Tree-peeping. That is essentially what we were doing. It sounds slightly perverted, but I assure you the perverseness was definitely not ours. Not on this occasion.
Before I tell you of this slightly unsettling encounter in the woods near Cassiobury Park in mid-December can I just say What-the-Bloody-Hell's-Going-on-With-the-Weather? I froze my carcass off at the height of summer on the Llangollen canal, picked ice off my extremities during my morning shower on the Grand Union in November and now, now that I am in an actual building in what I will laughingly refer to as The Depths of Winter, the weather has decided to go all mild and nonchalant on me. Right now there are bits of North West London that look like a Lilt advert; people bouncing through the gloom in their T-shirts, laughing and looking for all the world like it is just an overcast Thursday in mid-May, not frigging January the 20th.
Anyway, we were up this tree, see. It was a sunny day in December and we had moored up at Cassio lock (not the home of calculators, sadly) and the woods abutted the canal in a very tempting come-explore-me way. Al and I set off for a brisk wintry walk through the slanting sunlight, catching glimpses of peacock butterflies sunning themselves on tree trunks, ivy flowers flashing with buzzy life and the odd small child in pink wellies dribbling snot on account of the biting winter air when we saw a Tree That Has To Be Climbed.
There is always one of these on any woodland walk and Alan always spots it. Alan is very good at climbing trees.
He nipped up there like a...oh, I don't know, like a gazelle chasing a squirrel in about the time it took me to look down at my feet, see that I was wearing wellies and realise I was buggered for tree climbing. But I love trees, me. And heights. One of my favourite-ever comments on any school report I ever got was; “Deborah appears to have no fear of heights”. It made me feel all Bionic-Womany (I was only five) and super-cool. This feeling has never left me. So with this passion for all things tree-ey and a greedy head for heights it seems cruel and tragic that I am absolutely shite at climbing trees. Unfortunately this is a Fact that I forget every single time I am faced with a Tree That Must Be Climbed. The Fact will, in fact, stay fast asleep in my subconscious even as I approach the trunk of the Tree and take my first firm handhold. As I make my initial foray above lower branch level, the Fact is only just stretching itself and wondering what's for breakfast. By the time it is pouring itself a coffee and leisurely perusing the Sunday supplements I have got myself into a mild pickle with a mid-level branch, but I regain control of the ascent. It is just after this point, though, just before the Fact is wondering if it can get away with not brushing its teeth that it suddenly straightens its bathrbe and pops into my head, manifesting itself in the dreaded question: How am I going to get down?
You must NEVER think this. The key to successful tree climbage is to have a sense of benign optimism or bloody-minded denial about the business of getting down. Alan has both in spades, which is why he was draping himself smugly atop this young oak just as I was sheepishly finding a comfy position on a lower branch.
Once positioned, we were just taking in the sparkly niceness of everything when we heard a sound not unlike that of a hippo trying, at mind boggling volume, to honk up a phlegm ball. This hippo, though, was yelling “Fucking fat bastard” as it honked. Just as I was looking up at Al to check that we were not sitting in some tree with hallucinogenic bark-properties a youngish man rounded the bend and came into view. He was wearing what I believe Sunday supplements would refer to as “baggy sweats” and he was looking furious.
“Fat bastard, hurry up, you lump of lard. You're not coming out with me and showing me up again, you fucking disgrace” he yell-honked with ear splitting loudness.
Exactly who is showing whom up, I thought, as around the corner came a boy of thirteen or fourteen, puffing with labour and unsurprising distress on a massive mountain bike.
“Come on. Fatlazy.”
I could not quite believe this. Here was a total git having a very loud and unpleasant go at his brother or nephew who seemed to be having enough trouble getting his bike across the muddy, leaf-slippery terrain. I mean, the git was on foot, who was he to talk?
Just as I was weighing up how I might nonchalantly but effectively intervene in this tirade, an old man bounded into view. He was dressed in what Sunday supplements would have called “baggy sweats” if there had been any Sunday supplements in the 1920s. He had a purposeful gait and was purposing it firmly in the direction of the git and his poor charge. “Hullo” I thought “It's obviously some worryingly strict Scout-type-exercise-session on a rite-of-passage weekend, and the git has overdone it. This Scoutmaster here will have a severe word and then take them both for a comforting ginger beer somewhere.” Indeed the Scoutmaster did go up to the git but instead of reprimanding him for living too closely up to his name, he shook his hand and asked if he might be permitted to talk to this young charge on the git's behalf.
Reader, this was no Scoutmaster, this was a 24 carat local nutter.
The poor unsuspecting boy dragged his bike wearily up to his new mentor.
“Now, sonny, don't look all glum like that. This [git] man is trying to help you. He's shouting at you because he wants YOU to be a man.” said the Scoutmaster.
The boy, wisely in my opinion, said nothing.
“I want you to listen to the man, yeah?” (this yeah-speak gets up my nose at the best of times but coming out of a scoutmasterly septuagenarian's mouth it was positively weird).
“You listen to him and you think of your father's fathers all looking down on you. You think they are ashamed of you? They are. You are a man now, you're not a kiddie, yeah? You're not wanting your mother's titty any more. You can't be a man if you're crying for your mother's titty all the time. So it's time to forget about your mother's titty....”
Really, I can't write any more. There were numerous more mentions of the maternal bosom, so many in fact that I had the distinct feeling that the young lad would find it painully hard not to think about his "mother's titty", poor love. In any case I believe you, like me have had "titties" up to here. I really think that the Scoutmaster believed he was doing the young boy some good, but all he was doing was traumatising him, and me. Alan's theory is that he had recently attended a highly questionable course for would-be motivational speakers and wanted to try his stuff out on members of the unsuspecting public.
Eventually he moved away, having exchanged hearty handshakes with the git. The kid looked bemused but relieved. He looked up warily at the git but was this time not met with another mash-up of insulting terms like “Blubberuseless” or “Wobbletwat”, instead the git patted him on the back gently and said – almost encouragingly - “Go on then.”
The boy ground his wheels into life an set off down the track – thankfully it was downhill from here on in.
“Good lad” said the git, suddenly sounding massively unlike his name.
We reckoned even he thought the poor lad had had enough thrown at him for one day. We climbed out of the tree, bums numb and brains addled by oddness.
If you climb a tree you have to be prepared to see some unusual things, you know. Even if you only get to welly-height.
PS - I have a Web Site now, for to sell my gabbling-wares. If you fancy a look, there is a link on the left somewhere. The site's got a picture of me with a bag on my head...