It’s 8:30 in the morning and the sun is eating at Harriet’s shoulders. Sweat runs down her cheeks and beneath her jaw. Her fingers, greasy with sunscreen, grip the white plastic handles of the buckets of water. Marcus won’t let her use the hose because the wells are too low, but she isn’t going to let twenty years of work fry into crisp leaf litter. So – five trips a morning to the dam, ten buckets of water that Marcus doesn’t know about. Although she has to admit that, since the phone call from Elsa, watering the garden is starting to seem a little stupid.
As she waddles through the front gate to the brown lawn, water sloshes onto her already-wet thighs. She pours one bucket along the golden sweet Alice and the other over the agapanthus which, regardless of the heat, always manage to look sprightly.
Harriet started this garden the day after they arrived. They’d driven up from Sydney, but as the house wasn’t ready they spent their first night at a pub in Boggabri, the nearest town to the property. The bed sloped towards the middle and Marcus breathed in her ear in time to the beat of the local band downstairs.
Marcus had bought a house on a nearby farm, organised to have it sawn in two and then each half strapped to long trucks. He’d hired some local men to do the work and the next day they drove out to the property to join them. Harriet found it surprising to watch him among them. He slapped their shoulders, laughed harshly and swore, ‘Jesus fuckin’ Christ’ as one half, slowly being dragged up the hill, started to slip.
It took most of the day to get the house to the top, one half at a time, the ropes creaking and the trucks swaying. Finally, when each part had been slipped onto the measured stumps and the men had gone home, Harriet and Marcus collapsed onto the soil before the front door. They gazed at the sun setting beyond the small, purplish hills. It was then that Harriet decided to create the garden, so her daughter and future husband could make their wedding vows before this same view.
It was hard to get the garden going, at first. She didn’t know anything and the soil was dry. Sometimes sheep got over the fence and nibbled down what green shoots there were, so she had to go and buy more. But things started flourishing in winter – for some reason she just got it right with the bulbs. She loved watching the jonquils stretch their long, skinny arms into the air, then slowly burst open with a sweet smile of yellow or white petals.
Harriet puts her hands on her hips, pulling back her shoulders. One more trip to go. As she heads down the hill to the dam she sees, with a jolt, that there’s smoke near Leslie’s place. She squints, then realise that her eyes are playing up - it’s only low-lying cloud. The last big blaze Leslie did was on Christmas Day near the Rock, some crown land about twenty kilometres away, and Marcus worries that he’ll soon make a move closer to here.
She feels a line of sweat leak from under her bra and slide down her stomach. It was a pretty magnificent bushfire – they always were. Marcus’ parents were over and after lunch everyone slumped onto cane chairs on the gauzed-in verandah. As they sipped coffee and chewed Christmas cake, they heard a car at the bottom of the hill. From the sound of the engine, they decided it was Danny and figured he’d come to give his Christmas greetings. But when he stopped at the gate and sprinted up to the door, Marcus stepped swiftly out of his chair to meet him. ‘What’s up?’ he asked.
‘There’s a fire on, near the Rock!’ breathed Danny.
‘Jesus! Not Leslie again?’
‘Yes – the hill’s covered in flame.’
‘Righto. We’ll be there in half an hour – have to fill the drums.’
Danny ran back to his car, Marcus to the garden shed to get the hessian sacks and drums, and Harriet to the bathroom to find some buckets. Before leaving, she told Marcus’ parents, who were stifled with bewilderment, that she’d be back in two hours.
There were about ten vehicles parked in the paddock. Smoke ballooned through the air and Harriet’s eyes began to water. Stretched along the wall of flame was a line of men, beating at it with hessian sacks. A ute carrying drums of water chugged slowly up and down behind them, stopping often so they could dip and wet their sacks. Others drove shovels into the earth and upturned soil onto the flame, so that clouds of dust rose with the steam and smoke.
In spite of Marcus’ fury at having to fill two drums with precious water, the danger of a sudden gust of wind throwing fire against out bodies, the heat that had them shielding their faces with shirts, Harriet was thrilled. The roaring of the fire as it rushed through undergrowth, the hiss of a wet sack meeting fire and the men’s muscles gleaming with sweat and glowing in the light of the flames all had her jumpy with excitement.
So it was more than two hours before she got back to Marcus’ parents and found his mother trembling in a chair on the verandah, ‘You said you’d be back three hours ago!’ shouted his father.
‘It was a big blaze,’ she calmed them, trying to keep her voice level and thinking how they’d be another fight if Marcus found out, ‘they needed help.’
By evening Marcus was yelling again, anyway. ‘But they’re your parents, not mine!’ she screamed back at him. ‘Why should I be responsible for them-’
‘Because I was out fighting a bloody fire, that’s why!’
‘And so was I-’
‘No wonder Elsa left – all you give a damn about is your garden!’
Harriet reaches the bank of the dam and steps down to its muddy edges, which are dotted with cow hoof prints. The animals, thin from the drought, come here for their evening drink and sometimes the weaker ones get stuck in the mud. She squelches into the water in her gumboots and slides in the buckets. When they’re full, she staggers back up to the garden again, heading for the pond. This is where she imagined Elsa would make her vows – next to these fire lilies and red hot pokers, with the scent of the banksia rose drifting through the early summer air. She pours the water onto the lilies and watches the goldfish drifting in the pond. It’s taken her twenty years to perfect this garden, yet with one simple phone call Elsa says that it hasn’t been necessary.
She turns and climbs further up the hill to the house, leaving the buckets at the bottom of the verandah steps. The dogs are sitting beneath the house – the coolest place they can find. She says hello to them and their tails thump limply in the dust. Inside, she makes herself a cold lime drink and lies on the verandah floor, positioning the fan so it blows up and down her body.
This summer is as hot as the year that she was pregnant. Then, when the heat became unbearable, she forced herself to swim in the dam. It was smelly and, she imagined, full of leeches and other biting things. She wallowed in the cloudy water and held her breath when she felt yabbies darting by.
But even more frustrating than the heat was that she hadn’t the energy to tend to the garden. Of course Marcus was useless. She told him to water it in the mornings before he went to work, but all he did was turn the hose on for five minutes, in one particular spot, then turn it off and drive away on his motorbike.
‘You didn’t water the garden properly this morning,’ she’d say to him when he came home.
‘I did exactly what you told me – I watered the yellow plant and the oleanders-’
‘The oleanders don’t need watering – you never listen to me!’
‘But I watered them, didn’t I? That’s all they need-’
‘How can you be so stupid?’
And so another fight began. He, too, had a short temper and after he’d been working all day and Harriet had been boiling over her elephant of a body, it was, oddly, a kind of relief to yell at each other. They’d made up by the time they headed to bed, usually because Harriet asked him to help her wash herself in the shower. She could have done it herself, but she knew how he loved sliding that cloth under her breasts, over her swollen belly and between her thighs.
Harriet closes her eyes, thinking of Elsa. She always loved walking with her daughter in the evenings, pointing out how the spinifex cast shadows like a thousand pins in a pincushion, or listening to her read by the light of a winter fire. Occasionally Harriet would became distracted by the flames twisting and swirling against each other, until Elsa’s strong voice pricked her, ‘Mum? How do you say this word?’ Best of all, though, was when she was beside her in the garden, pulling out earthworms or digging holes with her small yellow spade.
Things started to turn sour with Marcus when Elsa left for boarding school. They still shouted to relieve the long days pent up in our shoulders but, more often, Harriet detected a note of malevolence in his voice. Once, as she cooked lunch, he suddenly shouted, ‘Get the hell on with it! The wheat’s got to be done before the rain comes! Why can’t you bring lunch to me in the paddock like other wives-’
‘You never asked!’
‘You spend too much time in the garden, that’s the problem! If you don’t do the things I ask I’ll pull up every fucking flower you own-’
‘Like hell you will!’ She turned swiftly to face him, but her forearm knocked the pot of potatoes boiling on the stove. Water splashed over the edge onto the burning gas and flames billowed out a few centimetres from her face. Marcus grabbed the tea towel to whack them down, but some slithered onto Harriet’s hand. She didn’t notice the pain until five minutes later, for she’d been dazzled by the brightness of the fire. She’d thought it a piece of rippling orange silk, reaching out to stroke her cheek.
She swirls the pale cordial, then turns her head to check that it really wasn’t smoke she’d seen. Bushfires have been breaking out like rashes this season. There are still clouds just above the horizon, but they aren’t murky enough to be smoke. Harriet finds it disconcerting to have Leslie as a neighbour when the police station and fire brigade are a half hour’s drive away, over rough roads. And they told her they can’t stop him lighting the fires unless he’s caught in the act.
When Leslie moved in, Harriet and Marcus invited him over for dinner – just a courteous gesture – but as the evening progressed he became drunk. He started playing with the candles Harriet had put on the table for decoration, seeing how close he could hold his palm to the flame before it burnt. Eventually Marcus said, roughly, ‘Enough of that, mate,’ and took him out to his ute. They hadn’t spoken to him much since then.
Still, Harriet could understand why people like him went potty out here. No one to talk to all day, and the heat and dust and tiredness got you down. That was why Elsa left – as soon as school was done she got that job in Sydney, worked her way up – the way Harriet heard other’s children do, but never her own – and now she’s in London with this partner.
Sometimes, in the nights, Harriet feels her daughter’s small hand at her breast, or in her hair, and aches to see her again. She’d caught the train to Sydney once, about a year or so after Elsa had started working, as Marcus wouldn’t drive her and she couldn’t have done the eight hour trip by herself. Staying with Elsa, Harriet realised how much she’d missed the place – its fast beat, the motley collection of people – slick, rundown, ethnic – the sudden blasts of air conditioning from shops as she walked past their doors.
But she also missed not being able to wake to the delicate Iceland poppies outside her window and after a few days the pollution got to her – she wanted to smell the jasmine on the breeze instead. She’d been in Sydney two weeks when Marcus rang to say, ‘The flowers are starting to look pretty droopy. What should I do about them?’
‘You idiot!’ she cried. ‘You’re supposed to be watering them! If I come home and they’re dead I’ll murder you!’
After that Harriet figured she’d better get home as Marcus had probably forgotten how to turn on a hose. That evening she began folding clothes into her suitcase. Elsa sat on the bed, watching.
‘Why don’t you come home for a bit, love?’ Harriet asked her. ‘We miss having you around.’
Elsa shook her head. ‘It’s a war zone there. You’re always shouting at each other.’
‘But that’s how it’s always been. We don’t mean it.’
Elsa traced patterns on the bedspread, chewing her bottom lip. Harriet wanted to explain that she loved the heat and fierceness of the arguments, but she didn’t think her daughter would understand.
‘Mum, I just think that … if you put as much work into your relationship with Dad as you do with your garden, you wouldn’t fight nearly as much.’
Harriet raised an eyebrow, then folded up a shirt precisely and put it neatly into the suitcase.
She lifts her head, listening. A car has paused at the bottom of the hill, and now it’s driving off. The postman. She pushes herself off the floor, takes her hat from the hook near the door and steps outside. The heat washes against her skin, but she sets off down the hill.
As Harriet reaches the letterbox and lifts its rusty lid, she thinks of the scene that happened a few days after Elsa’s phone call. She was forking over the mulch near the roses. Marcus drove through the gate on his motorbike then stopped it and watched her. Soon, he yelled, ‘Why don’t you give it up, you stupid woman! It’s your fault she’s not going to get married. You didn’t watch out for her enough – you sent her to that bloody girls’ school so you could spend time on your garden and now look what’s happened!’
Harriet ignored him and continued to turn the straw. He screamed again, ‘And if you don’t give it up soon I’ll poison it!’ He turned the ignition in the bike and revved off to the garage.
Harriet takes out the newspaper and bundle of letters held together with a rubber band, then hears a shout from down the road. It’s Leslie, running clumsily towards her. ‘Hello,’ Harriet says warily when he approaches. ‘How are you?’
‘Me ute’s busted. Run out of petrol. Was wondering if I could borrow some of yours? Just enough to get me home, of course.’
She frowns and bites her lip. She knows she shouldn’t give him any – in fact, she can hear Marcus’ voice in her head telling her he wants the petrol to blow something up – but he is a neighbour, and if he isn’t lying then she can’t leave him stranded.
‘Alright,’ she says, noticing how red his face is, ‘but you’ll have to bring the drum back when you’ve finished.’ He’s effusive in his thanks and she detects a whiff of alcohol on his breath.
They walk up the hill silently, though at the gate Leslie comments that the garden is nice. For a moment Harriet thinks she’s going to tell him that Elsa rang the other day to announce she had a partner, whom she called her ‘soulmate’, and that the partner was female. But the words slide back down her throat.
From the tin shed behind the house she gives him the plastic drum of petrol that’s used for the lawnmower. He tells her he’ll be back in a minute. Harriet nods and turns to leave, but something white in the corner of the shed catches her eye. A hessian sack is draped loosely across it. She walks over and pulls off the sack, then draws in her breath sharply. It’s a drum full of weed killer. And not the sort that she use, but something more concentrated. She places her hand against the tin wall and blood rushes to her head.
By the time Marcus gets to the hill half an hour later, the house is in flames. Leslie reels backwards and forwards behind the agapanthus, laughing and shouting in a high voice. Behind him is a series of black, serrated sticks against a background of orange plumes. Little shivers run over Harriet’s skin. She can’t do anything except stand there. The dogs, chained to the fence to keep them from dashing into the fire, bark insanely. She stands at the gate, wiping away the ash that floats onto her cheeks. The fire’s roaring is so loud that she can scarcely hear Marcus screaming and swearing at Leslie.
When the flames reach the lilies by the pond, Harriet can no longer hear anything. She feels strangely still and quiet. Her hand slips into the pocket of her shorts and twists the catch of the cigarette lighter.