Fiction

Mark Da Costa: Gardening in the New South Africa

Image by Petr Elvis from Pixabay (modified)

I stood at the gate, gazing up the road. As expected, it was too early for people to be out exercising. My neighbours had warned me about getting casual gardeners in. As far as they were concerned if you get a casual in, a week later you will have a “home invasion”. You will wake up one night and there will be violent people in the house. The thought scared me, but I needed help. The bamboo from next door’s forest was creeping across the lawn and soon it was going to be outside the bedroom window.

Tall trees and numerous shrubs surrounded our property. Thanks to the perpetual summer rains, moss and lichen covered the brick drive and the trees.

Whilst out walking a few days ago, I had seen a gardener working on the verge of a house up the road. He agreed to help me on Saturday morning and mumbled that his name was Sipho. His mother tongue was not English, and I could not speak Zulu. Communication was a problem. I peered up the road again and fortunately, or unfortunately, there was a lone figure in the distance. Not wanting to appear desperate, I walked up the drive.

Fortunately, the troop of wild monkeys was not around. I flopped into the garden chair and watched the wild, colourful birds. I could feel my heart pumping and I was hot and sweaty. Finally, there was a man at the gate. Reluctantly, I strolled down and quickly scanned him. He was in his forties, dressed in his smart, dark travel clothes and wearing a scruffy cap. I felt confident that he was the same person I had spoken to.

‘Morning,’ I greeted and stuck out my hand. ‘Rob.’

‘Morning Baas,’ Sipho replied.

‘New South Africa, its Rob.’

‘Yes Baas,’ answered Sipho.

We needed to get the names right. ‘I’m Rob and your name is Sipho?’

‘Yes Baas.’

I decided to surrender on the names and started walking to the forest. ‘Lots of work today; must cut the bamboo.’ We stopped at the beginning of the forest. ‘All this bamboo must go; soon it will be in my bedroom.’

Sipho laughed and waved his hand at the forest. ‘All this, one day, not easy.’

‘I will help you; we work together. First I show you the outside toilet and you get changed.’ Whilst Sipho was changing, I went to the garage, got my keyhole saw and the sharpened panga.

When I got to the forest, Sipho was waiting for me. ‘We must cut it low, below the grass. I will cut.’ As I handed him the panga, I recalled images from the T.V. news, which showed a wild mob waving their pangas in the air as they ransacked a village. ‘You take panga and chop the branches off, put them in the garden bags. I will cut the long pieces with my saw. Must make them short, easier to cart them away. Be careful, there are lots of snakes here. But many are not so poisonous.’

Sipho started hacking the bamboo and I positioned myself so that, when I bent down, I could still see Sipho out of the corner of my eye. In no time, I was far ahead with Sipho chopping some distance from me. Engrossed in my work, all I could hear was Sipho chopping and the odd wild bird singing. It was still crisp and cool, but my hands were sweating.

Suddenly Sipho started shouting. I looked over. He was dancing about and waving the panga. Then he started wildly chopping some branches on the ground.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Snake,’ answered Sipho, still hacking the ground.

I dropped my saw and walked over to where he was chopping. On the ground lay a tangled mess of cut branches and bits of a snake.

‘Bad snake. Boomslang.’

Sipho stepped over and gave a vicious chop to its twitching head.

‘Throw the pieces over the fence into the forest. When the other snakes smell it, maybe they will go somewhere else. Let’s hope there aren’t any more.’

We both started working again. My back was beginning to hurt, and the sun was a lot higher. I heard somebody approaching and looked up. Sandra was standing near us with two glasses of juice.

‘Looking good,’ she greeted.

‘Just killed a boomslang,’ I answered.

‘Be careful,’ warned Sandra.

‘Thanks for the drink, must finish today.’

‘Mum phoned, I’m taking the boys over for lunch, I’ll be back later this afternoon.’ Sandra headed back to the house.

I gave one to Sipho, who now had a sweatband on his forehead. We gulped the drinks down and went back to work. Sipho cried out again.

‘What’s wrong now?’

He was holding his right hand. ‘The bamboo cut me.’

I looked at him; there was a gash on his right hand. ‘Okay, must get a plaster.’ I walked to the garage and collected a plaster and the right-hand gardener’s glove.

‘Got a plaster and a glove to cover your right hand. You put the plaster on, not going to touch your hand, too much blood.’ Sipho laughed and stuck the plaster over the cut and put the glove on. I pointed to the area in front of us. ‘Let’s clear this area and then it must be lunchtime.’

Sipho nodded his agreement.

The thought of a break made us work faster. We had almost finished the area when I decided to surrender. ‘Lunchtime, I’m hot. Did you bring your lunch?’

‘Yes,’ Sipho answered.

‘I get my lunch, its cooler outside. Have my lunch under the tree, like a picnic.’

When I returned, I flopped into the shade.  ‘What time you get up this morning?’ I asked.

‘Too early, it’s dark. You got children?’ asked Sipho.

‘Yes, the two small ones still at home, others are big now, grown-up.’

‘Sons?’ asked Sipho.

‘Yes, the big one is married; he is his wife’s problem now. You got children?’

‘One boy, not so many children, a problem.’

‘How’s your son doing?’

‘Not so good,’ answered Sipho.

‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

‘A good boy, but bad friends. Now they take him away, his mother crying, many tears. I see him last week; he got a tattoo on his face. You know tattoo?’

‘Yes, my son also got one, an anchor on his upper arm. What tattoo your son got?’

‘He got a number.’

I paused. His son was a gangster. Without thinking, I scanned the grass to make sure the panga was out of reach. ‘What number?’

‘Twenty-eight,’ answered Sipho. ‘His mother crying too much, she says she got no son, no children. But I must see him, he is my blood.’

‘How long they take him away?’

‘Eight years,’ answered Sipho.

‘Long time, not easy.’ I glanced at Sipho who was now silent as he gazed across the lawn. ‘When do you see him again?’

‘Next Saturday, very far. One hour visit, must travel all day.’

We continued our break, but now we remained silent, lost in our own thoughts. After about ten minutes, I stood up.

‘Come Sipho, time for work.’

After a few minutes, we were far apart. I had felled a lot of bamboo and was holding the long pieces in the air with my left hand as I cut them shorter. Sipho called out again, ‘Baas.’ I turned to see what the problem was, and immediately felt a sharp pain. I had run the saw over the top of my hand. Without looking, I dropped the saw and covered the cut with my right hand.

‘Shit.’ By the intensity of the pain, I realised that it was a bad cut. Sipho rushed to my side.

‘Sorry Baas.’

I could not understand why he was apologising when it was my fault. The pain stopped any further logical thought.

‘Need a plaster or something.’

Sipho stepped over and looked at my clasped hands. ‘Can’t see, too much blood. Better you see doctor.’

‘Sandra got the car, no transport.’

‘Better phone ambulance,’ Sipho advised.

‘No, too many sick people at hospital. If I go to hospital, I get sick. No.’

‘You got plaster in garage?’

‘Yes, but no hands to put it on.’ I said holding my clasped hand.

‘I put it on,’ volunteered Sipho.

‘Have you been on a First Aid course?’ I asked.

‘No, too much bleeding.’

‘Come let’s fetch plaster.’ I left a trail of blood as we walked to the garage.

‘Sipho, the packet of plasters is on the top shelf.’

Sipho reached for the packet. ‘We need big plasters.’

Still clasping my left hand, I held my hands up for Sipho to see.

‘Too much blood, plaster won’t stick, must wash first,’ advised Sipho.

‘Can’t go inside, will make a mess. Better go to outside tap.’

‘Must dry after wash, need a towel,’ advised Sipho.

We collected a towel from the washing line as we walked to the outside tap. There was a bucket near the tap. I kicked it over and sat down. Sipho turned the tap on. Without parting my hands, I managed to wash a lot of the blood off.

‘Must take your other hand off,’ instructed Sipho.

‘Shit, it’s going to hurt.’

‘Yes, must clean, put plaster on.’ He wet a portion of the towel under the running tap, turned the tap off and sat on the ground. ‘Put your hand near me.’

I did not want to see the cut, so without looking I took a deep breath and removed my right hand. ‘Shit, it hurts.’ I groaned as I stared at the washing line.

Sipho placed his left hand under my hand to support it and examined the wound. ‘Deep cut.’ I could feel him gently cleaning my hand and then drying it. Finally, after more pain the wound was clean and dry.

‘Must put plaster on,’ I muttered.

‘Big cut, need many plasters,’ concluded Sipho. ‘Must stop the

bleeding.’

I heard a lot of unwrapping and then I could feel him closing the wound. ‘Shit! It hurts.’ I glanced at my hand; the top had been banded with a multitude of plasters in all directions. ‘Bleeding stopped, thank you.’

‘You need a glove, must keep clean,’ instructed Sipho.

‘The other one is in the garage.’

‘I fetch it,’ answered Sipho.

After a few minutes, he returned with the left glove and gently put it on.

‘You see, I got left hand, you got right hand, now we a pair of gloves.’ We laughed. The pain had started to subside. ‘So now, you Doctor Sipho.’ He laughed again.

When we got back to the forest, I realised that we were not going to get it all done. ‘Sipho, my hand is sore. We just do this area.’ I waved my un-injured hand to indicate a small area.

‘No, Rob,’ said Sipho. ‘We must finish cutting, I cut bamboo down, next week you cut branches off and stack.’

We started to work again, but I just collected the bamboo and stacked it. Hampered by my sore hand and tiredness, I did not do a lot, and ended up sitting in the shade, watching the forest retreating to the fence. Sipho on the other hand, was flying ahead.

Eventually, as the last piece fell, I called out, ‘Okay Sipho that’s it for today. I get your money.’ By the time I returned, Sipho had changed and was waiting for me.

‘Pay for today.’ It was not a lot, but it was more than the going rate.

In the traditional respectful way, Sipho took the notes with both hands. ‘Thanks Rob, you see me when you have more work.’

‘When I get more money, I see you.’

As I watched Sipho walking back up the road, I realised that my concerns regarding him and the panga were unnecessary. Yes, we are different, but Sipho is a person, just like me.

—————

Image by Petr Elvis from Pixabay (modified)

About the author

Mark Da Costa

Mark Da Costa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1954. After school (matric) and one year’s compulsory National Service, he went to the United Kingdom. That was at the beginning of the coal miners’ strike and three-day working week. He worked as a tea boy on a building site for one year. He progressed to be a laborer and two years later became a ‘cowboy carpenter’. He lived as an illegal immigrant for thirteen years.
He married in 1986 and had three children. He then with his family returned to South Africa at the end of 1989 and lived in Cape Town. He continued working on building sites, but in 2003 got divorced. He remarried in 2006, and with his wife and their two young children (5 and 3 years) in 2018 moved to the suburbs of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal… where he continues to study at the University of Life.

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