Hollyhocks

Sue brought a small, battered, tea cannister out onto the veranda and squinted at the sky. In the hours since her husband Greg had left for the shearing, she had not seen another living soul. The outdoors called to her. She had the strange feeling that it was trying too hard. All this blue, all this dazzle, all this desperate outpouring of the last of the sunlight from the honeyed stores of summer. Just let it go, she wanted to say. Breathe out. Grow old. There is no shame in a season ending. I don’t know who you’re trying to impress, but don’t mind me. The house exhaled comfortably at her back. It was a plain old place. A roof of corrugated iron. Dark wooden floor-boards with cracks of light between. A kitchen with pretty lino and low benches built for a shorter woman. A chilly bathroom off the back veranda. A hook in the fireplace for hanging a kettle over the flames.

It was 1980, a fresh new decade. Shorts were short. Hair was big. The recession was 7 long years in the future. She and Greg were newly married. With the optimism of youth they had bought a couple of bracken-edged paddocks and a small swathe of bush stretching from a breezy hilltop to a bright green gully, and at the edge of the property, this old house. The nearest neighbours were 20 minutes’ walk away. Greg was working every second God gave him. To be honest, it was a little quiet.

Sue sat on a narrow wooden bench and prized off the dented cannister lid with a butter knife. She’d found the cannister tucked up at the very top of the pantry, along with a rusted cake tin and a jar of sugared violets, brown and crumbled into sweet dust, and she always put it straight back there afterwards, like returning a book to the library. It was her secret. A sudden bang made her heart flutter. A flock of black cockatoos rose indignant from the pine tree. In the paddock, five wallabies lifted their heads and pricked their ears nervously. Their fur was so soft, their eyes so inquisitive. Not like the pugnacious kangaroos with their muscles and their lounging. It had been a gun shot from over the neighbour’s way, but there were no more; must have been a one-off pot shot. The cockatoos sank back onto their perches, the wallabies relaxed. Sue pulled out a bundle of papers from the tin.

First, here was Daphne’s beautiful copperplate, neat as a pin. ‘I woke this morning to find the hollyhocks blown over by the wind …’ Daphne had planted a garden around the edges of the house, inside the safety of the wooden fence. She was responsible for the orange blossom, the crooked plum tree, and, Sue hoped, perhaps some daffodils in Spring. Of her 6 pages, 5 were about the garden and the rest about the weather. ‘I regret planting the ivy’ ‘Do remember to water the front garden beds well; it has been such a dry Winter’. Sue folded them again. The garden was in a state of disrepair, but Daphne’s work was still visible in the layout of the vegetable patch, the straggling hedge, the path to the water tank that was paved with stones.

Next, Kate’s scraps of paper, found by Daphne under the house when it was re-stumped (there was a note). Sue imagined they had been posted by one of Kate’s 7 children into the cracks between the floor-boards. Half a recipe for fruit cake. A shopping list. The children’s birthdates. The final page of a letter signed ‘your dear friend, Kate’ The letter had been crumpled, and the phrase ‘dear friend’ crossed out.

Finally, a single page from a diary. ‘I am writing in fear of my life for the natives have been camped outside for two days now.’ The rest of the page was blank.

Sue smoothed the papers and folded them back into the tin. She intended to add her own contribution to it one day, but when? Her life was still unformed. Perhaps she should achieve something first, like a garden, or children, or some other kind of life carved out of the wilderness. She had no idea what. She sat and looked at the sky. All the blue, all the dazzle. One season holding on, waiting for the next.

Photo by Saakshi on Pexels.com

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