A Fictional Journey – Passing Through (The Stuff of Life)

You will always find my Aunt in front of the window, in the presence of her London Plane tree, wrapped inside her memories (only good ones). And with her I too feel happy.

For my Aunt the hardships do not exist anymore. When I’m with her even I forget about the difficulties, the supposed ‘stuff of life’ that the world carries on their shoulders and daily complain about through loud, honking horns and protests and demands, tunneling endlessly through the system’s churning engine. When I look down upon the pavement and the passersby through her window I can almost see the force of the invisible yoke that keeps them close to the ground. Scurrying past with their bodies bent forwards against the weight of the dying day, they seem only to be aware of the change in weather by noticing the first signs of winter accumulate in a slippery layer of frost under their busy feet; scuffling forwards over dusty-coloured weeds and making their way over cracks in the pavements as the warm season descends; the sky a spherical paper weight pressing down on them.

Even before some memories started fading for her, my Aunt was someone who moved with the seasons. Her life was completely in tune with that of the farm she lived on and with for 65 years.

‘When there is only silence around you, you learn to listen to the weather, to watch nature closely. It starts guiding you. It becomes your inner voice. Ask your Mother next time you see her. She knows it as well as I do.’

Never do I remind her that my Mother had passed away four years ago, only just a year after she got my Aunt settled in suburban London.

They were twins. Almost identical in appearance, in mannerisms.  Mirrored in each other, my mother used to tell me how she had no need for calendars. In the face of her twin she could read the lines that time left, the scars and signposts of a shared childhood. The rings of years past echoed through her and her sister in much the same way.

When my Aunt was moved to London she did so with an air of dignity and grace and quiet acceptance.

‘Life is all about adapting, acclimatising to the changing seasons,’ she told me, studying and then wiping her palm over the worry lines on my forehead, as we helped her to move in.

Aunt’s single bedroom, third storey flat looks out towards the shop facades on the opposite side of the High Street. Like a canopy overhanging the busy High Street, her tall London Plane taps against her window when the cold wind blows; it often droops down heavy with rain; bows its crest glistening with ice in winter; catches the first rays of sunlight and changes its seasonal face without fail.

A backdrop to her life, the Plane seems to anchor her past to the changing, never-ending spiral of time, while simultaneously rooting her in the present. So many times my Aunt, ever content in front of the window, would remind me of a boat harboured in a bay, calmly swaying ever so slightly on an ingoing and outgoing tide. And enfolded in its branches, its silken leaves, its ever-changing faces, the Plane would seem to hold in place the sky above the rooftops.

The weather never an inconvenience, my Aunt would declare herself as ‘Right as rain!’ on rainy evenings, as I irritably try not to trudge mud and a soaked umbrella into her tiny living room.

Reflected in the window, on evenings like these, her face would sometimes be indistinguishable from the creamy bark of the Plane, the raindrops mixing a camouflaged palette on the wet pane.

It is more than a use of pathetic fallacy. There is an honesty, a plain truth in the way in which my Aunt had found her place in the world, within the swirling ebb and flow of life and how she verbalises it

As the daily London grime is rinsed away by the rain, the Plane’s tough, leathery, sycamore-like leaves are left a hopeful, rich green in summer time, turning into the bright hues of orange and yellow before tumbling to the ground in autumn. Forever preparing for a new season, naturally and effortlessly determined.

Already elevated physically and mentally above street-level my Aunt has no need or desire, like me – always questioning, always searching – to look down.

‘When you’re down there, it’s always better to look up,’ she told me one day when I was yet again peering down at the ever-flowing line of human traffic down below.

I turned around, surprised, massaging my sudden aching neck from all that craning to get a better view of the world I was part of every day. She was looking through the window herself and as I turned back, the sky – held within the mottled, speckled branches of the London Plane – was on fire: a huge lava lamp dripping with the colours of molten glass. Amazed and slightly puzzled, I didn’t know how I missed such a beautiful sight.

When I – forever analysing, endlessly researching – asked my aunt if she knew that her tree was a hybrid between the Oriental Plane and American Plane, she only smiled. Maybe she had no more need of concrete facts, I thought. Perhaps she instinctively knew when she’s met another kindred spirit.

There are times, especially during the first and last hazy light of dusk and dawn, that she would sweep her fingers lightly from right to left over the window pane – a dreamy, gentle motion. The home carers don’t understand. They think she’s confused but I know that she’s paging through the chapters of her life. Skipping over the blank pages where once the sad chapters of her life starkly lay. But now these events don’t bother her because somehow they’ve disappeared from the pages of her memory. Passed and forgotten, they had turned into thin, slightly see-through rice paper, temporarily shadowing the good times seen through the silk screen of the hard times worn thin.

The window cleaners, who clean the building’s windows without fail once every two months, are some of her closest friends. She feeds them sandwiches and cups of tea through the big sash window. Although they are only supposed to use their ladders occasionally, they always take a few minutes to rest on them in front of her open window, shielded from too many prying eyes by the maple-like leaves of the London Plane, shaped like five pointed stars. Her in her armchair and them with their scrubbers, squeegees and microfibre cloths, perched on their ladders on the other side of the windowsill, chattering like old friends, bringing her bits of news from the outside world.

‘The swallows,’ she calls them. ‘They’ve travelled so far to come and see me.’

And as my corporate life seems to swallow my days and my nights, I find myself reading up even more about the London Plane tree. On the train, on the bus, during small windows of time and light like my 15 minute lunch breaks. As I read, I can feel myself breathing deeply. I learn that the London Plane flourishes in London due to its hardy characteristics, that it requires little root space and can survive in most soils.

Looking up at the tree, having anchored itself deep below the foundations of the cement pavement, I can sense its confidence. Completely sure of itself and self-sufficient, it stands holding its own in the merciless breath of a sleepless city, reinventing itself to be carried away on the rhythm of passing time.

And upstairs, in the dappled light falling through the Plane’s branches, expanded into a canopy-like structure like the outstretched palm of a hand, I know that my Aunt is sitting rooted in her chair, the different shades of day and evening washing over her line-less face. As if her wise acceptance, her moving with the tide and not against it, left her physically unscathed.

Apparently, I read, none of the London Planes is known to have died of old age. Ageless they seem to have guarded London’s suburban population. And I start forcing myself to look at things in a different way. I try to look up more; to appreciate the bits of nature that pushes its way into the urban domain and I try to breathe through work days too where we are all raging against the machine with forced, corporate smiles and dishonest, seemingly polite, e-mail templates while the daily grind is threatening to mill us into grey particles of fine ash.

And I try to listen more closely. My Aunt has always told me many stories. Never repeating one of them. On many difficult days it is from the transformative nature of her stories that I keep within myself that I draw my strength. Never has my Aunt’s demeanour been terribly demonstrative or dramatic but there is always laughter in her eyes, the enjoyment of her memories beaming through her. Sometimes when she tells her tales, I can hear the carers moving extra quietly through the kitchen as they strain to hear, a respectful silencing of their actions.

In her life she had to train herself to bend nature to her will. Running a farm has never been an easy task.

‘But there is no need for ruthless farming. You can always give back what you have received. Like in any relationship it’s about give and take and maintaining that balance. In the end, one needs to be able to live with oneself.’

My favourite story is how once, when they were children, her and my mother covered up the scarecrows so the crows could have their fill. No more does she speak of the punishment that followed.

‘In their neat, black suits they would peck at the seeds as if they were gathering precious secrets. After they’ve had their fill, your Mum and I would follow their footprints, the imprints of their sharp beaks, like marks left by freshly sharpened pencils, in the soil. I imagined that they left a thank you letter to the farmer. Although, needless to say, there was no meeting of minds between farmer and crow.’

It is a Friday and the first Corporate Mindfulness Day we’ve ever had at work.  All gathered around the big table in the boardroom, I make sure that I get the chair closest to the window. The tired faces of my colleagues look up expectantly at the guru who looks calm and ready to deliver to all the secret of finding the Holy Grail of survival and happiness within the workplace, some magical formula to keep at bay the stuff of life, how to inhabit your happy place wherever and whenever.

As his calm voice starts to chant of living in the moment my gaze wanders towards the slightly opened window.

The London Plane is unusual, I remember, in that it can flourish despite pollarding. Its branches need no pruning. Self-sufficiently it regenerates itself, containing its good looks and vitality by shaking itself free of pollutants as the patterned bark breaks away in large flakes.

Outside I can see the first leaves starting to fall, preparing for a cold winter. It’s like yesterday that the city started preparing itself for the big frost.

Suddenly, as if looking through my Aunt’s eyes, I can see the London Plane’s flowers develop into their clustery spiky fruits, like little ball-shaped baubles, that slowly break up over winter to release their seeds.  And I can see the new green leaves of spring already pushing through. And it makes me feel inexplicably happy.