[Fiction] Espalier’s Song — Jack Barker-Clark

I have always had a powerful, insubordinate face. I am enormously, commendably ugly. There are those who worship stubble. I have stubble but the wrong grain. There are those who worship biceps: I have too many. For years my pelvis has swung on an improbable axis. My collarbones expand and pop like copper pipes. I am a fruit tree but it has not always been this way.

I was once a young sapling and eventually a stem. Trained to grow across a derelict fence, I was intrepid, sweated superiority. At night I dreamt of bees lighting on me to drink from my blossom. I was to be grown in the espalier style, do you remember? My limbs outstretched, a permanent embrace. It was my destiny to paint vermillion streaks up the fence for something close to a century. I failed, of course, pushing my limbs out weakly. I stumbled. I never flourished. When finally I graduated – a young tree in the summer of 1979 – I was still jolting every time a breeze cooled my nape.

My neighbours all grew as cordons, arrows screaming skyward. Little stepover, they called me. I had always revered their spines, their slopes of buttons, that nimble unwavering accord. But their aversion to curvature had always startled me. I was a sloucher – long papery arms, watery and unconvincing. Did growing up with irrational and despotic siblings not strengthen me? On the contrary, I was stifled. I had an interest in fashion, couture, but was never once brave enough to wear my kestrel brooch.

Though there were always new projects, new gardens, our keepers, the bold artists in leather gloves, often visited. I was laconic with dread. They loomed and criticised, but one gardener did dote on me, pruned me less tyrannically than her peers. Sooner or later she moved into medicine and was on the team that discovered statins – perhaps you’ve heard of her. She wrote, intermittently, in the decade before she died – about abnormality, defects, malnutrition. These were our subjects.

We were all there, we fruit trees, when the head gardener announced her passing. There was a ceremony on the lawn, bunting, trifles, and afterwards my correspondent’s surviving husband was wheeled round to survey the flowerbeds. After lunch he locked himself in the greenhouse and we were made to watch him through the glass, indiscriminately picking things up and indiscriminately putting things down.

The garden became jungled after that. One by one, all the gardeners died. The bandstand withered. Wisteria wrecked the porch. Tall winds came down and massacred the cordoned trees and soon the spears that had disfigured my youth no longer ruled the sky. Finally, I could make out the horizon. A view had opened up – of top fields washed in violet. There was white bracken, perched like rubble. But the floods swept in harshly now and I was always cold.

Late in the century, the gardens changed hands. A couple moved in – small heads, drum kit. Their first act was to tear up the lawn and finalise all the worms. There was concrete, a patio. I was saved only on account of being too lumpy, thick in the neck, sagging. There were forks and spades and long-handled hoes. I churned in heavy clay as they chopped but my boughs refused to snap.

I longed for death. But soon a baby was born. The little boy took his first steps on pressure-washed flagstones. At three, he ventured into the mud, my kingdom at the fence. He always treated me gently, stroked my collar – I’ve watched him develop ever since. Now he is nine, a chess champion, a diver. He has a little porcelain face. He doesn’t seem to mind how hideous I have become, how disgraceful, that never once have I bore any fruit. Every weekend he sprawls at my roots, his ragged spaceship. I sing a song for him as he pilots my branches. Together we visit all the planets and stars.

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Jack Barker-Clark is a writer from West Yorkshire. His fiction has appeared in several UK and US journals. He is the winner of the 2021 Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize.