The Borrowed Trunk

I wake to see Thisbe, mother’s cat, poking a paw through the highest window of the tree trunk. She hasn’t noticed me, watching her, and I lie still against the crumpled pillow as she angles her shoulder, pushing her paw deeper until her whole foreleg is inside, flexing to swipe. There’s a scrabble as she knocks something over within, and then a rattling sound, as if the object has rolled and is now bouncing down the ladders that descend inside the tree trunk, all the way to the bottom.

My father made the tree trunk for me when I was four years old. The outside is real bark which he stripped from a dead elm in Bix woods, and inside are rooms, whitewashed, lit by tiny electric candles turned on by a switch hidden on the back. There’s a small arched door to the side at the base, and each of its three storeys has a window hung with curtains my mother made, back when she and my father could still cooperate with one another. The pinprick red flowers on these have faded, the lattice window panes have curled, and for at least twenty years now all the furniture – the sofas cut from bath sponges, the egg-cup kitchen sink, the hazel-shell bowls and miniature home-sweet-home cross stitch – have been packed away in a zipped up travel bag in the loft. Also in the bag, carefully wrapped in newspaper, are the mice my parents made that lived in the tree trunk. Jointed, with clay limbs and grey felt heads, the mother and father mice are perpetually dressed for their wedding day in pink striped dress and stylish suit. The baby mouse has no feet, just a grey felt bolster under her skirt, a leather tail stitched on like her parents.

Thisbe withdraws her paw and crouches to nose around the base of the tree trunk, tries to prise open the arched wooden door. It’s funny to watch her scrape at the door handle, the size of a picture-pin head, just like she does at the slippery brass ones on the closed doors of my mother’s house. The idea of her somehow sniffing out the toy mice that used to live behind it will appeal to my mother. I will tell her over breakfast, providing a welcome distraction from the real reason for my visit.

I push aside the duvet and sit up, and as I do Thisbe growls. Not at me; her green eyes are intent, gazing through the window on the bottom floor of the tree trunk. There is another scrabble, a rattle from inside. It’s at least a minute since I heard the object fall, dislodged by her invading paw. And anyway, I thought the trunk was empty, only dust gathering on the cracks between its pencil-wide floor boards, on the sweet wrappers that crackle for faded flames in its fireplace.

“What is it, Thisbe, you silly?” I ask. The cat ignores me as I move from the bed, pulling on yesterday’s shirt.

The whole front of the tree trunk is hinged to open like a real doll’s house, but instead of opening it I nudge my head against Thisbe’s to see what she sees through the window. Half a chocolate digestive biscuit lies on the floor of the tree trunk’s kitchen, and beside it several cotton wool balls I recognise from my mother’s cosmetics stand, slightly squashed. A green screw cap from her favourite brand of sauvignon blanc, half full of water, is on the other side of the room where the sink used to be. I feel anger tighten my empty stomach. We agreed that children visiting the house would not be allowed into my old room, lest they see the tree trunk and demand to play with it. My mother has gone soft, given some child I do not know access to my most prized possession, my gift from my father, let them leave food to moulder inside it.

Thisbe has slunk round to the other side and is on her hind legs, her front paws astride the next window up. She makes that low, rumbling sound in her throat that I only hear when the other cat gets too close to her bowl when she’s eating. Perhaps she’s hungry too, and there’s more food left carelessly lying in my tree trunk. I follow her round and look. The curtains are half-drawn at this window but with my eye close up to the plastic lattice I can see what she wants. Her own toy mouse, the one made of fluorescent green fluff with a small bell at the end of its rubber tail, lies in the middle of the room next to a familiar-looking sock. As I stare I realise the tail has been cut right through the middle, and the bell knocked away towards one wall.

That hideous green mouse had been a joke, a 99p gift from the local pet shop when I went in to look at the macaw they keep at the back, but still I feel offended. I try to think of children my mother has mentioned; her best friend’s grand-daughter, the little boy she sometimes babysits for the neighbour. Which of them has done this? I decide I will take the mouse downstairs and repair it while I drink some coffee, and then I’ll clean out the tree trunk. It will be a pleasant, nostalgic task, one that will allow me to think about my father. I might manage to get the first cry over with, which I haven’t done yet, rather than succumb in the middle of the memorial service tomorrow. This happened at my grandmother’s funeral, to my embarrassment, and this time I have to give a reading. I need to be dignified.

With my stomach grumbling, ready to go and find breakfast, I tug at the hinged front door of the tree trunk so I can retrieve Thisbe’s mouse. It doesn’t budge. My fingers slip off the bark-covered handle, made by my father to look like the stub of a branch. I tuck my fingernails under the edge of the door to get a better grip, but the familiar gap in the bark is blocked. I peer into the crack, running my fingernails around the whole hinged front, tugging here and there, but it is sealed shut, there is something white, crusted, like papier maché, gluing the edges to the main trunk. With my eye so close I catch a whiff of mint, and sniff again. It smells of toothpaste, this white seal.

I remember then, when as a child I ran out of PVA glue whilst making crepe paper garlands for some school project. I must have been quite small. Dad brought the toothpaste downstairs and showed me how it worked just as well as glue, if you were careful while you let it dry. I didn’t believe him, and was amazed when he was right.

I put on my jeans, shaking one sock out of a leg and when I can’t find the other stomp barefoot down the stairs to confront my mother. The kitchen flagstones are cold, and when I see the back door open I shout, “Mum!” and begin to pick my way across the painful gravel. She is sitting in her garden chair, smoking a cigarette in her sunglasses even though it is overcast.

“Darling, you’re up,” she says and gives me a lipstick smile. Thisbe has followed me, hopeful.

“What’s happened to my tree trunk?” I ask, not bothering with morning pleasantries.

“It’s in your room, where it always is. Now what would you like? Coffee?” She flicks her cigarette end into the flowerbed, so a thin trail of smoke rises from between the wild strawberries.

“Mum!” I say. “It’s ruined. You’ve let some kid play with it and they’ve ruined it. Imagine what Dad would say.”

There is silence for a few seconds while we do that mental gear-shift that repeats itself when somebody has just died. Or at least that is what I am doing, remembering that Dad can’t say anything at all about it, now.

“Calm down, darling,” my mother says, and lights another cigarette. “You’re always so bad-tempered in the mornings.”

I go back inside and begin boiling water for a large pot of coffee, deciding that after my first cup I will go upstairs and check that I didn’t imagine the whole thing. After all, grief can do funny things to your head. While the kettle wheezes I let this thought extend. Wouldn’t it be typical, appropriate even, for my subconscious to pick the thing I most associate with my father to dream about today? It would make some sort of psychoanalytical sense if I dreamed that the tree trunk was ruined. After he left I used to dream all the time about his room in the cellar, part workshop, part laboratory, which he dismantled and reconstructed in the garage of his new house, leaving an empty space under ours. But the tree trunk symbolises other aspects of him too.

I’ve inherited my obsession with the miniature from him. His favourite book of fiction, even as an adult when he only read books about micro-biology and quantum physics, was The Borrowers. He adored the idea of tiny people living under the floorboards, stealing useful things from the humans above. He once showed me a carved wooden box he’d kept since childhood, full of borrower things he’d bought or made: a tiny bow and arrow with real feathers, a notebook cut down to the size of a postage stamp, a purse with ribbon straps added to make a little rucksack. My favourite object from the box had been a key ring in the form of a miniature penknife, with a blade that actually opened. I was delighted when I found an identical one in a shop on holiday in Spain last year, and bought it for myself.

Thisbe is waiting outside my bedroom and insinuates herself between my feet as I open the door. The first thing I do is check the front of the tree trunk. It is still stuck fast. I try to look at her toy mouse again but the curtains seem to have fallen closed inside the window, so I bend down to look in at the kitchen instead. The chocolate digestive is reduced to a quarter, and lying beside it is a tiny penknife. I didn’t notice it there before. I glance over at my handbag where I dumped it next to the bed, then go and dig in the side pocket for my bunch of keys. The silver key ring part is still there, but the miniature knife has gone. I go back to the tree trunk and check again. I’ve finished my coffee, I know I’m awake. There is the penknife, surrounded by crumbs.

Some birds can use tools, a reasonable voice is saying in my head. And magpies like shiny things. Remember the blackbird that took tinsel from the Christmas tree when we dumped it outside, wove it into its nest?

I pin Thisbe against my side with one hand and with the other I pull at the pin-head handle of small arched door. It opens half an inch and stops. Across the gap is kind of translucent cord. When I get my eye right up close I recognise the material. It is fishing line that has been plaited together. The kind my father used to keep reels of in the cellar, not for fishing, but because it was the strongest, finest thread he could get for stitching together the kites he used to build down there. He used to show me how strong it was, dangling enormous weights from its almost invisible strands.

The voice offering the bird theory peters out. I shut the small door and sit down on the floor, leaning my head against the bedstead.

“He was only here a couple of weeks ago,” says my mother. She is standing in the doorway, looking down at me. “I didn’t want to tell you just yet, about us being friends again. We still have so much to talk about.”

I must look horrified, I’m certainly so shocked that I don’t correct her ‘have’ to a ‘had’, and she says, “Not like that, darling. He stayed in your room, did his own thing a lot of the time. I had quite a few golf lessons in the diary that week that I couldn’t cancel.”

She picks up Thisbe, who is curling around her legs.

“Tsk,” she says. “He always hated cats. He hasn’t changed in that respect.”

Hadn’t, I think, but I ask, “So what did you talk about? How was he?”

“Oh, he’s lost so much weight, wants to be fit in his old age, though that didn’t keep him away from the biscuit jar. Just like the old days! He’d sold his house, finally. We talked about downsizing, you know, freeing yourself up. Of course I still love this place, and he seemed to like being back here, despite the memories. He hasn’t lost his way with practical things. He even had the floorboards up, checked that re-wiring he did when we first moved here. It must be nearly thirty years old now.” She chuckles, and tickles Thisbe’s neck.

It’s all too much. I can feel my face heating up, tears starting to burn behind my eyes.

“Now darling, will you help me choose which dress? I want to look jolly tomorrow, keep a sense of celebration.” She puts out a hand towards me and helpless, I follow her to the spare room she uses as a wardrobe.

All day we reminisce. After we open some fizzy wine at lunchtime we shriek with laughter remembering my father’s experiments, the booms from the cellar when he tried making his own fireworks, the robot he built that took photographs and captured the next door neighbour naked.

“He’s no better now, you know,” laughs my mother, pouring wine so it fizzes over the glass onto the table. “Gave himself free reign with all that science stuff once he had his own place, no children around to get in the way. Got the hang of the internet and spent his pension on Amazon, buying books, still learning.”

I wait while she lights a cigarette and sighs out the first few puffs.

“Not like you though, with your book group,” I say, gesturing at her bookcase stuffed with novels. “He never liked fiction, apart from that one book, The Borrowers. Do you remember?”

She catches my eye, no sunglasses for protection.

“I really believed in them, when I was little,” I say. “I’m glad you both did that. You know, let my imagination fly.”

She nods, exhales. “Darling, your father is an extraordinary man.”

I don’t correct her.

When the wine is finished and she goes to have a lie down, I take a chocolate digestive biscuit from the cut-glass jar on the shelf and carry it upstairs. I pull on the small arched door at the side of the tree trunk and, by breaking the biscuit in half, slide it through the crack beneath the fishing-line rope. Then I lie down on the floor with my head beside the tree trunk, close my eyes, and wait for sounds of movement from within.