The Death Of A Tree
Today is a sad day. Today the apple tree in the garden of my childhood home was chopped down, then chipped and removed from the premises – all before 8am.
Or so I heard. I wasn’t there. But if I had been there, what would I have done? Put a hand on the familiar, gnarled knotty trunk, perhaps? Thank the old tree for its service? Hugged it? Yes, I wish I’d had the chance to hug it.
My parents moved to their Victorian semi in 1972 when I was three years old. One of my first memories is of the day we moved in, the mustard swirling carpet, the grubby ceiling tiles. I can recall Nanna plugging in a sparky electric kettle in the corner of the kitchen to make the first of what would be many tens of thousands of cups of tea to be drunk there.
Over the years, the house got decorated and made into a home by our parents, the ceiling tiles replaced by snazzy artex, William Morris print curtains in the lounge, but it was the kitchen that was – and still is – the heart of it.
I can picture my mother by the sink now, apron on looking through the north facing windows at the garage, bemoaning her lack of a view, telling my sister and I to always get a view when we had houses of our own. The garden itself, though, was lovely and made up for the view of the garage. A thick line of fir trees along the back masked the fence that backed onto a school playground and slap bang in the middle of the L-shape of grass, the apple tree, taking up most of the space.
It was already mature by the time we moved in and it always gave me a sense of a link back to previous owners of the house. Its solidity seemed to suggest that the garden was, and always had been, its domain.
It punctuated our year, the buds in May the first indication of summer, and heralding the dusting off of the garden chairs. In the summer, we’d lunch looking at it, play badminton next to it, jumping up to get the shuttlecock from its leafy branches. When we lost all the shuttlecocks, we’d use the hard little apple buds instead. In 1977 when we all went mad for the Queen’s silver jubilee, my June birthday party was a summer fete in the garden, the games laid out in the shade of the tree, red white and blue bunting fluttering from the branches. On my twenty-first birthday, I lay on a tartan rug beneath it and drank champagne, dreaming grand dreams of my future from the security of its shade.
As children, we climbed it constantly. I can picture my sister standing in the crook of the main branch, her flared jeans flapping above me as she reached down to hoist me up in a shower of white and pink blossom. At one point there was a rope ladder up to the main branch. When we had children of our own, they climbed it too and played confetti beneath the boughs.
When the apple tree produced fruit – often in abundant amounts – not one of its green and red treasure was wasted. My parents decreed that every windfall should be collected, regardless of how close they had fallen to the dog poo that Whisky, our characterful West Highland Terrier had left.
I remember standing on a stool to reach the metal sink full of water where the windfalls bobbed or sunk, worms and grubs floating on the top, as we cut out the bruises and holes, salvaging the good bits to be stored in freezer bags in the chest freezer. The apple tree provided the only ‘proper’ desserts we got in our house. On weekdays, Mum would stew some apples and serve it with the zingy yoghurt she made from the mysterious culture she kept in a jar shrouded in a muslin cloth. Sometimes she’d bake them with raisins and brown sugar in the centre, the skins crinkly, the flesh molten hot. On Sundays, I’d help make the apples into a crumble, sometimes with blackberries from the lane and Dad would crack open a carton of Ideal milk.
Our family’s obsession with the apples didn’t stop there. Throughout the seventies and eighties, there were demi-johns in the back kitchen bubbling away, full of Dad’s apple wine. Undrinkable stuff that got everyone plastered at our teen parties. His experiments with the many ways of using the apples kept coming. When Mum became too infirm to cook, he took it upon himself to make apple soup, which both he and mum assured us was delicious – a culinary experience that has gone down in family folklore with my kids.
In autumn, once all the apples were bagged up in the freezer, Dad, ever practical cut off the shoots, or ‘soldiers’, as we always called them. One year, he tied a bunch of them together to make a broom. It became the staple Halloween prop for a decade. We were always the hosts of the big neighbourhood Halloween party and of course the apples were the central point. Not the windfalls, but the good ones that we saved for bobbing. The fun was to bury our faces in plates full of Smarties in flour and then to kneel by the half-barrel full of water, hands behind our back, trying to skewer the apples with our wonky teeth.
In winter, the apple tree’s branches collected peaks of snow and we had snowball fights under it and admired the robin above us. When Whisky finally died, we dug a big hole under the apple tree to bury him. It was the first time I’d ever seen Dad cry.
The apple tree was also the frame for our family photos. Grainy black and white group shots of uncles in flares, my Nanna in the Lloyd loom chair looking serene, my sister’s wedding portraits all set against the its leafy backdrop. Then there was the time when I missed my junior school photograph day and Mum dressed me up in my ironed uniform on a Saturday and sat me beneath the tree for a photoshoot which the dog wanted to join in too.
When Granny died and Grandpa left South Wales to come and live with us for his final years, our neighbour, an artist painted him in a chair beneath the apple tree. And when my sister and I had babies of our own, five beautiful girls between us, we photographed them in pretty dresses in the crook of the tree. Beloved images that our Mum cherished right to the end when she was bed-bound with Parkinson’s disease.
But now its gone. Dad has been worried about the tree’s health and a tree surgeon stuck an instrument into its trunk and discovered that it was rotten nearly all the way through. In danger of falling on the house, it had to go.
My sister sent me a picture of sad pile of sawdust that Dad had forwarded and I have to admit that I shed a tear. Because losing a tree that you’ve loved all your life is a little bit heart-breaking. A sad reminder that nothing – however seemingly solid – is permanent.
RIP apple tree.