Val Bonney and Alisa Bliss

January 2010  Jekyll Island

Alisa Bliss

Inspiration Piece


Shallow Roots

Val Bonney


She had always come to this tree as a little girl.  Lonely on the island, having neither sibling nor friend for company, Nina had found comfort in its twisted boughs; though abrasively rough they had seemed like ancient arms, enfolding and protecting.  It was to this tree that the small, wispy child confided her sorrows and joys, such as they were; in this tree her tremulous voice dared to utter audacious hopes and dreams for the future, letting the salty breezes carry them Northwards to the gods of fortune.  Sitting in this tree, Nina had planned how to get away from the island forever.

At seventeen she had applied without her parent’s knowledge for a university place on the mainland, putting as much distance between her and them as possible.  Although not overtly cruel – Nina had never been beaten, abused or starved – the Corstons were incapable of parental loving kindness.  To them, Nina was a late and unwelcome surprise; an inconvenience that necessitated getting in extra staff so that their social standing would not be affected.  Her mother was icily distant, rarely deigning to acknowledge the child’s existence; her father obsessively wrapped up in his business, having time for nothing but the pursuit and enjoyment of ever-greater wealth.

Studying Psychology and Fine Art had been partly a kick in their teeth, Nina acknowledged, leading her inexorably away from any commercial opportunities that might finally have won her their approval.  But she was also following her heart, forging the life she had promised herself for so long, honouring the values she had acquired through observation and experience, rather than education.

“Penny for them?” Joe said, giving her a quizzical look that combined both smile and frown.  Lost in her memories she had almost forgotten why they had come to the island today.

“Improve your offer,” she retorted, raising both chin and eyebrows expectantly.

“A pound?”  He held up the wallet out of which he had just paid the taxi that had brought them from the ferry landing.  “Tenner?”

“Not even close.”

“A hundred?”

“Getting warmer.”

“How about a thousand pounds, my undying love and lifelong servitude?”

“Deal,” she nodded, smiling and kissing him warmly.  Their love was a fire that engulfed them both, eradicating any lingering chill from their respective backgrounds: Nina’s childhood and Joe’s brief marriage.

“This old tree stump,” she explained, her smile fading as Joe lifted her petite form onto its blackened limbs, “was my first true friend.  He was the ear that listened without judgement or interpretation, the arms that held without agenda, the one that always stood by me unconditionally.”  With his usual sensitivity, Joe remained silent as Nina unfolded her stinging history for him like nettle origami.

She ran her hand over the dry, ribbed bark with nostalgic tenderness.  “When my mother told the staff to make sure I was off the premises before prestigious guests arrived, I’d come here and tell Old Oaky that some day I’d show people how children should be loved and valued, given a sense of self-worth.”

“And you do, Nina.”  Joe responded partly as Nina’s fiancé and partly as the respected child psychologist who had championed the sponsorship of her Masters dissertation in the subject.  His belief in her had been rewarded when the text book she had later written while working towards her Doctorate had become required reading for several university courses.

“When my father laughed at my teenage paintings and ridiculed the modern art I loved, I came here and vowed to Old Oaky that one day I’d show people how self-expression can get you through difficult times.”

“Again, you kept your promise.”  Joe’s reference to Nina’s creative workshops in some of their city’s bleakest communities brought back the hint of smile.  Her work never seemed more vital than when she was watching an unloved youth, hard behind his armour of tattoos and piercings, find peace and pride in tracing delicate tendrils of watercolour leaves across a muted landscape; or a middle-aged woman, bruised and gap-toothed from years of domestic abuse, tentatively finding her own voice through poetry.

In a single move, perfected many years before, she jumped down and landed like a cat.  “Come on,” she said, with one last look at the old tree silhouetted against the evening sky.  “Let’s get this over with.  The past is gone and nothing can be done about it now.”

Joe measured his pace, allowing Nina to stroll comfortably next to his long stride as they veered away from the shoreline.  Long plumes of pinkish cumulus clouds drifted over a calm sea; tomorrow would be a good day.

They walked in near silence, commenting only on the earliness of hedgerow flowers compared to the mainland.  Even with Joe holding her hand Nina felt some tightening in her jaw; she knew the next hour might challenge her hard-won mental and emotional happiness.

At the boundary of the 1920s villa, Nina’s childhood home, they looked across the straggly lawn to the peach-coloured façade, peeling now and mottled with liver spots like an aging gentlewoman.  Dusty windows stared, uncaring, upon weedy flower beds and a dried up fountain still full of last autumn’s detritus.  The level of decay was a shock to Nina and her gasp was clearly audible.

“When were you last here?” Joe asked.

“August 1998.”

“No, not when you left home,” he said gently.  “I meant, when did you last visit?”

“I didn’t.”  She let out a small, humourless laugh.  “They never asked me to and I never offered.”

“But you kept in touch?”

“Barely.  They sent one of their standard printed Christmas cards each year and let me know when my grandfather died.”  Nina clicked open the gate and they walked up the uneven brick path.  “I’m fine,” she said, sensing him looking down at her with concern.

The door was the same ugly, sludge-green one she remembered, complete with the circular stained glass window she had always detested.  She rang the bell and took a deep breath as they waited for it to be answered.  This could be uncomfortable for everyone, but she would keep her composure.

“Nina.”  Neither the cold blue eyes nor the clipped voice held any trace of emotion.  “You’re here, then.”

“Hello, mother.”  She was sorry at how little she felt, coming face-to-face again after all these years, but not really surprised.  Her mother looked exactly the same as the day Nina had left, just more wrinkled and less shiny, making it easy to remember how detached she had felt when saying goodbye thirteen years ago.

“This is Joe Melton,” she said, and Joe held out his hand.  “My fiancé.”  Mrs Corston gave him the two-second up-and-down appraisal Nina had witnessed countless times, before shaking the proffered hand perfunctorily.

“Come in,” she said, and turned to lead the way.  The fading grandeur of the villa’s exterior was echoed within.  Gloom permeated every corner; wood, glass and metal objects, once highly polished and reflecting light in myriad colours, were dulled by a layer of dust to a uniform matt monochrome.  The faintest suggestion of reheated vegetables tainted the air, just beyond the nostrils’ reach, like a disturbing dream that your waking mind can’t quite recapture.

Nina’s father occupied the chair that had always been his, even when he wasn’t in it, next to the fire and squarely facing the TV.  The set was switched off but still he stared at it, not even turning when his wife snapped, “She’s here.”

There was loathing and derision in the look Nina’s mother gave her husband before heading off to the kitchen, announcing that she would make a pot of tea even though they didn’t normally have one at this time of day.  Nina looked again at her father, now pushing seventy, and saw nothing of the brash and bumptious businessman he once was.  Greying hair was greasy and uncombed, flabbiness rounded out the once sharp features and the burden of terminal illness clouded his dark eyes.

“Dad?”  Her voice quavered a little with an unexpected pity.  “You wanted to see me?”

“They’re all going,” he said without looking up.  “The old trees down near the beach.  Being cleared for development.  Shallow roots, see.  I thought you’d want to know.”

These five sentences, the sum total of her father’s communication, were replayed in Nina’s head as she leaned on Joe’s shoulder on the ferry ride home.  “He knew,” she murmured.  “About Old Oaky.  He always knew.”

“And he wanted to let you know …”

“Before he dies, yes,” she nodded.  “Whether for me or for his own peace of mind, I don’t know.  But I’m glad he did.”

“Will you come again, then?”

“No,” she replied calmly.  “That was Dad’s farewell speech.  There’s nothing left for me here.”

She snuggled into Joe contentedly.  In one sense nothing at all had changed; but, if she chose to, Nina could now rebuild her memories around a sad, misguided fool, rather than an old tree stump.

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