My father would, on occasion, offer up spontaneous advice. I remember once he said to me, and I remember being quite unprepared for the suddenness of it, ‘Don’t worry, your time will come’. I stared at him, puzzled by this unexpected and unwanted outburst. ‘I was older than you before I was married. There’s plenty of time’, he continued.
I still rack my brains now trying to figure out where that little gem came from and I just can’t explain it at all. But that was my father; getting me spectacularly wrong every time. I can only assume it was another projection of some strange path he thought I should be following, and I was obviously straying from it at that time, dangerously enough for him to have to offer wisdom and caring support.
He liked the outdoors so we did have that in common, I suppose, though we had different ideas on how to embrace it. He had his favourite spot and there are photographs from every camera he ever owned, testing their worthiness on that slope, looking down into the valley below. The earlier ones are now sepia, and the colour on the later ones have turned grotesque shades making the view look like an alien landscape. They are all, however, quite unmistakably of the same view.
When I was born he planted a tree in that spot and you can see it grow over the years in a strange picture-postcard storybook. A solitary sad little thing clinging to the edge of a slope, stunted by short summers and twisted by strong prevailing winds. It’s a wonder it ever grew at all.
He took me up there when I was quite young, at an age when I guess he felt it time to impart his philosophical views on me, to start moulding me into a man. ‘This is you’, he said. ‘Roots in the ground, the earth, Scotland. I planted this when you were born. When I come up here now, I’m connected to the land, and to my family’.
I can’t remember how long ago it was my father died. Funny that. It might have been 20 years ago, maybe 25, or even 30. You’d think I’d remember but it all just fades after a while. I do remember him dying though. Each single laboured breath separated by long, agonising pauses as his weak, brittle body tried to muster enough strength to pull more oxygen from the air into his starved lungs.
Eventually, a pause was simply left unfollowed by an intake of breath. I remember waiting for it, but it never came and his eyes focussed on something I couldn’t see. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, was this really it? But that was me all over, going through life never quite knowing what I’m supposed to do next. He’d have been infuriated.
Last year I came across his old maps and on one, clearly marked, was his spot with a little red circle. I decided on a whim, before my legs would reject such a trip, to take a walk up there. It was easy to find but the tree was long since dead. Perhaps it had died when he had, maybe even before, maybe since. Looking around it was clear he was no Elzéard Bouffier and the landscape remained unaffected by this singular, incongruous, non-native alien. Its roots were probably not deep enough to find the nourishment it needed to grow in this bleak environment, and leaves barely turned green long enough before turning brown and falling to be caught and trapped by the heather below. It didn’t really belong here at all. With an unexpected watering of my eyes I looked at the dry, brittle, withering collection of twigs and logs and thought, it seemed like my father never really understood trees either.