Rubber soles pressing against the fissured bark, Andy braces herself on a thick branch and scans the verdant dips and swells before her for likely hiding places. From her vantage point, she can see the younger children running wild, rolling down the gentle slopes of the undulating ground. Their shrieks and laughter float up to her, but Andy ignores them; let them waste time with aimless roaming, Andy has three hours to play the long game, and she is determined to win.
It’s late morning before they start the hunt, and the soft Spring sunshine slanting through the trees makes the grass glow green below her, but Andy’s attention is focused elsewhere. Leaning back against the thick trunk, Andy pulls her legs up, locks her ankles together under the branch and rests her elbows loosely on her knees as she reviews the results of her survey.
A gentle breeze rustles the fledgling leaves obscuring her from casual sight, bringing the scent of growing things to her nose and raising goosebumps on her freckled arms. Her father’s binoculars hang heavy around her neck and she adjusts them to a more comfortable position against her soft t-shirt, before letting her arm drop back to one knee as she considers her options. Behind her is dense forest, the trees grow close together, which would let her travel easily without having to hit the ground, but the light is thin, the ground cold and hard; it’s still winter in there. Good place for a hideout or a hoard, but not a likely source of bounty. Ahead is the garden; it’s long and thin, trees spaced around the periphery but rare through the centre where open ground rises and falls like a rucked carpet. She knows from experience that the majority of the prizes will be down there, but it’s also the most heavily populated area of the garden, and she’d have to come down out of the trees. Andy dismisses it.
So, just as she thought; it’s the edge for her. The trees grow close enough around the edge for her to pass tree-to-tree like a monkey. Or Tarzan. It’s too far between trees across the park so she’ll have to work a circle. There won’t be as many hidden up here, but there also won’t be any competition. She’s been training all year for this. Up and down the trees around her house until she was familiar with them, comfortable in them. Now, she’s happier up here than on the ground. Decision made, Andy nods to herself and drops her legs down. Crossing her legs under the branch, she rolls sideways until she’s hanging upside down; dangling above the branch she hung her backpack on when she scrambled up here.
As her fingers close around the handle, she catches sight of a familiar head of blonde hair and pulls back to lie flush against the tree-trunk. The girl below wanders in a seemingly aimless manner, her curtain of glossy, blonde hair drifting in the slight breeze. Alexandra. Andy’s rich brown hair, carefully French-braided that morning, blends much more easily into the old bark of the tree than her pale skin does, as she watches her, apparently unwitting, competition, with quiet, shallow breaths. Clearly she doesn’t intend to climb any trees in her pale yellow strappy dress and white cardigan. Andy wonders if that means she has an advantage, or that Alex knows something she doesn’t.
After a moment, Alex crouches near a bole in a tree on the other edge of the garden and when she stands again, she holds a prize in her hands. Quick breath, and Andy grabs her bag in one hand and the branch in the other, swinging herself back up out of sight. Already one ahead. Andy draws deep breaths until her mind clears the too fast of her swing up, repeating long game, long game until she stops worrying. Wrapping her hands around the branch, she edges forward, creating space behind her so she can slip the back-pack on. Once the straps are settled, Andy moves with a grace she doesn’t have on the ground, unlocking her knees and slipping first one leg, then the other up onto the branch before bracing herself against the trunk to gently stand up. Moving with the care of an astronaut in zero g, she grasps a branch above her and starts to work her way forward.
She is lucky, she thinks, that this park is so old – it used to be part of a country estate before it was sold off. The trees here have spent decades, perhaps centuries, slowly growing towards each other, wooden arms reaching out to bridge the gaps between them, like dancers at a ceildh. Eventually, the branch she’s on will get too thin to bear her weight, but the tree beside it will be there, desperately reaching for her. She keeps her gaze trained on the branch beneath her feet, trying to gauge the best moment to transfer to the next tree. She has the experience of near misses, strained muscles, scrapes, bruises, and even a greenstick fracture to tell her how far she can safely jump and when a branch will be too thin to step on, and she pays attention to that experience as she reaches across the gap to a branch above her head on the other tree. A gentle tug to check for dead wood, and then she brings her other hand over and swings across the slight gap, and further, landing a little along the branch rather than at the fragile tip. She lets out a gust of breath and starts edging along this branch for the trunk.
Careful, careful, hand over hand, gaze flicking between her next step and her next grip, Andy makes her way along with breathing so soft that she might as well be in a trance. When she reaches the trunk, she slings one arm companionably around the branch above her and lifts her father’s binoculars. Down, and to the right, she sees her, Alex, skirting the edge nearest the forest. She bends again at the opening of a – fake? real? – burrow and peers in, before standing again, empty-handed. Andy grins, and lets the binoculars fall back against her chest.
She’s not actually that high up. High enough to be out of sight at casual glance, but low enough to be in range of likely hiding places – and to avoid breaking her neck if she does fall. She’s on the side of her tree and a quick up-and-down shows no viable hidey holes. Lowering herself until she’s straddling the branch, she digs her fingers into the fractured covering and leans to one side, scanning the front of the trunk. There, one branch lower down and off to one side of the tree, two branches form a cradle and even from here she can see the pastel colours of a prize. Swiftly, she prepares to move. She lifts the binoculars from around her neck, slipping them over her head and twisting back to unzip the back-pack and drop them in. When the bag is closed, she pulls herself up again and takes a deep breath.
Careful, but sure with practice, she swings from one branch to another, moving diagonally until she can set a foot in the cradle. She crouches to move a couple of loose leaves; dropped by the wind or left as a cover to make the hunt harder, she doesn’t know. All she knows is the quick leap of joy she feels at the familiar, faded colours of a prize. She hefts it lightly, noticing with interest an unfamiliar gold star painted on the top. Andy frowns, briefly, before dismissing it. This is definitely a prize, star or not, and she drops to one knee as she twists to unzip her backpack and drop her prize inside. One down, she thinks, rocking back into a sit.
Andy is rising again, about to move on to the next tree, when she catches a glance of pale pink lower down. Swing, drop, swing, drop, and she’s at the broad end of a branch with a fake bird’s nest at the end. She slides down the trunk until her legs dangle either side and stretches along the top of the branch, long, clever fingers extended to their full length to hook the nest closer until she can get a hand around the prize. Feet pressed against the trunk, she slowly moves back upright. Not daring to twist round in this position, she slides one arm out of the back-pack strap and shuffles it around until she can add the prize to the one already settled in the bag. Two, already. This was definitely the best plan Andy has ever had. Zipping her bag again, she elbows it back into place and slips her arm back through the other strap. Both hands braced on the branch, she leans forward again, turning her head right this time, as she plans her route to the next tree.
The three hours seem to zip by for Andy as she clambers from tree to tree, scooping what prizes there are. Some trees are prize-bare and Andy wastes precious time straining for a glance of pastel yellow or pale blue amongst all the dark brown and light green. At the entrance to the park two trees grow further apart than the others and Andy almost doesn’t make the jump. Scrambling along the dangerously-bending tree, she huddles against the trunk of the new tree until her heart rate slows and the shaking stops.
Below her, always below, always there is Alexandra. She seems to criss cross the grounds in an aimless fashion, idling to talk to a group of small children, sometimes checking at the bases of trees, sometimes favouring the various rabbit holes around the grounds, but never appearing particularly stressed or worried, even as the time runs down. Andy can’t decide what to make of her. She’s won for the last two years in a row, but she doesn’t seem to have a strategy, she doesn’t seem to care how many prizes she’s collected. Eventually, Andy decides it has to be a bluff; if she doesn’t seem like a contender, no one will treat her as competition, she’ll be free to travel anywhere on the grounds unmonitored. Andy has to admire her cunning, but it doesn’t mean she‘s fallen for Alex’s mind games. She keeps as close an eye as she can on her rival as she moves back through the gardens, covering the second stretch of trees.
Andy’s just storing a particularly difficult to obtain prize, when the warning bell chimes out. Ten minutes before she has to be at the front of the grounds for the counting, and she’s up a tree nearly at the very back. She looks over her shoulder at the way she came and dismisses it quickly; she’d never make it back through the trees in ten minutes. There’s only one thing for it.
Tugging the backpack straps tight, Andy swings branch to branch until she’s low enough to drop to the ground in a crouch. Ahead she can see Alex ambling towards the judges, and she pulls up and starts to run. It’s hard going with the hills and valleys of the grounds, and she has to keep her eyes peeled for unruly tree trunks or animal burrows; the last thing she needs now is a twisted ankle.
The second warning bell rings; five minutes. Andy takes a deep breath and pounds even faster of the young, green grass, her breath rasping in her throat, heart pounding in her ears as she mounts the last incline and pants to a stop before the judges table. Breathing heavily, she hands her backpack over to one of the counters, writing her name on a label so the points will be correctly awarded to her, then she bend over, bracing her hands on her knees and gulping the thin, Spring air into her lungs. Someone presses a bottle of water into her hand and she’s poured it down her throat before she even thinks to check whose bottle it was. She stands upright again, and looks at the person in front of her, waiting for their bottle. For her bottle; Alexandra. Suspicious, Andy hands the bottle back. Alex looks like she’s about to say something, but Andy’s bag was one of the last to be counted, and the Council members announce that the results have been tallied.
A tall, silver-haired man in an ill-fitting suit lifts a megaphone to his mouth. ‘The results have been tallied,’ he repeats, his Norfolk accent creates an almost melodic roll to his words, a rhythm to his speech that ebbs and flows like the tide. ‘The contestant with the largest individual collection, is Alexandra Simmons, with fifty-five eggs! Congratulations Alex.’ Andy stares at her, her knees weak with disappointment. All that climbing, all that effort and she still lost. And Alex! How did she get so many eggs? And how dare she stand there looking humble and quietly pleased! ‘However,’ the council man continues, ‘several of the eggs on the grounds are more highly rated than the others because of the increased difficulty in acquiring them.’ Andy’s gaze snaps back to the crumpled little man as he continues. ‘Which means, that the overall winner of this year’s Swaffham Council Easter Egg Hunt, is Andrea Harman! Well done, girl,’ he says, setting down the megaphone and clapping her affectionately on the shoulder. As he shakes her hand, a photographer from the local paper sweeps in and flashes a shot of the two of them.
‘Thank you,’ Andy murmurs, her smile forming as shock gives way to joy. She’s won! Two years of coming in second place and now she’s first. She turns to Alex, ready to gloat, to refute barbed snipes or deal with sulking, and finds Alex smiling at her again.
‘Well done!’ Alex says, seemingly sincerely. ‘Did you really climb all those trees?’
‘Yes,’ Andy says stiffly. ‘I’m no cheater.’
Alex looks surprised. ‘I didn’t mean you were! I’m just impressed. I’ve always wanted to climb a tree, but it seems so high and dangerous.’
Andy stares at her.
‘They’re having the Easter picnic now,’ she says awkwardly. Andy nods. ‘Would you sit with me?’
‘Seriously?’ Andy asks, astounded. ‘I just beat you.’
Alex smiles. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘you laid down a challenge. I’ll have to work harder next year.’ She smiles again and Andy feels a real smile form on her own face.
‘Bring it,’ she says, as they head for the picnic tables.
© Claire Scott 2013