'Why do we have such intimidating trees around such a beautiful garden, Mother?' I asked one day when I was about ten years old.
'It was something your father did,' was all she would reply. She would not be drawn further, so I let the subject go. However, my curiosity was not to be dampened down so easily and I thought up all sorts of weird and wonderful reasons for myself.
My mother was an escaped Russian princess and I was the spitting image of the Czarina.
My father was a spy who married a high ranking female German officer and my parents and I had to be hidden from the world.
I was illegitimate, and I was being hidden from my real father, who was a local farmer.
The years passed and I sporadically asked why the trees were planted. Through the years I got no real reason other than it was something my father did. Of course, being a young lady, I could never ask my father his reasons, it was something that just wasn't done. I was resigned to my wheelchair, truth be told it was a part of me, and I soon learnt to live in harmony with it, regarding it as more a method of freedom rather than a ball and chain. In it I could go into most rooms on the ground floor of our enormous house, and the gardener had laid wondrous paths around the gardens so I could access every plant and tree if I so desired. And my dear mother made me the suntrap, in a part of the garden that was sunny, open, yet close enough to the house that I could navigate to it myself from an early age.
So here are this day. My father is long dead and my mother is ailing. I am in my early twenties and still in my wheelchair, no feeling in my lower limbs at all. I fell when I was a small child, tripped down the huge spiral staircase and broke my back on the stone steps. Saying that doesn't bother me any more, I am no more bothered by it than by my rather boring looks. I glanced around the garden, no gardeners in sight, and the sun was warm, so I released my legs from the wheelchair and gently eased myself onto the grass, arranging my skirts around me.
I heard whispering and rustling in the trees to my left, so I called out - fearful that I was vulnerable.
'um............no?' came a small voice with a subdued giggle.
'Show yourselves,' I demanded. 'This is my garden, show yourselves this moment.'
'All right,' said the little voice. 'But promise you won't be angry.'
'I won't be angry,' I conceded, realising the voice was very young. 'Come on out where I can see you.'
Out from under the huge lumbering trees came a procession of small children, there must have been half a dozen of them, trooping out one after another, looking bashful and dashing bits of twig and leaf from their shirts. A couple of girls and four boys, pretty children, all very striking with big blue eyes and chestnut hair. I was very curious and quite forgot to be annoyed.
'Why are you in my garden?' I asked the first little girl who looked to be the eldest at about twelve.
'Please, missus, we done it on a dare.' She looked abashed.
'A dare?' I was now very curious. 'Who dared you to sneak into my garden.......and why?'
'Tom, the farrier's son,' said the child, emboldened by the fact that I wasn't shouting at her. 'And we was always told never to come in here, that the owner didn't like children running around and shouting.'
'But I am the owner,' I said with as much dignity as I could muster sitting on the grass. 'And I never gave any such order. It must have been my father. Here, give me a hand into my wheelchair'
The children followed my instructions carefully and I was eventually restored to the dignity of my chair, and was slightly taller than the children, giving me an advantage I was sadly lacking sitting on the grass.
I turned to Flora, she of the giggly voice.
'Now tell me what my father is supposed to have said.' I said sternly.
'My mother told me that the owner's daughter had had an 'orrible accident when she was a baby and he couldn't bear her to be seen by the townspeople in case they laughed at her in her chair.....' she tailed off and the giggle died. 'That was you, wasn't it, missus?'
I looked down at my legs, seeing my chair as if for the first time, then I looked up at the tall trees lining the garden. Suddenly everything fell into place - I had never been out, it never occurred to me that we were part of a big town. Everything we needed was delivered, I had tutors and governesses and nurses. The gardens were big enough for me to get out and never wonder what was on the other side of the tall trees. There was never any need for me to leave the grounds, and my father was embarrassed by his handicapped daughter, so much so, that he cut me off from the world and effectively hid me for twenty years.
'Are you laughing at my chair?' I asked.
'Not me, missus,' replied Flora hastily, the others nodding vehemently in agreement with their elder sister. 'It's just like you was on an 'orse'.
'Would you like to come and play here every day?' I looked at all the children. 'There's a lake and a kitchen garden, lots of flowers and plenty of room for football or cricket.'
The childrens' mouths dropped open at the invitation.
'Of course,' I said quickly. 'Until I get the trees chopped down, you will have to use the main gate, or your tunnel' I grinned at them. They smiled back tentatively.
'You mean it, missus?' asked Flora, taken aback by the suggestion.
'Yes, why not. I only just realised that even with loving parents, a beautiful garden and a life of comfort, I am a very lonely person.'
I wheeled my chair onto the main path, followed closely by the children, looking for all the world like a train of ducklings following mama.
'Now, can anyone explain the principles of cricket to me?' I asked the children.
They chattered and laughed, and ran about to show me the finer points of a game I had only ever read about.
A year went past. That year flew by, compared to the others in my short life. I instructed all the tall trees to be chopped down and dug up, the gardens to be filled with flowers and colourful shrubs. I also ordered a gate to be put into the wall where the children used to sneak in. I even met the infamous Tom, the farrier's son. He stood in front of me looking most ashamed, until I asked him if he could teach me to ride a horse, at which point his eyes lit up and he ran off to inspect the stables and see what we needed in the way of tack and horseflesh.
Flora was now employed as my personal maid. She had matured into a personable young lady of thirteen with a lethal football kick and could bowl her brothers out without a second thought.
Spring came around again. I settled my legs into the wheelchair and slowly wheeled myself out of the door and down the ramp, accompanied, as always these days, by Flora. It was a fresh clear spring day, and I could hear the birds singing their glorious songs, the sounds of the children playing in my garden travelled clearly on the air and the flowers were blooming in the late morning. I slid the heavy scarf off my shoulders and glorified in the warm sun, after so many months of rain and grey skies. I followed the path down the garden to my suntrap - called so because it always got the midday sun, more so lately since the trees were hewn down. It was glorious.
'Now, what are we doing today?' I asked the delightful Flora. She fished a little notebook out of her new maid's apron and opened it, licking her pencil in readiness.
'We have a ball to arrange,' she said, her voice tinkling with a giggle just beneath the surface. 'The Tall Trees Ball'.
'Very well,' I smiled back at her. 'Best we begin with the invitation list. Let's invite - everyone!'
(c) cq 2004