I should have seen this coming.
It’s Christmas Day and my family is persuading me to take the usual walk with them up to a large tree at the top of the hill near our house. I am not easily swayed as it’s always the same routine: a nervous shuffle around the tight, winding road; the puffing woodland ascent; followed by an opening marked by a stack of golden hay bales. Having lived here for over twenty years, I might as well take the walk inside my head, but it’s Christmas time, so I go.
This time last year, my sister was given the same camera as mine and despite having taken it around her sub-Saharan adventures, she is still adjusting to the change from the smaller type she previously owned. Making our way up the hill, she asks for any suggestions I might have.
“The best photography is down to instinct,” I facetiously advise, “as far as I’m concerned, you either have it or you don’t.”
It’s good to wind her up now and again, although this time I’m afraid she’s taking me seriously.
Approaching the clearing where the hill plateaus, we hold our cameras down towards the views of two rival towns, their floodplains illuminated by the cold winter sun. With our eyes avoiding its gaze, we continue along a stretch of tire tracks as our conversation drifts towards silence.
The stretch of grass becomes shorter every time I return home. Except for this, the repetition of the crop cycle on either side of the path is as inevitable as the blowing wind.
“Look!” exclaims my sister.
Half-closing my eyes for the sunlight, I try to make out what lies at the farthest point before the descent on the other side. I can see the bench, the hill stone – those are both the same, but the tree’s shape has changed.
I gather my pace a little until my eyes adjust, stopping as soon as the foreground’s colour fills its silhouette: the storms of the last few days have torn across the tree’s trunk, its branches now sprawled, tensing on the grass below.
My dad takes a photo of us next to the scene and beckons my mum and two sisters further along the path to take another with a valley background. They oblige, irreverent to the significance of what is behind them. Although I am not entirely surprised: I am the only one of us who has lived here from birth. This tree is one of my earliest memories.
My family begin the U-turn towards home, but I want to say my goodbyes.
“I’ll be down in a bit!”
I remember lying on the bench as a young teenager looking through the branches towards the stars. I sat under this tree on several winter afternoons in those darker days of adolescence.
I even took a selfie with an ex up here.
It was a lonely tree, offered company only from passers-by and wildlife. It was ugly too, and now I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw it looking healthy.
It had been rotting from the inside for years.
For a memento, I grab a piece of splintered wood from the fracture and stuff it inside my coat pocket.
I’m not sure what symbolism or meaning I can draw from this experience, or whether it’s at all reasonable to be reading into a dead tree in the first place. Nonetheless, somehow I had naively granted it a state of permanency in my head whenever I thought of home.
I should have seen this coming.