The azaleas are out at the aged care home, not that my father can see them. ‘My eyes aren’t 100 percent,’ he always says. I mention the azaleas and he asks me to describe them.
“Well, there are two bushes, low to the ground. One is a mass a white flowers. The other is an impossible pink, hot pink you could call it.”
“Hot pink?” asks Dad, “What’s that?”
“Remember that toy Mercedes you bought for me on my eighth birthday?”
“The one with the doors that opened?”
“Yes, Dad. The bright pink one.”
“I know now,” he says. “We had azaleas at the old house, didn’t we?”
We sure did. They were a bit more untidy than the ones I was describing to him, yet no less spectacular. They were this comforting presence in the part of the garden near the Hills hoist. I remember that azalea bush cloaked in white being just behind my shoulder one spring as the plumber and I dug a trench to lay the new sewerage line. The plumber stopped digging and passed me a whitened mussel shell.
“Must be from an aboriginal midden,” he said.
It meant that here, not far from the creek, families from a distant time must have feasted and played, much as our family had done. I put the shell in my pocket. It left a trace of fine white powder on my hand.
On the driveway out of Dad’s, the hedges are manicured into rectangular blocks. With their pink flowers they remind me of strawberry lamingtons, if there is such a thing. Making my way home it appears the streets are indeed lined with gold as the wattle is growing like crazy near the bush reserve. The car is getting hot so I wind down the windows only to catch the scent of burnt Eucalyptus – the result of springtime back burning. The mountains, sometimes so clear and blue, are shrouded in a golden haze.
Passing the hospital, I see the magnolias have been and are now nearly gone. Not long ago the trees were skeletal, grey and angular, but then they burst back to life with their flowers perched heavy on the branches like nesting birds. All too soon, green leaves appear that seemingly cause the flowers to fall. It is as though the secret to the magnolia’s beauty is this seasonal battle between foliage and flowers, in which the port-wine and white petals carpeting the pathway beneath are the casualties.
As it is after 4 o’clock when I get home I can legally water the garden. The ground is dry. You can smell the newly wetted earth. I play the stream of water over the camellia leaves and the fine mist reveals bars of golden sunlight, much like when you flick the blades of a Venetian blind in a dirty motel room.
The clivias are coming out. Their flowers are fiery little bursts of orange, like the flash from a cannon. I’m happy that we were able to propagate them from the old house. They are a link to my father. A link to a burned mussel shell.
The cherry blossom takes me aback. It should have bloomed by now. I remember the first time I saw it, thinking how beautiful it was, with its delicate Papier-mache like pink flowers. Of course you never want to be too rough with it. Just one bump and petals fly off like ash from a burnt log. Then they are lost for another year.
But this year the buds are small, dry and tinged with brown. I touch one and it drops still-born to the ground. I am sure we have nurtured it as good as the water restrictions allow but I can’t help feeling a touch of sadness, of guilt even. Each dead blossom that falls feels like a regret or a promise to children not kept. Much safer to water the mulberry bush where the budding green fruits are looking healthy. All going well they should be ready to be picked not long after grand final day.
A car pulls up at the neighbour’s house. The doors slam. The sound of running footsteps. A boy laughs. A girl sneezes. It’s a Sydney spring!