Fibonacci’s Tree by Tracy Fells
‘Here I am!’ I jab a finger, one of the few that still works, at the notebook page. ‘Right at the bottom of the tree.’
Tanya is adding too much milk to my tea. She doesn’t think I’m looking when she shoves a custard cream into her mouth. It disappears whole like an envelope propelled through a gaping letterbox. Crumbs splutter across the back of my useless left hand as she chants, ‘Teatime, Ellie. Sorry, we’re out of custard creams, but I’ve saved you a Bourbon. They’re your favourites.’
I can hear the words inside my head. They are crisp and clear like Mum’s best crystal, singing out, perfectly formed in tone and pitch. ‘My name is Eleanor and I loathe Bourbons, they are not proper chocolate biscuits.’
‘Go on then, you can have two today.’ Tanya’s swollen pigeon bust almost knocks my glasses off as she bends forward to peer at the notebook. ‘What you drawing? Oh, is that your family tree, Ellie? My brother’s into all that, he’s always on the Internet searching those family history sites you see on the telly.’
I steer my right index finger to the name adjacent to mine. ‘Jacob, my brother, son of Harold and Kitty, he died a millennium ago, before the Falklands. Back in the day when a soldier dying overseas didn’t make the news, it was expected – par for the course.’ Retracting the shaking hand to the safety of my lap I stare at the chipped teacup, resolve to focus on the now and not slip backwards, out of time. ‘I’m the last of the line, you see. Eleanor Palmer, the only living branch of the Palmer tree. The Palmers from Colchester, that is.’
Tanya’s greasy finger streaks the white page. ‘Is that you, Ellie? Eleanor Katherine Palmer, ain’t that grand? Shame nobody uses names like that anymore. The world’s got enough Sharon and Tracey’s, that’s what I said to my Trish. I suggested Daisy, perfect name for her new little one, but she fancies Cheryl. Your own kids don’t listen to sense, do they?’
Surely the woman can see the tree dies with me? I fell in love too late to sprout a Trish of my own. It was my own fault. I understood the theory of child bearing, analysed the mechanics and read all the manuals, even enjoyed the practical work but found I was long past the use-by date when it came to breaking eggs. Yes, I may be mixing my metaphors, but who cares. I’m eighty-six years old and can do what the hell I like, as long as it doesn’t involve the left hand side of my body, which has buggered off to no-man’s land on a permanent sabbatical. Except, I can’t do anything – even with the working half. Can’t pull up my own knickers without falling flat on my face. I have tried, but the last attempt ended badly with a broken nose and blood on the carpet. Sadly, I need both arms working to prise open the top floor window. Without two good legs I doubt I could climb out onto the fire escape anyway. Mercifully, my now second-rate brain is spared the dilemma of having to make the next decision in the chain: to escape down the fire escape, or plummet head first to oblivion? Most days I would choose oblivion.
‘The tree is withered, old and dying, just like me,’ I say loudly. ‘They’re all dead. Jacob. Mummy. Dad. Granddad Palmer. Nanna. Auntie May. Cousin Tilda. Uncle Mac. All dead.’ A sudden thought makes me giggle. ‘Death must run in the family. I’m the last in the line of corpses, descended from the dead!’
‘Bed?’ Tanya is picking out a chocolate digestive from the biscuit tin. ‘No, Ellie, it’s teatime not bedtime. After your cuppa I can push you outside for an afternoon snooze, would you like that?’
Another thought seeps into my retarding brain. The sparse branches of my family tree settle into a pattern across and down the page. If I squint out of my right eye I can decipher a sequence. Nature loves numbers and if you search long enough you can unravel the secrets of the universe. That’s what Solomon Khan, my tutor and lover, taught me. ‘God is a mathematician, can’t you see that Tanya?’ I snap at her then snatch up the pencil, still deliciously sharp, and wield it like a jousting lance.
She twitches, jumping back to clink against the tea trolley. ‘Hey, now watch what you’re doing with that, Ellie. You could poke someone’s eye out.’
‘There in the branches of the tree, just like the sequence of petals in a flower, can’t you see the pattern?’ The words are tumbling out like acrobats, but the woman stares stupidly at me, eyes as bulging as her navy blue uniform. I laugh as the solution appears; it’s beautiful and elegant like a perfect equation. ‘Fibonacci numbers,’ I tell her. Isn’t it obvious? ‘I will call this Fibonacci’s Tree!’
Tanya nods and smiles. ‘Yes, poppet, it is a tree. Clever girl. Your family tree.’
I stick the pencil on a blank page of the notebook and carefully print out F-I-B-O-N-A-C-C-I. Underlining the name several times until the paper almost rips.
A gentle voice speaks up from behind me, a young, male voice. ‘Ian wondered if you needed any help with the teas, Tanya?’ Stooping slightly, he fidgets self-consciously as if he’s cast himself as Gulliver in this strange land of wheel-bound gnomes. His slim, lanky limbs and pallid skin are the classic branding of student living.
Tanya sniffs. ‘Thinks I need a chaperone now, does he?’ She slips two Jammie Dodgers into her side pocket. ‘I’ll get round the old bats a lot quicker without a boy-scout tripping up the trolley.’ Now she’s whispering to me again. ‘Summer students are a bleeding pain, Ellie. This one thinks he’s Einstein, a right clever dick.’
‘I don’t think Ian would like you referring to the-‘ The poor lad stumbles, aware that I’m the gooseberry in their conversation.
‘Inmates,’ I offer.
‘Guests,’ says Tanya, relishing her sneer. ‘Ian prefers us to treat and think of the old bats as guests, but then he’s as batty as the best of them. Besides, Ellie here had a massive stroke and doesn’t understand a word. She likes to sit and doodle, burbling away like a gargoyle.’
I like Tanya’s image of a dribbling old gargoyle, it accurately describes the outward appearance of many of my fellow guests. Quite an imaginative turn of phrase for Tanya’s tiny vocabulary, she must have overheard it.
Matt (I read his name badge as he leans towards the trolley) lets me choose a biscuit from the tin. My right hand does a circuit of the tin before digging out the last remaining chocolate Hobnob. He’ll pay for this kindness later with a “bollicking” from Tanya in the staff quarters.
‘Poor mare,’ continues Tanya, ‘can’t even remember her name. Look she’s drawing out her family tree and then scribbles Fibow-, Fibonacho or something. You wonder what’s going on inside their heads.’
Matt stands close beside me and reads from the notebook. His spiked up hair smells of coconut. ‘A lot is still going on inside Professor Palmer’s head.’ He pauses to smile at Tanya, a sweet boyish smile, which says so much more than his words. ‘The name is Fibonacci. He was an Italian mathematician working in the thirteenth century. Devised a numeric sequence, also known as Fibonacci numbers or Fibonacci’s Series. The sequence is found throughout nature in the arrangement of flower petals, or leaves on a tree or-’
Tanya holds up her hand. ‘Yeah, that’s great Matt, but I get enough gibberish from this lot without you joining in.’ She waggles her wristwatch at him. ‘Time for my fag break. You can finish up here. And don’t let them put their sticky mitts in the tin – you choose the biscuits.’
Once Tanya has slalomed through the sleeping guests in the conservatory and squeezed out into the walled garden, Matt pulls up a chair. ‘Hobnobs are my favourites too, you want proper chocolate on a biscuit, don’t you?’ This time his smile is genuine. He has lovely blue eyes, bright and clear like a summer’s day. For a nanosecond I allow myself to think of Solly. ‘I’ve read all your books and papers, Professor Palmer. But I’m still struggling with your proof of Solomon’s Theorem. I know it took you a lifetime to decipher and I’ve only been working on it for a year …’
‘Ah yes, but then I knew the inner workings of his mind. Solomon Khan was a great friend, you see.’ I hesitate as his summer eyes begin to cloud. Not even the golden haired boy can understand my gargoyle gurgles, nobody can.
‘I’m sorry,’ he murmurs, ‘I didn’t catch all of that. Perhaps you could use your pencil. It’s just … may I ask you a question, Professor Palmer?’ I nod, but also print out O-K on a new page of the notebook. ‘I want to reference your proof in my dissertation … it would great if you could look it over – the dissertation I mean. Would you do that for me?’
A sliver of spittle is trickling down towards my dimple; I try to swipe it away with my hand. Matt takes out a handkerchief, a proper one with his initials, and cleans my chin quickly. ‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘There you go. Don’t worry, Professor, I’m a terrible dribbler too. My girlfriend’s always teasing that she can read the lunch menu from the stains on my shirt.’
I want to take his hand, but I know the care assistants are not encouraged to touch the guests and I’ve got him into enough trouble already. The notebook is slipping from my lap and I prop it up with the working knee. A pile of papers will be a disaster, I won’t cope with his printed dissertation and I want to help him. I may never go to the loo on my own again, but I can tap on a keyboard and comment on Matt’s work. I can be useful. Clutching the pencil I write: L-A-P-T-O-P?
‘Would that help you?’
I nod and one side of my mouth is smiling.
‘You can have my old laptop, Professor. I’ll copy over my dissertation and bring it in tomorrow.’
Matt laughs as I give him the thumbs up, just the one. My lazy thoughts are whirring back to life. The laptop would be a communication tool; I could become the Stephen Hawking of Sunny Days Residential Home. I can tell Tanya to keep her thieving hands off the custard creams and share what I really think of her dreadful daughter Trish.
He returns to the trolley and unhooks the brake. Like a little boy Matt whispers from behind his hand, ‘You must let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you, Professor Palmer.’
I scribble one last message: CALL ME ELEANOR.