Four-leaf clovers

I found my first four leaf clover in a meadow as a nine-year-old child. It felt like a miracle. I picked the clover and put it in my pocket only to find it had shrivelled by the time I arrived home. The disappointment loomed larger than the original miracle. Still, if I could do it once, I knew I could do it again. I became obsessed with finding another one.

I learned that fragile leaves had to be pressed between paper, the quicker, the better. A book would work as would a bus ticket or even a lolly wrapper. At that time, I hadn’t yet acquired my habit of carrying a book everywhere I go, so relied on folded scraps of paper in my pockets.

I began to make a pact with fate – if I were to find a four-leaf clover, it would mean I wouldn’t get into trouble at home; I’d be allowed to go to the cinema on the weekend or the boy I liked would finally speak to me. However, finding the second four-leaf clover, eluded me for a quite a while but I wasn’t deterred. I spent many summer hours in fields looking at clover patches and at first all I saw was a sea of green. Slowly, patterns emerged and then, aberrations in the pattern. Not all of these resulted in finding four-leaf clovers, but I began to find them with increasing regularity.

My obsession hasn’t abated. In fact, my eyes have become so accustomed to spotting slight differences in clover patches that I often notice one as I walk past. It is my special superpower. Not very useful I must admit but I am often met with amazement when I bend down to pick one. Mostly I have an old receipt in my pocket so I can immediately press it, or at worst, I push it down onto my phone screen with my thumb, which works well enough until I get home.

My friends often receive a four-leaf clover in a card wishing them a happy New Year. I note this hasn’t stopped any of the calamities that have befallen us in the past few years. Still, it makes people happy, if only for a few short moments. It is a tangible symbol of my best wishes for their coming year.

As age creeps up and I keep pursuing my childish endeavours, my mind turns to pithy epitaphs I may consider. This one has held its attraction for a while now:

Finder of four-leaf clovers, maker of her own luck.

Mt Fairy

I’m on a sheep farm at Mt Fairy. The homestead and the garden are a nod to English Romanticism, planted to look overgrown with wildflowers and roses, but carefully planned and sown by a gardener with an eye for beauty, balance, and a prophetic ability to see the future of a mature garden.

It is spring and nature erupts with abundance that is almost too much to bear. There is an almost wasteful opulence of beauty and sensual pleasure. With each breeze, petals are shed from the May Bush and form a cream carpet on the grass below. Life bursts with vigour all around us but decay is already evident within the bloom.

I sit under an oak that must be at least 70 years old with a majestic spread across the lawn. It may look English but instead of squirrels, woodpeckers or Hummingbirds, this tree provides shelter to Magpies, rosellas, and king parrots. Then, at night I hear a Southern Boobook above the din of the frogs; it makes a hauntingly beautiful tone, then a second, as if an echo to its own call. It may be tranquil, but it isn’t silent here. Magpies warble from early morning through to the late afternoon and thousands of bees provide a steady hum that forms the percussive backdrop for all other sounds. Flies, like kamikaze pilots, criss-cross my path and thud into the glass panes of the cottage where I am staying. The breeze chimes high-pitched through tree leaves and birds squawk, twitter or chirp at indiscriminate intervals composing their own celebration to the profusion of life.

Beyond the garden, a long dirt driveway beckons to walk a kilometre or two to explore paddocks left and right. At the cattle grid, the illusion of the English countryside ends suddenly.  It has been raining and the road is rutted. There are deep, water-logged potholes to avoid, and I am on the lookout for snakes in the tall grass along the verge. I have my curious dog with me and know I must protect her from the instinct to play with anything that moves. Instead of a snake, I see a blue tongue lizard sunning on the pale compacted earth. It doesn’t move as we approach, not even as I stop to run my fingers down its smooth, scaly back. Instead, it looks at me and darts its blue tongue in and out. I hold the dog, step around the lizard, and let it bask in this early spring warmth.

Between rows of young oaks, the grasses along the paddock fences are up to a metre tall. The rough spear grass sways hypnotically and shimmers like angels’ hair in the distance. It is the only endemic grass I recognise. Other grasses are introduced, like sheep sorrel, which stands out with its rusty small florets. There’s orchard grass and false oatgrass, the tallest of the erect grasses. I watch the breeze bend long and slender stems and look at their weeping heads bob up down, playing with the sunlight. Even weeds are endowed with their own beauty today.

As I walk back unencumbered, I see the owner of the property in the distance. He who has poured his heart and soul into this land, a land that has been in his family for the last sixty years. I see him work each day, moving sheep, mowing lawns, fixing fences, chopping wood. He has transformed the cottage I inhabit from a wool shed to a charming spot for lovers, dreamers, and writers to escape. A place adorned by climbing roses with onion dome buds pressing against the window, a place where I can choose beauty and the pulse of life. I am grateful for this enchantment and the freedom to observe, think and write.

The wild garden

Blackbirds sing their songs of love to my crushed heart. I look to the garden you planted only a few years ago and am astonished at the height of the trees. The wind rustles slender silver birches and the leaves of ornamental pears shiver in rapport. Bees head for an overgrown patch of woody lavender, then to the purple snake bush and the rosemary. These are the only flowers in bloom this early in spring, but I can see budding carnations which are only days in the offing. Apart from these blue hues, the garden captures the full range of verdant tones from olive to sage, emerald to St Patrick’s Shamrock green.

The riot of roses that will transform the garden to a perfumed oasis are yet to emerge. I won’t cut their first blush for your bedside this year. The table shall remain bare, a reminder, should I need one, that you are no longer there. The roses will bloom, and I will reminisce, yearning for the gardener who brought life to barren land. Yes, I will see the beauty of the roses and I shall feel the full sting of their thorns.

A summer without you, in the garden you have sown, is hard to envision. It will live on, your creation, even if you are no longer here to tend it. My heavy hands will attempt your work and every flower will remind me of you.

I asked for an untamed garden, a garden of reckless colour, a garden that reflected my heart and you delivered. And now, now that you have left to return to the eternal, I grieve in the wild garden of my soul.

The nursing home


My mother-in-law is a fiercely independent woman who at 90 still lived in her own home. That is, until the day when she got out of her armchair, took an awkward step and fell. 

For a long time, everyone in the family had the same unspoken fear. ‘What will happen if she has a fall?’ It was like living with a time bomb. The subject was difficult to broach. Jean wanted to stay in her own home and any other suggestion felt like betrayal. Like all of us, she hoped she would go to bed one night and not wake up the next day.

The night Jean fell, she crawled back across the tiled floor to her armchair. She had shattered her hip. Luckily, she had her mobile. Her first call was to her daughter, not 000. By the time the ambulance arrived to take her to hospital, she was out of her mind with pain. The doctors decided to operate, even though they were concerned about the effects of the general anaesthetic. We didn’t think Jean would pull through. She survived the operation but when she awoke, the pain returned with a ferocity that sapped her will to live. She pleaded with us to end her suffering. She didn’t want to go on. It was difficult to watch. We all felt helpless and unprepared. 

When Jean was admitted, her full name and date of birth were recorded. Her legal name is Janet but she has never answered to this name. Everyone calls her either Jean or Jannie. While for years, Jean had doggedly guarded her independence, she nevertheless readily submits to authority. From the moment she was admitted and her full name entered into the medical database, she became Janet, a name she never liked and part of her identity was stripped away. 

After a couple of weeks in hospital, Jean was moved to the acute ward of a much smaller hospital in a country town. She received excellent care and, with some physiotherapy, managed to take a few steps with assistance. There was a short period where she seemed to understand that her only way out of this predicament was to learn to walk again. Unfortunately, this only lasted a week or two before she fell into a depressive state. Once more, she began to talk about wishing to die. Considering the current spotlight on mental health, it surprised me that no psychological help was on offer for her increasingly depressed state of mind.

Jean still talked about returning home. Some days she confided that she no longer had a clear picture of where everything was in the house. This distressed her. I didn’t feel it was my place to burst that bubble. However, with each day spent immobile, the possibility of going home became increasingly remote. During this time, Jean lamented that she could no longer remember certain parts of the house with clarity and this began to really bother her. Her thoughts looped like a coil:  how much she ‘owed’ me for some hand-creme, whether the gardener had cut back the roses in time and when the next instalment of the rates was due. She worried about forgetting the things that still connected her to the outside world so she repeated each of these thoughts over and over in her mind.

After three months in hospital, the hip had healed but Jean hadn’t. Her daughter found a modern, well-resourced aged care facility not too far from where she lives and Jean moved in. 

When I go to see her there, I can’t fault the nursing staff. A genuine culture of care is evident in the way they interact with the residents. The food is quite reasonable and her room is bright and clean. The furniture is stylish and each room has a large television set for entertainment. Jean sits at a large window that faces onto a courtyard where birds can be seen flitting from one tree to another. The view is serene. But it isn’t home.

Jean tells me that one night a man in wheelchair had made his way into her room before staff could come to wheel him away. This frightened her. And sure enough, the same man wheels himself part way through the door while I sit on her bed. He is convinced it is his room. A member of staff arrives and wheels him away, telling him that he won’t find what he is looking for in Janet’s room. 

Jean looks dismayed. ’I mustn’t complain,’ she says as though she is trying to convince herself that everything is as it should be. 

When I walk through the lounge area, a number of the residents are playing a quiz game without much enthusiasm. A carer reads trivia questions and beckons the oldies to answer. 

‘What is the largest city in Africa?’…’No, it’s not Johannesburg.’ 

’That’s right, Nancy, it is Cairo.’ I cringe, recognising a patronising tone that I wish wasn’t there.  ’Don’t worry, I have chocolates for all of you,’ the carer croons as she proceeds to the next question on her list. 

Back in Jean’s room, lunch arrives. She doesn’t like the soup. ‘I’ve gone off pumpkin,’ she says. ‘But there’s no point in telling them what I don’t like, it comes anyway.’ And later, ‘I like the muesli here but I wish the milk was warm. I always heated my milk in the morning.’ It seems like such a small thing but when your life is reduced to meals, bathroom visits and the telly, the smallest things become magnified.

I take some cups to the dining area as Jean is running out of space on her tray. A woman in her 80s, slumped in a wheelchair looks up. She becomes animated as she sees me advance towards her. 

‘Scuse ee, scuse ee,’ she pleads. I see an open notebook resting on her lap. Two phone numbers in spidery writing dance across the page. ‘Phone? You have phone?’, she asks in a thick accent. I don’t. Not on me. She reaches out, holds my hand and I cannot look away. There’s desperation in her eyes. I promise to return with my phone. ’Thank you, thank you,’ she says over and over. ‘ Maria, my name is Maria.’ 

I dial the first number and get a message from Optus. The number is incorrect. I try the second. This time the phone rings. I hand it to Maria with trepidation. Part of me feels I shouldn’t be complicit in this. 

‘Christina? Is Christina? Please come. Take me home. I no like it here. Please Christina.’ Maria is fighting back tears now. ‘Why no, Christina?’ ‘No, he no come.’ Then, ‘Ok, bye.’ She hands back the phone. Now it is my turn to fight back tears. 

 ‘My name’s, Maria. I come from Italy. Three children, I have three children and what you get? Nothing. All the way from Italy. What for? You get old and they treat you like dirt.’ She almost spits this last phrase to get the taste of dirt out of her mouth. I squeeze her shoulder and slowly walk back to Jean’s room. 

Over the next few hours I become acutely aware of the constant noise and movement around me. Jean likes to keep her door slightly ajar. The corridor outside is a busy place where residents come and go, squeaky trolleys are wheeled along and everyone speaks too loudly. Not even the television can mask the commotion. I imagine myself living here. Me, who craves stillness and silence. 

‘The nights are the worst,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t sleep and I can’t have sleeping pills. I just look at the clock and watch the minutes go by.’ 

I take my leave when her evening meal arrives. I plant a kiss on her head and say goodbye. Walking out to the carpark, the sun, lower now, still warms my back. 

It is a long wait until morning.

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