Thorn in my side
By Sean Molloy
The thing that sold me on our house – besides the sun streaming through the wide low
windows, the glow of the freshly painted white walls and the heart-soaring view of all of
Wellington far below – was a lack of outdoor space.
Less outdoor space meant less gardening. And no lawn mowing. As a teenager, my
family lived on two acres, ten acres of which were lawn. Every weekend I was forced to
mow fresh shards of grass, though ‘forced’ is unfortunately too exciting an adjective.
‘Forced’ implies Dickensian levels of coercion, as if I were an orphan boy having his ear
twisted until he’s earned his slop of cold porridge. I was simply ‘expected’ to mow, over
and over, until expectation turned to habit, and habit turned to heaviness, and
heaviness turned to hate. And for what? To show off a neat flat lawn like every other
lawn in town. Bah. Lawn mowing is the sacrifice of innocent children in the backyard
every Saturday morning to an unnamed middle-class devil-god.
Gardening is worse and better. Gardening leads to dirt wedged under fingernails,
strange green stains on rubbed raw knuckles, awful smells that can only be erased from
calloused hands by weeks of sloughing skin. Gardening leads to piles of weed carcasses,
which, after I am already sick of physical activity, require the bagging and carting of
these corpses to dump at the tip. Gardening leads to inevitable skirmishes with the
other occupants on, or within, the earth, the ones that skitter and slink and burrow and
web (“Have you never heard of gloves?”, I hear you say. Spoken like someone who has
never met slimy horror inside a glove finger. Where do you think the slinkers like to slink
Our ancestors invented tools and so became the first gardeners. To till the earth was the
first real work. We shouldn’t pretend it’s meant to be fun. Freedom from gardening,
freedom from lawns – these freedoms should be foremost in New Zealand’s
constitution. Perhaps Heaven is the absence of childhood chores.
I wish to write and play and often to rest. Except plants will not let me lie fallow. Plants
twist through the narrowest of gaps to invade the safest of solitudes, tiny burglars of
There are two holdouts of living earth that my wife Helen and I need to deal with on our
property. The first is in the spaces between our path that zigzags up to the front of the
house. We call it a garden, though it’s more a wasteland, a scarred battlefield from
which a handful of survivors are unable to escape. Here we have an ivy bush which has
earned my grudging respect through its invulnerability; poison cannot kill this bush and
sharp blades only encourage its expansion. Here we have spindly over-eagers, desperate
to throttle me, that I’ve dubbed “strangle flowers”. Here we have some plants that I
can’t even name because of their insignificance, they slip from my sight like the least
memorable people at a party that I never wanted to attend.
Someone needs to keep these ghouls at bay, except Helen is disinterested and I am
actively disinclined. We leave this ‘garden’ to paid gardeners. At best, these gardeners
are swift and brutal. At worst, it’s hard to spot where they have slashed. I do not praise
a careful gardener. My one article of faith in gardening is that the plants will live to
annoy another day.
Our second holdout of ground is around our concreted courtyard at the back of our
house. The courtyard is ringed by a raised brick bed of flowers, and this is Helen’s
garden. She keeps it colourful. She is minorly devoted to it. She even organises
Gardening Club with her friends, and they visit each other’s houses to help one another
weed, as well as partaking of the inevitable tea and biscuits (often for longer periods
than the weeding).
Whenever Helen gardens, I perform some other chore. The dishes, the grocery
shopping, the vacuuming, the washing, the drying. The jobs of the modern human
Yet, I cannot deny that I take some enjoyment from Helen’s work. Often when we are
sitting in the courtyard together, Helen will draw my attention to a particular stretch of
her garden, and though I can’t tell exactly the improvement that she has recently made,
I take joy from her joy in having planted some new flowers. And the overall effect of
sight, smell and quiet repose is pleasing.
Therefore, I feel guilty, as I gain from the activity of gardening while avoiding
participation. There is however one gardening chore that remains mine alone.
Our neighbours’ hedge is mostly jasmine, and jasmine vines are the fastest of all my
growing grievances. Jasmine vines invade together, just one at first, but within a week
there are seven more, like the cunning arms of an aerial octopus. They sneak across the
gap between the hedge and our house at night, at day, at morning and afternoon tea
when Helen and I sip our coffees in the courtyard. If left to their own devices, these
tendrils will latch hold of our windowsill and guttering and pull tight and taut. Assassins
lying in wait. Still, I attempted to ignore the vines, until one morning, when racing for
the bus, one of them garrotted me most efficiently, almost fulfilling the desperate
longings of the strangle flowers.
Jasmine vines are too high for Helen and too swift for paid gardeners, and so their
management falls to me. By management, I mean gleeful slaughter. Yes, it’s true – from
the tearing of their stems, from ripping them free of their strangleholds where they
thought they were safe, to casting them into a disrespectful heap on the ground – I can
find some genuine delight in gardening. Rage-filled stompy ‘gardening’.
Sean Molloy is a writer based in Aro Valley, Wellington. where he lives with his wife Helen. He wrote an essay published by Milly Magazine about his car Lazarina, who is, you may be happy to hear, still going strong