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

to?).

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

contentment.

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

world.

 

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