The inconstant gardener 

Palazzo oranges from the tree in our courtyard

“The gardener will come at 8am to trim the fruit trees,” our landlord Marian said. “Please make sure you’re there to let him in.” 

As with most local tradesmen, he insisted on starting as early as possible, and so I set my alarm and struggled out of bed a few hours after I’d settled comfortably into it.

Bougainvillea climb the stair to the tower

Eight o’clock came and went, and the orange tree in the courtyard remained untrimmed. We held off eating breakfast until noon so we wouldn’t be interrupted in the midst of it, and when that hour passed too, I cancelled my afternoon plans.

The ring of a school bell reverberated through the hallway.

“Is it him?” Tomoko asked.

“No, I was just testing the doorbell.”

Olives on the front roof

After struggling over the same sentence for half an hour in a sleep deprived haze, I decided to keep watch from the balcony above the front door.

I watered the olive trees, and plucked a few withered leaves from a flowerbed. 

I ran my fingers through the tepid water of the jacuzzi. 

I prodded a dusty carpet with my toe. 

After a long period of random staring, I noticed our neighbour across the alley was putting an addition on his roof. Judging by his progress, he’d been at it for weeks, but I hadn’t notice because he only laid a block or two of stone at a time. 

At first I thought this was because he didn’t have a building permit, and so he was adding another storey by stealth, so gradually the neighbours would assume it had always been there. But while this building permit theory was likely true, it wasn’t the sole reason for his pace of progress. I had gotten my first glimpse of what I have come to think of as Uncle Charlie Home Repair. There will be more to say about this later.

Cactus blooms

The gardener didn’t show up, of course. Not that day, and not on the next appointed day, either. 

Marian finally insisted on stopping by the follow week, and she called him 6 or 8 times from the house. She should have just gone over and dragged him by the ear. It’s not as though he were flying in from Kew Gardens. He lived 3 blocks away. 

He finally showed up three hours later in a stained t-shirt, with puffy just-woke-up eyes. 

Marian showed him the work to be done, and he said, “Okay, I will come at 8 tomorrow.”

I was standing there listening, and I cut in. 

“Are you actually going to show up this time?” He just stared at me as though he hadn’t heard, so I said, “What happened last week? I waited around all day and you didn’t come.”

His face passed through several expressions, from brief embarrassment to confusion. 

He stumbled a bit, said, “Ahh ahhh ahh… I forgot,” and laughed nervously. And then he glared at me because I had the ill manners to point out his unreliability, and therefore this was all my fault. 

I hadn’t yet learned that it isn’t the person who messes up who’s to blame. It’s the person who shines a light on it. I was even more of an asshole because I’d done it in front of others.

The orange tree, to the right of Dashiell

The following day dawned without the crisp snip of gardening tools, or the gentle sound of falling leaves. 

Marian called around noon and said, “So, how did it go?”

“It didn’t.” 

I don’t know why she expected anything else.

I took these no-shows personally, but I would soon learn there was nothing exceptional about our gardener experience. 

Marian’s father Peter told me he had to call his cleaning lady every week to see if she intended to show up the next morning, on her usual day. 

“But why?” I asked. “Josephine comes every Monday at the same time. And if for some reason she needs to reschedule, we hear from her in advance. That’s normal.”

“I have to call her every week,” he repeated. And then he had to call her again that morning to make sure she was still coming — or to wake her up and nag her.

“Why do you put up with it? I would fire her immediately and find someone reliable.” 

But he just shrugged, mumbled excuses and shuffled away.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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