And a Partridge in a Pear Tree:
The first card came two days before Christmas Eve; the second came one day before, and the third, on Christmas Eve itself. They were all hand delivered. The Reverend Partridge opened the first without hesitation. He already had three cards of the same design, and about one hundred that were similar. Unsurprisingly, cards that pictured a partridge in a pear tree were
popular choices from his new parishioners.
Partridge stood by the mantle piece as he read the card. He'd been going to hang it on the line with the others, but when he'd finished reading it he read it again, and again, and when he'd read it for the fifth time he put it carefully down on the arm of the sofa and took the envelope back out of the bin. He didn't recognise the hand writing. The card was unsigned. He read it a sixth
time – 'Beware the pear tree' – and couldn't make any more sense out of it.
The second card had the same message, but somebody had drawn a large red cross over the picture of the partridge on the front.
When Partridge received the third card he held it in his hands for some minutes, turning it over repeatedly. In the end, he opened it, and wished that he hadn't. The partridge's head had been covered by a photograph of himself. It was rather grainy, and he recognised it as being taken from the parish newsletter. The red cross cut through his face, and inside it read, 'Beware the pear tree'.
Christmas Eve that year fell on a Sunday. Partridge took the morning service as usual. Afterwards, he wished his congregation, “Merry Christmas,” at the porch, shaking their hands in turn.
“We're all looking forward to hearing your first Christmas sermon tomorrow, Vicar,” said one. “The Reverend Lucas' were always such fun. I'm Georgia Henderson, by the way.” She shook his hand a second time.
“You've a lot to live up to,” said the man by her side. “Still, I'm sure you'll surprise us. Perhaps you could deliver it from a pear tree instead of the pulpit?”
Partridge's laugh was forced. He watched them walk down the path, hand in hand.
“Look at them,” came a voice from behind him. Partridge jumped. “Like two turtle doves, aren't they?” The man who had spoken
turned glumly to his own wife and added, “We were like that once, Deborah.”
Partridge went back inside to hang up his cassock. When he came out into the churchyard again, he found the verger cutting holly from a bush.
“Morning, Ned,” said Partridge.
Ned tapped the ground with his foot distractedly, and asked, “Hear that gale last night? Did no good to the pear tree –
blew one of its branches clean off. ”
Partridge stopped winding his scarf around his neck. “Pear tree? Where?”
“Over there,” said Ned, jerking his secateurs at the far end of the churchyard. “Didn't you know?”
Partridge said, alarmed, “You don't often get pear trees in churchyards. How long has that been there?”
“Now you're asking,” said Ned. “Long as me. Longer.” His tongue toured the valleys between his teeth while he thought. “Thirty
years, my guess.”
“As long as that?”
“Approximately thirty. Could be longer.”
Partridge looked at the pear tree. It was leaning so far to the right that it was a wonder it hadn't keeled over. One branch grew across a headstone, as though it were hanging onto it to regain its balance.
“It doesn't look very well. Let's chop it down.”
“Can't do that, Vicar.”
“Why ever not? It's an eyesore.”
Ned shrugged. “Reverend Stockle's wife planted it when he died. I don't think she'd be too happy to see it go. She looks after it,
“Not very skilfully, by the looks of things.”
“Well, it's me that tends it now, her back isn't up to it. But she watches, sometimes.” He nodded towards
a house that backed onto the churchyard. The curtains in the windows were discoloured and still drawn.
“She doesn't attend the services. I'd have thought – if her husband were a vicar ...”
“She doesn't attend anything, not since he died,” said Ned. “Hasn't been out properly for years 'part from tending the tree. I wave to her at the window but she doesn't wave back. Gone a bit loopy, I reckon.”
Partridge looked at him abruptly. “If she is a little – unstable – you don't think she could possibly hold a grudge against me?”
“New vicars. Stockle's replacements. What about Lucas before me, did he get any strange behaviour? I don't know –
letters, cards maybe? Funny ones.”
“Not that I know of. Vicar, has something happened?”
It began to snow. Partridge said, “No. Nothing. Well. Have a good Christmas Ned.”
“And you,” said Ned. Then, as Partridge was closing the gate, he called, “I've just remembered – spring
1977, Stockle died. That tree's 35 next May.”
That night, asleep in bed after midnight mass, Partridge had a nightmare. He was in the churchyard again. It was dark, and the only noise came from the wind; it was a strong wind, strong enough to rock the headstones backwards and forwards, like trapdoors propped open. A light came on at the end of the churchyard, and there, lit as though by candles from within the trunk itself, was the pear tree. Partridge looked at it for a second, and began to walk towards it. As he did so, he saw that fruit had grown on the branches, strange, deformed pears like shrunken heads. Something else hung from the branches on the
other side, squashed against the wall. He couldn't make out its shape but it was large in size, too large for a pear, certainly. He couldn't get close enough to investigate because of the gravestones. There were hundreds of them, and now he saw that more and more were sprouting up from the ground, shuddering through the earth like teeth growing through gums. Some were
marked with names he recognised.
Presently he became aware that the pear tree was moving, revolving very, very, slowly, twisting so that the side that had been facing the wall approached him. He waited in the gloom, all the while stepping over headstones that grew where his feet were. They were popping up everywhere, faster and faster, and soon he was tired, out of breath from dodging them, jumping this way and that. The pear tree completed its revolution. The thing that was hanging from the branches was facing him, and Partridge looked at it in between jumping the headstones.
It was a body, hung from the neck. It was wearing a black gown with a hood over its face, and Partridge realised with horror that he was wearing the same. The hood bounced between his shoulder blades as he leapt, and the hem caught on
his feet. There came a sudden blast of wind. The body swung on its rope, and the hood fell back to reveal its face ...
Partridge awoke in a sea of sweat. He lay on his mattress in the dark until his breathing steadied, and sat up, re-buttoning his pyjama shirt. He had to have several attempts.
After he'd calmed down, Partridge walked to the window and slowly pulled one of the curtains back. The churchyard lay beneath him, dark but comfortingly bereft of new gravestones. There, at the far end, was the pear tree. It really was the most frightening shape. Now he looked again, it didn't seem that the tree was hanging on to the headstone for support, but pulling it away from the ground, ripping the grave open like a deep scar from which blood would pour.
The body reappeared on the branches; the curtain fell from Partridge's hand. Within seconds he was down the stairs, pausing only to seize a coat from the banister and stuff his arms through the sleeves. He needed an axe. Did he have an axe? Surely not – and yet a knife wouldn't do at all. A saw, then – yes, he had one of those on a hook in the shed.
When Partridge found it, the saw was smaller than he'd remembered, but no matter. He took it from the hook, forgot to lock the shed door, and went round to the churchyard, entering by the back gate. There was the pear tree, lit not as it had been in Partridge's dream, but from the overspill of light from the house at the back. Not much light came through Mrs Stockle's
curtains, however, and the base of the tree was shrouded in black. He flung the saw over his shoulder like a sports bat, and brought it slashing down into the bark. It got wedged. Partridge tugged. It came free. Partridge slashed again and tried to saw through the tree but the blade was thin and bendy, like stiff card. It made a noise like a whip as Partridge waved it. A shadow washed over a headstone; Mrs Stockle's curtain twitched. Partridge noticed nothing. He carried on wielding his saw – and then he gave up, and sank down onto the damp ground, and let his weapon drop out of reach. It wasn't working. Partridge sat at the foot of the tree he'd tried to fell and put his head in his hands.
He didn't hear the footsteps but he most definitely felt the blade of his saw sink into his shoulder.
* * *
“ A flesh wound,” said the doctor, “nothing more. You were lucky.”
Partridge didn't feel lucky. He felt confused and his shoulder hurt – his head, too. The doctor saw him rub it. “You hit your head against a tree when you passed out,” he said, “but you didn't lose much blood. Like I said – you were lucky. Still, we'll keep you in over night in case of concussion. Bet you didn't plan on spending your Christmas in a hospital bed.”
“No,” said Partridge. Then, “What happened?”
The doctor had placed his clipboard on a side-table. Now he retrieved it and began to leaf through the papers. “You were stabbed – well, sawn. The woman who called the ambulance was hysterical, said she did it in a rage. She was overwrought, poor woman – kept on saying you'd hurt her husband's tree. Couldn't get much sense out of her, to be honest.”
“Mrs Stockle,” Partridge said.
“That's her. Confessed to everything.”
“Everything? Even the Christmas cards?”
“Yes. Did she confess to sending them to me?”
“No,” said the doctor, looking concerned. “She confessed to seeing you in the churchyard hacking away at some old tree and she confessed to attacking you. She even confessed to still owning a library book she borrowed in 1963, though I told her that wasn't really our concern. She never said anything about Christmas cards. I think you're getting confused. Lie down again,
there's a good chap, and try and get some rest.” As he left, he murmured to a nurse outside the door, “I think he hit his head
harder than we thought.”
They discharged Partridge late on Boxing Day. It was snowing again by the time he arrived home, and as he stood on the vicarage doorstep the sky was darkening. It was quiet, he thought, with so few cars on the motorway. Dark and quiet and cold. The bulb inside the street lamp shivered, and the light blinked. Partridge stood watching it for a minute and then let himself in.
He had approximately thirty seconds of happiness to be home before he saw the envelope lying on the doormat. Inside the card, it said: 'Stockle got in the way but I'll get you before the last lord's leapt.'