To everyone else, the tree house was just wood; to us, it was our fortress
The Tree House
I never had friends later on in life like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?
-Gordie Lachance, Stand By Me/ The Body
One of the things that stands out most from my childhood is the tree house we had in the bush on the outskirts of Burraford. Eric and I had found it one day by chance as we wandered through the mix of trees and long grass. To the naked eye it didn’t look like much but we saw that it had potential straight away. That tree house was where some of my favourite memories were created.
It sat in the fork of a large eucalypt, an old rope ladder tangled on the ground. We scaled the tree and climbed through the only window. The outside was patchy, but the inside was in shambles. Dead leaves littered the floor and all that remained of its previous occupants were a few scattered tin cans and collapsed shelving. At this stage we were ten-years-old and had not yet become friends with Adam and David.
We returned early the next morning, before the sun had fully risen over the hill that divides Burraford from Thorndale, with some tools I had snuck from my father’s toolbox. Eric had attached a small trailer to the back of his bicycle and filled it with pieces of wood that had been lying around the town. Without hesitation we decided to board up the windows to keep out the leaves, the cold and unwanted people, then got to work.
Our renovations of the tree house took a little over a week before we were ready to move in. Slowly we brought more and more of our belongings into our new hangout until it began to look like something we owned.
Now, my father had been getting suspicious of what I was doing after realising his hammer was gone and so he decided to follow me one day and, true to form, I led him straight to the tree house. I was surprised to find that he approved of what we were doing and actually wanted to help us. We thanked him but said that this was something we wanted to build by ourselves. His response to that was a hundred dollar note in my pocket to buy some furnishings. That was the most money my dad ever gave me right up until his death almost twenty years later.
The next year of school rolled around and Eric and I were placed in different classes for the first time ever. Among the members of my class was Adam. The two us began sitting together during class with me cheating off him when we did Math work and him cheating off me for everything else. I introduced Adam to Eric and in turn, Eric introduced us to David. From then on we were inseparable.
The tree house had now become part of our daily routine. When school finished we’d make our way there and just hang out, sometimes doing homework, mostly just talking about the increasingly more attractive opposite sex.
We managed to keep the tree house a secret from all the other kids in the area for close to a year, but we knew eventually someone would find it. The kid that discovered our hide-out happened to be one of the craziest people I ever came across in all my years, the present included. His name was Jason Hutchinson but everyone referred to him as Bear and he liked that just fine.
One winter day, my friends and I unwittingly became targets of Bear and his friends when we supposedly looked at Thomas, Bear’s right hand man, the wrong way. Of course if we had looked at him at all it would have been a simple glance as we walked past.
Bear and his friends were all two years older than us and when you were our age two years was a lot of difference. They began to follow us around Burraford, trying to intimidate us. We’d go to the park and there they would be. Same went for the shopping centre. It was a stupid mistake on my part that led Bear and his gang to our tree house. One that ultimately resulted in it being burnt down.
I recall it had been a bitterly cold June morning and my breath came out as vapour every time I sucked in the cold air. I met up with Eric outside the game arcade on Fratelli Road. If we had of looked in the window we would have noticed Bear and Thomas playing a pinball machine not five metres away. We didn’t but unfortunately they saw us. They tailed us from a safe distance and when we jumped the wire fence into the woods so did they. There were plenty of trees to hide behind in case we turned around but they never needed them.
Once Eric and I had swung up the rope ladder into the relative warmth of our tree house and retracted the dangling rope ladder they entered the clearing. I was sitting on a bean bag in one corner of the room reading a book, a blanket pulled over me when I heard Bear’s voice from below.
“Gee, Michael, what a great little place you got here.”
I lifted the trapdoor and looked down at him. I was shocked to see him, not yet realising that he had followed us, and we had let him.
“What are you doing here, Bear?” was all I could muster for a reply.
“I just thought we’d stop by for a chat. Mind if we come up?”
Eric appeared beside me at the hole in the floor. He had always had knack for standing up for himself and his friends and now was no different.
“Yeah, we do mind actually. See you around.” He flipped them the bird and slammed the hatch closed. “How the fuck did they find this place?”
I frowned and shrugged. “The only thing I can think of is that they followed us here. Shit! This isn’t good, man.”
After a few minutes rocks and sticks began to strike the side of the tree house. This only went on for a minute, two at the most, but it felt like an hour long barrage. Eventually it stopped and they were gone. Adam and David showed up about a half an hour later and we recounted what had happened. After that day we decided to start taking precautions. When I say precautions I mean a lock for the trapdoor. We began visiting the tree house less and less and only returned three weeks later, when Bear was thrown into the Juniper Home for Boys, halfway across the state. His sentence was for numerous accounts of robbery and assault and he would be gone for six months. When he returned he would be changed. Just looking at him you could see he looked older, knew more of the world’s secrets. More hate in him than in my friends and I combined. I never found out what happened while he was away but I believe, as well as other people around Burraford, that the six month vacation was what tipped him over the edge, beyond repair.
The seasons changed as they do every year, with the bitter cold giving way to warm weather and the children chattering away like monkeys about what they were going to do during the summer break. Many were going away with their families; some were just staying home making their own fun. Eric, Adam, David and I were four of the people staying in Burraford. We didn’t have any need to get out. Everything we needed was less than a kilometre walk from any of our houses.
A mid-December day with temperatures soaring into the thirties saw us out the front of David’s place, running through the sprinkler until we were soaked.
Up the road a group of boys were heading along the sidewalk heading our way. Leading them was Bear. As they neared closer I noticed that he seamed leaner yet somehow ominously larger.
I tensed, ready for trouble, but they just kept walking and one of them even said hello to us. We all should have sensed then that something was wrong, particularly because of the smile Bear wore on his face, but it wasn’t until the smell of smoke blew across town.
Not long after there were sirens and two fire trucks roared past us. We all loved fire fighters. They were heroic and just all around nice people. I was given a ride once when one of them noticed me admiring his truck. I think I was about five. But that isn’t part of this story.
We all grabbed towels and dried off before got changed. Some of the town’s biggest noses were following the sirens and so did we. Drama in Burraford was rare back then and a little excitement was welcomed. The fire engines entered the woods and my stomach began to drop. I could see the fire now. I motioned for the others to follow me and we took a back road that led to the wire fence. In further we could see men running around with hoses or buckets of water, some shouting orders, all trying to put out the flames. Our tree house was on fire.
It took a little over half an hour to extinguish the flames completely. If I close my eyes now I can picture them getting smaller and eventually fading away. I can smell the burning wood as the elm was killed as well.
We walked home in silence, each of us lost in our own thoughts. As a bunch of eleven-year-old boys we couldn’t believe our tree house was gone. Everything we had built together over the past year was literally now just a pile of ashes. And we all knew who was responsible.
Bear Hutchinson was leaning against a telegraph pole, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, as the four of us entered Main Street just on sunset.
“Hey girls,” he smirked as we walked past.
“Just ignore him,” I muttered to Adam, seeing that he wanted to turn around and show Bear who the girl was.
We turned into Westmere Street and were about five metres along when Adam exploded.
“It was him! You could tell by the look on his face that it was him!”
David put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Mate, the four of us know he did it. But we can’t prove it. Not yet, at least.”
“But we will,” I said. “We all watch those crime investigation shows. We just have to wait for him to slip up.”
The next couple of days were dedicated to salvaging any remains of the tree house we could. There was talk of us rebuilding but we all knew it wouldn’t amount to anything. We didn’t have the time anymore. All of us would be starting high school after the summer holidays and we really didn’t think it would be worth it, to be honest. We had always seen our tree house as a fortress against the outside world and now that it had been destroyed there would always be that fear it would happen again. Our innocence was gone, courtesy of Bear Hutchinson and Company.
Noon came and went on the second day, with the sun beating down on us. We all discarded our t-shirts and continued to sift through the wreckage.
“Guys, remember this?” Eric called out. I turned to see him crouched over something on the ground and walked over to investigate. Singed around the edges but otherwise untouched was a piece of timber that read:
Do not proceed unless you have the permission of one of the founders of this tree house.
Thanking You Sincerely
Michael and Eric, Adam and David.
Adam picked the sign up from the burnt ground. “Does anyone mind if I keep it?” he asked, looking around.
No one did. We slowly disbanded to our separate corners of the clearing and I scanned the ruins for a pile of debris yet to be explored. Something shiny caught my eye, momentarily blinding me. The sun was reflecting off an object in the underbrush. Pushing myself in, I inspected closer. A grin split my face. I had just found what my friends and I needed. The slip up, in the form of Bear Hutchinson’s cigarette lighter.
I waited until we had ordered lunch at the local take-away shop before I produced my find, plucking it from the depths of my jean pocket and setting it on the table.
“What’s this look like to you?” I questioned.
Eric raised his eyebrows at me. “Is this like when you go to the psychiatrist and he holds up coloured pieces of paper and asks me what I see?”
Smiling, I shook my head.
“A cigarette lighter?”
“Yeah, but who does it belong to?”
There was a collective shrug around the table. I sighed, flipping the lighter over. My friends leaned in to read the word engraved into the metal. Bear.
“I found it on the edge of the clearing, near the tree house,” I explained.
David shook his head. “Think of it logically. We tell someone all they will say is it still doesn’t mean it was him. People walk through that bushland all the time. He might’ve just dropped it.”
“Oh, come on!” exclaimed Adam. “No one other than us goes that far in. It’s not even near a walking trail. Bear dropped it when him and his buddies were running away after they burnt down out fucking tree house!”
A lady on the next table looked over at us disapprovingly. I sat back in my chair, folding my arms across my chest. The elderly man who owned the store came out, juggling our plates of food in his hands. Placing our lunch in front of us he smiled, his eyes bright and alive.
“How are the holidays going, boys?” he asked.
“Fine, thanks,” Adam replied. “How ‘bout yours?”
“Adam, I haven’t had a holiday in forty years!”
He laughed, and so did we. I think it was the first time we had laughed in the past two days and the sound was strange, but nice all the same.
Now that I think back on it, that little old man knew all our names but we never knew his, nor did we care to ask. I don’t think names really mattered to us when we were kids. Even now I really don’t know many people's names except for my family and friends
The shop owner glanced at his watch and half-jumped. “Well, I have to get back in there, fellas. There are a lot of orders to fill today. Summer holidays are always busy. Have a nice day.” We said our goodbyes and he disappeared, shuffling back into the store.
I took a large bite out of my burger and looked around at my friends. My gang, if you wanted to look at it like that. David was picking at his fish and chips; Adam was slurping his milk shake through two straws and Eric was toying with Bear’s lighter. When I swallowed what was in my mouth I said, “So, what are we gonna do?” nodding at the object in Eric’s hand.
We sat there, the four of us, planning our revenge. By the time we had finished and decided to head homeward the sun had begun its slow fall from the sky for the day and was coming at us through the cluster of trees across the road, turning everything gold.
If I knew then what I know now I very much doubt we would have gone through with our plan. Over the years I've come to terms with what we did. How we ruined one boy's future and maybe even sent another one further over the edge. I've apologised to anyone who will listen. To my wife, one night while we lay in bed after making love, a priest in a confession booth and by default I suppose God. The fact that we were only eleven does not make what we did alright. Nothing will. Ever. It's something I've had to live with since that night almost thirty years ago. Here I will say it for the final time in my life with you, my friend, as my witness. I am sorry.