Three Cedar Trees, an excerpt

“You’re not my father. You can’t tell me what to do,” shouted Freddie as he stood up from the table, pushing his chair to the floor with a clatter. “I won’t do it. I just won’t,” he added, turning away from his mother and the man who had treated him as a son for most of his life. In a fit of rage he threw his earthenware mug into the nearby sink and charged out of the kitchen. Sophia wondered if the doorframe would split with the force of the door being slammed shut behind him.

James rose from his chair to follow, a look of real anger on his face, but Sophia held a hand out to stop him, gently taking his elbow. “Leave him, James,” she said as calmly as she could, “he’s between a man and a boy at the moment.”

“That’s no excuse for such behaviour,” replied James between gritted teeth, “but I will do as you ask.” Sitting back down at the old wooden kitchen table where so many family events had been planned before, Sophia continued to hold his arm, afraid he may rise again, remove his leather belt and head outside to give the boy a beating.

“If he truly is almost a man, then he needs to grow into one. He cannot continue to moon around the place, complaining whenever I give him a task to do,” said James, his anger beginning to subside with the touch of his beloved wife’s gentle hand.

“He will come round to the idea in time,” said Sophia to calm James down, although she was not sure she believed that what she was saying would indeed come true.

Sophia had indeed found out what Edmund and James had been planning. It was not an idea she liked very much, but she could see the need for Freddie to have something constructive to do with his time. The thought of her son being sent away for months at a time was a hard one for her to accept, but there was no doubt he was growing up and it was inevitable he had to ‘fly the nest’, just like one of Lucy’s fledglings, one day.

Sophia had written a letter to Mr and Mrs Heutinck at Pine Tree Farm, although it was James who dictated what she should put down. She wrote that they would be happy to take the young man who sought experience in a High Country sheep farm, and in exchange they wondered perhaps whether their son, Frederick could be considered for the post being advertised at Pine Tree Farm. Percy, having stayed the night at Combe, was intercepted by Sophia as he passed Applecross the following morning, and the letter was placed safely in his leather satchel for the journey to Marytown. Betsy Franks then sorted it into the pile of envelopes for collection by the Oamaru postboy, though she paused briefly to wonder what the Mackenzies were doing writing to a an unknown address down there on the coast.

These days the postal service was fast and reliable. The postboys rode horses or pulled carts between the main centres and travelled without delays on roads that had been made wider and flatter as time went by. More often than not, other travellers would pull to one side to let the mail through. Everyone knew the importance of communication both for personal letters and for business to flow smoothly. It was barely a week later that Percy arrived on Sophia’s doorstep with a reply from Mrs Heutinck. She and her husband would be very pleased to make young Frederick welcome as a farmhand for a period of three months, and their son, Jakob would be equally pleased to join their household where they hoped he would gain some useful experience in handling sheep. Mrs Heutinck suggested that the two young men leave after church the following Sunday and that they return to their own homes by Christmas. She would be expecting Frederick’s arrival on Monday.

All that was left to do was to tell Freddie what was happening, but Sophia was filled with dread about doing so. She knew her son well enough to be certain he would rail against such an arrangement. And so it had turned out.

“Let me talk to him,” said Sophia, patting James’ hand. “Stay here and finish your tea.”

Sophia found Freddie up on the hill, sitting on the stone next to Friday’s grave. The area had become something of a shrine to past animals, but Friday’s resting place was a special corner where people often went to be on their own and to consider things.

Without a word, Sophia wriggled herself onto the stone next to Freddie, forcing him to shift across a few inches. They sat in silence, taking in the view and listening to the skylarks singing above them.

Eventually, with a huge sigh, Freddie said, “Mama, why do I have to go away?” 

“Nothing stays the same for ever, my dear,” replied Sophia. She would have dearly loved to take him in her arms, but something told her that would make things worse for both of them. “You are almost a man, and a man must find his way in the world.”

Freddie turned his face away from his mother to hide the single tear that rolled down his cheek. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and took a deep breath. He knew his mother was right. The boy in him would be happy to roam the fields and hills forever with no other purpose than pleasure, but the man he was becoming knew only too well that there was more to life than that. He was not inclined to become a farmer, but what else was there for him to do in such a place? Perhaps going somewhere new and different would point him in the direction he would take his life. Perhaps it was all for the best.

“Alright, I’ll go,” he said eventually. “I am angry with father for making the decision without talking to me first, but I will do what you ask.”

Sophia could not help herself from putting a comforting arm around his shoulder, and Freddie did nothing to pull away from his mother. “It is only a few weeks to begin with, and you will be home for Christmas when Guy gets back,” she said gently.

As if to show he had resigned himself to his fate, Freddie stood up abruptly and started to make his way back down the hill. As he did so he turned to Sophia and said, “Perhaps I will like it so much I won’t ever come home again.”

It was said with a smile, but to Sophia it felt like someone had put a cold knife through her heart. It was a moment in time when Freddie went from boy to man in front of her very eyes. The image of her son, a young man standing defiantly against the familiar backdrop of fields surrounded by mountains would stay with her for life. She followed him down the hill, took his hand and bravely replied, “If that is the case, then so be it. But you know you always have a home here at Applecross, whatever happens.”

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