Photograph by Dan Sully, Story by Jessica Lloyd
The tree sat in a field far away from the farm. Far enough away for no adults to see or hear anything. Four girls, close in age, two sets of sisters, came here often to sit on the huge gnarly knot at the base of the tree, and tell each other stories. They called it the story tree.
Leigh and Connie were the older two, and their little sisters Polly and Aggy made them a thorny gang.
They were getting too old to do this, and the two older girls took delight in rolling their eyes and harrumphing at the ritual that their younger sisters pleaded to carry on. But they did carry on, and once all settled, and the chosen story teller had taken their position on the throne, all eyes would be on the teller.
The alliances of the girls would change with a slick suddenness that none of them understood. Sometimes the two elders (Leigh and Connie) slunk off to talk about things that were apparently unsuitable for girls three years younger. Polly and Aggy delighted in childishly spying on them and setting booby traps copied from their favourite films.
Sometimes the siblings would split off, and talk intensely about how different their families were, Connie and Aggy observing how the others’ house smelled, Leigh and Polly sharing the slights that they had felt from the others’ mother.
And sometimes Polly and Connie would unite, and these were the bitterest conversations, as together a vitriol seemed to pour fourth gleefully about the other two girls. How one was the favourite, and the other spoilt.
The tree was one of family myth, it was once called the Fox Tree, as their Fathers (who were brothers) had played here as boys, and ran home one evening telling of the sight of a fox that had climbed all the way up the thick trunk.
Polly had renamed it, after Leigh had confidently sat on the stump and easily regaled them with stories of imps and faeries lurking among them. Of women with long hair and reaching arms using their power for good and evil. Of sad ghosts that seemed caught in the whisper of the branches.
They had never really recaptured the brilliance of that first time, those first stories. But they kept coming back. It felt like a special place, away from school. Away from mad cows and foot and mouth. From their fathers grim looking up at the sky when they needed rain more than ever and it was another blazing day. Here, they were in charge.
So they sat, dissatisfied with the teller, scratchy legs on the grass. The sun dipping. Magic light that turned their eyes golden.
‘This is boring.’ said Aggy. ‘Let’s play a game instead. Let’s play a game where we all say one thing we’ve never told anyone. And it HAS to be true.’ Aggy, although the youngest, had a weird ability to be in charge. To stir things up. To make the others all feel a bit, odd.
Polly remembered an injured baby bird they had found, and claiming to want to save it, Aggy had gotten a plastic straw and put it in the birds beak and blown in to it, saying she was giving it mouth to mouth. Polly had watched on in horror, meekly saying ‘No.. don’t…’ but feeling powerless against Aggy’s faux sincerity mixed with a look in her eye that said try and stop me. ‘Whaaaat?’ she had whined, ‘I’m only trying to save it’.
‘You start’ Aggy pointed at her sister. Connie smirked and looked at Leigh as if there were a thousand things she could pick from. She fiddled with her huge silver ring and looked directly at her sister.
‘I’ve smoked weed’.
‘Oh my god Connie that is REALLY bad, oh my god you’re going to be a drug addict’ Aggy squealed.
Leigh smirked a smirk that made it apparent that she had too, and Polly felt a tinny taste in her mouth. She hated it when Aggy was in one of these moods. Although not the youngest, Polly was physically the smallest in the group. Tiny boned and anxious.
‘Now you!’ It was Leigh’s turn. She smiled and looked up at the tree, letting out a big sigh. She was naturally dramatic.
‘Uuuuummm…. I honestly think I saw a ghost at the bottom of our stairs yesterday. It was like this really dark shadow that passed through me.’ Polly looked pale, Leigh knew that her little sister had a deep horror of such a thing, and Polly had spent many nights on the floor of her big sister’s bedroom for fear there was something black and cold and terrifying in her own bedroom. Their parents were unaware.Leigh was getting increasingly annoyed at Polly sleeping in her room. She hadn’t envisaged that this sentence would prompt Polly to sleep in her room continuously for the next year.
‘Boring. Me next.’ Aggy looked directly at Polly. The baby hairs around her hair line were frizzed up like a halo and she was smiling, although to Polly it looked like a nasty grin. Sometimes she hated Aggy.
‘I saw Polly…’
‘I think your mum is really mean and really ugly and I hate her’ Polly blurted out, hot cheeks and flooding shame. It was always so quick, the blood to her cheeks. Quick and betraying. The girls were silent, amused half smiles falling. The evening air was still and nothing seemed to move.
The tree, which had always felt like an ally to Polly, suddenly felt unsafe and dominating. And yet she wanted to climb not up it, but in to it. Through it’s old bark and in to the ground where it was cool and she could be alone. Or at least with the faeries her big sister had told them about. She ached for her childhood, although she knew she was still in it.