Read Playing With Water Online

Authors: Kate Llewellyn

Playing With Water (2 page)

People had told me I would not be able to grow trees in the street and it began to look as though they were right. Rage rose in me and I rode off to a hardware shop. Phil, my neighbour on the other side, had told me that only star pickets and cement would save the trees. Not sure what star pickets were, I asked Terry and he said that I would only be giving the vandals a weapon if I used them. They are simply a long star-shaped iron picket used for fences and staking. I bought star pickets, instant cement and a roll of barbed wire and one of chicken wire. With the energy that comes from pitting your will against another’s, I dug holes and filled them with cement and stuck the pickets in. Then I wrapped the wires around the pickets that surrounded the trees. In a few hours the trees were wrapped as if in a war zone. They looked strange but beautiful; the emblem of peace in barbed wire. I put a bath towel over the newly planted tree to shade it on a hot day. The towel was taken while Philippa and I had morning tea. Now Terry has given me old shorts which were dusters to shade the tree. It has gone into shock, but is well watered. People shake their heads and tell me it is hopeless, but I am not giving up yet. Paragon, Verdale and Manzanillo are the best olives for this area, I read in the newspaper, so they
are what I planted. ‘You’ll never grow trees in this street, Kate,’ Phil said. Well, we’ll see about that.

Speaking of olives, here is a recipe that uses quite a lot of olive oil.


1 small bunch of celery or half a big one, chopped

4 or 5 large glossy eggplants, chopped

4 onions, peeled and cut into chunks

1 cup of vinegar (not balsamic)

cup of capers

2 tablespoons of brown sugar

cup of tomato paste

olive oil

salt and pepper

1 cup of olives


Fry the chopped eggplant in batches until soft and slightly browned. Place in a big serving bowl.

Add more olive oil to the pan and cook the celery. Don’t let it get soft. Place this into the bowl with the eggplant. Add a little more oil to the pan and fry the onion until clear but not browned or unformed. Put in the tomato paste and about a cup of water and cook for 3 minutes or so, gently boiling. Add the vinegar,
sugar, olives and capers. Bring to the boil and then taste. It may need more sugar or salt.

Mix all the ingredients in the big bowl. Grind pepper over it.

Serve at room temperature or warm.

It is good with bread and fish or chicken.

Thursday, 20th January

Old white cosmos plants were piled into the wheelbarrow. A stack of weeds too, from the bed at the curve of the path down the outside of the house which leads to the back steps. This bed was like a meadow with old roses and a few pink and scarlet zinnias. All these annuals had been planted in one day from a heady mix. In a hurry, I had soaked five packets of seed and sowed the lot, thinking, ‘Now we shall see what likes it here.’ It became one of the most beautiful beds I have ever grown. I took some plants from this bigger bed and put them down the side path too. The white cosmos wafted its starry flowers above the bright blue cornflowers. Towards the back of the bed, a few zinnias stood and among them some surprising greenish-white ones, stalwartly claiming their space and making the whole beautiful and strange.

The cornflowers went in later than the packet advised, as they ought to be sown in winter. But still they thrived in the heat and lasted four months. Some are still
flowering among the last of the cosmos, which are not quite done yet either. Behind them, four pink climbing roses have almost covered the side fence since they were planted in June. A Lorraine Lee rose I bought among twenty others from Heynes’ Nursery in Norwood, Adelaide, is two metres tall. There is an Albertine I brought here from Leura in a pot at Easter and two old Rugosa roses my son Hugh dug out from under the big tree, where they languished for years in the summer shade. We call this tree the Mother-in-law tree, as when I first saw it I asked the owners of this house the name. The man told me his wife’s mother had given them it as a seedling so they’d named it after her as they knew no other name. The Eureka lemon tree and the pink crepe myrtle (an advanced tree I got from the Leura Nursery) are also along this side fence. The myrtle has just bloomed and is three metres high. It has doubled in size, as has the Eureka lemon, since they were planted here. It is the good soil and the climate, as well as the blood and bone fertiliser, that set them roaring. When I move house, the first thing I plant is a lemon.

Not a single basil plant has come up from the seeds I sowed for winter. Terry says that one hot day can kill the lot in the early stages. I thought I had taken care not to let them dry out. They were sown under a sprinkling of old lawn clippings with no soil at all on top, as he taught me.

My friend Jennifer came two days ago to begin taking photographs of the garden to show whatever happens this coming year. We are full of hope. Anthony, Jennifer’s husband, walked around as I picked the first tomatoes for them to take home, smelling the plants while saying: ‘Tomatoes smell so wonderful; they have an old-fashioned smell.’ There was a plate of Rouge de Marmande tomatoes ripening in the sun on the back table. These were handed over the fence by Terry, who grew them from a self-sown plant that sprang up having fallen from a bush onto the path and been trodden in. If you hold your palm up and turn your fingers in slightly, that is the outline of the shape of this beautiful prawn-pink fruit. Rouge de Marmande tomatoes are good planted earlier than Grosse Lisse and others I am told.

The genus name
is from the Greek meaning ‘wild peach’, but the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus named the tomato
Solanum lycopersicon
although the original applied to an unrelated Egyptian plant and so the name has remained, a little incongruously, with the tomato. The tomato was looked on with suspicion by Europeans when it arrived from Central and South America and was not widely accepted until the early nineteenth century. Had people known how to dry it in the sun, as we do now, it could have saved lives in times of famine. No doubt people
dried food in suitable climates, but it seems that they did not use the method for tomatoes.

Grown commercially, tomatoes are not always staked but simply harvested, plant and all, from the field. As I had no stakes, mine are not tied up, but sag and crawl like green lions around the garden.


Take some good ripe tomatoes and cut them up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Take some good bread, preferably but not essentially sourdough, and tear it up into bite-sized pieces.

About half a loaf will make enough for four people. But a whole loaf will be suitable for six or more.

You will need about the same volume of tomatoes to bread.

Place the bread in a bowl of cold water. Squeeze this with your hands. Discarding the water, mix the bread with the tomatoes.

Tear up a cup or two of fresh basil and stir this through. Pour over a cup or two of olive oil depending on the amount of salad you have made. Sometimes chopped peeled cucumbers are added to this dish.

Serve at room temperature. This is good with lightly grilled tuna or canned tuna on a hot day.

Thursday, 27th January

This morning, tossing a bucket of bathwater onto the white cleomes which were drying out under the shelter of the eaves by the side path, I found the Geraldton wax hidden in their shade. This delicate-looking yet hardy native is one of the earliest memories I have of any plant. It was practically the only flower my mother had when we lived on the edge of a desert by the sea on the Eyre Peninsula. I put this one in beside the wall on the northern side of the house and then forgot it. It grows to three metres with large airy sprays of waxy pink, lilac and white flowers. It is prone to rootrot so possibly its dry position will be good for it. In Western Australia where it comes from, as the name implies (Geraldton is a port on the western coast of WA), there are great avenues of it waving beside the roads. They are used as oleanders are in Crete; a highway from Heraklion has thousands of pink oleanders which grow for many, many kilometres. It would not be hard to plant like this in dry areas with short wet winters. The effect is beautiful and they need no maintenance.


As we drove into Yanchep

the foam of the bushes

reared up like the sea

around the boat.

White or pink or pale-grey,

others of magenta,

the utter lavishness of it

hit me

like a sudden knock

on my front door.

My mother had one precious bush

of this

in her desert garden.

No rain fell for nine months

of the year

and then only ten inches,

rarely more.

The wax bush bloomed

outside the kitchen window.

She poured the water on it

from the grey tin basin

of the washing-up.


women from the church

would come

and pick it for a wedding

but one day

one such came

and cut so deeply

she turned the bush

into a basin.

It was never the same again,

something had gone

from its heart.

My mother grieved.

And there at Yanchep’s garden

I saw that in certain times and places,

waves of flowers bloom

with nothing put on them

by a person’s hand.

But something makes them grow

like unexpected uninvited love

blessed with clement weather.

Friday, 28th January

Kate Grenville got me going on compost. ‘Oh, I always have a compost heap. I am a believer in compost,’ she said when she was pregnant with her son Tom, staying with me at Leura.

Last night I spread two barrowloads of compost on the garden. It was dusk and birds came out of the trees
to peck the earth. Compost makes good mulch and even though the soil here is rich and black, as I’ve said, nonetheless it improves the growth of everything. The compost heap is only a three-metre-square patch that was once a fowl yard. There is a lot of daunting mysterious talk given out on composting. It is better to pile up leaves, cuttings and vegetable scraps and let it all rot than throw it into a rubbish bin—and that’s mainly all that’s needed. Lime or dolomite sprinkled on the pile from time to time helps keep the compost sweet and hastens the breakdown into soil. Last month’s salad is this month’s soil. It gives me pleasure, appealing as it does to a frugal streak; something good that costs nothing at all.

Peri bought a book in the Kangaroo Valley second-hand bookshop and cafe, which she read out over her tea and cake. It was Mary Pickford’s autobiography,
Sunshine and Shadow.
She read it out because we had been discussing roses and what are good roses and what are poor or ugly. There are some mighty ugly roses.

This is what she read, holding up the old blue cloth-covered book:

Whenever I got a penny, at the age of five or six, I would go to the florist and buy myself a rosebud, which I took home and carefully tended. One day, after making my purchase, I pointed to a full-blown rose that
seemed to be falling, and asked the florist: ‘May I have that rose, if you don’t want it anymore?’ The florist gave it to me for nothing and that became quite a ritual: my rosebud for a penny, and a fading rose for the asking. After repeating this performance three or four times, the florist asked me one day what I did with the rose that he no longer wanted. ‘I eat it,’ I told him.

And that was the simple truth. It had tasted very bitter at first, but I thought that if I were to eat it, the beauty and the colour and perfume would somehow get inside me.

When we drove home we saw arum lilies growing wild in a bog at the side of the road. I had been looking for them as I’d seen them before, so we stopped. I dug up some and piled them into the back on top of the mulch we’d bought and the pair of
trees. By the time we got home it was dark, but I dug holes in the shade of the Mother-in-law tree and filled them with water. In the glow of the outside light, which the previous owners had put in for parties, I dug and the lily flowers glowed like lustrous pale fish in a dark sea.

Growing Easily

There is always a woman

at a window

arms folded

or resting on the sill

waiting, waiting, waiting

for the plants to grow

bulbs to thrust

leaves to turn

or the friend to come.

Gaping at the world

and death only a beat away

trying always to remember

while drinking from this chalice.

A nun of memory

she reads the Bible of the day.

The weather, birds and plants

seem the same

yet the text changes daily.

The Just Joey rose has faded

now to ivory.

Somehow the nameless tree

seems bigger.

I woke in tears

because Apollinaire is dead

or that he died so young—

flu and shrapnel killed him.

I understand nothing

attempting to notice everything.

My chair scrapes on the floor

and so my neighbours know

that I am home.

Signs are all we have

and half of those aren’t understood.

I mourn no one but Apollinaire.

In the halls of my unconscious

spiders spin nothing but

wild silver webs

catching only blood

and crystals.

Lately dreams have laughter in them.

The window in the morning

opens on the green kimono

of the garden

naked I shrug it on

and step outside

roses, cornflowers

and white stars of cosmos

embroidered on my back.

I want to be buried face down

so that I can wear the earth

this garden

blooming on my back

the light gleaming

on the silk birds flying over

and the sash, the wide blue sea.

Tuesday, 1st February

n her book,
You are Now Entering the Human Heart,
Janet Frame wrote about shading and shadows: ‘All things, even kettles and fire shovels, stood under the sun, complete and unique with their shadows, fighting to preserve them.’

It is the shadows on the lawn in the early morning that are beautiful. The Mother-in-law tree’s shadow shakes like a green fan on the grass. Imagine a world without shadows. All things standing forever lit from above with no shadow falling, even around a tree trunk, as if everything were permeable by light and so without substance, like things made by dreams. The Surrealist painters dispensed with shadows and it’s partly that which makes their art so dreamlike.

The blue potato vine
(Solanum seaforthianum)
is climbing onto the roof of the shed. In full bloom now, the mauve-blue star-shaped clusters of flowers hang
near its bunches of bright orange berries. There are fourteen hundred species in the genus including trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and climbers from around the world. Potatoes and eggplant belong to this genus, yet many other types are poisonous. Told that this divine blue-flowering creeper is slow to grow, I became defiant and planted it to hide the ugly little shed anyway. I did not want the whole place covered in the white version of this vine, even though it is lovely and extremely fast growing. The white one,
Solanum jasminoides
or Alba, now covers some of the flywire doors from the house, slung up above the fences to make screens. I longed for blue. I’d pull the sky down if I could. Fed and watered, the blue vine grew quickly and reached the roof in eight months.

The Australian rainforest vine
Pandorea jasminoides,
Bower of Beauty, has pink trumpet flowers with dark crimson inner throats. I don’t know why it is that a label on a plant can depict a pink flower yet on the back it’s described as cream. There is, though, a variety called Lady Di with white flowers and cream throats. This creeper needs a warm temperate climate with rich well-drained soil and plenty of water.

There was a time when every outdoor lavatory was covered with some kind of flowering vine. Indoor lavatories were rare then. You could sit with the door open, dreamily looking at the flowers of a vine like the purple
ones I saw last week from a train; a sort of pea-flower. Or you could stare out at the pretty orange-coloured blossom of lantana (shrub verbena). This was about the time lantana escaped into the bush and became a pest.

The scent of lantana flowers takes me back to dreamy summer days reading the Deaths column of
The Advertiser.
Since I knew nobody who had died, except my Grandfather, I do not know why I was so drawn to those sad columns. I read them in the cool dark cave of the lantana-covered lavatory.

Near my house there is a garden with a lantana cultivar called Radiation twined and topiaried. I got off my bike to look. It felt a bit like seeing a wedding bouquet made of weeds. But what, after all, is a weed? Nothing more than a plant you decide to call a weed. For instance, at Leura, in my old garden, Philippa dug out a driveway of blue
because we had decided that they were weeds. Crowding out other plants, they took all the space and could not share. Yet those Februarys full of blue were wonderful. I used to love walking down the drive through an avenue of blue. Maybe we shouldn’t have done it.

When I came to live here by the sea, I longed for flowering trees. I wanted them so that if things were not to my liking on earth, I could lift my eyes to the sky and see something beautiful. Hibiscus were hard to grow in Leura, though some people did manage. But after years
of struggle, I have come to a simple conclusion. And that is that it is almost always better to grow what will flourish easily. It has taken me years to learn this. It will probably take me a bit longer to administer it.

Hibiscus thrive here so I planted a great wanton
Hibiscus rosa-sinensis
called Surfrider by the shed. Philippa was horrified. She hates these great colourful hybrids and likes older simple kinds. To cover a bare patch of fence on the northern side next to the path I planted
Hibiscus arnottianus
which is a cultivar called Wilder’s White. Five petals around a scarlet pistil. The label says it will grow to two metres, but the
Encyclopaedia Botanica
says it grows up to five metres. I stare at that ugly space and watch the hibiscus sprout with the ardour of a gambler watching a roulette wheel slow.

I’ve decided to lift the Surfrider before next spring and plant it outside the bathroom window on the southern side of the house. I will be the one to see it most and it will give more privacy. It is a pleasant thing to look out at a tree or shrub from the bath, or even cleaning your teeth. There is something primitive about it.

The Rose of Sharon,
Hibiscus syriacus,
grows easily here. There are two big shrubs, one each against the northern and southern fences. (The house faces due west.) The cultivar Bluebird grows like a weed in this garden, but the only trouble with it as a covering for fences is that it is deciduous. All winter, after I had
French windows put in my bedroom, I lay staring out at those bare branches waiting for spring to mask the fence with a thousand leaves and mauve flowers. And now it has. But it will go again.

At night, the horns of the trains bleat ‘Help!’ like a drowning man. Sometimes a horn sounds like laughter in a corner. Another, the cackle of a hen; sometimes like bandages being torn and at other times a trumpet. From the bathroom the noise of the carriages full of coal sounds like gorillas mating. During the day I rarely hear the trains. It only took three months not to hear them in the daytime. My son said, ‘Aeroplanes are an assault, but the sound of trains is romantic.’ I clutched at that during the first weeks, thinking I had made a terrible mistake coming here.


There we are six at tea

at the black oval table

I later sold for a lot.

The man at one end,

the woman at the other.

The boys are fighting over

the custard skin

and we are putting cream

on the ice cream on the custard.

No wonder the man died young.

An austere abundance fills the house.

All things are polished—

our shoes, our hair,

our noses too,

which are peeling.

Outside on the mallee roots

in the wheelbarrow

the dishpan is warm from the sun

and beyond that

tomatoes are hanging red and green.

We don’t know anyone

who doesn’t speak English

except Eraldo the prisoner of war.

We have never seen our mother cry

and we don’t know men can.

After the meal,

one at a time,

not changing the water,

we were bathed,

the woman, then the man used it.

I always felt sorry for him

as the water was cooler by then,

but he said he didn’t mind.

Last to bath,

first to die.

Who will be next?

Wednesday, 22nd March

Summer’s over. Yet still the great tree that blocks the sea from this window where I sit is green and in full leaf. In Adelaide, where I went for the Festival of Arts, my friend Jane showed me her garden and there, behind the shed where she makes tiles, was a tree about a metre high and then she told me its name. When I said I’d tried for so long to discover more about this tree, she took me around the block and pointed to a big tree sheltering a verandah. It was the same as my own. The
also called the Tree of Heaven, and in Adelaide sometimes it is called the Marryatville Tree. It seeds in any newly dug land and in the suburb Marryatville it became a weed, flourishing everywhere. And so it is here. For weeks I have been pulling up thriving seedlings hidden among other plants.
Ailanthus altissima
is a native of China. In some places it is valued for its ability to endure pollution. A great green dome of a tree, it has insignificant flowers, but salmon-coloured bracts in summer among the deep-green pinnate leaves. So the mystery is solved. The Mother-in-law tree becomes the Tree of Heaven, becomes
Now I remember that Don DeLillo has it growing in New York in his book

There is a white horizontally growing
lily in Jane’s garden. In the moonlight, when we walked outside, it shone there, white, almost silvery glowing
trumpets, whiter than swans at dusk on a lake. Jane is saving its green seed pods for me.

When I came to this coast I was full of an ardour to have semi-tropical trees. I knew I’d miss the great trees of the Blue Mountains if there wasn’t something sensational to replace them. I wanted
lilies outside my bedroom window, either apricot or ivory, and also oleanders, orange trees, bauhinias, Dutch tulip trees, all the flowering trees that brush the sky. I soon forgot this plan. There are no
lilies yet. But this week I will get one if I can.
Brugmansia suaveolens,
called Angel’s Trumpet or
has orange-red flowers. I have never seen this tree, but found a photograph of it in
are short-lived plants with capsular green fruits. All parts of both true
are narcotic and extremely dangerous. I once knew a boy who smoked some
leaves and went blind, completely and utterly blind, for several days. Then his sight gradually returned. But that was during the seventies and some of us felt invincible then. There was no AIDS that we knew of, people tried anything in nature, smoked strange leaves, made love to strangers without exchanging names, and thought they could fly. Some jumped from buildings, arms out like wings.

The way the lily trumpets of the
hang down and its night scent makes it a wonderful plant. Cecil
Beaton photographed women against this tree, and he knew what he was doing. I feel like riding down to Shirley and Jim’s Nursery at Corrimal and buying the pale apricot Charles Grimaldi immediately, and also the Candida which is ivory.

The David Austin Claire rose I bought in Adelaide with my friend Clare Guthleben, which was with all the other roses planted last August, is now four metres high and swathes this window. Three green arms reaching for the stars. The yellow Charles Austin rose back in the garden among the white cosmos has arched over almost to the fence and is growing through the lemon tree. Soon there will be yellow roses among the lemons.

This whole long empty street, with only the two young olives wrapped in barbed wire, would be fabulous with about two hundred
Gordonia axillaris
trees. They used to confuse me because, even though they are so huge, I thought they were camellias, to which they are, in fact, related. With their glossy leaves and big flat white flowers with golden stamens they are one of the most beautiful trees for a warm climate. Perhaps they grow in a cold climate too, as all these camellia types are natives of South China. I would give anything to get the Council to agree to

Because it is autumn I will give you a recipe I love, to go with the season.


15 grams of sugar

1 litre of water

100 millilitres of brandy or rum

zest and juice of an orange

cinnamon stick

600 grams of dried fruit (prunes, figs and dried apricots is a good mixture but any can be used)

Sponge Topping:

4 eggs, separated

110 grams of caster sugar

85 grams of plain flour

1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon


The night before, mix together everything in the first list of ingredients. Boil for 3 minutes and leave to cool. Drain and keep the fluid. Place the fruit without the cinnamon stick in a casserole dish. Cover with the fluid.


Heat oven to 190°C. Beat egg yolks with half the sugar until thick and creamy. Beat the egg whites until stiff and add the remaining sugar.

Fold a cup of the egg white mixture into the yolk
mixture. Add the remaining flour and gently fold in the last of the whites. Pour this immediately and gently onto the fruit and place in 190°C oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove when light brown and set. Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with cream.

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