Zelkova Serrata by Chris Green
Was it a knock that had woken her? Anna does not like being alone in the big old house at the best of times, but knowing that Ron is on the other side of the world makes her more edgy. She takes a look at the clock. It is 3:23. Much too late for anyone to be calling round, even if it were an emergency. Perhaps it was the wind rattling the window. She remembers that the weather forecast had not been a good one.
But she is wide awake now. It is too far into the night to be able to go straight back to sleep. She puts on her white full-length Féraud dressing gown and goes down to the kitchen. There is nothing like a cup of tea, and maybe a slice of chocolate cake to settle you when you are on edge. While she is waiting for the kettle to come to the boil, she has the nagging feeling that something is not right. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but something feels different. She makes a quick check around the front room, the study, the utility room. Although nothing seems to be out of place, it feels to her as if there has been some recent movement. She is familiar with this feeling. It’s not something you can put into words. There’s an energy field, a cold spot, something along those lines. She shivers. She recalls reading that the saying about someone walking over your grave originates from the Middle Ages when the distinction between life and death was less distinct.
She checks the conservatory. The lemon tree seems to have been moved, hasn’t it? Perhaps not. She cannot be sure, but she does not remember leaving the patio doors unlocked. She is careful about things like this. Ron’s work in security and surveillance has instilled this sensibility in her. But whether she locked them or not, they are unlocked now. And if they are unlocked now, then someone could have got in, in fact, they could still be in the house. What should she do? Instinctively, she picks up the nearest blunt object, in this case, the cast iron frying pan that she left on the hob. There are no obvious hiding places in the house but still the fear remains.
She switches all the lights on and nervously patrols the rest of the house. She looks behind dressers, in cupboards, under the stairs. Nothing. She takes a torch out into the garden. Nothing. With a sense of relief, she pours the boiling water onto a camomile teabag and sits herself down at the dining room table. She is about to give Ron a call, but she thinks better of it and puts the phone back in its cradle. There is no point in worrying him unnecessarily. He would not be able to fly back from Singapore just like that, and anyway what is all the fuss about. There is no-one in the house and she doesn’t really want to let Ron know that there has been a security lapse, even one so minor.
Anna goes back to bed, but she can’t settle. Rebel thoughts about an intruder keep up their campaign. She tosses and turns. She wishes that Ron were there. He would comfort her. Perhaps they might make love. Making love usually helps to calm her when she is troubled. They say climaxing rebalances the chakras or something like that. But Ron’s not there, she tells herself, nor is he going to be for a while, so she herself has to take command of the situation. She must pull herself together.
‘Ron’s probably had his chakras rebalanced out east,’ says annA.
‘There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it,’ Anna counters
‘But you’re resentful and jealous,’ says annA.
‘If you can’t do anything about something you should let it go,’ her protector offers.
‘You could even the score.’
‘But what would that prove.’
‘Of course, you are on you own and you are scared,’ says annA.
‘Free your mind from the judgments of others and gently go your own way in peace,’ adds Anna. ‘Things will work out if you trust reason and logic.’
The seesaw continues to rock her emotions. The wind continues to rattle the window. Eventually, at about 6am Anna manages to get off to sleep. But, after a nightmare about being held captive in a dark dank basement in Blackheath by a one-eyed hunchback, she wakes up in a sweat. She does not normally inhabit such ghoulish dreamscapes. Her nighttime world is typically occupied by people from the office or her friends from her decoupage class or the gym where she does her Pilates – in mash-ups of random everyday situations.
She showers and gets ready for work. Her stomach is churning a little and she doesn’t feel like breakfast but manages to force down an oatcake with her cup of tea. She straightens her skirt and puts on a bright summer coat. She fobs her Mini Cooper but it seems to already be unlocked. Now this is something she never does. The car is her pride and joy and she would never leave it unlocked. Not even on the occasions, she has to go back into the house for something she has forgotten. She is spooked. The plain white envelope on the dashboard sets her heart racing even faster. It has her name on the front in fine black italic capitals. With trepidation, she picks it up and examines it. Finally, she opens it. It is empty.
She needs to get to work. Her line manager, Maurice will know what she should do. Even before she slept with him last Christmas he was supportive, and for that matter, afterwards, even though she didn’t sleep with him again. Maurice is a rock. He will put his arm around her and reassure her. He will tell her that there is nothing to worry about. He will probably tell her it is just someone having a prank. It happens all the time, he will say. She sets off trying hard to keep this thought in mind.
Another thing she always makes sure of is that the Mini has fuel. She is so cautious that as soon as the level reaches half way, she fills up. But, when the car shudders to a standstill going along the back lane onto the by-pass, she notices that the fuel gauge is registering empty. Why didn’t the red light come on? Emergency Calls Only reads the display on her phone. What is wrong with the thing? She only changed providers last month.
Lovers Lane, as it is affectionately known, is not what most people would think of as a sinister place. It has arable fields on both sides with well-tended hedgerows and further along there is a pleasant area of woodland. Anna gets out of the car. The winds that were blowing through the night have died down and there is a stillness in the air. She cannot even hear the hum of traffic that you might expect to hear coming from the dual carriageway. She is about half way along the lane. She looks up and down. Should she head back home on foot to phone the AA Roadside Assistance from there? Has her breakdown cover lapsed, she wonders? Ron is the one who takes care of these matters and he has been away such a lot lately. Should she wait for someone to come along? Even though the road is not well used; her car is blocking the highway. She can’t leave it where it is. And she hasn’t the strength to move it to a passing place on her own.
‘Hello, my lovely,’ says a voice, from out of nowhere.
It is not the knight in shining armour or the good Samaritan she is hoping for. It is the one-eyed hunchback from her dream. He is carrying some kind of axe.
Dozens of stories she has heard of mad killers on the loose momentarily flash through her consciousness. The one who butchered his killers and kept them in the deep freeze. He escaped from prison a year or so ago. He is still on the loose. The one who skinned his victims? Was he ever caught, or is it just a character from a film that she is thinking of? The cannibal murderer that was in the news recently. The line from the song by The Doors that Ron sometimes plays in the car, there’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad runs through her head.
The axeman is over her now. He has raised his weapon. Anna feels she is going to pass out. The last thing she remembers is …….
She is startled by a knock on the driver’s side window.
‘Everything all right, love?’ says a stranger, This one is not carrying an axe. He is well dressed and has a winning smile.
‘What? How?’ she says, as she winds down the window. ‘Where am I?’
‘Are you all right?’ he asks, in soothing tones.
‘What happened to ….. the ….. the ….. I was …… What’s going on?’
‘I’m sorry I startled you,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I need to get by …… and, well, my sweet, you are blocking the road.’
‘Sorry,’ says Anna, finally realising where she is. ‘I’ve …….. uh. I’ve run out of petrol’
‘Start it up. Let’s have a look,’ says the man. ‘It may not be the fuel.’
Anna turns the key and the engine fires up.
‘Look! See! It started first time,’ he says ‘And, you’ve got over half a tank.’
‘Thank you. Thank you. ……. How did that happen? I could have sworn it was empty. I don’t know what to say.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ says the man. ‘You do seem a bit shaken. Now, I live just along the lane, there. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea to settle you down?’
‘Yes. I think I’d like that,’ says Anna, meeting his gaze. He really is quite handsome.
‘I’m Lars, by the way,’ he says.
His shirt, Anna notices, is almost the same blue as his eyes. ‘Pleased to meet you, Lars,’ she says. ‘I’m Anna.’
‘My house is that white one on the right, past the row of poplars there,’ he says pointing. ‘The one with the gables.’
‘I know that house,’ says Anna. ‘The one that belonged to the mystery writer. I pass by every day. It has a distinctive tree on the lawn. A Japanese elm I believe. I’ve often admired it.’
‘Yes, a zelkova serrata. Lovely in autumn.’
‘I’ve read they can live to be a thousand years old.’
‘Yes,’ he laughs. ‘It will certainly outlive you or I. Just pull into the drive, and I’ll be right behind.’
Anna manoeuvres the Mini the hundred or so yards along the lane to the white house, followed by Lars in his black Mercedes Coupé. Under the shade of the zelkova tree, they exchange glances. Anna feels that something is in the air. It is a feeling she has had before, one involving weakness and knees, her weakness, her knees. Inside the house, one thing quickly leads to another. Before she knows it they are in one another’s arms, kissing.
‘Perhaps you would like a glass of white wine,’ says Lars. ‘Or would you prefer red?’
‘Maybe later,’ says Anna, slipping out of her skirt.
The newspaper open at the story of the axe murderer has escaped her attention. She may not discover, therefore, until it is too late, how the victims were buried beneath a shady tree, similar in all respects to the one she can see through Lars’s bedroom window.
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved