Family Trees

With no drama or scandal to uncover, how can Tess and Jack get their reluctant son interested in his school project?

Danny sighed dramatically as he pulled a notebook and pencil case from his schoolbag and scattered them on the kitchen table.

Tess and Jack exchanged an amused smile over the top of their son’s head. Homework was never on Danny’s list of favourite things to do.

“What is it tonight, son?” Jack asked. “Anything I can help with? Do you want me to fetch the laptop or the calculator from the office?”

“We’re starting a new project,” Danny said.

“We’ve to research our family trees and write a report. Where people lived and what sort of jobs they did. Anything about them that might be interesting.”

“Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult,” said Jack. “Both Mum’s family and my family have always been farmers. We go back five or six generations on both sides. Nobody ventured very far so it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with some information about them.”

“I did have a great-uncle who became a vet,” said Tess thoughtfully. “He went to live in New Zealand though, before I was born, so I don’t know much about him.”

“I’ll make a pot of tea,” said Jack, “and then we can sit down and make a list of all the names we can come up with and how they’re related. That’ll be a start.”

“And I’ll look out that box of old photos from the attic tomorrow,” declared Tess. “We might be able to put some names to the faces.”

Danny offered his parents a grudging thanks, secretly hoping it wouldn’t take long and he’d be able to spend some time on his new computer game before bed.

It was a couple of days later, when they were sitting around the table having their supper, that Tess asked how the project was going.

“Rubbish,” said Danny.

“Rubbish?” exclaimed Tess and Jack together.

“What’s wrong?” asked Tess.

“Everyone else has got interesting people in their families,” said Danny. “Lucy Bingham’s got a great-aunt – or maybe it’s a second cousin – who was something called a suffering-jet. They were a bunch of women who used to go on marches and chain themselves to railings just so they could be allowed to vote. Imagine that.”

“Imagine that indeed,” echoed Tess with a wry smile.

“And Paul’s dad’s grandpa got medals in the war. He brought them into the class to show us.”

“That’s amazing,” said Tess. “He must have been very brave.”

“Did your grandpa fight in the war, Dad?” Danny’s face brightened.

“No, son,” said Jack. “Farmers were in a reserved occupation. They didn’t have to go and fight. They were needed at home to make sure there was enough food to feed everyone, otherwise the whole country would’ve starved.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting,” grumbled Danny.

“You wouldn’t say that if you had to go to bed hungry every night,” said Jack.

“Suppose.” Danny shrugged. “But the report’s to be in next week and all I’ve got so far is a list of names and some old black and white photos. Nobody did anything exciting. It’s not much of a family tree.”

On Saturday, after they’d had their lunch and attended to all the jobs around the farm, Jack suggested going for a walk. Danny wasn’t keen.

“But Dad, I said I’d go over to Paul’s for a shot on his new video game.”

“I’ll run you there later,” said Tess, pulling on her boots. Jack had already filled her in on his plans and she was looking forward to what lay ahead.

Once outside, Jack led them round the back of the house. They walked along the avenue of lime trees that lined the path to what had once been a thriving orchard.

“My great-grandfather planted these lime trees,” said Jack, “in recognition of being given the farm by his own father as a gift. Grandpa Harry wasn’t a particularly rich man and there were four sons in the family. But he worked hard and saved so that he could give each of them a piece of land for themselves on their twenty-fifth birthdays.”

“I love these trees,” said Tess. “They make a lovely backdrop for the house.”

They’d come to the slatted gate that led to the orchard.

“My granny used to gather up the apples every autumn,” said Jack.

“And then she’d spend weeks in the kitchen stewing and baking. Goodness knows how many cakes and pies and chutneys she made over the years.”

“My own gran used to come over and help her,” said Tess. “And then the two of them would clamber into your Grandpa’s old truck and drive down to the village.

“If there was anyone sick, or going through a rough patch, then the chances are they’d find a lovely, freshly baked apple pie on their doorstep. Everyone pretended they didn’t know where they came from, but of course they all did.”

They were walking on now, down towards the river.

“That’s one of my favourite trees on the whole of the farm,” said Jack, pointing to a sturdy oak on the edge of the river.

“How come?” asked Danny. “It just looks like any other tree to me.”

“In the summer, we used to tie a rope to one of the branches,” said Jack, “and then we’d swing across to the other side. All the kids from the village and neighbouring farms used to gather there during the holidays.”

Danny and Jack looked at Tess who’d burst out laughing.

“Sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I was just remembering that time you were showing off and had a little… mishap.” She pretended to whisper in Danny’s ear. “Actually, I found out later he was trying to impress me, so I’d go to the Young Farmers’ dance with him.”

“What happened?” asked Danny.

“He got halfway across, lost his grip and fell in,” said Tess, laughing again.

Danny started laughing too.

“The rope was slippery,” said Jack. “Someone must have had grease on their hands or something.”

“Yeah, right, Dad,” said Danny. “Rubbish excuse.”

Jack gave his son a playful push and they walked on, stopping in front of a sycamore tree.

“This is where Auntie Margaret always used to come to read the letters from her sweetheart who was fighting in the war,” said Jack.

“Who’s Auntie Margaret?” asked Danny. “I don’t remember seeing her name on the family list.”

“Auntie Margaret was a land girl,” said Jack.

“They were brought in to help on the farms because there weren’t enough men to do the work.”

“Some of them came from town and cities and had never seen a real cow or a sheep in their lives before,” said Tess. “But they worked really hard and lots of them came to love the countryside and the life they lived here.”

“Like Auntie Margaret?” asked Danny.

Jack nodded. “She wasn’t a real auntie, but after she came to the farm, she and my granny became best friends. Granny told me that whenever Margaret got a letter from her boyfriend she used to come down here so she could read it in peace and quiet.”

“Did he come back?” asked Danny.

“He did,” said Jack. “They got married and bought a plot of land of their own. Their family still own the farm. It’s on the road into town. I’ll point it out to you the next time we’re passing.”

They’d almost come full circle and were now standing in front of a stately chestnut tree.

“Another of my favourites,” said Jack.

“How come?” asked Danny.

“This tree produced the best conkers in the county,” said Jack. “I was class champion three years in a row.”

“Although that’s because he used to cheat,” put in Tess.

“I did not.”

“He did.” Tess nodded conspiratorially at Danny. “He used to soak the conkers in vinegar overnight to make them go hard.”

“There was nothing in the rules that said you couldn’t,” Jack protested.

“Hmmm,” said Tess.

“So you can see why this old tree is so special to me, can’t you son?”

Danny hesitated before nodding. There was something in his father’s tone that suggested there was something he wasn’t telling him.


Danny looked at his mother.

“Yes, my dear,” said Jack. “Is there something you’d like to add?”

“Why don’t you tell Danny the real reason this tree is so special,” said Tess, with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

Jack shrugged. ‘I can’t think of anything.”

Tess gave her husband a mock punch on the arm and then placed her hand gently on Danny’s shoulder.

“This, Danny, is where your dad asked me to marry him.

“Right here, under this very tree. I was in a good mood that day, so I said yes.”

There was a moment of silence and then all three burst out laughing.

They were still laughing when they went back to the house for hot chocolate and the cinnamon cookies Tess had baked earlier.

After a while Danny left the table to go upstairs.

“When do you want me to drive you over to Paul’s house?” asked Tess.

“Don’t bother, Mum,” said Danny. “I’ll phone him and say I’m not coming. I want to work on my project so I can hand it in on Monday.”

A couple of weeks later Tess was chopping vegetables for soup and Jack was sitting at the table going over some accounts when Danny practically crashed through the kitchen door.

“I got an A,” Danny blurted out before he’d even taken his jacket off. “For my project. Mrs Simpson said it was one of the best she’d read.

“She said it showed real flair and…” he paused, trying to remember her exact words… “Originality. She’s going to call you and ask if the class can come for a visit and see the trees for themselves.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Tess warmly. “Well done, Danny.”

“I’m very proud of you, son,” said Jack, gripping the boy’s shoulder. “I think we should celebrate. How about we go out for lunch tomorrow? To that café in the Square that makes the knickerbocker glories you love so much. You’ve earned it, I would say.”

As soon as the chores had been attended to on Saturday morning, they all bundled into the car.

“Erm, Dad?” queried Danny from his seat in the back.

Jack looked at him through the rear-view mirror.

“I was wondering… instead of going to the café, can we go to the garden centre instead?”

“Sure, son,” said Jack, “but why do you want to go to the garden centre?’

“I was thinking that maybe I could choose a tree of my own to plant somewhere on the farm.”

There was a moment of silence.

Tess wiped a sudden speck of dust from her eye. Jack bit his lip and slipped the car into gear.

“Right then,” said Jack. “Garden centre, here we come.”

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