It was late November, the chill of winter pushing the last few scraps of autumn’s warmth away. Alice watched as the last few leaves began to fall from her grandfather's favourite oak tree.
The tree was old, ancient even, the bark gnarled and the branches so spindly they could crack under the weight of their own leaves; Alice was sure it was even too old to produce fruit every year, the shells of acorns becoming empty husks clinging on as if they were a memory too precious to let go of. But every spring the time worn oak sprouted a fresh crop of shining leaves, a harsh green contrast against the skeletal trunk, its lustre having faded years ago.
Alice's grandfather had adored the autumn, taking her for walks through the park from when she was a child, her tiny hand gripped in his much larger one. To her he was just like his beloved oak tree – old and wrinkled, but he stood tall and proud always watching over her, just as the tree watched over the park.
They would walk hand in hand down the pavement, and he would tell her stories along the way; fairy tales of genies, trapped princesses and handsome princes. And she would giggle; kicking at the burnished copper carpet of leaves that coated their path, the brittle fronds crunching beneath their feet. It was her grandfather's favourite tradition, but it, like so many things drifted out as she got older, her mittens and pink wellington boots swapped for stylish trainers and bare fingers that turned red when bitten by the frosty air, her granddad’s stories exchanged for the rhythmic hum of an IPod. As the years went on their walks became less and less – no longer a weekly activity on a Sunday while Alice's mum cooked roast lunch, but occasional hastened jaunts on special occasions like Christmas and Easter. The teenage Alice always rushed, eager to get back to watch whatever show was on TV; she never stopped to notice the swirl of the golden leaves as they fell around her, knowing that it'd be the same every year.
But now she knew. Now she was older she knew that those moments she had brushed aside, desperate to get home, were moments wasted. A pang of guilt tugged at her insides as she gazed up through the branches, her now much larger hands shoved into mittens and her feet adorned with a far larger pair of wellingtons. Her empty hand reached out, clasping at empty air. It had taken years but she finally understood why her grandfather had adored this tree; it was the only constant in an ever changing world, an anchor that never grew too old for his stories or rushed home to answer the phone.
'And then, one day the princess realised what she'd missed.' Alice whispered to herself, turning away from the old oak tree and heading down the path, her feet kicking playfully at the fallen leaves that blanketed the ground.