You could see him out there most mornings if the sun was bright: Ken, a bucket of soapy water frothing in a green bucket beside him, kneeling by the tree, as if in in worship. He would pause, dip his sponge into the solution, squeeze out the excess water and begin.
He did not hurry it, a pleasure rather than a chore. He worked systematically, rubbing the bark up and down, up and down until it shone, gleamed in the sun, its silver and white gleaming in the light.
His wife, Maeve, accepted it. It was part of Ken and she would rather have had him doing that than what many other men would be doing: drinking in the pub, betting or messing with other women. This way, Ken was within sight and she liked the way the bark shone after he had washed it.
He was proud like that, especially with the garden. It was neat and tidy with everything in its place and Ken was always sweeping the path, clearing away dead leaves or trimming the lawn. He could be out there for hours and he and Maeve let each other be. She’d be indoors, pottering about or doing her embroidery and Ken would be out there as long as it wasn’t raining, enjoying himself whiling away the hours. Maeve reckoned that’s why so many marriages went wrong, people in each other’s pockets, nagging and interfering with each other.
Neighbours were less tolerant. They accepted that Ken loved his garden but the washing of the silver birch – well, it was a bit odd, wasn’t it? Mrs Saunders across the way wondered if it was one of those new religions she had read about in a magazine. They did all sorts of strange things: bringing offerings to statues; chanting songs with funny words and some of them sat in silence for hours. Like her husband, Colin. That’s what he did most of the time.
Ken knew that his ritual was viewed with suspicion but he took no notice. Other men played golf for hours or spent time and money drinking. This is what he liked to do. And while he was washing the bark, he wasn’t even aware of anyone watching him.
His mind was elsewhere.
It was over sixty years ago now. Ken was seven and his dad held him between his knees to steady him which he always did when he had something serious to say.
‘It’s about your mother, Kenny,’ he said in almost a whisper. ‘She…she has to go away today for a bit.’
‘It’s hard for children to understand but adults do need to leave sometimes.’
‘Will she come back?’
‘I don’t honestly know.’
‘Will you leave?’
‘No,’ said his father. ‘Never.’
Their house was always quiet but today it had an eerie stillness about it. His mother came downstairs wearing her best coat with a blue suitcase in her hand. She hugged Kenny but she didn’t hug her husband.
It all happened quickly and in near silence. A car drove up outside. Ken could just make out the profile of a man wearing a dark overcoat and hat in the driver’s seat. Ken ran out to the front where there was a small lawn and a silver birch. The garden was suddenly in darkness. His mother went to the car, put her case into the boot and they drove away.
He never saw his mother again.
Each birthday, Christmas, Ken waited for the postman. He would stand by the silver birch and wait until the uniformed man came past but there was never a card from his mother. As the years passed, Ken cried less. His sadness turned to bewilderment and then to anger: how could a mother leave her child? He lived with his father who looked after him well and the two of them were close.
Ken had wanted to plant a silver birch in his and Maeve’s garden when they married and she had no objection. The garden was Ken’s domain.
Ken bent down and dipped his sponge in the water. He squeezed off the excess and began wiping down the tree. He loved the way the light caught the silver and made it shine. It was so bright, so hopeful and even when the sun disappeared behind the cloud, the bark still gleamed.