Pehlwani Potting Mix

[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.

I shivered.

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.


—The End–



Sophie in Silk

[ When I don’t set them in OZ, I set them in some place from the land of magic realism or New York. Here’s how  Sophie rolls when she finds herself on a supposed-to-be three day location shoot.]

It isn’t any old  Monday  a girl from Herb’s Deli and Diner gets to dress in white silk and lace, ready to be photographed for a Belleview Magazine October Issue. With shiny hair the colour of butterscotch, and eyes the blue of a fair-sailing sky, Sophie looked like a lot of fun. She stood with her hands on her hips and a tilt to her head that proclaimed sassy , as she observed the black satin, and charcoal leather clad Italian model who, no matter what she did , couldn’t please the overthinking stylist.  The Italian, Vincenzia, was flushing a deep rose colour, and her jaw was clenched tight. The  fussing of the stylist, Bree, was causing the photographer, Stuart, to feel the need to rummage in his equipment bag a lot. From where Sophie stood she thought his mouth movements  looked like he was cursing. Yeah. Really colourful too.

Three hours before, Sophie had been released from the makeup chair and she was feeling hollow. She could smell, and imagined she could taste a spicy hot dog with roasted onions and mustard sauce. Her nostrils flared, and her stomach growled, as the nearby food van issued savoury vapours. She changed position and tried to concentrate. The person she felt sorriest for was her cousin Rada, the fashion editor’s assistant for Belleview Magazine. She had appeared half an hour before to find out why the shoot was running three hours behind.

Stuart was complaining to Rada, “ We’re meant to get these particular flower bed shots. By the time we’re ready the light will be all wrong.”

Bree seemed to be dictating a book about about which riding crop Vincenzia should use in the next shot. Should it be the one with the gold handle, or the one with the bronze studded handle? The third model, Brent, a pale lean man with wavy auburn appeared to have given up and sat in a black director’s chair with his eyes and his fingers glued to his phone.

I hope he’s not texting his agent blaming Rada for this debacle, Sophie thought.

Another cloud of delicious savouriness drifted between the trees. Sophie’s stomach groaned like a rusty-hinged door.

Anyone could tell I’m not a real model, Sophie thought, as she studied the fake tan on her shapely calves. They did a good job of that, nice and even. Just the way I’d like my mustard sauce, a nice coating all over the dog. Two hotdogs would be awesome, one with the all important mustard and onions, the second one with chutney.

Saliva pooled under her tongue. She shook her head, doing her best to focus on how great she’d looked when she inspected herself in the mirror after makeup and wardrobe had pronounced her ready.

Rada appeared in front of her, “Sophie, you’ll need to pop back into the trailer and get out of that dress for me. Leave it with Michelle so she can steam press it again. “

Ten minutes later Sophie, clad in a beige uplift teddy and a voluminous black satin robe patterned in cherry blossom, was seated on a bench by a spreading Oak sinking her teeth into a chutney topped hot dog. Vincenzia and Brent stared at her. Rada and Bree were having words behind the trailer. The breeze carried the phrase, stick with what we discussed, despite Sophie trying to tune them out. Stuart was consoling himself with the thought that every passing minute netted him $4. That particular flower bed was now in shadow. Sophie noticed Vincenzia was still watching her, while Brent had turned his back on her. She wondered if it was to show disgust, or was he concerned about shading his fair complexion?

Hopefully they’re both Vegans, she smiled to herself.

Vincenza’s eyes widened as she looked over Sophie’s head.

Right, Sophie thought, strawberry Ice cream after this.

On camera she was meant to be the angel to complement Vincenzia’s demon, and Brent’s vampire for the Halloween-themed shoot.

Too bad.

Sophie felt the presence of someone standing behind the bench. She turned and saw Stuart who nodded to her, and bit into a large bratwurst.  

Rada was now making her way towards Sophie and Stuart. Bree was walking away in the opposite direction towards Central Park West.  Vincenzia threw up her hands and stomped towards the food van.

Sophie watched as she gestured, seeming to take ages to order from the vendor. Her Italian accent was audible, but Sophie couldn’t quite understand the words. Soon after she stopped gesturing, she received a pale looking salad of tomato, lettuce and onion, with a spicy sausage and cheese on top. Sophie thought, not a vegan then.

Rada sat down beside Sophie, “Stop eating, you’ll have a food baby when we have to get you into that snug ethereal blue number that’s next up.”  

She grabbed what was left of Sophie’s hotdog and lobbed it into a nearby bin.

Sophie muttered, “That was rough, cuz.”

But she had to acknowledge the underwire was starting to dig in a little.  

Rada ignored Sophie and turned to Stuart, “We’ll do the dusk shots by the fountain, and I’ll talk to you about tomorrow’s shoot afterwards.”

Stuart nodded, still chewing he turned and headed toward the fountain. Rada headed in the direction of Brent who was still slunk down in the black director’s chair.  Vincenzia threw her plastic container, without the salad, but still containing half a sausage into the bin. She headed towards the van where the wardrobe lady was gesturing to them. Sophie sighed. Standing up and gathering the satin robe around her she followed along.

The assignment blew out to four days, while Sophie dutifully ate salad, and spoke with careful politeness to Vincenzia and Brent. She avoided eye contact except where required for the sexy shots. Sophie heard Rada talking her boss, Melany, down several times during the next three days. Rada was amazing as she spoke with graciousness to her boss while beads of sweat formed on her forehead. After all she had a mortgage on her apartment, and part-time care of a foster child. Rada reminded Melany of her recent success with a variety of magazine spreads and that all her other projects were on schedule. Yes, yes, this spread was for the October 1st issue, but it was going to be worth it  — the photographer was fantastic!

Yada, yada, yada, Sophie thought

On Thursday evening the shoot was finished. Rada entered the wardrobe van and threw herself on a chair, “Oh Sophie, being a logistics officer for Medecins San Frontieres would be easier than doing this job with Melany for a boss.”

Sophie squared her shoulders, “The shots are fantastic though. All those great setups will burn those designer’s names into your readers minds.” She made a sizzling sound, “images are soo hot!”

Rada slumped down in the chair, “Thank God and Stuart and Y’all.” She passed her hand across her forehead.

Sophie passed a bottle of water to Rada who opened it and chugged down half.

Sophie said, “Even Vincenzia turned out  to be not so bad.”

Rada sipped the other half of her water while Sophie collected her things.  Two guys who worked for the leasing company turned up to take the trailer away, and Michelle needed help placing all the bagged garments in the plastic lined boot of her early model Mercedes.

As the sun was setting, Rada and Sophie sat side by side on the stone wall facing the Natural History Museum.

Natural History Museum NY 2 Blog

Rada said, “ I haven’t seen my little darling, Russ for two days so I am looking forward to a day off.”

“You deserve more than one day.” Sophie patted her arm.

“I have to tell you something before I go. She turned her earnest gaze on Sophie.  “This business will eat you alive.”

Sophie pressed her lips together and gazed up into a nearby leafy canopy.

“I’ve had the thought I might not be perfect for it.”

“Good hold that thought,” she glanced at her phone, “gotta go.”

She headed off in a northeasterly direction towards Columbus Circle.

Sophie hugging her bag in front of her headed towards Subway station 81. She took a train uptown and walked the last five minutes of her journey to Herb’s Deli and Diner on West 129th Street.

Time to drop in on the Friday night faithfuls, she thought.

When she arrived the place was full up for Herb’s Friday night special : Steak or Fish with fries and two kinds of vegetables , followed by a slice of pie.  The choice was lemon meringue or pecan. Sophie rolled her eyes.

She thought, Herb wont even change the special dessert to  Pumpkin pie for November. But wait there’s more —

She smirked to herself. All the coffee you could drink. Everything was fresh and not too greasy, and you could get if for  $14.

Herb’s customers were in a good mood, ordering extra beer, and planning to tip  the three-day-a -week waitress , Nette, with a generous hand.

Sophie sashayed up to the counter. “Coffee, please,” she called to the counter server Libby. Libby began to laugh without even looking around.

“I know that’s you, Soph.”

Herb looked out from the kitchen, “So how was the modelling?”

Sophie shrugged, “I think I’ll try acting next. The photographer liked me – says the camera loves me.” She grimaced. “I might need a gig as a waitress while I’m making it.”

“No way,” Herb’s mouth said, while his head nodded yes.

The front table of regulars cheered and thumped the table.

Sophie took a bow.

The End

Image used with permission :  Copyright 2013 Lance O’Donnell