– Is that you, Betsy?
– What’s up?
– Don’t know how to dig a garden. I want vegetables this year.
– You want me to come and show you?
They hang up. Shirley will get this done, in a methodical fashion. She’s glad Betsy asked for help. She doesn’t shut up when drunk, but the rest of the time she’s pretty quiet. Still there’s a strong bond between them. Shirley’s a Brit, a relative newcomer to Australia. Her family moved here when she was just a toddler, ages ago. Betsy, she’s the real deal. Aboriginal through and through, her roots to the land far and deep. She bought this large property, off the money she makes from her paintings, and she roams it, never tried to tame it. Relatives and friends camp on it, go walkabout.
Shirley’s happy that Betsy’s thinking of a vegetable patch. It’s not too early to start one. She’ll show her how to till the earth; they can discuss what she wants to grow; they can go and buy the seeds together. She’s happy to be doing something constructive with her. Betsy’s been despondent since she broke up with her abusive husband. That’s where they met, over 10 years ago. The woman’s shelter. She too was stuck in an abusive relationship. They were the only two women in the shelter at that time who were childless. They bonded and stayed friends after moving back into the world.
They help each other out. Shirley pours her heart out to calm, reasonable Betsy after she’s had one too many. Shirley helps Betsy with paperwork. It helps to speed things up to have a pushy pommy friend. Her divorce papers still need to be signed. Betsy had religion set upon her. She balks at this final step that would rid her for good of her no-good husband. But things can’t be rushed. Maybe Shirley can find a way in as they spend more time setting up the garden.
She’s almost ready to go. While thinking, she’s been gathering her things: two pairs of gloves, a spade, a rake, a pitchfork, her hat and sunscreen. Plenty of sunscreen. The sun, omnipresent even in the fall and winter. The sun that would set her pommy skin afire were it not for the long white sleeves, the hat, the sunscreen. She hops in her ute and sets out to Betsy’s. It’s a fair drive out, but then everything is far here. You get used to it. Tropical trees, wild parrots,… that takes longer. She’s still amazed after all this time. She’s gone to England a few times to visit relatives. It’s dreary, always raining. She missed Sydney. That’s her real home.
She calls ahead. “I’ll be at your place in 10 minutes.” “Okay.” She turns onto the long gravel drive. Honks. Betsy’s nowhere to be seen. She sighs as she unloads. The place is magnificent, the vegetation lush under the hard sun. She heads for the shade. There’s Betsy, cell phone in hand. She hadn’t seen her because of the glare. They hug. Betsy looks good, at peace.
– Do you need help with that? she says, pointing at the gardening tools. “Let me hold everything while you grease yourself up.”
Betsy had been horrified the day Shirley had forgotten her sunscreen, her delicate white skin turning an angry red, painful to the touch. She had burned and then her skin had pealed. Betsy had been oddly fascinated. She never again let her go in the sun without “greasing herself up” as she puts it.
-Where do you want your garden?
-The front of the house, maybe?
They find a spot, delineate the perimeter. Shirley does most of the talking. She’s in her element.
– Those tall trees will give shade in the afternoon. That’s okay, you don’t want everything to burn up! You’ll probably have to water a fair bit.
– Well, I’ll be planting native plants. They should be okay with the sun.
Shirley starts digging in earnest. The soil will need fertilizing. She’s thinking aloud, a bit excited. Her friend is quiet. She hears a low moan and turns around. Betsy is doubled over in pain, her face set in a grimace, her breathing shallow. Heart attack? Shirley throws the spade down and rushes to her side.
– What’s going on? Talk to me!
– Stop digging. You’re hurting me.
– What? What are you saying, I don’t understand.
Betsy’s colours are slowly returning.
-You were hitting me with that shovel. I couldn’t stand it. Every time you dug was a blow to my gut. I can’t do it. We have to stop. No garden for me. The earth is crying out and weeping. Please, please, return everything back the way it was.
– What? You can’t be serious!
Shirley can see she is. She’s never been more serious. Betsy still can’t stand. Shirley can see her insides bleeding out. She chases the image from her mind.
– Of course, I will put everything back to how it was.
– We need to apologize.
Shirley doesn’t believe her ears. She drove all the way here with the best of intentions. The vegetable patch was a great idea. She breathes in. There is so much she doesn’t get. She can tell her friend was in pain. The problem is with her. She wants to tame the land, not work with it. She feels deflated as she puts the soil back in place. Betsy has gone into the house. Comes back out with tobacco, the ceremonial offering.
Betsy says a heartfelt apology as she sprinkles tobacco in the soil. Shirley joins in. Peace is restored. She can actually feel it in her bones. Maybe one day she will belong. Betsy is willing to show her. All she needs is to listen and learn. Pay attention. Not think she knows better.
She thanks her friend, apologizes to her as well, subdued but at peace. They go in for tea.