Albert McAllister sat in darkness at the edge of his bed. Unable to sleep, but too tired to stay awake. Through his window, a bare red oak stood silent in the nursing home courtyard. Its maroon leaves, separated from its body, now lay fallen. Four roughly painted white wooden benches formed a square around the thick old trunk, and the moonlight cast horizontal prison-bar shadows across tired bark.
The brick-paved garden path would soon be washed clean – a blanket of clouds threatened a downpour at any moment. While inside, all the beating hearts in the building slept, save for Albert. Staring at the barren tree, he felt a kinship with it. They had both seen better days.
He’d been sitting for hours, and his sciatica had kicked in after the first, thanks to a treacherous spine full of dried-up old discs. The nerve pain seared his hamstring and calf, feeling hot and cold at the same time. An old body playing cruel tricks.
Let it burn, he thought, defeated. Let the leg go numb and drop off. Who needs it anymore anyway.
A letter rested by his side, unopened, unwanted. It would be from his family, perhaps one of his sons. He at once knew what it would say and did not want to know.
Instead he watched the tree. In the darkness, the wind had picked up steadily over the last hour and the top-most branches rocked, beckoned.
This particular variety of oak made for sturdy climbing. It had more horizontal branches than vertical ones, so it was more like going up a ladder than trying to climb a grease pole.
The 12-year-old Albert would have made it up that tree in seconds flat. Back then he climbed with Allison, the black-haired girl from over the road. They would climb anything that could hold their weight. He was so smitten, he believed everything she told him.
“Taste the sap,” she told him one day, when they were halfway up a pine out the back of the Millers’ farm.
He hesitated. It looked brown and gross. Why did she challenge him so?
“Go on, it’s fine,” she said. “Where do you think maple syrup comes from?”
“From sap, dummy! Go on, lick it or I’m not going any farther.”
A small part of him thought that stopping here wasn’t such a bad idea. Still, he poked around with his index finger and scooped up some of the goo. At least there weren’t any bugs in it. He closed his eyes and put the dripping finger in his mouth.
“Gaaahhh!” he said, sputtering. “You wicked girl!”
Pine tree sap tasted like turpentine. The putrid flavour nearly knocked him off his branch, and he tried to spit it out as Allison laughed.
“Maple syrup is from maple trees you dummy! Now let’s get to the top before dinner. Don’t fall behind.”
He kept spitting for hours afterwards and still the acrid taste lingered.
Now as he put his fingers up to his lips and licked the roof of his mouth, he swore that he could still taste that nasty stuff 80 years later.
It occurred to him that he hadn’t blinked for a while, so he fluttered his eyelids back and forth a few times. His eyes were so moist, drops formed on his lashes. Every motion these days was deliberate. He wondered if he forgot to breathe, would his lungs just stop?
Again the oak beckoned, with a twinkle of starlight like a glint in the eye. If Allison were here, she’d make him go outside and climb that thing.
“Come on, you lazy bum,” she’d taunt. “Race you to the top!” And he’d follow that raven-haired little devil all the way.
As he looked out his window at the shadows dancing in the wind, he could almost make out that girl, racing across the curvy brick path in the dead of the night towards the base of the tree.
Better hurry or I’ll fall behind, he thought.
He reached over to the night stand and turned on the lamp to find his shoes. He’d need good shoes. All he had were slip-ons.
“Come on Albie,” she called, “last one there has to do the other’s homework.”
His knees cracked as he stood up and his legs tingled from sitting for so long. For a minute they didn’t want to obey instructions, but once he got some blood flow into them, he managed to shuffle out of his room. The corridor had the overpowering waft of garlic after Mrs Katsidis had cooked earlier this evening.
Always so much garlic, but then it covered up a number of less congenial smells around here sometimes.
Albert was alone in the dark corridor. The only people up this late would be a couple of the night staff, who would promptly send him back to his room if they spotted him.
He paused to think. The quickest way out to the courtyard was the door at the end of the corridor. He licked his lips and hobbled onward.
He was halfway down before he realised he’d forgotten his walking frame.
No point going back now, he thought.
He got to the door and pushed, but it was locked. Maybe it was just stuck? He could push harder, but if he pushed too hard and made a racket, he’d alert the staff and be sent back to his room.
Oh well, he thought, you only live once. Isn’t that what they say? A ridiculous platitude, like ‘Take it one day at a time’, or ‘Such is life’.
Albert tried the door again, but it was like trying to talk sense to a teenager. The harder he pushed, the more it resisted.
There was another way into the courtyard, through the nursing home staff lunchroom. He’d been in there once and seen some of them go out for a cigarette. The staff taped over the bolt to stop the door locking behind them. And if they’d forgotten to take the tape off, well…
Albert continued down the corridor, with his slow and steady shuffle. He heard no television, no voices, so he pushed on toward the lunchroom.
The front desk was just around the corner. He couldn’t be sure where the night staff were. Then stifled laughter, definitely coming from the front desk. One person, possibly on the phone. Then he heard a second laugh, meaning both night staff were at the front desk.
He clenched his fists and shuffled through the lunchroom door. The fluorescent lights in there made him squint. Across to the other side, he gave the external door a gentle push. It didn’t budge. But it was a heavy metal door with glass cut-outs.
He pushed again, this time he leaned into it and let gravity work in his favour for a change. It opened, and Albert saw that they had indeed left the tape over the bolt.
But the wind was gushing in through the small gap, and he was only halfway through when a wild gust shoved the door back against him, pinning him against the frame. He was rattled. He considered just calling for help, going back to bed.
Then her voice, carried by the wind whistling through the gap in the door. “Come on Albie!”
“I’m coming, Allison,” he whispered between heavy breaths.
With a grunt he gripped the handle firmly and leaned into the door once more, pushing back against the wind with muscles that had found renewed vigour. He removed the tape and let the bolt snap back with a click.
He felt goosebumps and couldn’t tell if it was from the excitement or the chill of the wind. He minded neither and shuffled towards the tree.
One brick at a time, he made his way down the path and through the courtyard, and when maroon leaves began crunching underfoot, he knew he was almost there.
He approached the wooden benches that surrounded the trunk. Then he took a seat, his twisted spine sinking into the cracked paint of the backboards.
I’ll just catch my breath, he thought.
He placed his hands comfortably atop his chest and felt his breathing synchronise with the hypnotic sway of the branches. It lulled him, calmed him. The leaves that had not yet fallen glistened as if the stars themselves were inside.
He closed his eyes.
There was nothing in the world but his breath and the breeze. Then his skin became warm and the inside of his eyelids glowed red and orange. He felt heat on his retinas and the smell of dry grass filled his nostrils.
He opened his eyes and the midday sun was fully upon him, but he didn’t squint. In fact his eyes were open wide and he had all the energy of youth. The wind was gentle and refreshing, a summer breeze.
Twelve-year-old Albert smiled.
“Hurry up, slowpoke,” Allison called down to him. She stood on a branch a few metres above his head.
The tree was in the middle of a field now, the branches a sea of green leaves. Light beamed down through the foliage, so bright that Allison was in silhouette. She eclipsed the sun.
Albie stood up on the wooden bench, which had a glistening new coat of paint, and picked a suitable branch to begin his ascent.
He hoisted himself up onto the nearest branch, stepped across to another. Then walked on all fours up an incline to get to the next one. Still Allison blazed ahead.
“I’m coming,” he shouted.
There was a branch running parallel, but it was a big gap. He’d have to jump.
He hugged the trunk, his brand-new sneakers finding good purchase. Then with an exhale he leapt across. Both feet landed squarely on the next branch, but his torso was tipping forwards over the other side. Without hesitation, he grabbed one at shoulder-height and hoisted himself up by his arms.
He swung a leg around and continued to climb without missing a beat. The sunlight grew more intense, washing out shadows and filling even the smallest cracks in the bark.
Above, the higher branches were thinner but denser. Leaves vibrant and glowing, they caressed his skin as he passed through, like a protective mother’s guiding hand.
The light came up from below now, as well as above, a comforting sea of warm white. He knew it wasn’t safe to be up this high, but worry escaped him. One final step up and he was next to Allison. She embraced him, the warmest and safest of hugs. And he hugged her back.
The light grew even more intense and covered them as they embraced.
With complete acceptance, Albie and Allison floated away and left the safety of the tree as the light enveloped them completely. And then they became the light…
Night shift at the nursing home was the worst. Toby snuck away from the front desk and out into the courtyard for a quick smoke. He didn’t even notice that someone had removed the tape he’d placed on the lock. This was quicker than going all the way out to the car park and he wanted to get one in before it started to rain.
He walked down the twisting brick path and lit one up. Even though the clouds covered the sky from end to end, they had not yet spilled a drop on the courtyard.
Before long he found himself at the red oak tree. There was Albert McAllister, leaned back on the bench, hands folded neatly on his chest, eyes closed.
Toby just knew. He saw this all the time, but this time he wasn’t saddened.
For there on Albert’s face, as bright as the sun on a summer day, was a smile.