The Plant, The Wolf, The Great Aunt
was published in The Burning Sand VI.

The Plant, The Wolf, The Great Aunt

This weekend we scattered the ashes of my Great Aunt on Burbage moor in the Dark Peak.

She died on 23rd September 2009 and was cremated within a week. But her ashes waited for seven years in the corner of a bay window in the study of my parents’ house, in a space more typically occupied by a houseplant.

I arrived in Sheffield on Friday 26th August 2016 and went bouldering with my dad. He strapped my ankle the way his physiotherapist had advised him to.

My Great Aunt had been a physiotherapist.

We, my father, my sister and I, had all been looked after by her when we were children. And it was we three were who meant to go on Saturday, but it was raining too much so we went on the Monday, the bank holiday, instead. A beautiful day of sun and wind.

Great Aunt makes me sound posh but she was simply my Grandmother’s sister.

She used to say it made her sound older than she was, I remember her saying that to the parents of one of my school friends as she collected my sister and I from school one Tuesday evening in the 1980’s.

My oldest memory is one of her.

Of the morning of 29th October 1983, of waking and being called into the other bedroom where she had slept, having arrived as my parents had headed to the hospital, it was the night my sister was born.

On those Tuesdays we’d go to her house and play “ball,” a game of our own invention, or Halma; invented in 1883 or 1884 by George Howard Monks.

The Halma pieces came in a box showing the four differently coloured cone-shaped counters hovering like angels beneath the silhouette of a tree.

I remember that it was her who explained to me that Araucaria is the Latin word for the monkey puzzle tree and this is why it was chosen as sobriquet by the crossword setter, the Reverend John Galbraith Graham MBE. He who announced his terminal cancer through clues and their answers in a crossword printed in the Guardian on 11th January 2013, Guardian cryptic No. 25, 842.

The Araucaria tree appears in the well-polished stairways of the introductory passages of Steppenwolf, under the contemplation of Harry Haller.

I have read this introduction many times but never far beyond it. I have re-bought the book this year and am trying to read it again.

I am always surprised by the jolt of swapping narrators, going from the bourgeois landlady’s nephew’s introduction, to the world seen through the eyes of Harry Haller.

And every time I read it I expect that the Steppenwolf will be my age as I feel so sure I am going to find in him my image. Every time I am disappointed when he begins by complaining about being elderly.

At some point though Haller and I will be contemporaries, (I hope.) Then I will be older than him, while he agelessly watches plants fidget in varnished hallways.

My first girlfriend C read Steppenwolf and loved it, I think I might have given her my previous copy when we split up. I remember her being surprised when I said I liked walking down the middle of streets as that is said in the book apparently. (Her saying this confirmed to me that I would find myself within it.)

I bought it again in the winter, after the end of another relationship, after N broke up with me. When I felt even more wolf-like than normal, slipping between the mists of winter, drunken and teary-eyed and desperate, trudging down the middle of the coastally named roads of Brockley:

Down Fossil Road and Shell Road

Down Cliffview Road and Sandrock Road

Down Overcliff Road and Undercliff Road

C lost her mother to cancer last month. She told me in a message I received at 12:58 on 27th July 2016.

I cried as I formulated a response, stood outside a bank in Stratford.

I think I remember that David Shields favoured the introduction to Steppenwolf. Maybe it’s in Reality Hunger or maybe it was in an essay written by Zadie Smith in response. Almost exactly a year before, on the 20th November 2008 the New York Review of Books published another article by Smith, comparing Netherland by Joseph O Neill unfavourably to Remainder by Tom McCarthy.

Netherland does irritate sometimes, as does O’Neill,

“Why is he wearing his cricket whites?”

My friend G wrote, sending me a link to an interview in O’Neill’s home of the Chelsea Hotel, New York, published in the Guardian on 16th August 2008.

But there are two passages in the novel that live with me. I remember the narrator’s wife explaining to a marriage counsellor that they wanted to stay together as they had a responsibility to see one other through life, and a happiness in that. I had sometimes thought I had the same thing with C.

Before that the narrator reflects on his last visit to see his mother before her death. Climbing a ladder to his old room, going up to the window he had stared out of as a child, watching the rocking of the North Sea, the silent house surrounding him.

I remember feeling the quiet, the slide of life, the slide of time.

Maybe I am trying Steppenwolf again now as I find myself falling in love for the third time and am allowing myself to daydream of a life away from the Steppes.

My dad has told me that Higgar Tor, a gritstone tor of the Dark Peak. Coordinates 53.3338’N, 1.6183’W. Is where he wants his own ashes scattered.

I didn’t need to avoid thinking about this on Monday as all we thought of was my Great Aunt as the fractions of another life were whipped from us and into the landscape.

Another ending, no more numbers, no more counting.