The tree lived in the bottom corner, close to the new fence in the garden. It stretched in a curve towards the beech woods, its thinnest top branches almost touched its neighbours.
Near to the top, on one of its wider branches, sat a small eight-year-old girl with a straggly pony tail. She was wearing a grubby, untucked white school blouse, and a grey pleated skirt at least one size too big for her. Her scuffed black shoes pinched a little. With her back snuggled against its broad trunk, within easy reach of footholds and branches to aid her climbing, Jenny felt secure. From here she looked out over the rooftops and all the way down their hilly road to Rainham Creek as it flowed into the River Medway. Beyond this was the Isle of Grain, but Jenny knew them as water, river, and island with chimneys.
On that first day in late March, when they’d moved away from their tiny London flat to the brand-new house, she had tried to climb the tree, but had got stuck and called Dad to help her down. Her brother Nigel, who thought he knew everything but didn’t know anything about trees, had laughed at her for even trying.
“Bloody nuisance, that tree,” her dad said. “I could put a decent-sized shed there.”
A few weeks later, Jenny took a closer look at the tree. She spotted bumps that stuck out from the greyish brown trunk and some holes amongst the grooves in the bark. After a couple of failed attempts, she found promising footholds and a branch that would take some weight. She pulled herself upwards, bump to hole to branch, and then placed her arms as far as they could stretch around the trunk. Holding on tightly she was able to catch sight of small, sticky buds forming at the end of branches just above her. She breathed in their sweet smell. Then, unable to maintain her grip, she slid all the way down, grazing the inside of her legs and shins on the bumpy gnarled bark.
“You shouldn’t climb trees, Jenny. Look at the state of you!” said her mum as she jabbed at her blood-stained legs with cotton wool dipped in hot water, then smothered her wounds in strong-smelling pink cream from a tin.
“Ouch!” said Jenny, wondering why her mum was so angry.
In the middle of May, tiny green leaves began to unfurl gently from the sticky buds. When she looked out of her bedroom window two weeks later, the tree had exploded into a bright green canopy that reached up into the sky, just like Jack’s beanstalk.
Now that the leaves were full and unfurled, Jenny was well-hidden in the tree. She could see just over the neighbour’s fence. She loved to lean back on the tree’s sturdy trunk and rest her arm on one of its branches. Sometimes the biscuits that she’d hidden there the day before were soggy from raindrops, or nibbled by birds and insects, but she ate them anyway.
One afternoon, she spotted her mum in the kitchen of the house next door with Esme’s dad. She knew Esme wasn’t there because she’d just started going to ballet classes. She’d been about to wave when something strange happened. Her mum and Esme’s dad started hugging and kissing. Then they left the kitchen. Jenny saw a light go on upstairs, and then someone closed the curtains.
When Jenny saw her mum later, she asked her why she’d been kissing Esme’s dad. Her mum went very red and said, “Don’t you ever, ever tell your dad. Promise me.”
Jenny kept her promise. Her mum didn’t seem to go and visit Esme’s dad anymore. His name was Bob, she’d found out.
Jenny spent more time in her tree. She started to have bad dreams, and, one night, she wet the bed.
“You’re not a baby!” her mum said when she stripped the bedclothes in the morning.
“But I heard you and daddy shouting,” said Jenny, trying to connect with her mum’s eyes. She noticed the blue and black marks underneath them.
One day, in late summer, Nigel and his friend Mark from two doors down climbed up her tree to look for bird eggs. Jenny knew that there weren’t any. It wasn’t the right time of the year. She’d been reading about birds in her nature book from the school library.
As the boys scrambled up her beautiful tree, they broke off small branches. Nigel had a penknife and started to carve his initials in the trunk. Jenny screamed at him to stop, but he just laughed at her and continued.
When it rained, Jenny would sit on the window sill in her bedroom and wave at her silent friend.
As the evenings grew a little colder and the days shorter, the green leaves began to dry up and crumple. Jenny felt sad, until she noticed yellow and brown-tipped leaves dropping to the ground like a gift for her to play with. Shuffling through them in her boots and grabbing handfuls and throwing them up into the air was great fun. Sometimes the wind would pick them up and whirl them around like friends who had come to join her.
“Bloody leaves,” her dad remarked, raking them up ready for a bonfire.
On a dry still day in early November, Jenny arrived home from school. It had been too wet and damp to climb or even play outdoors for days. She saw some birds flying back and forth making patterns across the sky. Starlings, she thought, and wasn’t sure if they were coming or going. They were making a lot of noise.
As she approached the garden gate, Jenny felt a sharp stabbing pain in her side. She put her hand on the latch as a stuttering explosion of sound ripped across the afternoon. Birds shrieked and scattered.
“It’s only a tree!” her dad shouted, when he spotted his daughter running towards him. He switched off the electric saw and pulled a large white handkerchief from his pocket. He offered it to Jenny, along with the briefest of hugs.
“Come, on now. It’s time you stopped climbing trees,” he said, patting her on the head gently and ushering her into the kitchen. He returned to the garden.
Nigel was seated at the table with his head in his hands. Their mum peeled potatoes at the sink. Jenny slumped down beside her big brother, who looked into her eyes and shook his head. He put an arm around her.
“Tomorrow, we’ll climb a bigger tree in the woods,” said Nigel. “And maybe next summer, we’ll build a treehouse.”
The electric saw made its first cut deep into flesh. Jenny screamed and covered her ears.
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© 2018 Susan Emm
Susan Emm is local writer and adult education tutor. Her stories are inspired by walks in and around her seaside home of Thanet.