Deb Campbell

Since 2020 I've been lucky enough to have had two stories make the Page Turner Awards longlist and be a finalist. And to have been chosen as a finalist for a third time is absolutely amazing.

The idea for my latest submission grew from time spent in a local woodland during lockdown and was written while studying for an MA at Bristol University.

Based in Bristol, England, I write stories for 9 to 12 year olds, which, as well as having a sprinkling of magic, are always filled with hope.

Award Category
Screenplay Award Category
In this tale of nature spirits, coracles and friendship, Isa is on a mission to save the land.
The Trouble with Trees
My Submission


Long after Mum’s car disappeared, I stayed on the doorstep.

Grandad’s house was in a town in the middle of nowhere. The houses all looked the same with a front door, one window downstairs, one window upstairs and a patch of garden just big enough for a star jump.

“You staying out there all day, young lady?” Grandad called.

I stomped in and found him in the kitchen. Everything about him was grey: his hair, trousers, slippers, even his eyes. And his grey, baggy jumper looked as old as him - with holes in it.

“I suppose you want some lunch.” He pulled a tin of crackers from a cupboard and took cheese from the fridge. “We don’t stand on ceremony here.” He put the food, plates and knives on the table and nodded at the corner cupboard. “There’s cordial in the cupboard if you want it.”

I hadn’t been to Grandad’s house for ages and ages, not since Nan died. On top of the fridge was an elephant-shaped jar, its pink trunk chipped at the end. My mouth watered at a memory of chocolate cookies.

I took a cracker from the tin and sat down to eat.

“Now then, let’s get a few things straight.” He tapped a finger on the table. The sound made me sit up. “Your Mum has to work, so you’re stuck with me.”

Even though he faced me with his thick, black glasses halfway down his nose, he looked right past me. I did the same, looking over his shoulder, past the curtain with faded red and green parrots and through the pane of glass in the back door. In the distance, a treetop danced in the wind.

“Are you listening?”

My eyes snapped back to his. “Yes.”

“Good. You’ll get your own breakfast and lunch. I’m not waiting on you. And tea is at 5. I don’t care what you do. You can stay in bed all day for all I care, but you will be here for tea … at 5 … on the dot. Understood?”

As soon as the lecture was over, I escaped out the back and messaged Grace: I’m in hell.

Summer holidays are meant to be fun. Grace’s dad was going to take us to Barry Island. Like last year. A whole day with no grown-ups. Not that we’d be going to Barry now. Instead I was stuck at Grandad’s and about to have the worst summer holiday ever.

My phone beeped. My smile turned to a growl. The message hadn’t sent. No signal. What was I supposed to do now?

I kicked a stone. It skimmed the top of the long grass and nettles and headed for the shed at the end of the garden. I froze as it arced towards the glass. It missed and with a thump, hit the peeling wood. The noise made me turn to the back door, my hands as clenched as my belly. But the door stayed shut. I gave a sigh of relief and putting my phone in my pocket, trampled through the long grass.

Mum said Nan had loved her garden. She liked to eat on the patio, grow peas, strawberries and carrots and fill the garden with flowers. I couldn’t imagine anyone loving this garden. It was a mess. The patio was broken and covered in weeds and the dry, brown grass was up to my knees. There were no vegetables, only nettles and brambles, and dandelions grew instead of roses. On one side, a concrete path went from the back door to the gate. I followed it to the bottom of the garden, and stamped through the weeds to the abandoned shed.

I turned the handle. The door rattled, but it wouldn’t open. And the window was so thick with cobwebs I couldn’t see inside.

Two weeks, six days and 16 hours to go. No Nan. No friends. No Wi-Fi. And I was so bored I couldn’t think.


A tap-tap made me look up. A seagull danced on the shed roof, its wings like flowing sleeves. Squinting against the sun reminded me of something. A kitten…. climbing a ladder… being scared … being … The memory flew away with the seagull.

I pushed my hands against the wall of the shed. It didn’t move, not even a wobble. Balancing on an old bucket, I clutched the edge of the roof. As I lifted my feet onto the windowsill, the bucket tipped over, but gripping the scratchy felt I hauled myself up and wriggled onto the roof. I crouched low so Grandad wouldn’t notice. He’d said he didn’t care what I did, but grown-ups can change their minds.

I put my phone in the air. Nothing. Not even one bar. But from up here, I could see over the gardens on both sides. Grandad’s was definitely the messiest. A squawk made me jump and swivel around. In the allotments opposite, magpies squabbled in the trees. I turned to get down. Except there was no easy way. Nothing to lower myself onto. Nothing to hold. From the roof, the ground was dizzyingly far away. My heart thudded as I perched against the edge above the shed window. I lay on my front, legs dangling, then lowered my feet millimetre by millimetre until they touched the windowsill. As I jumped the last bit the shed shuddered.

I edged past the nettles to the garden gate where ivy had handcuffed the gate to the post. I broke the long strands to free it and went out. Outside was a narrow lane for cars to get to their garages and on the other side a stile into the allotments. I climbed over and I followed the grassy path along the edge, keeping my eyes down.


I squeaked with shock.

“Sorry to scare you,” a woman said. She was crouched among her vegetables. She smiled and sitting back on her heels, took off her flowery gloves. “It’s hot, isn’t it? Are you going for a swim?”

I shook my head.

She peered out from under her yellow, floppy hat. “Are you new around here?”

“Not really. Well, kind of.” I shrugged.

Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “Well, I won’t keep you.”

She went back to her weeding.

I dodged the muddy cracks until I’d skirted the allotments to the far side, then clambered over a stile onto the rutted mud and went on up the hill. The back of my t-shirt stuck to me as I climbed and my mouth was so dry, my tongue felt too big for my mouth.

Near the top was a massive tree, standing alone on the side of the hill. It was as tall as two houses, with strong wavy arms reaching out and up, and above the thick, leafy branches, thinner ones rippled in the breeze like fingers calling me over. Inviting me into the shade. A leaf twisted and twirled through the air. I caught it and sat down, the trunk so cool against my back.

I wished I’d brought a drink. With my eyes closed, I imagined stomach-chilling apple juice with sparkling water, the crisp crunch of cucumber in a cheese wrap, the sweet smell of chocolate as I bit into a slice of cake and the summery scent of strawberries. Once I’d eaten as much as I could, I’d lie on a rug and look up at the crooked branches …

My eyes pinged open. The memory crawled over me, making my skin ripple. I’d had those things. Here with Nan. I closed my eyes and tried to get the memory back, but the picture had gone. It was just a feeling. Of being happy.

Tears leaked from my eyes. As fast as I rubbed them away, they came back. Just like when Nan died. It was just before my tenth birthday. Or just after. She’d been ill and when she came to stay I had to give her my room. It was better when Grandad came too because they’d have Mum’s bed. But not so great, because Grandad kept nagging me for being too loud, too messy … just for breathing. I’d hide in my room until they went home.

When Nan died, we went to their house. There were lots of people and sausage rolls. Then Mum and Grandad were arguing. Mum cried and made us leave before I’d finished my sausage roll.

There was something else scratching in my head, another memory. I tried squeezing it out, but it faded quicker than a sun-dried puddle.

“You came back.”

I jumped to my feet and looked around, my heart thumping in my ears.


There was no one there. Just me and the tree.

“Up here,” the voice giggled.

The branches swayed and the leaves swished and rustled. A finger of fear crept up my back. I shivered. Did Grandad live in a strange place where trees could talk?

I backed away.

“Where are you going? Come back.” The giggling stopped.

Something hit the top of my head. Not hard, but hard enough to make me snap, “Ow!” I picked up the stick and threw it back at the tree. As it cracked against the trunk, I ran.

Behind me the voice yelled: “Run away. I don’t care.”

My head screamed as I ran downhill. What was happening? Why had Mum dumped me in this freaky place?

Once I was safely on the other side of the stile, I hurried back across the allotments, hoping there’d be someone around. But even the woman I saw earlier had gone. A magpie squawked making me jump.

“Be quiet.” I waved my arms at it and ran to Grandad’s, bursting through the back door. “Grandad, there’s this tree and it …”

Grandad took two meals from the fridge and closed the door. “Go wash your hands. Dinner’s nearly ready.”

I stood for a second, the words queuing at my open mouth. He pierced holes in a plastic pack and put it in the microwave.

“Hurry up,” he said without turning.

I put my words away and went to the bathroom.

When I came down, the microwave pinged. Grandad slopped cottage pie and peas onto two plates. It was nothing like Mum’s with fluffy potatoes and crispy cheese topping. This one had lumpy mash and smelled like manure.

Grandad leaned over his plate and plunged his fork in. “Eat up, Isa. It’ll make you big and strong.”

Give you belly ache more like.

As I picked at the food, I kept thinking about the tree. Had I imagined it? Grace would say I was making it up. Like the time I saw something in the park, a face, in the water. Grace had rolled her eyes and said I was seeing things. But I hadn’t and this was just as real, and just as weird.

I pushed the mush around my plate. “Grandad? You know the tree up the hill?”

The clink of cutlery on china made me look up. Grandad dangled a slice of bread at me. His eyebrows were bushier than a squirrel’s tail, making an upside down fringe. My fingers itched to brush the grey hairs into place, but I took the bread and butter instead.

“What were you doing up there?” he asked.

I squirmed as his narrowed eyes studied me. “Nothing.”

His eyes dropped to his plate. “Finish your dinner before it gets cold.”

He mopped his gravy with the bread. When his plate was clean, he made a teeth sucking sound. I concentrated on my plate, waiting for him to speak. But he got up and tipped water from the kettle into the teapot.

“Tea?” he asked.

Before I could say no, he’d poured a cup and put it in front of me. I took a sip and nearly spat it back out. It was milky and cold.

He took his into the sitting room and put the telly on. I stayed in the kitchen and checked my phone. No messages. I went onto the Internet and searched for haunted trees. My phone said: You’re offline.

Grandad was in his beige chair, the mug balanced on the arm, watching a quiz programme.

“Grandad? What’s your Wi-Fi code?”

“Washington,” he told the TV. “My what?” He didn’t take his eyes off the screen.

“Your Wi-Fi.”

“What’s that?”

He couldn’t have been that good at quizzes if he didn’t even know what Wi-Fi was.

He threw his arms in the air and yelled at the TV, “Come on. That’s so easy. Diffusion.”

When the quiz-lady said ‘Osmosis’, Grandad grunted. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The phone rang. For a second, I thought it was mine, but was instantly disappointed. It was a totally different ringtone.

“Get that, Isa.”

I followed the ringing to the hall, to an old-fashioned black phone on a shelf under hooks of hanging coats. I picked it up.


“Hello, Pumpkin. Are you OK?”

“Mu…um, Grandad’s got no Wi-Fi.”

“No, I don’t suppose he would.” I could hear Mum smiling.

It was like being stung by a wasp. “It’s not funny.”

“I know.” Her voice went down a note. “But I’m afraid it’s a bit of a not-spot there. I doubt there’s much phone reception either. You could try the library – they’ll have Internet.”

“What’s the point of that? How am I supposed to talk to Grace?”

“You could call her from Grandad’s phone.”

“It’s not the same,” I snapped. Grace wouldn’t recognise the number. She might ignore it. Or what if she was with Olivia? What if they put me on speakerphone and made fun?

“Isa Mariella.”

My shoulders fell. Mum only used my middle name when I was in trouble.

“But it’s not fair. You can’t make me stay here.”

“I’m sorry, Isa, but you’re too young to stay home alone.”

“I’m nearly 13. Holly’s Mum lets her stay home and Eve’s allowed …”

“That’s enough,” Mum snapped. “We’re not going to keep repeating the same conversation. You know I have to work. It’s only for a few weeks and it’ll be good for you and Grandad to spend some time together. How is he?”


“What have you been doing?”



After Mum said bye, I sat on the back doorstep and fought to keep the tears inside. What was I supposed to do now? Sit out here for three weeks watching weeds grow while Grandad watched telly quiz shows? I was seriously going to die of boredom.

I tossed a stone at a broken flowerpot. As it cracked against the side, there was a voice. My shoulders hunched as I waited for Grandad to appear. But as I tuned in to hyper-hearing, I realised it was someone else. I got up and crept to the side fence, then balancing on a rusty bucket looked over the top. The fence wobbled and creaked.

It was a man with a yellow bow tie, white shirt and the biggest ears I’ve ever seen. He stopped watering his roses and turned around.

“You gave me a fright,” he said. “You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you? You look just like your mother.”

I hated it when they said that. Except for dark brown hair, I look nothing like her. She doesn’t have freckles on her nose or brown eyes. And I definitely don’t have wrinkles like Mum.

“I haven’t seen you here since your Nan …” He looked away. “Are you visiting?”

“Kind of,” I said, glancing at the back door.

His eyes did the same, then he winked. “He’s alright really. It’ll do him good having you around.”

I didn’t see how, but I ignored it and asked, “Who were you talking to?”