With many thanks to you all for your comments and support on this site. My warmest wishes for a lovely Christmas season — and a happy and successful year ahead. Please enjoy my Christmas story: The Real Tree’s Gift
Even from the main road, I can smell the zest of the pines. But it’s not until I step from the car that I feel the excitement fairly fizzing and sparkling in the sunlight. Only minutes from the city and I’m in the middle of a plantation with trees stretching away from me in every direction. A small group of people cluster around the entrance. Others emerge from an exit wheeling their trees, big smiles on their faces. A small boy skips alongside his father who is pushing a barrow with an oversize tree loaded, as I can see from this angle, somewhat unwisely, or at least too hurriedly. As he turns towards his car, the tree tumbles off. There’s the sound of a branch snapping. ‘Uh-oh,’ says the kid; the father’s comment is lost in the breeze.
‘We want a real tree this year,’ my elder son had stated last time he called. ‘A proper Christmas tree . . .’ He left his sentence unfinished with the last two words vibrating in my eardrum. My gaze had flickered sideways to the tree I’d just unearthed from the store cupboard. Plastic it may be, but it was also dead-easy to slot in the branches, flick the switch. And then it was just stand back to watch while the tree lit up in a smooth series of shades like the night view from a hotel window in New York City. Or the one we’d had after that and before this, a triangular affair that resembled a church steeple more than it did a tree but which looked pretty decorated with angels and was, I had thought at the time, a good compromise between not getting swallowed up by Christmas and appreciating its ritual.
But this is the year of the Real Tree and the people around me are laughing and joking as if they’ve just emerged from seeing a funny movie. As I join the small groups moving towards the entrance, I catch myself smiling. I wonder why I didn’t think of doing this in previous years. The children are due to arrive tomorrow from their father’s overseas pad for their holiday time with me which will give me just enough time to get the tree home and decorated. I have a big old copper I can fill with earth and cover with red crepe. I picture their faces, Damien’s slight sideways glance because it’s uncool to show pleasure at thirteen, my nine-year-old clapping his hands. It will be a good way, I think, to start the holidays.
At the gate, a jovial-looking woman directs people to one entrance or another.
‘Do you want to choose today and put a hold on it?’ She smiles at me. ‘Or cut it down and take it away some other time?’
‘Oh, take it straightaway I think. I’d rather not cut it down. I’ve a plastic bag to protect the roots . . .’ I waved my about-to-be-recycled bag.
‘Roots? They don’t come with roots, darl.’ She nods her head towards a line of red barrows. ‘There’s a wheelbarrow and saw for you there, but you might find it easier to choose it first and then come back for the tools.’ She hands me a label and a black Texta. ‘Take these anyway. Just in case.’ As I start to move away she calls after me, ‘And only those with pink ribbons are available.’
But felled trees? For some reason I hadn’t anticipated that. I thought they’d come in a plastic container; I’d part-filled the copper with dirt already and there was space in one corner of the garden where I had thought I might plant it out when it had done its job. We could have a tree-planting ceremony, be proud that we hadn’t contributed to waste and celebrate that we now had an everlasting tree that we could decorate in situ the following year. And the year after that. I had pictured it glowing brightly all round the suburb.
But maybe there’s built-in obsolescence in this business too and so — driven by the thought of the smiles on my sons’ faces — it’s with a bit of a skip in my step that I join the hunt for the perfect tree. A sign at the beginning of each row sets out instructions for choosing the trees. As I had been told, only those with pink ribbon ties were available and trees already sold carried the buyer’s name, and I find that some of the best-looking specimens carry no tag at all. But it’s the third day of Christmas already and more sold signs than pink tags. I move quickly from row to row.
In curious contrast to the busy outer area once through the gates the plantation is almost empty, a result perhaps of the two entrances. In fact, I walk up and down the first few rows without seeing anyone at all. There’s only the occasional voice and laughter that seems come from far away as though it’s bubbled up through water. A yell of ‘timber’ from somewhere, a small thud, laughter. The further from the entrance, the more time it takes to evaluate available trees. I see one I like, mark it with a stone until I see another I like as much. And then I can’t find the first.
My eyes get used to spotting pink tags and I wander from possibility to possibility. Am I being too fussy? I begin to wish I’d brought a hat. The trees are too small to provide much shelter. Above me is the particular savage blue of the Perth sky that I miss so much when I’m away from home, but even so, this doesn’t feel like Australia. In fact, it occurs to me that it doesn’t feel like anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s an overwhelming sky that hangs like an inverted fishbowl over this woodland of small trees, most of which stand only a little taller than me. The way the sound is filtered out lends a disorienting sensation as if I’m trudging in a paperweight, as if I’m not quite in control of this rather exciting method of choosing the perfect tree and that any moment I might be turned upside down to disappear in a flurry of pine needles. A pity the children aren’t here to experience this with me. This never-never-land of Christmas trees. I berate myself for wanting the surprise to be in place, for not thinking it through properly. And then wonder why I didn’t come out in the cool of the morning instead of the heat of the afternoon. I trip over something, frown at a jagged stump.
When I finally get my almost-perfect tree home, I find there’s a branch missing towards the bottom. Otherwise it’s all right. I untie the ropes, lug it off the roof rack. It had turned out to be easy enough to saw through the trunk, but the tree was heavier than I had expected and the hard part was going to be getting it upstairs without further damage. In the end I roll it onto an old blanket and tug the parcel up the stairs.
When I prop it against the wall and flop myself into the nearest chair to gaze at it critically, I find it looks reduced in some way, not exactly smaller but less of a tree than it had appeared in location. It’s flattened on one side from its journey and it’s also dropping needles. Already. Water, I hope, will set it right. ‘Earth?’ The cheery-looking woman had glanced at me, her fingers tap-tapping away at the cash register. ‘No, not earth in the pot, luvvie; water is what these need. Like one of those watering pots you see behind you.’ It hadn’t seemed to me that her pot would prove any better than the old copper I had in substituting water for soil, so I had withstood the temptation to double the price of the purchase. So now, once I’ve caught my breath, I dump the dirt, fill the tub with water and place the tree in it, then – somehow – holding the tree with one hand, wedge it with rocks. I let go gingerly, stand back. Hoping that the wound it’s suffered finds solace in the wet.
It’s easy enough to place the flattened part to the wall, to cover the battered old tub with crepe, but after that I have more trouble. The branches look even enough but the harshness of the tinsel clashes with this real tree, lending it an incongruity that is uncannily suggestive of a once-lively face lying in a bright-pink satin-lined coffin. It’s clear that tinsel is not going to work. Nor do the glitter-coated angels which are altogether too small and insignificant for so large a tree. I have to settle for baubles which have to be coaxed onto the drooping ends and held fast with wire. I find a drape of lights at the back of the store cupboard, wind them here and there. Unwind. And start again. Halfway through I have to turn on the light in the lounge. When it’s finished I have to admit that it’s far from the artistic creation I’m aiming for. It looks, well, klutzy. Perhaps I’ve lost the knack of decorating a real tree. Perhaps I never had it anyway. I have another go with the tinsel. Top it with a foil star. I can’t quite work out whether I’m still excited or slightly disappointed, only that I’m not quite hungry enough to make myself dinner. At least the glass baubles make me smile. They remind me of ones we had when I was a child – some are red, kind of like upside-down hot-air balloons, other clear with old-fashioned embroidery stuck on, some are gold and others like silver ice cream cones.
I switch on the lights of the almost-real tree, turn off the house lights, sit in the dark sipping my glass of wine. By the time I go to bed, my creation blazes in front of me as if lit by a thousand splendid candles.
My children arrive home early the next morning. We have a late breakfast on the porch. Conversation starts and stops. The children examine the Tree.
‘It doesn’t look like a real Christmas tree. It’s the wrong sort,’ says Damien exchanging glances with his brother.
‘Well, it’s a pine tree,’ I say in my most reasonable voice. ‘Christmas trees are pine trees. After all.’
They digest this. They say, ‘We don’t think it looks very good. It’s too awkward, uneven. And there’s bare patches at the back.’ They say something like this. Or do I imagine it?
I look at the Tree. The particular green of the needles and the baubles merge. The pinpricks of lights no longer look like candles. I can see the ugly black wire that strings them together.
‘Well, naturally it’s not perfect because it’s not an artificial tree, you see. It’s a real tree. Reality isn’t perfect.’ My voice sounds as crunchy as cornflakes. I glare at my elder son. Who gazes at his sibling as he says, ‘Since the star is not a real planet, the tinsel is not real ice and the baubles not real presents, why bother to have a real tree?’
They discuss their recent trip with their father to Disneyland, mention Doreen twice.
‘Doreen? Who’s Doreen?’ I ask in one of the gaps.
‘Oh, just someone Dad knows,’ says second son Micky slicing his toast into chess squares.
‘She’s not just someone he knows. She’s his friend. Dummy.’
They glower at each other. I go to ask, ‘Is she nice?’ Until I realize it’s not what I want to ask at all.
After breakfast I call the tree woman. Tell her that the tree is less than a day old and it looks terrible.
‘Did you purchase one of our containers?’ Her voice has lost its smile. She sounds tired.
‘Well, no. No, I didn’t. But I put it straight in water as soon as I got it home. It droops. And it’s shedding needles. Badly. Already.’ The tone of my voice is higher than usual.
‘The best thing to do is to take it outside if you can and give it a thorough drenching. That’ll freshen it up.’
‘But it’s upstairs. And it’s decorated. I really don’t think I could face . . .’
There’s a pause.
‘You could try misting it. Or hairspray sometimes helps . . .’
I thank her and hang up.
Christmas comes and it somehow goes. We try outings – the zoo, the roller-blading rink, the science museum – I have something planned for everyday until it becomes clear that they’re are traipsing around after me to please me when in reality Damien’s two favourite modes of relaxation are listening to music in his room or lounging in front of the television – while Micky appears to be completely absorbed with his ipad.
The tree lurks in the corner. Despite the fact that I top up the water every two days, it looks rather more grey than green and the needles are gathering on the floor in an unsettling manner. I contemplate calling the plantation again to ask what I might do to encourage it to last until Twelfth Night – sugar perhaps or aspirin – but wonder whether they know the answer.
January 6th has never taken so long to arrive. I’m bandaging the tree back into the rug when my elder son appears from his room. He’s dressed more for bed than for the day, but we have this wobbly set of Rules and Conditions between my ex-husband and me that leaves both of us uncertain and the children conveniently confused. So beyond my hello smile I don’t say anything. He watches while I lug the tree downstairs and out the door. But he doesn’t see my face as I tumble it up against the fence.
I’m so sorry, I say. Sorry you had to sacrifice yourself unnecessarily. Sorry I was so ready to cut you from your roots. What a waste, not only that you had to die so I could feel good about myself in front of my boys, but our whole abortive attempt at merry-making.
There is no movement from the tree, but it’s no longer dropping needles, and in some strange way it seems to be listening. I crouch alongside it for a long time.
It’s only when I turn back towards the house I find myself wondering whether Damien had understood what I had said to him the day they’d arrived and we had stood in front of the almost-real tree. Reality’s rarely perfect, I’d snapped. Something like that. But then, quite suddenly, I wonder whether I really understood the edgy balance of reality and perfection myself. After all, hadn’t I tried to plan the perfect time together? Hadn’t I made an effort to get a real tree? Was I expecting a miracle then? A seamlessly happy holiday with two boys who might very well feel uprooted themselves? What sort of wonderland was I living in and how could I expect my children to understand something I’d obviously not grasped myself.
By the time I’m back up the stairs, Damien’s in his second-favourite position staring hard at the television, headphones over his ears, feet on the coffee table. I walk across the room, flick off the set.
‘What did you do that for?’ He doesn’t move his gaze from the blank screen.
I sit in the armchair opposite.
‘Listen, Damien,’ I say. ‘Listen to this.’
I tell him about the fairyland of trees, about my excitement when I first arrived at the plantation followed by my disappointment when I found it was to be a cut tree. I talk about the waste, the waste going on in lots of homes across the world as they throw out their dead trees. About my hope that we could have decorated a planted tree together next year and how, the year after that, we’d need a ladder.
‘I hate plastic, too, but let’s think up a better way of doing trees? And of doing Christmas altogether? How can we improve on things – on everything – for next year? So we all have a better time. What do you think?’
His feet come off the table. He takes off the headphones, turns his head and looks at me.
And then he frowns, shakes his head.
No, I don’t think that’s the problem, he says.
Well, what is?
He shifts his feet, examines one of his heels. Well, I don’t think it’s about a tree exactly. I think it’s because we expect too much, so even real things and real people – whatever we do, they can’t ever be good enough.
I sit forward. You know, I think you’ve cracked it, I say slowly. Perhaps all along, our expectations are too high. About everything. I was wrong, wasn’t I? About reality not being perfect? Perhaps reality’s just fine and, as you say, it’s people who raise the bar too high?
He puts his foot down, nods. Yes, I think that’s it.
He gives an uncertain smile — and my own mouth starts to tremble.
Photo: Kichigin/iStock Photos