Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten


It is a large and peaceful garden, framed by a low stone wall. Like an ocean of green it

surrounds a suburban house, nondescript but not unattractive, set far back from the road, its generous windows reflecting the garden in fragments, its white walls turning green where ivy and tickey-creeper grow towards the gutters. The garden is closed to the sky by a ceiling of leaves, layered and shaped by Syringa, Pepper, and Stinkwood trees, and the giant Tipuana. Each layer of leaves modifies the light, sifting and filtering it, so that when it reaches the shrubs and ground-covers far below it resembles light in a fish tank.

Dropped by twigs and leaves the shadows in this tank defy gravity, hovering at every height, from the darkest boughs above – pitch black against the light – to the shadows that lie amongst the tree roots, which protrude like the backs of monsters from the sea of Wonderlawn.

Nothing here is isolated – all is fused in the amber of an impenetrable suburban peace, the gravity provided by silence, which, like time, glues these living forms together. Only unexpected sounds like the ringing of the telephone inside the house break the spell – separating things into a brief, agitated privacy – but they coagulate again in the unifying silence which builds each time anew.

Tree stump slices half sunk into the earth form a curved pathway from the decaying wooden gate (for years not in use) to the stoep behind the house. Some stumps are worn into bowls by years of shoe soles, others have sunk out of sight beneath the Wonderlawn – its trillion leaves like tough miniature water lilies, each no higher or wider than the iris of an eye. Other stumps have split apart altogether, their cracks filled with luminous moss, the manicured lawns onto which ants emerge from the alien shadows of their miniature forest.

In the flower-bed outside the large sitting room window stands Maya. She is listening to bees, which to her are striped musical notes flying between the Fuschia ballerinas in the pots beside the stoep.

Maya is tall, thin and very pale. She is 37 years old and she is smiling. She is wearing a purple dress that doesn’t quite fit, and she is smiling.

She watches the Agapanthus, their long leaf-tongues gently swaying, their flowers like fireworks stuck in time, expanding angel brains. She watches Wild Rubarb, its leaves constantly unfurling but never quite crashing onto the Plectranthus below.

She looks at the bark of the Syringa tree, made from ten thousand grey puzzle pieces, spotted with doilies of white lichen, like ripples left by snow-capped peaks might look, if dropped into the black liquid of space.

She loves plants best because they don’t talk, and they don’t move from one place to another. But not only plants live in the garden. Next to the swimming pool live the tiny little orange creatures that walk on the warm slate. Most of the spiders live behind or beneath the pool shed and the garden shed. The woodlice live in the compost heap and so do the house snakes. The slugs live under the pots around the stoep. The earthworms live in the soil, the moles live in the soil, the aphids live on the lemon tree leaves. The lizards live under the loose rocks in the back garden wall and on the stoep. The ants live in so many places, but the queen lives under the slate outside the kitchen door where the washing line was. The birds live in the trees, the caterpillars live in the mint.

And Maya lives in the garden, during the day.

And Albert lives in the garden, on Thursdays.

On the other side of the garden, where the Agapanthus and compost heap meet under the massive Pepper tree, kneels Albert. He is a black man, and old.

Maya hears turtle doves – their voices like the sighing of sad alien things. Sometimes she hears a rose beetle flying by too close. But her favourite sound is the sound of Albert’s spade as he digs into the soil. She stands on the piece of grey slate that he put in the flower bed for her when she was still very small (so that she didn’t have to worry about standing on a plant) and watches him – her blue eyes wet with emotion.

She stands quite straight, her hands holding each other in front of her. A helicopter pod spirals down from the highest branches of the Tipuana tree and lands on the exact same place that two different pods landed on last year, but Maya doesn’t take her eyes off Albert.

The garden hose, camouflaged in curves as it lies hiding in the soft grass, seems to watch Albert too. But Maya isn’t frightened for him because the snake couldn’t really see him, or even bite him, because it didn’t have its head on. Its head was orange and grey and said Gardena on it and it had only once been on the snake when Mummy bought it and Albert screwed it on and then Maya started screaming because it was much too dangerous for Albert and then Mummy shouted at him to takeitoff! takeitoff! and they never put it on again and now it lives in a gherkin jar with a lid on tight in the shed.

Maya watches the Shadow Fish swim past her at the height of her head, so close she can see its scales and its gills which open and close, sucking spores and pollen into its dark inside. The fish swims very, very slowly to Albert and sucks with soft lips at the top of his felt hat. He waves his arm as if chasing a fly away. Maya watches the Shadow Fish swim between the Agapanthus stalks and over the garden wall.

The Melmenook/Belmenoot never came into the garden on Thursdays because of Albert. Maya didn’t know why. She didn’t know if it was scared of him, or if it was cross with him for changing things, or if it just knew that Thursday was his day. But it came into the garden every other day. It usually stood in the middle of the bamboo patch near the swimming pool shed where the pump and the nets were. It stood in the very middle of the bamboo and watched her. It was much, much bigger than Daddy and much, much wider, with no shoulders or neck, so its arms came out where its ears should have been. Its hands just hung at its sides never touching anything. It was very tall and very wide but it wasn’t fat or thin, because it was actually the beginning of a tunnel and you could see very deep into it. It had very sad eyes and always looked at Maya for a very long time before it moved on. She knew it was called a Melmenook or Belmenoot because the very first time she saw it and wondered what it was, it told her inside her head. But because she had never heard a tunnel speak before she couldn’t hear if it had said Melmenook or Belmenoot and it had never spoken again.

She once saw the Shadow Fish swim straight into the Melmenook/Belmenoot and disappear deep inside it, and she thought that was the last time she would ever see the Shadow Fish. But then the next day there it was, swimming under the trellis that held the Zimbabwe Creeper, as if nothing had happened at all.

On Thursdays Maya only watched and didn’t touch a thing in the garden, because Thursday was Albert’s turn. But on the other days she was also allowed to do anything she wanted. Once she spent a whole morning putting a polished orange Pyracantha berry right in the middle of every single Nasturtium leaf, and they trembled a bit every time she put a berry on and then suddenly her back became hot because she felt Mummy watching her from the kitchen window and then she felt her whole body going into Mummy’s eyes in long lines like Nasturtium stems and then she also became a tunnel like the Melmenook/Belmenoot and it was all because she had been clever with beauty at the exact same time that Mummy had been clever with love!

Albert doesn’t mind if she watches him. Every Thursday for thirty years she has watched him work, starting at nine in the morning and ending at three thirty when he gets changed in the shed. Only at lunchtime she doesn’t watch him because mummy said she must give him privacy. He has his lunch at the plastic table next to the pool and he listens to his radio in Zulu. Mummy and Maya have lunch with the Creepers on the back stoep. They don’t talk at all because Mummy knows that on Thursdays Maya just wants to think about the garden and how much Albert is helping it. Sometimes she gets so happy about how much Albert is helping that she just starts crying and then Mummy puts down her sandwich and holds her. And then she just gets happier and happier and cries even more because every time it happens she remembers how clever Mummy is – even cleverer than words, and much, much cleverer than Maunty Erle.

Aunty Merle is Mummy’s sister but Maya calls her Maunty Erle because she is the wrong way around inside herself. She is scared of Maya and Maya used to be scared of her.

Just on top of Maunty Erle’s skin is a thin layer of darkness. Maunty Erle always smiled the widest the more frightened she was, and she always smiled the widest at Maya.

Once Maya heard Maunty Erle whispering too loudly to Mummy in the kitchen: “she can’t stay at home forever Maudy!”

Maya didn’t like words because they always changed things from the way they really were, but these were by far the worst words she had ever heard. They hit her so hard in her chest that they damaged her heart and she had to stay in bed for a very long time so she couldn’t even watch Albert on Thursday and Mummy was so worried and then Maya got so worried for Mummy and the next night Maya wrote with her felt pens she cannot live at home forever Maudy! she cannot live at home forever Maudy! she cannot live at home forever Maudy! on her cupboard and on her breasts and on the walls and on her pyjamas and on the windows and on the curtains and on her face and on the sheets and under the bed and in her ears and on her legs and in her hair until all the felt pens were finished and in the morning Mummy saw it and almost vomited and then cried with Maya and told her that she didn’t ever, ever have to go away from home and then Maya wondered how Maunty Erle could be so stupid if she was Mummy’s sister and Mummy was so clever?

Because Mummy knew, and Maya knew, that if someone is standing in the very, very middle of THE LIGHT, then any step they take, in any direction, is a step into THE DARKNESS.

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