A Box of Earth

"That tree looks like a woman."

"Yes, a woman with three arms."

It was the most ridiculous thing I had heard myself say out loud, but the reply was even more bewildering. I turned instantly to my left, and saw a woman, old, oriental and sitting next to me. I had been daydreaming, having little else to do save wait for the plane and drink cold coffee. My parents had left me in departure lounge 4 and gone to look at a tulip exhibition somewhere in the glossy halls of Schipol, and I was now Guardian of the Luggage because of the teenage sulk I had thrown earlier.

I had not noticed her, being enrapt in the artificial botany of the airport and my pink i-pod. She wore a garish red coat, and looked like she had never heard of moisturiser. Apart from a handbag, she cradled a heavy black casket in her lap.

"I'm sorry?"

She looked at me with the kindly patronising face of the Chinese elderly that made me feel I should start conversing in Chinese, language of my origins, despite the fact I had heard her speak English not a minute ago.

"Wang le ni de mu yu?" she said kindly.

"No, I can still speak Chinese." I replied in fragmented mandarin, "My parents made me learn it." and she nodded approvingly.

"I spoke to a very lovely girl about your age once. Very pretty. Enormous earrings. Couldn't speak a full sentence! I asked her what part of China she came from, and she said 'Zhejiang-Xi'an!" and the old lady burst out laughing. I didn't get the joke, and she had to explain: the girl had answered the two counties where her parents were born, Zhejiang and Xi'an, despite the fact there were some hundred miles apart.

I nodded and gave a token laugh.

"Your box, what…?" I asked, indicating the square chest she held on her lap. The top was bare, save three characters across it I couldn't read: a name.

"This," she said, running her fingers over the fine dark wood, "is my husband." And seeing the blank expression on my face, "his ashes." Still stunned. "Well, I couldn't carry his body onto a plane could I?"

I tried to laugh, but instead said, "I'm sorry."

"Don't be. He was a Buddhist, so he's definitely in a better place right now. Of course I miss him… but… there is no point grieving. I do not have a whole life to grieve. He wasted his, so I've decided to take him on holiday with me."

"Where are you going?"

"Beijing. To visit my eldest daughter."

"Oh, how lovely." Having grown up in England, it is impossible not to acquire the quaint, pointless mannerisms.

"Yes. She's doing well, working in Denmark at the moment. My youngest was married last year. To an Iranian." She said casually, with a jarred look on her face, as if challenging me to disapprove.

"Denmark… wow." I nodded awkwardly, wishing she would leave and I could return to my Coldplay-induced depression.

"Yes… You have no idea how hard it is to get a casket on a plane. I'll have to declare it before security checks that it isn't a bomb, or drugs. They are ashes! Do I have to buy another ticket so he can sit by me?"

"Are you going to bury the ashes?" I asked.

"In a manner of speaking." She said strangely, "My husband was born on a ferry travelling from Shanghai to New York. Since then, he has not set foot outside the city. I emigrated before the war, and met him there. He died last month." And then, in affectionate English, "He was a miserly grouch."

There was a decidedly awkward pause, for me, anyway, and then she asked,

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen this May."

"Ah! A snake!" she said happily, "I too was born in the year of the snake, though that was a year of famine in our village. It seems we are kindred in spirit." Which explained the tree comments, and nothing else.

"Where are you heading then?" she asked.

"Leeds-Bradford. In England."

"Ah. I will be going there too."

"I thought you said you were going to Beijing?"

"Yes. First China. Then a boat to Korea. Then Canada, then US, then Brazil, going on until I circle the globe. My husband has no roots, no country of birth. So I thought that he should be buried everywhere."

"Across the whole earth?"

"Yes. Ashes are so versatile. You can't do it with a twenty stone coffin. I will scatter him everywhere I go. He was a child of the world you see."

"But how can you travel so much? At your age? Alone?"

"I have never travelled." She said soberly, "I do not believe in an afterlife. We only have this one beautiful existence to be happy in. You are young, you do not feel it yet, but in time you will. Enjoy what you can, where you can. Make others happy, but fulfil your own dreams. I do not plan on living another ten years of dull decline like him. That is why I am making the most of what I have left. And I don't plan on taking photographs." She patted the box on her lap.

It was at that point that my parents came to relieve me of the luggage, and the way they carried everything away for me made me feel like the spoilt child I was. They did not notice the extraordinary woman I had talked to, but as we left, I said goodbye to her, wondering why I felt so sad though she seemed perpetually cheerful. It seemed she waved back heavily, but when I looked, her gaze was fixed elsewhere: to a bowed tree with three, dry branches. It was dying.