The slow gardener

2008-09-26 00:00

July 25, 6.30 pm, Amsterdam. I am sitting with a plate of curry in front of me after eating European cuisine for the past eight days. I phone my wife and daughter. Be back home in just over 24 hours, I say. “And what are you doing, girl?” I ask my daughter.

“Henry and I are lighting a fire with all the old wood,” she replies.

“Tell Henry to burn it over Ruffles and Goldie’s grave, to keep them warm,” I tell her.

Henry Mkhize entered my life sometime in my first year at university. He started out as a gardener for our neighbours, but ended up staying at my parents’ home. My earliest memory of him was as a “midwife”, when he helped deliver my golden cocker spaniel’s (Goldie) pups. Boy, he sure loved Goldie and the father of the litter, Ruffles, our golden Labrador. I remember coming home one day when I was still living with my parents in Bombay Road to find Henry passed out on the lawn after partying too hard. And at his side were Goldie and Ruffles. That image will forever remain burnt on my retina.

A few years later, Henry was banished from my parents’ home. We awoke one night to the screams of our new maid Mary. She was hysterical, claiming that Henry tried to rape her. I never believed her. Time was to reveal that she had a traumatic past and that she would periodically have these bouts of anxiety. I suppose I should have felt sorry for her, but I never forgave her or my parents for not showing their loyalty to a man who had become part of our family.

But Henry forgave Mary. They would still speak for hours. What a big heart he must have had. And so it was that Henry remained a part of our lives even though he no longer lived with us.

At my wedding, I thanked Henry for all that he had done to help me over the years. He sat with the rest of my family, for he was a guest, not a servant. Initially, my wife was opposed to the idea of Henry living with us, believing that her new husband would work as hard in the garden as her dad. She was soon to realise that I was only a craftsman with a pen in my hand. First, I cut the extension cord while mowing. Then I mowed over our sprinklers. “Ask Henry if he would like to live with us,” she conceded. What a joyous day that was for me. And my Ruffles and Goldie. For weeks, they deserted the comfort of our bed to be with him.

Now, as much as dogs are a source of joy, they also cause great pain, as we were to learn. When my adopted border collie developed cancer, it was Henry who dug the grave in the garden under his favourite tree. For weeks, this grave lay empty, waiting for me to muster the courage to euthanase the dog. And when that fateful day arrived, we buried him with tears in our eyes.

Our move to Howick must also have been a sad chapter in Henry’s life. His children Ruffles and Goldie were in the twilight years of their lives. For nine months, we nursed Ruffles as his hind legs finally succumbed to cancer. Once again, I asked Henry to dig a grave, which this time remained empty for almost nine months. But when my Goldie went into a deep coma. I phoned the vet, without consulting my wife or Henry, for the two of them would only dissuade me from doing what was right. I remember Henry so vividly, weeping like a child as the vet administered the stream of death. Through watery eyes, I remember seeing him taking out his handkerchief and walk to his room. Later that evening, with eyes that could cry no more, we buried our two children in silence, with mouths that could find no comfort for one another.

Although he never said anything, he must have been lonely, although my new bassett and Saint Bernard must have filled a void. My daughter followed Henry like U follows Q. But Henry was also a man of leisure. He spent most of his time reading newspapers, just like me. Henry always said that his name was Henry “Teasha” Mkhize. He said that he had always wanted to be a teacher, but could not afford to. My wife maintained that besides me, he was the laziest gardener she had ever seen. And she was right, I suppose. But how could I chastise someone who had walked with me through thick and thin. Someone who had shared the greater part of my life.

Johannesburg International. Finally. Whip out the cellphone. Instead of joy, I am met with tears. Henry is dead. He never woke up. My wife had to get the police and people from the mortuary. They had to break the door down. All I could think about is that I never said goodbye. I always shake hands and say goodbye to Henry. But this time, I never said goodbye. I was in such a rush. Always in a rush. And now I would never get the chance to do so.

The next day, I go to the mortuary. The smell of death is terrible. They pull out the table and my tears let him know he was loved. How strange, I think to myself. For almost 20 years, I never hugged this man who was like family to me. I kiss him on the cheek and make a promise not to let him suffer the indignity of a pauper’s burial. For over a week, I try to track down his family in France, the low-cost housing development. Not a soul. I visit his makeshift house in the squatter camp up Newholmes Way, looking for his ID so that the police can release his body. I promise his friends that his body will lie here before his burial. This brings a deluge of tears from the people who were his family. They tell me God will bless me. I don’t have the heart to tell them that God has cursed me. Why else would my placid Saint Bernard want to rip my bassett apart ever since Henry died?

On Friday, August 3, I take a suit to the undertakers. I ask that they take the body to the squatter camp. Thankfully, they oblige. We meet at 4 pm. I ask that the coffin be opened. The people wail. I cry in silence, comforted only by the smile on Henry’s face. I go home a broken man and dread the next day.

We awake early the next morning. I arrive at the cemetery only to be told they cannot bury Henry without his blanket. Zulu custom. I head back home. Our priest then commences the service. We sing Abide with Me. After the first verse, the torrent of tears triumph over the words of the hymn. I look at my 73-year-old dad. As strong as the rocks that dot the banks of the Umgeni River, Henry’s last resting place. I cannot help but think at that moment that osteoporosis is slowly eroding this rock upon which our family is built, in preparation for the day when we will have to prise open the earth that now embraces Henry.

That night, my Saint Bernard barks with what I interpret as a rage. I let him out, and think to myself that I cannot trust this dog. When he does not scratch the door to come back in, I go to check on him. I find him with tears in his eyes and with that old calm look on his face.

“What is it boy? Is it Henry?” I ask? Stupid, you may say, but at that moment, the front light goes out. I freeze. Burglars? In a flash, it comes back on.

A sign? I go back to bed and tell my wife that Shadow, our Saint Bernard, will be fine. Henry came back and spoke to him. After attacking our bassett for a week, he would do it no more after this incident.

On Christmas Day, I go to place flowers on Henry’s grave. That night, my daughter asks a question she has asked ever since Henry’s death: “Why did Henry have to die?” I tell her that sometimes God chooses the best people to stay with him and that maybe Henry has gone to prepare a lovely garden in heaven for us.

“Are you going to die soon?” she asks worriedly.

“No dear,” I say, as my mind scurries for some reassuring words. “Don’t you remember how slow Henry was in the garden? Why, it should take him forever before he gets that garden right for us,” I laugh.

Darryl Earl David

Darryl Earl David is the youngest and only Indian lecturer of Afrikaans in South Africa. He is also a freelance journalist who honed his skills writing for, among others, The Witness about his travels through the Karoo (“Meanderthal Man”). This year, he became known as the founder of South Africa’s national book town in the Karoo.

Darryl Earl David’s story is the first of 10 finalists’ stories to be published in the Open category of our True Stories of KZN competition. This category is for entries under 1 500 words and the prize is R10 000.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be publishing all the other finalists’ stories in both categories of the competition before announcing the winners on November 22.

The finalists in the Snapshot category are: Leanne Talbot Nowell, N. P. Mngomezulu, Mary F*, Heidi Steyn and Val Ward.

Finalists in the Open category are: Jeff Guy, Tim Houghton, Bertus Appel, Thokoza Radebe, Su Hennessy, OkaMfoMkhulu*, Jenny Roberts, Darryl Earl David, Symphrose Temu and Derek Alberts.

* Not their real names.

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