This is an extract from a novel I am writing about a young girl and a street urchin who tells stories that all begin on the same location – the Y-intersection of a crowded city street. This is the first story he tells.
Many years ago when the musicians who got this city jumping were not allowed to buy a coffee in the bars where they played, there was a tree grew on this spot. It was a silver birch and under its shade, on summer days, buskers came to play. One such busker was Marshall J. Marshall. He was a second rate musician but a first class snoozer.
One summer afternoon he lay asleep here and when he awoke he was struck by a revelation. He realized that he would never make it as a musician; that he just didn’t have what it took. This revelation pained him greatly because he loved music above all else in his life. He went about for days in a terrible depression. At the end of a long day wandering the city streets he came back to the square and tipping his hat over his eyes, as was his habit, he nodded off again under the silver birch. A short time later he awoke with a start. He had undergone another revelation only this one didn’t make him depressed. In his sleep he had realized a fantastic new direction for his life.
Since he would not make it as a great musician, he thought, he would do the next best thing. He would listen to music and he would write about what he heard. In this way Marshall J. Marshall became the first great reviewer of music in the city and his stories appeared in all the big papers of the day, making him rich and famous.
One day near the end of his life a reporter asked Marshall how he had come to be a reviewer and he told the man the story of the tree. “I am sure,” he said. “That there is something special about that silver birch. Twice I slept below its branches and twice it showed me how to get on life.”
Sitting at home one day in his luxurious townhouse J. Booker Jarvis read this story. He was the offspring of a wealthy family and lived in a large house in an exclusive neighbourhood of the city. Jarvis lived with his long-suffering wife Mildred. They had no children. Mildred wanted them but Jarvis insisted there was simply no time for such trivialities. You see all Jarvis’s energies were devoted to the important task of inventing. This was his passion above all others. He had spent years on his inventions and taken out innumerable patents. Until now all his attempts at reinventing the wheel had ended in failure. But when he read Marshall’s words Jarvis was struck with an interesting possibility. If he could just get that tree out of the square he could perhaps benefit from its mystical properties. But Jarvis was a shut-in and he had a mortal fear of the city streets, which he regarded as volatile and dangerous. He realised he could not manage such a thing alone and so he asked the son of his neighbor, a precocious teen with quick eyes.
The neighbor’s boy was called Arty.
One night Arty and Jarvis took a cab to the square and to this same Y-intersection where the silver birch grew. With shovels and pitchforks they dug up the tree and wrapping it in a shawl they carried it back home. Jarvis planted it in his back yard and the very next night he slept under it. He slept under it every night for the next month and nothing happened. He began to despair.
Then, one afternoon in late summer he was gardening in his back yard when he found himself getting sleepy. He lay down under the tree and dozed off. When he awoke an incredible idea had occurred to him. He had long lived in fear of impostors breaking into his home in the dead of night and he knew that burglary was a terrible blight on the city. It was an invention for a new type of lock. Jarvis was filled with excitement as he wrote down the calculations.
In a flurry of hand-waving and garbled words he told his wife, who said it sounded like a great plan and smiled with half her mouth. But when Jarvis read the calculations again and he was suddenly filled with doubt. Hadn’t he come up with a hundred ideas that had come to nothing? Why should this one be any different? And hadn’t his wife told him it sounded like a great plan every time he came up with a new idea?
He hesitated over the idea for weeks, mulling it over in his head, wondering if it was indeed the one big fantastic idea or just another dud. This poor nervous wreck of a man thought and thought and thought until his brain ached and he could think of nothing more. Around a month after his first revelation he slept again under the tree and when he awoke he found that once more he had dreamed about the new miracle lock. This time he wasted no time. He went down to the patent office to register his idea.
Imagine his horror when the clerk told him that the design for the lock had already been patented. Jarvis demanded to know how this could be. He had poured through the patent records in the days after his great idea and found no such lock in existence. The clerk said the patent had been filed only two weeks before. Jarvis was dumbstruck. He looked at the signature of the person who had registered the patent and saw in black and white the name of his betrayer. It was Arty, his young neighbour.
Back home he slammed hard with his fist on his neighbor’s door. When the boy’s father opened the door he looked nervously at Jarvis. In a fit of rage Jarvis said the man’s son was a thief and a fraud and he demanded to see him. The old man, who was inclined to see no wrong in his offspring, took great offence at this outburst and shut the door on him, refusing to have anything more to do with his volatile neighbour. For the next few days Jarvis waited by his window for the boy to leave but his wait was in vain. Arty had returned to boarding school in another state and was not due back for some months.
With his terrible fear of the streets, Jarvis would not be able to go find the boy. Instead he decided to wait it out for his return. In the meantime he sat at his back window gazing out on the tree, wondering how the boy could have stolen his idea. The more he contemplated the great deception that had been played on him the angrier he grew, and the more he thought about it the more this anger was directed towards the silver birch. That lone tree came to represent for him all the failures of his life and eventually, unable to contain his disgust any longer, he took an axe and chopped it down. When this was done he returned to his back window but looking out he was still bothered. The stump of the tree remained. Deciding to remove all trace of it from his life he hired a gang of workmen and had them yank the tree up, roots and all.
That night it rained heavily and Jarvis slept fitfully. In the morning his wife awoke and went out to do some shopping. When she returned she found a pile of rubble where her house had once stood.
The firemen dug all afternoons through the remains until eventually they found her husband, in his usual spot by the back window. In his hand he still clutched his morning coffee. At the inquest they discovered that the roots of the silver birch were the devil in the piece. They had reached under the house and when they were pulled up the heavy rain had poured into the holes left behind and weakened the foundations of the building. After the funeral, Mildred moved away to live with her sister in another state in a house by the ocean where she spent her days making socks for children in need.
Gazing out on the sea one day she remembered two things about her married life that had not seemed significant before. The first was that her husband was frequently in the habit of talking in his sleep and the second, in case you haven’t guessed, was that the quick-eyed Arty had a bedroom window that faced onto the yard. Mildred smiled with half her face and turning her head from the window she went back to her knitting.