He had never thought of himself as being much of a gardener, but it was pretty clear to him that the back yard needed serious attention. He might have been just as happy to rip out the clumps of wild oats, level the block and brick-pave the lot. But she said she wanted a garden, so he made her one.
There were major geographical challenges to overcome: the block sloped precipitously from the base of the back steps, down to the tangle of old vines and grasses by the overburdened picket fence. So he bought a truckload of old railway sleepers and built retaining walls and flowerbed boxes with them. Then he shovelled tons of sandy soil in behind the wooden walls and terraced the whole back yard, to negate the slope. He paved the pathways with bricks between the sleeper-bound beds, and piled bauxite-orange boulders in a kind of cairn to fill a shaded corner.
The soil was very poor –just grains of silica sand, stained black by dust. So he shovelled in sawdust, sheepshit, peat moss, compost. He shovelled it in and turned it all over and watered it to test the drainage. When the soil was right, he spent a weekend installing the reticulation, with pipes and upright sprays and trickle-tubes, and a series of overhead sprinklers above the area set aside for the vegetable patch. He planted carrots, onions, peas, broccolli, silverbeet, potatoes. And in the terraced beds he planted native shrubs and bushes, spreading ground covers, low-growing palms. There were variegated vines and creepers to climb the trellises he put up to raise the height of the street-side fence. There were hanging baskets full of ferns, and caactuses in earthen pots. There were sweet boronia bushes and nectar-filled proteas, to attract the honeyeaters, and a carpet of pink, white, purple Alyssum beneath the washing line.
With the back garden finished, he began to fill the verandah with the sorts of plants that like the morning sun: monsteras and philodendrons, orchids, lillies, ferns. So the garden began slowly to encroach on the house, colonising the bathroom with a sweet potato vine across the window, infiltrating the kitchen with a variegated creeper across the old mantelpiece. And, the deepest penetration by the garden of the house, a delicate Chain of Hearts above the bedroom door. Now, he thought, she has her garden. Now she should be happy.
As with a marriage, a garden is something to be worked at, to get the best results. It can’t just be created, then expected to look after itself. There is watering to do, and fertilising. Sometimes some pruning. And a careful eye must be kept for parasitic bugs and scale insects, fungal pests, root-rot, weeds. The aim –in gardening, as in marriage- is the same: the promotion of healthy growth.
When the days began to grow shorter and the nights cooler, the atmosphere of the garden slowly changed, as blossoms shrivelled and fell and plants shrank gradually into winter dormancy. Only the weeds seemed to flourish at this time, and snails. And, of course, she wasn’t happy.
“I never get to see you,” she complained. “You are always in your bloody garden.”
“What do you mean, my garden? I made it for you!”
She had shaken her head. “It’s still your garden,” she insisted. “You made it the way you wanted it. It’s all about you.”
He watched her curl her lip and snarl a list of grievances she felt against the way he’d made the garden. She had wanted jasmine and capsicums and a swing under the old jacaranda tree, and she hated the cotton palms rustling in the night time wind, and the way he’d trained the honeysuckle around the post of the pergola.
“Why didn’t you say something?” he had wondered aloud.
“I did,” she told him. “You weren’t listening. You’re hopeless!”
He had joined in her laughter then, but beneath it he was hurt. And later, sitting on the back steps and surveying his creation, he found his tears were just as salty as the sweat he’d shed into the soil.
Spring lifted their spirits for a while, with blazing displays of floral colour bursting out against the green. He made an extra effort, at this time, to share the garden with her, to consult her over plans to prune and plant anew. And every day brought new blooms, more birds, an atmosphere of vitality reawakened.
But this was cruelly stunted by the first stinging days of summer, which radiated a crisp heat that singed leaves and seemed to shock shrubs to their trunks, their roots. The soil grew dry-caked, baked solid by the sun, and when he watered, it took a long time to sink in.
The heat held them hostage in their home, in the living room with the air conditioner. Outside of that room, their tempers frayed as temperatures rose, as they began to sweat. Living always in that one cool room, with the doors closed to keep it that way, their levels of stress rose rapidly, to a crisis-point.
“You’ll have to leave,” she told him, flat out.
“You’ll have to move out. It’s no good. It’s not working. I need more space. I need to feel in control.”
He argued, but her mind was set. She had obviously made a decision a while ago, and had just been waiting for the right time to spring it on him.
“Where will I go?” he wondered.
That evening, as he watered the sun-parched garden, he realised he couldn’t stay in this same city and not be with her. He didn’t want to have to work out which of their friends would sympathise with him, and which with her. He didn’t want to meet her by chance –perhaps with a new lover in tow- in a coffee shop, and have to act civilised, contained. He decided, as he listened to the soil drinking and he smelt its breath, to run away to Darwin.
He got work at the golf club, helping tend a very different kind of garden. Whether planting out a thousand bulbs or sitting in a tractor mower as it cut a hundred acres of fairway, he had plenty of time to think about how he might have done things differently, if he had the chance again. He thought about her all the time, and her garden, and how he might have helped them both to bloom.
He was delighted when she answered his letter, after a month of silence, and she gave him enough hints at her deep-rooted loneliness –scattered among her boasts of independence- to give him some hope of reconciliation. While he rode the tractor, he composed his next letter to her. It would introduce the prospect of his return in a general sort of way, preparing her fertile mind to receive the seed of the proposal in the following letter. Then he would nurture the notion with phonecalls until it took root, blossomed, bore fruit.
All up, it took three months of lettters and calls before she had asked him plainly: “Please come back.”
And he was on the next plane home.
Arriving at the end of a long summer, with the whole city baked a dull grey-green, parched brown in patches. He saw how public parks and gardens had wilted with the heat, how many private homes had dead front lawns. He knocked at the front door, not wanting to look, yet, at the garden. She was surprised to see him so soon.
“Why didn’t you just come in the back door? It’s open.”
He put his bags down.
“The garden… I know it’s been so hot… I didn’t want to look.”
She took a step towards him, her forehead wrinkled. He held her elbows in his palms.
“I’m sorry,” she told him.
She looked at his face. He saw her tears.
“I let your garden die,” she said.
He bit the inside of his bottom lip and frowned, before his eyebrows lifted in a look of hope.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her, “We can make another garden. Yours and mine.”
And as he hugged her, he saw through the hallway to her bedroom door, and he knew that whatever disaster had befallen the back garden, she had kept the Chain of Hearts alive.