FOR two weeks I had watched the quiet old man who lived next to me, leave through his rusty swing gate out to the barren patch of cracked concrete with a watering can. Wearing a grubby promotional cap from some resort which hid his grey and black hairs, he shuffled out towards the middle of the concrete carrying the can with ease. Those days when he had overfilled the galvanised can, water splashed out leaving a trail of Rorschach like patterns behind him.
Slowly his battered tartan slippers crept over the surface, then he’d stop. Usually he’d look around after putting the can down, having a scan of the familiar surroundings as if hoping for some change from the gates, back yards and dried up gardens flanked by a lazy road oozing tar.
All of this, always in the afternoon between one and two. I felt guilty that I’d never spoken to him despite having lived two doors down for most of a year. It’s not like I was busy with a job. I had no excuses. Because then, I was only eight years old on summer holiday from school. I would stand at the top of the stairs in my parents house and part the dirty lace curtain enough to peer out and watch the ritual take place, always alert to one o’clock on my flimsy plastic wrist watch. Around that time no matter where I was I’d scamper up the stairs and wait, to see that watering can empty over the cracks which had opened up on the middle of the concrete skin, as it aged and baked in the sun. Up and down the lines he’d go, carefully letting out droplets of water, then with a cursory glance back he’d go toward that rusty black gate and up the grassy path to his backdoor. Why?
My dad was lounging in the porch reading a daily. He hated to be bothered while buried in the news but I had to ask.
‘Why does that man water the concrete?’ I inquired from the doorway, half in half out.
A stern look glanced my way over spectacles and he paused before answering, ‘That man…his lift doesn’t quite go to the top floor.’ And with that he was involved in another story, eyes down, detached.
I didn’t know what he meant and he didn’t quite know that I wouldn’t understand. For the rest of the day thoughts focused on lifts, elevators and even escalators. The dictionary only helped to confuse me even more and my mum wouldn’t be home for quite some time. That was my dads way of saying she’d left him. And us.
For the next three days I watched. The gate opening, the can carrying, the watering and the return. The old man even watered the cracks in the same order dressed in some t-shirt or another with his jogging bottoms. The next day I could wait no longer – I marched out the backyard through a rusty gate and intercepted him as he returned, can swinging freely. Before I could speak he fired a friendly smile from the corner of his mouth under the shade of his hat. I stopped abruptly and looked up at him. ‘Why do you water the concrete?’ My boyish voice seemed scarcely capable of being heard but he heard alright.
Glancing down at the can he chuckled before lifting his cap off and stooping down a bit. ‘In the middle of the cracks, there is earth and something nice might just grow out of there. I think that’s a gamble worth taking.’ He winked and returned the cap to its rightful place before meandering back home.
In my stupidity I blurted out, ‘Does your lift go to the top floor?!’
He kept walking then stopped and turned around, a silhouette I’ll forever remember. Nodding in the direction of the concrete he said,’I guess we’ll see.’
And with that he was gone. Not just for that day but forever. I never saw him again. Not at 1pm, not at 2. I even waited hours before and after his usual appearance times. The summer seemed to drag its hot, hot heels from that point forth but soon it would be autumn with some welcome rain. Once school started again I forgot about the cracks, until one day I walked across the concrete on the way home. I traced my way along the cracks finding memories of the old man with each one. And then I saw it – a single green shoot nestled at the bottom of the most exposed fissure. It never clicked and I eventually moved away from the area a year later.
When it clicked I drove back to my old home in my battered first car. Naively I pictured a housing block or some kind of retail development where the concrete once sprawled. But there was no money here for that..only.. trees. Trees! Beautiful green leafy trees!
In my excitement I nearly drove over the six inch curb. I swung the car door open and ran towards the trees, leaving the engine running. Two trees had grown up and out of the concrete! Their trunks weren’t very thick yet but there were leaves and branches! From this wasteland rose these magnificent trees rustling gently in the breeze, casting Rorschach shadows where once Rorschach water had spilled..I felt the trunks and shook them, surprised at the sturdiness, running my hands over the rough bark. It felt harder than the concrete from where it came.
Having spent some minutes marvelling at the greenery I felt waves of nostalgia, glancing over at my old house and the cracked paint window where I’d so often stood, before panning down to the rusty gate that hung sadly from the old mans fence. Nothing had changed, yet it had, the way time likes to keep it. I felt a surge of happiness, a gust of energy, and reluctantly slipped back in my car to return home but that deep rooted happiness never faded over hours of tarmac.
Once home I slammed the door open and startled my father up who’d been asleep on the sofa while the TV remained on, blanketing the room with a blue glow.
I shouted at him, ‘His lift did go to the top floor!’