There aren’t enough flowers in winter, by Christopher Brunt

I particularly like the big leaves. It doesn’t matter what colour they are. Red, yellow, green, I even like the grey ones. I always try to find the biggest ones, not those tiny little shrivelled things that barely weigh anything when you hold them in your hand. You can tell if it’s the type you’re looking for by the way they fall through the air and land on the ground. You see them when they’re still attached, one minute wafting in the wind, then all of a sudden they let go and begin to glide away from their branch. They spread themselves out at full length, like they’ve got wings to stop them from falling at full speed. That way they don’t fall at all, not at first anyway; instead they float like feathers.

I’ve noticed that. For them, the fun isn’t when they hit the ground or when they’re stuck up in the trees. Their favourite part is when they begin to glide through the air. They like to savour the moment and enjoy it for as long as they can, swaying from side to side, gently bouncing between invisible clouds, lying flat on their bellies, wide and strong. When it’s windy it can take up to a minute for them to land while they’re tossed from one tree to another, like pole-vaulters. Just when you think they’re ready to land, another gust pushes them up and shoots them into the sky, giving them one more ride. Finally, gravity defeats them and they hit the ground. Everyone has to hit the ground eventually.

In winter when all the leaves abandon their branches, I gather up the biggest ones and the trees just stand there naked against the breeze, waiting for spring to come. You’d think they need their leaves the most when it gets cold, like a warm jumper, but they don’t seem to mind as much as we do. I ignore the smaller ones, those that look like dead spiders that have curled their legs up into a ball. I only take the strongest and the smoothest, those with a bit of life left in their veins.

When the leaves land they die and begin to shrivel while their moisture evaporates from their veins. It happens in the same way as it does with people, only a lot quicker. I like to lay the biggest ones over the palm of my hand and feel their weight. Their spines rub against my skin, their skeletons mingling together with the lines of my fingertips.

“That’s what makes you special.” Mum used to say. “Everyone’s fingertips are different.”

I don’t notice anything special about my fingertips, but dad says it’s true so it must be.

I sometimes wonder if my fingers will go hard and curl backwards like the leaves do. That’s what makes it harder for me you know. That’s the trouble when you’re trying to find the bigger ones. If you’re lucky they don’t shrink too much when they’re still on their branch. They all get smaller when they’ve fallen. Dad says I’m getting smaller too. He tells me I spend too much time out here in the park.

“All those coats and scarves you wear are shrinking you to the size of a mouse.” He can be funny like that. That’s why I have to find the biggest ones; there’s no use looking for the tiny leaves, they couldn’t keep anyone warm.

I’ve been searching for months now, almost every day; it’s all I can remember doing, like each day has moulded into one long, very long day. I’m searching for a leaf that’s the right size, looking for the perfect one. Between you and me, I want one that will fit over my entire hand, like a thick glove. One that will fit me perfectly, just as it used to fit perfectly to its tree. I don’t expect it to be the same shape as my hand, that would be silly. No leaf is ever going to look exactly like my hand; I’ll be happy just as long as it fits over my fingers. I want it to hide me. I don’t want to be seen by anyone. I want to use it as a blanket and learn to keep warm out here, so that I can stay outside and sleep peacefully.

I know I won’t find one big enough for my whole body, but I don’t think it’s asking too much to find one the size of my hand. There have been a couple that came close, but there was something not quite right about them. They weren’t what I was looking for. I don’t know how to describe it to you, but I know what I mean. And I will know exactly what I mean when I find what I’m looking for, then I’ll be able to show you.

It’s frustrating sometimes trying to find the right one. Often, I think I see it on a branch, but I can’t just take it. I have to wait for it to come down to me. I don’t hurt the trees, some people do, but I don’t like it. I hate seeing people yanking leaves off branches, or climbing and shaking them, tearing them off before they’ve had their chance to fly. I used to climb the trees to get the ones I wanted but Mum didn’t like that. She said I was cheating. I think she was just saying that so I didn’t go up there anymore. She’d tell me off if she caught me climbing and then shout at Dad for letting me do it. Then I would feel guilty for upsetting them.

My teacher once asked me to write a story about why I liked trees so much. I wrote about the bond between the leaf and the branch, the link between the branch and the tree, the tree and its roots, and the roots and the ground. They all live together like a happy family should do. Every part of the tree survives because of another part, until, finally, one day they all let go. First the leaves let go, then the branches and then the tree trunk decides to fall. They loosen their grip all of a sudden, as if they’ve been thinking about it for days and have finally made up their minds. They just fall. They just fall to the ground and stay still forever. Quiet and still. I sometimes think about falling with them, floating through the air, my arms held out wide, my fingers trying to grab hold of the space around me, hoping to slow down the fall so I can enjoy it more, like the leaves do.

The truth is, I can’t fall, I’m too scared to fall. My fingers cling tight to the bark and I stare down at the ground, refusing to let go. I can still see the red marks in my hands and fingers where I clung too hard. That’s why I need gloves; I need them so people won’t see what I’ve been up to. They won’t see that I was too scared to let go.

Dad once said, “If you love someone you have to let them go.” I know Mum isn’t like that. She’s never let go. He doesn’t say it, but I know it’s true; Mum still hasn’t forgiven him for letting me climb like I used to. I know it was wrong, that’s why I don’t do it anymore. I still have the scars on my knees to show for it. Instead, I like to sit under the trees, waiting until the leaves are ready to fly.

I look up and wait for the last leaf to fall. It’s usually the most frightened one, those that are scared about what will happen if they loosen their grip. I want to reassure them and tell them that I understand. When they do land I’m there to greet them. If I could find enough daisies I’d make daisy chains and greet them all as if they’d stepped off a plane, by draping the flowers around their necks.

“Welcome.” I’d say, grinning with a huge smile so they knew it was all right. I don’t have time to care for all of them, so I just stick to the big ones, my favourites. There isn’t enough time and there aren’t enough daisies. There aren’t enough flowers in winter.

The park is near Dad’s house and he lets me play for as long as I like. Sometimes he leaves me to sleep outside, but I’m not ready for that yet – it’s still too cold and I can’t let go. I always dream that I’m falling, falling too fast to enjoy it. Falling too fast for any of them to catch me, so that when I do land and hit the ground, there’s no one there to greet me; I just lay flat like the leaves do. Quiet and still.

Today the park was really busy, there was something special happening in town, which meant that lots of people came walking around, kicking and treading on the leaves, making it even harder for me to collect them. It almost felt like they were doing it on purpose. I got so cross with them that I just sat down on the wet grass and didn’t move at all, I was protesting but I didn’t feel like crying, even though I was so cross that I could have done.

I saw a man sitting by himself on a bench. He was old and grey, his skin was white and his fingers looked blue. Out of everyone he was the only person looking at me, the only one that seemed to notice me as I sat with my arms folded and my face all cross.

When he spoke I was surprised to hear him, as he was still quite far away.

“You’re sulking are you?” His voice wafted over to me on the wind.

“That’s a fine game,” he sniffed. “Not that it’ll do you much good.”

He shook his head at me. “Not with this lot around, they won’t pay you the least bit of attention.”

I got up and walked over to him. I stood a few steps away from the bench and stared at him, I didn’t know what to say, he looked at me and then pointed to the seat next to him.

I sat down.

“With all that sulking you’ve gone and got yourself a wet bottom.” He shook his head.

“Truth being told, I need the company. It’s a long time since someone noticed me out here.”

He bent forward.

“Though, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to take liberties; any fluid -especially rainwater- is likely to take the varnish clean off the wood. Then where would I be? No one else is likely to paint her…” The old man glanced at the bench and began sliding his hand down it, just like I used to stroke my cat, Alfie.

“I’m the only one willing to look after this bench these days. What’s more, it’s my responsibility, after all -I own the bugger.”

He whispered into my ear. “This bench belongs to me, you know.”

“It’s yours?” I asked him, not really believing it.

I’d never seen him here before and I wondered why anyone would want to buy a bench.

His face tightened.

“Yes I do, young boy, my name is Raymond Prestonon (Ray for short), and this bench is mine, mine alone. I’ve even had my name enamelled into the inscription.” He said, pointing his thumb at the shiny plaque fixed behind him.

“Can I see it?” I asked, only able to make out the corner of the writing.

He sat up and looked at me as if I’d done something bad.

“No you may not!” He shouted, moving back quickly before I had a chance to read it.

He didn’t say anything for a bit and just looked cross with me.

After a while the old man smiled at me, though I wished he hadn’t because all the inside of his mouth was black and rotten. He didn’t have a single tooth.

“I’ve seen you before, oh yes, you don’t think that I have, but I have.” He reached up to scratch his nose and I saw his blue fingertips up close, all swollen and cracked.

“Playing about with your trees I see, yes, I’ve seen you.” I didn’t want to look at his face, there was something about his pale, grey skin that scared me.

“I saw you and I began asking myself a great deal of questions,” he said. “Firstly, it occurred to me that little boys like you should be with their parents, not alone in the outdoors.”

I looked up at him angrily.

“I’m a girl.” I told him.

He laughed at that. He laughed so hard that he started to cough like grandma used to.

He didn’t say anything for a couple of minutes and I sat there staring at all the other people walking around in their thick coats and woolly hats.

“You’d better be careful you know.” He warned me. “It’s mightily cold these days, and you don’t want to be running around too much.”

“Why not? Why shouldn’t I?” I said, still angry with him for calling me a boy.

“Firstly, if you do too much running around you’re likely to trip over something and hurt yourself. Then you’ll be in a sticky bit of bother won’t you? Yes…carry on that way and you might as well save your leaves to make yourself a nice little tomb. Secondly, if you exercise too much you’ll lose weight, and folk shouldn’t lose weight, not in the winter. They should be putting weight on to keep them warm. It’s too cold to be a skinny little girl like you.” He said, shaking a blue finger at me. “Why else do you think the squirrels eat up all their nuts and make themselves fat?” He asked me.

“Squirrels don’t get fat during winter, they hibernate and hide their food away until they get hungry.”

“Ah ha – ha,” he laughed at me. “Yes, yes you’re right I suppose, a clever one aren’t you.”

“And I’m not skinny.” I told him, puffing out my chest trying to convince him I was normal.

“Too much reading has made your brain skinny.” He said. “Not me, no I have the sense to stay fat during the winter months. No exercise for old Raymond, not a bit. I sit right here all day and I don’t lose a single pound.”

“How do you know that,” I challenged him. “You don’t have any weighing scales?”

“True, true, too true.” He nodded. “But you’re not the only one with a clever brain around here, skinny girl.”

I felt like shouting and arguing with him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I record everything I eat in this little blue book of mine.”

He pulled out a small writing pad from his jacket.

“Every last morsel that passes through these lips is written down and recorded, recorded and accounted, just as it should be. When my body requires me to expel its excess, I simply go to the toilet. Then I come back here and sit quietly on my bench. You see, I’ve trained my body like one trains a wrist watch.” He began tapping his wrist but there was no watch.

“I have an ingenious system based on what I consume, how much exercise I do, what I expel and how much talking I do. I can tell you, or anyone for that matter, what my exact weight is at any given time. It hasn’t failed me yet.”

He sat back. I saw him glancing at me from the corner of my eye, I knew he wanted me to ask him, so I did.

“How much do you weigh now?”

He suddenly shot forward and stood up in front of me, fingering the paper of his little book.

“Now, you ask?” He concentrated and scanned the pages.

“Well, let me see…” He looked towards the sky, concentrating.

“We’ve been talking for a good five minutes I would say, more so than usual, hum…”

While he was distracted I looked over and read the plaque.

Here he sat, our beloved Ray Preston, from 1912 to 2004.

The old man suddenly yelled and I looked away, frightened he’d seen me reading.

“Ah ha! I weigh exactly eight stone, three pounds and five point two ounces,” he said, sitting back down, very happy with himself and putting the book inside his jacket.

“Well?” He was grinning now.

“Well what?” I asked.

“Aren’t you impressed?”

“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” I said. “How do you know it’s true?”

“Because I have it all right here little boy, right here in this book of mine. What else do I need?”

I still didn’t believe him.

“You don’t believe me do you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“I don’t have to justify myself to a scrawny little wet-bottomed boy, like you.” He screeched, pushing me off the bench.

I still see him on his bench, he’s there every day, even at night. He won’t leave it, not even for a second. I think he’s afraid someone else might sit down. He hasn’t spoken to me since. He doesn’t notice me anymore, no one does. I don’t mind that, I prefer the quiet. The best thing about the park is the quiet, especially in winter. I sometimes feel sorry for everyone else. I always think they talk too loud to hear it. They might come here to relax away from the noise, that’s what they always pretend, but usually they just talk over the quiet, like they do any other time. They have to learn to let go. I know they won’t, it’s always the same, no one ever does.

Upcoming novella ‘Ralph and the purple flychristopher.brunt@york.ac.uk

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