It was in the ancient cathedral city of Barrowcester that eight-year-old Lawrence Frost began his love affair with the trees that had “sprung up on the site of an ancient plague grave and unconsecrated resting place for the city’s outcasts.” And it is there that the thirty-two-year-old forester and arborist returns one night, after sleeping out in his truck in his beloved Wumpett Woods, to find blood staining the kitchen sink and floor of his farmhouse—his wife and daughter gone.
Lawrence is suspected of beating his wife, Bonnie, for cheating on him with an American architect. It appears Bonnie and their daughter, Lucy, have done the sensible thing and fled. But when a corpse turns up, burned beyond recognition, the police decide to comb Wumpett Woods in search of a second body. Soon Lawrence is branded a murderer and arrested.
Then Bonnie and Lucy turn up alive, and Lawrence is cleared. But he has lost his family. He takes a five-hundred-passenger cruise on the SS Paulina, where a chanteuse of a certain age—and uncertain gender—captivates him. Lawrence begins a new journey, a spiritual and erotic odyssey that takes him back to the buried secrets of his past and then onward toward the future.
From the English provinces to the Caribbean to America—and the giant redwoods of northern California—filled with Shakespearean twists and turns and happy coincidences, Tree Surgery for Beginners is a sprawling, Dickensian carnival of a book. With multiple viewpoints and cameo appearances that include a vacillating tiger, it sweeps readers along as Lawrence himself learns to move forward.
By turns moving and tragic, this is a triumphant novel of growth, love, and healing from the bestselling author of Notes from an Exhibition.
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
Read an Excerpt
Tree Surgery for Beginners
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
A noise woke Lawrence with a start. It was either the distant gunning of a car engine or a barking dog, he was too disorientated to tell which. Grimacing, he sat up and rubbed his neck. He was only thirty-two but, after a night curled on the hard seat of his pick-up truck with only a skimpy rug for cover, he felt twice that. The sun was barely up. Shivering, he slipped out of the cab and walked among the trees for a piss.
The official, tourist board view of the ancient cathedral city of Barrowcester (pronounced Brewster) was of a perfect medieval hill town rising in glorious isolation from wheaty plains and braceleted by the River Bross. From the best angle – and one only ever saw the best angle reproduced – it resembled an image of the New Jerusalem in an illuminated manuscript. In fact it was only one of a chain of interlinking hills, all of them lapped by the river, none so crowded as their famous sister but all of them inhabited. Aerial photographs and topographical maps showed the proud city as the head of a small serpent or cornering sperm. With a few exceptions, postal addresses grew less distinguished, property values less impressive, as one passed away from the principal hill. The final, least regarded hillock, the tail of the sperm, was mainly given over to Wumpett Woods, named, it was thought, after a corruption of worm-pit because the trees had sprung up on the site of an ancient plague grave and unconsecrated resting place for the city's outcasts.
It was here that Lawrence had begun his love affair with trees. His boyhood home was two miles into the valley, on a village's edge, and he would regularly ride over to Wumpett on his bicycle, ostensibly to play with friends but actually to be alone. Perverse by nature, he liked to climb a tree which afforded a fine view away from the cathedral and its precincts. For him it was the carpet of wheat, winding river and vanishing motorway that suggested a future of possibilities, not the spiritual and commercial symbols of the city. A creature of habit, he always climbed the same tree and came to rest at the same point, where a forking branch provided a broad support on which he could relax without flinching at every gust of wind.
There was no great revelation. He was simply sitting up there one afternoon in spring, aged eight, when he noticed unclasping sticky buds a few inches from his nose. When he had done with examining them, he looked about him and saw, as for the first time, how the skeletal shapes rearing about him, barely touched with the year's first green, echoed the veiny patterns of the leaves they would soon unfurl. He became aware of the immense strangeness of organisms he had so far taken for granted; their height, their combination of hard and soft, new-born growth and ancient timber. He was not bookish, but this one afternoon fired his hunger for knowledge. With his next pocket money he bought the Observer Book of Trees and, in the spring and summer that followed, set about learning the names and natures of every tree that sprouted in Wumpett Woods or lay on the lane between them and his mother's house. He learned and delighted in their peculiarities, inevitably endowing them with human characteristics. The oak was sturdy, the cypress sad, the poplar pliant, the beech smooth and fresh. Yews in the graveyard were dark and secretive, harbourers of spells, absorbers of corpse juice. Planes in the cathedral close were urbane and – when he looked more closely – florid, with their pompoms of seeds and particoloured peeling bark. Horse-chestnuts were at once benign and exotic; the virtuosic variety of their display, from palmate leaves and creamy candelabra of blossom to the spike-shelled testicles of their autumn fruit, left him amazed they were not more celebrated. In time his studies took him further afield and taught him the precisions of scientific cataloguing, but Wumpett remained his primer and first catalogue of an abiding fascination.
The first walkers and joggers of the morning had arrived. As Lawrence climbed back into the cab, a dog was barking urgently. Yawning, a cavern in his belly where he had failed to eat the night before, he drove back along the road that formed the spine of the hills, then swung off onto the drive to his farmhouse. As always, the pleasure the building gave him on first sight was immediately undercut by its reminders of money he needed to spend. The paintwork on the windows was flaking. A piece of guttering over the bathroom window was coming adrift. He would soon have to get the entire north wall repointed. The Boston ivy was invading the roof and doubtless already loosening tiles.
He let himself in through the kitchen door and went directly to fill the kettle. Filling the kettle, like peering inside the fridge, checking the mail or taking a leak, was a settling, regular thing to do on returning to a house. He had only been away overnight but he felt such uncertainty in the familiar environment that he might have been gone far longer and become a stranger to the place. Its stillness seemed to challenge his right to be there. He froze, a hand on the cold tap.
There was a splash of blood, long since dried, in the sink and another, larger one on the floor below. Her head had struck the enamel rim when she fell and she had slid with a gasp to the floor and bled on the tiles down there. Shocked, he set down the kettle, snatched up a wet cloth and scrubbed. The tile stain came off easily – the tiles were relatively new and she kept them waxed. The sink was harder to clean. It was an old Belfast one, its creamy surface patterned with cracks and prone to staining by coffee-grounds or fruit juice. The surface coating of blood softened quickly and broke off swiftly as a ripened scab. Beneath it, however, blood had penetrated the cracks so that the sink appeared to have acquired veins.
He opened a cupboard, battling as usual with its toddler-proof catch, and found a bottle of thickened bleach. He poured a searing puddle of the stuff over the stain and ground it in with the vegetable brush. There was a cut on one of his fingers, where his knuckles had struck a metal button on her jacket. The bleach entered it and burned atrociously. A slender hank of her hair had snagged in the gap between sink and wooden draining-board. He teased it free and held it up in bleachy fingers. Where it had been pulled from her scalp there was a minute piece of bloodstained skin. He posted the hair into the overflow vent at the sink's side and washed his hands, leaving the bleach to soak into the porcelain.
He filled the kettle, as planned, slotted some bread into the toaster and began to lay a small tray for breakfast; a plate for toast, the big French cup she liked for her coffee. He used a small, sharp knife to peel her an orange the way she had taught him, slicing a disc through to the pith at each end then severing the remaining peel at four equal intervals, taking care not to puncture the flesh beneath, so that the four pieces could be torn off easily with his thumb.
It was seven-thirty. She was asleep still and there were no sounds of life from Lucy either. He would take Bonnie the tray, setting it on her bedside table, then retreat in humility to the armchair in the furthest corner to wait for the scents of breakfast to wake her. He would probably cry at the sight of her bruised body and the insufficiency of his apology. He could not remember when he had last wept for simple sorrow. He had shed no tears at an old school friend's death. This had maddened her, he recalled, and she had raged against his bottled-up emotions and his inability to express them.
He had parked his truck at the side of the house and had assumed her car was safely stowed in the barn beyond, but now he glanced from the window, alerted by a sudden cackle from the hutch where Lucy's bantams were stowed overnight. The barn door yawned wide and he could see that its gloomy interior was empty.
'Bonnie?' he called. 'Lucy?' and, still mopping his hands, he ran from the kitchen and into the hall. Lucy had a coat she wore incessantly at the moment, a thickly quilted thing with a curious, poppered pocket on its back where he jokingly hid a chocolate bar when they took walks together, making her laugh in her squirming effort to retrieve the treasure with the coat still on her. The coat was gone, as were the matching yellow boots and Bonnie's waxed jacket. He ran up the stairs now, calling their names again. At first he might have assumed they had merely got up early and gone out somewhere. There were clothes. There were possessions. Lucy's bed had been slept in, of course. He had tucked her in himself the previous night. The bed he shared with Bonnie, however, had not been slept in.
He saw then that certain crucial items had gone. Lucy's favourite bear. Bonnie's aviator jacket. Bonnie's jewellery box. Lucy's anti-asthma inhaler and the carton of drugs that went with it. He tugged open their bedroom wardrobe. Two suitcases had gone, one large, one small. And now that he looked again, he saw that there was a rectangular indentation on the bedspread, where she must have rested the larger case to pack it. Not all the clothes had gone, certainly, but she had taken anything of value or that she wore regularly. She had spread out what was left along the wardrobe rail, in an effort to cover her traces.
'Why?' he wondered. 'Why feel guilty?'
She had every reason to leave. Right was on her side. Then he realized that it was fear, not guilt, that made her take steps to delay his discovery of the truth.
He sat down, in shock, then stood up and checked the sock drawer where she liked to hide a small stash of cash for emergencies. It was gone. As was her passport and their only painting of any worth – a small John Minton portrait of a young man with bare feet, bought with her down payment from McBugger. Lawrence laid a hand in disbelief on the small rectangle where the painting had prevented the yellow emulsion from fading in the scorching summer's light. Drawn inexorably back to the bedroom, the focus of loss, he tugged off his boots, crawled beneath the covers and lay there, breathing fast. After spending the night failing to sleep in the truck's harshly masculine cab, his body ached all over as though it were he, not Bonnie, who had suffered a beating.
The telephone woke him three hours later. He lay, immobilized by apprehension, watching it ring and then straining his ears to catch any message the caller might leave on the answering machine downstairs. It was John calling from the workshop to ask where the hell he was, his voice poised between peevishness and concern. There were a couple of estimates to make. One was for a felling job at the Deanery garden in Barrowcester, where a cedar planted too close to the house had cast all the garden rooms into sinister shade. Also a young widow towards Arkfield was keen to restore a nut walk now that her late husband's money was out of probate. John would go in his stead but did so with a bad grace as he had set aside the morning for updating their books and filing their VAT return. Lawrence rolled over to stare at the other wall. He was not especially fond of John and had long suspected that John did not entirely like him. This had never been a problem. On the contrary, it meant that they never socialized and so had the perfect business relationship.
The telephone rang again twice. Neither caller left a message and finally Lawrence slept. He dreamed he was being hunted through a moonlit wood by his father-in-law, who had two Dobermans and a rifle. He awoke to several more telephone calls. His mother rang, 'just for a chat darling,' John called again, angry now, and his father-in-law asked about their plans for Christmas, staking an early claim on his daughter's calendar.
From the rumbling in his stomach, Lawrence judged it to be mid-afternoon when a car drew up in the yard and someone gave the doorbell three long, insistent blasts. Then there were footsteps around the side of the house and back again, the sound of the letterbox clunking open and John's voice calling through it. Lawrence remained in silent hiding until John grew embarrassed at shouting into an apparently empty house and drove away.
As it grew dark, hunger pulled Lawrence back to the kitchen. He found bread and crushed some overripe Camembert between two slices. Eating proved a comfort – despite the unpleasant similarity between the lingering smell of bleach and the ammoniac tang of the cheese rind – and he felt able to drink a bottle of claret, which went down more easily than the cheese had done.
Fumbling in the gloom, he found the keys to the pick-up and decided to drive to the workshop to apologize to John for his absenteeism. Having omitted to turn on the lights, he backed into the flank of one of the outbuildings with a dull thud, followed by a wrenching tinkle as he cursed and pulled away. Jumping out to inspect the damage, he dropped the keys and was unable to find them in the dark. Groping in the wet gravel, he jarred a shoulder blade painfully on the corner of the open door. This sobered him up sufficiently to realize he was too drunk to drive, so he abandoned the hunt for the keys and returned to the house, where he opened a second bottle because the first had been such a comfort. Melancholy followed hard on the warmth this generated, however, and anxiety came close behind. Half-way through the second glass and the remains of the Camembert, eaten without bread, he telephoned his father-in-law, something he never did when sober.
'Charlie, it's Lawrence. How are you?'
'Lawrence? I'm fine. Are you okay? You sound a bit ...'
'I'm fine. Fine.' Lawrence slurred the words in his effort not to. 'Charlie, I know this sounds stupid but is ... Are Bonnie and Lucy with you?'
'No. I was just going to ask how they are. I rang earlier. Bonnie hasn't called me in weeks.'
'Oh. Well. I just wondered ... Thanks, Charlie.'
'Lawrence? What's up?' Charlie's tone hardened.
'Nothing. We ... We had a bit of a fight, that's all. I ... I hurt her.'
Lawrence hung up rapidly, fumbling with the receiver and feeling slightly sick. Seconds later the telephone rang. He picked it up, heard Charlie shouting and hung up. It rang again. This time he let the answering machine take the call. Charlie ranted about what he would like to do to the man cowardly enough to hit his daughter, which portions of his anatomy he would like to sever, how he would then force-feed them to said coward before kicking his face to a pulp and breaking both his arms. He sounded unhinged. Channelled through the machine's tiny speaker in the darkened hall, his fury had nothing to feed off, however, and soon began to subside.
'Lawrence?' he called out. 'Lawrence, pick up the telephone.'
'She's left me,' he said immediately. 'She took Lucy. I don't know where she's gone. I thought she might have come to you.'
'Of course I'm drunk.'
'How could you, man?'
'I ... I don't think that's why she left. She must have planned it. She went so fast. I spent the night out in the truck on Wumpett. I came back early this morning and they'd gone.'
'So why hasn't she rung me?'
'Well I dunno. Maybe she –'
'If Bonnie was in trouble, the first thing she'd do would be to ring me.'
'She's probably –'
Lawrence hung up as his father-in-law started to rant again. He lurched into the hall and tugged the answering machine cable from its socket. After a few seconds, the telephone by the bed began to ring. It rang so incessantly that Lawrence had to take refuge outside in the cab of the pick-up. He turned on the radio, curled himself in the rug and slowly passed out while a hushed stream of tearful ballads and dedications for the late-night lovelorn drained the truck's battery.CHAPTER 2
An uneducated, self-made man, ruler of a small, unhappy empire, Charlie Knights had always viewed his daughter with a dangerous lack of objectivity. She was his pearl without price, his princess. Swiftly eclipsed in his eyes by the child she had produced, her mother had died of cervical cancer when Bonnie was still an infant. The only woman in her father's life, at least officially, no suitor Bonnie chose could ever have pleased him, not a duke, not a film star, not a tycoon and certainly not a tree surgeon.
Excerpted from Tree Surgery for Beginners by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 1998 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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