[A weird episode paying homage to the Australian Tall Story – a true form of traditional culture down under.]
Gorgeous bright tomato red orbs floated behind my eyelids. The sun-ripened ones that yield to a knife like butter and give out juicy seed-laden flavour; I dreamed of them with a longing like homesickness. They would be bloody delicious layered on toasted buttered rye bread, a sprinkle of salt, a dash of pepper,and, in memory of my grandma, a pinch of sugar. I would devour the breakfast of my juvenile summers with passion born in boyhood, if I could only grow that premium ingredient.
With some help from my silver-haired neighbour Theo, the first sunny Saturday of spring saw us building a large L-shaped garden box made of sleepers. It reached almost to waist height on me, and we half-filled it with manure and straw.
“ The best thing to do is get some quality potting mix and mushroom compost to add to that,” said Theo.
I was enjoying the digging, sweating and pungent smells. It would be worth it to have real tomatoes to eat and share. He continued to explain how after the potting mix and compost I should add a layer of topsoil ,and plant the tomato seedlings about sixty centimetres apart.
“ Don’t forget your cages. Are you gonna grow Super Beefsteak? “
“ Yeah, I’m gonna give them a try. Eight of those will give me plenty of tomatoes for my needs.”
“ You’ll get the maximum yield out of this small space.”
I was grateful and sent him home with a six pack of German beer, since a cash payment was refused. He smiled, and a little later I heard the sound of the football semi-final through the fence.
My trip to the nursery was expensive. I selected four ten litre bags of compost, and, thinking of my back, eight five litre bags of topsoil. Finally, the assistant showed me bags of potting mix.
“This a new type we’ve ordered from an Indian supplier. It’s meant to be good.”
The tired looking burlap bags with their faded red print were much cheaper than the last lot of potting mix I had bought to add to the garden when I planted red-flowering Grevilleas in my south-east facing front yard. I nodded yes. After I paid for a heap of bags and some Super Beefsteak seeds to be planted in pots to produce the seedlings for my garden, I knew my dream was costing me. I added eight tomato cages and we loaded up the Ute.
It was half-time when I returned, and Theo helped me stack the bags in a neat line, where I could easily open them with the edge of a shovel and transfer the material into the boxes.I emptied four bags of compost into the boxes and my aching back seemed to say call it a day.
I’ve been too long in a desk job, I thought. I trudged indoors and took a hot shower.
Late Sunday morning I finished the job , and gave it a half-hearted turn with the shovel which had lost its new gleam. I sprinkled the top soil over the top, and gave the lot a water.
Perhaps Theo will turn it some more for me if I ask him.
I schlepped back inside and prepared two cheese toasties and scoffed them down. While washing them down with cold beer, I imagined how much better they would taste with tomato in them.
Mondayitis was exaggerated by muscular pain, and I left for work in a daze. I did remember to shut the rear security gate that sat almost flush with the concrete driveway in the back yard.
I returned from work around 4pm and decided to leave the car in the street because sweeping the concrete free from spilled soil and potting mix seemed a good use of a fine afternoon. After some water and a few stretches, my entrance into the backyard was almost enthusiastic.
A hissing sound caused me to freeze mid-stride. Instinct raised the hair on my neck and prickles sprayed across my back. To my left was a four-foot black snake rearing up, its’ hood flared.
I bolted for the rear door of the house. Without looking behind me, I kicked the rear door shut, and striding to the lounge I snatched the cordless phone from the lounge side table. I dialled 1223 and asked the operator to connect me to the Hobson’s Bay Council.
What am I going to do if they don’t answer?
It was now 4.20 pm
Holding the phone to my ear I walked down the hall to the small study that overlooked the yard. Raising the blind, I stared at the black horror that dominated the white gravel space beside my garden box. I was relieved that the garage door was down, and the small garden shed was shut. The clipped lawn under the rotary hoist offered no hiding place.
The receptionist put me through to the environmental fauna department.
“Animal control”, a young voice said.
“ My name is Phil Dwyer, and I have a Cobra loose in my yard at 234A Sykes Avenue, Altona.”
“A Cobra, Mr Dwyer? How do you know it’s a Cobra.”
“It’s black with a hood.”
“It’s black. Does it have any markings.”
“I didn’t stop to see if there were any markings. I walked out my backdoor and there it was, ready to strike, so I came in here and rang you.”
“Would you mind holding please Mr Dwyer? Don’t approach the snake, please stay on the line.”
Don’t approach the snake. DON’T approach the SNAKE. I mocked in my head, as annoying musack played.
I moved as close to the window pane as I could to see what was happening. The snake was gone and in its’ place was a tall, muscular, dark-skinned man in black spandex.
Where did he come from?
He walked under the rotary hoist, and each wedge of the clothesline separated and dropped to the ground. The center pole of the hoist melted into the ground, and the sections of clothesline arranged themselves into a strange fence on each side of the small lawn. A silver snake erupted from the garden bed. As it grew and shimmered before my eyes,a tall muscular pale man in grey shorts appeared. The dampness of drool soaking through my beard told me my mouth was hanging open.
Grey shorts man stepped across the fence and the two men began to wrestle. They were well matched physically, and a few minutes later sweat had soaked them and was dripping into the ground. Their heavy breathing became audible.
The voice was back on the phone. “Mr Dwyer, two animal control officers will be at your residence in about forty minutes. Don’t approach the snake, but do what you can to stop it escaping from the yard.”
“Yes,” I croaked. The man asked for the address again and I repeated it.
“ Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
The line went dead. My hands trembled. The wrestling pair had locked arms and their heads seemed to press against each other’s shoulders. The ground was turning to mud under them, chunks of ripped up grass thrown around by their gripping feet. Black spandex man was gaining the advantage now. The panting grew loud enough to hear beyond my yard. Theo’s head appeared over the side fence, and he stared at the wrestling match. I raised my hand to wave, but he couldn’t see me from where he was.
I was grasping my hands together, leaning my forehead on the glass. My breath appeared as a mist on the glass.
Grey shorts man was now doing well, and locked his arm around black spandex man’s neck. Quicker than I could blink black spandex man had his arm locked under grey short man’s left shoulder pulling it forward, while pushing against his right shoulder. Black spandex man twisted his body, throwing grey shorts man off balance with a swiftness that made me gasp. He pinned the man’s head and shoulders against the muddy ground. The lower half of the man’s body writhed in the mud.
Black Spandex man threw back his head and laughed. The kind of laugh I’d heard as a kid when I watched Victorian melodrama on a school trip to Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.
My heart rate slowed. I would have put my money on grey shorts man for a win, based on first impressions.
The men got up and began to wrestle again. Maybe I was in with a chance, best of three bouts?
I will never know what happened but right at that moment they became snakes again. The pole rose out of the ground, and the rotary hoist looked as solid as the day it was installed.
There was a thump on my front door. When I opened it Theo was standing there. His hair looked like it had been gelled into a spiky do.
“ Mate, was there a wrestling match in your backyard?”
I nodded yes.
“And now there are two snakes?”
I nodded again.
“Do you have any of that beer left?”
He headed for my kitchen fridge.
The front door was still open when the animal control officers arrived.
Ha hem. I mean environmental fauna officers.
They called out, “Hobson’s Bay Council, Mr Dwyer?”
When I opened the screen door they showed me their identity badges, and followed me through to the back yard.
When the Cobra was in the sack, one of them said, “Do you have a licence to keep a snake, Mr Dwyer?”
“Call me Phil, and no I don’t have a licence. I don’t know how this snake got here. It appeared after I started my gardening project. For that matter after I bought this potting mix from India.”
I lifted a discarded potting mix bag to show them.
The officer eyeballed me, tapping his pen against his left fist. The other officer left the yard to put the sack and its’ occupant into the council van.
“Where did you buy the potting mix?”
I told him and he wrote the details in his notebook. When he asked, I showed him my car licence.
They left, and Theo and I had a second beer.
“You can have some of my tomatoes Phil. I decided to plant some too, but I won’t be using any of that potting mix. It’s probably to blame.”
We discussed the wrestling match a bit, but after that night we never mentioned the weirdness again. I was grateful for that but I always wondered where that silver snake went, even after we emptied out those garden boxes.