Things began to go wrong for Ian when the tree reappeared inside his brain. It had been there since his teens, even though people told him it was impossible; it was in his mind, not his brain; he knew it was there. What’s so impossible? The brain is 98% water.
At school, his teachers said he was lazy and just making excuses. Writing My brain is a collection of cells, like everyone else 100 times didn’t make the tree fade. Perhaps he was lazy, but perhaps he was just tired after struggling to walk to school while the roots dragged on the pavement. Dave Poulter, the captain of the cricket team, called Ian a weirdo. Mr Jenkins, the PE teacher, offered a friendly ear. There were rumours about him, rumours Ian wasn’t sure about. He should have kept his mouth shut.
The school told his parents, who muttered something about a vivid imagination and thought he’d grow out of it. There was nothing imaginary about the feel of bark rubbing against the inside of his temples. When he didn’t grow out of it, they referred him to the psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist wouldn’t commit herself to a diagnosis. She muttered something about divergent reality and put him on a different waiting list. The psychiatrist might have been right, if divergent reality is a fancy way of saying the world turns green when you’re feeling stressed. Ian never got the chance to find out, because by the time he got to the front of the waiting list, he’d given up telling people about the tree and pretended to agree with his parents. It was filed with acne, stamp collecting and an embarrassing crush on Anne Widecombe: something outgrown by the end of puberty.
Keeping quiet was difficult at first but got easier in his twenties. He could pretend the tree wasn’t there when work was challenging, and when the rewards came – the flat, the car, the serial promotions – he felt too good to worry about it. And then Janice came along, and he forgot altogether. Almost. The tree did its best to help, sitting in one corner with the school memories. Tucked in between Mr Jenkins and Dave Poulter, it behaved like the perfect Bonsai specimen, ornamental and unobtrusive. He couldn’t resist the odd peek, just to reassure himself that it was still there, still thriving in the swampy atmosphere.
His career began to falter. He began to sleepwalk through the day and lie awake at night worrying that he was out of his depth. He took a sideways move, operating at the same level but using unfamiliarity as an excuse to hide his failings. His new boss looked like Dave Poulter. He’d wait by Ian’s desk when he arrived in the morning, and take him into a meeting room for half-an-hour while he listed the day’s impossible instructions. As Ian was due to leave, at the end of the afternoon, his boss would reappear and detain him for another half-an-hour, asking why the morning’s impossible instructions hadn’t been completed.
Things with Janice began to go wrong. It was a minor disagreement about household chores and there had been no reason for it to escalate into a shouting match about who wasn’t pulling their weight around here, and for her to start going on about why he didn’t want children was unforgiveable. She stayed at a friend’s that night.
In bed alone, Ian headed towards the childhood memories and found Mr Jenkins almost obscured behind the tree, which was now as large as Dave Poulter and casting an autumnal shadow. He ignored it, but as he tried to sleep, the tree began expanding into other areas of his brain, forcing his thought along unexpected paths; it cast its shadow over his dreams and dropped its leaves when he woke up crying.
At work, the branches began whispering when he was trying to concentrate. He checked and rechecked his work, frightened of missing something. His boss noticed and began to wonder – they both began to wonder – if he’d been promoted too far. Decisions that should have been made as quickly as an acorn drops now took as long as the forest shifts its borders. Thoughts began to race through unfamiliar tracks, searching for a way back onto the path, circling around, visiting the same shaded hollow they had passed through hours earlier, each repetition gathering its own weight of evidence.
Janice returned from her friend’s and they argued even more. She didn’t understand the stress he was under, overreacted to minor mistakes and constantly bought up his failures. As she chipped away at his self-esteem, he had no choice but to react. He broke his fist on the kitchen wall. After the tears, he told her about the tree. See a therapist, she told him.
He saw, not a therapist, but a proper doctor, who referred him to a neurologist, who sent him for a scan. The scan revealed no sign of any abnormality within the cerebral regions. The tree was not an abnormality, but how could it not show up on a scan? They showed him the image. It was there, peeking out, slice by slice, behind the neurons, axons and dendrites, like Knotweed creeping out from behind a stone wall.
Janice wasn’t mollified. There was nothing growing in Ian’s head, and he needed to see someone who would tell him why he thought there was. As she spoke, her voice got louder, until the tree began to throb, giving Ian a headache. He slept on the futon in the spare room.
At work the next day, he noticed that the tree had grown overnight. Its branches crept into unexplored corners. Thoughts turned brown, ideas smelt of moss. He followed a twig back into a small branch, then onto a main branch, finally arriving at the trunk, which had risen through the centre of his brain, squashing cells on either side and pulsing in time to an arboreal rhythm.
He had been staring at the screen for half-an-hour. His boss told him he should go home if he wasn’t going to do anything. Ian climbed back along the branch and tried to find the end where he’d climbed onto the tree. He was lost. He found himself in another area, an area long forgotten, where Dave Poulter waited with a cricket bat and Mr Jenkins watched him getting undressed after PE. He ran into the forest.
Janice left him for a trial separation. Just at her mum and dad’s; she wasn’t unsympathetic, but if Ian wasn’t going to get help, she wasn’t going to be around to watch him fall apart.
He was better off without her. Alone with the tree, he could explore its roots, discover what made it pulse, ignore everyone who said it wasn’t real.
He lost his job because he couldn’t get a sick note. His GP offered, but only if he agreed that stress was the cause. He wasn’t stressed. Once he learned to embrace the tree, everything would be fine. The GP muttered something about the scan finding no abnormalities and suggested he should see a counsellor, which missed the point.
His boss came round to deliver the bad news. There was some mumbling about compassionate leave, but Ian’s performance had dropped off recently, and he shouldn’t have been surprised that there was no one rooting to keep him on. The rest would do you good. Perhaps.
A handshake and a cheque for five-hundred quid. It was quite generous, under the circumstances. Who needed that anyway? Who needs to turn up every day to the same dead-end hassle, the same dead-eyed stares, the same dead-brained, dead-souled, dead-headed excuse for an existence, just to earn the privilege, at the end of the month, of being payed considerably more than you really need, but not quite what you know you deserve?
And Janice came back, but only to collect her things.
Alone, Ian spent more time thinking around the tree. He tried not to, at first, filling his days with the things he’d always meant to do, but never been able to. Beyond bungee jumping, though, he couldn’t remember any, and he only remembered that because it’s what everyone wants to do. The tree made him too fragile to go through with it.
It was the tree that made it impossible to remember the other things that he wanted to do. It obscured his view, filtering everything through a green tinge. He prodded through the undergrowth that had sprung up around its base, looking for a trekking adventure he was sure he’d always been planning for an enforced layoff. He uncovered a large dock leaf and found a movie screen playing a loop of Dave Poulter chasing him across the playing fields, while Mr Jenkins chanted come on boy, get those muddy trousers off.
He left the house to get away from his own mind. The outside world was opaque, with crinkly edges and a long stem on the righthand side. Pulling his hat over his ears to hide the twigs that were beginning to protrude, he walked to the end of the street, past the off-licence and the barbers, onto the main road and left towards the outskirts of town. After a mile, he passed his old school. Just beyond it, he turned left again, onto a dirt track that lead behind the school and into the woods. Here, the bosky smell didn’t overwhelm him. His thought hardened into something sharp as a spade. Paths opened into the undergrowth and he wound his way between two oaks, underneath an elm and around an ash.
At the bottom of a hollow was a mound, the grass darker than its surroundings. It was no longer freshly dug, but even after twenty years, it hadn’t settled. Underneath it was Mr Jenkins. Dave Poulter and his cricket bat had finished him off, but Ian had helped put him there. Ian stood on the mound and the roots broke out of his shoes, surging into the ground. His arms were stretched by rising sap, leaves extended from his fingers, and his skin hardened into bark.