Number Twenty-Five

Number Twenty-Five crouches over, knobbly spine swaying with the rhythm of the slight breeze. In his hand he holds a pair of scissors; not the kind you’d normally see in the hands of a gardener, mind you.

These are the type of scissors I remembered buying for my son when he started Prep, the ones with thick, brightly coloured, easy-grip handles and soft-curved blades that struggled to cut a single sheet of paper unless you stuck your tongue out at just the right angle.

I don’t know why he uses those scissors; it must make this ridiculous task of his doubly as hard. Every time I see him out along the boundary fence with those scissors I think about running across the street and giving him my gardening shears, or at the very least my old pair of kitchen scissors, the ones I use to cut sprigs of rosemary from my herb garden.

But I never cross the street when he’s out there. We’ve lived across from each other for two years now, and I’m not exactly the most extroverted of neighbours. He hasn’t exactly reached out for help before either, and I don’t want to put my nose in where it’s probably not wanted. I’ll just sit back and watch from my balcony vantage point.

I guess if he needs my help he’d ask, right?

Number Twenty-Five is curled over a clump of grass, there’s maybe two or three blades that have shot out of the earth at a faster rate than the others. He punishes them immediately for their initiative. SNIP. SNIP. The silly kid-scissors do their job, I guess. It’s still a ridiculous pursuit though – why would you spend hours pottering around your yard, cutting errant grass blades, one at a time, with a pair of scissors? I glance over the balcony railings to my left, down to my own front yard. A patchwork of mismatched turf, black tufts of cobblers pegs and, thanks to the recent rain, tall stalks of pigweed squeezing out of cracks in the driveway cement. It’s unruly and chaotic, and for a moment I feel slightly embarrassed at the current state of it.

‘All it needs is a good mow and it’ll look tidy. I’ll do it on the weekend.’

My husband has caught me looking at it, and he’s feeling defensive.

‘It’s fine, really.’ I reassure him, and I nod towards our neighbour. He’s moved to a bunch of green amaranths pushing though a gap between his fence and the earth.

SNIPSNIPSNIP!

This bunch have resisted the scissor blades, and I hear him sigh angrily, frustrated at their defiance of the blade. My husband appears at my shoulder, and snorts.

‘Fucking fruit loop.’

‘Oh, he’s not, don’t be mean.’ I slap his arm, but I’m smiling.

He’s probably right.

Alan, our neighbour at number twenty-nine, told me the story once. Alan’s lived here since the bush was first cleared for houses and knows the origin story of every home in the street. The house at number twenty-five is a small brick cottage, built in the 1970s. He tells me that the man at number twenty-five was a piano teacher until his wife died a few years ago. Since she died, he’s become a bit of a reclusive, never really venturing further than his property line and rarely seen unless he’s out on the lawn, snipping away at the unruly blades of grass.

He used to have a beautiful garden, with a huge Jacaranda tree in the backyard, lush green lawns, passionfruit vines and star jasmine curtaining the fences – all kept under control with complex training and regular trimming. Lilly pilly hedges at the front of the property, carefully trimmed into tidy cubes. A crimson bottlebrush on the corner of the block that struggled to hold the weight of dozens of nectar-hungry rainbow lorikeets each afternoon. 

‘Somethings a bit off with him these days.’ Alan’s voice is almost at a whisper, in case his voice carries on the wind. We had both paused at that point, looked over at number twenty-five.

The Jacaranda was long-dead, its bare branches twisted into the sky like a bleached coral fan. The star jasmine vine had taken advantage of the neglect, and choked a slow death to the passionfruit vine, which hung brown and limp over the rotting fence. The once-immaculately neat hedges were wild and pushing in all directions, obscuring the driveway path. The bottlebrush towered over the roof, pushing its branches against the guttering. The gutter had given way at one point and hangs down a foot or two from the roof. Black and white-grey lichen moss stained the brickwork where the water has shot off the end of the gutter and onto the wall for the past few years.

‘What’s his name?’ I asked. ‘Maybe I’ll go and introduce myself one of these days, he looks like he might be lonely.’ But Alan isn’t sure anymore, says it’s been years since he spoke to him, and at eighty-nine he’s lucky enough to remember his own name, let alone someone else’s.

So now he’s just Number Twenty-Five.

My husband loses interest in people watching, and starts to head inside, but I grab his arm to stop him. Number Twenty-Five has one last thing to do before he completes this nonsensical ritual of his. I know it’s coming.

‘You need to see this!’ I whisper fiercely. My husband folds his arms and watches the neighbour.

Number Twenty-Five pockets the scissors in the back of his khaki shorts and stands, motionless, for several minutes. Hands on his hips, he appears to be surveying his work.

Every time I’ve watched Number Twenty-Five in his yard, he always does this. The first time I saw him, he only stood for a moment before slowly shuffling back to his front door and disappearing inside. The next time, he stood there looking at the ground for longer, like he was waiting for something. This time, it’s at least ten minutes before his shoulders seem to drop, and he makes his way back into his house.  

I turn to my husband.

‘You see that?’

‘Yep.’

‘Why do you think the does that?’ I ask. ‘I mean, cutting your lawn with scissors is weird enough, but what’s with the standing around staring at the ground for so long? What’s the point?’

My husband shrugs.

‘’I’d say it’s because he’s a fucking fruit loop.’

There’s got to be more to it, but I don’t press the issue. I’m annoyed at my husband for not wanting to think further about it. I look down at my own lawn.

‘Will you mow on Saturday, or…’

‘Yeah yeah, I’ll get to it. Jesus.’

* * * *

Florence used to sit in the garden, under the blossoming Jacaranda, to read. As I pottered about the garden, Florence would tell me about the story she was reading, try to convince me that it was worth reading after she finished. She knew I wouldn’t. I don’t have the patience for it. In her younger years she’d been a school librarian and had spent decades encouraging young children to read. I’m not much of a reader; I need to be moving around, whether it’s running my fingers along the ivory keys of the piano, doing odd jobs around the house, or keeping the gardens in order.

I wasn’t a big fan of gardening to begin with, but Florence loved the sweet fragrance of the star jasmine, and the deafening screeches of the lorikeets as they sucked the honey-sweet nectar from the bottlebrush. I loved to see her smile.

Florence died in her sleep. She’d been unwell, but not gravely so, so I hadn’t prepared myself for her passing. On her last night she was there, sitting by me at the piano as she had done for the past thirty years. I woke in the morning, asked if she’d like her tea in bed or on the porch. I was met with an empty, hollow silence.

Without Florence, I saw no reason to continue gardening. Without her sitting at its base, the jacaranda’s blanket of purple in the middle of spring seemed to muddy the lawn. Three years after her passing, I’d poisoned the tree. I didn’t want to look at it. It no longer blossomed in spring, but stubbornly refused to rot and collapse. She would have been so disappointed in me for doing that, but I’d been overcome with rage that day at the unfairness of it all, and the jacaranda had taken the brunt of my anger.

I let the star jasmine take over, let its fragrance curl through my nostrils each time I walked past the fence. I stopped trimming the hedges at the front of the house, and they quickly formed a wild, green barrier between the house and the street.

I let the bottlebrush grow unhindered, and the hordes of lorikeets grew. Each afternoon, when their screeches reached an ear-splitting crescendo, I would sit at the kitchen table and cry, the deafening noise drowning out my sobbing.

My neighbours at number twenty-seven must think I’m a bit strange. I know they watch me. I don’t mind; in a life where I have deliberately hidden myself away from the world for so long, it’s nice to be seen on occasion, if only to confirm that I haven’t become a ghost without knowing.

I use the scissors Florence bought me for my arthritis and start cutting the grass along the boundary fence. I know it’s a bit ridiculous to do it this way, but it gives me an excuse to be out of the house for a little longer. If I mowed the grass instead, it’d only take a few minutes. This way, I’m out there for at least twenty. Much more time for them to build up the courage to come across the road to talk to me.

I’d really like someone to talk to.

That would be nice.

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