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Wilfrid Fox, veteran physician and arborist,
embarks again

Sarah Hill Wheeler

He is not drowning, though it can feel like that.

A celluloid. Life, death, and the bits in between, reel in a loop through his dreams.

They come in wake time too, branded on the dark side of his eyelids. Too much light hits the gaps in a filigree of leaves, a root canker distils in cool night air. And he’s back in 1922.

The smell of carbolic lingering as he sutures and closes. One last look at the boy’s forehead, hemmed and excised, before he closes the door and finally walks away.

Hair fallowed now, head resting in the dent of an antimacassar, surrounded by crocheted trefoils and daisies, he pulls himself into the view through the window, reminds himself of what’s still there.

Cherry trees and acers, spaced with surgical precision.

Earth you can trust. He respects its immobility, the way it holds and contains a capillary of roots, the way it grounds the weight of trunk, supports the up flow of wood, the outpour of blossom.

Unlike the sea, which burns salt and laps corrosion.

At Dunkirk, his feet slip on wet deck planks. Waves roll, threatening to pull him under. Debris surfaces, ebbs away, returns blanched by undercurrent. A hand, a neck, sometimes a face, but always misplaced, scattered out of order.

Leaning back, breathing in the scent of mimosa, he sighs with the effort of it all. Years of stitching, and unstitching. Committee meetings, papers pushed over polished tables, promises made, and unmade. Curated remembering, and forgetting.

His body, a box which holds him. Still. Creaky on days when the lid doesn’t quite fit, days like today. Memory weeps, spreads like contagion, or mud licks kissing the windscreen of his Vauxhall-D as it ploughs through another gulley in Flanders.

So many boxes, in substance, no different from the seed crates at home. Just another box, holding splintered fragments of men. Words and bones jarred and unaligned, as he drives through dirt and cordite to the field station, to iodine and reels of gauze. Space on the floor, and morphine if they’re lucky. And, everywhere, the stench of blood; rust and piss and bonemeal.

He is the heart pumping them on. A pulse, a beat if he can find it, pushing them into the future, recirculating lives towards sunlight and tents of trees, phosphorus and saltpetre stilled in the air, the memory of searing flares and fire burst morphed into new memories. Orange fingers of Japanese maple stroking the breeze, the honied tickle of witch hazel in his nostrils.

Now his skin is dry and thin, mutinous as carbon paper which won’t lay flat. Eyes, still periwinkle blue, see the world with their old intensity, cauterising it with seedlings and planting schemes.

They visit him here…the ones he saved, the ones he couldn’t. Pausing in dappled shade, fingers pushing back a fringe, tracing the outline of a scar.

Beyond the farm, green leaches to formaldehyde grey. The bypass runs over him, culverting birdsong, an estuary carrying him back to the sea. At its edge, glimpses of saplings, grown tall in time he will not see.

A gull caws. His feet numb, unanchored, the brine sharp on his tongue.

He closes his eyes, dives back into sleep.

Wilfrid Fox, 1865 - 1962, physician at St George’s hospital, Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, drove ambulances in both World Wars. He later became an entrepreneur, an impassioned advocate for municipal tree planting and horticulturalist. He founded the Roads Beautification Association and created what later became Winkworth Arboretum.

Erstwhile lawyer, writer, frazzled mother, and multi-tasker. Prose winner Urban Tree Festival 2021. Sometime Londoner and Francophile, returned to my rural Wiltshire roots. Now often found outside, with a double expresso, talking to hens. Website:, Twitter: @hill_wheeler

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