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The Tree of Life

by Rebecca Neil

I saw him every day on the train.   He was a small, elderly man, shrunk in his skin but hardy like old oak.  Always carrying some sort of gardening paraphernalia, he stood on sometimes crowded trains in a self-contained pool of serenity amongst harrassed commuters, chattering tourists and screaming children.  One morning he was standing over an enormous bag of compost.  When he started to struggle with it off the train I jumped up to help him.  I'm not sure why to this day.  I wasn't getting off at that stop and would normally have let some other altruistic person help but some unseen hand seemed to urge me on, I felt a pressing need to be the person who helped him.  I ended up offering to help him carry the compost to wherever he was going. We made the standard small talk of weather, rush hour, unreliable trains and roadworks.  Our destination turned out to be a wasteground surrounded by ring fencing with fading signs from more than one building contractor.  The old man squeezed in through a gap in the fence and I followed after a brief three-way wrestling match between myself, the compost bag and the fence.  The abandoned building site had been colonised by plants.  Been colonised by weeds, some would say, but the vibrant purple flashes of the buddleia and the tall proud stems of the London Pride could never seem like weeds to me.  I'm not a gardener, my "garden" is limited to a window sill, but I don't think I could bring myself to spray noxious weed-killing chemicals on a creeping white wall of morning glory.  The old man had scuttled over to a tree sapling and was fussing around it.  I lugged the bag over to him and he thanked me profusly, immediately ripping it open.  I had a moment to notice that around the sapling the weeds had been cleared and the soil carefully tended.  The man tenderly placed some of the compost around the sapling's stem, dusted his hands as he turned to me, beaming like a child and offered me a cup of tea.  I looked helplessly around at the weedy landscape and it's lack of tea-making facilities.   He twinkled disconcertingly at me and bustled off to a big clump of shrubbery.  After some routing he re-surfaced with a world-weary looking rucksack which he dragged back to me.  Like Mary Poppins he produced the contents.   The bag seemed to contain the whole universe, like that Aboriginal legend; folding stools, boxes, bags, biscuits, flask, primus stove...  The list went on.  He set up the primus stove and got a kettle going then set up a couple of folding stools.  After the ritual of tea-making that is so precious to the English he sat back and sighed.
 "Don't you want to know?"  He asked.  I nodded that I did and as we supped our cuppas he proceeded to explain.
 
A week ago he'd noticed, through the fence, the sapling struggling through the more aggressive plants around it.   He'd stood and stared, feeling its pain and its will to survive in a hostile world.  His gardening instincts over-rided his common-sense and he pushed through the fence to clear it some space.  As he got closer he recognised it as a young apple tree.  He explained that as he touched it, tending it, he felt a suffusion of knowledge, a certainty like the Sun that this was a descendant of the original Tree of Life as described in Genesis.  For the rest of the day he sat with it, bathing in the touch of God that radiated from it.   When he finally went home he recovered, from the attic, his gardening equipment that had retired when he did.  Every day since he'd returned to protect and help what he believed was the holiest of trees.
 
I didn't mean to, I'd tried to keep my face blank as he told his story, but he must have sensed my scepticism somehow.
"How else would an apple tree be growing here in the depths of a city if not planted by the hand of God?"  He asked, in the manner of one asking the Ultimate Question that has no answer.  I could have given him a dozen theories, starting with an animal, human or otherwise discarding an apple core all the way through to the process of seed-bombing, wrapping seeds in wet newspaper and throwing them into unkempt patches like this one.  I chose not to present these alternatives.   He probably wouldn't have accepted them anyway and, if he did, I didn't want to be the one who destroyed his faith and excitement at this plucky little sapling.  Instead, I nodded and attempted to adopt a thoughtful expression.  He smiled beningly, clearly not believing that I had accepted his theory but choosing not to evangalise on it any further.  I finished my tea, stood to leave and asked if there was anything else I could do for him, mostly out of automatic politeness, a little because I didn't want this strange experience to end and hardly at all because I genuinely wanted to help him.  The old man looked up shyly and asked if I could possibly, if it was no trouble, fetch him a pint of milk, he said powdered didn't taste the same.   Not wishing powdered milk on even my worst enemy, I took myself to the nearest corner shop and returned with his milk but refused his offer of money.  As I struggled back through the gap in the fence, I looked back to the small, hunched figure staring fixedly at the whippy young tree and lost in piety.  For the rest of the day that image flickered through my mind.  The following morning I found myself once again at the wasteland, clutching another pint of milk and wondering what in the world I was doing there.  I didn't know this man, I didn't really believe his tree was supplanted from Eden but something drew me back, even on my day off.   It was later in the day and I discovered I was not the only visitor.  The old man was pleased to see me, but perhaps more pleased to see the pint of milk I was carrying.  It appeared I was not the only person who had heard the old man's story and not the only one to feel compelled to re-visit him and his tree.   I felt less special but it was interesting to stand and watch the other visitors.  I could recognise in some the same perplexed feeling I had that they didn't quite know why they were here.  In others, I saw an almost frightening conviction and zeal that the tree was indeed The Tree.  The old man still radiated the same calm that I'd first noticed on that busy train.  He seemed vaguely uninterested in the people around him, spending most of his time tending to the tree, even sharing his cup of tea with it, occasionally touching it tentatively.  Over the next few days I visited the man and his tree every day, coming to know the other visitors.  The old man was becoming quite the tourist attraction and I felt a certain pride that I was the provider of milk to the old man and that my milk was shared with the Tree of Eden, not that I believed it, of course.  All through the summer the tree flourished and grew as did the old man's crowd.   The zealots got worse, shouting theological debates bounced through the weed-strewn patch of ground.  An inner circle was created with admission to the Holy Tree strictly controlled.  I, as the Deliverer of Milk, was permitted entry to the hallowed land and found the old man looking somewhat lost and confused among his disciples, refusing to be drawn into arguments, letting them answer their own questions on the nature of reality and philosophy.  I don't think he'd expected this.  He'd just wanted to care for the tree and feel its sanctity.  I doubt he'd wanted to be the centre of a cult or a tourist attraction or an example of man's gullibility or even a testament of faith in a cynical world.  He looked as if he desperately wanted to leave these wailing preachers and crying nay-sayers but didn't want to abandon his little tree.
 
This small world continued through the autumn and into the winter.  The tourists drifted away, leaving only the most ardent, who had always been the most terrifying; the little old man, increasingly worried about his little tree surviving a harsh winter; and me, bringing milk.  It was as the temperature started to creep down towards single digits that Social Services took an interest, quietly questioning the old man, his disciples and me.   What was he doing here, they wondered.  I tried to explain but the words sounded ridiculous as they came up my throat and my tongue refused to say them.  All I could say was that he liked the tree, he loved the tree.  Social Services didn't think that explanation sufficient, and the old man's explanation they found even less sufficient.  An old man saying that he believed the tree had been grown by the Lord?   Well, they couldn't have that.  They had to care for him in his frail old age and tend to his crumbling mind.  I had never seen even the slightest glimmer of insanity in the old man's eyes, he was erudite, quietly spoken and had never once forgotten my name or anyone else's.  But Social Services were convinced that the slow onset of dementia was responsible for this deviant behaviour.  I tried to argue with them when they started talking about forcibly taking him away and, I'm ashamed to say, stopped when they started looking at me as if the next call they made would be for me.  The disciples fought even more.  The police were called.  Heavy boots trampling around the tree while the old man looked on in horror, gently embracing the tree to try and keep it safe.  It was unpleasant and made me want to cry.
 
One morning I arrived to find the hole in the fence closed very permanently.  On the site there was no sign of the old man but there were some men in high visibility vests busily measuring and consulting clipboards.  The apple tree was still there as were the disciples, outside the fencing, raging and shouting at the men inside who had their backs very expressively towards them.  One of them took a moment from shouting obscenities that would shock a docker to explain to me that they had come in the middle of the night and taken the old man away.  He had gone quietly, I was told, never taking his eyes from the tree until the door to the van was closed and he was driven away.  They hadn't been told where he was taken and I was privately horrified to recall that I had never asked him his name and so couldn't find out where he had gone.  I stared in at the still fragile looking tree about to be the centre of an inner city building site, wanting to break through the fencing with my bare hands and supplant it somehow to a modern garden paradise.  The old man hadn't wanted to remove the tree though I had suggested it some time before.  He told me that the tree had chosen its site in the midst of a chaotic, bustling city that never paused for breath or reflection and that is where it would stay.  But now there was nobody left to protect it.  A feeling of helplessness washed across me in a wave, which was stupid because I'm sure there was something I could have done.  Joined the shouting, railing ranters, perhaps.  Or attempted to separate myself from them and do something else, try something, do something to protect the little tree that my heart and mind suddenly ached for.  I didn't do anything.  I left before the police arrived again to arrest the disorderly disciples.
 
A few years later, on the way to a meeting, I found myself walking past a self-consciously modern building that I realised, with a flash of blinding white memory, was the same site as my old friend and his tree.  Perhaps it was the sometimes overpowering influence of memory, perhaps it was overactive imagination but as I passed the sliding front doors of the building and glanced through the foyer to an open garden courtyard I was certain that I smelled apple blossom and saw a few delicate white petals dancing on the breeze towards me.