Williamstown, Victoria, autumn 2017
My neighbour pulls up as I’m standing in my front yard looking, again, at all the weeds, wondering where on earth to start. Near the letter-box, the water meter? Amongst the straggly shrubs and stunted bushes? Along the home-made dry creek bed, fashioned out of leftover stones?
“What’s the plan?” my neighbour says cheerily, closing his car door.
“Oh there’s no plan,” I say, “There’s never been a plan.”
We chat for a few minutes, until there’s a pause in the repartee and then my neighbour heads home and I crouch down amongst the weeds.
No, there’s never been a plan, I say to myself. There was never any plan, for example, to be a telegram boy or a surveyor’s assistant or a lollipop man or a Census collector or a data processor or an usher. Or a teacher aide. Or, for a year or so, a Centrelink recipient. On the dole. I only ever wanted to write.
“What’s the plan?” was pretty much what my English teacher was asking when he wrote in my school report: “Do you want to be a writer, a good journalist – or just a hack?” As a short-sighted student, I didn’t sense his disappointment. Or pick up on his perceptiveness.
“What’s the plan?” my mother asked when I declared at the end of high school that I didn’t want to study and I didn’t want to work. Just write. And play backyard cricket. A gap year. Forever.
“But,” and I can still remember my mother saying this all those years ago – count them…40…as we stood under the clothesline, “What will you have to write about? You’ve got to do some living if you want to do some writing.”
Again, I didn’t see the disappointment, the perceptiveness. Six months later I got a job as a telegram boy and three years later I started uni.
“What’s the plan?” the accountant asks each year, come tax time. He shuffles my papers, taps at his calculator. Breathes out. “Well, let’s drain the swamp and see what we can find.” He always finds enough to keep the wolves at bay. We’re doing okay – solid roof over our head, plenty of food on the table, no debts. Can’t ask for more than that, really. Especially without a plan.
There have been writing jobs over the years, in the dry corporate sector, and there have been periods of being published regularly but just when you think the river is going to flow strongly for a while the rain stops falling.
Save for the weeds, not much grows in our front yard. The soil is rubbish, almost literally. Dig deeper than the length of a shovel blade and you’ll find rocks and rubble rather than roots, which is why I seized the chance to try to create a dry creek bed from leftover stones found on a nature strip a few years ago.
I was on the dole and feeling the pressure. I went for a walk one rainy afternoon to clear the head. I turned a corner and there, in a big pile, were enough stones to turn part of the front yard into a drought-like landscape. A dry creek bed. (The metaphor was lost on me at the time.) I still didn’t have a job (or a plan), but for a week or so I had a project. Something to do.
The weeds have been rather prevalent since I was lucky enough to get a job two years ago, as a teacher aide.
So, come the weekends there I am in the front yard, quietly pulling out weeds. I’m often camouflaged in there, amongst the undergrowth, behind the geraniums and the agapanthus. Passers-by, chatting on their phones or even to each other, don’t know I’m there. Young families, with children on scooters and training wheels, are unaware. Dog walkers have no idea of the bloke with his head down, trying to make sense of his universe.
It’s my own little world: just me and the weeds and the soil and the stones. Just a man on his hands and knees weeding in the shade. The world is perhaps passing me by, but there is some existential or even primal satisfaction in communing with soil, with earth, with stones. It’s as much a plan as any.
This story was first published in The Big Issue Australia #546 September 22, 2017.