Despite his youth and attractive appearance, Roland Ball was considered to be a rather stuffy member of staff for he was overly concerned with his image as a successful accountant. Unlike many of his colleagues, he always appeared impeccably dressed in a well-tailored suit from which he allowed a hint of gold to show from his watch strap and carried an expensive looking leather briefcase – even his shoes looked hand-stitched. His tasteful collection of cuff links always drew comment from the receptionists, who laughed about being able to tell the time by his punctual arrival at work each morning. Peter Magic, the branch manager, who enjoyed wearing brightly coloured ties and casual jackets to work, often urged Roland to “loosen up”. He couldn’t.
Well, he couldn’t until Valentine’s Day. That was when he had planned to propose to Rita Irvine over a candlelit dinner in one of the most expensive restaurants in town. A dozen red roses had already been delivered to her office early that morning; she had purred her appreciation over the ‘phone. He glowed from within all day and looked around anxiously every now and then in case anyone had noticed the bubbling feeling that threatened to erupt into a chuckle.
His decision to marry had been arrived at after months of deliberation and careful planning, for he wanted to give Rita the best future he could afford. Having nurtured his relationship with her in what he considered the most proper manner, he had carefully calculated that the timing was right at last. At the end of that day he left the office filled with high expectations and a sense of immense satisfaction that everything was going according to plan.
On the 15th February, Roland rose and dressed earlier than usual and automatically checked his already immaculate appearance in the large bathroom mirror above the basin. He automatically straightened the slight kink in the knot of his paisley tie and pulled a stray hair from the shoulder of his well-tailored suit. He scrutinised his face closely and tried out various smiles. Would anyone else be able to detect that his private hopes and dreams had been shattered? The expensive spurned diamond ring caught the morning light on the bathroom windowsill where he had carefully placed it before going to bed. He looked at the mocking sparkling gems for a moment, reviewing their cost, the carefully selected cut and the dreams the ring represented, then impulsively picked it up and flung it outside. To his surprise, Roland felt a little better.
After a routine breakfast he found difficult to swallow, he set off on the usually busy highway along the all too familiar route to work. The words “Oh Roland darling, you’re much too stuffy to live with” drummed and echoed in his ears with each passing car. Rita had laughed huskily and made gentle fun of him by turning his carefully nurtured plans into a joke. How could she? Overwhelmed with the nauseating feeling of humiliation that he wondered if he would ever recover from, Roland turned the familiar corner leading through a familiar remnant patch of pine plantation. Looking up briefly, he noticed an early morning jogger leaning against a tall pine tree as if he were holding it up.
A long suppressed bubble rose from within Roland’s conservative body. Without thinking, he pulled to the side of the road and, leaving his door open and the hazard indicators flashing, dashed through the barbed wire fence and crashed through the bushes oblivious to the tear in the sleeve of his jacket or the yellow mud which covered his highly polished shoes.
“Let me help you!” Roland seldom raised his voice and now panted as he sprinted towards the bemused jogger. Without another word he pressed his arms against the tree and grunted with exertion.
“What on earth are you doing?” The jogger, a man in his fifties, his T-shirt wet with perspiration, asked in a bemused fashion in between his own panting.
“I’m helping you hold up the tree,” Roland replied nonchalantly. He was feeling much better.
“Are you mad?” The jogger eyed his companion with caution. “I’m only stretching you know.” He stood back, his arms hanging limply at his sides to show Roland what he meant.
“Hold on!” Roland shouted, his tie askew and the cufflinks gleaming in the early morning light. To the jogger’s surprise his companion winked and pushed harder, panting with the effort. He nodded and resumed his position with some amusement.
A crashing of branches alerted them to the arrival of two young men panting up the slope. “What’s the matter?” They queried loudly as they stumbled over the rough ground in their smart looking office attire.
“This tree is about to fall!” Roland and the jogger shouted in unison. Roland felt an inexplicable, shuddering surge of joy pass through his body.
“The tree’s about to fall!” The young men echoed loudly towards a knot of curious onlookers gathered at the edge of the road. More cars screeched to a halt and more feet trampled through the brushwood. Roland glanced at his watch: 8.30 a.m. The receptionists would be wondering where he was and Felicity would have made his customary mug of coffee. His eyes met those of the jogger and his face creased into the first genuine smile he’d had in years.
“Keep it up,” he whispered, his carefully cultivated facade slipping away to be replaced by an irrepressible feeling of joyous freedom.
The jogger shrugged his shoulders and pushed harder, feeling the weight of people helping him from behind. “I can’t hold on for much longer,” he grunted a few minutes later and gratefully moved back to allow younger arms to take his place. Roland carefully did the same.
The two men stood on a rock overlooking the highway, now clogged with cars and excited bystanders. Roland touched the jogger’s shoulder. “Thank you for playing along,” he said quietly, removing his jacket and loosening his cufflinks as he spoke. “People need to be jostled out of their routine now and then and you were a perfect target. Let me run you home.” They melted through the excited crowd and drove away unnoticed.
“Where have you been?” Peter Magic demanded when Roland entered the office at ten o’clock. The staff were agog: casual shoes, slacks, jacket – and no tie! Roland pretended indifference to their stares as he picked up the morning mail then he looked at them with a broad grin on his face.
“I’ve been holding up a tree.”