First, Vicar, let me take you to the flower bed because, when I first saw her, she was sitting in the garden out the back of a café, and she had a daisy in her hair—a daisy just like the ones in this flower bed. I had ordered a cup of camomile tea and a piece of carrot cake, and I was planning to work on my novel. I’d already been at it for two years, and now I had my eighth draft and my red pen ready to pick away at it some more. At around page ten, I placed the salt and pepper on top of my pile of pages, and I went to use the washroom. When I returned, a woman with long, brown hair and adorned with a floral summer dress was sat in my chair reading my novel. Naturally, I said, “Excuse me?” She responded by holding her hand up like a stop sign. I reached for my novel. She moved it out of my reach and continued reading. I stood there, incredulous, until her gaze reached the bottom of the page. At that point, I emphatically presented my hand for the return of my novel. She turned the page over and emphasized her own gesture. I protested that my novel wasn’t ready for reading yet. She reemphasized her gesture. I protested that the paper she was holding was my property. She swapped her gesture for a single finger as if to request one more moment. I sighed, bit my lip, and let her have it.
Finally, she looked up at me for the first time. I saw the daisy in her hair, and beneath that, a face more beautiful than the summer sun itself. Pure, natural, unashamed beauty. After looking me up and down herself, she declared with a mischievous smile that she was going to keep my novel, and that if I wanted it back, I’d have to meet her at the wooden bench in the park in one week. This said, she stood up and walked away. I called after her protesting that my novel was rough, unfinished, my property. She was already out of sight.
Walk with me now past this flower bed to the wooden bench over there. Take a seat, and I’ll continue my story. I dare say I was a little apprehensive as I approached the park bench a week later. However, when I sat down, she placed one hand on my eighth draft and one hand on my shoulder, and she told me with a smooth, earnest voice that my story had captured her imagination unlike any other. She told me that my story was excellent but that she was going to make it glorious. Those were her exact words, and they inspired a warmth in my heart.
We sat on that bench for hours and hours, weeks and weeks, months and months. We deepened my characters, escalated my tension, paced my action, perfected my climax. Every suggestion she made, taking her pencil from between her lips and twirling it twice around her finger, sanded a rough edge, filled a plot hole, or set blood racing through the characters’ veins. She stoked the refining fire and walked with me through its midst. And at the end of it all, we held both a piece of written beauty in our hands and memories of exhilaration and deliberation in our hearts. I also knew that, in her presence, I felt as special as the book we’d made together.
Now, walk with me out into the paddock because it reminds me of a field where we sat in the crisp, spring sun awaiting replies from publishers. With every month we had spent together, I had grown more and more attached to her. The beauty in her face, which ensnared me at first, had rapidly paled in comparison with the beauty in her mind. She fascinated me, challenged me, elevated me. I thought her mind was pure gold. But then, I began to catch longer and longer glimpses of her soul, and I fell madly in love with it. If I thought she was pure gold before, then I knew she was inlaid with diamonds now. I thought I’d seen it all. I thought I’d seen paradise. Then, one day when we were sat in a field just like this, I saw the beauty in her face once again. I had scaled the heights, fathomed the depths, spanned the breadth, and now, with all my heart, I loved her face, I loved her mind, I loved her heart, and I loved her soul, and all at once, all in harmony. She was physical and spiritual, pleasure and piety, body and soul, angel and human. She was love.
Now, would you please follow me back towards the house. On our way, we’ll find a willow tree that I planted twenty-five years ago when I was twenty-five years old. Yes, here it is, and I’ll resume my story on a bright May morning, one month before I planted this tree, when she was offered a job in Milan curating ancient manuscripts. I celebrated the arrival of her dream with her. I danced when she danced, and I cheered when she cheered. Then, I walked hand in hand with her through the final two weeks of packing and preparing, confirming air tickets and accommodation, bidding family farewell and wishing friends all the best. And we drank tea, cycled around town, watched movies, window shopped, ate pizza, and I prepared myself to say goodbye. But when the night before the day of her departure came, I didn’t sleep at all. All night, I saw open-eye visions of myself sitting alone in a field of daisies.
I drove her to the airport after lunch the next day. We chatted about mad Roman Emperors and large pizzas, Leonardo Da Vinci and espressos. When we arrived at the airport, I helped her carry her bags into the terminal, and I waited while she checked in. Then, I followed her up to the doors of the security check.
I had steeled myself against this moment—the moment when she would take her first step away from me. I took deep breaths. I forced myself to smile. I exploded inside. I wanted to keep her by my side. I wanted to go with her. I couldn’t leave my home. I couldn’t leave her. I couldn’t say goodbye. I couldn’t say nothing. I wanted everything, and I couldn’t have anything. I just stood with a tear in my eye and a tremor in my hand, and she was gone.
Suddenly, she was back, and she was kneeling in front of me. She wanted me to marry her. She explained that she had waited for me to ask, but she couldn’t wait any longer. I heard her request, I saw her kneeling, and I was shocked, I was dumbfounded, and I was crying. Somehow, in all my pondering, in all my wondering, in all my preparation for this moment, I had never prepared for this. She said that she would buy a ring in duty free if I bought a ticket on the next flight. Instead, I told her that I was a young, unprepared, untraveled, inexperienced boy who had to let all good things come to their rightful ends. Those mad, blundering words broke both of our hearts. She left without saying goodbye.
A few weeks later, the advance on my book deal came through, and I bought this old house in the middle of nowhere and planted this willow tree in the garden. I’ve heard that it symbolises forsaken love. I just thought it looked beautiful… like she did. Years passed by, and the willow grew until I could hide behind its branches to weep. By that time, I knew I’d made a mistake, but by that time, I also knew that it was far too late to do anything about it. So, I would hide behind the willow’s boughs and think of her. I’d remember her eyes, her smile, and her little toes; her hair, that daisy, and the freckle on her nose. And I’d cry, and I’d try to write another novel. Words would never come in the study or in the living room. They wouldn’t form. But under the willow tree, I could always write something.
I started to talk to the willow tree as if it were her. I would ask the branches what they thought of my stories, and I could hear her voice in my heard, answering. She’d tell me where to put an adverb and where to leave one out. She’d tell me where to foreshadow and where to weave the subplot. But as years went by and I managed to strike out a page or two each day under the tree, I realised that my characters were all beautiful, mischievous, brilliant, committed, caring, and tragic. They all had a daisy in their hair.
Come with me now to the beech tree with the rope swing. You see, I couldn’t write after I realised that every character I ever devised was her again and again. So, I took to swinging here for hours. I’d just swing… and think. Swing… and regret. Swing… and sigh. And life became slow. Life became stagnant. Life began to rot. In Spring, when the trees blossomed, I’d hear her whisper in my ear, “Love is the genesis of life.” In summer, when everything is blooming, I’d hear her whisper, “Love is the bounty of life.” In autumn, when the leaves turned golden, I’d hear her whisper, “Love is the treasure of life.” And in winter, when snow covered the ground, I’d hear her whisper, “Love is the fire of life.” It sounded beautiful. It sounded right. It told me I desperately needed what I’d forever lost. Thus, she haunted me. And I cried over it. And I swung. And she haunted me. And I cried and swung.
Come, let’s keep walking towards the house. Like I said, I couldn’t write anymore. Since words were still my skill and my bank balance and royalty slips were slowly disappearing, I accepted a position at the local paper, proofing articles. This job began to fill my days, and I only visited the rope swing for a few minutes each evening. She would always speak to me while I was there, but her voice grew quiet in all other places. Evening visits to the rope swing became like sacred rituals—singular moments of communion. I began to wonder if everything else in my life was ready to take a step beyond her. I began to contemplate saying the goodbye that I couldn’t say at the airport. I even missed a couple of visits to the rope swing. Then, I missed a month of visits. Then, a year. Then, ten years. And I thought I was free. I thought I’d found the happy ending.
I’d like to show you a tree just behind the house that reminds me of myself. This is the oldest tree in the garden, and it’s the tree that supports the largest creeper. You see, one week ago today, I turned fifty. My sister organised a marvellous party with balloons and cake and streamers and a banquet worthy of royalty. She also sat on the phone for hours and hours amassing the perfect guest list. She invited the warmest characters among family, friends, and colleagues. She excelled herself. It’s not her fault that I knew none of the family members. They might as well have been strangers to me. And it’s not her fault that she had to turn to her friends to find any friends at all. And what great people they were. They celebrated my life as if it were their own. And of course, she did the right thing to invite my colleagues, but although I knew what job they did and which office they sat in, I didn’t even know if they liked a pint of bitter or a glass of wine. Every guest had a spouse and children and a picturesque family life. My sister couldn’t have known that that party would remind me for the first time in decades that I’m still a haunted man. I’m an old, gnarled tree, overrun by a parasitic creeper. How many times will they have to tell us that there are no happy endings before we’ll believe them?
And I imagine that is why my sister sent you, the local vicar, to walk round my garden and listen to my story. And I am thankful. She’s always looking out for me, and she’s a firm believer that simply telling the story helps in some way. So, thank you for driving all the way out here, and putting up with me.
, the dear local vicar, who had listened silently with her handkerchief to her eye, spoke for the first time. “Your sister did ask me to listen to your story, but that’s not the reason she sent me.” The vicar wiped her eyes and breathed deeply. “Do you really think it took your sister hours and hours on the phone to invite her own friends and family?” The vicar wiped her eyes again and placed a hand on her heart. “She was preparing your birthday present. Do you see the car coming up the drive? Do you recognise the face sat next to your sister? That face has the same story as you.”
Her parishioner burst into tears. The vicar embraced him, and they swayed back and forth until the car came to a stop outside the house. “Isn’t this tree just the perfect spot?” the vicar said as she took a gold ring from her pocket. “She still wants to. Do you?”
He took the ring from the vicar’s hand, and he cried louder, cried stronger, and cried happier.