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  • Writer's picturecatherine@allaboutwriters

The old man

A flash of dark green catches his eye as the earth tumbles over. He bends, flicking dirt aside with the back of his fingers, scratching around in the spot until the treasure is found. It’s an army man, ironically missing his right arm and just maintaining balance on a leg that looks to have been burnt. He rubs it against his pants and passes it to the old man, knowing this treasure all too well. The old man takes it on the palm of his hand, as brown as the earth before them, marked with lines of age and experience.

“Good times, hey Dad?” he asks, relieved by the acknowledging smile and slow nod the old man returns.

The girl comes over to examine this treasure that has been buried since the childhood of her father and uncles, in this space that transformed over a lifetime from a newly acquired block to a dusty cricket pitch, with additions of an abundantly-producing veggie patch and fruit trees. This garden told the story of their lives. It was the place the old man was always content, not new, no accent, just at home.

The girl returns to the dirt, pulling weeds and peeking under rocks in search of something to share with the magpies that warble nearby. They hippity-hop just outside her reach, heads tilting with curiosity before breaking out into a their gargling, gurgling, bubbling song. They seem to be calling to her, singing to be noticed. The old man hears this familiar song and turns his head, but his expression is blank. For years he has fed this magpie family scraps of bread and burnt toast, chatting away to them as he nurtured his garden. He used to speak of the earth that he turned in his hands as a boy in a country far away, with a father he lost so young, and of the bird they kept in their small flat on the edge of the ancient town. It had a song like the magpie, he used to say.

“Ready to plant over here, Dad”, says the son. Apologising to her magpie friends, the girl races to the seeds that sit at the feet of the old man. She looks to the old man who looks to his son.

“Broad beans here, hey Pa?” The girl finds the packet, passes it beneath the old man’s gaze and hands it to her father. They plant the rows of seed one by one, kneeling side by side on the ground. Thumb into the earth, seed into the hole, along until the row is done, then back along the row to cover. This is the old man’s routine, his way of doing this, just as he did alongside his sons so many times. Just as he had done alongside his own father as a boy on a small plot of land near where he collected water from the well.

As the girl’s thumb presses into the earth, it hits something hard. After a quick search, she holds up a marble so covered in grime it needs to be wet it to uncover the pattern. She passes it to her father who smiles and shows the old man who also smiles, then pockets the treasure (as he does with so many tiny things now).

“Remember those marble runs we used to make in the garden bed, Dad?” he asks, voice full of hope. The girl says she thinks that marble might be hers, you know, but the treasure is already forgotten by the old man.

“L’acqua”, murmurs the old man. The girl takes her grandfather’s shaky hand and helps him to his feet, passing him the hose and racing to turn on the tap. As the water comes through, there’s a glint in the old man’s eye as he turns his body as if looking elsewhere, spraying the girl and delighting in the cry of indignation that comes. In these rare moments, there is a memory so imprinted into muscle that it pushes through the fog and confusion. It connects the old man with his life, his past, his present, with them just for a moment. A moment so precious and so fleeting, it disappears in a flash like a glimmer of sunshine reflecting on a racing-away river. And then it’s gone for the old man, this rare moment. But the girl and her father will talk about it again and again in the days that follow, telling it to the rest of the family and reliving every detail.

For now, the old man turns to fill the ice-cream bucket that sits by the garden for the birds, as he has done for over fifty years, and takes his seat once again as the magpies skip along the path to drink, while his son leans over to begin another row of planting. And so it goes.

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