The Wishing Tree
They puffed up the side of the hill. It was a steep rocky hillside - they would have called it a mountain in England: he with his Barbour jacket slapping in the breeze, she with the cold ignoring her thick woollen tights.
It was one of those chilly damp Scottish days, where the sky seems blank and white with cloud, and where every detail around is picked out blindlingly in the light.
Above them the grazing sheep disappeared in the mist. Below them you could see the loch spread out, magical, mysterious and deadly, with the hills falling down directly into it without banks or beaches. There was still no sign of the seals they had been told to expect. Nor yet of the famous wishing tree.
"Look at that view!" she said turning round. But he ignored her, panting on ahead.
"Charles?" she said pleadingly. He stopped and turned irritably.
They trudged on without speaking. She had almost forgotten what she had done that morning which had upset him. Taken all the hot water in her shower, maybe - or was that the crunch point yesterday? Or was it that the cereal had run out? Or maybe that was Monday. For a Scottish weekend break, this one had proved more breakable than most.
The slight hurt at the corners of her eyes gave it away. He had barely spoken to her all week, but still she could look ahead at him, pounding the mud on the ground with his boots, watching the line of his corduroy trousers hugging his legs, with familiar affection.
But now he was shouting again. "Come on, for God's sake. We'll never get to your blessed wishing tree at this rate."
Why did it always seem to be like this? She wondered this for the umpteenth time since they left London behind - with its lights and traffic - and headed for calmness, tranquility and the Highlands, and love and warm closeness in the mornings when the mist tapped on the windows, and the seals barked at dawn.
But there hadn't been a great deal of that. The seals hadn't barked, the mornings had been frozen solid, and although she could almost accept - certainly expect - his hectoring and impatience in London, somehow it seemed doubly out of place out here where the air was so sharp that it seemed to cut.
And secretly that was why she had been so excited to hear about the wishing tree.
"Yeeees, you must see that. It's so mysterious," the brisk landlady had said to her. She had asked for detailed directions, still without really knowing what a wishing tree was, or how you wished there.
She had read about the magic tree in a dusty old book belonging to her father. It was called Half Forgotten Myths of the Highlands, by some wholly forgotten Victorian clergyman. As she had opened the book during a rare visit to her parents' house, the dust had come off on her fingers and some of the pages had fallen out.
But the magic, or the longing for magic, had drawn her in, and she had read until the sky grew dark outside - about abductions by fairies, about witches and kings, and about wishes that came true. She wasn't quite aware, except in the stirrings in her stomach, that it was the wishes which excited her the most.
She had a logical mind. Her desk at work was neatly divided into in and out, and papers that fell into the no man's land in the middle were rigorously disposed of. In the same way, romantic notions about love at first sight were swept aside. She believed in all the tenets of modern feminism: that children were abused, that battered wives should leave immediately, that women were in charge of their destinies.
It was just that her destiny with Charles seemed so rocky and fraught with difficulties. There were times in recent months when she had never felt less in charge.
She loved Charles. But sometimes that growing realisation had made things all the more difficult. Why the moods? Why the temper? Where had the charm in their being together gone? Why did she inspire such exasperation in him?
How could she ever have let the relationship tatter as much as it clearly had? She had tried so hard, but the more she tried the more irritated he seemed to become. She had been angry occasionally, but it melted into fear as he snapped back at her, and then into confusion.
Even when she suggested this holiday, he had breathed deeply, avoided the idea for weeks, and then agreed - but agreed so that she felt he was being terribly patient to put up with this added demand on his precious time.
So she had put her father's book back where it belonged, with the evening firmly in place outside the window, and had found the wishing tree described on one of the loose pages still lying on the floor. It tweaked her imagination.
As if magic could somehow restore the harmony with Charles, and give her at long last what she really wanted, when all her human efforts seemed to have failed.
She read about the tree avidly, pin-pointed the remote loch where it was supposed to be, and made sure it was still there when she booked their weekend cottage with the cold water, the seals and the open fire.
"The wishing tree? For certain it's still there? Have you been here before then?" the landlady had said over the phone, a little surprised.
Neither the landlady, nor the dusty book, had actually described the tree. She knew all about the customs and reverence around it, but she only had the haziest idea what a wishing tree actually was.
She was hazy also about her motives for the trip, barely admitting to herself that it was anything to do with the tree - just that the weekend break would do their relationship good. She did seem to have been threatening his nerves more than usual recently. It was only in her barely conscious moments, as she lay in bed half asleep after the alarm had gone off, that the magic of the mythical tree assumed its full importance.
Because she knew quite clearly ¬what she would wish for - she could imagine herself doing it. She saw herself stroking the branches of a powerful oak, letting its leaves brush across her face, while she wished for peace between them, and love and togetherness and the perfect relationship. Then she would look up and he would be smiling at her, and there would be jokes, and hope....
She brushed back her blond hair out of her face again. It was beginning to drizzle. She could see his shoulders ahead of her hunch in further annoyance.
He waited for her on the ridge. "Where now? Or are we lost?"
Nervously she looked around for the landmarks she had been told to expect. A gate by a trough, a short path, and there it would be. Yes, there was the gate and there was the trough, and the drizzle was barely noticeable - just wet air really.
She tried to hold his hand, but he pushed his fists deep into his green jacket and she pretended not to notice.
Here was the short path, and there at the end of it, open to the loch and all the elements, surrounded by a smattering of grey rocks, there did seem to be a tree. But it couldn't be the one, could it?
This was no oak with spreading leaves. It was barely a shrub, and barely alive it was so old. Practically a living root. The kind of gnarled old tree you expect an Old Testament prophet to pronounce curses from under. And as they got closer, strangely threatening.
There was no supernatural creature waiting to guard the tree - as far as she could see, anyway. There was no darkening of the bright misty Scottish light. But somehow there was a sense of the forbidden, something so old and wise that it could almost be tasted on the air.
He chuckled cynically to himself as they walked closer. The tree had clearly not impressed him. But there was something else unusual about it, and as they stood next to it, she could see what it was.
What had seemed to be the mottled spots of age, kind of dappled liver marks on the branches, was something completely different. On every branch, and covering it from root to elderly twigs, there were coins pressed deep into the bark.
Some were new 10p pieces, glistening in the damp air. Some were shiny new cupro-nickel 2p pieces. But some were older. Some were weather-beaten florins. Some were blackened Edwardian pennies, almost completely grown into the tree. One by one, generation after generation, avoiding all dangers of lead and copper poisoning, the tree had taken these small offerings into itself.
And in exchange for these tokens, minted in London through the century and pressed into the bark, the tree had heard the confessions and deepest hopes of the locals - and maybe, who knows, even granted their wishes.
There was an air of expectancy. She daren't touch the tree, and held back waiting.
"Well? You're surely not going to cop out now," he said. "You've got to make some kind of wish." He was looking closely at the branches, wondering probably - as she was - whether the pennies had been bent double by the endless winters or the sheer force of desire on the part of whoever had pressed them in.
"I don't know," she said.
"Come on! Where's the harm? Here, I'll give you 10p."
"Don't worry. I've got my own," she said, delving into her back pocket.
And there she was standing with her own coin in her hand, almost reverently before the tree. It seemed implacable, indifferent to her, but breathing deeply and powerfully.
Was it perhaps a terrible sin in the Christian canon to take part in such a pagan superstition? Would she be damned the moment her 10p piece touched the bark? Surely this was a good deal worse than wishing as her birthday cake was cut, or flinging a coin into a wishing well?
But it had to be done. She would regret it otherwise and wonder, and with a new resolution she pressed the 10p in on a ridge valley space only an inch or so square. She didn't want to touch the other coins for fear of some kind of contamination, but she pressed as hard as she could.
It was old and tough, but the coin was clearly in. Not very far, but it wasn't going to fall out. Then she closed her eyes, and - quickly, so Charles wouldn't ask her what she was doing - she made her wish. She said it firmly to herself, to drown out any other confusing thoughts which the tree might hear.
"I wish for it to be happy and loving between us both," she said.
There. It had been done. There was no obvious change in him as he stared across the loch, but it had been done. The tree knew what it was doing.
But even as this crossed her mind, a shiver of cold went down her spine. She didn't want to stay too close to this monument to human secrecy and inner hope.
And as they walked quickly down the hill again, she did so with a growing sense of foreboding. By the time they reached the shores of the loch, she bitterly regretting involving the tree in her delicate life. As if it knew what she wanted even better than she did herself. As if she had wished with her soul at the same time as she had wished with her mind. As if, with one 10p, she had risked its involvement in her tottering relationship.
So the tree knew better what she wanted that she did herself? Nonsense, she told herself. She may not be superstitious: at the very least pressing 10p into the branch couldn't make anything worse. But as her steps leapt from stone to stone back to the cottage, she wasn't absolutely sure.
Something about her universe seemed subtly to have changed since the wish - as if some deeper, darker, destructive part of herself had spoken across the insipid words she had spoken to herself.
Charles had reached home ahead of her. She walked in through the back door with her heart in her mouth. And he looked up from the fireplace, from the matches, firelighters and old newspaper, and she knew in an instant suddenly and irrevocably that she no longer loved him.