Authors: Kate Llewellyn
A flock of finches with faces like owls fluttered down to eat the grain. Abandoning the birds, I went indoors to make lunch for Julie and myself. The time one can spend with poultry, as you can see, is endless. All day and night there is something going on. Sometimes a peacock slides down the roof like a skier in the night. Other times the geese begin calling as if they are saving
Rome. I lie and wonder if it is a fox sniffing around. But I stay inside, afraid to walk around in the dark. There are worse things than foxes.
Home. Today I rode to Corrimal nursery and bought the third pair of citruses for two big pots on the back deck. All the others, cumquat and Meyer lemon, have turned to sticks in those pots, no matter how much sun, water and fertiliser they got. I heard about the benefit of putting urine on citrus from a radio advice program, where the woman said that a sick lemon tree in Mosman had been resuscitated by a football team having a barbecue in her garden and urinating on the tree. But Terry, pondering these things in his heart and saying nothing, knew, but didn’t like to tell me, that putting urine undiluted on citrus in pots fills the soil with salt. There’s a lot of salt in urine. This has been going on for years, while I’ve been going round shaking my head, worrying about the yellowing, dropping leaves. The money I’ve wasted. Three of these old desiccated plants have been put into the garden and are sprouting slowly now. And nothing’s what they’ll get, as nothing’s what they want.
Sometimes at night I smell toast
and I know the old priest
is making breakfast.
He thinks I don’t know he lives here
rising when I sleep, a shadow
shuffling round the kitchen
with the lights off.
From time to time a whiff from a cigarette
rises from beneath my room.
I imagine him down there crouched
on the old mattress.
He is my better half
the faith I fail in.
The discipline and modesty
of quiet rituals. His old black cassock
hangs on a hook behind the wardrobe
he thinks it’s hidden there.
His beret lies like a cat on the pantry shelf.
I ignore it. Why did he come?
When will he go? This sweet enigma
undemanding, shuffling through the house
with the faith of our fathers
his breath like violets.
’ve begun another garden. One day, having asked at the railway station office window for months if we might have some trees, I took a spade and a barrow of geranium and daisy cuttings, walked over and began to dig.
For six months I gardened there before any of the staff spoke to me. By then the garden was an accomplished fact. A narrow, empty, fenced paddock lay on one side of the line with a locked gate. I managed to squeeze through two posts joining the cyclone fence and pass buckets of water, the spade and cuttings over.
Six times on the paddock side and eleven times on the street side the garden was dug up by electricians over the next months. The men, when they saw Tom, who was in charge of the station, apologised for digging up the garden. Some men put the plants to one side to save them, others turned them under. It didn’t matter
all that much because the plants had cost nothing, being mainly cuttings. Sometimes I got a rose or sick hibiscus for a couple of dollars at Woolworths.
One day at the Corrimal Nursery it struck me that they must have plants that they can’t sell. Jim and Shirley had sold their nursery to Denis so I asked him if he had something I could use at the station. He did. Day after day trays of seedlings, pots of perennials and shrubs were left on my verandah. Chrysanthemums and pansies galore. When plants were dug up at the station, I just put more in. In this way I learnt where the main electrical and plumbing lines ran and planted small things there. Trees and bigger shrubs were planted in places I hoped were safer. I was always worried that the paddock would one day be turned into a car park. Peri told me to stop thinking like this and to plant furiously and widely. ‘Once the garden is established,’ she said, ‘they won’t dare to destroy it. Look at what’s happened to my street garden. The council wouldn’t dream of digging that up. There’d be an outcry.’ I hope she’s right. But it isn’t much use being afraid of the future when making a garden, though it’s not a bad idea to look upwards when planting a tree. I see now that gardening is really planting the sky.
After some months, I was lent the key to the gate of the paddock. I got to know George, who is in charge of four stations and who visits daily to see Tom and check
up on things. To George I was a burden to be borne patiently, sometimes affectionately. Tom always offered me a cold drink of Coca-Cola or a plate of chips when he had lunch.
Growing in confidence, I decided to ask if the station would pay for some native trees to shade the paddock side of the platform. George agreed, so I asked Denis to deliver a range of trees. For the other street side, I ordered three
because Tabitha, who along with Adam works for Denis, said they are hardy trees that will soon be too tall for vandals to damage. For a month these three trees sat on my verandah, as I couldn’t face the idea of them being torn down. They needed wrapping and staking and barbed wire and I didn’t like to ask George for the money, or to mention that sort of wire. One day I rang Bulli Hardware and they delivered the wire and six star pickets. I dug them in carefully and wrapped them in old chicken wire Terry had lent me. He wasn’t going to see that wire again and I hoped he didn’t want to. But it turned out he did want it. The trees looked beautiful, waving their leafy tops, and I felt sick leaving them, wondering how long they would last. Prayer came into it.
Inspired by the fact that the Railways had put up, within a week of my asking, the white iron railing fence to stop boys riding their bikes over the garden at the
crossing, I asked George if we could also have a fence running along in front of the trees in the car park. He said, ‘What’s it called, Kate?’
‘Well, a white railing fence, I suppose.’
‘How long is it?’
‘I’m not sure, George.’ So he paced it in his big black shoes.
‘Seventeen metres, one extra for luck, eh?’ Then, ‘Come with me.’
We walked to the office and he rang someone he knows who builds fences, saying: ‘We need a fence. What are they called? Yes, seventeen metres long.’
‘Okay, Kate, they’re coming to measure.’
Two days later, as I was walking past, I saw George, a man and a white ute by the trees. But later George said that it would cost a thousand dollars and they couldn’t afford it, so there would be no fence. However, the man with the ute, seeing the rusty chicken wire cobbled together with the barbed wire around it, took it all down and replaced it with black plastic wire netting. He threw the barbed wire into the bush by the line. George said they aren’t allowed to have that wire because somebody might get hurt. I said that only a vandal would be hurt, because nobody else would put his hands inside to the leaves. Although I was depressed, I couldn’t argue any more, because George is being kind and only doing his job.
A week later, Tom, on duty, said: ‘You know Kate, you can have that barbed wire of yours back if you like. It’s down there in the bush over the fence.’
I looked down from the platform where we were standing and saw it. I said, ‘Look, don’t tell George, Tom, but I am going to put it back onto the trees. They won’t last a month unless they are protected, and even so, they may not be safe.’ So I re-wrapped them.
George, seeing me a week later, said, ‘You can have that barbed wire for your own use, if you like. That chap left it in the bush.’
I said, airily, ‘Don’t worry. I have seen it.’
‘No, come with me, I’ll show you where it is,’ he replied.
‘It’s okay, George.’
He insisted. So I relented and told him what I’d done. George said he supposed it was alright and so we left the matter. I see hundreds of metres of barbed wire coiled around the top of fences on Railway property close to Sydney, when I am on the train, so it can’t be entirely illegal. Whatever made that man throw the wire into the bush and not take it, I bless it, because it has given me much peace of mind. And if these trees survive, it’s because a benevolent fate looks over them.
Later. It’s fatal to speak of a tree flourishing. I rode past the car park, feeling a bit queasy, thinking that I had perhaps tempted fate. I noticed that the tallest tree had
been almost stripped of leaves. I went over and saw that the leaves had not been torn off, but had fallen, and each long twig I touched fell too. It is the rain. The sheer amount in the last weeks, combined with the position beside that platform, where the water runs off and forms pools, has drowned the tree and begun to do the same to the other two. Now here’s a conundrum. What’s George going to say if I ask him if I can buy (as I can’t ask Denis to give) three new advanced trees that can stand a lot of water? And now, so carefully wrapped, how am I going to get them out and put them in a drier place? Was there ever a tree I planted that didn’t have to be moved? I am getting sick of it.
I planted white Marguerite daisies from cuttings along that side of the platform with two grafted passionfruit Denis gave me. The men who come to mow the grass have mowed this three times, but still the passionfruit keep sprouting from their sticks.
We have a compost heap now from grass clippings and I use that for mulch. People walking past as I weed say, ‘You can come over to my place when you’ve finished here.’ Naturally, I find this intensely amusing.
I was always in trouble with the nozzle of the heavy wide hose that Tom let me use, dragging it from a locked room and across the train line. Men love nozzles. I’d misplace the nozzle as I couldn’t control the force of the water, and so took it off, letting the hose run and
flood the plants, making rivulets to take the water farther than the hose could spray. I had a system going like the delta of the Nile.
It drove Tom mad when I lost the nozzle. We searched the long grass for many days.
In the end I bought another.
The handle of the tap beside the steps had to be removed after use so that it couldn’t be stolen, or used to turn the tap on to perhaps run all night. Once I lost this as well. So to use that tap, we had to borrow a handle from Bulli Station. Tom got on the phone. The tap handle came up and down the line by train, in a brown paper bag with a note in biro on the bag: ‘This tap is a boomerang.’ It took six weeks to get another handle for our tap.
Nothing had prepared me for the way that a newly dug piece of land becomes fertile. Kikuyu and couch grass, with other weeds, grew exuberantly as if fertilised, which I suppose they were, having the old grasses and worms enriching the soil. For a while I tried to weed, but it was beyond me. The great thing in any garden, but most especially, I think, in a public one, is to be able to battle a feeling of defeat. Nothing that I’ve ever done has beaten down weeds. Planting so thickly that they can’t grow is best, but the garden isn’t that advanced yet.
Peri, seeing the weeds when she arrived with a station wagon full of pot-bound trees for it, said crisply:
‘You’ll never get rid of those weeds. You’ll have to smother them. Get black plastic or newspaper and mulch.’
That same day we drove south to look at some country and gardens, and, seeing a sign outside Franklins, she drew up. I kept protesting that we couldn’t carry the pine bark she’d seen advertised and I didn’t want her to pay for it. She wouldn’t listen, and got twenty bags along with some gum bark, and we drove back and unloaded them on the verandah of the station.
The local newsagent gave me old newspapers which I took to the station in my wheelbarrow, loaded high. A woman, seeing the spectacle, drew up in her car and offered me a lift. We loaded the lot into her car boot and she drove the few metres to the station gate and she unloaded while I wheeled the barrow.
I have struck up an acquaintance with David, my blind neighbour, and one day I asked him if he would help me weed. He proved to be very strong and now helps me often. When we were extending a bed by the steps, he threw wooden sleepers around like matchsticks. Weeding needs strength and he tore into the grasses like a bull. Waving a metre-wide daisy bush around at me, he said, ‘Big weed, Kate.’ I replied, ‘Lord, David, that’s a daisy bush.’ It didn’t matter as I stuck it back and took a few cuttings to spread around. These
daisies have been a triumph. Some are more than two metres square. They flash white through the cyclone fence and wave beside the platform, never needing any attention, apart from the hosing Tom and Sinna, a young woman who has come to work there, give them. It shows the richness of the soil. Red geraniums, blue plumbago and some dying Iceberg roses, which had been thrown out cheaply at Woolworths, went in too. Somebody dug up one of these white roses, but I put another there along with a filthy note beginning, ‘To the thief who stole the rose…’ Tom took the note away, saying to me later, ‘I hope you don’t mind, Kate, but that person could turn nasty, you know.’
A red climbing rose has half-covered the fence and had its first blazing blooming.
Tom was upset one day when he told me, ‘A young girl, you know, has given me some lip so I wouldn’t let her get on the train without a ticket. She went over to that rose there and tore off some of the flowers.’ On St Valentine’s Day, a boy had taken some geraniums for his girlfriend. Tom sent him off with a flea in his ear. I’ve told Tom that in a private garden the flowers would be being picked and if somebody wants to take them from here, I am glad. He shrugged and said, ‘Okay.’
Red bottlebrush from two big bushes that bend over the footpath further down in this street are on the table in a blue glass vase. Some of these bottlebrush have
naturalised on the banks of the drain running along the vacant land that is fenced off beside the railway station. It is in this block of land that I am making the second part of the station garden. The first part is beside the steps that lead up to the ticket office and the platform for trains that run south to Wollongong. Nature abhors a vacuum, but for some reason, apart from some bulrushes, nothing grew in or beside that drain. Recently though, the bottlebrushes have begun and, most wonderfully, a cedar tree. It was probably sown by a bird, because I can’t imagine the wind being able to drive such a heavy seed.
I was walking along the drain, peering to see if any of the nasturtium seeds I had thrown there had sprouted, when I saw that, finally, the third attempt at starting willow trees had worked. The dry sticks which were grey when I stuck them into the mud in late autumn had turned bright yellow and had green shoots. Six have struck. This will be beautiful. I know willows can be a weed, but this is a man-made drain and they will clean it. Also, they cannot get away, because all around are roads and a dry paddock and a small bare park near the shops.
I had asked Denis at the nursery why the first two lots of willow cuttings had not sprung. He said that one way to grow willows, if you don’t want to buy them as trees, is to layer the bare cuttings in early winter into sawdust
or damp newspaper in a box and then, in spring, plant out the sticks that should have green shoots. However, I had one last shot with the bare cuttings I had taken from willows growing in a creek on the way to Diana’s, a new friend who lives in Woonona. Here they are, alive and set to go. There is something about plants that cost nothing that is deeply satisfying.