Authors: Richard Burke
“It should be me apologising,” he said. “A day like that, and there's me trying to get you to think about her as though she was a complete stranger. You'd've had every right to give me a bloody nose.” He pointed towards a flight of stairs, and we clattered down them towards the marbled lobby. “Isn't that true, Malcolm?” he called to the security man in the lobby. “Politicians. Insensitive. Talk too much, never pay attention.”
The man looked up and grinned as his name was mentioned. By then we were past him and on our way out of the building. “Whatever you say, Mr. Yates,” he called back. “Night-night.” He raised a hand. Adam had the knack of being popular with everyone. I'd long ago given up being jealous.
He waited for me again on the pavement. We leaned against the wall. “So... would another beer do you good?” he asked dubiously. “Hair of the dog?”
I laughed, as gently as I could, to avoid jolting my throbbing head.
“Hmph... shame. Ah, well,” he said. There was sympathetic laughter in his eyes. He thought for a moment. “Okay. In that case, listen.” He took a deep breath, and stared across the street while he spoke. “You're my friend. You know that. So whatever you say or do, just remember, even when I'm being pompous or insensitive, I care, okay? You're unhappy, and until you're sorted I'm here for you. Whatever it takes, I'll help. Scream and shout at me, fine. Need a chauffeur, fine. Anything. I'll freely admit, I'm not entirely convinced there's a mystery anywhere in this—but I'll help you check it out anyway. Because it's not me who's hurting, and it's not me who needs convincing.”
He held up a hand. “Friends. Like I said before. It's what they're for. You'd do the same.” He grinned shyly. “At least, after all these years, I bloody well
He knew I would—and I knew he would, too. In any other circumstances I wouldn't have needed his reassurances that he cared, but until the day before, I'd have sworn Verity would come to me if anything was troubling her. Today was different. Today I was vulnerable. Today was a good day to be reminded that I was not alone.
“Sure about that beer?” Adam urged. “Do you good.”
“Best go home,” I muttered. “But thanks. Seriously, Ads.”
He smiled. And for that brief moment, I could almost have believed in the future. Almost.
“AH, COME ON, Verity.”
She lowered her head and looked sideways at me through her fringe. “I'm not coming, no.”
I was excited to be off. I was scampering about in the alley down the side of the house, restlessly tapping the wall with my foot, swivelling and tapping the fence, pacing back to tap the wall. It had taken me less than a week to decide I would show her the treehouse, but I did not want to tell her where I was taking her, I wanted it to be a surprise.
“You'll love it,” I said hopefully.
“Why should I trust you?” She was pouting.
have to do with it? What did she think I was going to do? I was hardly going to jump on her the moment we were out of sight of the village although... I was thirteen, she had just turned twelve and, to me, she was ravishing. I had dreams about her, and I enjoyed them. Part of it was that she was unattainable. She was coquettish, wild, she played hard (impossible) to get. But the idea that she might not trust me was baffling—I had hardly even dared let our arms brush. The treehouse was just a great place to muck around.
“Ah, go on, Verity...”
The summer had changed for me. I was having fun. I had stopped being aware of my self-imposed misery or the sluggish tick of passing days. Each morning she would be waiting in my garden, head cocked sideways, her thin knees hugged up under her dress; if she wasn't, I would sneak through the hedge and wait for her. Hot days slid by.
The Great Sling worked brilliantly. It didn't once get the ball into the crook of the tree because the ball never lodged even when it was on target. But who cared? We graduated quickly from targeting the tree to competing for distance and height, launching the ball from one garden to the other. Our targets were clumps of flowers, wheelbarrows and the like. Aiming blind over the hedge was part of the fun.
“Come on, Verity, it's brilliant, this place—you'll see.”
“Daddy won't let me.”
“Don't tell him,” I shrugged.
She said nothing, but she bit her lip. “I had an idea for the sling,” she said eventually.
“It's a treehouse,” I blurted. “It's just a treehouse. In Wytham Woods.”
“But you're not allowed in there.” Verity looked at me sharply. That had caught her interest.
“That's why it's secret. I haven't told anyone else about it, not ever.” I added, bolshily, “It was going to be a surprise.”
“What sort of a treehouse?”
She looked at me suspiciously. But she kicked the wall in time to my lazy rhythm, then the fence, and then the wall. I grinned at her, and her eyes creased and her cheeks dimpled.
We went on our bikes. The shadows had left her face even before the village was behind us. When we got to the hill down to the woods, she stuck out both legs sideways and rattled ever faster down the rutted track. Her hair bounced in the wind, shot sparks of sunlight, and she screamed with happy abandon.
The treehouse was about fifteen feet up in the arms of an immense hornbeam. Great branches, three or four feet thick, swept outwards from the vast trunk, ancient and rimed with mossy green. They spread twelve or more feet horizontally, before reaching ponderously upwards. Thinner branches drooped still further out, and down again towards the ground. The tree stood alone: no younger trees had grown in its shade. Its crown was unreachable, out of sight high above the wood's canopy. The tree was old and wise, and I liked to think it was glad of our company.
You could climb onto the lower limbs by shinning up one of the smaller branches that stooped towards the ground. Getting round on to the big branch while dangling fifteen feet above the ground was a challenge, but not impossible. And only once you were up there could you see it.
It was almost invisible from the ground. It rested on the second layer of branches, which were as thick as the ones immediately below, and offset, so that they filled the gaps between them, so that if you looked up from the bole of the tree, you saw a dense mass of radiating branches and very little of what was above them. That was why the treehouse was so hard to spot. You might glimpse it if you knew to look—but why would anyone look? This was private property. It belonged to Oxford University, and was strictly off-limits to all but a select handful of university officials. The people who came to the woods weren't the types to build treehouses—or to seek them out. A groundsman patrolled the area occasionally, but he was looking for poachers, not concealed wooden platforms. I had only found it myself because I climbed the tree for the hell of it—again, something neither distinguished academics nor game wardens were famous for.
Who made it? I have no idea. The boards were already powdered green when I found it, although the wood had not yet rotted. I never did discover whose dream we had taken over, but even today I am grateful to them. It was a simple platform jutting perhaps two or three feet out from the trunk, and forming a semicircle. It ran a little more than halfway round the trunk. From where we had climbed up, it curved away to the right.
Verity climbed up first. “Wow,” she breathed, and I could imagine her large eyes, wide and sparkling, her mouth open just a little, her delicate teeth. She was standing on the branch without holding on, knees grazed and greened and her blue dress stained by the climb. She had taken off her shoes and socks, and she held them idly in one hand. I could imagine the rough feel of the bark beneath her bony feet. “Oh... this is brilliant, Harry.” It took me a moment or two to respond. I was below her, and transfixed by the fact that I could see up her skirt.
“Told you you'd like it.” I wriggled round the branch to stand behind her.
“Yeah,” she said, in a long sigh. “Wow...”
I took off my own shoes, carefully gripping the branch with my spare hand. She almost skipped along it. “Oh, wow.” She clambered up on to the platform. I followed, and set my shoes down next to hers. We walked round the semicircle to where the boards appeared to sink into the flank of a vast branch. When she turned to me there was wonder in her eyes. We sat side by side with our backs against the gnarled bark, feet stretched out towards the edge, and looked out into a dizzying cage of leaf-light. Tremendous spars of wood leaped out to buttress the green wall that sealed our universe from the world outside. I remember the comfort of being there, knowing that we need say nothing. For a small while we held hands, and then we released them—let it mean whatever it meant. The air was full of the scent of dry wood, and the chatter of the leaves. This was the place that would make the summer magical.
It wasn't long before Verity took over. Not content with the treehouse as it was, she wanted to improve it. Within a week she had made the place thoroughly hers.
First, there was her insistence that no treehouse was complete without a swing. She scavenged a good length of hemp rope from old John Taylor, who repaired cars in a mire of greasy filth he called a yard—and who also owned the best orchard for miles around, which Verity and I regularly plundered. Goodness knows how she got the rope out of him; she wouldn't tell. He was a mean old sod. I can't imagine him ever doing anything out of the kindness of his dark and oily heart. But Verity had a way with her—her determination and innocence were hard to resist.
Then it turned out she had a flair for three-dimensional thinking because she found an anchor spot that let us use the swing in countless ways. She spotted a cleft in a branch about ten feet up and out from the platform's far end. To my eyes, it didn't look promising, but she insisted. To attach the rope she had to stand on my shoulders and pull herself up on to a branch way above head height, then crawl out along it until she was hanging perilously perhaps twenty-five feet above the ground with nothing to break her fall, wrestling with a thick and uncooperative mass of hemp.
“You should let me do it,” I called anxiously. She had just lost her grip for the fifth or sixth time, and was swinging beneath the branch by her knees. She stopped trying to get back up and hung upside-down, staring at me intently. Her dress had fallen away. Its hem brushed her chin, and she swung gently, coils of rope looping around her. I tried hard not to look at her legs and knickers.
“Harry,” she said, after a pause. Her face was reddening and bulging, clotting her voice.
“Shut up.” So I did. I watched.
Eventually, the swing was hung, and a small spar knotted into it for a seat. I stood on the platform holding it, feeling stupid. “Go on,” she urged. She looked enchanted, her eyes dreamy and unblinking, her stillness the only sign of her excitement. I leaped upwards and plunged from the treehouse. “Yeeee-hah!” A sudden perilous drop—the breath rushed out of me—and I arced upwards, and then out towards the shimmering curtain of leaves. I had to stretch almost to my limit to grab the platform's edge as I swung back. I pulled myself on board.
“That was brilliant! You can almost touch the leaves! I bet you could if you jumped high enough first.”
Verity's eyes glittered darkly. “If you hold it lower down and run along the edge before you swing, you'll reach that branch.” She pointed to one of the large horizontal limbs, which jutted outwards further round the tree, beyond the end of the treehouse. She made no move to take the rope.
The angles looked all wrong to me, but I tried it. I swung out and round, and my fingertips brushed bark before my momentum carried me past and smashed me into the main trunk. I rebounded outwards, spinning and a little dazed. On my second return, she caught my arm, and hoisted me back to safety.
“Got—got to—run a little faster,” I gasped, my chest in agony.
“Second time lucky!” She giggled and clapped her hands. “Gimme!” She flew outwards, screaming happily, not caring about the knocks.
For Verity, the swing was only the start. She announced that a treehouse was not a treehouse without a roof, so we built one over part of the platform. It was flat, and doubled as a second level; by using it as another starting point, the swing had even more permutations. Next we knocked up a ramshackle shelf. We kept biscuits and pilfered apples, and bottles of Coke, which were always warm and flat by the time we were finishing them.
I secretly relished the implied intimacy of my lips touching the bottle where hers had been. It sealed our companionship, acknowledged our oneness—I had a lot of romantic notions when I was thirteen. We shared everything: food, drinks, games, trivial flirtatious secrets. Some days she would be distant and uneasy, though, and even the most spectacular stunts on the rope would not bring her back. I learned to give her time.
We improvised a rope ladder, which we hid on the platform and pulled down with a stick when we needed it. We kept the stick hidden in long grass against the fence just where we slipped through into the woods. From the ground, despite all our modifications, the treehouse was still all but undetectable. Of course, it probably stood out like a sore thumb in winter with no leaves to shield it, but I never gave that a thought. The gamekeeper never found us—or if he did, he left us alone.
found us, though.
And it changed everything.
We didn't go to Wytham Woods every day. Occasionally we'd get out the sling and play target practice instead, or cycle to Port Meadow and swim in the Isis, or rummage out our roller-skates and sweep down the hill into Wolvercote at lethal speed in the middle of the road. We broke into the grounds of the local private school, St. Edward's, and swam in its huge outdoor pool. We spent lazy days on the swing-bridges across the canal, and exploring the old cement works. It was summer; there were endless days, endless ways to spend them.
But one morning when we arrived at the treehouse, the rope ladder was hanging down. Someone had been there in the two days since we'd been. They'd even taken our biscuits. I thought Verity was going to cry. Her hands waved about, apparently uncontrolled. She began to stammer. She looked around constantly, her gaze flitting fearfully from place to place.
“They can't,” she whispered sadly. (I'm leaving out the stammer. It seems unfair to her.) “Not here. No one can come here.” She sat on the platform hugging her knees, rocking, her eyes large and soft and seeing nothing, the way she waited for me some mornings. “Ours. This is ours.” She stiffened, and turned to look at me. “We have to catch him.” From the first moment, she was always sure it was a boy—but then, I suppose I was too. It never occurred to me that it might be a girl.
We spent a few days staking out the treehouse, waiting to see if the interloper would make another appearance. But he was cleverer than that; if he came, he spotted us first and slipped away. We spent four uncomfortable days in prickly undergrowth, and saw no one.
Verity suggested traps. It quickly became a game, and the strangeness of that first moment of discovery vanished, replaced by exaggerated fantasies—concealed pits filled with spikes, specially weakened boards that only we would know about. We even considered deploying the sling in anger: it would fire a projectile—rotting fruit or ink or, my favourite, spiked steel balls—when the intruder triggered a trip-wire. Ink was the best idea, because then we could track down the intruder later, hold an identification parade, have him incarcerated for trespassing (as, of course, were we). The experiments with the sling were promising, but ink and steel balls were out; whatever method we used had to be private and non-lethal. We settled for milk cartons filled with water. They worked perfectly. It was not enough for Verity, though. She announced that whether or not the sling worked as a deterrent, we still had to find out who the invader was.