The old tree had stood in the corner of the field for many centuries. Mary pulled her coat tighter around her as she watched the late autumn sun highlighting the ancient oak. It stood alone on the skyline, its position emphasising the beautiful symmetry of its spreading boughs. The inevitable gnarling that age ensured had merely given it a powerful sense of strength, longevity and, perhaps dignity.
For Mary, the old oak had played a special part in her life; it anchored so many precious memories.
She could remember it from her childhood years. An only child, she had been evacuated from London early in the war to stay on the farm with the Graham’s. The family were warm and welcoming and despite the wartime rationing, there always seemed enough to eat.
The Grahams’ had twin boys, James and Donald, a couple of year’s older than Mary. She found their Cumberland accent difficult at first and they lost no time in poking fun at her London speech. She smiled as she knew they had meant no harm. That first summer they had built a den underneath the low spreading boughs of the oak and spent hours imagining they were resistance fighters guarding the farm against the despicable Hun.
The war seemed so far away in the following years and life on the farm continued as usual. Although she desperately missed her own family, she came to feel at one with the Graham family, the farm, the livestock, the hills and even the frequent rain and the snow that blanketed the fells in winter. Donald was hale and hearty growing into an image of Sam, his father. James was tall, dark and seemed serious in comparison, more like Elizabeth, his mother and Mary found him harder to get close to at first. As time went on, though, James always seemed to be by her side, as if ready to protect her. As indeed he did the day he felt the local lads in the village had gone too far in their teasing of Mary. When she thanked him later, he had just blushed and mumbled.
After the war, Mary had adjusted to a new normality. Their small house in Deptford had been flattened by a V2 and in a cruel twist of fate her father had been seriously wounded in the closing days of the conflict. When he returned, somewhat a shadow of his former self, they had all been housed in one of the new pre-fabs just off the Old Kent Road. Their old neighbours had been spread far and wide. The new ones were fine enough but never seemed quite like the ones they had lost to the war and rehousing.
Contact with the Graham’s was never lost but was restricted to Christmas and birthday cards. Mary would read the paragraph or two of family news in Elizabeth’s neat writing and check each card to see if the little kiss after James’ signature was still there.
Mary did well and became the first in her school (and her family) to win a place at university and was accepted at Carlisle College of Art. She was both elated and scared to death at the prospect of all those learned students and tutors. Still, she knew she was gifted at art and wanted to build a career in design. She had received other offers but Mary felt drawn back to Cumberland, it’s lakes, it’s fells and, yes, it’s people. Bassenthwaite was not far away and perhaps she could visit the Graham’s once more.
Just before she left for her first term, she received her first ever letter from James. Mary tore it open but was horrified to learn that Donald had been killed in Korea. It seemed that when they were both called up, James had failed his medical (something to do with a heart murmur). Full of bluster and bravado, Donald had gone off to war and to meet his tragic end. James had continued to work on the farm with the ailing Sam and it was clear that he would soon have to assume full responsibility. He expressed hope to see her again one day and there was the kiss.
The trip up to Carlisle and the first weeks went by in a blur of excitement but she did find time to rattle off a letter of condolence to Elizabeth. She also let them know she was in digs in Carlisle while she attended the School of Art and asked to be remembered to Sam and James.
Several weeks later she received a letter via the administration office and found it was from James – could he meet her that weekend? They met at the Kings Head in the town that Friday night. From the first glance across the bar Mary felt a powerful pull to the handsome man who greeted her. His shock of dark hair fell across a sunburnt brow and framed smiling eyes. They spent the night together at her digs, somehow managing to avoid the vigilant eye of her landlady and in the morning, drove in the ageing Land Rover to the farm to meet Elizabeth and Sam.
After much tea, Elizabeth’s scones and catching up, James took her by the hand and together they climbed the steep field. As they sat on the bench under the old oak and gazed out across the farmland to the fells beyond, Mary knew this was where she belonged and who she wished to spend the rest of her life with. Over the next three years, Mary would spend each weekend with James, either dodging her landlady at the digs or with James at the farm. Sadly, Sam died and with Elizabeth ailing it became clear to Mary and James that they would have a life together at the farm.
They married the year Mary graduated at a small ceremony in Bassenthwaite. Mary’s father had never recovered from his wounds and had died the previous year. Susan, her mother, had said she would love to see the farm and meet Elizabeth and the wedding would provide that opportunity. It had been a small gathering at St. John’s church and then a lunch at The Pheasant. Mary’s dream of a life in design was forgotten as she quickly learned the life of a hill farmer’s wife on the Allerdale Fells. Soon after, she found she had to learn to be a mother to their three children who quickly followed. It was a wonderful life and James, the children and the farm meant everything to her.
Now decades later, Mary pulled herself up from the chair on the porch and left the assembled gathering of family and neighbours. She slowly climbed the steep field, ignoring the ever-present arthritic pains and sat on the bench beneath the old oak once more. Looking down at the small patch of freshly dug soil, she managed a wan smile. She and James would not be parted. The fells would still be her life; their children would run the farm and she knew that she would always be able to sit under the old oak and talk with James.