It started with a pair of gumboots. My neighbour of ten years, Mrs McNally, planted bright red geraniums in each one, then got Mr McNally to nail them to their front fence. I watched him do it while I was mowing the lawn. They were bright and charming, those gumboots, with their scarlet polka dots. A little like their owner. Even the weather didn’t dull their colour; not for some months, anyway.
I asked her about it soon afterwards. “I don’t like to waste things,” she said. “You young people throw everything away, soon as they start to wear. Those boots were a gift from my first husband. Do you like them?”
I wasn’t sure if she meant the flowers or the boots—or even whether I should say yes. “They’re very red,” I said.
She gave me a cracked teapot for Christmas, peppermint growing in it. I crushed the leaves and inhaled the scent. It’s always been my favourite, peppermint. Nice of her to remember.
After the gumboots came a wheelbarrow. Old tyres, pastel-painted. On her doorstep she placed a chair with its seat pulled out, an agave in the centre. Every morning I would see her working in the garden as I left for my commute. She would wave with her trowel; Mr McNally would nod from the porch with his cigarette and cup of tea. I waved back.
That summer, out in the city for post-work drinks, I saw Mr McNally. Across a crowded room, his bald patch and thin face were as familiar as the bottlebrush in my front yard—and just as incongruous in that bar. A woman with lilac hair, about my age, kept him company. He didn’t return my wave.
Mrs McNally hung up hollowed-out buoys with peas and strawberries growing from them; she put up trellises for loofahs and native wisteria. Sometimes I would trim her lawn. Mr McNally didn’t seem to want to help out any more. When I asked, she said his health was failing.
I saw him put the get-well plant I gave him in the garbage bin.
One evening, I heard faint yelling. I peeked through my blinds, but the blazing lights in their house snuffed out, and so did the noise. The next day, I found Mrs McNally packing a suitcase with soil.
She patted it gently. “I bought a new one. Seemed a shame to waste the broken thing.”
The McNallys went on holiday soon after. They left a key and instructions for watering the garden. The new suitcase bed was intended for vegetables. Mrs McNally had a bucket of blood and bone from the butcher: the best fertiliser, or so I’m told.
Mr McNally didn’t come back from Bali. But his wife won prizes for her tomatoes.
I keep her company instead, now. We drink peppermint tea and admire the garden. I’m buying her new gumboots for Christmas.
This story was November 2021’s entry for the Australian Writer’s Centre’s monthly flash competition, Furious Fiction. The competition is, alas, moving to quarterly in 2022. I shall miss the monthly 55-hour sprints for a story, but I’m sure I’ll continue to find prompts that inspire me on more little journeys. Hope you enjoyed reading this one.
Do head over to the competition page to read others’ entries; there were some fantastic ones published. Have a great week. 🙂