I recently read Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer’s novel Get a Life. Not the easiest book to read and probably worth a reread later. But what struck me was the unusual opening line: “Only the street-sweeper swishing his broom to collect fallen leaves from the gutter.”
Looking back after having finished the book, I realised what an amazing opening it is. It is like a haiku containing the very heart of the story in thirteen words (and three syllables more than a haiku) that do not even make a full sentence.
This prompted me to go on a very short stroll through some books at hand, looking for notable opening lines. I could probably have written an essay or a dissertation on my findings, but for now I will merely list a few, make some short remarks and hopefully inspire you to go on a word tasting trip of your own.
“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
“’You too will marry a boy I choose,’ said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.” Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy
“He belonged to that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain women.” Ian McEwan, Solar
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” Cormack McCarthy, The Road
“Laden like a bowl of cherries, the ship of fools sits on the lawn of the sea.” Gregory Norminton, The Ship of Fools
“A man went to knock at the king’s door and said, Give me a boat.” José Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” Ernest Hemmingway, The Old Man and the Sea
I had a farm in Africa*. No, sorry, that is someone else’s story. I had a garden in Africa. And thus, I also had a gardener in Africa.
I inherited Potiphar with the house I bought in a small diamond mining village. The house had been standing empty for years and Potiphar was staying in the single-roomed dwelling in the backyard, a common enough arrangement in the old South Africa, where housemaids or gardeners often stayed on site.
Potiphar was a Malawian, about eighty years old and as such not quite what I had in mind as an employable labourer, but I did not have the heart to evict him. Fortunately he did not stay very long before returning to Malawi and left me his son-in-law Jeffrey as replacement.
Jeffrey worked his way around five or six gardens in town, one for every day of the week, and moved in and out of my life (and garden) for the next fifteen years. He stayed in the nearby township with a wife and children that were either a replacement or an adjunct to the family he had left behind in Malawi – I could never distinguish between facts, stories and gossip in this regard.
Jeffrey seemed to regard all the gardens he worked in as somehow connected and when he arrived at my house with a gardening tool “on loan” from someone else or a plant cutting taken from a neighbour’s garden, I never asked too many questions.
I suppose you could have called Jeffrey an involved gardener. He was no passive labourer just following directions. If an avocado pip sprouted on the compost heap, he would pot it and nurse it until it was ready for planting, whether that was actually part of your plan or not. If you left a new plant unattended in its nursery bag somewhere in the garden, you would come back to find it planted exactly there, whether that was the final position you wanted it or not. Every year I had to ask him not to rake the leaves from the lawn, but to leave them to break down as natural lawn feed, but come next autumn he would start raking the leaves again.
But Jeffrey took his streak for creative gardening one step too far when he decided to do something about the bare patches in my front lawn.
I had seen him arrive earlier that morning, but was just gathering momentum with a new painting, so I only went out at nine to give him his tea and sandwiches. But Jeffrey was nowhere to be seen. I put his food out of reach of the dogs and returned to my painting. Not long afterwards the bell at my front gate rang, sparking a frenzied barking from my dogs. I went out to find two police vehicles at my gate. On the back of the one was a very embarrassed and sheepish-looking Jeffrey, together with my wheelbarrow filled with turf rolls.
Did I, the senior officer wanted to know, instruct my gardener to steal these rolls of lawn?
My anger and indignation were profound. Barefoot, in my painting clothes, with a paintbrush still clutched in my hand, I accompanied the police officers to the local station to give a statement of my innocence. They listened to my protestations with stoic indifference.
Not only had my intrepid gardener stolen turf to transplant into my garden, but he had apparently taken the turf from no less a place than the lawn outside the church just a block away from where I lived. Was I absolutely sure that it wasn’t on my instructions? Suffice it to say that after I had signed the statement and walked the kilometre or more home (still barefoot and bepainted), I was not feeling friendly towards my gardener.
And yet Jeffrey stayed on, planting, weeding, watering, mowing, in the eternal love-hate relationship of master and man that was (and often still is) so typical in South Africa.
I had a garden in Africa and I had a gardener in Africa. But that was in another country and besides, the wench is dead**.
As a gardener myself these days, I often think of Jeffrey and I have a better understanding of his tendency towards “creative” gardening. But do not worry, your lawn is perfectly safe with me.
* Karen Blixen (Out of Africa)
** TS Eliot (Portrait of a Lady)