• 15 July 2010
    I wrote the following article for a Times Educational Supplement article about childhood memories. Hope you like it!


    When I was a kid, one of my best friends was a tree. No, I’m not a nutter! I’m not joking either. Listen: I lived in the countryside, on a road where there were no other children (except my younger brother). Most of the time I was confined to the large field out back of our house. Televison in Ireland was still in its infancy. There were two channels, and only one showed kid’s programmes — a couple of hours each evening! So I (like everybody else) had to find other ways to entertain myself.

    Reading, of course, was a wonderful escape, and I spent many hours locked away in a book, wide-eyed and breathless. But when I tired of reading there wasn’t much else I could do. I’d play with my brother, but he was five years younger than me — of limited appeal! I’d try making things – paper planes, catapults, bows and arrows – but DIY was never my strong suit.

    Which was where the tree came in.

    It was a mature plum tree. Lots of fruit in the autumn — Mum made plum jam. A great climbing tree. I spent many hours exploring the branches, figuring out how many ways I could climb up and down. I’d hang from the lower branches and time myself, then drop. I built a tree-house: nailed several planks between the branches and constructed a rickety platform. I hung a rope from one of the planks, and tied an old tyre to the lower end — “And lo, on the eighth day, Darren invented a swing!”

    The swing was fabulous. It swung around in an arc. I’d kick off from one side of the tree and circle around to the opposite side. Very fast and dangerous. If I didn’t judge my re-entry just right, I’d crash into the trunk — ka-crunch!

    After a while I set my imagination loose and transformed the tree and swing into — a ship! I pretended the tree was a tall ship, and the only way to power it was through the swing — the more I swung, the more power we had. Most evenings I ran out to the tree, hopped on the swing, and spent ten or fifteen minutes ‘powering up’. Once the ship was ready, I’d climb up into the ‘mast’ (the treehouse) and navigate. Branches became levers — if I didn’t pull the right combination, all hands would be lost! I’d climb high, tug on a branch, then dash down low and yank on a twig — just avoiding an iceberg! Then I’d slide down the rope to do some more swinging, and the great cruise would continue.

    I played all the crew: captain, officers, engineers, cabin boys. We raced other ships, sailed across the world, and fought off pirates. I had long conversations with myself – taking on the roles of the crew – but also with the tree. I’d bounce ideas off the bark and imagine the tree speaking back, though I knew it didn’t really — as I said, I’m not a nutter!

    I spent years playing out the odd but pleasant fantasy. I never told anybody about the good ship Tree — it was a secret I shared only with the plum provider. At night, when I had to leave it alone in the dark, I’d pat its branches, salute farewell, and promise to return. I always did. Until …

    Actually, I’m not sure when I stopped. Growing up is strange: I’ve stopped doing lots of things that I used to do all the time (playing with toys, watching cartoons, kicking a football against a wall), but I never remember deciding to stop. Childhood’s like a habit I grew out of, unknown to myself, a bit at a time. I think that happens to most people.

    Whenever and however it happened, I gradually spent less and less time up in the tree, and when I did venture up, it was only to sit in the branches and chill out — not to sail across the globe and have perilous adventures.

    The tree’s still standing. Its branches sag now, as though tired or sad. Maybe it misses me and our fantastic voyages — or maybe it’s just old age! It’s been fifteen years or more since I ‘sailed’ the tree. Writing this has made me wonder: could I work the engines today? Could I lose myself in the fantasy again? Would the tree welcome me back as a friend and respond to my orders? I think I’ll sneak up there late tonight, when everyone’s asleep. Swing on the tyre, climb up to the remains of the treehouse, whisper to the branches, “Hello, old friend.” And try to set sail.

    The next time you day-dream, look west, to where the sea and sky meet in the horizon of the imagination. If you see a red-faced, wild-eyed guy sailing a tree, grinning like a ten year old — you’ll know it’s me!

    © Darren Shan/TES. 15/8/01.
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