Joint Third Place

Tree Hugger

“You all right, duck?”

The woman had been peering up at the tree for a couple of minutes but until she called out I clung to the dwindling hope that if I kept perfectly still she might not see me.

No such luck. The woman shouted again, several decibels louder. “HEY, YOU UP THERE! ARE YOU OKAY?”

I was well and truly spotted. I beamed down what I hoped looked like a confident smile. “Yes, thank you.”

I kept smiling, she kept staring; neither of us knew what to say or do next. I was the first to look away, and what I saw made me say a rude word under my breath. I was certain the park had been deserted when I began to climb the tree. Now, there were people everywhere.

A boy cycling along the main path glanced across, jammed on his brakes, and rode over the grass for a closer look. “Cool! How did she get up there?”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” my spotter snapped. “How’s she going to get down? That’s the real problem.”

I leant back against the tree trunk and closed my eyes.

If only I were invisible.

If only that nosy woman hadn’t come by.

If only that stupid branch hadn’t broken.

If only I hadn’t been so stupid …

Below me, a decision was made. “Have you got a phone?” the woman asked the boy. “We need to get some help.”

“Yeah. Who d’you want me to call?”

“999 of course.”

“But that’s only for emergencies. I don’t want to …”

“It will be an emergency if she falls and breaks her neck, won’t it?”

“S’pose.”

“Ask for the fire brigade. Tell them to bring a long ladder. And you’d better get an ambulance too – just in case. And the police ought to know. She might be, you know, missing from somewhere.”

The boy did as he was told. “Hello? Can you send everyone you’ve got, please? Only there’s this old woman stuck up a tree in the park.”

“No! Please! I don’t want any help!” I waved both hands to my would-be rescuers. “Please, I can find my own way down if you’ll just leave me alone.”

My protestations were misinterpreted. “Don’t move!” the woman screamed. “Keep still! Hold tight! Don’t look down!”

The boy laughed and held up his phone. “I gotta get a picture of this. My mates’ll never believe me!”

The commotion attracted more attention. Two mothers with toddlers in pushchairs came to see what was happening. They were followed by a small, yapping dog dragging along its large, out-of-breath owner. The man came to an abrupt halt when he saw me. “Heel, Bobby! Quiet, Bobby! Look, you’re frightening that poor, old lady.”

The cheek of it! I wanted to shout down that I’d have him know I was only 62 and twice as fit as him – but what was the point? I ignored the lot of them and

switched my attention to a little, white cloud sailing across the sky. Why all the fuss? Couldn’t they see I was perfectly safe? I’d always been safe in trees.

I was the best tree climber in our village. By the age of five I’d discovered every possible route up, down and around the apple tree in our garden and was desperate to try something bigger. Over the next few years I explored every climbable tree along the roadside verges, on the village green, and in other people’s gardens and fields (with and without permission). I celebrated my twelfth birthday by climbing the big cedar in the churchyard. It was literally the height of my climbing career, and it resulted in the vicar visiting my parents.

“There’s nothing wrong with little girls being tomboys,” my mother said, “but you’re growing up now. You should be more ladylike. The whole village is talking about you – and not in a nice way.”

She kept me indoors until I promised I wouldn’t climb again in the churchyard or anywhere else where I’d be in public view. It was a high price to pay, but as I gave my word I consoled myself by thinking of all the trees I knew in out-of-the-way places.

What my mother didn’t understand – because I’d never tried to explain – was that climbing wasn’t all that important to me. It was simply a way of getting closer to the trees that were my real passion.

I think I was born loving trees. I drew pictures of them, read about them, made up stories with trees as the heroes, and even dreamt about them. I felt happiest when I was close to a tree: touching it, listening to it, and breathing in its scent. Climbing right into the heart of a tree was, for me, the most obvious way of getting to know it. I truly believed there could never be anything more beautiful, mysterious or fascinating as a tree – until the day I noticed Dan Fletcher.

Dan was fifteen, handsome, clever, funny and unaware of my existence. I was besotted with him. I spent half my time planning ‘accidental’ encounters and rehearsing amusing things to say to him, and the other half in despair because my latest scheme hadn’t worked or I had been too shy to even mumble hello.

I was walking along a footpath one afternoon, composing yet another love letter that would never be sent, when I saw Dan ahead of me. He was standing beneath a sycamore, reaching up with a long stick trying to dislodge a kite that was caught in the branches.

“I’ll get it,” I said, eagerly. Reaching the kite was easy, untangling the string took a little longer, but I soon had the kite free and lowered it to Dan. I climbed down so fast I skinned both my knees, but what did that matter? Dan had noticed me. I’d done him a favour. We would start talking; he’d fall in love with me …

“Thanks!” he said. I thought I would melt in the warmth of his smile, except it wasn’t directed at me but at somewhere over my shoulder. I looked round and saw a girl a bit older than me coming along the path.

“Jenny! I’ve got your kite for you,” Dan called as he ran to meet her.

They walked away with their arms around each other. I slumped against the tree and cried as I’d never cried before. That was the day I stopped climbing trees. I still admired them, still touched them and talked to them, but only from the ground.

My broken heart soon mended, of course. Time passed and brought other boys, new interests, school, college, and a job that took me to the city. I married Clive; a good, kind, hard-working man who would have been appalled at the thought of his wife climbing trees.

A siren brought me back to my present predicament. A fire engine had arrived outside the park gates and several dozen people were now clustered around the tree gawping at me. I thought my embarrassment couldn’t get any worse, until I recognised a man on the edge of the crowd. We’d only exchanged a few, brief greetings, and I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew he was one of my neighbours in Riverside Court. Great! I thought. Now word will get round that I’m completely bonkers.

For three years after Clive died, I stayed in the house where we’d spent most of our married life. It was too big for me to manage alone, but the thought of leaving seemed somehow disloyal. And where else would I go?

Eventually, my daughter took the matter in hand. She didn’t have to work too hard to convince me I’d be much more comfortable in a smaller place, and she said she’d help with the paperwork and moving arrangements. She took me to view some housing developments specially designed for the over 55’s. They were all very practical, and all very similar. After a bit of humming and hawing, I chose an apartment in Riverside Court because it overlooked a park.

It started well enough. As soon as I moved in I was invited to coffee mornings, bingo, exercise classes – all sorts of social gatherings. I thought it would be easy to make new friends there. Unfortunately, most of the other residents turned out to be a lot older than me and I didn’t have much in common with any of them. When they weren’t gossiping about each other, all they wanted to talk about were their medical conditions. I was surrounded by people yet I felt lonelier than when I was rattling around in that big, empty house.

I didn’t want to get depressed so I gave myself a good talking-to. Come on! It’s no good sitting indoors feeling sorry for yourself. And I made myself go out for a walk every day whether I felt like it or not. I marched out with my head held

high, pretending I had things to do and places to go, and then I just walked through the park and round the nearby streets for an hour or so.

I’d already noticed this magnificent old oak tree in the park. I called it Grandad because it seemed to watch over the other trees like a kindly old man. It wasn’t surprising that I was drawn to it. Just walking near it made me feel better.

I had imaginary conversations with the tree as I passed by: Good morning, Grandad, how are you today? Me? Oh, I’m very well, thank you. I think I’ll have a walk down by the market today. I could treat myself to a cup of tea in that little café, couldn’t I? This was all in my head, of course. I didn’t want people to think I was talking to myself. But if no one was about I sometimes went right up to the tree and spent a few moments just being with it and feeling safe.

I’d got up early that morning after a night of bad dreams. I was tired and out of sorts, but sleep was impossible once it started to get light. But when I opened the curtains I couldn’t help smiling. There was Grandad, stretching up to catch the first rays of the sun with his leaves all aflutter. He looked like an excited young sapling, amazed and delighted by the arrival of a new day; not a grumpy old-timer who’d seen thousands of sunrises and thought they all looked the same.

“Yes!” I said out loud. “Yes, you’re quite right, Grandad. It’s going to be a beautiful day for anyone with the gumption to enjoy it.” I pulled on some clothes, dragged a comb through my hair, and only stopped to gulp down half a cup of tea before I hurried out to the park.

It was wonderful. All the birds were singing and the grass sparkled with dew-diamonds. For the first time since I lost Clive, I was glad to be alive. I went straight over to Grandad and patted his tough, old bark as a way of thanking him. And then I looked up into his branches and saw how easy they would be to climb.

As soon as this silly thought popped into my head I tried to push it away, but Grandad’s leaves rustled above me like he was laughing and saying, “Why not? If that’s what you want to do, why not have a go?”

I checked no one was watching, then I stepped up onto one of Grandad’s big roots and reached up to his lowest branch. One, two, heave! And I was sitting on the branch. I got to my feet and clambered up and across to the second branch. Oh, the thrill of finding I could still do it!

The sensible side of me was saying, “All right, you’ve proved your point. Now get back down before you hurt yourself.” But the rest of me was looking up to the next branch, and the one above that, and working out where I needed to put my hands and feet. Up and up I went. It was as easy as climbing the churchyard cedar all those years ago.

It wasn’t until I stopped for a breather that I realised just how high I was.

I was tempted to go even higher, but I decided that was enough for one day and started to climb down. I was doing fine until I stood on a branch and, without any warning, it snapped like a matchstick, fell, bounced off several lower branches, and landed on the ground with a thud.

Luckily, I was still holding on to the branch above the broken one. I clung on with all my strength and somehow managed to haul myself back on to it. And that was where I was when that woman came along and saw me.

The firemen were very kind, very professional, although I think they were struggling to keep straight faces as they helped me down the ladder. The worst part came when I reached the ground. Suddenly, there were people all around me

asking if I was hurt and saying I ought to go to hospital for a checkup. I kept telling them I was grateful for their help, and sorry to have put them to all that

trouble, but I was perfectly all right – only they wouldn’t believe me. They debated amongst themselves about what I should or shouldn’t do and I started to feel quite upset because I couldn’t make anyone understand that all I wanted was to be left alone.

“Excuse me, can I help?” A voice of reason cut through all the twaddle. “Excuse me, I know this lady. I’m her neighbour. We both live in Riverside Court, just over there. I can take her home if that’s what she wants.”

My knight in shining armour! Well, that’s how I thought of him at that moment. I looked round at all the faces and smiled at the only one I recognised. “Oh, yes, please take me home!”

I had to give my name and address to one of those community police officers and then my rescuer offered me his arm, which I was glad to take as I was feeling a bit wobbly after all the fuss and noise.

“Thank you so much, Mr … um?” I said, as we walked towards the park gates.

“George,” he said. “Just call me George. And it’s me who should be thanking you. I watched you climb that tree and I thought you were amazing! What splendid fun! A pity about that branch breaking though.”

“Yes,” I said. “If it hadn’t, I could have climbed down and walked away and no one would have known anything about it.”

“Except me,” George said. “But it would have been a privilege to keep your secret. You reminded me of how much I loved climbing trees when I was a boy. Sadly – unlike you – I don’t think I have the strength, agility or the nerve to do it now.”

“You don’t know what you can do until you try,” I said.

“That’s true.” He smiled at me and I saw an idea twinkling in his eye.

Curious faces were looking out of several windows as we approached Riverside Court. I had no doubt I was going to be the subject of much excited speculation.

“Oh dear,” I groaned. “What am I going to say to people? How am I going to explain …?”

“You needn’t say anything,” George said. “Let them think you’re a woman of mystery. In fact, let’s give them something else to gossip about.” And, instead of escorting me to my apartment as I expected, he invited me into his and made us both a cup of tea.

“So, apart from the tree climbing, how are you settling in to Riverside Court?” he asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “The apartment’s very nice, but I’m beginning to think I’ve made a mistake. It’s not really my sort of place.”

“Full of boring, old stick-in-the-muds,” George agreed. “Present company excepted, of course! But you mustn’t let them get you down. There is a world beyond Riverside Court, and all sorts of interesting things not too far away. Perhaps you’d like to look at these.” He gave me a handful of leaflets advertising gardens, museums, stately homes, theatres and the like.

“I treat myself to a different outing every week,” he said. “It gives me something to look forward to. Stops me slipping into a rut. Keeps the brain from rusting. The only thing is …” He stopped and looked a bit sheepish.

“Yes …?” I said.

“Oh, nothing …”

“No, go on. What were you going to say?”

“Well, when I see other people out and about together – families, couples, groups of friends – it does emphasize the fact that I’m on my own. Sometimes, I

wish I had a companion, a like-minded soul with whom I could share the experience. I was wondering …. You strike me as being someone who might welcome a challenge. Would you consider, in the future, perhaps accompanying me on one of my little jaunts?”

“Are you asking me out on a date?” I said, pretending to be shocked.

“Oh, good heavens, no!” The poor man looked mortified.

“That’s all right then,” I laughed. “Yes, I’d love to join you. But I’m going to insist on paying for myself. Where shall we go first?”

One of the leaflets he’d given me had already caught my eye. I held it up and said, “How about this?”

“An arboretum?” George chuckled. “I think that will be right up your street!”

And it was.

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