(published 25th June 2018)
There was a song Ben heard once sung by a beautiful black woman whose name he couldn’t remember. She sang about strange fruit hanging from the branches of trees. He’d had that song in his head for weeks now.
Maybe the postman was new, maybe he wasn’t quite awake yet, but as Ben left for work there was a letter on the mat that didn’t belong to him. He picked up the envelope and closed the front door. He’d give it to Leon before he left for work.
It was months ago now and the last time Ben saw Leon alive. The morning had been dark. Car lights flashed orange and red through glassy baubles of rain. Leon’s house was across the road and the number eighty-two was nailed to the wall on a wooden plaque. He lived there with his girlfriend Ruby who looked tired and who sometimes smiled at Ben but never spoke. Not many of the neighbours did: they were always busy, rushing to be somewhere else, hoping to get there sooner than the traffic would probably allow.
As he walked along Leon’s garden path he could see through the front room window. Leon was on the phone and Ben gestured to the letter in his hand. Leon gave him a thumbs up and mouthed thank you as he pointed to the letter box. As he pushed it through the door he noticed that the letter was stamped with a red Final Notice. The house was tidy and ordinary and Leon looked like he always did when they passed on the street.
Ben stood and looked from the window of his upstairs bedroom. It was spring and the sun was bright and hot through the glass. After a minute it had begun to burn his face. A tree in the garden had white bulbs on its branches and the petals pointed upwards like church candles. He loved magnolia: the trees were beautiful until there was rain. It made him sad to see the flowers collapse beneath the weight of the water and fall from the branches like giant confetti. The grass was dark and the trees were full of thick and heavy leaves. It was a good view from here: Ben could see the neighbours’ gardens and into the fields behind. The sky was wide and open and sometimes, on a quiet, still day, it didn’t feel like a city at all.
Leon had been missing for ten days: one evening he just hadn’t come home. He was usually back by six and Ruby had called the police when, at midnight, there was still no sign of him. She’d called his mobile over and over again. At first there had been ringing but later the automated voice of his answerphone clicked straight in: maybe the battery was flat, maybe he was somewhere where the signal was bad.
Ben remembered the song. He hadn’t heard it for years and he thought of fruit trees and the one that was full of pears in Mr Patel’s garden three doors down. The fruit was big enough to see from his window and such a bright green that it was almost yellow. The window was open and he could smell grass that had just been cut. His eyes settled on a shape close to the pear tree: it was a shadow at first. But then he saw the faint form of a body; limp legs, heavy shoulders. He looked harder and found a grey oval face, feet that weren’t touching the ground.
For a long time Ben didn’t move.
When a bird hovered for a second close to the hanging man, he ran downstairs, out of the front door and down the street to number 62. The pavement rushed beneath his feet in flashes of white and navy paving stones and glitter that caught the sun.
Number 62 had a light blue door and he hammered on the wood. The skin on his knuckles split and blood smudged on the paintwork. There was no answer.
The back gate was rotten and felt soft as Ben jumped over it. He began to notice the sting in his knuckles as he ran and, though he knew it was too late for the man hanging from the tree, he didn’t slow down.
A tight band of blue rope dug deep across Leon’s neck; his face a bruised purple of blood trapped above the tight, thick string. His shirt sleeve was pulled up and Ben could see his watch. Its big white face was bright in the light of the sun and it still ticked the time.
Ben pulled his phone from his pocket and dialled 999. When the operator asked who he wanted, he hesitated. He knew it was too late and that there was nothing an ambulance could do. But still, it didn’t feel right to be the first person to decide.
He told the woman on the phone that Leon was hanging from the branch of a blossom tree. His voice shook and faded to a whisper. Ben sat down. The operator said that the police would be with him in a few minutes and that he should try to remain calm. There was nothing he could do now except sit tight and keep talking to her until they arrived. The woman on the phone had an accent and he wondered where it was from.
The world felt still and he looked at Leon’s shoes. They hung above the ground, their shadow in the sunshine the only thing touching the grass.
When the police car arrived, people appeared in doorways and watched as Leon, cut from the branches and wrapped in a clean, neat bag, was put into the back of a van. Ben could hear the noise of birds now and the voices of the neighbours.
Less than two weeks later Ruby left the house across the road. She put Leon’s clothes and shoes into large plastic bags. And then she left them on the street for a charity collection, or anyone else who wanted them. Ben watched as she dragged the bags from the door to the street. She looked at the floor and didn’t raise her eyes across the narrow road to the houses in front of her.
Mr Patel had been away on holiday and didn’t come back until Ruby had moved out. The police said there was no suggestion he was involved. Maybe Leon just liked the view from Mr Patel’s back garden better: the view out across the fields where, on a good day, you could look up into the wide, open sky and pretend you were anywhere else but there.
Hannah is a short story and flash fiction writer currently based in Leicester in the UK. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Leicester, works part-time in the voluntary sector and lives with her house-rabbit Agatha.