We called it The Hanging Tree, of course we did. We were a couple of ghouls, my brother and me: dissecting frogs, shoving pins through butterflies and, one gloriously unforgettable day, we gawped at a man hanging from the old chestnut tree.
Mum told us not to use that path to school anymore, we had to go the long way round. But, in a sweet sweat of anticipation we used to sneak along the forbidden path and crouch in the long grass, taking care to avoid the nettles and the places where the dogs had messed, hoping for a glimpse of the murderer.
He wasn’t murdered, said a boy in my class. Well, the swinging man’s ghost then, I said. Yes, he said, we might see his ghost because his tormented soul wasn’t at rest.
We loved that, ‘his tormented soul’, and we looked it up in the dictionary. It seemed to us that the dead man, with his purple face and popping eyes, wasn’t the only tormented soul. Our mother would join other mothers on the street corner to talk in low voices and cast troubled glances in the direction of the house with the Hanging Tree in its back garden.
Mum made us promise, cross our hearts and hope to die, to never, ever talk to the widow, even if she looked really sad. But my brother reckoned that his Boy Scout promise to help other people trumped any promises we made to our parents. One day, he went through the gate from the overgrown, forbidden pathway to help the widow look for her lost cat.
They found it, fast asleep on the widow’s candlewick bedspread, where it had been all the time.
Things moved quickly after that. Dad made a lot of phone calls and strangers came to look over the house, taking measurements and talking about carpets and curtains.
I last saw the widow in Boots, a few days before we moved away. She was buying red nail varnish and she asked me if I thought the colour would suit her. I couldn’t answer; my mouth was all dry and the way she looked at me made me feel funny, sort of ashamed, as if I’d told a lie.
I ran all the way home wondering why, if the man didn’t like his wife and her red nail varnish anymore, he hadn’t just moved away, instead of hanging himself from the old chestnut tree.
© Kate Twitchin