I lost my heart in Leafless Year. I like the sound of that phrase, and it’s very nearly true.
Her name was Emmanuelle. Everyone called her Nelly but I preferred her full name and she let me use it, every Saturday in our afternoon drama club. She was very slender, with brown hair cut short and spiked, somewhere between a punk and a pixie. Her freckled nose was slightly retroussé and she often hid it with her hands. She wore gloves of white lace.
What happened between us was very nearly first love. Yet that was not the remarkable event of my fourteenth year. The remarkable event we all remember.
Winter had been mild, storm-lashed and sodden. Then Nature flipped a switch and Easter, falling early, sucked up heat from the Continent. We disinterred our shorts and T-shirts and looked, half consciously, for the green explosion. Yet the trees remained bare. Blackthorn gave no blossom, hawthorn didn’t flush. Everywhere, the buds of winter remained closed and unyielding.
It wasn’t just the absence of leaves: the trees refused to flower. The black hoofs of ash buds never stirred. There were no clusters on the field maple. By April, even the media had noticed, and scientists shambled onto our screens to confess their bafflement.
I conducted experiments of my own, splitting the buds of our horse chestnut to find, in every casing, not dead matter, but a clot of embryonic leaves. I moved from tree to tree, tugging at leafless shoots and finding resistance – live tendons of hibernating growth.
The trees were not dead. They were asleep.
At the sports centre where we met up to improvise and read through scripts, our drama coach, Bella – who had played a minor character for a few weeks in Coronation Street – lowered the blinds on the naked trees. With nothing but our bodies and a few overturned chairs, we simulated catastrophes – outbreaks, shipwrecks, entrapment in a lift in a burning building – and made no connections with the strangeness outside. Only Emmanuelle spoke of it. When we had finished our simulations, it was customary for Bella to conduct a debriefing, inviting us to emote about our discoveries.
‘I kept thinking about the trees,’ Emmanuelle said. ‘We act out what it would be like if the world went wrong, but we don’t need to imagine it. We only have to look out the window.’
‘Oh, come on,’ said Bella. She was in the habit of pulling at the skin of her throat. It was blotchy now. ‘I think that’s overstating it.’
‘How do we know? Has anything like this ever happened before?’
Bella’s resistance to all talk of trees unlocked our voices. Paula Hamilton declared that the natural world was on strike and who could blame it? Clare Beattie said that it gave her nightmares. Simon Otway revealed that his mum was losing sleep and couldn’t be relied on to serve him his breakfast.
‘It has to mean something,’ Emmanuelle said.
Later, as we waited for our parents, I asked her what she thought it meant.
‘Oh Craig, I’ve no idea. The end of the world. Or just one of those things we’ll look back on and say, D’you remember the year the trees stayed asleep, that was fucking weird, what was that about? And then we’ll start talking about our mortgages.’
She looked at me with those sloe-black eyes, wide and lustrous, and it was impossible to meet them. I noticed the evenness of her teeth, a faint shadow of down above the corners of her lips. Her father’s Volvo arrived, and her wave as she climbed into the passenger seat might have been for me or it might have been for the whole company.
I returned to a near silent home: my mother listening to the news on her headphones, my father rearranging his stamp collection in the box-room we called his study. I had a week to wait before I saw Emmanuelle again, for we went to different schools, were dependent on our parents for transport, and my parents had ceased to be dependable. They fed me, went to work – my father was a dentist, my mother his receptionist – and when we were together they were summonsed on the hour by the news bulletins. They frowned over breakfast at The Telegraph, and before clearing up I would turn over the folded page to discover the latest conjectures (was a fungus to blame? Some kind of virus?) and to learn the effects on ecosystems.
The disaster cascaded through the natural world. Aphids had few leaves to tap, so ladybirds and hoverfly larvae had fewer aphids to eat and ants had to forego their harvest of honeydew. Without trees in leaf, populations of caterpillars plummeted, and birds could not feed their young. It proved a fat spring for sparrowhawks as their prey sat exposed in the bare branches. Even so, there was no shortage of scientists – or libertarian commentators – who soothed themselves by taking the long view. Nature is entrepreneurial, they said: it colonises new niches. Evergreens, shrubs and grasses would take over. At ground level, worse calamities had been weathered. The mycorrhizal network can survive almost anything. You can never tire out a tardigrade.
Plenty of people retreated into the virtual. My father, however, took to filling jam jar lids with sugared water and leaving these scattered about the garden. My mother bought parasols to replace the shade of dormant trees – for the days blazed through a cloudless April, a May of exceptional heat, and everywhere seedlings and understory plants withered for lack of shelter. The weather, like the trees that are said to influence it, seemed stuck, and its immobility simmered in people. We felt trapped in a predicament that made no sense. The energies that ordinarily rise with the sap were pent up, bursting out here and there in illegal raves, orgies of fly-tipping, tides of rubbish cast up in parks and on beaches. I felt that pressure, too. It was more than adolescent lust, that has only has furtive and lonely places to express itself. It was a longing for respite – and my thought turned in the day, as my dreams did at night, to Emmanuelle. The thoughts and dreams were not pornographic (other girls, other bodies, served that purpose). They were of a presence feminine and consoling, a soft breath, a gloved hand that rested in mine.
When Saturday came, she skipped up to me in the sports hall foyer and touched my shoulder. She wore a thin choker of navy-blue lace; her top was white and frilled above a black leather skirt and fishnet stockings. It was hard to believe we were the same age. I wore the clothes my mother bought for me. I blushed and, seeing me blush, Emmanuelle concealed her nose with her hand.
‘It’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ she said.
I read Bottom, she Titania. The blinds were down so we couldn’t see the desolation outside. We made an enchanted grove. Beyond it, the world fell away. Bella led the others in a round of applause, and it was with exhilaration still in her face that, at break-time, Emmanuelle invited me to her house.
‘When?’ I said.
My father dropped me off on Sunday morning. I braced myself for jocular references to my new ‘girlfriend’, but Dad was silent, sucking on a travel sweet.
Her house was ordinary like ours: a 1960s confection of dark brown timbers and beige brick, though with a long garden that seemed to belong to a larger property. A venerable sweet chestnut with a corkscrewing trunk was stark where it ought to have cast its shade, and under it stood Emmanuelle. I waved goodbye to my father, but spared neither of us a glance, gripping the steering wheel and frowning into the road.
I scarcely remember that first time at Emmanuelle’s home; only that her parents made no appearance and that, having gone indoors to make orange squash and brought it out on a sonorous tray, setting it down on the garden table in the parasol’s shade, she insisted that we stay outside. ‘We’ll have privacy,’ she said. I recall watching her mouth as she talked, the flexion in her lips, and the gloss of her eyelids. I wiped sweat from my forehead. The breeze carried smells of barbecue smoke and car wax and herbicide. We played several rounds of Connect 4, and rested our chins on our knuckles in contemplation of a game of chess that we never completed. Our conversation is lost to me. I remember only a sense of peace, and my incredulity that I should be alone in her company.
I had to share her with the rest of the drama club the following weekend, at Becky Palmer’s house, where we met for a sleepover, the lot of us crammed together on the living-room floor with whatever pillows and cushions we could muster. We danced beforehand, and there was a game of spin-the-bottle that I chickened out of, relieved to find that Emmanuelle had elected to stay in the kitchen mixing cider with blackcurrant cordial. I saw my devotion mirrored in the moon-face of Simon Otway when she brought us our drinks, and for the rest of the night, while Emmanuelle danced with her girlfriends, I kept him under surveillance, until he fell asleep with his head half hidden under one of the armchairs. Becky Palmer’s parents made themselves scarce, though I awoke in the dawn, surrounded by sleeping forms (Emmanuelle was propped up on the sofa with Paula Hamilton’s feet in her lap), to see Mrs Palmer in her dressing-gown step with feline precision amongst the bodies to retrieve empty bottles and glasses.
Over a breakfast of fried eggs and bacon sandwiches, Emmanuelle folded her legs beside me on the carpet and nudged my elbow. ‘Did you know you sleep with your eyes open?’
‘You do. I watched you. Not in a creepy way. I just noticed.’ And her hand fluttered to her face.
When my mother came to pick me up, the air among the houses was laced with a smell of burning. ‘It’s the heath,’ Mum said. ‘I saw blue lights.’
The fires burned for three days. At one point, the motorway had to be closed and we sweated in the house with our windows shut. A rare band of rain brought local relief, yet anxiety remained general across the Northern Hemisphere. We told ourselves that this year had to be a one-off, as if a change of date at the end of December might constitute a reset. The Queen addressed the nation. The Archbishop of Canterbury prayed for a resumption of normal service, as did the Pope in a greater number of languages. Older, wilder belief systems began to resurface. Images of a wrathful Green Man appeared on city walls. Graffiti spoke the rage of Gaia. The press peddled rumours of suburban soothsayers, doomsday cults, rain-dances repurposed to prompt a leaf song. We began to notice vandalised street trees, saplings snapped in two or stripped of their bark. In the countryside, landowners in a kind of fury grubbed up oaks and beeches and limes to replace them with obedient conifers. Yet the majority of people appeared to get used to it. Commuters travelled to their offices, children went to school. Brambles and grasses, scabs in nature’s strike, grew in profusion, and a vogue for pampas-grass saved garden centres from ruin.
The leafless spring turned to a leafless summer, and the lack of shade began to exact a toll. Cities became ovens, hospitals struggled to cope with cases of heatstroke and sunburn, cattle and sheep died in great numbers. In the skeletal woods, the birds fell silent early, and magpies gaped on our parched lawn. Tree fruits, of course, were impossible to come by, and though soft fruit growers celebrated their takings, they could not keep up with demand. It came as a shock to everyone that everyone should have the same ideas. Supermarkets ran out of tinned fruit, and my mother sat in the kitchen checking the use-by dates on an assortment of vitamin bottles.
I dialled Emmanuelle’s number. It took some nerve. ‘My parents are acting weird,’ I said.
‘Half the time they’re gritting their teeth and half the time they’re having whispered arguments in their bedroom.’
‘Want to come over.’
‘Um – if I can get one of them to drop me off.’
‘Why don’t you walk?’
The question was either absurd or revolutionary. ‘It’s miles,’ I said.
‘Six miles. You can walk here and I’ll have an iced tea ready for when you arrive.’
I told my mother I was going out to meet up with friends. I expected her to make a scene, but she looked up from the vitamin tablets and several seconds passed before her eyes filled with understanding. ‘Don’t stay out late,’ she said.
‘I’ll be with Simon Otway.’
‘And Charlie Manson.’
I had no idea where my father had got to. His study was unoccupied, a mess of papers on his once orderly desk.
I walked for two hours, often along the curb for want of pavements. The air was sharp with exhaust fumes, and I was in a sweat, with an aching throat, by the time I entered the close where Emmanuelle lived.
She was in a long, pale blue dress, and true to her word, she ushered me to a glass of iced tea under the parasol on the terrace. She seemed brighter, more vibrant than ever. She didn’t prattle, yet her talk had a relentlessness to it that compelled me to endure before I dared ask for directions to the loo.
I entered the house for the first and last time. There were a great many books, arranged by order of height. There were understated prints on the walls, and black-and-white woodcuts that looked like they belonged in books.
I found the loo, relieved myself, then dabbed my face with cold water. On my way out, I succumbed to a temptation to pry and found myself an intruder.
‘Enjoying the garden?’
‘Uh – yes.’
‘My wife’s great passion. She hardly goes out in it now.’ Dr Lomas set down his pencil and swivelled in his chair to face me. I felt myself redden, and the knowledge that this would be visible and that he might interpret it as a sign of a guilty conscience only fanned the flames. Yet his eyes, when I dared to meet them, were turned towards the window and the naked fretwork of the trees.
‘My parents,’ I said, ‘are also a bit down on gardening. I think it’s because of the trees.’
‘Do you now?’
‘Yes. Some people find it hard to bear.’
‘Are you one of those people?’ The way he leant on the question left me in no doubt that his assessment of my character was in the balance. ‘How do you feel about this midsummer winter?’
‘I find it uncanny.’
‘Uncanny means not being at home with yourself.’ Dr Lomas fixed me with his gaze as a lepidopterist fixes a butterfly with a pin. Then he spun in his chair, wedging his gut under his desk, and picked up his pencil. I looked at the folds in his nape, feeling dismissed, or not even worth dismissing.
‘Mr Lomas. I really like Emmanuelle.’
‘That makes two of us.’
‘And I respect her.’
‘You’re fourteen, boy, you’d bloody well better.’ He bent over his page. ‘Tell her to be in by six. I’m cooking pasta as usual.’
I left his study, walked briskly down the corridor, and stepped into the shadeless garden. Emmanuelle was waiting for me beside the half-evaporated pond. She had taken off her shoes and ankle-socks, and was dabbling her toes in the pondweed. I sat beside her in the dazzle of unbroken light. Our fingers crouched in the parched grass, a chasm of inches between them, and I saw in the interstice between her face and her sunglasses that her eyes were fixed on the surface of the pond.
‘I bumped into your dad,’ I said.
‘Did he make you feel unwelcome?’
‘He seemed pretty busy.’
Patrick Lomas was a university lecturer and a poet. I’d looked him up. One reviewer had called him a pseudo-Zen versifier, popular with seekers after half-baked philosophy. The poem hauled up for mockery had seemed all right to me. At least I understood it.
cast fossil light
of suns long dead.
Lift up your head –
in your eyes
they are bright.
‘You could show me one of his books,’ I said, though I didn’t want to talk about him, not at all.
‘He used to be promising,’ said Emmanuelle, as if she were describing her father’s eye colour. ‘He hasn’t written a thing all year.’
‘He was writing when I saw him.’
‘That’s for show.’
‘Well. He’s protective of you.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’ She breathed in and turned to face me. ‘Let’s get a choc ice.’
The meagre avenue of shops near her house included two estate agents and a bookies but nowhere to buy food. We had to walk to the edge of the ring-road to get to a petrol station. The conditioned air was cold but feverishly so after the heat, and a low fog of nausea clung to my insides. I stood back, admiring Emmanuelle’s legs as she bent over to rummage in the freezer, until I realised that the man at the till was watching me, and I developed a sudden fascination for tinned fish.
‘Come on,’ Emmanuelle said, and I followed her to the till. The vendor said nothing as he processed the sale, and perhaps I only imagined the leer on his face as we left with the clangour of the entrance bell.
We had to eat as we walked, it was that hot. I liked the way that she tilted her head rather than angle her ice cream. There was something childlike about it that jarred, for she seemed to me more assured and self-possessed than I could ever imagine becoming. Who else dressed as she did, or in a time of big hair opted for the short and spiky? There was scarcely anyone else about – few pedestrians and nobody on a bicycle – but a number of drivers stared at us, all men, and I felt exultant that for this hour, and forever in that our of her life, I was the one favoured with her attention.
We had finished our ice creams before we got back to the garden. My lips and fingers were sticky, and if she read my thoughts, Emmanuelle sucked at her fingertips. I copied her. We watched each other, and I brazened out her stare because I didn’t want her to see the bulge in my trousers. It was my first descent into the maelstrom. There have been others since, none so precipitous – the eyes unguarded, without pretext or cover of words. Teetering on the precipice and longing to fall.
‘Craig,’ she said, and her voice seemed to come from inside my head. ‘Can you do something for me?’ She blinked, breaking our stare, and grinned apologetically. ‘Please call me Nelly.’
‘I thought you liked me calling –’
‘No, not really. I just liked you.’ There was a void where my swallowing reflex wanted to be.
‘All this time –’
‘It’s no big thing.’
Perhaps it was my abject expression that propelled her, or perhaps, while I was contemplating the withered grass between my toes, she chanced to look to the house and see her father’s face at the window. Whatever the reason, she took my hand and led me deeper into the garden. There was an exhausted lilac bush, and acers with curled and crisp red leaves. In a normal year it would have been a shady bower of the sort favoured by poets. I had no thought of literature. I was vexed that my left knee was shuddering as she knelt in the dry leaves and pulled me down. She pressed her cheek against my chest, her arms flung about my torso. I could smell coconut, from her conditioner perhaps, and the feathers of her hair tickled my skin. She nuzzled into me, and the chasteness of that embrace seemed a test that I had to pass. My leg trembled and I was ashamed of it. I nudged at her with my nose, tried to lift her face to mine, and it was necessary to arrange her head with my hands so I could access her mouth. Our sugary breaths mingled, our teeth clashed. I heard a murmur that I took for assent and parted her lips with my tongue as I had seen others do, as I knew I was meant to. We licked and sucked and made the wet noises I had heard in the dark, the night of the sleepover, and I managed to insert my right hand into the loose sleeve of her blouse, where it encountered the moist cotton of her bra, her small breast, the soft eminence of her nipple.
I felt the pain before I understood it. Her hands had become fists and her knuckles were hard and sharp against my sternum. She pushed me away.
I saw her adjusting her bra strap through the material of her blouse. At the same time, she was trying to stand up, though her legs were folded awkwardly beneath her. I remember apologising in perplexity and remorse and then, when she said nothing, with self-pitying insistence. We walked to the terrace and the parasol’s shade, brushing dry leaves from our clothes. We sat with the metalwork of the table between us. I asked her if I had done it badly, and she wept. It was more than weeping: it was like the collapse of a structure that had been held together solely by tension. She convulsed, and it was as if she were trying to contain in her cupped hands the mess of her saliva and snot and tears. Worse than this incontinence was that her sobbing was almost silent, as if, even in the abandonment of her sorrow, she had self-control enough to ensure that she would not be heard indoors. I waited, appalled, for the spectacle to end, and after a minute or so it did. She averted her face, pressing a hankie to the red mess of her nose and muttering apologies through hiccups of grief.
She hadn’t needed a lover. What fourteen year-old does? What she needed was someone to hold her, to douse the embers of dread that smouldered in all our stomachs. She needed a parent. We all did. They, in one way or another, had withdrawn as from an accusation to which there is no defence. Things were too far gone, too many thresholds crossed, and our generation had lost the luxury of taking the world for granted. That heedlessness appeared to us the most enviable, and the most damnable, of the privileges that we would have to forego.
My day with Nelly ended shortly afterwards. I’m ashamed to admit that, until the last moment, I was hoping that she would change her mind and our kissing could resume. She talked about nothing of consequence and dropped hints that I should be going. It was only as I began the long walk home that reasoning burrowed into me. I was sensitive enough, or sufficiently melodramatic, to take all blame on myself– until my feet became swollen and began to ache, and the car fumes raked at my throat, and I gave way to the supreme pleasure of anger.
We saw each other at drama club, but come the end of August, as the whole of England turned brown, I was preparing myself for the return to school, and I stopped attending those games of make-believe at the community sports centre.
I never saw her again.
Winter came, and the rain, and the views lost some of their strangeness. The buds that had spurned us all year held tight, kept us in suspense and anticipation through Christmas and New Year – until March, and the first miraculous greenness. The trees came into leaf, and though much had been lost, much was renewed. The science was still uncertain on the causes of Leafless Year. We wanted to put it behind us, and went from chastened to complacent in the course of a few seasons. The disaster passed into anecdote. Many of us appear to have forgotten that it ever happened. Yet others remember. Our world changed that year, and forgetfulness will not spread its shade over us.
Gregory Norminton is a novelist and environmentalist. His novels include The Ship of Fools, Arts and Wonders, Ghost Portrait, Serious Things and, most recently, The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018). He has published two collections of short stories and edited Beacons – stories for our not so distant future (Oneworld, 2013). Gregory Norminton is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Sheffield. @GDRNorminton