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The gardener's prodigal son

Weeds, Flick image by Samyra SerinAs soon as I saw him, I knew something was wrong. Joe's usually amiable, weathered, 40-something features were tight, his mouth drawn into a thin line. We exchanged our customary greetings, but there was none of the chatting, the footy talk, the give-and-take that usually preceded getting down to work.

Unwittingly I made things worse by saying, 'You're on your own?' A few weeks earlier, when I'd arranged for Joe to come over to do some heavy gardening, he'd proudly mentioned that his son would be joining him in the business. But today the son, Matt, was, as Joe muttered it, 'discussing some issues with his mother'.

We both felt awkward — Joe because of some domestic upheaval, and I because the work he was going to do for me I would have been doing myself if ... well, if everything wasn't connected to everything else in a mysterious and unfathomable pattern that we know as 'life' ...

Four or five months ago, I took my ute to be serviced, and I mentioned that the rear driver's side tyre had a very slow leak. I helpfully suggested to Ray, the head mechanic, that the Second Law of Thermodynamics — entropy increases in a closed system — would ensure the fault would get worse rather than just go away.

Ray made a note to check the tyre, muttering something that sounded like 'bullshit' but may have been a more technical term familiar to mechanics.

In short, although the item was ticked on the service sheet, the tyre was overlooked. It continued to deflate, more quickly each time, and I would pump it up at the service station. 'Bring it back,' Ray said, but with Christmas approaching I didn't find the time. Finally, on 23 December I capitulated and set about changing the wheel.

This was a familiar task, one I have accomplished many times in my life. I knew how to do it, I had the right equipment and I was soon ready to bolt on the spare. But these are heavy wheels, much weightier than those of a normal car. As I squatted and lifted the wheel into position, someone stuck a red hot iron into my back.

I had crushed a disk. Stints in hospital, orthopaedic encounters and stern injunctions not to bend, lift, look sideways, sit, stand or run ensured a jolly Christmas and a rollicking New Year.

By the beginning of March, with the garden disappearing under a thick patina of bore-water nourished weeds that were scarcely deterred by marauding kangaroos and galahs, and with my wife back at her studies with no time to tackle rampaging nature, I called on Joe, only to find him badly out of sorts — which is where we came in.

Joe's plans to set up a horticultural business with his son had foundered on the latter's disinclination to get out of bed before 10.00 a.m. and his habit of staying up till all hours playing loud music with his mates who had no earlier call on their attention than school the next day, through which they could peacefully doze.

This sad story emerged before any work could be started. Joe was not used to 'spilling his guts', he explained to me, but it was obvious he needed to talk to someone, and he knew that my experience of teenage vagaries, though mercifully in the past, was nevertheless extensive.

'I'm a labouring man, Brian,' he said. 'When I was a young bloke, it was sport, parties and work. You get older, the parties fade out of the picture and your body can't hack the sport. You get married, have kids, and what's left is work. I enjoy my work. It's outdoors, it can be reasonably creative — but it's going to get harder and harder with the years. Like you, with your back: you get injuries, you're not bullet-proof any more.'

Joe's plans for a father-son horticultural business, which would have opened up for Matt qualifications and prospects his father had never known, fell apart and were never resurrected. But just getting it all off his chest helped and, as he left at the end of the day — to go home, as he put it, to a dinner of 'hot tongue and cold shoulder' — he was more like his old self.

'It's a funny life, mate,' he said. 'Buggered if I can work it out.'

I flexed my aching left knee to ease the 'referred pain' and glanced at my ute, standing innocently in the drive with its new rear tyre — replaced 'at no cost, it was our mistake'.

'It's got me beaten too, Joe,' I said.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG. 

Topic tags: brian mattews, crushed disk, changing a tyre, bad back, horticulture



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