A few months ago, I had to rip my zucchini plants out of their pots from the roots and chuck them in the bin. They had been fighting a fungus for months, wilting and turning white, the fruits’ growth stilted at half-mast, drooping. When the frost came, I knew it was over for them; the fertiliser wasn’t bringing them back to life, and neither was I.
I wasn’t ready for the cold either, but unfortunately no one will rip me from my roots and put me out of my misery. When I first moved to Victoria, people kept telling me that layers were key. Be prepared for anything, always bring a coat, you’ll get used to it. But it’s nearing the end of winter now and complaining about the cold has become part of my daily repertoire.
We moved to this city—not a town, never call it a town or the locals will revolt—nearly 18 months ago, but I don’t know its insides yet. I know that it is full of churches and the car factories have shut down and there are far too many traffic lights and you aren’t allowed to barrack for another football team. I know where the best fried chicken is, where the worst Italian food is; how to get to the train station, which road leads right on through to Melbourne. The suburbs to avoid north of town; the nice spot near the river.
I suppose Geelong should be like an old friend by now, but I only allow it to be a temporary acquaintance because I know we won’t be here forever; it is home, but it’s a transient one. Two years, five years, we’ll see. I feel guilty, as if I’m not putting enough effort into the friendship—I’m just constantly ticking ‘Mark as Unread’ on Geelong, to be dealt with later. But making friends as an adult is difficult, and paring back to politeness and small talk has never been one of my strengths. I prefer to get down to the nitty gritty quickly; tell me your secrets and let me dive in.
The first Geelong house we lived in didn’t have a garden; just a scrappy paved walkway from the garage to the backdoor. There were succulents shoved into the soil down the side, big, fat witchy mushrooms sprouting next to them. The house was old and rambling, a dark, freezing gothic dream with brass bell pulls in each room, assumedly to summon the help. It sat at the top of a hill that was slowly crumbling inwards, and bits of the house were on a lean. I kept having dreams that a sinkhole would open and swallow us up.
The owner booted us out after six months; their family members wanted to move in, and we were just temporary paying squatters with no claim over their home. We couldn’t really afford the rent anyway, and the house—in all its beauty—had become thick with sadness. The gloomy charm of rooms that barely received any sunlight had worn off, and we were left with too much space and not enough light. We hadn’t put safeguards in place before moving across the country together; our family and friends were thousands of kilometres away and we were alone in a new city, scrambling for structure. But hey, love can conquer anything right? Right.
Somewhere along the way, conquering became surviving: the ability to communicate with each other fell away, dropped heavily through our fingers, and slithered out the door. Sadness crept over both of our bodies; different styles of sadness, competing, desperate for both attention and isolation. We both retreated into ourselves and only came out to obliterate each other; to shout or cry about things that were never the real problem. To talk about faults and responsibilities, never stopping to grieve or give ourselves time to adjust. We talked naively about a time before, as if the sadness hadn’t been looming above our heads when buffers were still in place.
I bought the plants because I wanted to take care of something that wouldn’t talk back. My mum suggested that—after years of denouncing gardening as boring—I had invested in seedlings and a few ferns because I was nesting; creating a little plant family to nurture and tend to. Living organisms that just wanted to grow, that didn’t mind if I had no idea how to nurture them, that only needed a little bit of water and sunlight to stay on track.
The plants were a distraction: from my lack of income, from a brain that just wanted to focus on being depressed, from arguments, from feeling alone in a house that held two people. I drove down to Bunnings one weekend and wandered the nursery for hours; picking up and putting down potential seedlings, trying to figure out why there were so many different types of spinach, leaving with a trolley of plants and a sausage rolled up in white bread. The seedlings were bound for our new backyard, in a house that was lighter, smaller in size but somehow less stifling, with lots of outdoor space and a funny little kitchen. I spent a weekend carefully placing them into pots, reading up on the best spot to place them in the garden, convinced that they would be dead within a week.
For a few months, every day I would get up, sit down at my desk, and decide on a time to go and water the plants. Work had become a chore: I was getting words down and sending them out and being published, but there was no real reflection of that in my bank account. I was going to events and panels and workshops, folding into some sort of community, and becoming more and more anxious. I wasn’t making enough money, I wasn’t getting published enough, I wasn’t as good as my friends, I wasn’t on that festival lineup, I didn’t have a book deal, I didn’t even have any ideas for books. I couldn’t always help to pay the rent, my credit card debt was nothing short of ludicrous, I was becoming a shell that got up each day and sat in front of a computer and bashed out things that were okay but not great because you gotta do what you gotta do. But at 2 p.m. I would go and tend to the plants.
In the house we lived in back home—our other home—we killed the garden. Not on purpose, it wasn’t murder; just laziness, a lapse of judgement, no real clue on how to keep tomatoes alive or the difference between plants and weeds. That house was on a hill too, big and light with a patio for parties and a big kitchen and a driveway so steep that taking out the bins was a form of cardio. At the back of our garden was a big green gate with a padlock on it; and it led to a big barren field. Through the gate, into the field, down the hill and you were at the beach.
In Perth—or, more precisely, Fremantle—the air is salty and the beaches burn into your skin and I know where to go for everything. Where to get the best kebab from the place with the blue blinking lights at the front and the broken breathalyser just inside the door. Where the best coffee is, the best $9 juice in a stupid jar, the best pizza, the best baba ghanoush, the way the one-way streets are mapped out. I know which bits of pavement are raised and cracked on the path between the car park and the pub, how to find a park even when the tourists are in town.
The pub that we first met at is there, the one with the odd couches on the top floor, overlooking the water. There are pine trees around there, dotting the park before the train tracks. That park is where we had our second date, feet trampling over the pine needles. We went to a chilli festival, and he put on a glittering display of masculinity, shoving a chilli labelled: EXTREME! into his mouth, trying not to cry as I laughed. Our third date started at a pub just up the street from that park—and ended up a few suburbs away in his bedroom, in the house with Lino floors and a mulberry tree out the front that turned our fingers purple.
The house with the funny little kitchen is where we started to put ourselves back together again. There’s a wisteria vine out the back, climbing all over the awning and the roof and the outdoor furniture if we let it have its way. There are slatted windows above our back door, so high up that we can’t reach to close them completely—so the vine slides its tendrils through the slats and creeps up the walls of our house. It was tentative at first, a little coil here and there—but now it’s part of our interior, looming over the wooden floor, creeping around into the study. We can’t bring ourselves to chop it and lead it back outside; it’s somehow soothing in its cheekiness. Our house breathes with it.
Most of my plants died or went into hibernation for the colder months around the same time that my little sister had a baby. That was the first time since moving away that home knocked at my chest—not in a gentle-reminder way, more like the drum beat in Jumanji rapping on my skull. Louder and louder. ‘See this beautiful tiny thing?’ The drum said. ‘You are missing out! You will miss the first time she smiles and laughs and shits all over the floor!’ And the drum is right, but I am a selfish being and I will stay put because the things I want right now are here, and my family will always be back there, waiting.
My siblings and I have a groupchat called Dream Team, and my sister keeps my brother and I in the loop as our little niece becomes a person. We get pictures of her smiling, in funny little outfits, videos of her making weird sounds. Before her, babies all looked the same, and barely registered on my radar. But now I want to know absolutely everything that my niece does. What is her favourite toy? Does she cry a lot? How long until I can lend her my collection of feminist prose? Will she know my face when I see her in six months?
A few months before she was born, in a moment where all the stuff—you know, the ‘stuff’—had fallen away, my partner told me how much he would love my niece. I became a puddle on the floor, an immediate failure to my gender, and for the first time in my life, every cliché in the book. My hormones threw a surprise party that I didn’t want to be invited to, dopamine rushed and jumped for joy, the fear of my firm stance on motherhood being rattled only settling in later.
I loved the zucchinis most. The chillies grew without much help, the spinach only needed a bit of encouragement; the herbs were self-sufficient. But the zucchinis needed me, and they didn’t talk back when I prodded and poked at them, tried to help with no real knowledge of what I was doing. The first time a flower sprouted—overnight, no less—I was elated, fascinated that I had helped spur it along. When that flower started to become a zucchini, all phallic and protruding, I laughed and told everyone who would listen.
Chloe Papas is a writer based in Victoria via Perth. You can find her on Twitter here.