I am walking along the West Strand when the sight of two couples playing frisbee unlocks a memory. Down it falls from the sky, unbidden, a moment I did not know I had filed away. It plays out like a film; so like a film that I wonder if it is my memory at all or if I have stolen it from television. I walk home, sit down, and write to remember the scene. It is mine.
Meet you under my favourite hornbeam at six o’clock, I have taken to say. This makes him laugh because it is my only hornbeam, I have not been introduced to one before moving to York. Where I come from it is all wind-wizened hawthorn, hardy elder with bark like the back of an old man’s hand, and sycamore bent double by Atlantic gales. I am familiar with dauntless, inelegant trees, with bushes that don’t mind being burnt by the salt sea-wind, but the Vale of Yorkshire is a different matter. It is a place of mists, a place where ancient oaks nestle in the shady laneways of the Howardian Hills, a place where tended specimens grow in Rowntree’s Homestead Park. There is the maidenhair tree with its small fanned out leaves like webbed duck’s feet, and the astonishing tulip tree, a four-pointed leaf that reminds me of a carpet beater, and its extravagant late-summer lamp-like blooms of pale green lit by a deep orange centre. Slowly, I am learning to greet each tree by name, trying my best to tell the winter bark of the Tibetan cherry from that of a walnut – glossy deep red versus silvery grey. As part of this self-education, we have taken to meeting under the hornbeam, from where we will wander to a nearby summer seat to sit, rest, people-watch. This is the Museum Gardens, it sits alongside the River Ouse, one of York’s two leaky rivers both of which frequently break their banks and grab hold of the land, pour into the lower reaches of the gardens and parks, walkways, roads, and (if you are unlucky) your pub or shop or house.
It is summer. For sure, there can be downpours in summer, but no floods – at least not any summer I’m here. I wait at the agreed spot, touch the bough that has been staked with a Y-shaped crutch. It makes me think of soldiers returning from war, borne upright by walking sticks, hobbling off trains at the nearby station one hundred years ago. A thought occurs to me: this hornbeam would have been growing back then, young and sprightly and holding itself up without the help of that crutch or those metal stays that have been secured from one drooping branch to the trunk, hoisted like a suspension bridge. Yet, for all its age and infirmity, this hornbeam of mine is beautiful. Take his shape: wider than he is tall, broad and long, his canopy hanging so I feel as though I’m sheltering under the upturned hull of a boat, that I’m hunkering under a currach lying upside down on the land before it puts out to sea. This day, he is late, so I have extra time to study the hornbeam’s leaves. They are beech like – perhaps a little narrower, less glossy, softer, more like a feather in shape, with little teeth all around the edge, gently serrated. And in spring, when they are unfurling, they hold onto their folds for the longest time, little origami leaves all pressed and pleated.
When he arrives, we go to sit by the willow. The willow looks sad to me; sad because it falls, drags, scrapes the ground with tears dropping from its branches. He tells me about his day. I listen. Three students are playing frisbee. We fall silent and watch them. They are graceful, all arc-backed and stretched arms, they make full-body dives across the lawn. They are fluid and unbreakable. They are daring. One of them goes for it, runs, hurls himself in a full belly-skid across the grass. He holds his right arm high as he makes an impossible, triumphant catch. From the ground, he takes aim and throws it to the one standing under the willow. One flick of the wrist and the frisbee is lifted by a gust, carried in an unexpected flightpath towards the higher reaches of the tree. An invisible hand is toying with it, taking it higher, higher, higher until it is dropped into the topmost branches of the willow. The third student decides the best course of action is to dislodge it with his shoe. I am not so sure. He removes one sneaker – a brown suede Gola that has seen better days, but it is still serviceable footwear with laces and a sole. I know what is going to happen. It lodges itself close to the frisbee. The willow’s branches seem to close around it like fingers. He unlaces the other shoe, hurls it up in exasperation and the tree catches it too. He shakes a lower branch. Nothing moves. The game is over, and one barefoot student wanders home flanked by his two shod friends. It is an oddly joyful scene. I imagine the weeping willow has been cheered up, that it’s laughing.
He puts his arm around the back of the summer seat and over my shoulder. I am happy.