Beneath the Old Oak by Lisa Shambrook (Surviving Hope #2)

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ALSO BY

LISA SHAMBROOK The Surviving Hope Series Beneath the Rainbow: Freya’s Story Beneath the Distant Star: Jasmine’s Story

Short Fiction Collection A Symphony of Dragons

Multi-author Anthologies A Winter’s Romance Tales by the Tree

Contributor A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Introduction and short story, “The Tale of Mrs. Cratchit”




Cover painting by Lisa Shambrook

Beneath the Old Oak: Meg’s Story Copyright © 2018 Lisa Shambrook All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by H2O an imprint of BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2018930852 ISBN: 978-1-947727-42-7 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-948540-06-3 (Ebook) Visit the publisher: www.bhcpress.com


ONE

MOONLIT OAK

M

eg was fourteen years old when the old oak became her solace. It was the only place to run. ◆◆◆◆◆ Meg’s throat burned, tears streamed and the wind howled. February’s cold gusts whipped around her legs and her long hair spilled behind her. She almost tripped over the tree root stretched across her path and her legs felt like they’d give way. Her heart hammered, rasping breaths stung and each step reverberated as her feet pounded over the hard ground. She really wasn’t sure where she was headed. The last pale rays of day tried to light her path as she ducked beneath an old broken fence, cutting a swathe through long, wet grass. She came to a halt in the middle of the field and bent forward. Her head thumped, her throat was raw and she could barely feel her ears. She stared at the old oak at the top of the rise before her. It stood, bathed in the final flush of twilight and shimmering frost, silhouetted against the darkening sky. She’d seen it many times before, but the tree’s isolation lit a flame of recognition in her heavy heart and she hurried towards it.


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Her sigh rivalled the intensity of the whistling wind as she stepped beneath the oak’s boughs. She leaned against it, closing her eyes and touched her forehead to its chilled, rough bark. Loneliness engulfed her as she tried to put another friendless day at school behind her. As her fingers dug into the cold, mossy bark, she wondered if she would always be lonely like the tree she hugged. Cruel taunts from school cut through her like the ice they teased her with, and she let her tears fall unchecked. Meg Frost had embraced her surname, preferring to freeze her heart rather than let others see inside. When her best friend had died seven years ago, Meg had been lost and her mother distraught, but she’d opened up and found friendship again. Her mother’s erratic behaviour had torn the tentative friendship apart, and Meg had melted into the background like a glacial wraith. The oak’s solitude filled her with sadness and longing. She craved her mother’s embrace, and unfulfilled needs quickly brought fresh tears. Her palms prickled against the trunk. An unexpected surge of emotion engulfed her with such potency that she snatched her hands away from the tree as if they’d been scorched. She gazed at her fingers, her loneliness momentarily forgotten, then placed her hands back onto the trunk. A sudden mass of images and sentiments churned inside her and unexplained visions swirled as she clung to the tree. Then the wind stirred, biting her fingers, and she slid down the trunk, desperately fighting her rising panic. Her own thoughts returned, swimming inside her head as she tried to gather them. Meg shuddered and wiped away the tracks of tears staining her face. She stamped her feet and blew into her cupped hands as she turned towards the tree again. She shivered and tried to stop her chattering teeth. She rubbed her hands and then gingerly placed her palms directly against the tree’s vast trunk. She almost choked as intense emotions


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threatened to overwhelm her once more and jerked her hands away. She turned and bolted. Now the moon appeared, throwing silvered beams across the field, showering the hoary old tree with glitter, and chasing Meg’s shadow as she dashed into the darkness of the lane. When the moon could no longer follow her, it allowed dusk to fall, and both the tree and Meg disappeared into the darkness below.


TWO

THE CHICKEN INCIDENT

M

rs Frost was flushed, but saucepans bubbled on the hob and the kettle hissed as it warmed. Meg smiled, her tension fading, as she wandered into the kitchen. She paused to savour the feeling and caught her mother’s eye. Mum spooned gravy granules into a jug. “You going to help?” she asked as Meg took off her jacket. Meg nodded. “Finish the gravy while I get the chicken out,” said Mum. “Roast potatoes?” asked Meg hopefully, taking the spoon from Mum. “Of course.” Meg picked up the bubbling kettle. “Now? Or do you want me to wait ‘til you’ve got the chicken out?” “I said now, didn’t I?” Mum grabbed the oven gloves. Meg shimmied out of the way, moving the gravy jug and the kettle across the counter. Mum opened the oven as Meg poured boiling water over the granules. As Meg stirred the gravy, a deafening clatter behind her made her jump, as did the boiling drops of fat that flew through the air.


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Her mother emitted a strangled cry. “Now look what you’ve made me do!” The words were out before anyone could stop them, and Meg stared in shock. The roast chicken sat upside-down in a puddle of oil on the floor, and the roasting tin stopped skidding as it hit the skirting board. Mum’s oven-gloved hands shook. “It’s ruined! There’s no dinner!” she shrieked. She released another angry cry and threw the gloves across the room. Then she kicked the chicken, sending it sliding across the floor to meet the roasting tin. Tears stung Meg’s eyes and she reached towards her mother, but Mum recoiled and Meg flinched. Her mother spun round, snatching a tea towel and slipping on the hot oil. The towel flicked and caught the gravy jug, spilling its contents across the surface. Before Meg could catch her, both Mum and the jug landed on the floor. The plastic jug bounced, pitching gravy across the kitchen cabinets while her mother landed awkwardly and cried out in pain as her shoe flew off. “No, No, NO!” she hollered. “Are you okay?” Meg grabbed Mum’s arm pulling her back up to her feet. “No, I’m not okay!” She batted her daughter away and brushed down her skirt. “Look at my legs!” Meg ignored the smarting pain of rejection and glanced at her mum’s legs. Dark grease smeared her skirt, and her bare legs were red and shiny. “The oil! Did it burn you?” “It splashed! My skirt’s ruined…” Mum wailed. “No dinner! My clothes are wrecked! I’ve hurt my ankle, and I’ll have to clean everything up!” Meg felt sick to her stomach as she pushed her hair out of her face. She didn’t care about dinner. Her hand shook as she turned on the tap and ran the hot water, poured washing up liquid into the sink and began pulling a length of kitchen towel.


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“What are you doing now!” screeched Mum. “We need to clear up, not wash up!” “I’m not washing up, I’m trying to help.” “And now the potatoes are burning!” Mum’s voice broke. “And the veg will be overcooked!” “It doesn’t matter…” “It does matter! There’s no chicken!” “There might have been if you hadn’t taken a penalty shot with it!” mumbled Meg. “What did you kick it for? Could have saved it…” Her mother’s hand cracked across Meg’s jaw. They stared at each other. Her mother’s eyes glistened above thin, pursed lips. Meg slowly brought her hand to her face. She stared at her mother until she couldn’t bear the silent accusation any longer. Meg dropped to her knees and wiped kitchen towels through the oily mess. It made no impression and just smeared the grease further across the floor. Her mother threw her hands in the air and wailed again. Now tears fell in earnest, and the need for silence vanished in noisy sobs. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I’m so useless!” Meg stood, put her hand on Mum’s shoulder and with the resignation of one much older than her years, guided her mother over the slippery floor to a chair. Mum sat sobbing, running her hands through her greasy hair. Meg returned to the floor, trying to contain the spillage the best she could. The front door slammed and her father peered into the kitchen. “Oh, Paul! I’m so glad you’re home. I can’t deal with this anymore!” cried his wife. “With what?” he asked. “What happened?” Meg opened her mouth, but her mother’s voice raced on. “I dropped the chicken! I dropped it! There’s no room in the kitchen for two, I’ve always said that, no room! Meg was in the way and it ended up on the floor. Now we haven’t got any dinner!” “It’s fine, Martha, don’t worry. It’s fine.”


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“Oh, Paul...I’m just so useless. I don’t want to be like her!” Meg stopped wiping and stared at her mother. Dad placed comforting arms round his wife and rocked her gently. He glanced at Meg and shook his head. At first she thought he was mad at her, too, but his gaze rested on her over his wife’s head and Meg recognised the same submission that she felt. “I can’t be like her, Paul, I can’t!” Mum wrung her hands. Meg watched her father rub his wife’s arm and irritation surged, she’d heard her mum complain about her own mother many times before. She chewed her bottom lip, grabbed more towels and continued mopping. When Mum was sufficiently calm, her husband led her from the room, leaving Meg on her own. Belated fury swelled as she mopped up the spill and washed the floor until there was left no trace of grease. Then she disposed of the sullied chicken and shovelled well-cooked potatoes onto plates. The vegetables were fine, if soft, the gravy remade, and instead of a roast chicken, she grilled burgers, fixing up three plates of dinner. Her father walked back into the kitchen as she finished. “Meg, you’re an angel.” He gave her a quick kiss on her cheek. “Martha!” he called. “Dinner’s ready. Meg, she’s had another hard day.” He squeezed her shoulder as he left with two plates. “What about my day?” muttered Meg, “Why not ask about me?” ◆◆◆◆◆ Later, Mum sat next to her husband watching television as he stroked her arm, and nobody heard the deep sigh that escaped Meg’s quivering lips. Meg moved to the sink turning on the hot tap. The boiler chugged into life and she placed her hand amid the running water. Like a slowly boiling kettle, the lukewarm water heated up. Steam rose, in swirls and coils, and she watched with welling tears. Meg turned off the tap and stared at the water, the kitchen’s fluorescent lights bouncing across its surface. Sounds from the television filtered through the walls and the boiler still rattled and clanked. Condensation streaked the window pane, and Meg bit her lip. A soli-


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tary tear slipped down her nose and the boiler quietened as her tear sent a tiny ripple across the settling water. Angst rose like bile and Meg plunged her hands into the scalding water. She pulled out her stinging hands then plunged them straight back in again. Pain seared through her, her skin pricked all over and she withdrew again. Her hands reddened and pain tingled, but she thrust them in once more, leaning forward and splaying her fingers on the bottom of the sink. When the pain was too much to bear, she sprang away from the sink and shook her hands. Tears blurred her vision and her red hands throbbed. Meg’s heart raced and tears spilled, but she made no sound. She roughly caught up a drinking glass and dropped it into the water. It sank and Meg heard the pop of shattering glass. She wiped her tears on her arm and stared at the broken glass. She slowly reached into the water to retrieve the tumbler. She ignored the gnawing heat and wrapped fingers around the bottom of the glass. The subsequent plume of scarlet that rose through the water like a spiral of red ink fascinated her, and she released her fingers. She moved her hand through the water, watching the flow of blood follow then came to her senses and pulled her hand out of the sink. Droplets of blood rolled off her hand and splashed into the red liquid. Meg clasped her hand to her, holding the cut tightly closed and sank to the floor. Scarlet blood coloured the crystal water and Meg wept, her chest heaving with effort, but no sound left her lips and no one came to her rescue.


THREE

SLEEP

T

he house was quiet, her parents’ whispered voices had finally ceased, and the only noise was the soft clicking of cooling pipes beneath the floor boards. Meg lay still. Her hands still tingled, smarting like the conscience of a naughty child, and sleep was yet a long way off. Meg turned down the duvet and drew in a deep breath, allowing the cold midnight air into her throat. She tried to erase the feelings of anger, betrayal and bitterness. She sighed, letting the gnawing knots leave her shoulders, but though her body craved sleep, her thoughts were beyond her control. She dissected dinner, regretting her penalty remark, replaying the words and responses. Her mother’s constant comparisons irritated and her father’s acquiescence riled. His uncomfortable glance of empathy haunted her and it didn’t take long for feelings of resentment to stiffen her body once more. Her hot, throbbing hand was aggravated and she rubbed her thumb across her injured palm, smearing a path of blood to her wrist. She swung her legs out of bed and hurried to the bathroom. She blinked in the harsh brightness. She sat on the closed toilet lid and cradled her hand, staring into the oozing laceration. She let the blood pool before soaking it up with a wad of toilet paper then with her good


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hand she broke open a pack of plasters. She stretched one across her palm. It felt better, and after a quick glance in the mirror at her pale face, Meg switched off the light and padded out onto the landing. She paused outside her parents’ room, holding her breath. Short, soft snores emanated from her father, gentle, satisfied ones, snores that made her feel secure. If her father slept soundly then all was okay. Meg moved swiftly back to her room and dived beneath the covers. She squirmed and fidgeted, trying to find the warm spot, and curled herself up into a ball. Minutes later warmth seeped through her and she relaxed, finally able to let sleep invade.


FOUR

LIKE A SQUIRREL

S

he woke with a start as the cat leaped up onto her bed. She chuckled, and her black cat trilled purposefully nudging her hand. Meg leaned up on her elbow and stroked him. Indy purred, and when the cat finally settled in the crook of Meg’s bent knees, she lowered her head to the pillow and glanced at the time. “Not even seven and it’s Saturday!” She stretched out her legs. Indy rose and circled the bed again, settling on the edge. Meg held out her hand clucking at Indy, but the cat ignored her and began twisting to lick his hindquarters instead. Meg patted the duvet beside her, but he was no longer interested. She stared up at the grey ceiling. The cold morning air made her shiver and she yanked the duvet up over her head, but it was no good; staying in bed would mean thinking and she didn’t want to think. She grabbed her clothes slipping into them as quickly as she could. Indy stopped washing and glanced over with curiosity, but not enough to follow as Meg zipped up her boots and left. Silence from Dad as she passed across the dark landing, and only a creak or two from errant stairs. In the kitchen she gulped down a


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glass of milk. She grabbed her coat, pulled on her hat and gloves, and let herself out of the back door. She hurried down the path, glancing up at the front bedroom windows as the gate screeched. She thought she saw next door’s curtains twitch, but there was no way the little old lady who lived there was up. The freedom of escape embraced her! She ignored the cold gnawing through her jeans and the frosty air curling round her face. She grinned, puffing vaporous breaths like an over-eager dragon! Orange streetlights glowed as she sprinted silently through the morning streets. Several roads away, she turned up the lane and pushed through the kissing gate, onto the path to the fields. Darkness ebbed as dawn spread her fingers, touching the dewy frost lacing the tall grass and diamond-encrusted webs that stretched through the hedgerows. Meg stepped lightly along the same path she’d raced down yesterday, this time without a thumping heart and tears. This time she let dawn’s emerging light fill her heart as night’s indigo faded. The contrast was not lost and Meg grinned as the oak came into view. A lonely bark sounded far away in the woods behind the fields and early birds chirruped as she meandered down the path. The oak stood on the horizon, near the corner of the field, its bare winter branches arcing over the landscape. The sun rose behind Meg, but hadn’t broken the brooding sapphire sky behind the tree. Meg climbed through the broken fence and walked through the still-flattened long grass. When she reached the tree, she tentatively brushed her hand across its trunk, but nothing happened. She sank down letting its reassuring roots embrace her. She sighed and watched the light infuse the vista before her. Clouds glowed red at their edges, and slowly, the sky began to lighten and turn salmon pink. Over the hills the orange glow rose until the sun thrust over the horizon like a beacon of fire. Meg stead-


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ied her chin in her hands watching the sun rise higher and finally night was banished. A grey squirrel bounded across the field scratching in the moist soil around the oak. “You’re not going to find anything there…” said Meg and the squirrel bolted into the hedge. Meg laughed, watching the sun rise across the hilltops and the clouds fade into a glorious blue daybreak. If this morning was a portent, it would be a good day. She could happily sit there for hours. She took off her gloves and hung them on a twig sticking up out of the hoary ground. She closed her eyes and let the sun’s rays tickle her face as she reclined. Meg shifted and reached into her jacket pocket. She retrieved an acorn cup, dipping her thumb into it. Unconsciously, she rubbed it, her thumb smoothing the inside of the cup. A habit she’d had for so long the little wooden talisman was as smooth as silk inside, and even its knobbly exterior was somewhat polished. She ran the cup across her lips, to and fro, and allowed her thoughts to wander. The squirrel rustled in the undergrowth. Meg opened one eye and considered the little grey creature scurrying about. Sadness enveloped her as she related to its timidity and nerves. She sighed loudly and the squirrel scampered off up a sycamore tree. She smoothed the acorn cup again and replaced it in her pocket. Sudden melancholy left her exposed. She leaned her cheek against the cold bark. Her hand prickled, her wound itching, and Meg pulled the plaster off. Her cut was clean and moist, a white slice of skin crossing her life line. She blinked away welling tears. This morning was too beautiful to begin downhearted. Meg gazed up into the oak’s tangle of limbs. She followed the forks back down to the oak’s trunk and stroked the rough, silvery brown ridges, impregnated with pale lichen and rich-green moss. Her fingers tingled, and Meg jerked her hand away. She recalled the plethora of emotions from the evening before. Frowning, she


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placed her hand purposefully back on the trunk unprepared for the sudden sensation, the immediate onslaught of emotion. For a moment she felt woozy and thought she was going to faint; then elation surged and filled her mind with blinding light. She dropped back from the tree, unable to contain the impressions racing through her body. She remained on her knees in the cold, frosty soil, her hands scratching at the rime coated twigs and detritus. She leaned back, fixing her gaze on the lofty tree. The tree looked perfectly normal, but Meg felt far from it. She got to her feet and placed both hands directly back on the trunk. As her hands smarted she rested her cheek against the bark and closed her eyes. Images flooded her mind, hundreds, all at once‌laughter and tears, and grief and joy. Impressions swamped her consciousness and emotions filled every part of her until she again withdrew. Then she clamped her hands back onto the tree and allowed the sensations to bathe her for as long as she could. She tried to sort the images, but they flashed too fast and the sounds all merged into one big noise. Then an image leaped out at her: a boy’s face, excited and confident. A young boy, no more than eight or nine, climbed the oak, scrambling through its twisting branches, whooping in glee as he climbed. She grinned and watched him climb to the delight of a group of onlookers below. He didn’t get very far, but she felt his exhilaration as he crawled from branch to branch, and then he swung on the furthest reaching bough to drop back down to the ground and his eager friends. He rolled on the grass then leaped up and rubbed down his red t-shirt, and was mobbed within the noisy group of boys. The image fizzled and Meg let go of the tree. Excitement infused her and before she knew it she stood on the bulging root launching up onto the lowest branch. She grabbed at twigs and stems and pulled herself up, straddling the bough. Then she reached for the next fork and clambered up onto the higher branch. She settled in a nook swinging her legs, enjoying the new perspective away from the ground.


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Before her the field sloped down and evened just before the fence and the track. It curved away to its gate and a line of houses in the distance. Behind the oak, ran more fields and hills with silhouettes of bare trees gracing their horizons. Beyond them vast, misty, purple hills met the skyline, often hazy and bathed in cloud, but today crystal clear against the blue sky. It was later as the sun rose higher in the sky that Meg checked the time. Way past ten o’clock and panic struck. She’d been gone far too long, lost in this new world of hers. She shuffled on the branch and grabbed a gnarl, sticking her hand into a hole to lower to the branch below. She carefully let herself down and felt her feet touch the bough. She released her sore hand and balanced before letting go with the other. It was then she realised her boots were not the best footwear for climbing damp, mossy trees. Her sole slipped and her leg jack-knifed beneath her. Her hand wrenched away from the tree, and she tumbled past the branch she was trying to reach. Pain cleaved her head, and she plunged into darkness.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR Lisa began weaving intricate stories inside her imagination from a young age, but these days her words find themselves bursting forth in the forms of flash fiction, short stories, and novels. She was born and raised in vibrant Brighton, England, and living by the ocean heavily influenced her lyrical and emotional writing. She works with the senses, description and colour, and her readers will easily visualise the narrative. A wife and mother, Lisa draws inspiration from family life, faith, memory, and imagination. Lisa lives in Carmarthen, West Wales, another town rich in legend and lore. Visit the author at: www.lisashambrook.com



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