They exploded. They would pour like lava onto the streets, raining blows, screaming into each others eyes, cursing each other for all they were worth. Once I saw her scream into his chest as if she were making a final plea to his heart. Get a haircut he says, pouring two tall drinks into our glasses. It’ll be good for you, I hear him say. To change right now. In the next room I hear my sister sobbing. It breaks what my friend has to say clean in half.

  I walk the streets, heading towards the barbers I know in the area. I’d been away for so long, before all this happened, that I only know the one. Hell, I don’t even know if it’s still standing. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was no longer there. An old fashioned barbers is a strange thing. A postcard of the past on modern streets. But in my heart I know it will still be round this corner. There will still be the red and white pole that sits on one corner; there will still be the faded old blind that give the customers their privacy. That some of the blind will be at sharp angles and caught up with the next, offering a passerby a sneak inside. By the time I am actually faced with the place I don’t even think how strange it is that the snapshot in my mind is reproduced exactly in front of me now. As if I’d projected it out in front of me on some blank screen.

  As I step through the door, the bell rings and I am faced with an empty sofa. This is strange. When I traveled here with my old man the sofa was brimmed full with customers. There was a point where standing and talking was the norm. I look up and see George, the old Italian barber, hard at work on a customer. I slip onto the sofa not sure whether he recognises me. I doubt he does. The first time I was in here I was as young as a starling and the last I time I set foot in here I was still hiding my face even as he cleared the hair from it. He looks up, he welcomes me to sit down and wait.

  I watch him as he works, talking when he feels the air needs to be filled, letting calm settle if he has to concentrate. Then the only sound is the constant nip of the steel scissors slicing air and the slight scuffing as he turns on his heels. I watch and listen and am so at peace with these sounds that I almost sleep there and then. Hell, if the vinyl of the sofa did not screech into life as I slipped across it I would have passed out. I come round. I look up. I do the barber’s trick of looking at the reflection of the people rather than the people themselves, to see if he has noticed me sleeping. But it goes on as it did before. 

  I watch the man listen to the cost and then go through the procedure of receiving his change before dolling out his tip. There are thanks; there are agreements to meet again. And then I find myself climbing into the chair and the cape being tied to my neck. He talks to me, as he does every other customer. He asks me what I’d like. He listens, looking into the mirror all the while, trying to see if I am certain in my instructions. A barber is not a man who wants mistakes laid at his door. That cleared, he engages me on pleasantries. I sift through each of his words as carefully as he does mine. I am certain he does not remember me. But being unable to engage in small talk I just come right out and say who I am, and what our connections are. His eyes light up. He asks about my old man. I tell him.

  He says something in Italian. He says it to himself and then realises I am ignorant of what he says. ‘ He has gone to a better place, I think.’ I had not even thought about it in these terms. I had braced myself for the pleasantries. I was waiting for the automatic condolences. I look into the mirror and realise my eyes are swelling, trying to burn the wetness of the tears back into my skin. There is a second where we catch each other’s eye in the silence and we both look as if we have been accused. I am reaching down into my mind to try and speak when the bell rattles from what seems far away and a stranger comes to save us both.

  Except it is not a stranger. I recognise the man. As soon as he sits, he recognises me. He says my name, I say his. We used to work together. As he sits I notice his arm is still the same. One day the man was on a cherry picker winch. It hit a divot and he was swung full force into an iron pillar. He was pressed against it for some good few minutes as all hell broke loose. Radios roared. People ran across the dislocated fields to help him. Four ambulances rolled in quick succession. People began rumours before he’d hit the ground. That his skin colour had changed three time whilst pinned against the metal; that he had gone a shade of blue so deep it was as if he was black. That he was dead, paralysed. That he was not going to make the journey to the hospital. He became partly crippled but to the day does not remember a second of the incident. When I spoke to him about it, he shook his head as if it happened in a dream. I remember looking into his eyes as he spoke and seeing how haunted he looked. I think that’s what damaged him the most. Not being able to remember the pain.

  We talk of work as the barber begins his job in earnest. He reels off names and places as my head is pointed one way, prodded down, tilted so that my view of both men goes flying out for a moment to resurface seconds later. Then he tells me that Frank Zeadbetter had recently retired and I start thinking about what happened to Jimmy Zeadbetter, his nephew, all over again and I forget that the mirror is even in front of me, my mind screams so much.

  Jimmy Zedbetter worked on building sites with the rest of the gangs. He was related to someone on the gang and he was let on because of this. It was true that Jimmy was ‘ touched ‘, as people would say. But he wasn’t stupid. He could work given simple instructions and some said he was the hardest worker because he didn’t have it in his head to work out ways to lie. He would sign his name in the signing in book in huge balloon capitals and draw two stars above and below it. He was always wedged between the signature of twin brothers whose names always seemed to have halos because of Jimmy’s drawings. And when he finished signing his name he always looked up to me and laughed and checked that I had seen what he had done and he’d always make me smile, regardless of how many times I saw it. Just the simple act of making a signature bright and loud would swing my day sometimes, trapped in a small cabin for long hours and I could always rely on Jimmy for that.

  He would work. I would watch him on site, lugging brick in the barrows, sweat pouring off him as he did, his safety helmet always off at an angle where the strap was not fitted properly. He would work, following people’s instructions as if they were written at the end of his nose, dropping brick precisely where they pointed, stacking poles in exact measurements as he was told. When I saw him at the end of the day, putting the time by his starry signature, his face would be red from the sun. His wide eyes would be dulled, the blue dimmed, but he always smiled a tired smile and said goodbye as if he really meant it.

  But there was no denying that Jimmy was slow. He walked as if his feet were being pricked with lightning on the soles and his mouth shuddered opened sometimes when the mechanics of his brain worked out of synch with his bones. I would see him sometimes, stopped in his tracks by simple signs until he looked as if he would cry and I would call out to him what to do and his eyes would light up all over again. I would see him unraveling his lunch like it was tied with a thousand knots, his long forehead creased with a hundred lines as he set himself to the task at hand. He would shy away from noise as if the sound waves themselves had crawled inside of his ears, to the point where he would hunch as if being bombarded. His arms, when not weighed down with brick, would sometimes twist and knot ands sit on his face at strange angles, so he looked like a breathing scarecrow, cut free and set adrift.

  And the lads teased him. There were names and jokes and a lot of them would never use his name but just bark orders at him until he went away. Some others just felt plain uncomfortable being around him, his erratic, spider jerk movements, the uncomfortable, choking words he sometimes tried to slip inside conversations. And some men were just plain evil and couldn’t believe their luck at the chance to wreak havoc on a target that had no defenses. But the right people looked out for him, and in truth, I took him under my wing a little too. And one day, when the heat was too strong to work and Jimmy was left in the shade, the boss came in and told me a little about Jimmy outside the walls of work.

  The boss Frank, Jimmy’s uncle, who got Jimmy into the work, said that Jimmy lived with his two sisters. There was an aunt who oversaw the practical side of life, but at its heart it was Jimmy and his two sisters. One sister, Eve, was just like any other girl, not stung with any afflictions. But she had a cold heart. She was mindful of her siblings and made sure they ate and lived as much as a prisoner in a camp would, but she did not love them. The man went on record saying this; ‘ She’d bleed frost.’ She was blood in science but a warden in terms of a family.

  Then there was the other sister, Rose, who also was blighted with Jimmy’s problems. She was timid and weak and looked as if she could be led by the slightest shift in the breeze. She sowed. She made money sowing and helping out. She had a passion for flowers. She loved flowers. The man said that when she walked past a garden it was like looking into a gallery for her. She just couldn’t get enough of the petals, stems, colours, scents. She loved every particle attributed to the damn things. In her rooms lay a bed and a hundred books. Empty books; with not a word printed in a single one but between each page lay a pressed flower, as brittle and as preserved as bones in a kingdom.

  If there was one thing she loved more than flowers it was Jimmy. The two were inseparable.  They were simply in love with each other. They were in love because they knew maybe in their very hearts, that they would never find anyone else to love, but also because they were the same life split into two different shadows. Jimmy loved her back too. They said that Jimmy had a reckless heart. It was reckless because it was not shackled by the restraints other people have. There was no edge of consequence to suppress his feelings. There was no fear of retribution for showing his heart. Jimmy had been chased away from plenty of gardens in the neighbourhoods after he had climbed in and plucked the finest stem for his sister. He did this because she needed it and he could not bear for her to go without. They said that when Jimmy was rewarded with his bonus one Christmas he went to the florists and decked his sisters entire room in the finest flowers in the shop.

  Then there were the trees. On days when they could escape together the two of them headed off for the park. It was their kingdom. She was free to see and touch all her treasures from dried leaves to roses and Jimmy was given free reign to roam and exercise his boundless spirit. He would run the grasses, he would play the swings, he would watch families make their way through their day. But most of all he would climb the trees. He would do this for two reasons. He would do it because he was free. Once he had been caught looking at airplanes in his lunch every day for a week. In his own way, he was telling people that he loved the idea of being up in the sky. So being up there, where no one else could be, was his own little slice of heaven.

  But the second reason was for his sister. She would stand at the bottom of the trees, clutching her arms and fearing for Jimmy and the thought of him falling. She would hold herself until he finally made his way down, jumping the last few feet in triumph. It was only then that she would breathe and unfurl her arms and clap for Jimmy and what he’d done. And every time he climbed a tree he came back down to earth with a fresh set of stories to be told. Of what he had seen when he was up there, of the people he had met. There were scenes played out on the faces of the leaves and the bark was built of a thousand tiny ladders. Some were shaped in the style of hands and if you spoke nicely to them the fingers rose and pushed his heels higher up. And when he reached the pinnacle of these scales the sky would be a blue that only the finest bluebell petals could ever be.

  She loved these stories. Her eyes would ignite with laughter whenever she found someone she knew at the top of these trees. Her face would lock in amazement when the branches would have her name written on the twigs and the stems way up high. He described the colours and how each one related to one of her precious flowers. It was then she would close her eyes and see them behind her lids for a second. And as her hands twitched and then locked together she could find the scent of these faraway stories on her face as sure as the sun was lingering on her cheek.

  Jimmy loved to indulge his sister. One day he did not turn up for work. The next day Frank would ask where he went to and stood slack jawed when he heard the explanation. Jimmy had been told a story in the café that morning of a town. This town had a problem like no other. The man who told this was the honest man out of the gang and whatever words he spoke, because he spoke so few, were the truth. He said that from out of nowhere this town was being overrun with peacocks. There were fifty if there were five, just marauding through the streets. There were no country houses nearby; there were no sanctuaries or reservations that had accounted a lost party. They had just appeared, and they were protected. The Made men of the Mafia peacocks, the man said and smiled. By law you could not kill them and by law you could not capture them. They roamed free. If a back door was left unlocked then that was open season. The man finished his story to say that they birds lay thirty eggs it they settle and the damn town could be over-run within months.

  Well Jimmy was practically climbing off his seat when he heard this one. Nothing in his imagination could have been better sketched if he tried. He swallowed up all his breakfast in record time. He was normally the last, taking his time, careful not to spill anything and enjoying the taste of every morsel on his plate, but this day he was gone. He walked out before anyone could ask him what was happening and no one saw him until the following day.

  By all accounts he had raced back, grabbed his sister by the hand and the two of them had headed off in pursuit of this town. Jimmy bought the tickets and made sure of the stops and relied on goodwill and information to get him where they had to be. And he found it. He said the next day that the two of them spent their time surrounded by the marauding birds, some on top of cars, others wandering through the local bakery, three seen in the front garden of a house, in amongst the hydrangea bushes. They earmarked one and followed it through the afternoon before they had to get back on the bus. They moved through the streets, waiting for traffic. It pecked at the water in the fountain and ate scraps in the parks and the bins. The three of them found themselves in a church, each as scared as the other, the three of them having never been in a church. Jimmy said how the feathers looked as if the stained glass windows dripped onto its wings. Then they bird sat by the river and watched the waters ripple together. Jimmy’s sister said it was the best day ever and he had agreed. The boss shook his head, half in disbelief and half feeling good he could hear a story this good so early in the morning. Then Jimmy pulled out a peacock feather and said it was a present for missing work and he hoped it was okay and it never would happen again.

  So they spent their lives in this way. Jimmy working, his sister pressing her flowers and sowing, the other sister watching over them. Then things took a turn. Just because you born with problems doesn’t mean life’s going to stop from giving out more. There’s not a scale for this life. Jimmy didn’t turn up for work for three days on the spin. Questions were asked, no one could fake his signature. The banter and the cruel jokes, so loud, so often, were no longer there and the foreman knew enough about gangs to know that a quiet gang is a gang disrupted. He asked questions. Eventually someone was sent around to Jimmy’s, but the door was slammed in his face. A letter was written but none returned. A week later Jimmy returned to work. He wasn’t smiling. His eyes seemed dulled before the day had begun. His signature was muted and the stars seemed to be dying out at the corner of the pages. 

  I asked how he was one day. He looked thunderstruck when I asked him. I worried I’d upset him. Then I realised it was the simple fact that no one had ever asked him how he had felt before. Then his hands rose to the sides of his face as if to hide the hurt that sat on them and he told me in whispers how his aunt had grown ill. He said that she was deflated and couldn’t get out of bed anymore. That when his sister had said she should go outside and get filled with air to make her feel better, her older sister had hit her on the side of her head until she cried red tears.

  I looked up to Jimmy and saw that he was shaking. His face seemed to burn so red that flames were living just under the surface of his skin. His fingers drummed so hard against his face I felt sure they were going to leave bruises. I asked him if he needed any help. I’d never really asked anyone that. Especially not a stranger. But there and then and in that moment I think I would have done anything to have helped him. And maybe I did, because as soon as I said those words it was like an antidote to what was causing the fever in him. His face settled, his hands didn’t stop twisting but they did slow down, as if the batteries in his mind were wearing down a little. He smiled. Not his normal smile but a smile that was halfway to real happiness. He looked at his name on the paper, and then he looked at me. Then he moved forward steadily, as if he was tracking something, an invisible swarm or something, and he very steadily drew his two stars on his name, as big and as bold as he’d ever done. Then he looked up and said goodnight as strongly as he could.

  The stars were his gift to me. That when I said good morning and didn’t tease him and helped him with directions, it was a kindness he was not used to receiving. The stars were his way of saying thank you, as sure as buying me a drink or leaving a card at the end of a job. It was only then, the last time I ever saw Jimmy, that I realised that he considered me a friend. It was only after I stopped seeing him I realised how much I missed him in my life. That in making an effort and trying to be good, that he was a friend to me too.

  After that day, what turned out to be Jimmy’s last day, rumours spread, but nothing was ever confirmed. It soon came out in the obituaries that his elderly aunt had died from a stroke. Ugly words grew from their house then. There was whispers that the elder sister had cracked and was starting to spend time drinking, leaving Jimmy and Rose unattended. There was talk of violence. It was only a few months later that I heard the truth. And the truth made me wished I could’ve believed in the rumours.

  The sister had become unstable and had sunk into drinking. It was said that with every drink she seemed to grow as afflicted as the other two in hard, bitter ways. She would scream in the quietest of places. She would lash out at the most harmless of things. It was as if she was as poisoned, as Jimmy was sedate. It was true about the men. She would sit at the bars and wait until a man would take her home. When she was finished with one, she would throw him to the street and go in search for another. She seemed hell-bent on driving herself off of this earth. She sought love in hateful places.

  But while she was acting this out, Jimmy and Rose were growing closer. They would only speak to each other. They would only communicate through Jimmy. If at the shops a passerby would say good morning, Rose would look to Jimmy to see if it was or not. Jimmy remained strong throughout all this. He took the money he had and bought flowers for his sister. He sought to wrap her up in petals and scents and keep the sour odour of drink and death from her skin. It was true that her skin had become pale. Not sickly though, but as if her skin was actually the colour of a petal. And this was all down to Jimmy and his love. They strove to carry on.

 Uncle Frank was with them on the night it happened. The four of them sat for dinner. It was barely cooked, the meat raw, the blood spreading along the dirty white plates. The uncle watched the three of them eat, the elder sister hurried, raggedly slicing, the noise of cutlery on the plate hard on their ears. Jimmy was, as always, enjoying each bite, regardless of the food. Rose waited for Jimmy and then lifted her hands, synchronized and a single beat slower. The sister seized upon this. She spat out words, the ends of which were laced with drink. She made accusations about Jimmy and Rose.  Jimmy’s hands rose to his cheeks, Roses’ fell to her sides. The uncle put his foot down. He made her stop. He said nothing more.  He asked Jimmy to walk him back to his house. Jimmy agreed and walked Rose to her room, even as the sister spat glances. 

  The two men talked as they walked down the quiet road. Jimmy was a man by then; he had the composure and dignity as good as any man the uncle had met. But the light had gone from Jimmy. The strong heart he maintained in his body had been worn down to its barest layer. The uncle thought he could hear it drumming weakly against the skin of his body where once it pounded. They said goodbye at the door, Jimmy refusing the offer of a drink, his eyes already wandering to his route back home. It was the last time the man saw Jimmy. The rest was pieced together from the police reports.

  When Jimmy returned, the older sister lay crying on the sofa. A scratch ran down her face. He made his way up the stairs to Roses’ door. It was open and the air was different somehow. It smelled of petals wilting, turning brown at the corners and perfume turning to a sickly scent. She was nowhere to be found. He left the house, not giving the fallen sister a second glance. He left her to sob in silence. He roamed the streets looking for his sister. He walked to their favourite gardens. He circled the florist’s windows’ countless times in case she returned. He knew by the fingerprints on the window that she had been there that night already and would not return a second time.

  Eventually he made his way to the park, even though he knew she would never risk going there on her own. He knew this because even though she loved the flowers and the trees, she was terrified of the shadows they cast. As he made his way over the rusted gates, he began to feel the same fear. The trees, so inviting in the daytime sunlight, took on open-mouthed, loose jawed faces. Hollowed out eyes gaped into the distance. Some of them looked as if they could swallow him whole. As he walked, he was unsettled by the soft mulch of the leaves underfoot, not crisp and brittle, like walking on a field of crisps, but instead like stepping on fallen little sparrows with crushed ribs. Then he saw the loose leaves gathered round a body like an oil slick. It was there she lay, at the foot of the tallest tree, fallen, lying hunched in a ball as if she been hit by a thousand stones. It was there Jimmy ran over, slipped on the leaves and fell lying next to his still little sister.

  They say that the argument must have reared again after the men walked out. All the hurtful things Eve said stung Rose as sure as nettles and hornets on her heart until she could stand no more. Choking on the taste of the sour liquor in the air she reached out for sister and hurt her. She swung her hand as she’d seen the men do through the cracks in the doorway. Then she fled and went to the one place she knew only good stories were told: the trees. She reasoned the tallest tree would hold the finest stories and so she tried to climb its branches. Even as she feared the shadows and sounds and the hurtful wind in the sky that gathered round her, she remembered all the stories that Jimmy had told her and tried to find another for herself. But there were no hands to push her higher, only downward. There were no friends in the sky to hold onto her. And left alone, she fell.

The ambulance pulled Jimmy away from his sister in the night. They say his screams echoed over the park and carried well into the morning. He was sedated and observed, but after he had screamed with his whole heart, he fell into a cold silence. He spoke to no one, he looked at no one. There was nothing left. The uncle said that his mind was still racing overtime, that his fingers raged when he thought no one was looking his way. That his eyes screwed up so tightly to stop the tears from falling, it looked as if someone had sown his sockets shut. He was discharged into his uncle’s care and sat for days, crouching like a bird on the end of the bed, looking cold and haunted and as close to everyday people as he’d ever done in his life.

  Then on the third morning the old man walked up to the room and saw Jimmy had crawled into the bed. In the nighttime the uncle brought him tea but Jimmy not there. Instead he was faced with a countless number of petals hanging in the air, some shredded, some still in the air, others lain delicately on the bed. Some were arranged, others thrown in chaos. The pillow that Jimmy had clutched close to his chest the entire time, was stuffed to the brim with them. The old man looked out of the window and squinted at the sight of the siren flashing below. His heart tumbled as he watched it weave its way into the park.

  Not one tree was left standing. Every single one was either burnt to a crisp or chopped down. The park itself looked like Hell in broad sunlight. Cavities lay where once branches shimmered. Leaves were nothing more than ashes. The grass was razed into little more than discarded cigarette butts were. The police marveled at the strength it had taken for him to destroy every single piece of woodland. But it didn’t surprise anyone who took the time to know Jimmy. How the love in his heart was enough to rival any man’s. How when that heart was broken he wept fire. That a reckless heart knows no bounds in love or in it’s anger.

  Jimmy was never seen again after that night. Most assumed he died in the fire, or that he stumbled off to become one of the countless strangers who sleep rough and slip out of the world while everyone goes on with their life. No charges were pressed, Rose was buried in a modest grave, the older sister moved away. That was the end of the family; an older sister with no home, a younger sister’s grave with no flowers and a brother who burnt his dreams to the ground.

  By the time the story is finished, the man shakes my hand and shrugs at Jimmy’s fate. The barber shakes my hand and I give him a note without looking for change. I leave the shop and these two people I hardly know and step out into what is now a sunny day.

  I think about Jimmy as I walk the streets. I have my own life and right now and it’s a bruised, damaged thing, but I hope it will get better. I think about my responsibilities and how I will have to change myself in the aftermath of what has happened. But mostly I think about Jimmy. I think about how he was a gentle soul who was cursed with bad luck. That he was a man who carried his heart each day as his biggest muscle. That he never hurt anyone even though his life was constant pain.

  I think about something my father wrote to my mother. Whenever they argued he would buy her a book and inscribe it the same every time. It would read ‘ for whenever I have hurt you, when all I want to do is make you smile’ and how time itself will never change that memory and how I keep it close. A simple act of bruised and restored love, like those flower petals that protected Rose and provided Jimmy with love and hope. I think of Jimmy, and I see him now, alive and repaired and making his own way through life, and I wish him all the best, with all my heart. And for the first time in a long while I smile, and feel the sunlight on my face. I think of these restless, ceaseless hearts and how they beat on regardless. Then I turn into the full beams of the sun and I head home.


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