It was an early evening in the spring of 1950 when I last saw Ronald “Rojo” Jones. As I fumbled the key in the lock and rotated the heavy barrels, I anticipated a number of reactions he might greet me with, ranging from stoic silence to manic optimism.
The response I got, however, took me by surprise. As soon as the door was open, I looked upon his hooked nose, round glasses and slender form, and a broad smile formed on his face.
“Bertie!” He said, leaping up from the bed to a pair of uneasy feet, “I knew you’d come!”
At once, Ronald skipped forwards, wrapping me up in a pair of wiry thin arms. I patted him on the back three times, rubbing his back on the final pat, as he lowered his arms.
“Come now Rojo, old chap,” I spoke beckoning him through the door, “let me give you a tour of the grounds.”
Ronald nodded, “It’s good to see you Bertie.” He said, following my lead, “It’s been a terribly dull week.”
“I can only imagine.” I nodded, striding through the open door, and leading my companion down the stairs towards the gardens.
Rojo took a deep breath of the cool spring air, as we stepped out of the building, “Nothing beats the smell of spring,” he said, closing his eyes and savouring the redolence, “the scent of flora on the air, as flowers bloom and pollen swirls across the land, giving life to barren places.”
I looked around the meagre garden, my eyes settling upon its central feature, a great English Elm tree, which predated the surrounding building, and would likely be there long after every last brick had been removed.
“Every flower, sapling and shrub you see here Rojo,” I spoke, “I planted myself. The garden may be small, but these are hardy greens, enduring the bitter winters, and bursting forth in spring. I couldn’t let you leave without seeing them.”
Rojo walked around the garden, his finger wriggling in excitement as he looked down at the flowers, blooming in mauve and crimson. “And what a splendid garden it is; an irony perhaps, that I should come to see it in spring, when seeds germinate and flowers blossom.”
“Come now Ro,” I said, taking him by the arm, “Let us not speak of that. Let us ruminate on the present and reminisce on the past.”
Rojo looked up at the tree, “There’s a reason they call you Bertie Brownbear,” he smiled, “two reasons, actually.”
“And what reasons might they be?” I asked, as we began to walk around the English Elm.
“You’re a protector, a big old softie, aren’t you?” Rojo smiled, “Always have been, even when we were children. All of the boys looked up to you, even the older ones.”
“And the second reason?”
Rojo simply looked up at me, and a wry smile broke across his face, “I think you know, Bertie.”
“Ha!” I scoffed, “A joke about my somewhat ample physique, I presume?”
Rojo shook his head, grinning broadly. I led him to a wooden bench, where we both took a seat. I watched vicariously as Rojo took in the garden for the first time, with its creeping vines which climbed the walls, tangling themselves up in the barbed wire coils which skirted the top. Flowers of every different colour were placed in no particular order around the garden, a remnant of a time many years ago, when I’d elected to build the garden, and –knowing precious little about botany- had simply scattered seeds of every different type across the loose soil. The result was a cacophony of colours, clusters of flowers, shrubs and saplings, all competing for space, but growing together as one. Some of the plants had taken on the characteristics of those which grew around them; bearing leaves which were more rounded than they should be, or stems which reached higher than was common.
I looked upon Rojo, as his darting eyes took in every feature of the garden. He reached out with spindly fingers, pushing his round glasses back up the ridge of his hooked nose, and inhaling once more.
“It’s absolutely splendid Bertie,” he said, “so serene. However did you make it grow?”
“Well Ro,” I said, “That is what I like about plants, you give them the things they need, and they do most of the rest by themselves. They’re simple creatures, and yet beautiful all the same.”
“Ah,” Rojo said, “If only women were so simple.”
“If women were so simple,” I raised a finger, “they’d scarcely interest you.”
Rojo chuckled lightly, a flash of colour coming to his face.
“Gosh,” he shook his head, “what wouldn’t I give for a woman right now. Or a smoke. Or a pint at The Old Horse.”
I unfastened my leather bag, “I can’t give you a woman, or take you to The Old Horse.” he said, “But I do have these.” I said, withdrawing a pipe, a snuff box, and two bottles of ale from my bag.
“You didn’t!” Rojo beamed.
After opening the bottles, and lighting up the pipe, the minimal undercurrent of anxiety which had manifested itself upon Rojo’s face, had melted away.
“Remember when we’d play that old Schimmel Piano in The Old Horse.” I said, fondly reminiscing the times we would take turns on the piano, regaling the patrons of his rustic old pub, singing The Manchester Rambler, Benjamin Bowmaneer, and Maggie May, in a raucous, bellowing voice.
“Ah yes,” Rojo smiled, “We had some good times on that old thing. I was always faster on the keys than you though.”
“And a sloppier player.” I chided.
“-And a faster drinker.” Rojo interjected.
“And a sloppier drunk!”
Those were good days, when work dried up, and we could run The Old Horse on balmy summer evenings. I’d inherited the place from my uncle; Rojo and I had spent many of our formative years there, it seemed only natural for us to end up running it.
“The Old Horse eh?” Rojo said, as his smile waned, “How does it look now?”
“Not much different,” I said, “the old Schimmel is out-of-tune, and I can’t seem to remedy it, no matter what I try. I guess it was only a matter of time before it gave up.”
“Who did you get in to replace me?” Rojo asked.
“Come now Rojo old chap,” I patted him on the back, “nobody could replace you.”
“Then who is running the pub in what shall likely be an extended absence?” Rojo asked.
“Edward Brandon, remember him? The young boy, an apprentice to-”
“Brandon?” Rojo asked incredulously, “Bit of a dullard isn’t he? I always thought he was simple-minded.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to question his wits,” I said, “even though his manner of conversation is soporific, to say the least.”
“Have the patrons received him well?” Rojo asked, “Does he keep them entertained?”
“Ah, Rojo…” I inhaled through my teeth, “the patronage has changed somewhat, since your absence.”
Rojo cocked his head, “Do tell?”
“The Old Horse,” I hesitated, “It’s no longer the bustling house of drink and song. It’s rather a relic of its former past. Patrons are older now, less enlivened. The Schimmel sits in the corner gathering dust.”
“Oh,” Rojo sighed, “that’s a shame. Perhaps Brandon should-”
“Brandon does what he can,” I said, a current of the affirmative running through my voice, “he may lack your character and enthusiasm, but he works hard, and he keeps true to his word.”
A moment of silence passed, as we mutually pondered upon the subtext of what I’d just said. Whilst the patrons loved Rojo and his joviality, he often neglected his duties. At times, he’d spend so much time liaising with the patrons that he’d forget to change the barrels, or keep the area clean. Other times, he’d get so drunk that he was utterly useless. On more than one occasion, I had to give him a stern talking to, in order to remind him that he did, in fact, work for me.
But he was always my friend, and an old and loyal friend at that. He’d met his wife, Susan, across the piano at The Old Horse. She’d sat for an hour watching him play, his melodies becoming ever more slapdash with each pint he consumed, until he swayed on the bench, his breathing heavy, and his song incomprehensible. She sat in abject admiration of him all night, considering him both an artist and a comedian, and so much more.
And yet he was neither; Rojo lacked the finesse of an artist, and the joviality of a comedian. Behind his eyes –which seemed to bear a smile that came before the one on his lips- there was a current of melancholia, no doubt imbued into him with every crack of the borstal birch during his youth.
“It is quite peculiar isn’t it?” Rojo cast his eyes upon the tree, “How the leaves turn green, and the flowers bloom in all their magnificence, only to wither and fall in the autumn, as if they’d never been.”
I looked down at a budding flower below, its stem had grown long and wiry in the quest for sunlight, and would doubtless wilt if it found it.
“We are but leaves of a greater tree,” I sighed, “glorious in our moment in the sun, but destined to wither, fall and die all the same.”
Rojo shook his head, taking a puff on the pipe, “Then what purpose does it serve?” He asked bitterly, “What is the blooming flower in spring other than a reminder of our own fragile mortality?” He blew a smoke-ring into the air, narrowing his lips and firing a smaller ring through it.
“The leaves and petals fall back to the earth that spawned them,” I said, “and in their death, they nourish all that come after.” I watched the smoke rings dissipate into the night air, “That is the purpose.”
Rojo closed his eyes for a moment, holding in a lungful of tobacco smoke before releasing it all at once. When the smoke cleared, his eyes were squinting, focussed on the wiry flower below.
“Sue would love it here,” he muttered, “she’d be deeply impressed by what you’ve created.”
“I’m sure she would.” I nodded, “although I don’t often get a chance to show people.”
“I still talk to her, you know.” Rojo turned to face me, “even after everything that happened.”
I clasped my fingers together in a pyramid, “You do?”
“Oh yes,” he said smiling, “she was –she still is- the love of my life.”
I sighed, “You always felt deeply for her, didn’t you?”
He nodded, “Too deeply, I think.” He pressed his glasses back against the ridge of his nose, “But I could never reach her heart. I could never make her love me the way I loved her.”
“Rojo, old chap.” I said, placing an arm on his shoulder, “She always loved you. Always.”
“Then why did it have to end?” He shook his head, “Why did it end so badly?”
I softly patted his back, “You must take responsibility for this Rojo,” I said, “If it’s the last thing you do, you must accept it. It was your decision to end things, and now there is no turning back. What is done is done, and the ink is dry.”
“I’m so tired of it all.” He held his head in his hands, “If she could just forgive me-”
I raised my hand, “Stop.” I said, “It is no use pondering upon such things now.”
He sniffed back a sob, raising his head and removing his glasses. He wiped away the tears which had begun to form in the corner of his eyes.
“You’re right,” he nodded, “stiff upper lip, eh?”
I smiled sympathetically, despite his mistakes, it could not be easy to go through what he was going through, especially in the knowledge that there was no real chance of reconciliation.
“It hasn’t been the same since you left the Old Horse.” I said, “it just doesn’t feel the same.”
“If you hadn’t gone to work out here,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had to.”
“You know how it is, old chap.” I explained, “Winter is our busiest time of year, and I only work seasonally.”
“Strange isn’t it,” Rojo pondered, “what is it about the winter that causes such a surge of customers in your industry?”
“I’d scarcely call them customers.” I chuckled, “it almost implies we’re providing a service.”
“Oh you’re providing a service Bertie!” He smiled, “just not to your customers!”
The evening light was starting to gradually fade into twilight, and soon night darkness would descend upon the garden. The benevolent flowers, with their soft and colourful petals became something sinister by night, resembling jagged pining eyes, which suffered in their solitude. The bottled of ale were empty, and the tobacco was all but finished. Soon, we would head inside before the bitter chill of the night set in.
“We haven’t much longer Rojo,” I told him, hoping not to upset him with the inevitable prospect of leaving the garden.
“Please,” he said, placing his hand on mine, “just a little longer. It’s been so long since we’ve seen one another, and I’ve always enjoyed talking with you Bertie.”
I shut my eyes, “We have only forty minutes before-”
“-then just allow me ten.” He asked, “just ten more minutes, it would mean the world to me.”
I nodded, “Ten minutes.”
“I know I’ve made mistakes.” He conceded, “But you must know that it was not my intention.”
“Rojo, you know that it makes no difference at this stage.” I said sternly, “I cannot prevent this.”
“I know Bertie,” he said, “I accept that my fate is sealed. But Sue cannot forgive me.” He said, “She is not here to say the words, nor would she say them if she were.” He swallowed, “I need forgiveness from you.”
I stood up, pacing around the elm tree, “Elm trees.” I mused out loud, “Strong, low hanging branches. Before I made this garden, before this building even stood, the Elm tree stood with roots anchored deep beneath the earth.” I circled the tree, returning to the bench and sitting beside Rojo.
“This was where they used to…” he stopped, unable to finish his sentence
“I always believed it was a deterrent.” I said, “As an eye must pay for an eye, and a tooth must pay for a tooth, surely there must be penance for murder, and that penance can only be exacted by the hangman’s noose.”
Rojo buried his head in his hands, “It is the waiting,” he spoke, “the waiting is penance; sitting in that cold cell with nothing for company but shame and regret.”
“You knew what I did,” I said, “if anybody should have known the price for their crimes, it was you Rojo.” I shook my head, “And yet, you killed her all the same.”
“I couldn’t take it Bertie,” he said, “I didn’t know what I’d done, until I could smell the blood on my hands, until I could see the handle protruding from her rib cage. I tried to pull it out, tried to make it all go away. But it was stuck Bertie, lodged against the bone, I couldn’t remove it. I couldn’t undo what I did.”
I took one last look at Rojo, “It’s time, old chap.” I said, rising to my feet and offering him a hand, “It’s time to go.”
He reached for my hand, the bones of his fingers wiry and fragile, and I guided him to uneasy feet.
“Forgiveness, old friend,” I said leading him out of the garden, “Is something that comes with the dropping of the trapdoor.”
The Elm tree had become skeletal and menacing as the light began to fade. I led Rojo back into the prison in silence. As we made our way to the gallows, I felt his grip become firmer, stronger and more resilient, until the blood rushed to the tips of my fingers, and I could feel the horror reverberate through his bones.
When I led him up the steps, his grip softened, giving himself over to his fate and accepting it. I placed the noose around his neck, and stepped away from him for the final time.
“We are but leaves of a greater tree,” he muttered to himself, “destined to wither, fall and die.”
I pulled the lever.
(c) JC Axe 2018.