Melbourne’s last leaf of winter heralds a budding hope

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William Sydney Porter, the American short story writer known as O. Henry, published a story in 1907 which seems well suited to our times, called The Last Leaf.

O. Henry writes of a young artist struck down with pneumonia in Greenwich Village, New York, during a pneumonia epidemic. From her sick bed, the artist watches through the window the leaves falling from the ivy vine on the brick wall outside, believing that when the last leaf falls she will die.

Spring is beginning to bloom in Melbourne.Credit:Jason South

Her neighbour, a dissolute old artist, steals out in the middle of a cold, wet night to paint a leaf on the wall so that the last leaf does not fall.

O. Henry writes: “But, lo! after the beating rain and fierce gusts of wind that had endured through the livelong night, there yet stood out against the brick wall one ivy leaf. It was the last one on the vine. Still dark green near its stem, with its serrated edges tinted with the yellow of dissolution and decay, it hung bravely from the branch some twenty feet above the ground.”

The patient gets better but her neighbour contracts pneumonia from having been out in the wet night to paint the leaf, and dies.

In the last 18 months it feels like we too have been hanging on, sometimes easily, sometimes by our fingertips, as we navigate our way through the unfamiliar path of a pandemic.

Melbourne’s CBD in lockdown.Credit:Paul Jeffers

We have had smooth days and days when we have needed to trick ourselves out of bed, building momentum by breaking down the morning routine, usually executed without thinking, into baby steps: get up, open the blinds, make the bed, put the kettle on.

Perhaps we have made wild promises to ourselves of things we will do in the future when this is over: one day we will eat baguettes in one of those French cafes where the seats face the street; one day we will fly to Sydney, book a hotel, go out to see the latest musical, or theatre show or music extravaganza and then fly home to Melbourne! One day (even though some of us hate the cold) we will all go to the snow and ski!

Yes, we hang on and spin dreams that create a bridge from where we are to where we want to be.

Today that future seems closer.

Winter is fading. Blossoms are opening on the trees on the nature strip. The jasmine on the landing outside has fingers of delicate, pink-tipped white buds, preparing to open.

With the news that vaccines are becoming more available there is change in the air and something more precious, more elusive. Hope.

Melissa Coburn is a freelance writer.

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