I stuck my hands into the pockets of my shorts and found only dust and the wrapper of a lollipop I regretted eating.
“That.” With a dirty fingernail, Mirko pointed at the bracelet my parents had given me for my First Holy Communion instead of the BMX bicycle I’d asked for. I rolled it out of my hand without undoing the clasp and handed it to him. He placed it inside a small wooden chest which lay hidden underneath one of the two benches nailed to the planks that made up the floor. Then, stooping not to bump his head, he gave me a tour around a room that was larger than I’d imagined and even had a sort of an alcove with cushions strewn on the floor under a glassless window, the wooden planks around it painted with planets, stars and little green men. There sat Filippo, grinding petals with a stick inside an old kitchen-spray bottle half-filled with water.
"I’m making perfume," he said looking down.
There were pots of acrylic paint in a corner, a sling, a handful of plastic Indians and cowboys with a wolf and a bunch of fences but no horses or sheep, a beach bucket filled with acorns and half a packet of Polo mints. Behind me, William scratched at that stick. The window framed a sky like a painting, so vivid you felt like you might touch a canvas if you leaned out. The call I heard coming from the emptiness out there made my legs weak.
“Swear you won’t ever take anyone up here,” said Mirko.
“I swear,” I said placing a hand on my heart and the other up beside my right shoulder, not knowing that one day I would break that promise holding up a baby so he could grab onto the sill.
From there, if I had looked through the spaces between the planks that made up the walls, I would have seen my house. I did not look. And my mother’s slap, when I told her I’d lost the bracelet, I would barely feel.
Once, when I was about thirty and worked in an office where they paid me well and fed me abundantly, a colleague of mine, a friend I would have called her then, asked me what the happiest time of my life had been. It angered me that she would pry, because I wanted to tell her that time was now, with the man I’d chosen, with my steady job, but the branches of that old oak seemed to be suddenly growing out of my eyes, its roots perforating my chest. I could smell the citronella with which we doused ourselves to repel mosquitoes, could see the saffron light that slanted through the window in the evening and gently painted our faces, my favourite time of the day and the saddest, for my call home would soon come.
To that person—as to myself—I chose to lie.
How many easy joys we lose, when we grow up! I remember how happy I was when I succeeded in saving four Kinder eggs and climbed up the ladder with my treasure in my backpack, then hid it in the shade until the others arrived so it wouldn’t melt, and waited reading a book—that summer it had been Wuthering Heights, Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers. They kept me company, but for once they weren’t my only friends.
I wore bruises only on the inside, yet Mirko seemed to see them and came to sit beside me in silence. Then Filippo arrived and I could tell it was him by his robin steps on the ladder, the way he moved as though his heart beat so quickly it didn’t allow him to be still. He took up the paints and continued his murals, or struggled on his vain attempts at making perfume.
“They lose all their scent in one day,” he said, desolate.
The last to come up was Will. He hit the rungs with his soles, and in the tree house hammered nails into the boards, cut or carved something with his knife or forced his little cousin to play marbles with him. He cheated, and if caught didn’t deny it. Even just the memory of the self-satisfied little smile he gave then was enough to annoy me for days.
“Why is he like that?”
“Why do you come up here all by yourself before we’re even awake?” Mirko asked me.
It isn’t true that people age gradually. I was young until I turned thirty-seven, then several parts of my body organised a rising against me – my back seized, my abs slackened, my hamstrings tightened. Pregnancy sped up the decay, but I suspect that the revolution would have gone ahead in any case. Somewhere in me was a pocket watch like the one the White Rabbit carried around in Alice in Wonderland, and this watch, after moving lazy steps for years, had overnight launched itself into a demented run. Shame, frustration, indignation were no use. When I was young, I considered old age a vice, and carried my smooth skin, my high ass, my shining, thick chestnut hair as one would a medal. Only now do I see how undeserved they were.
In the tree house, old age was as far as the moon that spied on me through the branches of the oak.