Published in Overland Issue 248 Spring 2022 · Fiction Fiction | In the garden Jayda Franks On a sweltering summer day, a young man signs in at the front office and is guided through the building by a pleasant woman with purple hair. Brick peeks out of peeling paint like a snake shedding its skin and endlessly wide windows sit deep in the walls, hedges of flowering murrayas obscuring the view. The woman’s heels clack on the timber floors and a rhythmic hum echoes eerily down the corridors. She apologises for the noise and tells him it’s their air conditioners. She says it’s quieter in the garden. It always is. Through heavy doors is a terrace that opens into a large garden bordered by tall residential buildings. Terracotta paths wind around bushes of jasmine and sprawling jacaranda trees. Patients play cards in the sun, doze in the shade and laugh in the dappled in-between. The man surveys the garden. His heart races. By a cluster of spider lilies several metres away, an old woman kneels in the dirt. She digs her thin fingers deep into the soil and scoops handfuls into one of the small pots surrounding her, filling it up to the rim and smoothing it over. The man watches as she tips it back out and starts again. He and his escort exchange a nod and he leaves her on the terrace, stepping into the embrace of the garden. ‘Spider lilies,’ says the man. It is a greeting. The old woman glances at him and he holds his breath as she stares for one, two, three seconds. Her eyes are cloudy with cataracts and her pale irises tremble. ‘Hymenocallis littoralis,’ she says, holding his gaze. He nods. She looks away. ‘May I join you?’ ‘Yes but make yourself useful.’ She hands him an empty plant pot made of cheap black plastic and watches him expectantly. He sits beside her and copies the motion he observed before—scoop, smooth, dump. She turns back to her pot, satisfied. ‘It’s beautiful here,’ he says. ‘Yes.’ She dumps the dirt out. She is now surrounded by mounds of upturned soil. The hem of her cream cotton smock is stained brown. ‘Have you the time?’ she asks. ‘Four o’clock. Is supper soon?’ ‘I certainly hope so. This is hungry work. But someone’s got to do it.’ He twists his fingers into the soil, savouring the coolness. ‘I haven’t done this in years,’ he says. The woman barks a laugh. ‘I couldn’t go a day without dirt under my nails. I need it like I need air.’ He watches her empty the pot again, skinny arms quivering. She pats the soil down flat and sits back with a sigh, adjusting herself. ‘My damn leg’s gone numb. My body’s not what it used to be.’ ‘Oh, I know,’ says the man. His hand runs automatically over his chest. ‘I find the same thing.’ The woman stretches her legs out and hits the left one with the meaty part of her hand. ‘My granddaughter was named after them,’ she says. ‘The spider lilies. They have always been my favourite and so is she. Lily Evelyn Post.’ The man swallows. ‘A beautiful name.’ ‘She is my spider lily. We tend them when she comes over.’ The woman empties her pot of dirt over her legs and begins to rub the soil over her spotted calves like moisturiser. ‘I have the most beautiful garden. Puts this place to shame. They bring in contractors, you know. They don’t even keep the garden themselves.’ ‘No!’ ‘I know!’ she cries. She meets his eye again and her gash of a mouth twists into a small smile. ‘Not the way, I say. Not the way.’ He breathes deeply, inhaling the scent of blooming murrayas, gardenias, jasmines. ‘Can you tell me about your garden?’ ‘My garden …’ Her nose scrunches in concentration, then tears pool in her eyes. ‘My garden. No.’ The man nods. She turns to him and stares at his pot. He empties it over his trousers. The soil will stain the khaki. He doesn’t care. ‘My son brought me a liquorice slice,’ she says. ‘It was terrible. Probably store-bought, though, he was never good at baking. My Lily is a real cracker, though. The cook genes must have skipped a generation, eh?’ The man chuckles. ‘She must have had a great teacher.’ He pauses, then adds, ‘I don’t like liquorice.’ ‘Neither does Lily. She baked me a liquorice cheesecake for my forty-fifth birthday and it’s still the best thing I’ve ever eaten. But she refused to take a bite.’ ‘I wonder why.’ He knew why. ‘She said it made her gassy.’ He laughs airily even as his heart aches. She watches him. The wind whistles stories between them. ‘My spider lily and me, thick as thieves, we are. She has my hair.’ She touches her short wiry hair and her smile wilts. Speckled skin shines amid the patchy grey fuzz. The man runs a hand through his own hair. It is curly and dark. He dyes it to match his facial hair. In this moment, he wishes he didn’t. ‘I don’t remember you,’ she says. She is much more lucid now. Her eyes are sharp and clear and they fix on his own. ‘I know.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Please don’t be. I don’t blame you at all.’ She watches him crack his fingers and her brow furrows. ‘The counsellor here says we should ask visitors to tell us about themselves. Even if it doesn’t help us remember. Would you like to do that?’ He smiles sadly. ‘I am afraid I am a very different person to the one you remember.’ She turns to the spider lilies and he watches the conversation leach away from her. She beams at their slender petals and her whole face crinkles up like a young bud in bloom. When she looks back at him, she falters and his heart contracts. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello.’ Her eyes rake over his dark hair, freckled skin, business attire. They land on his soil-stained pants. She reaches, almost unconsciously, for her plastic pot. He reaches for his. Birds chirp in the jacarandas above them. A cicada hums somewhere close by. The wind sings against the walls around the garden. All the while, the man and the woman scoop, smooth and dump, words unspoken settling between them, as rich as the soil in their hands. The supper bell rings. It takes her a moment to realise. He stands, pats the dirt off his legs, helps her to rise. She takes his hand. Her room is far from the clinical image he had feared. He smiles softly at the large potted cordyline and the monstera creeping along the windowsill. His mind whispers their botanical names, a machine well oiled. The same woman from earlier greets them with a kind smile and a tray of food. ‘Thank you for helping her, Mr Post.’ ‘No problem at all. Am I welcome to stay through supper?’ ‘Absolutely. I’ll fetch the cake for Evie. She’ll love it.’ ‘She will.’ He settles the old woman into her bed and places the tray. He smiles at the dirt the two of them have tracked in. Memories of his childhood flood his mind, of dirty dresses and flowers in his hair. Such memories are often painful. Today is no exception, even if the reason is different. The woman’s head twists to the side and she gazes, transfixed, at the vase of flowers on her bedside table. The clipped spider lilies inside are drooping and the water is yellow. She ignores the soup, ignores the bread, ignores the tub of pills. She has eyes only for her spider lily. ‘She gets like this sometimes. Just spaces out.’ The purple-haired carer has returned. She holds two plates, each with a thin slice of cake and a tiny pastry fork. ‘Is she happy?’ ‘Happier than most. Spends as much time outside as we can allow. She gets quite sad sometimes, though.’ ‘I suppose that’s to be expected.’ ‘She hasn’t had visitors in months. She’s coming up on three years here and we’ve only had a few episodes of aggression. If she could handle the move, I really think she’d benefit from being with her family.’ The man turns away. ‘My parents live in an apartment across the country.’ ‘And you?’ The man glances at her. His defence catches in his throat. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry.’ ‘It’s fine. Believe me, I wish I could.’ ‘I understand. Are there other grandchildren?’ He turns back around. She doesn’t understand. ‘Just me.’ The air conditioner growls. The old woman gazes at her lilies. He clears his throat. ‘I’m glad to see you have a garden.’ ‘Yes, she responds very well to it. She’s told me all about the garden she had back home.’ ‘It was beautiful.’ ‘I’m sure it was.’ After a time, the old woman blinks and glances away from the lilies. She licks her lips, swallows, and looks around the room. ‘Liquorice,’ she says plainly. ‘Hello, Evie,’ the carer says. ‘Your visitor brought you some cheesecake. Isn’t that wonderful?’ Her eyes drift to him and something flashes in them. His heart thumps. He hopes he hopes he hopes. ‘Finish off your soup and then we can eat some cake together. ‘No soup.’ She stares at him. There is a curious look in her eyes. ‘No soup?’ The carer raises her eyebrows at the man, as though the refusal is amusing. He ignores her. ‘Is it pumpkin soup? She hates pumpkin.’ ‘Oh, dear, it is. Sorry, Evie. I’ll go see if we have anything else.’ The carer leaves. The old woman does not take her eyes off him. ‘What is your name?’ The man is still. He hopes he hopes he hopes. ‘My name is Oliver. For the olive tree.’ He keeps his voice low for fear of it breaking. She murmurs incoherently and his heart pounds and pounds. ‘You kept one in your garden, right outside my bedroom. It was ornamental. Never bore fruit. It’s too humid up here, you said.’ She nods slowly. There was once a time when secrets passed between them with little more than a glance. Now he studies the lines of her face, the twitches of her lips, desperate to know what is going on in her mind. Her mouth opens and he holds his breath. I know you, she would say. I know you. ‘Cake!’ calls the carer from down the hall. The old woman breaks their gaze and the man bites his lip hard enough to draw blood as the carer enters the room with the cheesecake on a glass stand. ‘Such small slices won’t do for supper,’ says the carer. ‘I am so sorry about the soup, Evie.’ The old woman only smiles at the cheesecake. ‘My, now that looks just lovely.’ The carer offers the man a plate. With a grimace, he declines. A plate is placed on the tray. With shaking hands, the old woman guides a forkful to her mouth. Her eyes fill with tears. Jayda Franks Jayda Franks is a queer and autistic emerging writer studying on Gubbi Gubbi country. They features in the Wheeler Centre's Care Packages presentation, and their prose is published in Overcommunicate Magazine and student anthology It begins with us. More by Jayda Franks Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. 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