The Sunflower and other tales
Untidy observations that make up the stuff of everyday life.
The Sunflower and other tales is a collection of seventeen loosely connected stories. Set in the inner suburbs of Melbourne the characters travel forth into the world, discovering their strengths, confronting their weaknesses.
Beth’s father is dead.
Les was old. Ninety-three. For the past five years, he’s lived in a nursing home in Adelaide. Ada, Beth’s mother, died years ago. Les shared his room in the home with Claude, not Ada.
It was Claude who heard the last breath. Lying in the dark, cocooned by the curtains drawn around his bed, he listened to the uneven ins and outs of Les’s breathing and he prayed. In the silence following that last breath, and after what seemed a respectable time, he reached over the bars of his bed and pressed the buzzer. It was time to call the sister on duty and tell her, his room-mate is dead.
Les was the last of Beth’s elders. Now both her parents are gone; she’s the senior woman in the family. But she doesn’t know it yet. She’s still sleeping.
At 2.00am the phone by her bed rings. She picks up the receiver and straightens herself. She knows what’s coming.
‘Yes. He was very old,’ she agrees. ‘One would not have wished him any longer.’ ‘Yes. He’s at peace now.’ Beth’s voice is steady but as the conversation dribbles on, tears flow down her cheeks and splash onto her pyjamas. The nurse at the other end of the line would never have guessed.
The conversation over, she sits still and stiff in the dark. She pictures her Dad alone, dying without family and it pains her. It would have been good if she knew about Claude but she doesn’t and never will. The sadness she feels is heavy. It flows out of her and fills the room. It would be palpable to anyone, if there were anyone there. But Beth is alone at this moment in her life because she’s made it that way.
Six months ago Beth left Sean and their home of twenty years and moved to Daylesford. Normally the girls would be with her but recently they’ve wanted to be back in Melbourne at every opportunity. And that’s where they are on this night.
She slips out of bed, drags off a blanket, wraps it around herself and pads down the corridor to the back door. She doesn’t bother with a light; she knows the way. The moon illuminates the garden. She stands in the middle of the lawn and the sky is huge above.
Beth feels that maturity has evaded her for a long time.
She was born and grew up Adelaide. Les and Ada were old from the start - certainly too old to have had any more children. Beth came as a surprise. Christian people, they never raised their voices; never had folk over for dinner. Les had the keys to the church hall; he was a trustworthy man. Ada made lamingtons for cake stalls and Les made up pots of fuchsia cuttings and fishbone fern for the plant stalls. The kitchen, though spotless, always smelled of roast. Les rode to the shops on a rusty bicycle with the handle-bars turned up and one trouser leg tucked into his sock.
When Les retired, his garden became his life. He would never consider leaving it for a holiday. He refused to travel with Ada to Melbourne to visit Beth and the grandkids.
‘You go and have a good time. You’re the adventurous one. I’ll mind the fort.’ He’d say to Ada.
Les nurtured a typical Adelaide garden, in the days when there was rain. The double fronted sandstone cottage with bullnose verandah was situated to the front and the side of the block. He grew roses by the fence; fruit trees down the side and veges out the back. Ordered and restrained.
At the front, Les liked formality and symmetry. The centrepiece was a thick mattress of buffalo grass. Along the fence he took great care of the roses. He lashed them to wooden stakes with Ada’s old panty hose – 60 denier, mid beige, talls. Gussets, heels and toes flapped like Tibetan prayer flags on a windy day.
The back garden was different in character altogether. Here the vegetables were kept. Les was critical of mixing vegetables with ornamentals.
‘You don’t mix the peasants with the aristocracy.’ He used to say. The summer garden was a skilful display – neat rows of everything: sweet corn, lettuce, zucchini, tomatoes tied to lengths of galvanised pipe (laterals nipped), gourmet beans and burpless cucumbers. No basil.
Les had a morning summer ritual he observed without fail. After his cup of tea he strolled through the rows checking for fungal outbreaks, sap-suckers or weeds.
It was during one of these morning inspections that he found a small green shoot poking its head up in the path. ‘Ah! A volunteer!’ said Les looking down on the tiny seedling that had chosen to grow in his garden.
It was a sunflower. In an uncharacteristic gesture, Les allowed it to stay.
The sunflower had found the perfect spot. Everything in the garden met its requirements for robust growth. And grow it did. Les playfully measured himself against the stalk. The boy that lived inside him was excited when the bud began to form. Starting out round it gradually flattened and all the time the stalk grew and grew. When it had reached as high as the eaves on the house the petals began to unfold; a single crown of brilliant yellow. Every day Les watched the giant raise its heavy head to the sun, track across the north, and as if in prayer, bow to the west.
It was long after midnight. Les couldn’t sleep. He lay next to Ada afraid she would wake and want to talk. It was a moonless night and the stars were blanketed with cloud. He slipped out of bed, put on his dressing gown and slippers and went out to the kitchen. In the drawer under the cutlery drawer – the muddle drawer – he kept a torch. Yes, it was there. Everything has a place and everything in its place. He flicked it on to check the batteries. No problem. He took it outside and shone the beam up into the magnificent face of the sunflower. It stirred with the light. Confused, it raised its head. Sunrise already? Holding the torch steady in its face, Les walked slowly around the flower. The head followed the beam. Innocent. He continued to walk. Around and around and around and around. And the flower followed. The stalk began to weaken where it twisted. Soon it could no longer bare the weight of the flower and the giant head slumped. A broken neck; head suspended by a few tough fibres.
Beth sways a little then spins around. The blanket around her shoulders flares out and she spins faster and faster. As she spins she sings. She sings in Spanish. She sings love songs. She lifts her face to the sky and bathes in the moonlight. She dances and sings under the big sky in her garden of weeds and sunflowers.
And she does not break.