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The truth about the cherry blossom
It's just a tree. Isn't it?
‘It’s a cherry tree,’ they said, as we filed out to the gardens, feet crunching on the gravel path.
There was no blossom on the tree on the day they planted it. Its branches naked and fragile; the tree too young to know that one day it might be beautiful, and would be observed. Unaware of its role.
Rain sluiced down as we stood and waited. Crouched under our umbrellas, swathed in layers of misery – the cold, the rain, the loss – we listened to a man we didn't know give a speech about someone we loved, before he unveiled a shiny plaque. Her name at the top, followed by beautiful, genuine words chosen by her colleagues. And still it rained. The ground became marshy, yet we hesitated to leave the tree by itself. Wouldn’t that be like turning your back on her, somehow? It hadn’t even been a year; there’d been no anniversary to ease us into this new phase where objects and ceremonies would become avatars for the person we missed. We didn’t know how to behave.
Inside, eventually, we talked about how the world was about to change, nibbled on snacks, clutching our champagne flutes with a palmar grasp. Then it was over, and we stepped out into the rain again. And all I could think about was the tree, in the gardens, on its own.
The next couple of years made my world smaller. I cycled far across London, under the burning sun, but I didn't visit the tree. I didn't know the gates to the gardens sometimes opened to the public. What I’d have done if I’d gone there, I don’t know. I don’t pray. She wasn’t there, anyway; the tree was a memorial, not a tomb, so maybe it didn't matter. The anniversaries came and went.
On a very hot day in the summer, we returned to the tree. We knew the grim reality of anniversaries now. We laid flowers and looked upon the tree. Only a few leaves, no blossom. There wouldn’t be, in July. Photographs were taken. Perhaps it seems strange, to stand, not knowing whether to smile or simply stare ahead, but ‘they’ll want to see it, back home’ was reason enough. We decided to smile; it didn't seem fair to her memory to stand by the shiny plaque that bore her name, and scowl.
After that, I went back to the tree, often. I lived much nearer by now. Sometimes the gates would be locked, so I’d stand with my face between the railings, eyes narrowing to focus on the always bare branches, the plaque glinting as if to say it knew I was there. Occasionally, I’d be allowed in, propping up the bike and stepping gently across the soft grass to kneel by the tree, wiping the plaque of traces of nature and the evidence of life’s continuation. I didn't say, or do, anything else, or even think, really. It was just a tree.
Spring approached. Trees everywhere began to show flashes of colour, specks of summer promises. Muted pinks, brighter corals, brilliant whites and understated creams revealed. Maybe now I'd finally see the little tree in bloom. I took detours, made pilgrimages there. My pedalling would slow as I approached, scared to turn the corner in case there was nothing for me. And so it was, time after time. Harsh and naked branches.
‘It still hasn’t bloomed,’ I complained to friends, also still entangled in their own grief. ‘What if it never does? They definitely said it was a cherry tree, didn't they?’
All around me, avenues of trees in full bloom, stretching into the distance. A row of trees heavy with glimmering white blossom waited outside my own front door, the petals eventually gathering, crushed and browning, in the small yard.
But on her little cherry tree, nothing.
There was a mild petulance to my disappointment. This was something I couldn’t control; nature would have the last word. What would it mean for me to see the tree in bloom anyway? It wouldn’t bring her back. I wanted them to bloom for her, I realised. They’re a symbol of renewal, aren’t they, the cherry blossoms? Fleeting, showstopping beauty. The allegories write themselves.
‘Maybe there’s something wrong with it,’ I said after another fruitless journey. ‘It doesn’t look very well.’
The gates had not been open for a while, I couldn’t get near enough to assess its health.
‘They blossom at different times, don’t they?’ said my friend. ‘Maybe it’s late.’
It would be fitting.
I was ill for a couple of weeks, confined to the house. Breathless from climbing stairs, exhausted from stirring tea. You know the drill. The thought struck me: what if I’d missed it? Cherry trees blossom for the briefest blink in time. I began to feel sick at the thought of missing that window, having to wait another year.
Sunday, I awoke at about half-seven and pulled on tracksuit bottoms, a light jacket, and a beanie, and shuffled to the next street to hire a cycle. It was not sunny, it was not cold. There were patches of blue among the grey. Promises of summer again. I pedalled slowly, took everything in. The ground was wet and the bike’s tyres slurped as I wheeled over petals already fallen.
I was expecting the worst, which is to say, the same result as before, and before, and more. On seeing the gates were locked, I sighed. I wheeled as close as I could to the railings, squinted through the perfectly aligned gap between two lustrous hedges to see a miracle.
The same skinny trunk, those young, spindly branches, but also the brightest and freshest green leaves, still unfurling from buds, very new to all this. And among them, the emerging blossom – white, small, and fragile still, not billowing and showy like its elder cousins along the streets I’d come.
I stood for a moment, gazing through the railings, taking in every detail, and blinked away my memories.
I cycled home, past the aged, proud trees and their lush blossom. Their beauty even more special now I’d seen my little tree in all its finery. Her little tree, rather. She came through for me, just like she always did.
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