I was ten years old when I made it to the topmost branches of the horse chestnut in our family’s acre. The tree had been planted by great uncle Jack, just after World War Two and before he left England for Australia. He was the youngest of five. Grandma was number four and Jack was her favourite sibling.
‘One day,’ Jack had said, as he firmed the earth around the sapling with his boot, ‘you’ll be able to sit under this tree. When you do, you can think of me.’
Grandma built a small flower garden close by, with honesty and pinks, spring bulbs and roses. The tree grew to be the tallest in the garden, swaying above the oaks and the ashes. It was irresistable to her ten-year-old grandson, who felt an affinity with adventurous great uncle Jack.
At its base there was a second horse chestnut, narrow, that flexed in the wind, but stayed firm as I set my shoulder to it. I chimneyed between the two trunks to the lower branches of the main tree, and then, with the fearlessness of youth, I went up and up. I gripped the dusty bark, greying my hands, and wedged my toes into the vee shapes where the branches left the trunk.
I didn’t look down. My gaze was fixed on the distant sky, and my quest to get as close as I could. Perhaps I could touch a cloud, or capture a bird, maybe surprise one in its nest?
As I ascended, the branches of the horse chestnut narrowed, the trunk, which at ground level I could not get my arms about, became no thicker than my thigh. It dwindled as I climbed, to the thinness of my ankle. The wind at this altitude, skipping across the tops of the local woodland, caught the crown of the horse chestnut and I swung back and forth, a mile above the world.
Down there, on the lawn was Turpin, our border collie. I whistled for him and he ran in circles, confused. The sound of a grinder rose from my father’s workshop, silencing the birds, and me. I stopped tormenting the dog and looked out at the horizon.
To the East I could see a plane heading in to land at Gatwick Airport. Our house was in the flightpath, and on busy days conversation in the garden would have to pause, punctuated by an enormous aircraft roaring overhead, drowning out whistles, grinders and birdsong. We would stop and look up at the leviathan’s steel underbelly as it passed.
Now I was sure I would be close enough to look the pilot in the eye as the plane came nearer. I could see its shadow on the canopy of the woodland that stretched out behind our house. The wheels were down, lights flashing. The wind caught the horse chestnut again, and I began to sway. It was like being in a crows nest on a pirate ship on a stormy day. I reached out. I was ready to touch the DC10.
The roar of its engines filled my ears. My right foot slipped and I slid a little way down the tree, skinning my palms. I held tight and watched the plane pass overhead. I was disappointed as it didn’t seem much closer than when I had been on the ground.
I saw my father leave his workshop and realised it must be lunchtime. I called out to him and waved. ‘Look at me! Look at me! I’m in the sky!’ He saw me and waved back with a grin. Then my mother spotted me. She let out a high pitched shriek and covered her mouth. When she tells any story of my life in begins and ends with how I narrowly avoided certain death.
But this is not her story, and anyway, it was time for lunch, so I climbed down and went in to wash my hands and eat. Mother had calmed down by the time I reached the ground, but my father kept chuckling, nearly choking on his sandwich while getting the laser eyes from mother.
Next to the horse chestnut was a fir tree. It had been the first Christmas tree my parents had on their first Christmas together as a married couple. They were living in a caravan in Grandma’s acre, under the horse chestnut and next to grandma’s flower garden. The tree was set on their kitchen table in a tiny pot.
The fir tree grew too, and after three decades it was tall enough at the end of one summer, at the end of the century, to be decorated with ribbons and flowers for our wedding. Grandma had passed on by then, as had Great Uncle Jack, but there we were, in the shade of the horse chestnut for the photographs.
Since then the acre has been divided up, developed, sold on and who knows what has become of the family trees? We have new trees now, a walnut from which ropes and swings sway in the breeze up from the cornfields that surround our family’s house.
We have planted new trees, cherries from seed and saplings donated by friends, hoping to grow a hedgerow of delights. We have planted apple trees and pear trees, a peach and a willow for withies. I shall plant a horse chestnut next, and I know where the Christmas tree will go in January. I have a spot already marked out.
And perhaps, one day in the future, a grandchild, one of ours, or a neighbours, will dare to reach the top most branches of the new horse chestnut, and ride the wind as I once did, gazing at a distant horizon?