lawn

Gardener

James Clarke

It was only now, later on and standing on the lawn, lathered in oily sweat and with one arm swinging the leaf blower in a lazy slow motion arc that he considered the dreamlike quality of the valium he had taken and how much he was enjoying himself.

His hooded eyes blinked steadily beneath his sunglasses like a pair of sheets on a washing line, coolly rising and falling in their docile summer manner. The vibrations from the leaf blower skittered and shuddered pleasingly, sending a constant rhythmic massaging up his load bearing arm as it swung left to right in that 180 degree turn, scything the leaves and hubris into the packed brown earth at the sides of the lawn with its breath.

He stood, feet locked into position on the lawn and slowly, after letting go of the ignition trigger and allowing the blower to die out, lowered it. It hung from the strap on his shoulders loose by his side like a firearm. His arm still felt the residue of the vibrations, much like an eardrum that’s been too near to a powerful speaker. His muscles felt muffled, warped and fuzzy and the sensation pleased him. Swaying slightly in the closeness of the afternoon and the haze of the drugs he surveyed his handiwork so far. A spotless lawn.

There was still work to be done though. The rolling grass of the Radford families’ garden still needed cutting, the expansive flowerbeds had to be weeded thoroughly and the willow tree out front needed pruning. It was hard work and involved long hours but it would please his father to see him do it, never mind the fact that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. At least it had got him out of the house on a good day; he couldn’t argue with the weather.

He ran his tongue along the backs of his top teeth slowly, stopping at the right hand side of his mouth and poking his tongue out of the corner. He tentatively felt a solitary downy hair that protruded over the edge of his top lip – a survivor from last night’s shave. The tip of his tongue poked at it gently, flicking it and enjoying the dextrous pinnacle of contact between hair and soft flesh.

Crickets sounded out in the afternoon air and the sky was a piercing blue. The shade was almost exactly the same fulsome colour as the eyes of his Aunt Deb’s old dog Princie. The dog was deaf and stupid and brought nothing but bad odours and soiled carpets with it wherever it went. He remembered seeing Princie’s grave in Aunt Debs back garden some years previously and recalled feeling nothing but contempt for the little punk and the way that it had died, running out into the road and getting splattered over the tarmac like a little bundle of paint splattered rags.

Globules of sweat formulated on the back of his neck, convalesced at the top of his spine and ran down the bare stretch of skin that met the edge of his vest like the shore meets the bubbled cream of the ocean. He spat a long lazy jet of phlegm infused saliva, failing to notice it splattering onto the tip of his steel toe capped boot. He surveyed the garden around him and the thickening heavy cloak of atmosphere that the heat created and decided that he didn’t really mind being out here in the sun. This community service could turn out to be alright.

Later on he had moved onto the flowerbeds and was knelt in the hot powdered soil. Steadily he plunged his trowel around the green based stems of the weeds, forcing the blade down under the shallow roots and gouging the plants out roughly. Afterward he tossed them over his shoulder into the wheelbarrow that stood behind, solemn and expectant.

He had realised by now the effects of the drugs and couldn’t help but feel grateful that Grandpa Ted had shattered his pelvis, leaving that veritable goldmine of pharmaceuticals at home ready to be pilfered. The old man sat stupefied in his wheelchair all day, occasionally moving his drooling head to look down and change the channel on the television using the TV control that was gaffa taped to his armrest. He never noticed anything let alone a few missing tablets each day.

Valium made the work a mildly surreal experience. He found it hard to concentrate, every few seconds he would find his attention slowly wondering off whilst his body continued to work away at its monotonous task. He felt as if he was in a pleasant dream and his brain was full of light feathered candy floss. His vision was clouded and white and his thoughts were inconsistent and tangential. Nothing mattered.
After a time he found his scattershot attention wondering aimlessly towards the Radford families outhouse. They had left it open so that he could access the assorted gardening paraphernalia contained within. Seemingly in no time at all and without knowing how he had got there, he was standing in the doorway swaying and surveying the place. It was a small stone building. The building reeked of organisation and seemed to have the idea of intent but absolutely no evidence of use at all, almost as if it was someone’s idea of something that they should own just so they could say they owned it rather than say they used it.

His attention was caught by the large refrigerator that stood proud and gleaming in the far left corner, resplendent in white with the fiercely minimal logo emblazoned on its door. He glided over to it immediately and tugged it open. Inside he found precisely what he had hoped would be there. He helped himself to a six pack.

The shuffle back to the flowerbed and the glare outside was decisive and quick and soon he was sat in the dirt chugging down the beers and drifting off in a glazed fantasy entirely of his own making. He chose not to think about the job at hand or the commitments and promises he had allowed himself to make to his father and that septic judge at the court. As he drank he lay on his back, propping himself up on an elbow, his head falling backwards happily, his sharply featured face and sweat licked hair lolled dreamily in the sun. The bright red handle of the trowel protruded from the ground next to him, patiently buried and waiting to be removed like poor little Princie in Aunt Deb’s garden all the way across town.

It was at least three hours later that he awoke – flat on his back and gently reeling back to the land of the living like a handful of sand tossed down the windshield of a car, tumbling wayward and steady; irregular but true.

Confused, he tugged his sunglasses off and saw the cans of beer scattered all around him. Specks of dirt peppered his arms where he had lain in the dirt. The sky was by now carrot orange and darkening fast.

He rose steadily and began to pick up the empty cans, loading them into the wheel barrow along with the few odd weeds, roots and leaves he had cleared from the flowerbeds earlier and pushed the barrow to the top of the garden as fast as his legs would allow him. Once there he quickly scrabbled in the dirt, making a hole with his hands and cursing his forgotten trowel. When the hole was big enough he threw the empties in and hastily kicked the dirt back over them and pushed the good earth in with his boots, stamping on it hard. He emptied the contents of the barrow on top.

After wheeling the barrow back down the garden, filling it with tools and transporting them all to the outhouse, he was getting himself ready to leave, all the while preparing the lies that would be required to explain why the day’s work quota had not been met when the sound of a car pulling up on the driveway stopped him short.

The floodlight came on as the car door opened, anticipating the night no doubt but unnecessary in the crepuscular glow of the late summer fade. The sound of the hard soles on the paving slabs as whoever it was climbed out of the car echoed out. He was reminded of the sound of the corridors at school, of the hallways of police stations and of the emergency room. The car door shut crisply and the footsteps drew closer. The driver of the car was alone, there was no other discernible sound coming from fellow passengers.

The gate swung open as he stood there awkwardly still and shifting his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. He was suddenly illuminated by the false glow of the floodlight, no longer covered as he had been before by the criss-crossed shadows of the wall and the vinery that climbed up it. Mrs Radford stopped as she saw him. He could only make out her outline which was lit from behind. He blinked but said nothing, he tried to make out her features but he could not.

She took a step forward then and walked towards him. She was svelte and lithe with her narrow waste. She wore a white summer dress with a large black belt. Her hair was made up in a late 60’s style bouffant bob. It was shadowy brown and probably dyed but it was hard to make out.

“You the gardener?”

“Yes.”

“Working a little late aren’t you?”

“I guess. Just finishing up actually.”

“It’s David isn’t it?”

“No its-”

“What happened to David?”

“I don’t know. They sent me.”

“God. No one tells me anything.”

He stared back at her blankly and suppressed the urge to shrug.

“You drink?”

“No.”

“What?”

“You heard me I’m not drunk.”

“Slow down. I’m asking you if you’d like a drink.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s try this again…Do you want to come in for a drink?” She repeated herself slow and sarcastic as if she was talking to a retard.

“Yes.”

She nodded towards the French doors that led from the patio into the house directly into the lounge. He stood silently as she sloped over.

Sloped is a good way to describe Mrs Radford. She moved quickly and coolly, swaying slightly from side to side with her bouffant head drifting and her perfect behind shuffling after her in a narcoleptic drag of movement. She didn’t look at him as she pulled the keys from her bag put them in the lock, turned them and opened the door and walked inside. He followed her.

As he surveyed the lounge area of the house in all its softly lit ambience he was struck by the capricious nature of the place. Seemingly old and homely bits and pieces lived incongruously with intellectual and modernist looking items and furniture; as if two different minds had clashed and compromised in some kind of uneasy alliance. A battered leather chez lounge was stationed next to a minimalistic and expensive looking metallic table whilst a large shelf of old dusty novels with yellow pages lived right next to a black marble plinth upon which rested some shapeless and challenging stone sculpture. The carpets were cream coloured and clean and the 4 lamps that stood in each corner of the room were tall and heavily shaded in 30’s style Chinese imitation velvet with tassels at the bottom. He didn’t like this place all that much – it didn’t fit. They didn’t even have a fucking TV.

Mrs Radford was busying herself on the other side of the room, crouched down and flicking through a wooden box of records with her painted dextrous fingernails. She found the one she was looking for and put the record onto the hi-fi with great care and attention. He stayed where he was; close by the French doors and slightly unsure of himself and his surroundings, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans and the sweat on the back of his vest drying out slow.

After the initial tinny fluffy crackling sounds an acoustic guitar picking out a haunting melody drifted out of seemingly every corner of the room.

“I insisted we get surround sound,” she explained matter of factly after noticing him turn his head quizzically. “It’s the only way to listen to music. As soon as technology becomes available – you invest. That’s progress.” He nodded his head slowly, his eyes not leaving her. He wondered when that damn drink was going to arrive.

“Leonard Cohen,” again she nodded at the stereo. “I don’t expect you to have heard of him. This song is about the French resistance in World War Two.”

“Oh.”

“You have heard of France haven’t you?” She smirked.

Again he said nothing. Sometimes it’s better to say nothing, sometimes you don’t have anything to say.

She smiled wryly at having failed to get a rise out of him and walked exactly four paces to her left to the sideboard that stood against the wall where she started to prepare some drinks.

“I like to listen to him every night. His voice on his earlier recordings has a hauntingly bleak quality that helps me relax. I can relate to the tragedy in his voice because I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in my life.”

“Yeah I bet.”

“Whiskey Soda?

“Ok.”

She held the drink up in one hand, offering it to him without moving and smiling at him as she did. After a moment he realised that she wanted him to come to her. He obliged, leaving a trail of muddy footprints on the cream carpet as he went that stretched from the French doors to just one step in front of her, some twelve ft covered. Her green eyes flicked down to look at the stains.

“Do you know what else I do when I come home?”

“No.”

“Bring me my bag.” She said smiling broadly.

He turned his head. He was still high he realised.

“It’s on the table over there.” She pointed and sipped her drink, clunking the ice against the inner ridged indentations and sides of her glass. He could hear the lemon fizzing. She wanted him to walk past the two creamy blue leather couches and go to the large glass topped table on the far right of the room where her bag rested.
He trudged across to fetch it and brought it back to her leaving fresh footprints along the carpet on the way. Why not? It didn’t bother him in the slightest to do it. In actual fact he enjoyed it.

“Thank you dear.” She touched a hand to his elbow, “Sit down.”

“Thanks. My legs are sore. From the work I mean.”

“Get much done?”

“A little. I fell asleep though.”

“Oh?”

“I was tired.”

“Mike is just gonna love you.”

He could only assume she meant Mr Radford. He looked across at the photo on the wall. The grey hair, side parted, the gold rimmed wire glasses, that beaming smile and the felt tip red coloured tie and powder blue suit. He sure looked like a Mike. He looked like a fucking prick.

“Yeah it was hot.”

Mrs Radford pulled out a small Tupperware box from her bag and sat on the couch next to him. She was close enough for him to be able to smell her hair and make out the freckles on her thin nose and the tiny blonde hairs that coated her top lip in ever so faint brushstrokes. His tongue flicked at the rogue hair at the corner of his own mouth as he looked at her.

“It certainly was,” she said, removing a long thin joint from the box and lighting it.

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“And why are you here?”

“You asked me.”

She held the joint up and waved it slightly, as if she was writing her name in the air with its tip.

“This is something I like to do; it helps to break up my day…And believe me my day really needs breaking.” she giggled, “I mean why are you here today? What did you do?”

“I stole a car.”

“Oh? What just one?

“No.”

She laughed.

He accepted the joint from her and sucked at its tip greedily, his lungs inflating and ingesting the smoke. They were a pair of bellows inside him.

“You don’t say much do you?”

He smoked, surveying the back of his hand and looking at the distance between it and her knee, how the distance between their bodies caused his spatial focus to shift ever so slightly in a noncommittal visual shift.

“I like that,” she continued, “God knows I hear people talking all day long and I swear that not a single one of them ever actually says anything. You should hear my husband. He thinks so much of himself – he thinks he’s so damned smart in his suit and his office and with all of his money. But really what’s money Mike? What is it? Happiness is coming home at the end of the day and being satisfied with everything that you’ve done. Bob Dylan said that you know. You’ve probably never heard of him.”

She slouched in her seat still further as she talked and talked but he wasn’t really listening to what she was saying. He didn’t really care. She was boring. All the goddamned adults and parents always found some reason to feel dissatisfied with the lives they had built for themselves. They all found ways to blame circumstance for the way things had gone rather than their own goddamn shoddy decision making. He was tired of it. Stupid people and their stupid lousy tiresome ways. Everybody had their own fucking agenda, he wished they would just admit it and stick to it and stop blowing off about it and bothering him with their problems.

“Are you hungry? I could kill for some olives. Do you like olives?”

He did not like olives.

“No I don’t want any of your damn olives.”

“Well I do. Be a doll and get me some from the kitchen.”

He didn’t move

“Listen kid, I want some olives and I want to sit in my house and listen to my music. Do I need to remind you who is here on community service and who is the owner of this house? Mike had them imported from Sicily. A young man like you should love olives – they’re sophisticated and delicious and it’s important that you try them.”

He rose without a word. Sometimes it’s best just to let people have their way. It saves time.

He floated through the lounge into the hallway, hovering to the sound of the soft acoustic guitar with his head lolling and rolling around like the ice in his empty glass that he was still carrying by his side. He could faintly hear Mrs Radford singing in the lounge.

Before he knew it he was in the kitchen opening the overstocked fridge and removing the jar of olives and then he was turning and walking right back to the lounge. This felt like a lucid dream. The slow burning soft unreality of the day and the sound of the judge’s voice booming down at him in court and the sound of his father’s disappointed voice and the feeling of not actually caring about anything except yourself and not feeling guilty about it and not feeling obligated to do anything you don’t want to do just because someone else thinks you should do it. This was the uncertain sensation of knowing something is out there and knowing that maybe you want it and feeling that maybe you’ve got a God given entitlement to it but knowing that you’ll probably not be able to do anything about it and that you’ll feel bad about it but at the end of the day it really just doesn’t matter that much.

“Wow the whole jar. How spontaneous of you.”

Sarcasm washed over him. She laughed to herself a little. “I want you to try one of these. I guarantee you’ll like it – it’s important for you to like them because they’re new to you and you should always try something new and because they wouldn’t make them if they weren’t good.”

As he reluctantly held his hand out he heard a key turn in the door.

Mrs Radford placed a handful of olives in his palm and turned towards the doorway that led through to the kitchen and through to the rest of the house. She smoothed her hair down and ran her hands over her behind.

“Mike’s home.”

She turned and placed one hand on one hip and stood defiantly with her legs apart firm and implanted on the carpet like the gardener had been implanted on the lawn earlier that day. She was watching the doorway intently as they both stood listening to the sounds of Mr Radford arriving, the shuffle of his shoes on the tiles of the kitchen, the sound of his keys being placed on the kitchen table and the sound of him sighing heavily, punctuated by a silence that could well have been him rubbing his bleary eyes beneath his glasses or him running a hand along the smoothed line of his jaw.

“Hello husband,” she said as Mike walked into the room.

He looked just like his photo, jowly and fortyish and wearing the wire gold framed spectacles. He wore a grey suit and grey shoes that matched his grey eyes and his grey hair. He looked tired and small.

“Aren’t you going to say hello to our guest?”

Mr Radford didn’t say a word; he just looked down at the footprints on the carpet.

“I said aren’t you going to say hi darling?

She was actually pretty drunk. He looked at her in profile as she stood up and pointed at her husband with her drink. She was still a pretty fine looking woman; he had to give her that. She had all the right things in all the right places. It was just a shame she had to be the same as all the others.

“You know what Mike you arrive here late again and you don’t even say one word to me. Not a single word of greeting. Not only that but you also don’t even look at me. Not a glance. Nothing at all! You walk in the door and your first thought is to look at the floor. I just can’t believe you. I’m your wife Mike. I’d have been the mother of your children too if you’d have been fucking capable Mike. Even now I’m talking to you, addressing you like a real life grown-up and you don’t have the guts to talk back or answer to me! You can’t can you!”

Mike Radford followed the footprints on the floor with his eyes. He slowly looked at the gardener.

“I’ve had more goddamn words of wisdom from this boy in fifteen minutes than I’ve had from you in a damn lifetime of marriage!” She smoothed her hair down again but only succeeded in knocking it out of place. The gardener looked on. “You know I look at myself in the mirror and all I can see is potential. I’ve been wasted and I’ve been squandered and it’s a goddamn tragedy! You’re a lousy husband, you’re a lousy man and you didn’t fucking nurture me the way I should have been nurtured! I’m all your fault!”

She swayed slightly as she stood, pointing at her husband accusingly, her teeth bared in all their white brilliance like perfect little stalactites. She’d obviously been building up to that for some time.

“I’ve said it before Mike and now I’ve said it again. And I still mean it.” She reached into the jar and pulled out an olive and popped it in her mouth and chewed furiously as she started to cry.

The gardener stood watching the Radfords. Mr Radford watched his wife. She was chewing olives and crying in loud cloying choking breaths in between removing the olive stones from her mouth and dropping them onto the floor petulantly. She stamped her feet and made little sobbing and whinnying noises in between chewing. It was dark outside but dimly lit in the room. The record played on.

God he thought to himself. It’s like some people enjoy being unhappy. They’ve got nothing else to talk about.

Mr Radford took off his jacket. He tossed it onto the floor over the footprints and went to get himself a drink. He didn’t care.

Upon seeing this, Mrs Radford gave an almighty sob. It had been no good; her words had just bounced off him. After she exhaled with the cry she bent over, then as she stood back up she inhaled sharply. Too sharply.

Suddenly before she knew it she was choking on an olive. Mr Radford watched as his wife hunched over where she stood, coughing loudly in a series of quick painful braying contortions. Her face was red and blotchily purple as she struggled for breath and there was unbridled panic in her eyes. Her bouffant hair wobbled wildly as her hand clutched at her lovely neck and she looked about desperately. She simply couldn’t breathe. She looked up, trying to signal what was happening to her.

He looked over at Mr Radford who had not moved and was watching his wife choke, impassively sipping his drink and ignoring her with the immutable face of a Roman statue.

There was only one thing for it, his hand had been forced. Cursing loudly the gardener quickly grabbed Mrs Radford from behind, hitching his interlocked and fisted hands beneath her ribcage and heaving inwards and upwards as hard as he could. Mr Radford watched the whole thing play out calmly, never taking his eyes from his wife for a minute.

When it was all done with and the olive stone stuck in Mrs Radford’s airway had been dislodged after three hefty and costly heaves he stood away from her. She crouched coughing away on all fours like a dog. Like little dead Princie used to do when he fouled up the carpet somewhere. Mr Radford had not moved a muscle. He still hadn’t even spoken.
The gardener breathed heavily as the record came to a grinding halt. He opened up his fist and looked down to see the small handful of olives crushed up into a paste and smeared on his palm. He wiped his hand on the expensive looking couch cushions.

No one spoke and it was pretty clear that it was time to leave so he did. He didn’t say anything to either of them. He knew he probably wouldn’t have to.

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