Gardening is spiritual.
Cuts the shopping bill in half and gets your hands into the earth, Lerato thinks as she digs in the concrete oblong pot thing she’s sure has an official name.
Even if you don’t have a garden as such, it’s still an excellent thing to have soil between your fingers. One day, maybe, she will get it – soil – between her toes. But that’s for later. At the moment she’s working her way through potting soil bag number two of four, deposited at her front door by Hilda, one of those white girls you can’t help like but don’t want to keep too close.
Hilda drives a blue bakkie and gardens with pathological, university-level enthusiasm. Which has been handy for Lerato, just entering the world of shrubs and pots and soils.
Lerato’s mother thinks she’s insane and culturally inappropriate. She should still be at home, within the family, learning. For her own good. And that of the child. She’s lucky, though, to have a life and a mom where tradition is optional. There to help you, if you need it. Otherwise, good luck and lots of love and we won’t laugh when you come running back covered in nappies and baby shit.
Lucky, she thinks as she digs in the oblong thing. Very lucky. Her mother has always let her go, and even with the child, the fatherless child, a baby from a travelling rouge, her mother leaned in with support. No judgement. Just support.
Which, she knows, dig, is a rare thing. Dig, dig. A very rare thing.
She scatters a handful of spring onion seeds across the holes and allows herself to feel the act in her spirit. As if she was of the land, and following well-grooved instinct. She checks on Zakes, he’s fine, then consults the back of the seed packet, which goes into close-to-unnecessary detail re: the planting cycle of spring onions. She skips through, nods to herself, pats the soil down.
Her garden is a strip of dead turf laid over with large concrete tiles – the bit out the back of the kitchen. It took the landlord hours to find the key for her. God knows, he said, when last it was opened. About a metre wide, the strip runs along the back of the building for the full six comma five metres, behind the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. An alley. That’s what you’d call it if you were proper British English. A thin little alley. Somewhere for the drains and pipes to congregate.
She got the oblong pot things from Hilda in a bit of coincidental fortune, before she was looking for a place. So she ended up looking for somewhere small enough to afford to live, but big enough to hold her oblong pot things.
And this was it.
And she loved it.
And hated it a bit, too, because what black girl like her would ever be able to afford to live in the suburbs unless it was in the dump at the back that used to be servant’s quarters.
Still, she loved it. Fundamentally.
The quiet. The sound of birds. Peace. She could live like this. Very easily.
One day, surely, she will live in a place like this. In the actual house, not out back. She will sit at the pool and watch Zakes splashing in it with his friends as they grow from boys to teenagers to men. It will all be very middle class.
Next door, over the wall, the gate coughs dramatically. Lerato freezes, miniature spade raised. She stares at the text on the back of the seed packet as the gate rolls open, as the car parks, as the gate closes. The German bustles in the back of her vehicle, mumbling to herself as she pulls at various plastic bags. Then it’s all loud, overly friendly chatty voices as the maid comes out and takes over.
Lerato is separated from them by about a metre, no more than two, but the hedge is a powerful divider. No one can see anything. Still, they’re so close sometimes she thinks she can smell the German’s coffee breath.
As usual, the chat between German and maid is loud and faux friendly and takes place in an absurd mess of pidgin English. In terms of volume and vibe they sound like two long time lady friends about to have tea and gossip about useless husbands, but content wise they can’t extend beyond bars of soap, the weather, boxes of cereal and the position of the eternally rebellious creepy crawly. The maid has that Zimbabwe lilt to her English, her sentences forming a string of implied questions that lift at the end in an almost Australian way. She’s young, too. Maybe Lerato’s age.
Still frozen, still staring at the seed packet text, Lerato listens to them unpack and go inside, then waits for the dog to burst out and sniff at her along the line of the hedge. And it does.
The German calls the dog in with a whistle and a thigh slap and something cutesy but not comprehensible and it stops snuffling at Lerato through the leaves. The back door closes with a thump.
Lerato shakes loose, and carries on.
The German makes her nervous.
It was fine the first two weeks, but then Deno arrived and, Deno is complicated. Rapper, movie maker, writer, intellectual, occasionally vicious arts commentator, Deno is a notoriously miserable motherfucker.
It’s just who he is. And he’s aware of it. He understands his personal darkness as something that has to be carefully managed. And he can manage it, in most circumstances. Also, he’s talented as fuck, so most people take him in context. When Deno drags his cloud behind him the people who have known him long enough step back, or to the side. They wait. Try a new angle. Create space.
Deno is always an issue with the whites, of course, who, despite all that has gone before, and in the face of all the clear demarcations and delineations laid out by the new generation still, bless their little colonial socks, prefer their blacks smiling and grateful.
And Deno is none of that.
None at all.
What they don’t know – what they can’t see and probably never will – is that when Deno is being a miserable cunt he’s actually very democratic with it. It’s not their whiteness that makes him cunty. He was like that to start with. And then the whiteness piles on top. Thus, Deno has a particular way of getting into fights and skirmishes, arguments and confrontations, and when it happens with the whites everything ends pretty scratchy. Which can be amusing, if they’re not your whites. If you’re at a distance.
If you happen to be contextually knitted into the thing, on the other hand, Deno can be all sorts of trouble.
Still, Lerato thinks she’s starting to love him. His mind. His deeper spirit. His place in this place as one of its true artists. There are days when Deno’s clouds are too dark. Stupidly black. Days when he wakes up snarling and spitting, but there haven’t been as many as people might think. In fact, she would probably match him on average him when it comes to skanky moods, measured over a calendar year. It’s just that his episodes tend to weave together, with intensity. And maybe he’s more public with it. Regardless, she thinks there might be love, clouds and all. And, of course, what is it with humans and their paradoxes, Deno is reliably brilliant with Zakes. Always exceptional with Zakes. Never a cloud in sight with Zakes.
Like most people, Deno has a few different voices. Mostly he’s low toned, but when he’s on a production schedule his spirit is invaded and he barks and shouts and exclaims at a volume akin to the next door German. Lerato’s asked him about this and he says it must be raw production instinct. If you don’t compete with the drama students on their terms nothing ever happens. The cameras aren’t booked, the venue isn’t vetted, there is no sound guy, the DOP is still drinking with his buddies as the golden light rises, then evaporates. In production, you shout or be lost. So Deno shouts. Sometimes he gets to her place and the momentum is still strong, he’s still shouty. She’s tried to talk him down, to shush him, but it never works, he just gets louder. So she shrugs and lets him bring the volume.
* * *
The note came through her special tiny post box at the front gate three weeks ago. Lerato has never received much physical mail, being digital and all, and this being her first non student sharing set up. The note was, in fact, the very first item to land at her new designated address. And it hadn’t been posted. It had been slipped through by a German hand.
I am your neighbour at the back, through the hedge (134B 9th Avenue). We can’t see each other, as we both are aware, but volume is clear. I am sure there must be moments when my volume is excessive and I will endeavour to consider this in the time ahead so as to ensure your peaceful living.
I would be grateful if you and your guests could do the same for me. Sometimes there is excessive volume in talking, and a strong male voice can make it difficult to sleep, or just to live. I would appreciate it if you could keep this in mind when you are close to the area that divides our two properties, as my bedroom is right on this border.
My name is Gertude Dreiser, should you wish to talk to me about this, or any other matters. I work at the university. My number is 063 477 8231.
‘Full stops,’ Deno scoffed as he read it. ‘What is it with people and full stops. Idiot.’
‘Sho. But, I mean… not the issue right now.’
‘Excessive volume in talking!’ he shouted at the hedge. Lerato pulled the kitchen window shut and gave him a pleading look. Then he exploded. A rant about Germans and the extermination of the Herero. Whites. Blacks. Languages.
Thereafter he made a point of swinging the back door open and bellowing in deep traditional vernacular about nothing in particular. Bits from praise poems he pulled off the net, a few lines from a Brother Moves On track… straight through the hedge and into her window. Her door would slam open, followed by quick, shuffling feet. Down the back steps and right up to the border, the dog sniffing and pushing at the leaves with a wet, hungry snout.
So, now it’s a battle. A contest of door slamming and window opening and demonstrably loud conversations on both sides. When Deno gets a call he marches straight out back to take it, makes sure he has both headphones plugged in and the volume right up so even when just chatting he is practically screaming.
Two more notes follow, similarly Germanic and terse, which he enjoys. Which he edits with a red pen and sticks on the fridge. Which is amusing for him – he who can leave for his own flat when he has had enough – but which is starting to stress Lerato out. Which is causing her to freeze in her very own garden whenever she hears a sound. Just to be safe.
‘Srrrrious?’ Deno bellowing, accusing. ‘You sneaking around your own place for a German?’
Lerato makes a cry face. Then whispers. ‘C’mon, Please. We have to live here.’ She glances at Zakes, kicking in his carry-around car seat.
Deno shrugs. ‘Fine,’ he whispers so low she can’t make out the word. He drags the other white plastic pool chair to face her and seats himself theatrically. Then raises a forefinger to his lips. ‘Shhhh. Don’t upset the Germans. You know what they can do…’
Lerato bursts into a laugh. Normal volume. They relax.
Deno opens the tin and asks about her day and cleans the weed. She loves this. Their little late afternoon thing. He tells her about the university and the production company and his editors. She tells him about the inanity of freelance, the hope for more work, her need for cash. They spend most of the time grinning communally at Zakes as he bounces around. What is it about little humans, they ask every time. What is it?
They talk reasonably. Not loud, but not too soft either. Lerato is conscious of moderating her voice at both ends. Loud enough not to piss Deno off, but soft enough to deal with the edgy neighbour relations. It’s an effort, but she thinks she’s getting it right and she’s grateful to him for following her lead and suppressing his bubbling self.
This is the thing about Deno that few people know, or understand. Being evil is an issue for him. He regrets the way he is, often. As he gets older he sees that the conflict hits him more than anyone else. In his own way, he tries. He really does. And not to please anyone else. Not to make nice or anything, but for his own mental health. For his spirit.
He tosses the stalks and pips into the hedge while he cleans, flicking each away as he methodically works the weed between thumb and forefinger, a process he is very particular about. He always cleans enough for the night (or day, depending) in one go. No more, no less. It’s part of his thing, the cleaning. He likes to do it every time, and is opposed to people who clean massive heads in one shot. The stuff gets dry and powdery, he says, if you do too much.
Which may or may not be true. Lerato is pretty sure he just needs to be in control. Which is fine. Cleaning dagga has never been her thing.
So they talk and she gardens and he cleans and it’s dig, flick, flick, flick, dig. They drift from work to politics to gardening. The importance of food security. The impending collapse of all things ever known. Trump. The right wing in Europe. Juju. Gwede, JZ, Cyril, The Clam. She digs into her last oblong as he cleans and Zakes bounces silently. ‘Jesus,’ she giggles, ‘imagine if he turns into one of those screamers. A floor thumper.’ They laugh at that, while deciding it’s mostly a white thing. Or a suburban thing, maybe. Genetically, Zakes will be stoic. The strong and silent type. The black type.
Dig, flick, laugh.
Dig, flick, chat.
Dig, flick …
And then, in the middle, on a Thursday afternoon, smack in the centre of their modest family conversation, a tiny plop. Both notice it somewhere deep down, but neither conceive cognitively. They carry on, until it happens again. The third time, they stop. Stare at each other, then at the hedge. Then at the concrete tile, on which sits a single dagga pip that wasn’t there before. Deno makes a keep rolling motion with his forefinger and they talk in a forced way while he cleans some more and flicks a pip and three stalks at the hedge. They watch carefully while letting any old words fall from their mouths. Back they come through the hedge. A pip and three stalks. They land simultaneously and scatter, as if trying to flee.
It takes shape over the next two weeks. Every time Deno cleans, the pips and stalks come back through the hedge.
Which seems impossible. There’s never any indication of a presence on the other side. One day he steps out in purposeful silence, barefoot and cautious. He says nothing to anyone and does his thing and plop, plop, back the seeds come.
Two days later, he marches back inside with his fist in the air. ‘Gone,’ he says to Lerato, triumphant. ‘Reconciliation and peace on the frontline.’
But the next day, same again.
They debate it. He thinks it’s the Zimbabwean maid. She’s trapped. Maybe the German has locked her into the property or something. Maybe this is the only way she can communicate with the outside world. Maybe she’s too terrified to talk.
Lerato is mildly terrified. The silence of it all is killing her. Is someone sitting on the other side of the hedge all day, just waiting? Waiting for them? How come they never hear any movement? Because you can hear all activity from that side. The smallest things.
‘What if we just stop?’ she says. ‘Put the pips in a bowl and forget it.’
‘Makes sense,’ Deno replies. ‘Accept the fact that all our movements are being silently tracked. Just live with it.’
Maybe, they think later, there is a child. Oldish. Ten years. He or she is a mute. Deaf and dumb. Pretty slash good looking, but utterly silent.
But no, it’s impossible. They would hear someone talking to the thing. Or at least at it. Greeting it, loving it, directing it.
‘A chimp?’ Deno suggests this in all seriousness, and they give it consideration, but the same rules apply. You would hear a chimp.
Eventually Lerato just leaves the gardening, and the garden.
Deno doesn’t agree. He makes a point of going out there as often as he can, taking his production calls and such, but the veggies are dying. The soil has become hard because she hasn’t turned it in many days and the nascent growth, the fresh green leaves, are being seared by the sun.
Then she stops going out back altogether. Now the cottage is small and smelly and she thinks there might be issues with the geyser, which is dripping a dark brown fluid onto the bathroom carpeting.
Who carpets a bathroom, anyway?
And then it’s over.
Just like that, they’re packing her small life into six boxes. Deno has been offered a house. A whole house, in the burbs, easy rent, almost no rent, in fact, for a year. A full year. While the owner is in the states on a movie thing. Big garden, he says. Very big garden. Pack your gardening boots.
Lerato is daunted, but doesn’t admit it. She never wanted a big garden. A few pots was fine.
They leave the oblongs behind. She thinks of asking Hilda if she wants to come and get them, but that would raise all sorts of… well, Hilda would be disappointed.
Deno’s old brown Toyota Cressida is stuffed to the roof with boxes. Zakes lolls in the back left car seat corner, looking pensive. Lerato clutches the biggest pot plant between her feet, pulling the leaves onto her lap. They drive out at right angles and end up passing the German’s front gate and there she is, on the porch, sipping out of what looks like fine tea china.
There she is, smiling like victory, straight at Lerato.
Smiling like quiet.