Sunday, 2 April 2017
The Old Apple Tree
Was his name Dennis? Something like that. He was the next-door-neighbour’s great nephew who visited a couple of times from Grimsby or wherever it was they lived. He might have been ten or eleven, a year or two older than me.
I showed him the big old apple tree at the end of our garden. I said it would be full of apples if he came in the autumn. I climbed up, placing my feet safely in the joins and firmly grasping the limbs.
“Dead easy,” he said, and scrambled up to join me. “Can you swing along there?” he dared me, indicating an outward-growing horizontal branch about ten feet from the ground.
Below the end of the branch, about twelve feet (four metres) from the trunk, stood a metal clothes post. I had helped my dad dig the hole and fill an old oil drum with cement to anchor it there. Dennis’s idea was to swing hand-over-hand along the branch, wrap your legs round the post, transfer your hands to the top, and slide down like a fireman. He showed me how effortless it was, then climbed back up and did it again: one – two – three – wrap legs – grab post – slide down. It looked brilliant – like a monkey.
It was some weeks before I plucked up courage to try. It was one of those tricks that is much easier than it looks provided you don’t waver. I could do it half a dozen times in a row. My mother said it was dangerous and told me to stop.
One day it went wrong. I’m not sure what happened. I must have missed the third hand hold as I swung my legs forwards towards the clothes post, and fell straight down and landed flat on my back. My mother had seen it all from the kitchen window and rushed out terrified.
“I thought I told you to stop that,” she yelled at me as I got up, a bit dazed, “You could have broken your bloody back.”
It was more in fury than sympathy. Sympathy wasn’t her line. Any stupidity or misbehaviour tended to get an angry slap across the cheek. Whenever my brother or I drove her to her wits end, she would glare with pursed lips in the most terrifying way, growing red in the face until veins stood out in her temples.
As children we had little awareness of adults going through difficult times. Grown-ups were strong and invincible. What I now know is that my mother was not coping well. My grandfather had died suddenly before his time, and my grandmother needed a lot of support, especially in her shop. Much of this had fallen to my mother because her sister had seriously injured her hip in an accident. She was having to spend two days a week at Grandma’s, a five-mile bus ride away. We had also become close friends with the widow and her elderly mother who lived next door to us, but the old lady had died too, stretching my mother even further. And like many northern women then, she was entirely responsible for the house and children, and must have been persistently exhausted. We did not see any of that. We only saw that she could look angry and slap hard, and we knew when to back down.
One day I didn’t back down. I lost my temper and answered back. I had dared to think I was old enough to deserve more respect.
I had been teasing my younger brother in the garden, calling him by some new rude words from school. My mother rushed out, angry at the foul language the neighbours might hear.
“Get inside and wash your mouth out with soap,” she bellowed, pointing at the door.
“Don’t you tell me what to do.” For that I received a furious slap across the face.
“Arse, shit and bugger!” I snapped, and slapped her face back in retaliation.
Steam squirting out of ears barely begins to describe her expression. I didn’t wait to see what was next. I turned and fled to the end of the garden and shot up the apple tree. I had to stay there a couple of hours.
Funnily, there were no repercussions. I crept back into the house to overhear my mother chuckling as she described the incident to my dad. Perhaps we both learned something that day.
Soon afterwards the horizontal branch was pruned to make way for a garage, and the clothes post moved to a different place in the garden. That ended the monkey behaviour. There was no more face slapping either.