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Jo Mazelis is a prize winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer and essayist from Wales.
Her first collection of stories Diving Girl was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year.
Previously she worked as a freelance photographer in London. Her photographs have appeared on the jackets of many books and in a variety of publications. She has photographed Tilda Swinton, PD James, Kathy Acker, Nan Goldin and Miranda Richardson amongst others.
Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015.
The lesson began. The teacher, a woman of around forty, with stiffly styled hair that was a gaudy yellow-blonde, cut in a sort of long bob, wore one heavy copper pendant necklace and another longer one that seemed to have been made out of varnished slices of banana.
‘Now children, today we are going to read a poem called The Moon and the Yew Tree.’
Mimeographed copies of the poem were distributed among the thirty or so thirteen year olds.
‘The Moon and the Yew Tree,’ the teacher declaimed, about to begin her recitation of the poem, but then struck by an idea, she hesitated, and almost as an aside, added, ‘Now who can tell me something about yew trees?’
She was expectant, confidently anticipating a number of eager hands to shoot up. When the children’s response was only a little mild shuffling, interspersed by the odd turn of a head to see if any other member of the class had raised a hand, the teacher looked a little ruffled. Composing herself, she decided that perhaps her question had been too broad. She tried again.
‘Well then, who can tell me where yew trees are grown?’
As in geography class, one child might have taken a wild stab at China or Scotland or Egypt, but none did.
‘Come on, children, where are yew trees grown? Where do you always see yew trees?’
Silence. The children growing somewhat wide-eyed in their shared astonishment to discover this black hole in the sum of their knowledge.
‘Yew trees. Think!’ The last word drawn out, an order, a prayer. ‘Where do you find yew trees?’
More silence. No child even prepared to make a guess.
‘One of you must know. Don’t be shy. If you know put your hand up.’
This ploy also fails. Shyness and its sister, modesty, are not staying the children’s hands. The truth is no one knows. No one has a clue. No one remembers the biology lesson about yew trees, nor the geography lesson (though they do know where cocoa and rubber trees come from), nor religious studies with its talking trees and burning bushes. They know oak trees by their wavy leaves, holly by its prickly ones, Christmas trees which are pointy and pine-scented. Willows that weep to make secret cave-like hiding places. Chestnut trees by the shape of their large leaves, their sticky buds and glorious conkers. But yew trees? A blank. A blank in a forest of vaguely known and unknown trees. Elms. Monkey puzzle trees. Some lose their leaves in the autumn, some don’t. Evergreen trees. Trees with beautiful deep red leaves. Tall firs with fallen cones at the base which can be used to tell the weather – open in fair weather, closed for the rain.
The teacher paces at the front of the class. She is incredulous. The children’s eyes follow her. She wears a long sleeveless cardigan made from crocheted squares of brightly coloured wool; orange, green, turquoise and purple. A tan-coloured suede skirt with poppers up the front. A yellow polo-neck jumper. Purple wool tights. Brown boots. The children, except for their white shirts, are uniformly grey like baby birds.
‘Do you mean to tell me,’ she says, ‘that not one of you. Not one, knows where yew trees grow!’
Somehow the poem itself has been forgotten. The yew tree, the damnable yew tree stands in the way blocking even the moon. Nothing can get past it. Most notably the teacher.
‘In all my years I have never been so shocked. Does no one really have any idea? I cannot believe it. I really can’t! Yew trees!’
To be certain the issue isn’t deafness, she picks up a chalk and with strident, noisy, dust-making jabs she writes on the blackboard, YEW TREES.
Then once more, chin now jutting, she scans every upturned face to find what look like expressions of beguiling innocence. Or as is more likely the case, a generation of dull, blank stupidity, each child culpable, wantonly incurious, glazed over by cheap sweets and that babbling monster of nonsense, the TV.
She paces, seemingly muttering to herself, though still loud enough for every child’s edification. ‘This is common knowledge. This is something everyone knows. This is hardly obscure or arcane. This is everywhere. You open your eyes. There it is. I’m sure I knew this when I was five years old! Perhaps when I was younger. I can’t believe that none of you know this. Some of you must! What is it then? You’re not shy, none of you. You’re not stupid. Oh, no, I don’t believe that! So then is it me? Is it poetry? Have none of you ever been touched by words? Have your senses not thrilled at the recognition of something better than She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah or Hey Diddle Diddle? Or those awful advert jingles for Turkish Delight and Pepsodent and hands that do dishes and don’t forget the fruit gums.’
She stops pacing, closes her mouth, breathes in and out deeply through her nose. Her chest rises and falls. Her necklaces shift and chime against one another.
Time itself is held in check by the yew tree. The lesson does not progress, but turns around and around on this one subject – a solitary tree pitched into blackness by its obscurity.
‘Think of where the dead are buried,’ she says. ‘What do we call those places?’
At last several hands shoot into the air. The teacher picks one, nodding enthusiastically at the boy in the third row whose fair hair looks faintly greenish in the fluorescent light.
‘A graveyard, Miss.’
‘Very good,’ she says. Then directly addressing him, she adds, ‘And what sort of trees do we always see in graveyards?’
He frowns, puzzling over this. In his mind he is roaming the churchyard where his nan is buried. He sees gravestones, some flat and rectangular like platforms, others that are simple grey tablets with arched tops, some are tall obelisks, and lastly there are three stone angels, one of which seems to cry grey tears. There are flowers in metal containers, some brown and wilting, others new and bright. What else? Grass, a few weeds. And trees, indistinct at the edges of his vision. Then there! There in the corner, near the red brick wall that flanks the pavement, he seems to see a lush, berry-covered holly bush, as broad as it is tall.
‘Holly trees?’ he says.
‘No!’ the teacher roars. ‘For goodness’ sake. Not holly trees. We are not talking about holly trees!’
Another child puts up her hand.
‘At last,’ the teacher thinks. ‘Finally.’
‘Yes, Janet?’ she says, eyes narrowing, a grin smearing itself over her apricot-lipsticked mouth and long nicotine teeth.
‘In the church we go to there is a holly tree, because at Christmas, the Sunday school get to cut some to take home.’
Little noises of assent run like the rumour of revolution around the class.
‘Some graveyards might have holly trees,’ the teacher says heavily emphasising the first word. ‘But…’ She stops speaking, walks around her desk, sits down and with elbows resting on its top, cradles her head in both hands, looking to the children as if she were about to cry.
They exchange quick glances with one another, frown, shrug their shoulders, shake their heads.
The room they are in is on the top floor of a huge school that was built only two years before in the brutalist style. The classrooms are on three floors, divided by dimly lit corridors that pass down the centre like the black veins in shrimps’ bodies, door after door after door leading off. In other buildings there are a swimming pool, a gymnasium, changing rooms, an assembly hall.
The children are always told how lucky they are to have this wonderful school with its many playgrounds and sports fields, its light and airy classrooms, its specially designed facilities for teaching cookery and metal and woodwork, the physics, chemistry, biology and language labs. Its dedicated, learned and enthusiastic staff. The teachers are a diverse bunch; some are young and energetic, others are of a middling age, a few are old and lame, warty and peculiar. Some of the male teachers fought in the war. Some inspire fear, a very few inspire love, some are openly challenged, but none are ever pitied. All are sanctioned to use physical violence; most of them are capable of lashing out suddenly with hands, or rulers or wooden board dusters.
There are 1,500 children in this school and of the thirty in this English class none know a single thing of any significance about yew trees.
The school has been built on top of a hill in the centre of a housing estate. In winter there is nothing to buffer the icy wind that comes scouring over the playing fields and black tarmac netball courts. Nothing to protect the girls’ legs in their knee-high white socks, yet there they are; shivering though each break and lunch hour. Breathing in the yellow stink of sulphur when the wind comes from the industrial east.
In milder weather these girls perform their ancient game of levitation, not knowing where it has come from; nor that it was first mentioned by the diarist, Pepys in 1665.
She looks ill, she is ill, she looks dead, she is dead.
One girl lies down on a low wall, five others surround her. They must not giggle, must not break the spell. When the chanting voices have each repeated the spell, they lift the girl on high using just the tips of two fingers each.
They know about this, but they do not know yew trees.
The school bell rings upon the teacher’s silence. The poem, its ‘cold and planetary’ secrets and its author (who gassed herself six years ago) are all eclipsed.
Quietly the children push back their chairs and, gathering their belongings, they file in silence from the room. The teacher does not look up until the last pupil has gone.
She opens her eyes to thirty empty chairs and desks. And on the desks thirty rectangles of paper, every word unread.