How long had I been standing here under the old cherry tree? Minutes or years? While the storm with its batteries of thunder deployed across the sky, letting fall but a few drops – for all its growling – which the boughs above me caught and shook till they sparkled. It was as my man Walter always said; no rain came to us at Silver Ley Farm from the west – that is, from over the murk of trees that were Benfield Manor Park – and if the sky blew up black as ink from there, why, so it might. Walter would be still in his shirtsleeves, nor even cock an anxious eye.
Although I’d been farming Silver Ley for several years, I was still of little faith in that one respect, and had to pause on my way out to the fields and shelter under the cherry tree against what seemed an imminent cloud-burst. Not that the laughing blossom was any protection, snowing thinly down, but the trunk was curved over like an old man’s body, and there was a hollow where once a swarm of bees had hived and the honey had been cut out. Walter remembered that as a boy. And so, like Christian when he met with Apollyon in the way, my cherry tree brandished its sparkling blossoms at the storm, which drew away muttering, and darting its lightning.
And, like the light of faith justified, the sun shone dazzlingly again on Walter’s shirtsleeves, as he worked with the hoe, and prepared to tell me ‘I told you so.’ But I find myself in memory a long time under the cherry tree. It was a veteran in a young orchard, standing not many steps from the house, just the spot to which one would resort on fine mornings after breakfast, in that temporary mood of a cigarette, to take stock of the day, and the spot where in summer, coming down hot and thirsty from the harvest-field for that precious quarter-hour of ‘fourses’, one would find tea all ready set out on a white cloth on the grass. There I have watched night take ultimate possession of the earth with a huge sigh in the leaves. I have been among its boughs, too, after the spare fruit, the gay baubles of cherries, when the wind has rocked the tree, and I have felt myself riding the air, rising and falling as with the breath of some cosmic trance.
When I first came to Silver Ley, ruthless as a new broom, I took an axe and felled half an acre of old fruit trees – beautiful things, especially in spring, when, sported with blossoms, their rheumaticky limbs seemed contorted with a kind of bizarre courtesy, a gallant attempt to remember their bow and their curtsey beneath the sprig of youth. But their trunks – yea, even their faintest twigs – were green as grass, and they bore hard, harsh little apples, or none at all, so I had them down despite the entreaty of their attitude, and planted young trees of my favourite sorts in their stead, which was a tacit pledge to myself of many years at Silver Ley to enjoy their fruit. Only the old cherry tree I spared, who was king of the orchard. My hand had been stayed by Walter’s remonstrance in the first place that ‘that were a master great tree for a cherry, aye, that were the head cherry tree as ever he did see’. And so many of his boyhood’s pranks had been connected with it, all of which he told me in full detail, that it came to have quite a story for me too, and there was always a ghost of a boy clambering about in it. A bedridden old woman had sent word, or Walter had made out she did, that she hoped I wasn’t going to ‘down’ with the old cherry tree, as that made a fine show in the spring, to be seen right from her window in the village, and it did anyone’s heart good, especially such as couldn’t get about.
I was glad in the spring that it was still there, for it was like a white cloud tethered to earth; its top could be seen billowing up over the horizon from a long way off. As the years passed, for me too the cherry tree came to be full of associations, so that, as I looked back, the strenuous times were forgotten, and I seemed to have been standing there for a long hour chatting to a now scattered company of strangers, friends, companions, farmers and men.
But last night we heard a crash above the wind, and this morning the cherry tree is lying at full length along the orchard, having smashed a gap in the hedge with its top, through which the cattle have strayed, and now are rubbing their necks against its topmost branches.
That is why, as I sat down to write this morning, with that great gap of sky where I had expected the familiar boughs alive with bird moments, and found the room more coldly bright, the cherry tree seemed to have been central in all my sunlit hours and the gap of sky a gap in my life also. For, on coming into the room, I had forgotten for the space of a second what had happened. Then, having a number of things concerning my life here to tell of, and going back in thought, seeking where to begin, I saw myself standing under the cherry tree that day in early spring, so I planted it at the head of my page.
Extract from The Cherry Tree © The Estate of Adrian Bell and Faber & Faber 1932