The Bougainvillea Tree
for Marjorie Barnard
I saw two summers in one year once and I won’t forget it. Only once. I had started to heal by then, and often thought of no one but myself in that way that means you might be free. My face in the mirror I had kept in storage many months was the face of a woman who had decided, who bore lines from days lived unwell. I took deep breaths and moved rather slow to keep them. Voices of friends, of shopkeepers, of bus drivers were so new it was like hearing them as a baby, and rolling around in the joy of them. My mind was tired, and as tentative as a star. I walked down streets I had always known as if they were tangled.
I took a room in a house with a big bougainvillea in its front yard and clouds of jasmine at its back. My room faced the garden; four large windows looking out towards a vegetable patch, a corrugated iron shed. The light came through almost always and made sense against the cream-coloured walls. Shadows painted and swayed; I hung dried gum leaves in the cracks and lay down on the small bed to watch. Outside the room tomatoes fattened, and parsley went to seed. At night, the streetlight lent company to my dreams; dreams I had as deeply as fingers in maple syrup, dreams I could not remember after waking up and padding out to the toilet. I always thought it was daybreak, in that room in the nighttime.
Across from the house were a line of garages that had names, and tenants who pottered and yelled on weekdays. I lay on my small bed and listened to them, every so often moving my spine against the springs. I listened to the man who talked to anyone who passed him by with cheer, with gumption. I could not see him from the room unless I stood on my tiptoes which I did often, wanting to watch the way his mouth moved as he brightened everything around. He was old, and pepper-grey, and laughed enough to seem happy. He wore overalls mostly, the type that are blue and long-sleeved and grubby. I felt as if he had a wife somewhere, humming and loving him and him loving her too, a big old love that would make me sigh if I knew it. I sensed his contentment near me like a plump, pink prawn.
There was a day after I had rested for some weeks that I took a walk, to find the creek that circled the neighbourhood and to let the sun dust me. I knew before I left the house that I would pass the row of garages with their names and doors and inhabitants, and that the old man would be there, standing and talking and rubbing at his spotted skin. It was cold in my room as I dressed, and I thought of mornings in the house I grew up in, milky porridge at the waxy wooden table and a mother and father barely talking. I saw the mist floating up off the trees beyond our verandah and out across the Yarra, the hard ice windscreen of my mother’s faithful ute. It sent a shiver down the centre of my back; why did I always think of winter in the summertime?
I moved carefully out the front door and down the concrete path set in the grass towards the small, crooked gate. The bougainvillea tree was dazzling—rich and full with dark pink flowers, bowing slightly towards the bitumen as if made shy by its own greatness. I could see that it needed pruning, that it was gasping beneath its own grandeur. I thought perhaps I would cut at it that afternoon. Across the road I saw the old man standing, looking over at me as if we knew one another, the way I had imagined he would. He yelled out at me kind, loud words and I nodded back, letting my mouth turn upwards and my eyes crease to show him. I passed by, and walked on down the faded road to where the creek licked at flora and sat for what seemed like many hours, until the sun gave way to the moon, until I was shivering in a way that felt wonderful. That day was the day I started living again, and as I passed the place where the old man had stood, the dark fitting around me like a shell, I felt comfort in his presence—a guard dog waiting to be fed.
Weeks began and ended. Spring was waiting patiently to bloom and I was still tired, resting most afternoons in the curdled air. I took more walks, but made sure I was never too far from the house and all its flowers and vegetables and sleeping mosquitos, for fear I would tire and wilt before I had returned. I was wandering back from a morning through the grass the day I saw the old man standing close to the bougainvillea at the front of the house. It was noon, and the sun was February-hot. As I got closer I could see that he was pruning, that as he moved little limbs dropped like beautiful blood at his feet. He was whistling, I could hear it along the air, and I called out to greet him, to thank him, though he didn’t turn but whistled on; moving his head and shoulders this way and that to see where he should bite. I walked past him, smiling, and he saw me and nodded his small, wisened head. I walked on, down the path set in the grass, towards the bottle bell door. He whistled on behind me, the click of the secateurs his percussion.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne.
She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of ‘homage’ or ‘echo’ stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers.
You can find her at LAURA MCPHEE-BROWNE.