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As Green as the Ragged Grass

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It didn’t seem like such a big deal, picking up odd jobs here and there for extra cash. At first he’d just mowed some lawns, did some weeding, but as he continued through his landscape architecture degree, he decided to fall back on more of the skills he’d picked up while progressing through his arboriculture diploma. Back then, he’d had the spare time to work at a nursery, to volunteer at clean ups and weeding that happened in Regional Bushland and Bushland Forever allocations.

Now he had no spare time for the hours needed for part-time work, so it was bits and pieces here and there. He’d study on weekends, then – fingers still smudged with the inks and markers he needed for his drafting – he’d get dirt under his fingernails and sand in his hair and look over the gardens of the well-to-do.

Sometimes he wondered if they thought he was there because of his family connections, but the truth was he’d gotten the hell away from Sydney as soon as he could, and his family wouldn’t have so much as picked up a phone to wish him death by fire ants, let alone provided recommendations to their friends throughout Australia.

So it was word of mouth, the quality of his work, that built his reputation, and now he was in his third year and getting a chance to look at the gardens of Augus Each Uisge. A notoriously private mogul from Wales or Scotland, who sunk a lot of his investment earnings into Australian real estate and various business on the stock market provided they were focused on forestry or other renewable resources. He kept to himself, and though many of his clients had heard of him, few had actually met him.

Gwyn knew of him from when he opened the Landscape Architect Magazine issue at the age of sixteen, staring at the headline ‘Western Australia’s Best Kept Secret Garden’ and opening to a fifteen page spread that featured one of the most spectacular mixes of native and exotic plants Gwyn had ever seen. All centred around several large lakes, each designed to serve as homes to freshwater fish, some even endangered. It had pushed him firmly from wanting to be an arborist, to wanting to be a landscape architect, just to have a chance to learn how to make something so exquisite.

And there, at the end, had been a photo of a man in his late forties; long, straight black hair pulled back into a ponytail, green eyes glaring at the camera, as though he was offended that the photographer had wanted a photo of the genius behind the garden. He was tan from spending so much time outdoors, had sunglasses pushed up into his hair, freckles smattered generously across his skin. Gwyn’s realisation that he might be gay had only been budding at that point, but he’d still bitten the inside of his lip and stared at that photo far more than was healthy.

After that, he’d mostly forgotten about it. He’d made polite enquiries – some people with huge landscaped gardens offered private tours – and was rudely knocked back by a member of staff, and that was that. He got to see many other splendid gardens, superlative trees, both exotic and native. He’d climbed the tallest karri trees in the world and learned how to diagnose trees by the health of their bark, their canopy, their root systems and core samples. He was often knee deep in study that involved both paperwork and practical research.

Every time he drove through the Swan Valley – on the way to Walyunga or John Forrest National Wildlife Park, or something else – he did fleetingly think about that garden and Augus Each Uisge, wondered if he still owned it, or if he’d sold it off and downsized. Wondered if it was still as beautiful, or if it had suffered from the droughts and bushfires that came.

Now, several years later, he left his car idling before the giant, black wrought iron gates, and pressed the button on the communicator feeling strangely unsettled, even though he’d had plenty of time to get used to maintaining the gardens of rich folk.

‘Gwyn ap Nudd, here for the seven am appointment regarding the gardens,’ he said as crisply as possible.

‘Look up to the camera above you please,’ said a smooth, cultured voice. Gwyn wondered if it was a butler or staff, or if it was actually Mr. Each Uisge. Probably not the latter, wouldn’t he be too busy?

Gwyn looked up and saw the surveillance camera – there was another matching it on the other side – and wondered who was looking back at him.

‘Drive up to the back entrance,’ the voice said. It was soft, masculine, but Gwyn couldn’t quite place the accent. ‘Take the left at the first fork, follow it around, and you will see a series of sheds. Park at the first one, I’ll be down in a moment.’

Gwyn nodded, then hurriedly said he agreed. The huge gates with their sharp spires were slowly sliding open. He got back in his car and looked at the surveillance camera again – it wasn’t that unusual, other clients had them – and drove down the driveway.

Immediately, Gwyn was impressed. The road wasn’t plain black bitumen, but dusky cobblestones in warm tones. Two stately carob trees, both at least twenty years old or more, towered over him, and then lawns of rolling green followed. The manor itself was hidden in the distance, behind a screen of exotics like oak, pine and aspen, but Gwyn could also see stands of Eucalyptus, Melaleuca, even Casuarina, with their long pine-like needles that wept down gently and had such a sweet sound when the wind played through them.

Gwyn turned left at the fork, looking at how the lawn dropped down towards a large manmade lake that had a healthy number of local, native plants within. He turned his focus back to the road, thought that maybe he was imagining it, but the gardens actually looked better now than they had when he was a teenager. Maybe it was because he knew how to appreciate them better.

The first shed wasn’t a small gardener’s shed made of aluminium Colorbond like so many gardener’s sheds, but a large brick building that could have fit at least four cars inside of it. Gwyn parked, peered inside one of the raised roller-doors to see enough gardening equipment that it was like being in a store of top end material. Even the way much of it hung on the walls, in its own place, made him look back at his own ute to the tools he’d brought with him. He wondered if he’d be made to use his stuff, or if he’d be allowed to access the tools in the shed.

He stood by his car, eventually sitting on the bonnet, and stared out at the eucalyptus trees used here for screening. They dropped their branches sometimes as a survival strategy, but none of them were too close to the sheds to be a problem, yet were close enough to give the impression of protection, concealment, to lend shade and that lovely green smell that Eucalyptuses had.

Gwyn heard footsteps on the cobblestones and looked over to see Augus Each Uisge wearing a facemask and removing heavy canvas gloves. His hair was tied back, had more silver in it than the photo Gwyn remembered, and there were crow’s feet around his green eyes. He was slender, hips narrow, and his clothing – over which he wore a white coat that was covered in sawdust – was that of a businessman who didn’t care what others thought of him. As he easily hooked off the mask, Gwyn swallowed. He was still…a remarkable looking man.

‘Mr. Each Uisge,’ Gwyn said, sliding quickly off his ute, sticking his hand out so he could shake Augus’. ‘Thank you so much for the opportunity, I’ve been so looking forward to-’

‘I haven’t actually given you any opportunity as of yet,’ Mr. Each Uisge said, giving Gwyn a quick, dismissive look and then walking around his ute to examine the equipment in the tray. ‘Aside from the opportunity to come within the gates at all.’

Gwyn dropped his hand.

‘Of course,’ Gwyn said.

‘You come highly recommended,’ Mr. Each Uisge said. ‘Also, call me Augus. Formal address should really be saved for the bedroom, shouldn’t it?’

He said it so easily, so smoothly, that Gwyn agreed before he realised what Augus had said. He stood there, blinking and feeling stupid. Could he say I beg your pardon? on the first day of seeing a client?

Gwyn uncomfortably saw that Augus was no longer looking at his tools at all, but instead he’d bent down to stare at something else. Gwyn’s cheeks coloured when he realised exactly what Augus was staring at.

‘You have a Pride flag on the back of your car,’ Augus said. Gwyn was confounded by his accent. Was it Scottish? Welsh? Posh English? Posh Australian? A mix of all four?

‘Oh,’ Gwyn said. Then he said what would be one of the stupider things he was sure he’d say all week. ‘How did…how did that get there?’

Augus straightened, eyes narrowing in amusement.

‘Mmm, however did it?’

Gwyn was very much on the back foot. Was it a problem? He hadn’t even put it there himself. He’d just…Gulvi had dragged him to the Parade, and he’d gone, and then she’d slapped the sticker on before he’d realised and he just kind of left it there because he had enough of a rebellious streak to imagine the look on his parent’s faces if they ever saw it, and that made him happy to think about.

‘It’s not going to change my ability to work for you,’ Gwyn said, his voice harder.

‘I don’t know,’ Augus said, brushing sawdust off his coat. ‘Isn’t it?’

‘No!’

‘You’re not going to fuck my plants, are you?’

What the hell?

‘No! I’m gay, not a fucking pervert.’

‘Oh no,’ Augus said, laughing quietly as he looked into the tray holding all of the tools Gwyn had brought with him. ‘What a shame. I’m such a fucking pervert.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘What’s that?’ Augus said innocently, eyes gleaming. ‘You keep your equipment in good condition. It’s obviously all been used, but minimal rust. I like that. I suppose you’ll do for now. The last few have been a complete waste of my time.’

Just like that, Augus went from amused to all business, his face clearing so that it looked like he’d never smiled in his life.

‘You can avail yourself to any of the equipment in the shed, provided you clean it before returning it. There is oil for the shears and similar, clearly labelled, within. At least you know how to use it. One of the poor saps that came here two weeks ago hadn’t oiled a pair of secateurs in his life. What an amateur. I’m not looking for someone who can lop branches, I’m looking for someone who can do it well.’

Gwyn nodded, quietly shoving all of the previous conversation underneath a rug in his mind labelled ‘was that conversation hot? Don’t think about it.’

‘I don’t trust you with anything visible, so I’m sending you into the back left quarter. It’s quite rugged down there, a mixture of exotics and natives, all very experimental right now. But some of those trees do need shaping, it’s better if some of the branches go now before they put on their spring growth. Before you work, I want you to take a photo of the tree before and text it to me, and then one after you’re done shaping, and wait for me to respond. Don’t think that under-shaping out of cowardice will earn you any favours with me.’

This was a level of instruction Gwyn had never received before, but a part of him appreciated how exacting it was. There were right and wrong ways to shape and prune trees. There were correct ways to remove branches, to seal them up or leave them bare, and there were mixed schools of thought regarding how to shape. For shade? For the shape of the tree? For the harmony of the space? For the comfort and safety of other trees? For the comfort and safety of patrons?

‘What is your intention regarding that section, Augus?’ Gwyn said.

Augus paused, and Gwyn wondered if he was going to take back the fact that he’d told Gwyn to use his first name. But instead his lips only quirked.

‘Something that feels natural,’ Augus said, ‘but isn’t. If you’re not terrible, you should be able to glean an idea of what I’m going for when you see it. The trees I want shaped are all clearly marked out with flags. Don’t rush. Don’t presume to get through all the trees in one day. As for the branches you cut, leave them. I chop some of it for firewood and cure the rest. Just make sure it’s left neatly.’

‘Yes,’ Gwyn said, resisting the urge to add a Sir on the end like he did with some of his lecturers.

A ringing from Augus’ trouser pocket and he sighed.

‘All right, get to work,’ Augus said, turning around and sliding his phone free. ‘I’ll text you my number after I’ve taken this call, so you can send the photos of your work to me.’

With that, Augus walked back towards a second shed, answering the phone in what sounded like fluent Cantonese. Gwyn wanted to know why he was covered in sawdust, and why he had the face mask and the gloves and also why he’d made all those comments about…

Don’t think about it, you have to work to do.

Gwyn walked into the shed and smelled the oil, the metal, the leftover old sap that clung to the space and grinned broadly. This place was heaven, and he wanted to do a good enough job that he’d get to come back in the future.

*

Gwyn found a map of the grounds, and decided to take one of the small gardening buggies down so he could bring the gear he’d need to potentially climb trees without a cherry picker. He had everything else he needed, his cambium saver, his poly-blend ropes, his throwline and throw-ball. He was wearing his chainsaw boots, and had the ones with spikes just in case he needed them. He hoped that he didn’t have to worry too much about an official lowering zone, being far enough from buildings and cars. They were a pain to rig.

When he arrived, he paused. Augus had made it sound like a haphazard area yet to be landscaped, but it was clear that he’d been thoughtfully adding trees for some time. Pale silver birches, which were only stocked at a handful of rare tree nurseries, bare of leaves at this time of year. Alongside them, the white serpentine trunks of silver-gums, heavy branches weeping foliage. There was the beginning of wide, shady paths cleared out, and Gwyn followed one of them until it forked at a large lemon myrtle. It was in full flower, and Gwyn leaned in and smelled the native lemon scent, and then marvelled at this wild-yet-tamed space. It was his favourite sort of landscape to work in.

He spent thirty minutes walking around, getting a sense of the space, the trees. He could see the ones Augus had marked out, most of them nearest to the paths, so he likely wanted them shaped in a way that would stop them from leaning over or blocking the walkways too much, while keeping their inherent shapes. They weren’t too large, and Gwyn was mildly disappointed to not have any fifteen metre tree to climb, but then…it would make the day go a lot faster.

He checked over the first tree he wanted to work on, making sure there were no termites or anything making it structurally unsound, and then sent a photo of it to Augus.

After forty minutes of working, he sent the follow up photo. The tree had a major fork, didn’t actually require that much work, and he’d set aside the three branches he’d removed. He used wound dressing, because the time of year wasn’t ideal for pruning Eucalyptus trees, and took close up photos of that too.

Within five minutes he had a return text.

- Adequate. I want before/afters on anything else you work on. Be ready to head off by 4pm.

Gwyn was happy to get what seemed like a nod of approval from Augus, and spent the rest of the day working on the trees indicated. He took before and after photos of all of them. Some passed without comment. On one, he received a text that said:

- You removed my favourite branch. But I suppose this is why I’m having a stranger do it, I’d rather be annoyed at you than myself. The branch had to go.

Gwyn smiled crookedly at that, had no idea what to say, and kept working. At about one pm he realised he’d left his lunch back in his ute, which was a good ten minute drive away on the buggy, and decided he’d leave it. He wasn’t working with huge specimens of tree, and in some cases, didn’t need to climb at all. Some of the trees were only three or four years old.

At three, he returned and spent some time cleaning and oiling Augus’ equipment, and the equipment he’d used from his own ute. He placed everything back where it was supposed to be, and in the ten minutes he had remaining, he looked at everything else Augus had. There was even a cabinet filled with different raw materials for wound dressing trees, along with grafting and striking equipment.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned. The coat, mask and gloves were gone. Augus was standing there in a deep green shirt, black trousers, and was wearing a tie with a print of leaves across it. Formal, but not exactly what businessmen tended to wear these days.

‘You’ll do, I suppose,’ Augus said, walking into the shed and leaning against one of the counters, looking at Gwyn. ‘Coffee or tea?’

‘Sorry?’ Gwyn said, as Augus immediately walked away.

‘It’s a common question when inviting someone to share a polite drink,’ Augus said without even looking over his shoulder. ‘Come on, you’ve had a long day.’

Gwyn scratched the back of his head – his straw-like hair had changed texture because of the sweat still drying in it – and walked after Augus quickly, nervously.

‘You have a really incredible garden,’ Gwyn said.

‘I know.’

‘You did that interview with Landscape Architect, and I-’

‘Which one?’ Augus said, taking Gwyn into the second shed which was filled with wood-working equipment and carpentry machinery. Gwyn looked around in surprise. Resting on a workbench was what looked like the smooth cylindrical top for a bedpost? Something similar? It wasn’t too large, and had bulbous ends.  He knew enough about wood-working to know it looked good, that Augus did professional work. He paused, staring at it. The thing wasn’t that long, maybe a small bedpost?

Gwyn didn’t know that Augus had been in more than one issue of Landscape Architect. Or at least, Augus hadn’t been in there since the one he’d seen when he was a teen. So Augus’ garden must have been in older issues that Gwyn hadn’t purchased?

‘A few years I guess,’ Gwyn said, his hand sliding gingerly over the wooden thing. It felt so smooth. The wood grain was like nothing he’d seen before. ‘Like three years.’

‘Feels like only a few months ago,’ Augus said, walking over to a coffee maker and brushing off some of the dust. Then he made a clucking sound under his tongue and took a cloth from the sink, cleaning off the coffee maker properly before turning it on. ‘I can’t tell if time is moving faster or slower these days. Yes, they do like coming round to take photographs of something, and then I have to deal with phone-calls for a few weeks, and then it stops. A pain.’

Augus looked up and noticed what Gwyn was looking at, and a wicked grin stole across his face that left Gwyn feeling flustered and confused.

‘Do you like it?’ he said.

Gwyn looked down at the cylindrical shape and shrugged.

‘I mean you’re good at what you do? What’s it for?’

‘You can’t tell?’ Augus said, raising his eyebrows. ‘Oh dear. Well, I can show you some of my finished work inside, if you like. Never let it be said that I’m not so haughty that I can’t show a young lad some fine woodwork.’

Gwyn swallowed. That whole- it had all sounded like- Gwyn was probably reading into it. The guy was like fifty, and…

‘I work mostly in hardwood,’ Augus said, as he made them both coffees without asking what Gwyn wanted or if he even liked coffee. ‘A lot I don’t grow, actually, because it’s not worth it. Katalox, lacewood, ziricote. I’m quite a fan of purpleheart too. But you need so many protections when working with the stuff. The dust causes nausea. Among other things.’

‘Is this like- A job? Or…’

Augus laughed. ‘It’s a hobby, young man. I can work the hours I choose, relatively, but everyone needs time for a hobby, don’t they? What about someone such as yourself?’

Gwyn shrugged, taking the coffee that Augus handed to him. After that, Augus didn’t move as far away again, stayed slightly within Gwyn’s personal space. Gwyn was taller than him, his shoulders were broader, but there was something about Augus that made him feel dwarfed. Gwyn took a sip of the coffee – unsweetened, black, but still good – and felt like something was going on, and like he didn’t want to stop whatever it was from happening. Not yet, anyway.

‘Ah, hobbies, well… A lot of it’s… I tried to turn gardening and stuff into…a job.’

‘Oh dear, so you’ll need a new hobby,’ Augus said, one side of his mouth curling up.

‘I don’t have…a lot of free time. I work a lot,’ Gwyn said. ‘University is covered by the government, but there’s my books, the other bits and pieces, rent and…equipment.’

Augus tilted his head at Gwyn like he’d discovered something curious. ‘Your last name is instantly recognisable and quite unique for the country, I believe. You’re not pulling from some generous fund your parents put aside for you?’

Gwyn lifted his chin slightly. ‘No, Sir, I pay my own way. I like to be independent like that.’

As if they’d give him anything like a five cent coin.

‘Sir,’ Augus said, repeating what Gwyn had said, his gaze softening. After a few seconds, the expression vanished and he looked mischievous instead. ‘I do believe I asked you to call me Augus.’

‘Sorry,’ Gwyn said quickly. ‘It just slipped out. I do it with some of my Professors too.’

‘I have actually been to university,’ Augus said, like he was divulging a secret, ‘and it is my recollection – even back in the olden days –  that none of the lecturers – Professor or otherwise – liked to be called ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ and that they all rather preferred a first-name basis too. We’re not at Oxford, are we? And you still call them that? That’s an odd hobby.’

‘It’s not a hobby,’ Gwyn said, realising Augus was teasing him. ‘It’s just a habit.’

‘It’s an interesting habit.’ Augus sipped at his coffee, lifted his eyebrows, and then gestured towards a door that must have led into the manor. ‘If you’re not too busy, I could show you the kind of thing I work on? Well, my hobby. I could show you the stock market, but there’s apps for that.’

Gwyn followed Augus as he turned and walked away, wondering just what he was getting himself into.