Over the years, Suzanne watched her son closely. 'I think Leaf has been forgotten,' Will suggested to her from time to time, as they watched their son change and grow.
'Not true,' she would correct him. 'He's still about. James still goes out there to talk to him. Sometimes after school. Sometimes in the morning. I see him from the window, walking around the garden with his hands in his pockets. Talking to someone.'
'Well anyway,' Will sighed. 'It certainly hasn't done him any harm.'
Typical of you, she would often think. Not interested in anything that isn't plainly obvious. Whereas she could not shake the core belief she had that something was not right. One day when James was nine years old, she heard an almighty crash from outside, which was quickly followed by a short scream and a burst of sobs. Suzanne leaped up from the sofa where she had been enjoying a cup of tea and ran out of the back door to find her son.
She could hear him at the back of the garden, hidden by the shrubs and bushes. He was laughing, chatting and crying all at once. Her instinct was to run to him, to call out his name and make sure he was all right. But something made her stop. She had not had an opportunity to spy on him and Leaf for some time. So she crept up silently.
'You said it wouldn't hurt, you idiot!' he was saying, and she heard him sniffing up his tears while he giggled. There was a few moments pause, and then; 'well I'm not you, am I? That really hurt! Stop laughing at me!'
Suzanne wrapped her arms around herself, and hidden by the shrubs, waited for more. She couldn't help but find the sound of her son talking to someone she could not see, rather chilling. 'Yeah, I know,' he was saying now. 'I won't, course I won't...What? No, I'm not doing it again. Not today....Forget it!'
Suddenly he fell silent and Suzanne knew she had been rumbled. 'James?' she called out, coming around the rhododendron bush to see him. He was sat up with his knees to his chest. Tears shone on his cheeks and there was a bloody graze on his chin. 'I heard you talking to yourself,' she said, guilt flushing her cheeks as he gave her his iciest stare.
'I fell over,' he told her, and then nothing. She took him inside, and it was not until bathtime that she realised he was lying. His body was black and blue.
'He did not fall over,' she told her husband later that night. 'He lied to me. I think he fell out of the tree Will, I really do. I heard a crash. I know I did.'
'Well he lied so he wouldn't get in trouble,' her husband replied, and rolled over onto his side in bed. 'I'll talk to him in the morning. Tell him it's not on.'
Nothing to worry about, she felt like screaming at him, now tell me there is nothing to worry about!
Over the next three years, Suzanne could not shake the feeling that her son was pushing her away. Normal, Will said. They all do it, the mums at school said. He's nearly a teenager, they reassured her, that's what happens, but they do come back. But it's more than that, she wanted to argue. It's like he doesn't want me around, and when I am near him, he seems so restless, so close to anger, like I am always ruining his fun.
She watched from the sidelines, as he played football in the garden with his dad. If she tried to join in, he would pay less attention and start to drift away. Again the feeling would nag at her. It's like he's blaming me for something, she thought, but I don't know what.
She finally made her case for moving house again the night he tried to hang himself from the tree. He was thirteen years old, sullen-eyed and small in build. She wanted so desperately to throw her arms around him, and yet just one glare from those accusing eyes was enough to stop her in her tracks. The night he was found hanging, they had thrown a dinner party for Will's workmate Ted. Ted was leaving, emigrating to Canada with his wife. The four of them cracked open bottles of wine and took over the kitchen, laughing and joking and sharing food.
It was Suzanne who had left the party early. It was she, who with a sudden sick twist of her guts, knew that something was wrong. First, she ran upstairs to check on James. He had been sent to his room early. A letter had come home from school. Messing about in class. Cheeking the teacher. Falling behind. She had meant to have it out with Will that very night. Now will you admit something is wrong with our son, she was going to say. Now will you admit that at thirteen years old he shouldn't still be going outside to have conversations with a boy he made up when he was five?
He wasn't in his room. He wasn't in the bathroom. 'Is James in the lounge?' she called down the stairs to the others, and then she went to the window. And then she saw the tree. Something was hanging there. Rocking slowly back and forth in the dying light of the day. A sunset was building behind it. A beautiful red and gold sunset. The picture would have been perfect. The massive tree silhouetted by colour. Perfect, except for the something that was hanging and rocking.
'James!' she screamed out and started to run.
They put the house on the market the very next day. Suzanne refused to listen to anything else. It was all she would settle for, the only outcome she was prepared to accept. Somehow she knew they had to get away, start anew somewhere else.
In time, James recovered. He came slowly and tentatively back to his mother, and grew up to be a bright young man with a vivid imagination, a natural story-teller. 'What happened to Leaf?' she braved asking him one day when he was in his early twenties. They were in town, drinking coffee outside a café.
'I don't remember,' he answered scratching his head. 'Was that when we were at 3 Millers Lane? The one with the tree?'
'Yes, darling surely you remember your imaginary friend. You called him Leaf. You said he was very funny. Well, he always had you laughing anyway.'
'I dunno,' he shrugged, his expression baffled. 'I don't remember thinking about him again after we moved.'
Suzanne Patterson often thought about the house on Millers Lane, The beautiful house with the large garden just perfect for adventures. She often thought about what had drawn them there in the first place. A garden full of potential, a garden for a child with an imagination. One day when she was in a particularly curious mood, she drove her car over to the old house to take a look.
From the quiet shady lane, she could see that little had changed. The front garden was still edged with holly bushes, though they were smaller now, neater and more contained than they had kept them. The house looked well kept, with pretty hanging baskets at the door. She could see a swing set in the garden and imagined that they had children too. It is a perfect place for a child, she thought, looking on. All that space, all those hidey holes, all those games to make up.
Just then she spotted a little figure in the front garden. A small girl with bright red hair. She was pulling a scooter behind her and talking to herself in a very animated way. Suzanne smiled from her car. She remembered James at that age. That very intense look he got on his face when lost in his games. The way his eyebrows would shoot up and down, and then, just like this little girl, he would throw his head back and howl with laughter.
Suzanne leaned out of the window and squinted at the girl. She looked about five or six. She was wearing green leggings and a pink t-shirt with a pony on it. She was walking around in a circle now, dragging the scooter and waggling a finger and shaking her head. It didn't seem like anyone else was around. Finally, the little girl stopped circling and stood in the centre of the driveway, and Suzanne watched, recalling how James had rode his trikes and scooters up and down that very drive. The red haired girl dropped the scooter with a crash, threw back her head and roared with giggles. When she had finished, she clutched at her chest, and called out loudly; 'Leaf! Oh, Leaf you're funny!'