View From The Apple Tree (a short story)

Most days, especially on balmy August afternoons, Eliza would skip down to the end of the garden and carefully climb the steps into the makeshift tree house in the gnarly old apple tree. She rather liked her own company and the weatherworn wooden hideaway was a place of calm, somewhere to dream, to watch the birds, the butterflies and peer at the tiny insects on the crooked branches of a tree long since tired of bearing fruit. She’d snuggle up on the cushions there, tuck her legs up under her, and simply stare out beyond the garden at the acres of gently sloping fields.

Scented white jasmine with it’s abundant fragrance would invade her nostrils stimulating vivid memories of warm summer days, playing games in the garden, the occasional barbecue, sitting on Mama’s lap while she read a book or just relaxing in the sunshine. Sometimes Eliza  would close her eyes, let the sun warm her face and allow her mind to go blank. The occasional buzz of a bee gorging on the pollen from the bright blue ceanothus did nothing to divert her attention. She felt at one with nature and at peace.

At around five each evening whenever Eliza was sitting in her treasured tree house or playing in the garden and before her beloved Papa Rufus arrived home her vibrant but delicate Mama, Valentina would appear with a glass of lemonade and call her in for tea, her warm, gentle tones filtering down the garden accompanied by a tiny tinkling bell. The garden was vast, the bell helped.

On Tuesday everything changed. Early in the afternoon, sometime after lunch and certainly well before tea, Eliza’s daydreams were abruptly interrupted by raised voices. She looked away from the acres of fields that bordered a small area of uneven shrub land at the end of the garden and shifted her gaze towards the house next door.

Horatio and Louisa lived next door, he a celebrated painter and sculptor and she, apparently quite the talent in interior design. A sizeable Victorian glasshouse backed on to the manicured garden and was Horatio’s haven, easels, palettes and tubes of paint everywhere, clay pots and unusual metal sculptures dotted around the stone tiled floor. The glass twinkled as sunlight bounced through the panels creating shadows from the many exotic plants of varying type, colour, shape and size. Eliza craned her neck from her lofty position and could just about see the gangly figure of Horatio as he paced the room, deftly avoiding his easels and his precious art works as he gesticulated animatedly. The familiar sound of Mama’s voice rose higher as agitation filled the air.

“Just tell her Horatio. It’s time. I honestly can’t do this for a moment longer” Valentina shouted, exasperation in her voice. “I need you, you understand me in a way Rufus never has. Please my darling, we can be together, our future is just a whisper away, let’s be brave, let’s do it,” she begged.

“No! Don’t you dare do this Valentina” Horatio thundered, rolling his eyes skywards as he turned away from his lover, arms flailing. “We have discussed this so many times. What we have now is enough. It can never be more”.

Valentina clutched at the diamond pendant around her neck slightly too hard and it fell away onto the floor as the dainty clasp broke and she continued “When Rufus gave this to me for our anniversary I was almost physically sick. I can’t bear it. I wear it only because I feel I must. I don’t want to be with him. It’s you Horatio. Don’t you get it? It has always been you”.

“Nothing you say will change how I feel Valentina” replied an exasperated Horatio, shaking his head from side to side. “I just don’t feel it the way you do, I still adore Louisa, no matter how tempestuous our relationship and now it’s time for us to stop. We’re done. This pressure. It’s just too much.” He reached out and put his hands on her shoulders.

Valentina erupted as she pushed his arms away. “Then I shall tell them both and I will do it tonight.” She turned swiftly heading towards the door as Horatio rushed to intercept her.

Eliza lost sight of Valentina for just a split second as the sound of shattering glass reverberated through the air. Jumping to her feet and looking down between the branches of the tree Eliza caught a glimpse of her Mama lying on the floor in the corner of the glasshouse. She was very still. The dark figure of Horatio knelt over her, head momentarily bowed. As silence filled the air a thick, sticky scarlet substance silently oozed down the channel where the floor tiles met the remaining glass. Valentina remained motionless and the red liquid fanned out around her like ink on blotting paper as Eliza looked on.

Rooted to the spot in utter shock, Eliza’s eyes widened as Horatio began to dash about in panic and having mopped and cleaned frantically, ran to the foot of the garden, took his shovel from the shed and hurriedly dug a deep hole in the small patch of grassland between his garden and the fields beyond. “Shit. Shit. Shit” he repeated as he bundled Valentina into his wheelbarrow, trundled quickly to the end of the garden and carelessly tipped her small, lifeless body into the hole. As he pushed the cool dirt over the body of his former lover he wept softly glancing up to the back of each house occasionally, muttering and pausing only to wipe his fevered brow with the back of his hand. Eliza had moved silently to the back of the tree house lest Horatio should see her watching, her heart racing, her breathing shallow.

Finally, with the newly dug grave filled and the almost forgotten diamond pendant hastily pushed as far down into the dirt as he could reach, the artist ventured back into his garden and lit a small fire to dispose of his blood soaked checkered shirt and the towels he had used to clean up.

Eliza sat for a long time unable to make sense of what she had seen and when grey clouds clustered overhead and the flames of the bonfire were little more than embers she climbed tentatively down the ladder and ran back noiselessly to the house. She managed a small drink of water to moisten her dry scratchy throat and sat dumbstruck, silently waiting for her Papa’s return.

“Hello my beautiful girl” said Rufus closing the front door behind him and striding in. He called out to Valentina several times before rushing up the stairs and calling back down distractedly to Eliza “Where’s your Mama got to then my darling, did she say where she was going?” He moved from one room to the next quickly checking but Valentina was nowhere to be seen.

Time passed and his worry grew. Eliza stood behind the half opened door and peeped through the gap as her Papa opened a brand new bottle of single malt and poured himself a double, completely lost in his own thoughts. There had been no message from Valentina and she would never have left eight year old Eliza alone for more than a few minutes. As the hours passed with no sign of his wife, his concern for her safety increased and Rufus dialled the police. With nothing missing from the house and Valentina absent for a relatively short time it was too early to jump to conclusions they had said. So Rufus did what Rufus always did and poured a second large measure of whisky, and then several more as he paced the house. Eventually he stumbled upstairs to bed and fell quickly, fully clothed into a deep alcohol induced sleep. The house remained silent, unlocked and Eliza had been completely forgotten.

Eliza slept fitfully, waking often with a start as the details of the previous afternoon came rushing into her mind. A new day dawned, the sun peeked through the curtains and Eliza got up. Without hesitation and desperate to be close to her Mama she quietly picked her way down the stairs, out of the open boot room door, and down the path to the bottom of the garden. The familiar scent of jasmine once more filled her senses as new, distressing images crowded her brain.

A skinny little thing, she was able to duck through a gap in the fence, finding herself standing on a patchy grass area alongside the freshly turned dirt that covered her beloved Mama’s hastily hidden body. Haphazardly disguised with some garden clippings and old slate roof tiles, the upturned wheelbarrow had been strategically placed to shield the grave from view.

Eliza was almost certain she could smell her Mama’s perfume in the gentle morning breeze and as disturbing flashbacks suddenly cascaded through her mind she flung herself onto the mound of dirt and began to claw at the earth, pushing it away as fast as she could in a furious attempt to reveal Valentina’s whereabouts.

Back up at the house, Rufus pulled back the heavy curtains and squinted through the window as daylight filled the room. He rubbed his eyes and then shielded them from the sun as he stared distractedly out towards the end of the garden, his mind entirely occupied with his wife’s disappearance.

As his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight something caught his eye just beyond the garden fence. It was not just a very grubby looking Eliza, the pretty little white cat he so adored, but something sparkling in the dirt beside her. Something that twinkled like a diamond.

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