The Garden

– Hullo?
– Hullo
– Is that you, Betsy?
– Ya
– What’s up?
– Don’t know how to dig a garden. I want vegetables this year.
– You want me to come and show you?
– Ya
– Now?
– Okay

They hang up. Shirley will get this done, in a methodical fashion. She’s glad Betsy asked for help. She doesn’t shut up when drunk, but the rest of the time she’s pretty quiet. Still there’s a strong bond between them. Shirley’s a Brit, a relative newcomer to Australia. Her family moved here when she was just a toddler, ages ago. Betsy, she’s the real deal. Aboriginal through and through, her roots to the land far and deep. She bought this large property, off the money she makes from her paintings, and she roams it, never tried to tame it. Relatives and friends camp on it, go walkabout.

Shirley’s happy that Betsy’s thinking of a vegetable patch. It’s not too early to start one. She’ll show her how to till the earth; they can discuss what she wants to grow; they can go and buy the seeds together. She’s happy to be doing something constructive with her. Betsy’s been despondent since she broke up with her abusive husband. That’s where they met, over 10 years ago. The woman’s shelter. She too was stuck in an abusive relationship. They were the only two women in the shelter at that time who were childless. They bonded and stayed friends after moving back into the world.

They help each other out. Shirley pours her heart out to calm, reasonable Betsy after she’s had one too many. Shirley helps Betsy with paperwork. It helps to speed things up to have a pushy pommy friend. Her divorce papers still need to be signed. Betsy had religion set upon her. She balks at this final step that would rid her for good of her no-good husband. But things can’t be rushed. Maybe Shirley can find a way in as they spend more time setting up the garden.

She’s almost ready to go. While thinking, she’s been gathering her things: two pairs of gloves, a spade, a rake, a pitchfork, her hat and sunscreen. Plenty of sunscreen. The sun, omnipresent even in the fall and winter. The sun that would set her pommy skin afire were it not for the long white sleeves, the hat, the sunscreen. She hops in her ute and sets out to Betsy’s. It’s a fair drive out, but then everything is far here. You get used to it. Tropical trees, wild parrots,… that takes longer. She’s still amazed after all this time. She’s gone to England a few times to visit relatives. It’s dreary, always raining. She missed Sydney. That’s her real home.

She calls ahead. “I’ll be at your place in 10 minutes.” “Okay.” She turns onto the long gravel drive. Honks. Betsy’s nowhere to be seen. She sighs as she unloads. The place is magnificent, the vegetation lush under the hard sun. She heads for the shade. There’s Betsy, cell phone in hand. She hadn’t seen her because of the glare. They hug. Betsy looks good, at peace.

 

– Do you need help with that? she says, pointing at the gardening tools. “Let me hold everything while you grease yourself up.”

Betsy had been horrified the day Shirley had forgotten her sunscreen, her delicate white skin turning an angry red, painful to the touch. She had burned and then her skin had pealed. Betsy had been oddly fascinated. She never again let her go in the sun without “greasing herself up” as she puts it.

***

-Where do you want your garden?
-The front of the house, maybe?

They find a spot, delineate the perimeter. Shirley does most of the talking. She’s in her element.

– Those tall trees will give shade in the afternoon. That’s okay, you don’t want everything to burn up! You’ll probably have to water a fair bit.

– Well, I’ll be planting native plants. They should be okay with the sun.

Shirley starts digging in earnest. The soil will need fertilizing. She’s thinking aloud, a bit excited. Her friend is quiet. She hears a low moan and turns around. Betsy is doubled over in pain, her face set in a grimace, her breathing shallow. Heart attack? Shirley throws the spade down and rushes to her side.

– What’s going on? Talk to me!
– Stop digging. You’re hurting me.
– What? What are you saying, I don’t understand.

Betsy’s colours are slowly returning.

-You were hitting me with that shovel. I couldn’t stand it. Every time you dug was a blow to my gut. I can’t do it. We have to stop. No garden for me. The earth is crying out and weeping. Please, please, return everything back the way it was.

– What? You can’t be serious!

Shirley can see she is. She’s never been more serious. Betsy still can’t stand. Shirley can see her insides bleeding out. She chases the image from her mind.

– Of course, I will put everything back to how it was.
– We need to apologize.

Shirley doesn’t believe her ears. She drove all the way here with the best of intentions. The vegetable patch was a great idea. She breathes in. There is so much she doesn’t get. She can tell her friend was in pain. The problem is with her. She wants to tame the land, not work with it. She feels deflated as she puts the soil back in place. Betsy has gone into the house. Comes back out with tobacco, the ceremonial offering.

***

Betsy says a heartfelt apology as she sprinkles tobacco in the soil. Shirley joins in. Peace is restored. She can actually feel it in her bones. Maybe one day she will belong. Betsy is willing to show her. All she needs is to listen and learn. Pay attention. Not think she knows better.

She thanks her friend, apologizes to her as well, subdued but at peace. They go in for tea.

Topiary Artist

She was a topiary artist. Hers was an early vocation. She was inspired by Grace Jones’ hair, a veritable chef d’oeuvre, but as she had no inclination to talk to people and listen to their critiques, she turned to plants. She did all the talking, explaining her plans, showing them her sketches, and asking for their cooperation before trimming them.  She had a soft spot for jungle animals that she sketched live at the zoo. Her skills were in high demand, especially for lions whose mane was made of Boston ivy so it turned fiery red in the fall.

After a journalist who was visiting his aunt wrote a travel piece on the Web, the little town was overwhelmed with tourists wanting to see the famous lions. The whole town’s economy soon revolved around garden tours, and buses disgorged rich widows with nothing to do but break the monotony of their lives with silly trips and shopping sprees. Postcards with topiary art sprung to life, t-shirts, dish towels, placemats, puzzles,… and demand for her work grew.

There was nothing she loved more than work on live plants, with the sensitivity of a sculptress, bringing to life the beast within the live matter. Plants revealed their true character – cubs playing, giraffes munching leaves, placid buffalos. It seemed normal to local children to play amidst wild plant-animals that were frozen mid-movement. The town’s inhabitants donated a piece of land so it could be turned into a public park, commissioning the artist to populate it with her imagination.

Local contests were held in schools to encourage the kids’ participation and the winner’s drawing was mounted as a piece de resistance. It was a duck, and she managed to convey whimsy in the jaunt of his webbed feet and the comical slant of his eyebrows. The piece was unveiled with a plaque showing the kids’ name and drawing. A barbecue was held to celebrate the opening of the park and the inhabitants walked amongst the wonderful creatures. They liked their realism and fine proportions as well as being able to recognize them. There was a quiet area for kids, where bushes had been turned into squirrels and bunnies – the bunnies made out of furry plants that were soft to the touch.

Unfortunately, one night, the whimsical creatures were expertly vandalized into slightly crooked and deformed caricatures. They remained works of art, but the original intent was turned on its head. The miscreant – for there was only one, after all – was apprehended; at the artist’s insistence, he was ordered to do community work with her. As the artist was excited to meet a fellow topiary artist, they became fast friends. She learned from him a certain cynicism that added some bite to her otherwise banal creations and turned her into an artist of higher stature. Her later works were considered more mature and won her critical acclaim. However, she never regained her following amongst the early admirers that had made her fame.