A short story by Ian Warren
As I sit in the valley and lean against the tree, by the river, next to the rock - I ponder. I’ve had a good life, a comfortable life. I’ve worked hard to achieve success in business and persevered and rolled with the punches to grow and maintain a (mostly) happy personal life. Martha may beg to differ but she eventually moved on and re-married. Fran and I still get along but I irritate her, which is natural when you’ve been together as long as we have. Between Martha and Fran, I have three equally successful children who are all on their own journeys and five wonderful grandchildren who I worry about immeasurably. This is where I come to think and today - this is where I’ve come to die.
I first appeared on this very spot almost ninety-eight years ago - arriving three weeks ahead of schedule to a surprised mother whose waters broke, while sitting on the rock, as she watched my father plant an acorn to symbolise their love. Who’d have thought that the acorn and I would grow in tandem and now here I am leaning against its sturdy trunk – the tree is standing tall, proud and strong by contrast I’m shrinking, wrinkled and weak. It’s true that ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ unfortunately the same doesn’t apply to me. This spot is my safe place – I come here to think and many of my life’s major decisions, for better or worse, have been made sitting here staring at the gently flowing river. It starts to rain. I’m perfectly protected by the oak’s canopy but as the raindrops hit the river, the ever-changing pattern of water rings are like a metaphor for life. The clouds are gathering – I think there’s going to be a storm but that’s fine as I sit here under the leaves and branches.
I wonder how many times I’ve sat here? I first returned aged three, not that I remember but I’ve seen the photos of my dad standing tall between me and the young tree, smiling broadly with the palm of each hand resting on the top of the tree and the top of my head. The oak is only slightly taller than me in that picture but check it out now – I look up but can’t see the top. How many times have I been here? Assuming, over the course of my childhood years we visited at least once a year and then, since I lost my virginity here at eighteen, and considered it my ‘lucky’ place, I must have returned on average four times a year until now - that’s…? I can’t do the maths but my mobile phone can, even without a signal. I open the calculator and tap away at the numbers and after several calculations come up with the number three hundred and thirty-two. Have I really sat in this very spot that many times? I can’t claim that every one of those visits was memorable but I can certainly point my finger to many occasions that were. Popping my cherry with Lauren Reading, scattering my Mum’s ashes, proposing to Martha, having sex with Martha, scattering Dad’s ashes, deciding to leave my job, starting my best-selling environmental novel, Martha’s pregnancy, selling the film rights to my best-selling environmental novel, three-year-old Poppy playing in the river, realising I’d made a huge mistake selling the film rights to my best-selling environmental novel, Martha and six-year-old Poppy playing with her new brother Rocky, throwing a noose over the lower branches after we lost five-year-old Rocky to a drunk-driver, becoming a Dad again, my midlife crisis, signing the divorce papers, having sex with Fran, becoming a Dad for the third time, grandchild, laughs, loves, loses, the timeline of memories stretch back like my life playing in reverse – where does the time go?
In the distance there’s the rumble of thunder and the raindrops fall fatter and faster causing tiny explosions as they hit the river’s surface with added frequency. With what I have in mind - it feels fitting that the storm clouds are gathering. It can only be a matter of time before they realise that I’ve escaped from the care home and after an initial search it won’t take long for them to wonder whether I could have possibly had the strength and mind to get to my most favourite place on the planet. It’s time. I can do this. I can’t think of anything more fitting than using my last ounces of strength with my spiritual self – my whole life is symbolised by this tangled mass of roots, leaves and branches and I want to save it.
I reach for my bag and drag it towards me – it’s heavy. I get gingerly to my feet and tip the contents out – several large ten-inch nails and a large hammer clunk noisily to the ground. I’m convinced that getting to the top of the tree will be achievable if I can reach the lower branches twenty feet above. I may be old but this is the last thing I’m ever going to do – it’s my final goal in life. I grab the first nail and the hammer. ‘Sorry – my old friend. The last thing I want to do is cause you any pain.’ My voice sounds weak in my own ears as I place the tip of the first nail against the wood and start to hammer it into the broad trunk leaving enough protruding for a decent hand hold. The nail feels satisfyingly firm and I reach for the next nail which I bang in a little higher and to the left. I continue to work my way up the tree trunk. When I reach the point where I can no-longer remain standing on the ground I fill my short pockets with the rest of the nails so I won’t need to return back down again – at least not yet. I slowly make my way up, firing in the nails to create a series of hand and foot holds. I’m old and its hard work, especially when I’m off the ground and having to lean against the trunk to keep my balance so that both hands are free to work, but I’m getting there and the lowest branches slowly get closer. I’m so elated when I reach up and touch one that I nearly fall – what a sad end that could have been. Just like the hammer, my heart is banging firmly in my chest and I momentarily wonder if it will give up before I do. Two more nails and I’m able to heave myself up to the lowest branch. I twist round and sit there with my legs dangling and congratulate myself on a job well done. I only have three more nails left so my guess-timate as to how many I’d need was a good one. I swing my legs and feel the weight of my feet like a carefree child and breath in the sweet air. The sky rumbles and for the first time I feel a fine spray of water on my skin as the heavy rain drops hit the leaves overhead and disperse the droplets down to where I sit like a contented monkey in a tree. I peer down between my feet at the ground below. ‘I won’t be needing these fellas now.’ I let the hammer and three remaining nails drop and watch as they bounce off the rock near the base of the tree where I’ve stood so many times before – three hundred and thirty-two times, give or take, if my earlier calculations are anything to go by. I take the time to catch my breath and eventually find the strength to stand on the branch and look up through the twisted branches and leaves to the glimpse of sky high above. I start to climb…
As I anticipated, the many branches weave a clear path upwards and though my old body makes slow progress I have the inner strength to proceed albeit at a snail’s pace. As I climb various memories and sound-bites wander through my mind of all the times I’ve spent at the base of this mighty oak wondering if I’d ever find the courage to scale it and now here I am, at the tender age of ninety-eight, doing just that with a cancer riddled body and a clear mind. I’m reminded of the old saying, ‘be kind to people on the way up because you’ll meet them again on the way down’ and various faces from the past drift and fade in the green leafy shapes that I pass on the way up – was I kind to all of them? Probably not. Then a particular memory springs to mind of the time I upset my eldest when I met my first grandchild, ‘Woah – he looks like he fell out the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down’, I said, even though I was so proud I could have burst. She didn’t find it funny! He’s a model now which only goes to prove I was being ironic but no-one got the joke.
Higher and higher I go - it feels like I’ve been climbing forever and my poor brittle body is starting to weaken. The branches are starting to spread out now and the thick, sturdy ones are slowly replaced by thinner ones as they search for the sunlight above. The rain has eased but what’s left gently washes against me and a slight breeze, way up here, flicks the water that’s lying on the leaves over me and then, without warning – I’m at the top. It’s miraculous! I stare out at the surrounding forest and I am in awe. I made it and this view is my reward. I look up at the sky and wonder, even as a non-believer, whether I’m closer to God. I look down and can see my past stretching back to the ground as I stare into the face of a small three-year-old me looking back up. ‘You made it’, I hear him say.
I don’t know how long I’ve been up here but I do know its time. I pull my mobile phone out of my pocket and, sure enough, way up here there’s actually a signal. I might be old but I’m no technophobe, throughout my life I’ve kept up with all that science and technology has had to offer and this is my final post. I switch the camera to the front and stretch out my arm so I can see myself on the screen. The fella looking back at me suddenly doesn’t look so old but I know he is. I smile, stick my middle finger up in a final gesture of defiance and take a selfie at the top of MY tree in this far away wilderness that will shortly be going the same way as many of the planet’s trees have gone before. I attach and upload the picture to all of the social media sites with the message ‘The lengths one old man has to go to for a signal – SAVE THE WORLD’S TREES!’ And then…
I simply let myself go.