This Ruined Greenery

‘It’s lame,’ Bonnie says to me. ‘It’s so lame.’

‘Whatever.’

‘Isn’t it just weird old people and smelly hippies?’

I don’t answer. I test my nail polish to see if it’s dry- it is- then pull my socks on. They’re thick socks you wear especially for heavy duty boots because they apparently prevent blisters. Apparently.

‘Those socks are lame,’ Bonnie says. ‘And you’re lame.’

‘You’re only saying that because you’ll miss me.’

‘So stay!’

‘No.’

‘Lame.’

Bonnie collapses back onto her bed and looks up at the ceiling. She doesn’t get why I want to go, why I have to go. It’s not just about the gardening, or about Courtney. Bonnie doesn’t even know about Courtney. It’s about marking the six month anniversary, making it mean something. Finding some way of bringing myself (and more than myself) back to life.

The bell won’t stop chiming. It strikes with every beat of my heart, on and on and on and on and I close my eyes tighter against it. My eardrums ache unbearably. The world is dark. I moan.

‘Olivia?’

‘Beh- Boh- Bohnee?’

Bonnie’s voice is faint. My mouth is so dry I can barely speak her name.

‘Olivia, it’s ok, you’re ok…’

‘Wha’s… noise…’

‘Noise?’

How can she not hear it? I open my eyes, squinting at her through my eyelashes. Eyelashes. They seem, suddenly, like the bars of a dark cage, the world outside a bright, hostile grey. Bonnie is sitting in an unfamiliar room, leaning over me.

‘Noise…’

‘You mean the heart monitor?’

I test my nail polish to see if it’s dry.

I put my boots on and double knot the laces. They’re pretty heavy boots. You couldn’t call them shoes even if you wanted to. They’ve got something essentially boot-y about them which defies all other description.

‘Have fun being lame,’ Bonnie says.

‘I will,’ I say, and I will.

‘You’ll be ok. You will. I’ve called the nurses,’ Bonnie says. ‘Olivia, don’t sleep again…’

I close my eyes anyway. She still sounds so distant, so hard to hear under the constant clanging of the bell. But if she’s right, if it’s just a heart monitor, it can’t possibly be that loud…

‘Wha… happen to me?’

‘I don’t know if I can- I don’t know. You’re at Blackturn Hospital. You’ve been here nearly twelve hours. I said I was your cousin.’

I hear every word, yet they don’t make sense. She can’t be right. I can’t have been here so long. I wasn’t ill. Yet I’m starting to feel aches all over my body. My arms, my knees, my head…

‘Wazzit accidunt?’

‘Accidunt? You mean…accident? There wasn’t any accident, Liv… You… You were… Do you remember anything at all?’

A disturbance, somewhere nearby. More noises I can’t recognize.

‘Liv, the nurses are here now. Don’t worry. I’ll still be in the room. You’re going to be fine, ok? You’ll be fine.’

Bonnie’s voice breaks like she’s crying, only Bonnie never cries, I’ve known her since we wore matching nappies and I’ve never heard her cry like this. I want to comfort her, but new voices are here now, new sounds rearing up around me. I turn my head away, glad the thin flesh of my eyelids blocks the room from me, keeps me in the dark.

I meet up with Courtney first. Unfairly, she looks beautiful even under harsh fluorescent light, with frizzy hair and no make-up and the lingering smell of wet dog. She’s trying out different pairs of sunglasses in the middle of the chemist, peering into that narrow little mirror that shows just your eyes, like Ned Kelly’s helmet.

‘Hey.’

‘Hi. What do you think?’

She models a pair of sunglasses for me. I think she’s close to perfect and I don’t know what to say. I know I have to say something. Or do something. So I half-shrug and wince as if to say: I’ve seen better.

‘That’s what I thought too,’ she says, and she takes them off. ‘Ed’s coming with Charlotte. Have you met her yet?’

‘No. How old is she now?’

‘Nine. And Barry and Maud are coming. Of course.’

‘Of course.’

You can’t have the gardening without Barry and Maud. It would be like having pizza without a base. Courtney looks at my boots and works her way up, ticking off a mental checklist. Her eyes reach mine.

‘Have you got a hair elastic?’

‘No. Should I?’

‘Yeah.’ She starts scrounging around in her pockets. ‘It’ll get in your face if you don’t pull it back. It’ll get all dirty. Damn.’

Her pockets are empty. Fortunately the chemist sells elastics and headbands and all types of convenient hair restraints. I buy elastics and ignore the boy behind the counter, who sighs as I tear the packet open in front of him, holding the receipt with my teeth as I tie my hair back.

‘They’re here,’ Courtney says.

Ed and Charlotte are walking through the car park, Ed’s huge hand totally consuming Charlottes. She looks so much like her father. The same lips, the same mass of dark hair, the same ebony skin, the same smile. But she has her mother’s hazel eyes.

‘Hey,’ Ed says.

‘Courtney!’ Charlotte shrieks, and she pulls away from her dad to wrap her arms around Courtney’s waist. We’re blocking the queue for the checkout so I steer Courtney- Charlotte still attached- until we stand in a group by the door.

‘Barry and Maud here yet?’

‘Soon,’ Courtney says. ‘Maud just texted.’

‘Good, good…’

‘Very good, Olivia. And can you tell me who the current Prime Minister is?’

‘Some dickhead,’ I say, unwillingly. ‘They just swapped him for some other, newer dickhead though. I haven’t been keeping track.’

Bonnie has her hand pressed over her mouth. I know she’s trying not to smile, though her eyes are still puffy from crying. The nurse nods, making some small note on his clipboard.

How they expect me to answer questions like this is beyond me. Every time I reach back, every time I try to remember something- anything- there is nothing but blankness, darkness. A high wall in my own mind, keeping me outside of myself, and I can’t remember how I got these injuries…

Breakdown. That’s what they all think. I can’t disagree. Mental breakdown, unspecified cause, keeping me in for observation until decisions can be made about my future…

Barry and Maud roll up in their white van, the sort of van you imagine kidnappers having. It has no windows but plenty of dents and Barry honks the horn as he parks illegally.

Maud climbs out to slide open the door for us. Ed lifts up Charlotte and I follow Courtney. The interior is dim and crowded. Shovels, bags of manure, pot plants, rakes, fluorescent vests, trowels, torches, loppers. I have to step carefully to avoid putting my foot through a rose bush.

‘Was it Olive? Or Olivia?’ Maud says to me. ‘Terrible memory for names.’

‘Olivia, but call me Liv. It’s good to see you again.’

We’ve only met once before. Maud is seventy, with fluffy white hair, pink fingernails and a voice that booms. I take a seat close to Courtney and pull my seatbelt on as Maud pulls the door closed. Now the only light comes through the windshield.

‘Ladies and gents,’ Barry says, his voice as loud as his wife’s. ‘Welcome aboard. Are we all strapped in?’

‘Yes!’ Charlotte shouts.

‘Are we ready to go?’

‘Yes!’

‘Right then!’

The engine coughs then starts. All the tools start vibrating and clattering against the floor of the van, the leaves of the rose bush waving madly, the wattle in the corner shaking madl- no, not madly. I’m learning not to think like that anymore. The wattle in the corner shaking like a little earthquake.

Everyone pulls on gloves.

You can only spot the For Sale sign if you know where to look. The top of it peeps up over a nest of nettles. Privet has grown so tall that you can hardly see the gum tree towards the back of the property. Each privet is heavy with green berries.

Barry parks the van and we all climb out. The street is quiet. School finished a little while ago. Most families must be sitting inside eating dinner around the table, watching the TV together.

‘Righto,’ Barry says. ‘Vests on.’

Ed passes me a bright orange vest. It’s amazing what you can get away with when you wear one of these. Everyone pulls on gloves. I watch Courtney from the corner of my eye as she tucks her trousers into her socks.

‘I wanna vest,’ Charlotte says. ‘I wanna vest.’

‘Here you go, love,’ Barry says. He drops the vest over her head and she beams up at him. It’s far too big for her but it doesn’t matter. She’s happy.

‘I’ll do the nettle,’ Courtney says.

‘We’ll start on the privet,’ Ed says, nodding to me. We pull tools and big plastic bags from the van. Charlotte and Maud walk with us while Barry goes to investigate the back of the yard. Barry has legs as thin and brittle as walking sticks and knees as huge and swollen as boxer’s fists. He creaks when he walks, like a Tin Man in need of oil.

‘How’s Lydia?’ Maud asks Ed. ‘Couldn’t make it?’

‘She’s working,’ Ed says. ‘She sends her love.’

‘I wanted to bring Pepper but dad said no,’ Charlotte says sadly.

‘Who’s Pepper?’ I ask.

‘Our new puppy. She’s amazing and she chewed my school shoes. And mum’s shoes. Pepper the puppy. I got photos on my phone. You wanna see?’

‘You’ll have to show me later. What type of puppy?’

‘Labrador,’ Ed says. ‘Enough chatter, hold this bag open.’

Maud and I pull the bag open and haul it up over a clump of berries. Ed vanishes with the loppers and then, with a crack, the branch descends, our bag heavy. Maud staggers a little under the weight but I know better than to give her a worried look. She’s a tough lady. She’s always managed.

I start tying the bag then stop to let Charlotte do it for me, her small face all screwed up in concentration as she double-knots, just the same as my laces.

We move on to the next branch.

Vests on.

We’re on our fifth bag of privet when Barry comes back.

‘What’s it like?’ Ed asks. ‘Bad?’

‘Bad enough. When Courtney’s finished with the nettles I might send her around with somebody to clear up a little.’

‘I’ll go,’ I say, and Ed winks at me.

‘That’s the spirit,’ Barry says. ‘I’d do it myself only-’

‘Only you’re far too old and blind for that,’ Maud finishes sternly.

Charlotte giggles.

We fill our next bag and I find myself wiping sweat from my forehead. Ed’s hair is full of fallen leaves. He looks like a forest fairy. I can’t imagine any place less likely to contain fairies.

‘Go check on Courtney,’ Ed says. ‘See how those nettles are going, yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

We move on to the next branch.

Courtney has torn out all the nettles and bagged them too. She is raking the earth now, the dry pale dirt pulled away to make room for the proper soil and manure. It’s a dark, rich brown and the smell reaches right up my nose. The roses are waiting by her side.

‘How’s it going?’

‘Pretty good. Can you grab the straw from the van for me? I’ll need that once the roses are in.’

The straw is heavy and stabs me through my jacket. I stagger back to her, crushing weeds under my boots. The back of her neck is a little sweaty. I can’t stop looking at her skin, how it vanishes beneath her collar.

‘Barry says we’ve got to do cleanup at the back.’

‘Is it bad?’

‘Pretty bad.’

‘I’ll finish this first, then I’ll come get you. Ok?’

‘Sure.’

How bad is it?

Ten bags of privet later and Courtney comes to find me. Charlotte is sitting in the van now eating her way through a bag of lollies.

‘Take those safe disposals with you,’ Barry calls at us. ‘And don’t let Charlotte follow you.’

‘Why can’t I follow?’ Charlotte says, swinging her legs. The sugar berries have stained her lips red.

‘It isn’t safe,’ Courtney says. ‘There might be sharp things in the grass. Glass and needles and bad things.’

‘Like sewing needles?’

‘Like the needles you get at the doctors.’

‘Ew! Why do people leave them in the grass?’

I look at Courtney and she looks at me. I don’t know many kids. What are you supposed to say? Courtney knows Charlotte better than I do.

‘They use them for… bad reasons,’ I say, when Courtney says nothing.

‘Like drugs?’ Charlotte says.

Typical.

‘Yeah,’ Courtney says. ‘So you stay where your dad can see you, right?’

‘Be careful of the drugs!’ Charlotte calls after us.

‘We’ll be careful of the drugs,’ Courtney calls back, smiling.

‘We’ll be careful of the drugs.’

The back of the property isn’t visible from the road, lost behind vast privet bushes and more nettles and other, taller weeds I don’t know the name of. In the privacy of this ruined greenery people have clearly been congregating.

‘Eugh.’

‘Yep.’

The worst part is the nappy. Soiled long ago but still stinking. Courtney picks it up by her fingertips and drops it in the bag without speaking. It’s hard to imagine somebody bringing a child that young here, changing a nappy here. How did nobody notice?

Chip packets. A ruined pillow. A few used condoms, so at least some of the sex here had been safe. Something that might’ve been an umbrella in another life. An alarming number of cigarette butts too. I imagine the fire that might’ve started. The fence behind us is wooden and half-rotted, covered in fading graffiti. I can make out a few words, a few crude images.

‘So you like me, huh?’

I nearly swallow my own tongue. Courtney is watching me slyly as she picks hunks of rotten newspaper out of the grass. Even now she’s beautiful.

‘Did somebody tell you that?’

‘I guessed. It’s a bit obvious.’

‘I’m sorry… I…’

‘Don’t be sorry.’ Courtney stands up, binning the newspaper.

She starts walking towards me and I’m trapped, I can’t move. Suddenly I have a lot of sympathy for deers trapped in headlights, paralyzed as the light grows closer and closer.

Courtney tastes like sweat and mint and a little bit like smoke. Her gloves are huge and crusted with dirt and grime. I don’t mind. She rests her hands on my hips and suddenly even the stench of rubbish is almost sweet.

The sunset is coming.

The sunset is coming. Above us the sky goes red then orange and the clouds go a bright cherry pink. All the nearby houses have their lights on and the windows glow gold. I can see human silhouettes moving behind white net curtains.

All the roses are planted. Barry is painting poison over privet stumps.

‘Who owns this place?’ I ask Ed. ‘Why’s it been for sale so long?’

‘Bought during the boom… I think they were going to build some flats here, not that anybody liked that idea. Then the economy carked it. The buyer’s weren’t local. So they put it up for sale, only nobody can afford it and nobody wants it. Not like it’s a stunning location.’

It isn’t stunning but even so… I would’ve liked growing up here. Urban but not crowded. The other yards here are nice. Not very beautiful or fancy or anything but nice, like the lawns get mowed on Sundays.

One of the neighbours has come outside to watch us. She must be eight months at least and when she crosses her arms she rests them on her stomach. I can hear her and Maud talking.

‘…eyesore. Dangerous too. It’s been needing this for years.’

Another door opens across the street. It’s a man this time and he crosses the road to join Maud and the woman. His eyes keep moving to Charlotte. I wonder if he’s realized we’re not supposed to be doing this, if having a child with us has given the game away.

‘Might be time to scramble,’ Barry says, suddenly close to my ear. ‘The guerrilla part of the gardening. I’ll go sit in the driver’s seat.’

Barry’s instincts are good. The man is asking difficult questions and isn’t put off by Maud’s age or affability. Ed and Courtney and I start packing up as best we can, not rushing it. There’s no need to panic.

The man’s asking, is this city council? Or is this the owner’s initiative? Whose is the kid? Are we volunteers? Does this mean the land has been sold?

Ed gets Charlotte’s seatbelt on. I climb in with Courtney, who climbs over buckets and tools to find her seat. I hope we haven’t left anything behind. Maud says she’ll fetch ‘the paperwork’ for the man to look over himself, seeing as she’s so old and her poor memory isn’t what it used to be.

She climbs into the front seat. The engine coughs and then starts.

We drive away with the man running after us, Charlotte giggling and screaming with delight. I catch Courtney’s eye and we both grin. My heart is fluttering hard inside my chest, hitting the backs of my ribs.

Serious bruising to the right side of my face. Lacerations, some deep, others shallow, to my arms and hands. Considerable blood loss. Intentional? Accidental? They tell me a window was broken. My knees have been X-rayed but they won’t require surgery. I don’t know how I hurt my knees. I don’t know how I cut my arms, my hands, and not knowing is a torment. I can only guess. They tell me risky, self destructive behavior is common, is part of the diagnosis.

It’s not technically a date because I didn’t ask her and she didn’t ask me. She just turned up on the other side of the door.

Bonnie took one look at Courtney and the look on my face, then dragged me into the kitchen.

‘Who is she? What’s going on?’

‘Relax. It’s Courtney. From the gardening. It’s not a big deal, ok?’

‘Not a big deal? I saw your face. You didn’t tell me about her.’

‘I didn’t know she would turn up,’ I say, truthfully enough. ‘Relax. You know I’m… doing better now.’

Once all the nurses are gone I sink into my hospital bed. Bonnie takes the chair next to me and rests her hand, very gently, on my bandaged arm. The tears I’d been working desperately to hold back come now, burning my eyes and then my cheeks.

‘I’m here,’ Bonnie says. ‘It’s ok.’

‘I didn’t want to die. Can you b-b-believe me? Bonnie?’

‘I’ve known you all my life. I know you wouldn’t try… look, whatever happened, I don’t think you were actually, you know, attempting it. You’re not suicidal. You just weren’t yourself.’

‘How will I-’ I start, forcing the words out past the tightness in my chest, ‘How will I l-live with this? What if I can’t cope?’

‘Don’t worry about that now. Just breathe.’

Bonnie reaches out and wipes the tears from my face. I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone do that for me before, and the realization makes me cry even harder.

‘Yeah, you’re better. For the past six months. This is way too soon.’

‘You’re not the boss of me. You’re not my mum.’

‘I’m not trying- urgh- why are you being so frustrating? I’m trying to help.’

‘I didn’t ask for your help.’ I break her grip on my wrist, step backwards. ‘I’m fine. We can’t leave her standing at the door.’

‘Yes we can.’

‘Stop being a bitch, will you? I like her. You’d like her too if you gave her a chance. I can’t just stay inside forever because of one… incident.’

I can’t bring myself, even now, to voice my diagnosis. It would sound too real to hear myself say it. Even to think it, schizoaffective bipolar type, that’s me, that’s what I have, is somehow repellant.

‘Incident?’ Bonnie takes a step towards me, and I find I can’t meet the look in her eyes. ‘Incident?! Liv, it was the worst experience of my whole life.’

‘Mine too. It’s my life, you know.’ I sigh. I want her to understand. She’s not my mother but I still want her blessing. ‘Bonnie, I can’t not… not try and meet people or have a relationship or something just because… I can’t just hide away forever. Look, the lithium’s working so far. I want to try.’

‘Ok,’ Bonnie says, and she turns my chin with her fingertip until I’m looking her in the eyes again. I can see she’s worried, but I can see she wants to trust me. She wants this to work almost as much as I do.

Before I can say anything more Bonnie turns on her heel and marches to the front door. She pulls it open as Courtney reaches to knock again, her fist suspended in midair.

‘You’re Courtney?’

‘Yeah… I’m looking for Liv?’

‘Right. You could’ve told her you were coming, you know. Ok. Well. You just… You take good care of her.’ Bonnie glares Courtney down. Courtney nods, as if she’d expected nothing different from her first interaction with one of my friends. If she feels awkward she doesn’t show it.

I gently ease Bonnie aside, giving her a little smile. It’s going to be ok. I can feel it.

‘I’ll see you later,’ Bonnie says. ‘Text me.’

The door shuts behind me. There is a small moment of silence.

‘Courtney, hi,’ I say. ‘I’m glad you’re here. So. Uh. What should we do?’

‘I don’t know.’ Courtney smiles. ‘You decide.’

We end up walking. We go west, towards the place where I grew up. I normally avoid this area. If we get too close to my street I’ll steer us away again. Most of the people who grew up here moved away, fled to somewhere better. My parents haven’t. They were five minutes from the hospital but they never visited.

‘My uncle lived somewhere near here,’ Courtney says. ‘Years ago. He moved again pretty fast. His neighbours started throwing dog shit over his fence when they found out about his boyfriend.’

‘That sounds about right,’ I say. I hesitate. ‘I grew up near here.’

‘That must suck.’

‘It’s not always bad,’ I say, because if I can’t believe that then there’s no point. ‘It still has potential. That’s why I joined the gardening. Everyone says we’re a lost cause but-’

‘Look.’

There’s a dog. A puppy really, a small brown Staffy. It’s too thin. I can see ribs standing out beneath it’s fur and there is no grass in this yard. Dirt and stones and weeds, but no grass. The fence is high and metal but it doesn’t have any spikes.

It wags it’s tail when we get close but it doesn’t stand up.

‘Is there a car in the driveway?’ I ask, bobbing down to offer my finger through the fence. Needle-sharp puppy teeth press at my thumb. ‘Anybody at the windows? In parked cars? Walking past?’

‘No…’

Courtney is glancing around the street. I do too, trying not to be obvious about it. I can’t see anyone. I might not get another chance.

‘Keep a look-out,’ I say to Courtney, and I swing one leg up over the fence. She says something about being caught but I ignore her. The puppy is a girl and so light in my arms, too light. She is warm though, and squirms weakly in my arms. I can see fleas moving through her fur. Despite the obvious neglect this small creature has faced it tries to lick my face. I pass her over the fence to Courtney and vault back onto the footpath.

‘You’re crazy,’ Courtney says. ‘We can’t steal a puppy.’

‘Sure we can. Look at her.’

‘I know, but…’

‘But what?’

The fence is high and metal.

There isn’t any what. We run with the puppy under Courtney’s jacket. I lead us down old shortcuts and through dodgy side streets until we reach the park I remember from my childhood.

Most of the equipment has been removed but it could be worse- the trees are still beautiful, and the toilet block hasn’t been burnt down in almost a year now. Nearly a record. Courtney and I find a patch of clover under the wide branches of a liquid amber. Burnt orange leaves float down around us.

‘Pass her over,’ I say, and the puppy is eased onto my lap. ‘Poor darling. We should give her a name.’

‘You’re really going to keep her?’

‘Sure. Bonnie won’t mind.’

I maneuver the puppy until I can see her paws, the skin still soft and young. Spiked burrs from Cobbler’s Peg (my least favorite weed) are wedged between the little pads. Courtney strokes the puppy’s nose as I ease out each barb.

‘How about Ruby?’ Courtney says, after a while. ‘For the autumn leaves.’

‘That’s romantic,’ I say. ‘I like it. Hello Ruby. Ruby Ruby Roo.’

I gather Ruby close against my chest, ignoring her fleas. They can be treated. We’ll adopt her, save her, I can feel her little heart beating against mine. I turn and kiss Courtney as Ruby’s tail wags between us, the warmth of Courtney’s lips soothing the growing autumn chill.

Words & images by Kate Robertson

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