It takes a couple hours to prep the sprawling Mount Martha bush block’s front yard for mulching. The grevilleas and acacias could use a hard prune. The callistemon’s got a couple lorikeets in it, so I leave it for another day. And there’s a melaleuca that the client wants gone, which is a shame.
So I begin stripping every barky tangent back to its most utilitarian angle. Muha—the boss’s apprentice—shuffles on his hands and knees, weeding. Muha. Short for Muharem. Pronounced ‘Muir’. Anglicised, 2021, by the boss.
We carry loads of oxalis and lopped limbs down through the property to the bonfire pile. I give the silkies a nod as I pass their coop, and I stomp an morse code message of fuck off, snakes along the section of path where Luke saw that copperhead in January.
When we finish prepping and it’s time to mulch, Muha picks up the snow shovel and begins scooping pine bark into a wheelbarrow from a pile the size of a sedan sat steaming on the driveway. I do the same, but with a flatnose shovel. The snow shovel’s a good tool, and I know Muha’s on it because of how much material it lifts per scoop. But the flatnose is a more conservative instrument. No give in the shaft. It’ll snap before it bends.
If the flatnose were a man he’d be not worth arguing with. He’d be someone’s dad. No. He’d be your new girlfriend’s dad, and he’d judge you on your handshake. He’d have broad shoulders and a short set of implacable stances on things like the removal of the gold standard and the everlasting Milwaukee vs Makita debate. “You a Cats supporter?” he asks, again. I imagine eyes on the end of the shovel as I shave another layer off the pile. I think about drawing them on when I get home. I wonder how the boss would respond to googly eyes.
Barrow after barrow after barrow. The sun trades one periphery for another.
I re-lather the SPF50+, smearing a mixture of nine parts sunscreen to one part dirt across my face and neck, and look over my shoulder. Lacey’s four black-and-tan kelpie legs poke out from her cool spot in the shade beneath the hilux’s tray. Muha catches my eye and offers me a cigarette, and we drop our shovels.
A currawong’s throaty curdle. A small patch of shade. Muha holds my lit cigarette as I scoop handfuls of water from the garden tap over my head and through my hair. Hot lines wobble up from the road.
One of us says something about how lucky we are to not be locked down with everyone else right now. Muha shows me a photo of a funnel-web he saw earlier. He asks how the missus is and I reciprocate. Then he says he went and bought that book I was talking about months ago at the Toorak job. Says he’s halfway through it. “That See What You Made Me Do one about domestic abuse and that,” he says between drags. I ask him how TAFE’s going, and he says it’s shithouse.
I tell him that heaps of us do it without meaning to, as I put the cigarette out on the sole of my boot. And I tell him I didn’t realise I’d done it until I read that book. He offers me another cigarette, and we smoke and fiddle on our phones for a bit in silence. Then we talk through the rest of the job, guesstimating how much longer it will take and whether or not the boss will get on the end of a shovel at some point or just stand around with his dick in his hand. The conversation is stripped back to its most utilitarian angle. I fill Lacey’s water bowl, and then we get to spreading the last of the mulch around the natives.
Passing beach after beach on the way back up the peninsula, I eventually pick one that looks empty. I plunge into the surf, Lacey in tow, feeling salt in holes poked through my palms by a bougainvillea from a job in Wantirna the day before. As I drip-dry back to the hilux my phone rings and I hold it to my wet ear, and my father tells me that Aunty Val has finally died. Zoom funeral, later in the week. I wonder if I’d have flown interstate for a funeral if not for Lockdown. As I merge back onto the highway Lacey shakes sand and salt water through the cabin. I roll down the windows and the wind slaps our cheeks.
In a few weeks’ time I’ll be back here with the boss at 7am doing some routine maintenance. Hundreds of green shoots reaching upwards like tiny hands from the trunk of one of my felled melaleucas. That was fast. I’ll stare at it for a while, waiting for my coffee to kick in, and counting backwards on my fingers the days since Muha and I were here loading mulch and telling trees what to do.