The Tree of Life

I was probably 13. There were 3 of us. In the fresh cold of an Autumn night we stood in a circle on a field in Lutley Park. I often think about this moment, I feel the youthful excitement, it’s as real and memorable as those dewy nights in an English Autumn. For this reason this particular night is my tintype of those boyish evenings, after school, where the aim was nothing but curing boredom. This was before we discovered alcohol or fireworks, the things that required us to look older than we where. We might play football, climb a tree, make silly home videos, but just as often we would just stand and chat and take the piss, make ourselves laugh. Or we would talk about girls, only very generally if there was a few of us, but if there were two or three we might reveal something about ourselves and the girl we really liked at the time – it always struck me that there was rarely a conflict of interest; an unspoken, perhaps unthought, pact. I like to think the three of us were talking about girls that night, but memories tend to blur as we age and it takes more than one of you to truly piece the memory together, and that is if more than one of you remembers it at all. As there were many, many nights, and many uneventful, I have to accept some of those nights are lost forever.

But this night stays with me. And not because of girls or alcohol or fireworks or fights, but because we decided to play knock door run. Yes, at times, we were those guys. But many of us were those guys at one time or another; it’s funny how easy it is for us to forget. Anyway, we’d left the park and set about our mission: knock, run, giggle out of breath, knock, run, laugh and banter.

In a bid to raise the stakes, on this particular night, we decided to knock on the door of one of the boys from school. Andrew Basterfield, his name was – you can imagine the stick he got for his surname. I had known Andrew since primary school. We had never really got on. He was a weak, snivelling child; I was always, well… more free, I guess. I wasn’t a bully, but I wasn’t about to be bullied either, and so when he got the brunt of it, I sometimes joined in. On the otherhand, I didn’t have it in me to be really mean, like some of the kids could, and although I’d doubt he’d believe it, he could’ve had it a lot worse, had I not stopped some of the boys going too far. And when we got to high-school, seeing we were in the same class, I took him aside on the first day and said, ‘listen, Andy, let’s forget the past and start a fresh.’ I held my hand out, but he refused it. Well, there was nothing I could do, so I left it at that. He, on the otherhand, didn’t. It just so happened he knew another boy or a couple of boys in our class from his church. These were clever kids, Matt and Matt, and he hung around with them. I was eager to befriend as many of my classmates as possible, so I didn’t let this stop me. In trying to prevent me from becoming friends with them, he told the one Matt I was a bully and that I had pushed him in the brook. I couldn’t deny the bully label to some extent, but I had not pushed him in the brook. This was, pure and simple, a lie. As it turned out, much to his chagrin, I became firm friends with both Matts, and I still see both today – one is my closest friend. And, of course, I have nothing against Andrew now, although I don’t see him. He is happily married, living somewhere up North.

At the time, it was different. I was more than happy to knock and run. So it began. Knock, leg it, giggle out breath… and repeat. We weren’t stupid enough to repeat this straight away. We would wait, go again. By the third time, his dad had come out and we could hear him wailing in the streets, screaming at us. This just spurred us on. We waited an hour, and again. But this time his dad had been waiting. By the time we’d ran to the end of his drive he was chasing us. Hearts pounding, giggling in hysteria, the three of us ran and ran and ran – and I’m no runner. Eventually we’d ran around the block and back to the park. We stood and got our breath, but then we heard him yell. We were at one end of the park, he was at the other. He just wouldn’t give up and, being kids, we began to fear for our lives. There was no option, we decided to split up. Through the park, under trees, out of the park, back in the park, my friends and I crossed paths a couple of times, before running on, his voice screaming at us from somewhere, it was like the keystone cops. After a while I couldn’t hack it anymore. It was very dark now and I decided to sit against a giant oak tree and remain quiet until I was sure he’d gone. Then I’d go home.

An hour or more had passed and I’d just been sitting there, picking at bark, flicking acorn shells into a brook. At one point I was sure he was the other side of the tree. I could hear heavy breathing. I remained perfectly still in absolute fear, perfectly still when I was sure he was gone… but was that his breath?… or the breeze through the leaves? The ground was damp, firm but muddy and pebbley. My bottom was cold, my back was sore from leaning against the bark of the tree. I was sure I was covered in mud, but it was hard to tell. My eyes had adjusted somewhat to the grainy night and I could see flickers of light in the brook. We found my cat dead in that brook. I had cried my eyes out, and my sister and I walked around our neighbours houses one by one to tell them what had happened. It was the first time we’d experienced death. That brook! I’m supposed to have thrown Andy in that brook, I thought. I wished I had. You had to jump that brook to get into the park. I’ve walked through that brook in my wellies, under branches, in some mystical and giant world. I flicked an acorn in the brook. Plup. Then, all of sudden, I heard the breathing again. I froze. No, it’s gone. No, wait, that’s my breath. I smiled to myself. I stopped feeling scared. But I remained there, picking at the bark, picking at the dirt, and the cold smell of mud around me, the wet stench of Autumn leaves. Flicking acorns, the plup, before it rose back to the surface. I dug pieces of bark into the mud, made a little mosaic. I heard the occasional rustle, but I was sure it was a bird or a squirrel. I’d stopped caring about the mad man. What could he do? Tell me off? I stood up and put my face against the tree, a bark imprint in my cheek.

I casually walked away, my mind quiet. I heard a rustle, knew it was a cat. Maybe the mad man killed my cat. I thought, I’ve learnt my lesson. I won’t knock door run again. I felt the fresh Autumn breeze and shivered. I won’t knock door run again, I knew I wouldn’t.

I did.

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