Read Playing With Water Online

Authors: Kate Llewellyn

Playing With Water

To Avis Parry and to the memory of Lucy Halligan

Finding Grace
THE DAY

Under its grey hat

of sky

a scarf of clouds

the day departs the dawn

and firmly shuts the door.

Busily it passes

with white egret stalking.

The day has purpose

it does not stop to stare.

It has a lot to get through:

lunch, dinner, rose-planting

and other priorities.

A million factories to start

and stop

schools, offices, road works

and other mighty operations.

Oh busy happy

beautiful day.

How many are there

of you left?

H
ouses are like marriages, it is not always the first you wanted that you get. Yet, later, it can seem that what you had your heart set on would not have worn so well, nor made you as happy as what you finally got. And so it was with me. I had loved an old stationmaster’s house at Bulli, further up the track. But the agent had not told the owners of my offer for a week. Because I needed somewhere to put my furniture, as my own house was sold, I turned away and looked elsewhere.

When I bought this house I knew I would make a garden.

At first I slept in the yard under a big nameless tree. The furniture stood around in the moonlight. It looked like a theatre set. All night, trains drew coal down to ships and their horns made me turn endlessly in the green canvas swag’s cocoon. The carved oval mahogany mirror standing on the chest of drawers reflected the stars. The moon
shone down like a caretaker’s torch. Spiders wove webs above me while I coughed through the night, recovering from pneumonia. After some days the floors were sanded and ready so the furniture and I went in.

The day I walked outside from the bath wearing only a towel I saw there was no privacy. I turned back indoors and knew that the first thing to do was to plant creepers as shields. Geoffrey, the man who used to help me in my Leura mountain garden, came and built five panels from wooden lattice and the wire-screen doors from the house. I bought ten creepers—white, blue, pink and yellow.

Around each creeper I tipped a bucket of blood and bone, and it was this, I think, combined with the semi-tropical climate and the rich soil washed down from the rainforest in the mountains that the house faces, which made the plants grow so fast. That, and my terrible need. Within nine months there was privacy. The green screens made the garden feel like a Persian king’s walled garden. Which is what the word ‘Paradise’ means.

When I first looked at the place, there were aviaries cemented along the back fence. I asked the couple who had sold me the house if they would take them and they did. I hailed a boy on a bike one day and asked him if he would like to dig up the cement where the aviaries had stood. He came in, nodded, went away, came back with an enormous crowbar and dug up the cement. He took out
the Hills hoist too. The boy asked: ‘Are you going to put in another clothes line?’ I answered: ‘No, I am going to plant a tree.’ And I did. I put a
Magnolia stellata
in the hole.

Along some of the galvanised iron or wooden fences there were hibiscus; purple, scarlet or pink. These gave me hope. Otherwise the whole aspect was gloomy. An above-ground swimming pool had been in the centre of the back lawn. It had left a great dent. The side driveway leading to the back garden was cement with gates halfway down and a place where a caravan had been set.

A yellow egg-shaped pine tree grew at the front bedroom window and this tree hid a big pink oleander and a frangipani that hung in a crushed, yet valiant way over the wire fence. Behind the pine, a
Murraya,
or mock orange bush, had been planted flat up against the bedroom window. There was another
Murraya
at the front fence in a corner of the drive. These were in full bloom and their orange-blossom scent wafted around. Every life, every house and every garden needs grace notes. These two bushes gave them and I took heart. What was good could be multiplied, and what was not good could be removed. Sometimes I used to clench my teeth and mutter when I thought of that: ‘But not necessarily in my lifetime.’

The soil here is rich. Even after the pine was taken away with all the draining, poisoning effects that they
have, white cosmos two-and-a-half-metres high waved over the new cream wooden fence. In one of those Sunday afternoon television interviews with politicians at their homes, which are done, I think, for want of any better news, I had seen a man standing before his front fence which was covered in ivory and white rose bushes in full bloom. It was somewhere in Adelaide. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was what I would try to do in the new garden. So ten roses went in behind the new fence.

It was the
Yellow Pages
and hailing men in utes in the street that brought good workmen. For instance, one day riding my bike past the oval I saw a man digging a hole. I dismounted and asked if he dug holes freelance. He seemed puzzled but, after I had explained I was making a garden around the corner, he agreed to come and look. This was Dave. An artist of the hole. ‘Most people dig holes like ice-cream cones,’ he said, halfway through one of many. ‘I dig them square. That is the only way a hole ought to be.’ Dave toiled for me many afternoons. He’d knock off work and arrive with his tools on the back of his black motorbike. His sweat sprayed around as he dug. For the work of the men who helped make this garden I am grateful. There is something deeply human in the toil and modesty of the hard work these men did. They asked for nothing except their wages, they took coffee with pleasure, smoked their cigarettes sitting under the big tree in the
backyard and returned to the work. I was always glad to see them. Their faces were soon red, yet they never seemed to mind the work. It may be an accident that toil rhymes with soil, but perhaps it’s not just coincidence. A wooden sundeck was built out from the back door and along it a hyacinth blue trumpet-flowered creeper, with cat’s claw thorns, now grows. Claudio, Dave, Ben, Peter, Robbie, Dieter, Jason, Brett, Mal, Geoffrey, Bill—I remember you all with gratitude.

Day after day, I lugged water from the slow-running back tap to the new trees. Sometimes I felt I had gone back to childhood. Playing with water around a sandcastle, waiting for the next wave to fill the moat. It seemed much the same as this pouring of water onto the garden, which is a form of green moat around the house. Ladling out fertiliser dissolved in water from the watering-can, stirring with a wooden spoon the bucket of water and fish emulsion, these too seemed little different from what we children of the desert did—playing with water.

To sit here and see the sea through the leaves of the big tree waving in a breeze is a return to childhood. The gulls swoop down when I throw out bread, the sparrows flutter in the birdbath, spinning water out in circles. As I ride my bike on the bike path south, a blue crane struts through a small creek that flows from the mountain. A
white egret stands as if turned to stone, waiting for a fish. Wild duck and seabirds float in creeks, rills, small lakes, a lagoon and also in puddles. Above, the wide blue sky, the breakers on one side, my grandson, Jack, in a yellow raincoat riding ahead, to whom I call something he does not hear entirely and he shouts back to me and neither do I hear, but the wind hears all.

The Fall of a Leaf is a Message to the Living
GHAZAL 5

On this windy day, run out

gather quick, lemons from the tree.

Indoors, while we laugh and kiss

rain can lick lemons from the tree.

The fence is falling. Frugally

every week we prop it up.

The neighbour’s boy, left at home

all day, bored, tempted, taking all

comes to nick lemons from the tree.

When I go to town to teach in suit and

heels,

the garden looks weirdly snug

blanketed in hay. And on this

lie sick lemons from the tree.

‘This is very hard, Gwen,’ I say

looking for a rhyme remembering

how she clapped her hands as we found

when coming round

a wall of brick, lemons from the tree.

All those old recipes

for posset, flummery, syllabub and

marmalade.

The luxury of saying, ‘I can give you,

if you’ll wait a tick, lemons from the tree.’

Kate, the word integrity should be

your shield. If you fear your past mistakes

and their effect sometimes

you can assuage sorrow and regret

by going out to pick lemons from the tree.

Sunday, 2nd January

T
he front door of this house faces due west, where the diminishing tail of the Blue Mountains runs south down the coast like a dinosaur sprawled along the continent. The back door faces east to the sea but it can’t be seen from there as houses interrupt the view. From the dining-room table though, through the big tree, there are small glimpses of bits of blue from time to time when the wind shifts the leaves. Sometimes the blue is the sea and sometimes the horizon mixing sea and sky.

The railway station is nine doors north and has a big bauhinia tree and a coastal banksia by the steps leading up to the platform and the ticket office. I wanted to live near a station, so I could zip up to Sydney easily and not drag luggage very far. Especially at night coming home from teaching I love to have the house so close to the station; it almost feels like cheating.

Along this street, running parallel to the train line, the small houses have trim lawns, some have azaleas blazing beside the house and cement drives leading to a garage. There are few trees and coming from the mountains it all seemed hot and bare.

One day, walking back from the beach, I looked and, in that way that sometimes comes, saw clearly what a contrast all this was to where I’d lived before. I felt appalled and thought, What have I done? Now I think that was useful because I became galvanised like a mad woman. The energy this gave me was marvellous. I couldn’t bear to live in so barren a place. The sun blazed down with hardly any shreds of shade.

My friend Peri came to stay yesterday from Mosman with cuttings and plants. When I said, ‘I don’t know how to describe this street,’ she countered with, ‘You’re introducing a different aesthetic.’

I have thought and thought about why some people are opposed to having trees in their garden or along their street. I think it could be they are afraid of branches falling, roots in pipes and leaves in gutters. If you worked all day down a coal mine, as many people did who owned these cottages, I don’t suppose you’d like to come home to dig out roots or clean gutters. A lawn’s a lovely thing when you want complete control and have very little in other parts of your life.

Along the railway line a row of casuarinas runs and these baffle the noise of the trains and screen the line. I bless the person who planted them and long for more of the seedlings to grow.

Peri said when I sat at her kitchen table a few weeks ago admiring a futon tree, looking out at the skyline of trees she’s planted outside her back gate: ‘Futon trees aren’t good street trees, they drop branches. Cape chestnuts are better. They make a pink umbrella when they bloom and they only drop their leaves for about six weeks, which lets the light through onto the clivia growing under them. The rest of the time they’re green and shady.’ I leaned over and took an old envelope and began to write down what she said.

Peri has an organic rare tropical fruit orchard near Currumbin in Queensland, really a sort of holiday house that has some acres with it, and she’s let me stay there in the wintertime for years. She called it ‘Bend of the River’. On one side of the orchard she’s had a wooden sign erected with ‘Don Quixote’s Last Stand’ burnt into it with a stick. (The sign is there because on the surrounding hills houses are spilling over like milk from a jug. The whole area is filling with houses, even the caravan park, which was next door to the farm, has been taken over by houses. Pink-roofed suburbia spreads like sunburn over the green paddocks.) I helped Peri plant this orchard with our skirts tucked up. Japanese golfers
watched as they hit off on the course nearby. I remarked that those men might go home and tell their wives that Australian women worked in paddocks planting.

Peri has taught me a lot about gardens. When we first met I lived in an old rented house with a pink verandah at Balmoral Beach. She walked down the path one day and spoke to me as I stood in the garden. ‘You’ve got a tremendous lot of weeds here,’ she said, gesturing to the sea of sword ferns and other nameless plants. ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘I love all this greenery. I didn’t know they were weeds.’ Then, inspired by what she said, I ignorantly cut down the big wisteria that grew all over the balcony. It grew back and bloomed again.

I am a person who takes advice in a lot of matters. Most especially in things that I don’t know anything about. People are surprised when they see what has come to pass from an idle word or two.

Peri had ‘Plant more trees’ printed on the back of her envelopes. Once when I was staying at ‘Bend of the River’ I saw a sale of native trees for a dollar each. I decided that, as I owed seventy dollars for the phone bill in her house, I would plant seventy trees instead. Julie and Anton, the caretakers, and I planted a double avenue as a windbreak down the side of the orchard. When Julie told Peri she swore. She thought I’d blocked her view to the river. The trees are almost fully grown now and small birds flit in and out in a way they don’t do nearly as much in the orchard.
A hare lives there among the tall grass, which isn’t mowed as the orchard is. From time to time we see it leaping with its long ears alert. Everybody loves that hare.

Here, underneath the big tree, Peri told me to plant bird’s-nest ferns and clivia. I had always thought that shade in a garden was something to be ignored and it should be left to grow whatever it would. Now I love the shady part on the northern side of my garden which runs down towards an old gum and a plane tree.

Coming from Tumby Bay, on the Eyre Peninsula, the gardens we had there were made from washing-up water, seaweed mulch and liquid manure which men made in old bathtubs from seaweed left soaking for weeks. I can’t remember much shade except on the verandahs, which often ran right round the houses. In the sun our parents grew tomatoes, zinnias, daisies, Geraldton wax and spinach. Come to think of it, nobody planted trees then either. Maybe trees are a modern idea? Our trees were mainly
Tamarix,
which loves the sea, and quandong. When the
Moonta,
the weekly supply ship, was due in and we had run out of fruit, women made quandong pies and stewed quandong topped with sponge, which now would be called
clafoutis
I suppose. Nobody thought anything of quandongs then except that they provided our only fruit and meagre shade and they gave us their stones to use as sheep and cattle in our endless games of farming. I’ve been back to Tumby Bay
many times and there are quandong orchards now. The beautiful glossy scarlet fruit sits among dark green leaves and I wonder why we didn’t think it lovely then. Too common, I suppose. What we would have thought beautiful would have been a magnolia or peaches or apricots. I didn’t see a magnolia until I was over twenty and then I didn’t know what it was.

What is it that makes a person long for a garden so that days and nights are full of work or plans? The idea takes over and conducts every day and fills it, seething almost like a love affair. Is it something like oxytocin, the hormone that floods the mother when she holds the baby? The same chemical that releases during love-making and stealthily bonds us to the other regardless of who or what they are? I wish I had known about oxytocin earlier. I might not have been able to combat its tremendous addictive force, but I’d have been able to think about it and know what it was that made me such a fool. But nobody ever regretted making a garden. (Unless they beggared themselves and lost the lot perhaps.) This is a clean pure love, wise at last. A noble obsession, released from the ignominious by age, grace and experience. I intend to relish this. This is my rejoicing and my last stand for something truly worthy. A small suburban garden, but to me a form of salvation.

To explain exactly how this place lies, think of a clock. The front door faces twelve. The side path runs
down to six and a lattice screen with white potato vine stands at two. At three the big deciduous unnamed tree. The gum and a small camphor laurel are at four. The plane tree grows at five. A jacaranda staggers in too close beside the plane tree at six, with purple bougainvillea twining through its branches.

Coming up the southern side now, at seven what I call the meadow garden, a small sunny plot with white cosmos and opium poppies, leads to the lemon tree at nine. The little shed’s at ten with blue potato vine beside it and a screen next to that with more vines. Then the house begins and leads up to the pink oleander and the frangipani joining up to almost twelve. Outside the gate, at eleven and two, the olive trees grow with pink geraniums below.

That’s the layout and now all I need is time to get it to perfection, to have realms of shade and luxury, privacy and peace. A glory that is mine to share with whom I wish.

It is the finest form of freedom to be able to say that all the mistakes are my own and the successes, the things that grew to fullness and to bloom, grew from advice, fertiliser and a passion that gripped me like a bridle.

Saturday, 8th January

Sowed basil seed beside the shed. The seed was gathered by Terry, my neighbour, from his basil last summer.
Terry lives with Daphne, his wife, on the southern side of this house. A retired mechanic in his seventies, he stoops over his big oblong vegetable patch in a straw hat looking like Mr McGregor with Peter Rabbit watching. He has taught me to soak many kinds of seed in warm water for half an hour. Those that sink first are the most viable and so, if there is little space for sowing, it is best to use the seeds that sank first. I use all the seeds, just in case, as there is plenty of space.

Every Thursday, Philippa comes south from Thirroul to spend the day working in this garden. When we both lived at Leura, in the Blue Mountains, Philippa taught me a lot about gardening as I watched her make two gardens one after the other when she moved house. She just digs holes and plants. No clearing or digging out weeds, no cutting out big beds. Nothing but a knife and a plant and in it goes. It is an extremely cheerful way to begin and it works. Philippa used to be a fibre artist while she reared her children but she seems to have abandoned this. I nag her to begin again. She prefers gardening and it too, I suppose, is a form of fibre art. Thin, with blonde curly hair, she is immensely strong, body and soul. I watched her walk up to the church alone and upright at the funeral of her son, Alexis. Nobody else I know could have done that with dignity and silence.

At dusk, we sit on the deck facing the sea, looking down into the garden. Sitting with a drink, talking
about the day, making plans and looking at the garden has been useful. Often just passing through or working in the garden, I don’t look closely at the whole. Each plant or tree takes the eye one by one, but sitting a while, looking, does show gaps and mistakes. We see what is thriving and where things have been planted mistakenly. We look and look and point.

The sea is at the bottom of the garden. The sea that goes right round the world. This world which is the garden of the universe.

Sunday, 16th January

An electrical storm with heavy rain is beating down on the garden. After weeks of no rain, it is a relief. The Meyer lemon in a big pot at my bedroom door has caterpillars eating the new leaves that sprouted after a disease turned it to a skeleton. I got rid of the caterpillars and fed the lemon with Thrive fertiliser and tea leaves. It is a strange thing that two plants in almost the same position will grow so differently. For instance, the cumquat
Fortunella japonica
in a pot has been heavy with orange fruits and is now in bright green leaf. Perhaps it is simply that the lemon is just where the butterfly laid the eggs, nothing more to it than that. Around the edges of these pots lobelias’ deep blue flowers are spilling over. But not as many as I would wish, because, curiously
again, the pot holding the tormented lemon has healthy lobelia and many of those planted around the cumquat died and more must be planted there.

Last week, after waiting more than a month for a Sacred Lily of the Incas
(Ismene festalis)
to come up, I thought it must be dead and almost dug down to see. Then it came up with dark green strappy leaves. It is best to be patient, even when in doubt. If I had dug down, not being certain where the bulb was, I could have ruined it. This white spider lily has a most delicious scent. There are about forty species of these
Hymenocallis
lilies. I bought the bulb in Woolworths in Corrimal because of the story in Sophocles’ play,
Antigone.
Ismene was the one who would not help her sister, Antigone, bury their brother, Polynices, when he was killed and, at King Creon’s behest, left for the birds.

And still down comes the rain. The wheelbarrow is my rain gauge. At a glance it shows how much rain there’s been.

The two olive trees I planted on the front nature strip beside the road have been ravaged by vandals. Two days ago I dug up an olive tree which I had planted in the back garden rather too closely to the new blood orange tree. I took this one out to the road where the other olive had been torn out and hung upside down in the branches of its sister tree. I had replanted the torn-up tree after soaking it in a bucket of water, but it died nonetheless.
So now a third tree is in the hole. The first was stolen, never to be seen again. Terry kindly searched the district for me, looking over fences and in the school yard that adjoins our back fences, but he found nothing.

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