Residents of Merrimba are required to display at least one dead car in their front yard! Our featured piece of found art is an old roadster. But we are snobs and our dead car is in the back paddock in a grove of trees. We think it is more tasteful.
From time to time a car fanatic would wander in the gate and ask us if he could tow it away.
Well – the children liked playing on it and it protected the horses from breaking a leg in an old wombat hole, but we would say – ‘Sure!’
But you could see their disappointment as they inspected it. It had been burnt in the big bushfire of ’64 and it was too far gone. In fact – it was dead. And decomposing.
You walk by stuff every day for twenty years and don’t see it any more. I didn’t even take photos of the kids playing on it. It was too common an occurrence.
Then I bought a digital camera and went round the paddock taking arty shots. Tree stump. Sunlight through willows by the dam. And I saw the old car – really saw it – for the first time since we moved in.
Twenty years ago it stood up on the shreds of its tyres. Now – the earth is claiming it. It sinks down, down, down. Down past its wheel rims. Gravity plays its part, I suppose.
It was happening too slowly for me to see it.
I remember staying at my sister’s house in Queensland. She lives far from the centre of the city in an enclave carved from the bush. It’s an Estate. With a name. That I can’t remember. It should be called the Cane Toad Estate, because the inhabitants drive out of their double garages, using their remotes to close the rolladoors behind them, and, as they drive to the air-conditioned malls, they flatten the cane toads into a mosaic on the tarmac. Perhaps the cane toads squat on the road, looking to the left and to the right, croaking – ‘Where is everybody?’
Because you never see anyone. Even if you walk to the top of the hill and look down at the Estate onto all the backyards with their pools and patios – no one! At night, just the blue flicker of the TVs in the picture windows of the family rooms.
I asked my sister why everyone seemed to have chosen the same sort of garden. A lawn, a low rock wall, a bed of mulch with a row of dwarf conifers or box.
‘It’s a landscaped Estate,’ she said. ‘After you have built your house – from one of the approved styles – if you don’t put in a garden, they landscape it for you and send you the bill.’
One sultry night, a frog in the drain of the downpipe outside our room was singing. I’m sure it was a frog, because whenever I met a cane toad who hadn’t been playing squash with a Toyota, they never made a sound. Just squatted there gulping, looking fat and slimy and very confident. The frog song, reverberating in the down pipe, woke me up.
I jammed my elbow into my husband’s ribs and said – ‘This is the good prison! If you are very very good you are allowed to live here!’
He grunted and went back to sleep.
When we got home to Merrimba I went for a walk up and down and round about the town. Taking in all the festering individuality displayed in the landscaping features.
Some of the dead cars had For Sale signs, texta-ed on bits of cardboard, propped on their crazed windshields. Never more than three figures.
A few eccentric souls bucked the system and went in for chooks. Their yards hummed with the soothing sound of chooks scratching everything down perfectly level. One turkey cock with outrageously turquoise wattles.
The garden I liked the most was the one with the big old wisteria vine on the collapsing trellis with a garnish of feral lilac hedge. Take a photo of it quick! The kitchen chimney of this house stopped smoking six weeks ago. When old Cedric Stallybridge fell off the twig. And his life’s work – watching the wisteria vine collapse the trellis – will be swept away. The cousins who inherited the house and acres, will bring in the surveyors and bulldozers and pale, bland houses will sprout like mushrooms. Each one very like the last one. Subdivision. It’s coming to Merrimba. Nothing can stop it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Compton was born in Wellington in 1949, and ventured as far as Australia in 1972. Until her children were born in the 80s she was trans-Tasman, winning the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award for a short story in the late 70s, being the writer in residence at the University of Canterbury, and, courtesy of the Stately Tree Fund, spending time living by the Hungaroa River in Martinborough. Village life fascinates her, and ‘Landscaping’ is one of a series inspired by the small hamlet of Wingellowhere she lived with her family until recently. She returned from her tenure in Randell Cottage in Wellington in 2008 to live in the village of Upwey on the outskirts of Melbourne. At this present time she is writing poetry, finishing a collection of travel memoir/creative non-fiction called The Wrong Side Of The Road, and working on a novel which is set in the Wairarapa. Her stage play, The Big Picture, which premièred in Sydney and was mounted by Circa Theatre, is receiving a production in Perth in 2009.