I spotted the ball buried within a sprawling bramble. I ducked under, over, contorted myself as if the thorny branches were laser beams. Once I’d retrieved it, I shuffled back towards the fence. An ancient oak tree rose above me. The trunk, all tumourous and cracked, must have been wider than I was tall. It took trees hundreds of years to get this big. Then I noticed the door.
One crack ran straight up from the ground to shoulder height. It was so unnaturally straight that I couldn’t miss it. Wedged mid-way down: two hinges. And strangest of all, where the handle should have been was a brass plate with a continuous dark line engraved on it. The shape: an oak leaf.
‘Found it yet, Roo?’ Dev’s impatient voice called out from the field. ‘Yeah mate, got it,’ I replied, ducking back through the hole in the wire.
‘Full of thorns back there. Lucky the ball’s not gone flat.’
For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop thinking about the shape: slightly imperfect, gently curling to the right, those effortless in-out curves, its delicate elongated tip… I thought about it the next time we played on the field, and every time after that.
That October, I convinced myself that the trunk door would spring open if I pressed a dried leaf that exact shape against the panel. It began as a fantasy, and I repeated it to myself so often it became a truth; a quest – one that would take five years to complete.
Every autumn, I went back to the field to look for the one. It was like searching for a piece of a jigsaw puzzle; a very particular piece, but at the same time, one that looked just like all the others. It just depended how you looked at it.
I continued like that until the year I turned 14. I knew as soon as I saw it, fluttering head over tail through the sky. This was the leaf that would open the trunk.