F “Do all large things not grow from small ones?”
He pressed down the soil around the base of the sapling with his bare hands. He stood up and shielded his eyes with one hand along his eyebrows. The sun was so intense that it was hard to bare outside the shade. He looked down at the tree and then turned to look at his son.
F “This tree might yet outlive both you and me.”
His son, David, was only 5 apples tall. He had a white hat with a broad rim to protect him from the sun. He held a small watering can which looked oversized in his tiny hands.
F “Do you want to give it water?”
Without answering the boy stepped forward and began clumsily watering the sapling.
F “Make sure you give it everything as it is very hot today.”
D “Will the water help it grow?”
F “It will.”
D “Do we need to give it water everyday?”
F “No, it will grow deep roots.”
The father stepped into the shade of another, full grown tree. The boy followed.
F “Do you see this tree? It has roots as deep as the tree is tall.”
The boy instinctively looked up from underneath its canopy. He couldn’t see the top as the dense foliage obstructed the view. He didn’t really need to look up. He knew the tree well. He knew it was higher than the house. He could watch the birds sitting on the branches from his room upstairs. He couldn’t imagine the roots being that long. He didn’t even know the earth went down that deep. Dad leaned against the trunk of the tree with his hands resting on his knees. He was getting out of breath. David could sense something was wrong. He couldn’t quite tell what. Dad looked at his son and forced a smile. He put up a brave face to not alarm him.
D “Are you alright, Dad?”
F “Everything is fine. Let’s go inside.”
Dad stood fully upright as he walked across the garden. He couldn’t help doing it unusually slowly however.
David was sent upstairs to play in his room to give Dad some rest. Dad sat down in his sofa. He looked at the sapling. Barely the size of his thumb from where he was sitting. He taught of the memories he had hopefully created for his son just like the tree next to it brought back memories of his father and himself planting a sapling. He had been a bit older than his son when that tree had been planted. People don’t choose the time of their departure.
Time flew past like the wind through the leaves of a sapling and it became a tree and gained 20 rings as a witness to the years no one believed had passed so quickly. David was a dashing young man. He sat in an armchair in his office wearing an expensive suit. He looked at the door and then at his Rolex. He thought of Wendy and he thought of the Smiths. He heard a knock. They were on time.
D “Come in.”
David got up and walked towards the door to greet the Smiths. Chris and Jenna Smith walked in. They looked at one of the desks which had mountains of paperwork.
C “You are very busy.”
D “Oh, this is John’s desk. We share this office with some other real estate agents. John’s desk always looks very busy. I think he is trying to impress us.”
D “He has this very interesting paperweight here.”
David grabbed the beige object from the stack of papers. He held it so the Smiths could have a clear view.
C “I noticed that. What is it?”
D “This is a fossil. It is more than 65 million years old. This one is called a coprolite.”
C “Are you serious?”
D “John calls this stack the dead files. These are houses he gave up on selling. So a colleague of his bought him a fossil to put on his dead files. I am sure there was no pun intended there.”
The Smiths laughed. Chris seemed to really enjoy the joke, Jenny just seemed polite. David moved towards the corner of the room where there was just a coffee table and a couple of armchairs.
D “This is my corner of the office. I thought the best way to keep very organised is to not have a desk.”
He held up a brown, leather satchel.
D “This is my entire office.”
C “Oh, very good.”
David gestured at the armchairs.
D “Please make yourself comfortable.”
Wendy just walked in the door. She noticed the Smiths were already there and joined the meeting.
D “You have met Wendy, my business partner.”
C “We have, she is very lovely.”
There were handshakes, more small talk and further formalities. David looked around the office.
D “It’s a small place but it has served us well.”
C “It’s great. Do all large things not grow from small ones?”
D “Sure, that’s what my dad used to say. I’ll tell you now, I started very small. I had to borrow the money to buy a suit for my first job. It was a cottage. It had been owned by an old couple and they were just deceased. They had kept it in perfect condition. I didn’t really know what I was doing back then but I had a bit of the gift of the gab as they say over here.”
C “You sure do.”
D “So anyway, I sold that cottage pretty quickly and my employer was satisfied. It didn’t take long for me to fire him and work for myself.”
Chris laughed. Jenny smiled.
D “All large things grow from small ones. You are quite right there. That house might look small to you now but wait a few years and you will see. The market is going up. You will be able to sell it with a profit and buy something bigger.”
C “We were thinking of extending. Once you are settled, it is so hard to move.”
D “Sure you could do that. Many people do it.”
W “My neighbours just built a new greenhouse. It is the loveliest thing.”
D “Well, you seem to already imagine yourselves living there. This is great. If I were you I would decide quickly as Rebecca was asking to view the house yesterday.”
David was looking at Wendy as he said that. She knew exactly what he was saying and nodded. It was not technically a lie. Rebecca was a friend, a landlady and always interested in houses that could use a little help. Chris Smith looked at his wife and laid his hand on hers.
C “I think we are of the mind that we are going to buy it.”
No doubt his careful phrasing had been a question more than an affirmation. Jenny nodded.
D “Do you have the booking fee?”
C “Yes, certainly.”
Chris opened up his suit jacket to take out a brown envelope. David lifted the flap of his satchel and picked out a paper and a fancy pen. He placed them on the little coffee table between him and the Smiths.
D “I will just need your scribibble right there.”
D “Your signature.”
Mr Smith smiled. He signed with a heavy hand, pressing hard on the pen and producing thick lines which filled up more than half the space. Once done, he held out the pen for his wife. Her signature was more gentle with thin, curvy lines neatly in the corner. David quickly counted the money in the envelope and placed it in the satchel.
D “Well, that’s wonderful. Congratulations. I will send all the documentation to your solicitor and the solicitor of the seller. These are the final stages of the process. It is nearly finished now. I wish you many happy years in your new home.”
C “Thank you.”
The couple soon left. Once the paper was signed, David’s appetite for small talk disappeared and the air in the room thickened. The Smiths didn’t need much of a cue to leave as they were eager to celebrate. David looked at his business partner with his hands in his pockets. He had loosened his tie.
W “You did it again, master.”
D “I couldn’t do it without you.”
W “Don’t mention it.”
She may well have said that but she smiled and looked very flattered. David smiled back.
D “There is a new house which just became available. I might need your team to make it market-ready. It belonged to a widow who just passed away. She kept it very tidy so it shouldn’t be a lot of work. The window frames will need a lick of paint. The door to the kitchen will need a drop oil or the hinges might have to be replaced altogether. You will see, I guess.”
David didn’t mention the widow had been his mother. He wanted to move on as soon as possible. Wendy leaned against the armchair crossing her legs and folding her hands.
W “Nothing my boys can’t handle.”
David turned to look at the pile of paper under the fossil.
D “John might have fewer dead files if he did the same thing. People just want to feel at home already when they visit a house. You just have to make it look nice. A bit of paint here and some plastic flowers in the corner there. I don’t understand why he doesn’t do it.”
W “He doesn’t want the expense.”
D “Saving pennies to lose pounds.”
David turned again, this time to look at the fossil on top of the dead files.
D “Do you know what a coprolite is?”
Wendy shook her head.
W “I am not really interested.”
D “I won’t tell you then.”
The next morning at 9 o’clock sharp David was standing outside the house his parents had owned. He could see Wendy approaching in the distance. David showed her around the house as he routinely would. They discussed the money they were expecting to make. They discussed things which would have to be fixed and Wendy was taking notes.
D “There is a large garden too.”
David walked into the garden and stopped dead in his tracks. He stared, stunned, at a majestic tree full of pink flowers. It reached high into the sky; it must have been 5 meters. David gasped. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting. It is a tree. It had been 20 years. Of course it was going to grow. He just didn’t remember the place like that.
W “Is there a problem?”
D “It is a tree.”
She smiled awkwardly.
D “I planted this tree with my dad back when I was only 5 apples high.”
W “What about the other trees?”
David looked around the garden. He knew there were 5 trees. There had always been five trees. For as long as he could remember anyway, until he and his dad planted the sixth one. His father used to always say that the house had been in the family for five generations. He had never made a connection. Could it be? Suddenly he felt like a damp cloth had fallen on his shoulders. His dad had died soon after that tree had been planted. He had gone living with his uncle as his mother was not able to take care of him by herself. Was his dad continuing a tradition? He woke out of his daydream realizing Wendy had asked him a question.
D “I don’t know.”
He moved forward towards the tree. He stood in the circle of shade it cast and looked up. He couldn’t see the sun through the foliage. He stepped forward to touch the bark. His fingers slid over the rippled surface. David knew in that moment that he was not selling the house. It was silly. He knew that too. But he wasn’t selling it. Had he let life get ahead of him without taking a pause?
W “Are you alright, David?”
David couldn’t fully suppress a tear.
D “Would there be tea here?”
David already knew he was not going to sell the house. He just hadn’t figured out how to tell her that yet.
D “Is there tea here? My parents used to live here. My mother died a few weeks ago. The water and the electricity were never switched off. I told the neighbour he could take all the perishables. I don’t know if he touched the tea. Do you want a cup?”
W “I … well.”
She was a little stumped. It wasn’t David’s habit to make tea.
W “Are you sure you are okay?”
D “You know what? Now I think of it, I am remarkably well. I’ll just make you a cup. You don’t have to drink it.”
David went inside and opened the cupboards. They were empty except for a few plates and mugs. He looked around on the counter. There was an old kettle in the corner with its lead wound round it. He unwound it and filled it with water, rinsing it a few times first. Wendy must have heard the noise of running water as she walked into the kitchen.
W “Have you found teabags?”
W “How are you making tea?”
D “I am making a cup of hot water.”
D “I planned on making a hot drink so that’s what I am doing.”
David stood by the kettle waiting for the water to boil. He looked around to fully take in his surroundings. He thought he knew the place well but now it looked so different. His mother’s glasses were not on the kitchen table. There were no newspapers on the fireplace mantle. The trash bin was empty. The absence of all those little touches made the place look so cold, so hollow. He looked at Wendy.
D “How many houses have we sold together?”
W “I don’t know. Dozens.”
D “Do you ever stand still to think of the little things?”
Her eyes opened wide.
W “You mean kids?”
D “No, I mean the little things. The things that don’t make money. The breeze on your face, the shade under the trees, the pitter patter of the rain.”
She smiled embarrassed with one finger under her nose. He sensed his point was not getting across. He poured two cups of hot water and gave her one of them.
D “For example, you know how John boasts that he is an excellent cook?”
D “One evening Tom went to eat at John’s house and he got really sick.”
W “Oh, my goodness.”
She suppressed a smile as she didn’t really want to laugh at Tom getting sick. Having heard John’s boasts, she couldn’t help herself though.
D “So Tom said nothing about it to John but the following week he bought John a paperweight for his dead files. He told him it was a fossil; something very old. So he could have a dead thing to put on his dead files. They both thought it was very funny and John got excited. Then Tom told him it was a coprolite. He expected John to ask what a coprolite was and then to have the fossil thrown at his face. But John never asked and Tom said nothing more.”
W “What is a coprolite?”
D “It’s fossilized dinosaur dung.”
She put her hand to her mouth. They both laughed. David could barely talk.
D “Tom and I thought John would eventually Google it and get mad. He never did.”
W “But he proudly shows that to all his customers. Look, here is a coprolite.”
David laughed even louder.
D “And no one ever asks what a coprolite is. I wish they did. Will you ask what a coprolite is when John is in the room?”
Wendy vigorously shook her head. David was disappointed.
D “So you know, do you ever notice the little things?”
W “I have never noticed that but I will now every time I enter the office.”
D “I have lived at 200 per hour making all that money. I haven’t stood still enough to take in the little things. My dad said that he didn’t have any money or much of a skill to pass on to me. All he could give me was a tree and some memories. I never realized how much that memory meant to me. My dad died when I was just 5 apples high.”
He shook his head.
D “I used to get mad when he said that. ‘I am a lot taller than 5 apples’, I used to say to him.”
David looked at her, then he looked through the window at the tree.
D “Do you see this tree? The roots go down deeper than the tree is high.”
W “You are joking!?”
D “No. That tree sucks carbon dioxide from the air, mixes it with water and exudes it through its roots.”
W “Why would it do that?”
D “It feeds the fungus in the soil. The carbon dioxide mixed with water is acidic. The fungus uses that to dissolve rocks deep underground and release nutrients like calcium from the rocks and feed it back to the tree.”
W “Really? They work together like that?”
D “Yeah, all the trees in this garden do. They are all connected by a web of fungus. If the soil lacks some nutrient over here but there is an excess of it over there, the fungus will move it to where it’s needed.”
W “No way! How do you know all that?”
D “My dad taught me. He read a lot.”
David turned his head slowly to face Wendy.
D “I am not selling this house.”
He half-expected her to get mad. Instead she just looked at him while sipping her hot water.
W “What are you going to do with it?”
D “I am going to live in it.”
W “What about your penthouse?”
He shrugged. He really didn’t care about that right there and then.
D “I am going to plant a tree in that garden. I need to get a sapling. Would you like to be there with me when I plant it?”
W “I would love to.”
D “I might offer you another cup of hot water then.”
D “Or I might have bought tea by that time.”
W “I will be very pleased to plant it with you.”
Just a few days later David and Wendy stood in the garden. David held the sapling in one hand. He grabbed the label with the other hand to better read it.
D “Here is it; Prunus serrulata, cherry blossom tree. Where will I plant it?”
Wendy looked around.
W “What about right here?”
D “Well, that’s very close to the patio.”
W “Yeah, why not?”
David considered for a second.
D “You know what, that’s a brilliant idea. When I am retired in 20 years time, I will be able to have tea every day in the shade of that tree while sitting on the patio.”
He knelt down. He gave the sapling to Wendy to have free hands to dig a little hole. Wendy knelt down too and placed the tree in the hole. David pulled the dirt back towards the tree. Wendy pressed the dirt down around the tree. As David was moving the dirt with his hands and Wendy used her hands to press it down, their hands found each other and touched. They looked up to look each other in the eye. They stood still for a second then kissed over the sapling.
D “When I drink that tea in 20 years time in the shade of this tree, I would like you to sit next to me.”
W “I will be glad to be there.”
And so for a while time stood still. David and Wendy sat on chairs on the patio. David had his arm around Wendy. They both held a cup of tea. They looked at the stars. They didn’t talk about yesterday, they didn’t talk about tomorrow. They focused on the present moment. By their feet, a little sapling was just 5 apples high.