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Advanced EFL / ESL  short story  

Blue Gum Tree  - a short story from New Zealand    

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by Pat Boyle

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It was a week night, we were a half dozen guys in our late teens, hanging around  'the flat' - as usual. The flat was sparsely furnished, a few old chairs in the lounge, plenty of chrome and formica in the kitchen, a mattress on the floor of each bedroom. The only thing of any real value in the place was "the Stereo". Like a shrine we would kneel before it, changing records, or adjusting the tone controls. After a time, even this most holy of appliances grew tiresome. We wanted action.

 We got in the car - a big white Valiant, big enough for all of us to crowd in to - and off we went, in search of adventure. We soon found ourselves at Blue Gum Corner, a place named after the lone huge old blue gum tree that stood by there, a well-known local landmark. It stands at a minor intersection leading to our town. The trunk is tall and smooth with no handholds for climbing. About six metres from the ground the first branch sticks out over the road.

We parked beneath the huge old tree and discussed what we might do. It was decided that we would use the tow-rope from the car to try to climb it. I stood upon the roof of the car and threw the rope over the lowest branch, tied it off, and gave it a good tug. One of the guys remarked how the loop at the bottom end of the rope looked like a noose - used for hanging. All at once the young thrill-seekers hatched an idea - we would fake a hanging! I was nominated as 'hangee'.

The plan was absurdly simple. As I stood upon the roof of the car, the rope was threaded down my jacket through my collar and down one leg of my jeans. I put my foot through the loop at the bottom and the car was driven away and hidden down the road. There I hung, motionless. The boys rolled about laughing until, A car, I hear a car! Before they ran to hide, they gave me a good shove so that 'the body' would swing as the car drove by.

To our collective disappointment, the car simply turned off for town without even slowing. The boys came out of their hiding places and we discussed the situation, surely they had seen me, hadn't they? Then we heard another car, the act was repeated, but still without any apparent reaction. We played the game about five or six times, but as no one seemed to notice, we abandoned the prank . What we did not know was that every car that had passed had definitely seen 'the body' and each one, too scared to stop, had driven directly to the local Police Station. Now at that time of the night, the local constable was well tucked up in his bed, so the first person dispatched to the scene was the traffic officer that happened to be on duty that particular night.

 The traffic officer that arrived on the scene that night was typical of his kind; moustached, timid, and not the smartest person in town.

Hearing the siren before we saw the car, we had plenty of time to run and hide in the field beside the tree. I finally felt that familiar mix of fear and excitement we had been striving for all night.

The traffic officer, always the professional, began scanning the area with his spotlight; as soon as the light was off any one of us, we would begin to crawl away. The resulting rustling and scuttling sounds would cause the light to be turned on the spot any noise emanated from, the crawler instantly freezing. As this would happen another would-be Houdini from our group would begin his escape on the other side of the field. The poor traffic officer ended up darting his light back and forth all over the paddock chasing some invisible, suicidal lunatic.

It may be useful for me to elucidate on the thinking of the officer at this time. He had been informed that some person had been killed, by hanging, at Blue Gum Corner. When he arrived, the body was gone! and he was hearing 'unnatural sounds' from the surrounding area. As far as he knew, some crazed monster was lurking around in the field before him, possibly dragging a corpse behind him - and we thought we were scared!

One of the boys, I had no idea which, had made it to a fence. When the spotlight was off him, he had started to climb it. Now when you climb an eight-wire farm fence, the wires tend to create a screeching noise; this caused the cop to just about jump out of his black boots! He fumbled for his torch then ran off down the road towards the sound. He got about half way then slowed and stopped, thinking better of it he ran back to the car calling, "Get the dog Kevin, get the d - o - g!"  We all knew he was completely alone, so this only resulted in a few giggles from the field.

The cop kept looking nervously at his watch, I figured he was probably waiting for back up from the local police officer. Once there were two of them, the chances of getting caught were going to be pretty high, so I figured I had better do my best to get out of there as soon as I could. Another screech from a fence on the far side of the field really upset our friend in the uniform. Once more he yelled, this time, "I've got a gun!" We well knew that in those days traffic officers were not even issued with a baton.

 He went to his radio and made a call that really began to worry us. I lay so close I could hear every word, he called for the "armed offender squad" and a "dog team, better make it two", he had a "serious situation" at Blue Gum Corner. Then the police officer arrived. After a briefing from the traffic cop he decided not to go into the field until armed squad and dog teams arrived.

Now two spotlights were on the field and none of us could move. By then, Keith had managed to make his way back to his car that was hidden at the gravel pit a few hundred meters away. As we lay in the field we heard his engine start, we heard the sound of gravel beneath his tyres, but the cops did not take their eyes off the field. As we lay in the now damp grass, we all knew it would be a long walk back into town!

As luck would have it, police cars cannot leave their spotlights on all night without flattening their batteries. So, after a time, the two cops began alternating their lighting of the field, allowing us the opportunity to resume our crawl for freedom. One by one, we all managed to slip off and make our way home. Behind us we left what must have looked like a small city of lights, police cars, roadblocks, barking dogs, armed officers and an old towrope hanging from a tree.

When I think back to that night, to what the drivers of the cars think happened, what police believe happened, and to what happened from my perspective, I am reminded of a simple truth - our eyes perceive darkness and light, colour and movement, our ears detect only vibrations in the air. It is how we interpret these images that shapes our "reality".


gum tree - eucalyptus - hang round: pass the time - lounge: living room - shrine: holy place - holy: sacred - - appliance: machine - towrope: rope used for pulling something behind a car - tug: pull - noose: ring of rope - thrill-seekers: people looking for excitement - fake: imitate - shove: push - prank: game - constable: policeman - on duty: on service - strive: search - crawl! move on hands and knees - rustling and scuttling sounds: soft indistinguishable sounds - paddock: field - elucidate on: clarify - corpse: dead body - fumble: look - giggle: laugh - back up: support - issue with: provide with, give - squad: team - slip off: escape.

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Interactive WORKSHEET

Blue Gum Tree

Interactive exercise: complete the dialogue u information from the story. Write your answers in the boxes, which will expand if you write more than one line.

Imagine that on the day following the events narrated in the story, the policeman had come knocking on Pat Boyle's door: Complete the dialogue as appropriate

Policeman:  Where ....
Pat:    Why? I was here, in the flat!
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Well, yes, we did go out for a bit!
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Yes of course, we drove out of town.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Oh no, nothing at all.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Well no, I dont think so; but now you happen to mention it, I seem to remember that there was something there.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    I don't know; but yes, I suppose it could have been.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Well we didn't think about it.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    No, we drove right past.
Policeman: .....
Pat:    Mine? In the field?...... Oh.... well I suppose it must have fallen out of the car when we stopped.
Policeman: .....


Ideas for the classroom :

Listening exercise:

Being a story, this document is more appropriate for unprepared audio presentation than a factual article.
    Read this story to your students twice, preferably without letting them follow the text. Let them take notes during the second reading.
    Then do one of the following activities:
    Either have students collectively retell the story from start to finish, or have them work individually or in pairs to retell the story as a written text - still without consulting the printed text.
    If you prefer the spoken exercise, ask one student to start and to produce a first sentence. Then ask other students if they can add any details; the first sentence should describe the situation at the outset, for example - There are several bored boys in a flat, wanting action.
Ask other students to expand on this. Where does the story take place? Why are the boys bored? What sort of town do they live in?
    Carry on in this manner, asking appropriate questions to elicit replies that will eventually lead to a fairly detailed re-creation of the chain of events.
    This should keep your class occupied for quite a while!
    If you choose the written exercise, it is probably safest to do it immediately, before you let your students look at a printed or on-screen version of the text.

Going further.
Have students comment on the meaning of the last sentence.

Free expression:

Have students retell the story as it might have appeared a few days later in the local newspaper, following a report on the mysterious incident sent to the paper by the local police.
    Preferably, have students incorporate the following verbs into their report: say, tell, think, see, know, expect
and these other words: still, yet, again, according to, after, before, during, since, for


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Advanced level English resource

Level - Plain English .
IELTS band :  6.5
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease : 76 Plain English
Grade level: 7.4

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Fully updated 2020 from an article originally published in 2000 in Spectrum, the advanced level English newsmagazine.
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