I don’t want to remember why I am here. Mapping my way as I walk, I just want to remember forward, as the desert light slinks into Brunswick, making the dust glitter, creating mysterious, nocturnal places under the curved metal roofing over the shops.
Of course, I have no idea how this desert light reaches Melbourne’s inner suburbs. It makes no sense; the desert is hundreds of miles away. It’s probably only in my head – but here, in Lygon Street, I’m always expecting a desert just beyond the last 7-Eleven. Trees, footpaths, shops, cafés and supermarkets waver on the brink of existence. They could just as well duck out into another world. Yet they choose to stay.
A wind, as fickle as the Khamsun, picks up as I walk, rustling through the corrugated iron of the awnings. A cocktail of seasons can whisk around in a single day. A woman overtakes me and cries over her shoulder:
‘More of this crazy Melbourne weather!’
Everybody repeats this in the same tone, with the same tilt of the chin. The leitmotiv makes a home of the constant change of wind, rain and sun.
I should know more about the weather because I’m a gardener now. My boss Kim is a spare woman. Her eyes are a blue absence. She is taller than me, with big, untamed hands that seem to have a will of their own. She looks up from her spade to throw competent glances at the world. Not only does she tend people’s gardens, she also landscapes them. Her drawings are tied in a roll and look beautiful. I met her in the street. When I asked her if she had some work for me, she lifted her head from her digging, keeping her boot on her spade. Her glance sized me up as if to say ‘this will be a joke.’ But she gave me a job anyway. I was to start the next afternoon. After shuffling around a few seconds, I waved goodbye to her digging back. It took me a minute to realise that I had become her worker and, in that second, things had subtly changed between us. Two days later my body no longer felt my own. As I dug, pruned and swept, it had strange flashes of intuition in its elbows and knees.
Every afternoon I am with Kim, but when we stop for tea and biscuits, no intimacy grows between us. I would like to know gardening, to understand it in that same flowing way she does. But when she shows me things, my mind escapes like a shoal of fish. I become stupid, unassertive. I dig the wrong hole or tip a whole barrowful of mulch onto the wrong bed. It has to be done again – by her. She never complains, just states my mistakes without dwelling on them. It’s worse than if she were to rant and rave. When I say sorry, she digs her spade in, stopping all the clocks in my vicinity. Leaning on the handle, she slowly wags one long finger:
‘People who work for me don’t say sorry all the time. Here we don’t say sorry.’
She smiles wryly, murmuring ‘bloody hell’ under her breath, because she knows I have not meant it as a joke. We carry on like this for months.
Mitali, the other extra gardener, gets on with Kim better than I. They talk knowledgeably of seeds and cuttings. The names of trees and varieties of plants are brought back to me in Mitali’s smile and light tread. She has a cloudy night of hair and the darkest, shiniest eyes I have ever seen. When we work together, the information she has gleaned from Kim seems to be transmitted directly to my suddenly adroit hands. The roots and the foliage, the diseases and the bugs become part of my world through cross-pollination.
As time goes by Mitali and I seem to team up, and usually end up working side by side. One day, Mitali, kneeling next to me to plant crocuses, tells me how haunted she is by Jill Meagher’s death. Suddenly it becomes more than shocking news, as she says:
‘I know I never met her, but I can’t stop thinking about it. And why was she raped and murdered in Hope Street, of all places?’
Then her words die on her. Her eyes glaze over. Before I know it my hand is on her arm as if she were falling. She makes a grimace, snapping out of it with a frown, and I move away.
‘I’m fucking tempted by death. It’s another option, like gaming. I’m interested in it as a premise, as an alternative to life.’
‘Have you always been like this?’ I ask.
She stares at me. I have the feeling she is making a decision inside her head.
‘My brother committed suicide. I was eighteen then. He was seventeen. We could have been twins, for fuck’s sake.’
She knocks at a stone with her trowel. It makes a weird little sound.
‘He didn’t die straight away. He lasted a few days in hospital – in a coma. I live with his death. It just stays there.’
She knocks the trowel again.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I usually don’t speak about it. It’s Jill Meagher … Her murder moves things – things that don’t usually move.’
She stabs at the clods of earth with her trowel for a while. I usually have a sense she has a sort of Jain feeling for worms and bugs, and is normally on the look out for them – but not at this moment. Her mind is on crime, as if it were some kind of relief for her.
‘At about the same time,’ she tells me, ‘there was another murder in Brunswick. It was in the newspapers. An Indian man killed his wife and set fire to their home, burning them both in a kind of joint sati.’
She gives the earth another vicious dig.
‘That disaster, directly connected with my parents’ culture, doesn’t touch me as much as Jill Meagher’s death. Her killing takes as much room in my mind as in the bloody newspapers.’
She thrusts and buries a bulb into the soil without gently covering it up as usual.
‘And that’s not all. Just two days ago one of my old students, from RMIT, died in a motorcycle accident in Vietnam. He volunteered in a soup kitchen on the weekends and did well at his studies. And this is without counting my friend Olga … She was my oldest friend.’
The wind blows her hair in her face and she brushes it angrily away.
‘But even she doesn’t haunt me like Jill Meagher. All I can do now is mourn this unknown woman who was nothing to me.’
She wipes her nose with the heel of her hand.
‘Jill Meagher seems to be holding a candle in all my dark cupboards.’
As we plant the bulbs, her anger spreads out as blindly as the roots of the trees in the soil around us. I don’t say anything. You can’t come near that kind of pain. It’s there, like a thunderstorm you can only witness until calm returns. Yet my simple presence seems to be part of the process. I am carried along in spite of myself. From time to time, Mitali casts a glance at me, like a wild animal surprised by human company, half accepting it, half rejecting it.
Soon the afternoon of work is over. Kim drops us at Mitali’s. She and I live in the same street. As we stand in the unquiet dusk, Mitali shivers and asks me in for a cup of tea. She lives with her partner and his adult daughter who has come back home for a while. I stay on the small verandah. I’m too tired to pull my boots off, and lean against the warm sanded weatherboards, looking through a dappled maze of leaves. The wood has an old honey glow. Someone must have peacefully sanded it with no eye on time. I press my fingers to its soft texture and let my thoughts wander through the meandering path of their small garden. Mitali returns with two cups. Her husband Ian appears – a tall, lanky man. He squats near Mitali without a word. His humorous eyes take us in, dirt, weariness and all. They seem to be full of land, as if they contained a view seen from a train window. Suddenly everything is perfect – a perfection that is part of the leaves and the enormous sky. One of those moments, lasting seconds, just enough time for a sigh, a koan, a haiku.
He leaves and returns a minute later, just as dusk grows thicker, bearing slices of fruit on a plate. They exchange a few comments on his daughter. Mitali announces:
‘She’ll soon be studying again.’
‘And she’s sleeping better.’
Then he turns towards me:
‘My daughter Billie has had leukaemia, but she’s pulling through.’
This new shadow of death is there with the food we are sharing. Ian nudges the fruit towards us. He has long fingers that move slower than other people’s. I guess he is the one who has sanded the weatherboards by hand, spurning a power tool.
We stay silent a few moments. The fruits are fresh and delicious, as if my tiredness itself were tasting them. Our heads are all leaning against the weatherboards. I smile at them.
‘Dusk is my favourite hour.’