Her boy had always wanted a treehouse, and she had always told him no. She had always said it was too dangerous, that he would fall and hurt himself or stab himself with a splinter. He would get dirty.
Better to sit inside with a book. Better to stay indoors and do colouring. Better. Much better.
And so the boy did sit inside with a book. He did stay indoors and do colouring. He did these things and he stared out of the window at the apple tree that rose up and out at the bottom of the garden. He imagined a treehouse embraced within its branches, held there, safe, secure, a secret place just for him to go. He dreamed about that imaginary treehouse, and pretended as he sat on the rug in the sunlit living room that he was bathing in the glow of the outside as it filtered through the leaves of the apple tree and fell upon his face in patches of yellow warmth.
One day, as he ate an apple for lunch and gazed, ever more keenly at the tree, he had an idea. His mother had told him that if he were to swallow a pip, an apple tree might grow within him. He did not want that, could not imagine trying it. But what if he could entice a tree to grow indoors? Surely if a tree could grow in a boy’s stomach… And there was enough sunshine creeping in, and he could water it himself, he was sure he knew how.
That was all that was needed, wasn’t it?
And perhaps it was. That, and a little bit of faith.
The boy finished his apple and searched for the perfect spot, hunting behind the sofa, under the armchair, swishing back the curtains to find a good planting place. Eventually he found it. Between the wall and the bookshelf there was a tiny gap, so small that not even the boy’s thin fingers could fit. But the apple pip could.
He poked the pip through the gap, letting it fall where it would, pleased to see that the shaft of sunlight that reached in through the tall glass doors hit the spot he had chosen. It was perfect.
He would water it every day.
He would look after it.
And when it was fully grown, he would build a treehouse.
The boy slept peacefully that night, his plans growing inside his head.
In the morning he rushed to his indoor garden and found that nothing had changed. He could still see the seed lying where he had left it, and although it was damp from the glass of water he had poured over it when his mother wasn’t looking, it was still just an apple pip.
Despite his disappointment, the boy was sure of his plan, and he watered it once more, and left it alone to become the tree he knew it could be.
Years passed. The boy, who loved his mother to the ends of the earth, resented her as well. He was a good boy, a charming boy, polite and courteous, but he was alone. He had no friends because friends might lead him astray. He had no fun because fun might be dangerous. He sometimes wished that he was someone else’s son, although he hated himself when he thought it. He wished that he was allowed to feel pain and fall over and graze his knees.
One of his sad little wishes did come true. He did feel pain. Small at first, just a niggling little bite in his bones. He said nothing. But as the months went on and he neared his tenth birthday, his mother finally noticed that something was wrong. Her boy was limping, he was thin, he was pale and dark-eyed, and everything was an effort for him these days.
The doctor told them the news that they were both expecting to hear. Still, it was a blow, and there wasn’t much time.
“I’ll build you your treehouse,” said his mother, her voice tight with tears, her throat aching, her heart in pieces. “I’ll make sure you have it before-” She did not finish. She couldn’t. The boy understood and nodded and held her tight, comforting her although he was the one who was dying.
When the boy did die, it was as peaceful as it could be, and his mother was there when it happened.
The treehouse was not finished.
In the months that followed, as she tried to put her life back together and live as best she could once more, she vowed that she would finish the job she had started, but every time she ventured outside and looked up at the shaggy boards strewn haphazardly across the strong branches, she could only fall to her knees and sob at the life that had been taken from her.
She regretted so much.
She should have, could have, would have been a better mother, if only she had known.
And instead of finishing the treehouse, she crawled back inside and lay down in a patch of sunlight in the living room and cried until she was weak and empty. And then she slept, an exhausted, dreamless sleep that did nothing for her except to pass the time without her boy.
When she awoke after not long enough, the sun had gone. It was not yet night, but it was dark in the living room, dark and cool. She stretched out in that blissful moment of forgetfulness and enjoyed the fresh, light feeling of freedom that fell onto her face though the… Through the what?
She opened her eyes and memories flew at her, batting at her, slapping at her with their full force. But for once she barely noticed. Because above her and around her and rising up through the ceiling and as far beyond that as she could see was an apple tree. It emerged from behind the bookcase that had been against the same wall for as long as she could remember, and it twirled its thick trunk outwards, twisting it up at an angle, and then it had just kept growing.
How long had she slept for?
She glanced at the clock but it didn’t answer any questions. It tick-tocked forwards but the numbers meant nothing. All that she cared about was the tree, watered with her grieving tears and brought to life in the shadow of death.
Now that she had a tree in her house, she wondered what she ought to do with it. She couldn’t see the top of it, but she realised that she wanted to, needed to, find out how far it had grown in the short time it had had. A miracle, a real, actual miracle, had occurred in her own home, and it had lightened her poor, splintered heart.
She raced up the stairs, taking them one, two, three at a time, giant strides that she didn’t know she was capable of, and at the top she stood on the shaded landing and stared up at the tree that poked through the floor below her and the ceiling above her. She needed to get higher. She had to find the top, find the leaves, find the treasure that was there, that had to be there.
And so she placed one slippered foot against the smooth grey bark and raised her arms to grasp the lowest branches. They shook and the leaves rustled, a pleasant, sunny sound. Bright red apples shone as they bobbed up and down.
She climbed. It reminded her of a time she had forgotten, a time on her own childhood when her mother had let her run loose, let her run free, let her climb trees and play in the meadow and come home for a picnic tea on the lawn.
She felt young. A little girl. And the little girl that she had become clambered up the tree, grinning, brushing leaves from her hair, laughing at a startled sparrow that was resting on a thin twig, reaching out to touch it but missing as it launched itself into the air.
Blue, blue sky and white, white clouds were above her now, and the tree, of course. It was still rising up, there was still more to climb.
And climb she did, this little girl in her dirty dungarees and cracked creamy trainers. Her long plaits hung down her back, tangled with twigs and specked with mud. Her gap-toothed smile was huge, and it was real.
It was all real.
In the thick branches above her there was a shape. Large and flat and square. A platform. No, more than a platform. A treehouse. Of course. What else would it be up there, up here, at the top, with a view over the world?
But how to get up into it? She grabbed at the edges of the opening, and tried to pull herself up, but the angle was strange and she almost fell.
But not quite.
A small hand slid over the edge and held hers. The sensation was known, so familiar that the woman – the girl – gasped and gripped tightly, so as never to have to let go again.
Her boy leaned over the edge and smiled down at her. He pulled her up and there they were, both sitting in his treehouse. Their treehouse now.
And together they looked out over the world and planned their adventures in the eternal sunshine.