Growing up, my parents had friends who themselves had three kids. The eldest (let’s call him Robert) and I got on quite well on a computer nerd level, but he was far more physically coordinated than me. This was especially evident in his ability to climb trees when we were much younger. Mostly I was too scared of falling (probably linked to being hit by a car when I was ten), so I kept to the ground and was fine with that.
Robert’s family was visiting one day and he happened to climb a massive tree in our garden that overlooked the sandpit where my brother and I were playing. It was difficult to get into for anyone under five feet in height, but Robert climbed it like a monkey and before long he was looking down at us.
Reader, in that moment I was envious of Robert’s ability to climb trees. I wanted to be able to do that, without fear of falling and killing or maiming myself. I watched how he climbed up, and how high he went, taking mental notes of which branches he used so that I could replicate his movements.
I climbed the tree. It was glorious. Being off the ground and in the leafy canopy was exhilarating. I don’t doubt that my terror added to the excitement of the moment, and while my level of coordination was nowhere near his, I was proud of myself.
A few days later I told my father that I wished to climb the tree again. I had needed Robert’s help before, and my father was taller so it stood to reason that he could at least lift me up to the first branch and then I could go from there. So far, so good.
And then my father went inside. Maybe he needed to use the toilet, or he lost interest. It’s impossible to say decades later. All I know is that I was in the tree and the ground was too far down for me to jump.
In retrospect I suppose I could have swung down using my arms, and then dropped the remaining few inches to the ground, but I was young and scared.
So I lay on the lowest branch, shouting for my father, who never showed up. Maybe I didn’t shout enough, but eventually the neighbour’s domestic servant* climbed over the fence and rescued me. I remember thinking as she helped me down that it really wasn’t that far after all, and she disappeared almost as quickly as she appeared. After I went back inside I remonstrated in the general direction of my father, who didn’t see what the fuss was about.
Robert visited again. I did not climb the tree. But he did show off his balancing skills, and walked on the lowest branch, hands out, as surefooted as a tightrope walker. I hated Robert a little bit in that moment. My envy had become jealousy at my failure to do this thing that was second nature to him.
Days passed. I wanted to climb the tree and walk on that lower branch. This time I made my brother help me up. My poor brother, who was five years younger than me. I don’t remember details of how I got into the tree, but eventually he too lost interest and I was once again alone.
But this time I wasn’t scared. This time I knew that it wasn’t as high as I thought, and besides I’d seen Robert do his balancing act.
There’s a pain that happens when you break a bone. I had to wait more than another two decades to experience that, but falling out of a tree from a height of five feet and landing on my side was pretty damn awful.
I couldn’t breathe. I thought I’d broken all of my ribs. Sheer luck (or being young and stupid) meant that nothing was broken. I probably bruised a few bones, and very likely suffered a concussion, but that was the beginning of the end of my tree climbing days.
Robert is married now and lives in the UK. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t given up climbing trees. He even likes to hike!
- domestic servant (n): a grossly-underpaid employee, expected to cook, clean, and iron, babysit, etc. for less than minimum wage. Also known as a maid.