Alison O’Hara’s short story, The Garden House, was shortlisted in the 2014 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award. Read her piece below. Stay tuned for the publication of other shortlisted and winning entries in the coming weeks. They can be found here.
She could tell straight away that the garden had once been loved. Tall natives straggled above the remnant mulch while hardy annuals, diminished by the long winter, hunkered below them in the semi-shade. Rocks ran around here and there telling of a forgotten border between plot and path, between order and the creeping chaos of nature. Moving to the side fence, she stood on tiptoe and braced against the weathered palings, barely noticing their silvery smoothness under her fingers as her eyes sought out the hidden corners of this suburban wilderness.
There was daphne nearby. The breath of its perfume made her certain of its presence well before she spied the flush of pale pink flowers hiding under the hedge of pittosporum. Along the path were camellias too, unfolding their stripy buds despite their neglect, and filigreed azaleas waiting in the understory for their turn at spring. In the weed-filled bed alongside the backyard shed were roses, long and unkempt, but beginning to shoot with the new season; whether it was from habit or duty, she could not decide.
Spring. She shook her head disbelievingly at thoughts of rebirth and renewal, but could not completely deny them. Her eyes roved, alighting on her namesake: some frost-deadened daisies still hunkered down, their life withdrawn into their roots and stems, waiting for the full summer sun to coax their white and purple flowers into bloom.
‘I’m with you,’ she murmured, but then jerked her head around to make sure no-one had heard. The street was quiet. Daisy liked that; she took comfort in the absence of dog walkers and early gardeners and surveyed the house again. Canberra-plain it was: not a guvvie, not a new build, just an old brick house in an old brick suburb. A cold tug of wind rustled the street trees and blew between the palings, fetching up the last of autumn’s leaves and warning of chills still to come.
‘It might do,’ she said to herself.
‘Have a look,’ the agent had said. ‘Let me know if you want to see inside.’ He had smiled encouragingly. ‘No pressure then.’
The ‘For Rent’ sign told her it was a tenant’s market, for once. When she and Sam had first hooked up and needed their own roof, they’d had to fight for somewhere to live, elbow-jostling other desperate young couples to the top of the agent’s list. Their first rental was a mere pit stop of course. In just two years Sam had sold his way into easy street and they had put a deposit on their own slice of suburbia, only a suburb away. Seven years ago now.
Was it too close? Maybe.
There was another house on the list, this time in a brand-new suburb. It was further out, on the edge of the known world, brick and asphalt pushed up against cow paddocks. Daisy found the street and the car sidled to a stop. Builders’ rubbish was strewn over the muddy footpaths and into the buffer strip of broken scrub and bulldozer corrugations. A mangled slab of coolite flapped down the newly made street, leaving behind stagnant mounds of dirt-crusted plastics and castoff Macca’s cups. The tradies’ utes and vans dotted awkwardly on the footpath explained the work-in-progress sounds of hammering, swearing and buzz-sawing.
Daisy caught the whiff of mud and fresh-sawn timber as she picked her way along the dirty concrete path, past almost identical box-houses that filled the tiny blocks on which they stood, partitioned from each other by raw blonde wood fences. At this end of the street, the landscapers had been busy installing instant gardens: low retaining walls, coloured pebbles and potted shrubs. Here there were signs of life: a sheet hanging inside a large front window, a child’s toy car languishing outside a roll-a-door and a shrill yapping from a backyard.
She checked the number: seventeen. Was that a good number or not? It didn’t feel like it. The bare windows revealed bare walls and new beige carpet. Smells of carpet glue and concrete dust filled her nostrils. Appliances gleamed beigely in the kitchen that was open-planned to sliding glass doors and a dinky patio. As she turned under the feature porch to survey the front garden, Daisy felt the crunch of dirt on the new terracotta tiles beneath her feet; she saw plastic grass, red pine mulch, angular glazed pots and a row of baby box hedge.
No, she could not live here. Even though it reminded her of their own new-build not so many years ago. Even though it didn’t smell of shit. From a house once filled with soul to one that had none, it was too far a leap.
Back she drove to her mother’s house. To the refuge she’d so gladly escaped all those years ago for the bright lights of Sam’s orbit. She gripped the wheel in steely memory. He’d shone, he had. Sparkled. Dazzled her with his wit and laughter, coaxed her and cajoled her into believing in him. Sold her the dream like the consummate salesman he was. Whispered in her ear like a shaman and propped her up when she doubted. And she did doubt, but only quietly, privately, a secret even from herself.
During their courtship, she had abandoned herself to long months of ebullience and restless energy. Somehow, Sam kept his Sydney family and friends at bay while he paraded his money and his promises. The car dealership was doing well and soon he would be junior partner: an announcement one night over dinner, his eyes flashing and his mouth flushed with hyperbole. ‘Let’s get married, my beauty,’ he said. ‘Why wait?’ he said. ‘Let’s tell everyone,’ he said. ‘You will look stunning in a wedding dress, my beauty.’
It was not until the honeymoon that her world came crashing down. Sam had excelled himself at the reception, charmed the guests on both sides, danced with every woman in sight. Strangely, this was the first time she’d seen him fully fuelled by alcohol, and she’d had to drag him off to the hotel in a taxi, still gushing like a just-opened bottle of champagne. But once in the swanky room, the chemistry changed and darkness descended. The warning from his ex was too late. Daisy had been searching for her bag before leaving the reception when she was accosted by the blousy blonde: ‘Oh, didn’t you know? Sam has bipolar. Surely he’s told you?’ The smug grin rankled as much as the words.
And so began the long years of ups and downs. Daisy could not decide which was worse. At least she had some peace when he was down, although she worried about his ever-changing medication and managed to find empathy for his deep depression. His business partners were sympathetic too, but only because in his long periods of ‘up’ he earned them all a small fortune.
Daisy had not been able to bring herself to stop taking the Pill. Now, as she nudged her car into her mother’s driveway, she was once again grateful that she did not have a child, or two, to be put through all this messy sorrow and upheaval. She had only herself to consider in this move.
‘How did you go?’ Daisy’s mother tried to disguise her eagerness for information by busying herself with the kettle and clearing the bench.
‘I’m not sure. The first one had a lovely big garden, but it’s been let go. Needs a lot of work. The new estate was just terrible, just a handkerchief of a garden and all the houses looked the same.’
‘It’s such a pity you can’t stay here,’ said her mother. Daisy looked round the cramped apartment, past the expensive view of the lake, and saw that her pile of belongings next to the sofa couch had been tidied. There were more bags and boxes squeezed into her father’s study, but it was not everything she’d left behind. Far from it.
‘Yeah, well, I guess you didn’t expect this sort of thing when you downsized.’ Daisy flopped on the couch, tired and despondent now. It was hard work keeping a lid on all the emotions that clamoured for her attention: grief, anger, self-pity and others she could not name.
Her mother sat beside her and handed over a cup of milky tea. ‘Darling, no-one expected this sort of thing.’
Daisy’s eyes blazed suddenly. ‘I should have seen it coming though! Why didn’t I see it coming?!’ Her mother caught Daisy’s thin body as it slumped against her and she held her daughter close for a long while until the sobs subsided.
Eventually Daisy straightened. ‘I think I’ll go and see the agent about the house with the garden. I should have a look inside. Make sure it doesn’t smell like shit.’
There was no reprimand. Her mother understood. ‘It’s only going to be for a few months anyway. Until everything is settled and you can sell the house and buy another one.’
‘Yes,’ said Daisy. ‘All of that.’ She shuddered. There would be mountains of paperwork. She knew. It had already started.
‘If I get this rental place, you and Dad will go round there and pack up for me? I’ll pay for the truck. None of his stuff though. I don’t want anything of his.’
‘Of course not, darling. Just as you say. You’ll never have to set foot in there again. We’ve already told you that.’
After lunch, Daisy stirred herself and arranged to meet the agent at the ‘garden house’ as she now called it. She’d been at her mother’s only three weeks, but Daisy knew she had to find her own space as soon as possible. Neither could she delay going back to work indefinitely; a part of her even welcomed the impending return to routine and certainty of her public service job, even though she would have to stare down their sympathy and gossip. House first, and then maybe she could find a way forward, a new place to be, to breathe on her own. And smell the flowers.
The agent was waiting for her, the house already unlocked with a cool draught of fresh air winging its way through the stale rooms. Daisy was pleased with the layout and the way the back deck was sheltered by budding grapevines and naked wisteria. It would be a riot by late spring. She could busy herself in the garden, lose herself in it.
‘The owner might be willing to sell later in the year,’ said the agent. ‘To be negotiated of course.’ Daisy smiled. She had already made up her mind, but this was a bonus.
‘You said it was just for yourself, then,’ he continued. ‘Are you sure you don’t want something smaller? After all you’ll be paying for bedrooms you’re not using.’
‘The money’s not a problem.’ Daisy pulled her lips tight against her teeth in an attempt to smile. ‘What’s in the shed?’
The agent fumbled with his keys and unlocked the large outbuilding. He spread his arms.
‘You can do what you like with this. I think the last tenants used it as a gym. See, there’s a big hook up on that beam you can hang a boxing bag from.’ He turned to scrutinise Daisy again to see whether she was the muscly type, but was stopped by a look of horror on her face.
‘Take that down! I won’t have it there!’
The agent stiffened in surprise. ‘Of course we can take it down. But whatever’s the matter? Here, are you OK?’
Sobbing loudly, Daisy had crumpled onto an old packing case. The agent dithered uncertainly. ‘Hey, it’s OK. It’s just a hook you can hang a punching bag on.’
‘No it’s not!’ Something burst upwards in her throat, something Daisy could not keep down any longer. She did not care if she was going to shock the agent, ruin his afternoon, perhaps even his whole week.
She twisted her hands in her hair and shouted. ‘No it’s not! It’s where you hang yourself when you can’t take it anymore! It’s where you kick a kitchen chair out from underneath you and swing alone for hours until you’re blue in the face and your shit stinks out the whole house and your wife arrives home to find you there … just you and your shit.’