The Old Man and the Tree

I don’t think Ernest Hemingway ever visited East Garston or set one of his stories there. If he did, there seems to be no record of it. But I suppose he might have done…

It rained hard that spring. Most mornings the old man sat and watched the men going to work in the fields. If it was raining they would mostly be wearing hats but whether it was raining or not they would all have thick boots. You had to have thick boots working in the fields. Every so often they would stop to knock some of the mud off their boots but pretty soon they’d have to stop and do it all over again. Time was when the old man would have been up there with them working in the fields but he didn’t go up to the fields any more because of the accident. If it hadn’t been for that damned accident he’d probably be up there working now.

After a while the men were just specks in the distance and the old man would get tired of watching them. He could imagine what they were doing well enough, anyway. Then he would get up and slowly walk to the Bar Reina. It would take him a long time because the wound from the accident still gave him trouble. So he would walk slowly, stopping every so often and then going on again.

Sometimes he would pass the tree. Whether he passed the tree or not depended on what route he took. If he took the route that didn’t go past the tree he wouldn’t see it but sometimes he forgot and sometimes he just wanted to see the damned tree even though it had been a part of the accident. If it was one of those days he would stop and look at the tree as if it was a wild creature. Then he would carry on to the bar, thinking about the tree.

There was a morning when he was sitting in the bar drinking cerveza and nibbling at some patatas crispas. That was the morning the young man came in. As soon as the old man noticed the young man he turned his face away from him as if he didn’t want to be seen. For a long while the young man stood at the bar talking to Jaime and drinking caffé instanto. Then the young man turned round and came over to the table.

“Hello, old one,” the young man said. “You are still here, then.”

“Yes,” the old man said, “I am still here.”

“Some said you had gone away to Lambournos or Sheffordo Grande.”

“No,” the old man said, “I have not gone away.”

“Let me buy you an alcopopos, old one,” the man said.

“I do not drink the alcopopos any more,” the old man said. “I drink the cerveza and the Oporto and the Jerez and the Malibu Coca-cola, but I do not drink the alcopopos any more. Not since the accident have I drunk the alcopopos.”

“Of course.” The young man looked down at the ground. “Tell me about the accident.”

The old man just looked out of the window at the fields where the men were working, although he couldn’t see them now. They had probably gone over the hill by this time, he figured. Sometimes when people walk for a long time they get so far away that you can’t see them any more. That was the way it was with these men.

“It was a long time ago, the accident,” the old man said at last.

“Two weeks is a long time ago?” the young asked.

“Every day has been a long day since then. You are young. What do you know about time?” The old man spat on the floor.

They both fell silent and watched Jaime putting menus on the tables. Jaime was the barman at the Reina. His way of putting menus on the tables was to go from table to table, putting one menu on each. Once he had put one menu down he would go right on to the next table and put another menu down there, too. He didn’t come near the table where the two men were talking because he knew that since the accident the old man didn’t feel so hot about eating food or for doing anything much except drinking the cerveza and watching the men going to work in the fields.

“So,” the young man said, “it was a long time ago.” He said this as if it didn’t matter to him whether it was a long time ago or not.

“Yes,” the old man said. “It was a long time ago. And it was all because of the alcopopos. I must tell you first that I do not drink the alcopopos any more,” the old man said. “So, even if you were to buy me one I could not drink it, not even if it was poured into a glass of cerveza.”

The young man got up and walked up to the bar. He had to pass several of the tables where the menus had been laid out but he didn’t pay them any mind. He just walked up to the bar and spoke quietly to Jaime. The next thing he was back at the table with a large glass of the cerveza. This he placed in front of the old man. It was a reddish kind of cerveza. It was like the kind they used to make by grinding the barley hard in the presso and leaving it to roast in the kilnos for a very long time but this cerveza hadn’t been made that way.

“Drink your cerveza, old one, and tell me about the accident. Is it because of the accident that you do not work in the fields any more?”

“You are right,” the old man said. “It is because of the accident.” He took a draught of the cerveza so that when he put the glass down there were some droplets on his lip. Then he wiped his mouth and the droplets were gone. “Sometimes I do not want to talk about the accident,” he said. “Sometimes I do not want to think about why I am not working in the fields any more.”

“Tell me,” the young man said.

“Very well. I will tell you. A long time ago I was in this bar. It was late at night and I was drinking the alcopopos. I was drinking the alcopopos like a man drinks them.” He smacked his fist on the table. The young man nodded. The old man took another sip of of his drink. Then he put it down. “Some nights they sell the alcopopos cheap.”

The young man nodded. He knew that some nights they sold the alcopopos cheap, too. Some nights it was expensive but on other nights they might have a promocion and the alcopopos would be cheap and sometimes other things as well. That was the way it was.

“I was drinking the alcopopos very late into the night, even though the next day I knew I would have to get up early and work in the fields. When the time came I left the bar and started to walk home. I had not gone a hundred paces when I found that I had walked into a tree.” He pointed out of the window. The young man looked too. “I was on my back. Then I knew I had had an accident. My ankle had twisted and I could not walk. I had to crawl back to the bar, like a dog. Ever since then I have not gone to work in the fields.”

“But soon you will be well again, old one. A week – perhaps two, and you will be well again. Then you will be able to work in the fields again, with the men.”

“Perhaps,” said the old man.

This was the story the old man told that morning, drinking his cerveza. I do not know whether he got better and went to work in the fields with the men or not because a few days later I went away from the village for good and never saw any of them again.

 

Brian Quinn

• This story is available in a paperback book (as are 25 others) – Unaccustomed as I Am (RRP £9.95).

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