To the Flowers
Paul pulled the door shut and followed Gina through the small front yard to the gate. Moments later, they were walking quietly, enjoying the wide blue sky and the warmth of the autumn sun on their necks. They reached the end of the block and could see the day-care centre from there.
They were lucky, they often said, to have a centre so near their house. Such a good one too. A community-run centre with great staff, good food, a nice shaded outdoor play area. Chickens. Paul had no idea if all this was standard or if it made their centre special, but he was happy to believe their day-care centre was a special place where the educators cared especially well for their child.
They cut across the grass and over the road. A few cars were parked outside, a few people were milling about, corralling children into their vehicles, heads ducked into back seats.
They spotted Mary ahead of them, coming out of the centre with Tessa, and they all smiled and waved.
‘Where’s Annie?’ Paul said, under his breath.
‘Maybe she’s with her dad.’
‘Oh yeah.’ He looked back over at Mary. ‘How is he doing, do we know?’
‘I think he’s alright. Back at home at least.’
‘Ok. That’s good.’
The sounds of kids playing in the yard reached him—someone was yelling, someone was squealing—and listening for a moment, he was fairly certain neither of them was Penny.
One thing they liked to do before going in was to peek through the fence, through holes in the green mesh, and place Penny in the yard. Often, they had no time to do this because they were caught by kids expecting parents and playing lookout, but it was nice when it worked, to watch them, her, without her knowing, even for a moment.
He tried to remember how it used to be, when she first started at the centre two or so years ago. How strange it was to see her in another context, without them. Now, he couldn’t quite grasp it; why it had felt so strange. It was the first glimpse of her future, independent self, of her having a life of her own, beyond the life she had with them—perhaps that was it. And it was weird, almost uncanny, kind of wrong feeling, to see this thing that had been entirely dependent on them, almost like another limb—literally physically attached much of the time—disconnected from them. That it, she, could even do that. Be in the world without them. That they could just leave her there! But this was as close as he got. The feeling slipped away.
What he could remember, vividly, after those first times, was how completely at a loss they were when they got back home. Perhaps it was stranger for them than for most, because neither of them had full-time jobs at that time and they weren’t rushing to work after dropping her off. They weren’t pulling on helmets and mounting their bikes, or rushing to catch trams, or getting back into cars to drive to offices and teams eager to see them back. They just turned around and walked home again. He remembered, those first few times, how they had stood in the kitchen afterwards, looking at each other, wondering: what do we do now?
‘You won’t know yourself,’ Paul’s father had said, semi-ironically, as her enrolment approached. But he was right.
It was still a thrill though, the spying. Something of that original feeling lingered, the uncanniness of it, watching her in the world without one of them nearby. But now it was about other things too. What she was like with the other children. Who she was with them. The hope of catching group dynamics. Recently, there had been some difficulties, shifting allegiances, exclusions, some cruel things said. But they weren’t worried about her. And, of course, it was all part of growing up. They just couldn’t get much out of her, when they picked her up. She wasn’t reticent exactly, she just seemed uninterested in recounting her days. Or, perhaps, she wasn’t able to, at that moment. Perhaps she wasn’t ready yet for reflection.
Sometimes this happened later, at night in bed, when she might interrupt the bedtime story to tell them things, or in the following days, on the weekend, while on walks, out of the blue. But mostly they were reliant on the snatches of conversation they managed with her teachers in the rush of pick up, or the class bulletins the centre sent out. Sometimes, if they showed her these bulletins, or told her they now knew what she’d been doing all week, this prompted something from her, little glimpses in.
They went over to the fence. Found the same holes they always used. It seemed most of the kids were in the yard, running around a little track, or climbing over the play equipment, but she wasn’t among them. A few more were in the corner of the yard, gathered around a tyre swing hanging from a tree. She wasn’t among them either.
‘I know you.’
He looked up.
It was one of the twins. She was standing close to the fence, in the shadow of the tree and the mesh. What were their names? Esther? Ella?
‘You’re Penny’s mum and dad.’
‘That’s right!’ Gina said, brightly. ‘How are you?’
But the girl was already gone. She was running back to the rooms yelling ‘Penny, your mum and dad’s here!’
He was tapping their password into the iPad on the front desk when she came running around the corner.
‘Mummy!’ she cried and crushed into Gina’s legs.
Gina crouched down and gave her a hug. ‘Hello, sweetie. Look, dada’s here too.’
‘Daddy,’ she said, and ran over to him.
He swung her up into the air, and her backpack slid down her back.
Only recently had it gone from mama and dada to mummy and daddy. Sometimes, now, even just mum and dad. It was funny how these familiar terms had come alive to him again. How they had sprung back up, from the depths of his own childhood, so full of fresh meaning. He used these words himself, calling Gina mama all the time when talking to Penny. He didn’t find them even remotely embarrassing. Nor the words he used for Penny himself—darling, sweetheart, my love. He would not have guessed that these would be the words he would use, necessarily, before they’d had Penny, but they tumbled out of him, unbidden, constantly, like the kisses he couldn’t stop himself peppering her with whenever she was close.
He would have liked to discuss all this with his mother. He found he was always thinking of things he’d like to discuss with her, now he was a parent too, before remembering that she was no longer around to discuss them with.
‘How was your day, my love?’ he asked, her bright, fleshy, wide-eyed face close to his, breathing hot air into his eyes.
She knew which questions were coming now. Her answers were always the same and always, they both knew, unsatisfactory.
‘Did you have fun?’
Paul glanced back up the hall. Today would not be a day for chatting with her teachers then. He enjoyed these chats—the teachers always had stories to tell him about funny things she had said or done—and they filled him with such admiration for these people and their work and such gratitude for their care of her, and he liked to feel these things, this connection with them, but she was ready to leave, so he put her on one hip, punched in the code, pushed the door back open with his foot—Gina got the gate—and they were back out on the street.
‘What did you do today, my love?’
‘Why are you here too, Dad?’ Penny asked.
‘Because, my love, it’s…Fridaaaayyyyy!’ He lifted her up again and, holding her under her arms, toggled her from side to side in a way he knew she liked, her legs dangling and swinging below her in the air. Her smile grew wider and wider as she watched them, and then she laughed, but still she looked a little confused.
‘We need to make that calendar, don’t we?’ he said, putting her back down on the footpath and taking hold of her hand. ‘Get those days of the week down.’
‘Mummy,’ she said, noticing Gina again and reaching out to her.
Instead of heading back up to the corner, they went straight across the road, and started down the street opposite the centre.
‘Why are we going this way?’ Penny asked.
‘Because we said we would, this morning, remember?’ Gina said. ‘To see the flowers.’
Penny went quiet for a moment. She was thinking, and as they walked, they waited to hear what she would say.
‘I’m going to get five,’ she said.
They passed houses and front yards, many almost identical to theirs, squat red-brick duplexes with algae-damaged tile roofs, double, white-painted sash windows, and small sections of neatly mowed lawn divided up by concrete.
Ahead of them on the narrow footpath was a man with a dog. The dog was straining at the lead and dragging the man along behind him. A muscular, large-jawed dog; a staffy, Paul thought. Exactly the kind of dog he dreaded coming across on these walks, which they always did, inevitably, because it was dog-walking time. Without acknowledging them, and with the dog still straining at the lead, the man veered off the footpath onto the nature strip to let them by and as they got close the dog turned his attention to Penny, straining so hard on the lead that his front half was raised into the air. The dog wasn’t barking or growling; he was baring his teeth and panting in a way that could just as easily be excitement as aggression, but it scared Penny. She shrank into Paul’s legs and froze, so Paul and then Gina stumbled into one another’s backs.
Paul pushed gently on Penny’s shoulders to get her walking again, and with his heart beating hard in his chest, he stared at the man as they filed past. The man, with sunglasses on, had a face that was as inscrutable as the dog’s, and Paul found himself wanting something from him, some acknowledgement that the dog had scared his child. But then they were past the dog and the man had set off down the street the other way, yanking hard at the lead to make the dog follow, and it was over.
They arrived at the flowers. There were many front yards in their neighbourhood with enticing flowers, but this had become known to them as the flowers because the people in this house had squared off a garden bed in the nature strip and absolutely jam-packed it with blooms. They overflowed the space in all directions. Paul did not know the names of most of these flowers—Penny knew more than he did, and she told him their names—but he knew the obvious ones: geraniums, daisies, roses, bottlebrush. It was a little overstuffed maybe, and there was no rhyme or reason to it, with natives and English garden flowers growing all over one another, but they enjoyed this about it—its wildness, its excess—and it was always a highlight of their walks, seeing how breathless and overcome Penny became when the flowers came into view.
Because there were so many flowers, and they were planted on the nature strip, they felt less guilty about Penny picking them, although they were careful not to pick from plants with only one or two flowers on them. Or they tried to be careful. Often Penny picked them anyway. He would get a little cross then, sometimes, when she ignored them. But something happened to her when it came to flowers. She became kind of devilish. And unresponsive. Right while they were saying not to pick those flowers, that there weren’t enough of those on the bush, she would reach down to them, deliberately, slowly, her fingers curling and tightening around the stems, all the while looking back at them, blankly, while they were still talking, repeating themselves—’No, not that one. Penny. Penny. Penny, what did we say about those ones, ones with only one or two flowers on them?’—and pull until the flower tore off.
But he didn’t get cross this time. He had come to accept there were times when she simply could not resist the temptation. He looked over at Gina, as Penny stripped the last of the nasturtiums from a bush, and they exchanged looks of resignation. It was hard to be cross when she was so possessed.
Penny pulled several other flowers from the bed. He had been trying to teach her to snap the stems further down, so they could put the flowers in a vase or a glass when they got home, but mostly she just pulled their tops off, and often the flowers fell apart in her hand. Then she passed them to him or Gina to hold, or to put in their pockets, which became full of crushed flowers—along with rocks and lilly pillies too—that were often not put in vases or glasses when they got home but in the bin. She did this without really even looking at them. It was the pulling off and the collecting, getting a flower of each colour, each type, that seemed the important thing to her. She loved flowers mostly, he sometimes felt, because they were colourful things you could just walk around town and take.
They walked on. At the end of the street, they would take a right to continue around the block towards home. This could be a hard moment in the walk because the street opened up to the creek and the parklands around it, with its scar trees and river mint and paths through the native grasses, and all of that could be hard to drag Penny away from. But she didn’t seem to mind, and they turned the corner without fuss.
It was a beautiful day, perhaps this was helping. It had a lulling effect on all of them. A perfect autumn day, with crisp fresh air and unexpectedly warm sun still high enough in the sky to slice through the trees and soak into their faces. And all of them, even Penny, seemed mellowed by this, the unexpectedly warm and beautiful autumn day. It made them happy just to be out and walking in it. Paul felt languorous, and beneficent, and full of wonder at all the beauty around them in the neighbourhood. The incident with the dog had not ruined his mood; he was determined it would not. It felt like a long time since he had left the house to see it all. The colours in the freshly dropped leaves beneath their feet, the beauty of the trees and their now leafless branches, so finely wrought, stretching out into the air. The funny little squat houses all around them, and their lawns, and all the lives they contained. And high above all this, the softest bluest sky, cloudless, with ribbons of birdsong trailing through it. They passed a family coming the other way, and everyone nodded and smiled warmly.
They turned the last corner back on to their street. It was peak hour now, and trucks rattled by, and traffic filled the road going both ways. This part of the walk was usually something of a rude awakening after all the pleasures of the rest of the block—the quiet streets behind theirs with their stillness and seclusion and flower gardens in the nature strip—but they were used to it now. Even today when everyone on the roads seemed angrier than usual, blasting horns and speeding around one another; it did not seem to affect them as it once might have.
The sun was slipping behind the trees along the creek and behind them it silhouetted the cranes above the new residential towers going up at Pentridge. Long shadows crept over the creek and the sloping lawns of the regenerated parkland around it, but it didn’t reach them on the street. They were just ahead of it, still in sun.
They passed a friend’s house, but thankfully they were not in their yard; Paul didn’t want to stop and chat, didn’t want to burst the bubble of the mood they were all in. Penny stopped to pick more nasturtiums. Red ones this time, incandescent and shuddering in her fist. She picked several of their broad lily-pad leaves too.
‘Can I eat one?’ she asked, holding it up.
‘You can,’ Gina said. ‘But you don’t have to.’
Penny thought about that and handed Gina the leaves. She put them in her pocket, and they moved on.
A few moments later they were home.
‘Here we are,’ Gina said, in a sing-song voice, as they came under the cover of the carport. ‘Home again.’ Then she sighed, perhaps a touch heavier than she meant to.
At the gate, Paul paused to peer into the tiny triangular garden bed that projected from the corner of the brick wall. Not long ago they had worked on this space, starting with the couch grass, pulling out as much of it as they could with their hands. He was surprised at how deep they’d had to go, and eventually they’d given up—to really get rid of it would require digging up the whole front yard. And now it was back, along the edges, among the broken brickwork and crumbled mortar. He reached down and tugged at bunches of it but only a couple of strands broke off in his hand. He could not fit his fingers far enough into the crevices to get a good grip on most of it. It was too strong.
On another day this kind of thing might have depressed him, exasperated him, overwhelmed him even. It would seem emblematic of a bigger problem, and a gloomy view of their lives that came over him periodically would once again take hold. He would think that, like with the couch grass, there was always more work to be done, more work than they could possibly keep up with, and that all their work was destined to be undone anyway. That they’d lose this battle with the couch grass like they would with most things in their lives and there was no point to any of it because, in the end, everyone lost everything. So why even try. When he felt like this, he wanted to shut himself away, or go out, or drink. But he did not feel like this today. These thoughts did not take hold. He felt them rise, like a half-remembered tune, and then dissolve. He was feeling too weary, in a pleasant way, and too resigned, too happy even, to pick up that refrain.
And although he did not have the energy to fight the couch grass right now, there was something about the walk, and the day, the beautiful day, and his family, his beautiful family, that made him think that he would have the energy one day soon and he’d get on top of the couch grass then.
Fine, he thought. It’ll keep. And he followed Gina and Penny into the house.
Luke Horton is a writer, editor, lecturer and musician. His work has appeared in various publications, including the Guardian, The Saturday Paper and Meanjin. His debut novel, The Fogging, was published in 2020 by Scribe Publications, and was named among the Guardian‘s ’20 Best Australian Books of 2020’. He is currently working on a second novel.
Illustration: Jackie Nguyen
Brought to you by the Metro Tunnel Creative Program for Melbourne Writers Festival. Excerpts of ‘Writing Melbourne’ and accompanying illustrations can be seen at City Square on Swanston Street when restrictions ease.