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My father often talked about his childhood in the small country town of Tullama and the pepper-tree which grew in the backyard of his house. It was clear that the tree meant a lot to him. It wasn’t what he said about the pepper-tree, but how he said it. When he spoke of the pepper-tree, I saw it clearly: an enormous tree with long sheets of green leaves in a big, wide backyard. When we lived at Newton, I used to look for pepper-trees when my father took me for a walk. ‘Look, there’s a pepper-tree,’ I’d say. ‘That’s only a small tree, boy,’ my dad would answer. ‘They don’t grow well here. You should see them out west where I come from.’
My father had a head full of dreams. One of them was a Rolls Royce. He never bought one but he talked about it all the time. ‘I want to have a Rolls Royce because it’s the most perfect piece of machinery made in the world,’ he said. ‘What would a garage mechanic do with a Rolls Royce?’ my mother asked. She couldn’t understand it but a Rolls Royce, just like the pepper-tree, meant something special to my father.
I remember my parents talking one night. Times were hard then, and my mother was worried about the future. Soon after that, my father came up with a plan to make some money. He went away early one Sunday morning and came back at lunchtime in a Ford lorry. On the back of the Ford there was something that looked like an engine. He had a plan in his mind, but he didn’t tell us his secret for over a week. In the end, he whispered mysteriously – ‘It’s an invention for cleaning wells.’
His idea, he explained later, was a new way of cleaning wells in country towns. ‘Like Tullama?’ I said, and added, ‘Will you go there and see the pepper-tree?’ ‘I’m not sure yet,’ he replied. Soon after this conversation, he started off. Every week brought a letter from him. As he got closer to Tullama, my mother got angry. ‘Him and that silly pepper-tree!’ she said.
Suddenly, there was no letter. One day he came home and said he had sold the lorry and engine. He looked tired and depressed. ‘The engine often broke down,’ he told us. ‘Did you see the pepper-tree?’ I asked. ‘I saw it all right,’ he answered. ‘It was a small tree and a small backyard. Not as big as I remembered them at all,’ he added. He wasn’t looking at me, but at something far away. He never spoke of the pepper-tree or the Rolls Royce again.
adapted from ‘The Pepper-Tree’ by Dal Stivens retold by Christine Lindop