At the age of twenty-five I bought my first place, a one-bedroom unit with a small rear courtyard with a tree in the corner. I don’t know what type of tree it was but it was a nice one; only as tall as the eaves, its dense, evergreen foliage screened the wide living room window. In spring, the tree flowered a beautiful yellow bloom and the neighbourhood bees swarmed it.
I renovated the unit after buying it with my father’s help. He was the tradesman and I was the apprentice. I scraped and sanded back the window and door frames and he carefully taped newspaper over the glass and surrounding walls and spray-painted the wood to a glossy white finish. That took ages to do.
In fact, the whole renovation took far too long and it caused my mother much grief. She complained bitterly to me about my father and how excruciatingly slow he was; she complained to him about me and how unwise I’d been to buy such a place to begin with.
With all the complaining, I was keen to finally leave home and move into my unit. I was so keen that I did so before the renovations had been completed and without having purchased some of the usual things, like a bed or a fridge. I only slept on a mattress on the bare concrete floor for a couple of weeks but I went much longer without a fridge as I waited for the old kitchen to be ripped out and the new one to be installed. I ate a lot of tinned products. Not too many fresh vegetables. But I was young so it was OK.
The last room to be renovated was the bathroom. To save money before the tiler came, I spent three taxing weekends chipping away at the old wall tiles myself without the proper tools. By the end of it, I had very sore, bruised hands and I had shallowed much dust. I also had a large pile of builder’s rubble — small pieces of tile and cement and plaster — I now needed to get rid of.
So how to get rid of all the rubble, then?
Shovel it all into a trailer, drive to the nearest hard rubbish dump and pay a few bucks to dispose of it? I could’ve done that.
Or maybe order a skip bin and pay for the rubble to be taken away? Now I really should’ve done that...
Instead, I decided to try to get rid of the rubble in the weekly council rubbish collection. Obviously, not all of it all at once, but little by little. What’s the harm, I thought? Just as long as the bin didn’t weigh too much and the rubble was combined with the other rubbish, all would be above suspicion. And so every week I chucked in a few handfuls…
Six months later, the bathroom long since retiled, and I still had plenty of rubble at my back door. It started to annoy me, all that rubble.
I had another bright idea.
Shortly, I would be paving my rear courtyard with clay pavers. If I dug a hole big and deep enough, I could bury my rubble, pave over the area and that would be that, no more problem. I’d be a proper builder then too, burying his rubble!
And so that is exactly what I did, I dug a hole in one of the corners of my courtyard and buried my rubble, all those little shiny pieces of white tile. The pavers got delivered on the back of a great big truck. The river sand got delivered on the back of a smaller truck. And over the course of one weekend I had a go at laying down some pavers.
That was that. I finally had a nicely renovated unit with a bed in the bedroom and a fridge in the kitchen and even a washing machine in the bathroom. And I now had a paved courtyard with a nice tree in the corner and all those bees. That was really that. I was done.
I grew restless quickly.
I was young and I had energy and I needed distracting. Without any renovations to take up all my time the weekends seemed to drag on. There were only so many movies and TV shows I could watch, only so much slothfulness I could abide, before I grew tired of myself. I needed to move, to be physical, to use my body while I still had it. I needed to work like young men should work.
My attention turned to the tree in the corner of the courtyard.
It was a nice tree. Nice and compact and bushy. But it had been planted too close to the house. Its roots ran under the concrete veranda, which had cracked and was being pushed up at one end, I was convinced. The neighbouring property was a two-story apartment block but between it and I was a large fig tree. Even if I cut down my tree I would still have privacy and the neighbours wouldn’t be looking down on me. And most importantly, my veranda would be saved. It all made perfect sense to me.
I cut the tree down.
The task was exhausting and took the better part of two weekends. That wood was hard, green wood. I used every wrong tool and machine I had, and I blunted every one of them. In the end, I was banging on the wood with my biggest hammer to try to snap the last remaining root and free the stump.
Anyway, I got what I wanted, I got my exercise. The following weekend I filled in the hole and paved over the area with the left-over clay pavers. No more tree. No more bees.
The thing that happened almost straight away after cutting down the tree was that mushrooms started growing in between the pavers in that corner of the courtyard. They would come up very quickly, sometimes overnight, and stand proud for only a day or two before collapsing under their own weight and then withering away.
The slugs loved them then. They slithered out from under the fence at night to come and gorge themselves on the rotting fungi. And just as quickly as those mushrooms had lived and then died, they lived again with the next rain, and the slugs returned. There was nothing I could do about this cycle; it was part of the natural process of those tree roots still remaining in the ground decomposing.
The slugs left slug trails. The mushrooms stained the copper-coloured pavers black. Whereas previously I’d had a tree and bees, I now had black mushrooms and slugs.
I would’ve settled for that as my punishment. Instead, one day not long after, I came home from work, opened the back door, walked out into the courtyard, and found a middle-aged, big-bellied man dressed in a stained wife-beater singlet and boxer shorts staring down at me as he coughed his way through one of his last remaining cigarettes before his disgusting body finally broke down.
The neighbours had cut down that fucking fig tree.
I had cut down my tree. They had cut down their tree for whatever reason. And now I had some guy in boxer shorts staring down at me from his second-story balcony.
At first, before it hit, I did genuinely think I had made a mistake and had walked out into someone else’s courtyard. I didn’t recognise the picture before me. I thought I was somewhere I should not have been. And then, obviously, it finally hit me, not the irony, which only came much later, but the bitterness, and only the bitterness at first.
I felt exposed. It wasn’t just the one old bloke out there; the whole upper face of that ugly building, with its three balconies and six windows, now stared down on me. I went back inside, snapped shut the Venetian blinds in the living room and sulked. What a disaster.
Again, there was only so much wallowing I could stand from myself. The following weekend I got out there and shifted some pot plants around. When that didn’t work I went and bought bigger plants and bigger pots and I shifted those around until I was satisfied that wouldn’t work either. I thought about a shade cloth strung from steel posts in each corner of the courtyard but the engineering of that was beyond me.
I ummed and ahhed again…
It had to be a tree; it had to be a small, dense evergreen tree, but in the right place this time. My final bright idea was to lift up a section of pavers along the fence, wheel in some soil to create a garden bed, and plant two semi-mature bottlebrush trees, which, in a year or two, would restore my privacy.
I was on a mission again: get the trees from the local nursery, get the soil from the landscaping yard, lift up the pavers along the fence, scrape away the river sand, and start digging. By late afternoon, I was on to the second hole and doing well when CRUNCH went my shovel.
Puzzled, I stabbed the soil again.
The shock went up my arms and then down my back and I winced in pain. Now with anger, I stomped down on the shovel, lifted up the crunchy soil and turned it over. And in the late afternoon sun that Saturday the soil in my backyard glittered and gleamed…
I had found my buried treasure, all those tiny, sparkling pieces of white tile and cement and plaster from my bathroom. This time the irony hit me straight away and I dropped to my knees and hung my head.
Stupidity drives a hard bargain. I had swapped a tree and bees and privacy for what, mushrooms and slugs and being looked down upon by strange, suspicious men? The trade was a costly one too. I spent a lot of money on all those pots and plants.
It also took a really, really long time to sift out all that buried rubble from the soil and I never quite managed to get it all. For the next three years until I sold the unit I would be finding small pieces of white tile in that garden bed. In fact, I even managed to spread the tiles to the front of the property as I shifted soil around for this or that reason.
The bottlebrush trees, the slow growers that they are, never got big enough to provide any sense of privacy or security. The old bloke in boxer shorts coughed his way through many more cigarettes out on that overlooking balcony. As for the concrete veranda, it continued to crack and lift up at one end, for it had not been the tree roots doing the cracking and lifting in the first place, but rather the clay soil expanding and contracting with the seasons as it does.
The mushrooms continued to come up with each rain. And the slugs continued to come out at night…