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Photo/Text: © Copyright 2011 Sean M. Madden. All Rights Reservd.
An aged man, a veteran of one of an incessant stream of foreign wars, sits in his summerhouse in a compact flint-walled garden. A small patch of sweet peas grows nearby, as does a solitary cherry tree which for lack of bees this year bore no fruit.
Inside, he can be seen working, bent over a mid-century oak draughtsman’s table. The French doors of the summerhouse are open, a slight breeze carrying hints of wild rose and sage, and with these, courage. His legs grown wobbly when once they would march him in a day through twenty miles of Italian countryside, he seems now an earth-fallen Hephaestus, toiling on the task he set for himself for the simple reason that no one else seemed likely to do what needed doing. In shirtsleeves and a flat cap, he hammers a metal stamp, tapping out characters upon small aluminum plates.
He worked in near-obscurity identifying each of the two hundred trees in the public garden. And he sits now with this self-imposed burden heavy upon his breast, stamping each character of the common name for each of these trees.
Where once his heraldic calligrapher hands were steady and willing, today they’re less certain. And where once his eyes would look out to the English Channel in search of enemy aircraft, he struggles now to line up the metal stamps such that the individual characters form a tight-wrought word. One eye dead, the other is almost lost to the slow creep of macular degeneration. Out-of-doors, he is very nearly blinded by the sudden contrasts of sun and shade, unable to recognize even the young woman who just the other day waved to him as she walked past. He turned to look back at her and could see her arm still waving on the outer perimeter of his pocked vision, but it was a disembodied arm waving somewhere above youthful legs and a summer dress.
This treacle-slow stamping of name plates is a race against darkness and an any-day end which he hopes, when it comes, will bring him back to his beloved wife. He dreams of her still, and the relived ache of their far-too-soon parting is as likely now to awaken him as it did when cancer stole her away after just nine years together.
For now, his irregular though kindly companion is his middle-aged liaison with the Council who every once in a while checks in to see how things are coming along. And during one such recent meeting it was relayed to him that while the common names are all well and good, the botanical names are likewise a must.
But the stamps are too large and the name plates too small. And so he went back to the beginning, and began painstakingly to pen with a permanent marker each botanical name, just above the common one. For good measure, he would slide the black felt tip along the tiny grooves of the characters he’d stamped months ago, a simple movement in which he felt held by a guiding hand, and he would smile within.
His mind slips now, as it is wont to do, to the distant past, to his childhood, son of a village vicar, to carefree games of conkers and jacks with friends no longer living.