Overall Winner The Lemon Tree by Anna Breen
She slowed as she walked past their old house, stopping to gaze at it, drinking in the purple of the jacaranda tree, the deep yellow of the façade, the creamy tones of the climbing roses by the gate. It seemed impossible that she had lived there once, in what now seemed like another life - her old life, her real life, before everything changed ....
She remembered wandering through the house alone on the day they finally left, through rooms that felt so familiar and yet so strange, so hollow now, bereft of their furnishings and empty of the people that had made them home. She remembered the salt sting of her tears at having to sell the house and felt again the surging terror at having to face the strange new life ahead, alone, without him. She had paused in the dining room, the echo of boisterous family meals ringing in her ears and gazed across the lawn to the wooden swing he had built for the children. In her mind's eye she could still see their youngest swinging on it, higher, higher, her blonde hair lifting and falling with the motion, her carefree laughter floating on the summer air.
And she remembered how she had suddenly, desperately, needed to leave that house that was no longer theirs, to run away and hide where no one could reach her, or see her, or pity her. She remembered rushing to the door, banging it shut in her haste to get out, to get away, to escape from - what? Her happy past, or her unhappy present? From her memories, or from her fears for the future? She didn't know, all she knew was that she had to get out, quickly, now. And then, she saw the lemon tree.
He had given it to her for their wedding anniversary some years before he died, and they had planted it together, so joyfully and hopefully, in the flowerbed by the gate. Yet it had not flourished there that poor little tree, had never given any lemons. It was small and spindly still, though full of lush, shiny leaves and at the sight of it her sudden haste changed to a rising rage. Maybe she had to leave the house, had to leave the lawn and the swing and the roses and all her old life there... but she was not leaving that little tree!
With no further thought she ran to it and grasping its narrow trunk, pulled on it hard, trying to wrench it from the soil. It did not budge, so falling to her knees she started digging, clawing at the soft earth with bare hands, trying to wrench it free, but still it barely moved. Looking around for something to dig with, she spotted a broken tile under a bush, probably left over from building the extension. With its jagged edge, she dug deeper around the base, exposing more of the wide-spread roots. She pulled again harder, tugging at the tree with all her strength, but though it shifted slightly, it would not release its tenacious grip on the earth. Suddenly frantic, she dug again, hacking and stabbing round the roots, accidentally slicing through some with the sharp tile, gasping and crying out with the effort, until, finally, it seemed to loosen slightly.
Standing up again, she planted both feet close to the trunk, clutching it low to the ground and pushing up hard with her legs, straining all the muscles in her thighs and her back and her arms, pulling, pulling with all her might, groaning with the effort. And then, at last, she had felt the tree relinquish its hold on the earth, heard it almost sigh as it released its grip, and she recalled how she had stood there for a long moment, panting, gulping victorious tears, clutching in her muddied hands the bare-rooted, spindly, sad little tree which had yet fought so desperately to stay in its home soil. And in that moment, she had felt a deep affinity with that poor little tree, understood that they were very much alike - dislocated, damaged, diminished, but, please God, not defeated! Please God, not beyond repair!
She had carried the tree to the car, gently, almost tenderly, suddenly reluctant to cause this vulnerable living thing any further pain, wrapping its poor, mutilated, roots in a plastic bag she found in the boot. It did not fit into the boot, so opening a back window, she had fed the root-bole through it and across the seat, leaving the glossy foliage poking bravely out of the window. Then slowly, carefully, so that the wind would not break its fragile branches or bruise its shiny leaves, she drove the little tree to the new, smaller house they had rented nearby ...
Her thoughts returning to the present, she wondered how long she had been standing there outside their old house, remembering. Then she turned and strode purposefully away from it, towards that other house, the new house that had gathered them in all those years ago, had welcomed her, the children and the little wounded lemon tree into its friendly rooms and sunny garden and slowly, gently, almost imperceptibly, helped to heal their hurts. And though her children had now grown and gone, they came to visit her often, bringing their partners and their own children to fill her home and her heart, because they knew, as she did, that her life was now securely rooted in the soil of that house, her old memories and new hopes now safely settled within its sheltering walls.
And as she approached the house, the lemon tree, now grown tall and sturdy by the gate, seemed to wave a welcome, holding its glad, golden fruit towards her as if to say, 'I am well here. You are well here now too. Together, we have survived.'
And looking up at her old friend, she reached for a large, luscious lemon, and smiled.
Judge Charles Durante’s comments:
“This is a mature meditation on the sense of rootedness, belonging and nostalgic yearning. A woman, recently widowed, recalls happy family days with her husband, children and her beloved home with the lemon tree which will symbolise her fulfilled married life and her attachment to home. A wedding anniversary present, the lemon tree had failed to flourish, withholding its lemons, seemingly unable to mirror her happy life with her husband and children. Now that a new phase in her life is about to begin, she realises she cannot abandon the tree and makes frantic efforts to uproot it and transplant it. It seems firmly rooted in the old home and will not budge.
The writing acquires a poetic intensity as she realises the deep affinity that binds her to the tree: ‘they were very much alike-dislocated, damaged, diminished, but, please God, not defeated!’ The strong alliterative rhythm drives home the feeling of having lived through difficult times, but now emerging into the new life she will enjoy with her children and grandchildren in the smaller house she has moved to. The lemon tree embodies this late flowering of life, its ‘glad, golden fruit’ emblematic of natural flourishing and vital growth. The lemon tree reminds us of Yeats’ ‘O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer’ in ‘Among School Children’, a symbol of endurance and perseverance, beauty and grace. This is writing of a very high quality, measured, sober and understated. Well done!”