My earliest recorded escape from death involved an oak tree, a rope ladder and the Archaeologist’s small but determined arse.
At the time, about 1964, we lived high on the hills of north Surrey, in a semi detached house of no pretension or aesthetic merit with a garden split evenly between lawn and flower beds (my mother’s domain and where the Archaeologist and I spent most time) and a vegetable plot where my father would disappear at times of stress or if housework loomed.
At approximately the meeting point between these two spheres of influence stood an oak tree. It seemed large to little me but was perhaps on the nondescript end of the quercus spectrum.
Part of the canopy hung over our neighbours’ fence. Our neighbour was a beardy Scot called Hastie – a wonderfully inapt name for someone so ponderous – who had something of a twinkle in his eye and an accent about as impenetrable as geometry was for me back then.
Being before children were recognised as a protected species and health and safety mantras ruined their fun, we had been gifted a rope ladder, made with an encouragingly modern orange nylon rope. In those swinging sixties, modern = good so, of course we two small but determined successors to Speke and Burton were allowed to use the rope ladder to access the oak and, by dint of the altitude, study Hastie in his natural environment.
Such curiosity went unremarked and we enjoyed our innocent voyeurism for a while.
But being small, imaginative and instinctively reckless we moved the ladder from its sturdy perch to the highest point we could reach.
Imagine the scene: to our left Mum is deadheading some visiting relative while talking to her clematis and hoping soothing words will overcome the lack of any nutriments in the chalky Surrey soil, while to our right Dad is leaning on his fork, smoking a Silk Cut while pondering the vissisitudes of a man destined to sell chemicals for 20 more years.
Having changed the hanging point, the Archaeologist, as was expected of the older wiser sibling took his place on the top most accessible rung, while I, his willing Sancho Panzer, his Passpartout, slipped into a rung best placed to do what all brotherly shadows have done down the years: make the bigger older boy look good while hoping not to be noticed and thus either clumped or worse, banished.
‘Look Mum! Dad!’
As our distracted parents turned to look at their offspring, the newly selected hook proved not to be up to its allotted task. If it was disappointed at this failure, history doesn’t recall. No one knows how it coped with the understandable disappointment of letting itself down.
What is known in the arena of ‘letting down’ is that Newtonian physics were alive and well at that juncture in North Surrey. Not for one moment had these basic laws felt so threatened by their quantum cousins that they shrugged their shoulders and allowed an uncertainty principle to apply at this point to the following equation:
two small boys plus a now unsecured rope ladder multiplied by the height above the ground equals an inevitable mess.
We dropped. Normally at that point in our lives, were we to undertake a race of any kind: foot or bicycle – the Archaeologist would soon overtake me. This time, whether through a growing appreciation of the need to let me win occasionally or some reluctance to test the evenhandedness of gravity he let me stay ahead of him in the ‘whose going to hit the ground first’ competition.
I did. Not by much and maybe, in racing parlance, ‘winning by a short head’ is as appropriate a way to describe my small but glorious achievement given what soon transpired.
As I rejoined the mammal genus after my brief sojourn as an avian and hit the packed earth my head came to rest on the path. Without the benefit of a video replay it is impossible to know if I allowed my head to dawdle but the fact is it remained in place while the Archaeologist joined me as a flightless being.
If there’s been one constant in the Archaeologist’s life it is that he is instinctively drawn to the ‘comfortable’ option. In given circumstances he will endure trial and torment, but if things are evenly balanced, then he will tend to the cushioned.
And so it was that my recently winning ‘short head’ was joined by his small bony bottom, creating a path – head – bottom sandwich.
Afterwards my mother described the sheer terror of watching these events unfold. I don’t recall much by way of consequence, frankly. I had a headache. I got a day off school. I saw a doctor – a Welshman given to long sentences and slurping tea – who told Mum not to worry which was far from helpful.
I don’t think I was brain damaged. Perhaps it was the trigger for my recurring fascination with hitting my head on as many static solid objects as I can. One thing, however did change that day: I no longer climbed trees.
This is written as part of Irene Waters Times Past series, this month asking us to focus on a tree that meant something to us. Please visit her blog to see the other memories. I am a classic baby boomer living in the UK .