The Slave-Trees of Stanhope Lane: From the recently discovered memoirs of Mr G-
Suddenly aware of the darkness of my bedroom, I first assumed the hoot of an owl, or perhaps the clatter of a fox worrying at the bins. It was only upon its repetition that I comprehended the horrible moaning which had awoken me. I threw aside my quilt, made my way to the bathroom and wiped the condensation from the window. Exactly as I had suspected, the slave-trees in Mr P-’s front garden were making a nuisance of themselves.
The leftmost, whose long tresses had turned a glorious gold in the summer, was sobbing gently. That sound, unaccompanied, would have been a pleasant melancholy. However, its companion on the other side of the garden path, a slim redhead, was howling at the moon in a bestial, almost menstrual fashion. I must confess that my first instinct was to draft a strongly-worded letter of complaint to the town council.
On behalf of my foreign readers, who may be unfamiliar with the serviculture of our ancient isles, I must now digress:
It is believed that many thousands of years ago, our swarthy conquerors brought with them the custom of keeping a pair of slaves chained to the porticos of their villas. It was the duty of these unfortunates to flatter passers-by with tasteful compliments or polite chatter, and in doing so bring kudos, and sometimes fame, to their owners.
Unfortunately, our conquerors did not account for the harsh winters of our lands, and so the lives of these slaves were often short. Nonetheless, through the drawn-out process of “natural selection”, as Mr Darwin would have us call it, the slaves became hardy. Having no need to move, their legs fused together into a single thick trunk, and their capacity for independent thought became so slight that no man of progress could reasonably consider them human.
That said, slave-trees are not truly vegetables either. As I observed to Mr W- only last week, evolution has yet to bless them with the ability to absorb nutrients or water through their feet, though the Lord knows that would be a happy convenience. Nor can they photosynthesise. In their favour, their appetites and metabolisms are greatly diminished. A weekly sandwich, supplemented by what rainwater they can squeeze from their hair, will sustain a healthy specimen indefinitely.
I realise that, not for the first time, I am myself a slave to my dreadful fondness for digression. I must resist!
Mr P-’s slave-tree was making a dreadful racket. It had been out of sorts since the council installed a new street lamp a little further up the lane. The electric light was brighter than the gas flame it had replaced, and the increased luminescence disturbed the creature’s sleep. Tonight’s problem, however, was of a different nature. A sudden shift in the direction of the wind had brought an arctic chill, catching the city by surprise.
Mr P- had forgotten to dress his trees in winter coats.
I wondered if he were on vacation.
Mr P- would not be the first to have forgotten to leave his trees adequate clothes and victuals. If he returned home to find them dead, it would be an expensive inconvenience and a terrible shock for his children.
As I was deciding whether or not to assist in the matter, Mr P- appeared at his front door, dressed scandalously in only a nightgown, and hauling a bucket of water. To my astonishment, rather than tending to his distressed tree, he gagged it with thick rope and then doused it with water, a treatment guaranteed to increase its discomfort.
I had never suspected Mr P- of being a cruel man, though I do not know him as a friend. We exchange the occasional morning pleasantry on the railway platform, and that is enough for both of us.
Disturbed by what I had seen, I returned to bed.
Later that morning I found myself standing beside him, waiting for the eight-fourteen to Aldwych. He appeared to be in a state of considerable agitation. I suppose I should not have mentioned it, but a poor night’s sleep had frayed my temper, and I could not help but enquire about his troubles, hoping to increase his embarrassment.
It emerged that only a few days before, while mowing the lawn, he had overheard the tree making a comment to the passing Mr A-, our local bank manager. Rather than complimenting the fine man, the tree had said something that was not only rude, but almost political in nature. Understandably, Mr P- had been mortified, even more so as he had been intending to meet Mr A- regarding a loan for some home improvements.
My neighbour seemed to take some comfort from sharing his worries with me, and feeling ashamed of my earlier petty-mindedness, I took the opportunity to assure him that the sound of the trees had been no bother, which relieved him greatly. Encouraged, I remarked that if the creature had been infected by something blown into the suburbs on the city air, it was hardly his fault. It was well known that a slave-tree turned unruly was near impossible to recover.
He must have taken my words to heart, because when I returned home that evening, both trees had gone, and only their bloody stumps remained.