19 October 2020

The Gardener

My recollection of her is faint, which is to be expected because it was a long time ago and I haven’t thought about her in years. Possibly decades. I don’t know why I’ve started thinking about her recently. Perhaps it was the dream, a strange one, like all dreams, that I had a while ago, alone in a mountain hut (Why there? I have to ask) and which left me unsettled and also thinking perhaps I could write a short story about this. But the difficulty is how much to stay true to what I remember (which might be unreliable anyway) and how much I should feel free to make up, or at least extrapolate. The other difficulty is that I don’t know what the story means. A story has to have a point, after all, doesn’t it? Maybe it doesn’t, or maybe the point, the meaning, is something that arrives after the story has been written, and maybe the reader sees the meaning better than the writer? But, having pointed to the story’s existence, I suppose I now have to relate it.

Every day after school I’d get off the bus opposite the Moa Bone cave and walk home around the edge of the Bay — roughly half a mile, a few houses on my left, on my right the road and just to the right of that the stink of mud and rotting sea lettuce if the tide was out or, if it was in, glittering water where the glass shrimps crept and nibbled among the rusting rubbish. Then the abandoned quarry on my left and the road and gravel dumps and waste land on my right, and eventually our road and the ominous row of old trees behind which drinking and other immoral acts sometimes occurred after dark on Fridays and Saturdays and occasionally at other times too. Sometimes when I walked past, a car would be parked there, well back from the road, and I walked past quickly, not looking.

Hers was the last house I passed, not long before the quarry. I often thought the garden was wonderful, crowded with trees and shrubs so it resembled a small forest, and I liked the house, too, mostly because the main part was raised above a garage and what I guessed must have been the laundry and maybe some storage areas. From the upper part of the house she must have been able to look out over the bay and see the water and the birds and probably no other houses except so far away they didn’t matter. She’d see the Causeway with all its traffic, of course, but that was inevitable: nothing to be done about that.

Once I mentioned to my mother that I really liked the woman’s garden. She looked at me, and eventually she said, ‘She’s got too much planted. It’s too crowded.’

She looked away, and then she said, ‘She’s there all on her own.’

One day I was walking home and as I approached the entrance to her property — a gap in the bulk of foliage — I saw her working, snipping with secateurs at a shrub. I think it was a Pittosporum, but that doesn’t matter, except I like Pittosporums because they’re endemic and their foliage is nice and P. tenuifolium (kohuhu; black matipo) has the most beautiful and powerful scent of any plant I know, and the flowers are small and dark so you’d never notice them if the scent didn’t say ‘Check me out’.

She smiled at me and said hello and I said hello.

She asked how my day had been and remarked on my bag, which she supposed must have been very heavy, presumably because it was full of books.

‘Yes. Lots of homework.’

I never found out what kind of work she did, and I don’t know if my mother knew.

She asked if I liked reading, and I said yes, and she asked what kind of books I liked reading.

‘Lots of things, but I particularly like reading about mountains.’

‘Oh,’ she said, and something changed, like the conversation wasn’t just casual anymore.

‘Some books arrived today’ she said. ‘I’ve been looking for them for a while and found them in a bookseller’s catalogue. I’m delighted with them. One’s John Pascoe’s Mr Explorer Douglas. Have you heard of him?’

I had. I knew of Pascoe and even had one of his books, Exploration New Zealand, which I’d won as a prize at school. I’d heard of Charlie Douglas, too.

‘Would you like to see it?’ she said.

We’d been warned about talking to strangers, never getting into cars with someone we didn’t know, that sort of thing. But she wasn’t really a stranger, and maybe it wouldn’t be polite to refuse, and I wanted to see Pascoe’s famous book.

She led me inside, and I took my shoes off at the door because we’d been taught it was the proper thing to do, and her house was so clean and tidy I’d have been uncomfortable walking through it with shoes on. I have only a vague recollection of the large lounge — dim despite the large windows, but perhaps the trees outside kept the light out. As I’d guessed, the main window looked out to the entranceway and across the road to a strip of bay and the causeway with its incessant traffic. I suppose when the light was right she could look right across to the foothills of the Southern Alps. I most clearly remember two books sitting on a dark wooden table. She stood next to them, her arms by her side as if she’d been trained how to stand for formal occasions like public speaking. She smiled again and looked down at the books and picked up the one on top and ran her hand gently over the cover, the way you’d stroke something fragile or desired, even longed for, and she opened it carefully and turned a few pages. She turned them carefully, from the corners, the way I’d been taught to respect books.

‘Would you like to look at it?’ she said, and she held it out for me.

I took the book from her, gently, and turned some pages in the same careful way, hoping she’d notice my respect. I couldn’t say much, though, because it was all text and I didn’t want to flick through it looking for photos.

‘It’s in very good condition,’ I said.

‘Yes. I was very lucky. It’s out of print. Hard to find, and good copies are rare.’

We were both unsure what else to say.

I don’t remember much more — a vague recollection that she might have offered me a biscuit or even a cup of tea, but memories are constructed rather than recalled and are therefore unreliable. If she did offer me anything, I declined politely. I had to get home in case my mother worried. She nodded and let me go.

Later — possibly weeks or months — my mother told me someone had remarked on how well I spoke and how I always looked so neat and well dressed in my school uniform. This surprised me because I didn’t think I spoke particularly well, often loosened my tie and let my socks slip down, and wasn’t sure I wanted to be known for proper speech and tidy presentation anyway. I was at the stage when fitting in was more important. She wouldn’t tell me who the person was, though, and when I asked, she said, ‘It doesn’t matter. I just wanted you to know.’

I could tell she was pleased that my good speech and neatness had been noticed, but I often wondered whether the remark had come from the woman with the garden and the books, and I wondered what my mother knew about her. The time for finding out has gone, though. I have so many questions, but none of them are clear; they’re vague wonderings that I can’t bring myself to pin down. Maybe that’s for the best.



1. Kotare (New Zealand kingfisher; Todiramphus sanctus), common around the Bay. I photographed this in the Pohangina Valley just a few days ago.

2 & 3. White-faced heron (matuku moana; Egretta novaehollandiae), another common inhabitant of the Bay. I photographed these roughly a decade ago at Flounder Bay on the east coast of the North Island.

Photos and original text © 2020 Pete McGregor