The Mower Now Commands the Field
Henry eased himself slowly onto the restaurant chair. He grimaced. He groaned. Dr Bee and Pawley watched him with interest. A fellow sufferer. Pleasure in another's pain.
'Lumbago?' asked Dr Bee. 'Gout? Some painful manipulation at the Writers’ Clinic?'
'Grass,' said Henry.
'Grass?' said Pawley. 'I find it's a pain reliever. They even prescribe it now for multiple sclerosis sufferers.'
'Not that sort,' Henry snapped, irritably. Pain made him irritable. 'Mowing.'
'Mowing?' said Dr Bee. 'The grim reaper? Time's scythe slashing at your hairy heels?'
'Lawns,' said Henry.
'Forest Lawns?' Dr Bee offered.
'Lawn bloody mowing,' said Henry.
'Really?' said Dr Bee. 'I am pleased to say I have never mown a lawn. Nor owned a lawn-mower.'
He glowed with the self-satisfaction of one who had never been suburban man.
'Whipper-snipper? Brush-cutter?' Pawley asked.
'Never,' he said, even more superciliously.
'Wife insisted,' said Henry.
'Ah,' said Pawley. 'Women and lawns. They have an obsession about them. The clean-shaven look. Not for them the fashionable stubble of male models, rent boys and Hollywood. It has to be the smooth enamelled green beloved of the ancient poets. Manicured is how they like it. They have this killer instinct where grass is concerned. The Lord put enmity between them. Any sort of grass,' he added reflectively. 'I know from bitter experience.'
'So do I,' said Henry.
'Nothing like mine,' said Pawley.
Pawley and Henry looked at each other, old gents hovering uncertainly before a revolving door, after you old chap, no after you.
Henry reached for the bottle of house white. Pawley seized the opportunity.
'Grass only needs to be cut when women are around,' said Pawley. 'Stay cool. Let it grow.'
'She's always around,' said Henry.
'Get a second home.'
'Of course,' said Henry. 'I should have thought of that. How silly of me. I’ll make a note to do it tomorrow.’'
'Mind you,' said Pawley, 'once I'd got the place up the coast, I had to keep the grass cut because of the snakes.'
Basking on the door-step in early summer. Drawn out by the warm weather. Brown snakes. Black snakes. Red bellies.
'Dangerous little critters. Kill you as soon as hiss at you. Much like women.'
'I do not have snakes,' said Henry.
'Every paradise has its snakes,' said Pawley. 'Even suburban ones. Snakes and Eves. They go together. It's the Eves of course that are the problem. Women hate grass. Afraid of the serpents lurking there.'
He poured himself a drink since Henry hadn't offered.
‘Madeleine reckons long grass encourages mosquitoes. Breeds them, probably. Endless asides on being eaten alive by mosquitoes from the uncut grass. Phobic, of course. I understand that. But you’ve just got to be relaxed about it, recognize it as phobic. Re-programme yourself. Learn to love your lawn. Give grass a chance.’
‘And you do, I’m sure,’ said Dr Bee.
'I used to let it alone,' he said. 'Used to like the jungle effect. Gave a sense of security. Protection. An illusion, of course. Thought it was security and all the time it was harbouring snakes. But then, isn't it all illusion?'
'It was great,' said Pawley. 'Wild raspberries started growing. Took over the slope, great. Then I let the rest of it alone and wild strawberries appeared. Amazing. Took me back, man. Remember Ingmar Bergman, all those movies?'
'The Seventh Seal,' said Dr Bee. 'Time with his scythe.'
'I just let it grow till Madeleine came up,' Pawley went on. 'Don't mow till women arrive is my advice. They complain. Then you say, I'll mow first thing in the morning. Let them see you doing it. Makes you look virtuous. Cut a track to the washing line. Another to the compost heap. Heroism. Then they're grateful. You've saved them from getting ticks or leaches or snake bites. You gain merit.'
'I thought you said you had a bitter experience,' Dr Bee reminded him.
'Ah, well,' said Pawley, 'I made an error of judgement.'
'Not like you,' said Dr Bee.
'Can happen to anyone,' said Pawley. 'I thought I'd gain extra merit. She was doing her exercises. You know. Those things women do. Yoga. Tai-chi.'
'Martial arts,' said Henry.
'Exactly. So I figured if I mowed up and down outside the window, sweat pouring off the brow, calluses swelling on the horny hands, she'd be impressed. And you know, taking exercise, too. She's always going on about how I should take exercise. It's a drag, but you tell yourself it's good for the upper body. Like hanging out the washing on the clothesline. Gain merit with your acupuncturist. Better than taking up golf or kayaking.'
'And was she impressed?' Dr Bee asked.
'Up to a point,' said Pawley. 'Heart pounding, eyes popping, motor raging. Honest labour. Like a Brueghel peasant.'
'And?' Dr Bee persisted.
'Yeah, well, I got carried away. I started to ham it up a bit. More Hieronymus Bosch than Brueghel. Like those old zap comix. Mr Natural. R. Crumb. That's when she realized.'
'Realized what?' Henry asked.
'That I was stoned.'
'Aren't you always?'
'By preference,' said Pawley. 'But like I said, women are down on grass. She came out like an avenging angel. Demanded to know.'
'Was I stoned?'
'And you said?'
'And that was a satisfactory answer?'
'Not to her,' said Pawley. 'She went ape. Said I'd been invaded by entities. Said I need to be cleared of them.'
'Exercised then exorcized?' said Dr Bee.
'And the rest of it. Chants. Mantras. Gongs. Incense. Space-clearer. Psychic healing. Heavy stuff, man. A complete debriefing. It was like I'd got a computer virus. Did I ever get the treatment. Full system scan. Quarantine. Hard disk stripped down. Rebooting. The lot. Shit. Not worth it. Now I do what she says.'
'You gave up grass?' said Henry in surprise.
'No, man. Gave up mowing. Got an agency to come and do it. It's only money. My money. But you've got to spend it while you can, she reckons. Who knows? So we spend it. Might as well. What's with this society? Can't drink and drive, can't smoke and drive, can't go out and get pissed or stoned, can't smoke at home, can't drink at home. Is this a life? What happened to us? Where are our joys and ancient liberties?'
He reached for the bottle again. Henry had emptied it. Pawley gazed at it, held it up to the light reflectively.
The waiter came over.
'Let's go up a notch,' said Pawley. 'Never know how long we've got.'
They went up a couple of notches. Vernaccia di San Giminiano.
'And you gave up smoking?'
'Had to anyway,' said Pawley. 'After the heart attack. Toxins in the smoke inflame the arteries.'
'How do you manage without?' Dr Bee asked.
'Eat it,' said Pawley. 'Wait till she's gone out and open the windows and cook up a bit. Got to heat it before you eat it. That's the only catch. Heat releases the THC. But it lasts all day that way. Much more economical, in fact. You only need the equivalent of a joint. Whereas in the past I'd've smoke ten or twelve.'
'And the rest,' said Henry.
'Fifteen, maybe,' Pawley conceded.
'In the good old days,' said Dr Bee.
'Where are they now?' asked Henry, hollowly.
The waiter came back with the wine for their approval. Pawley nodded to him to open it. Sniffed it, tasted it, approved it.
'Things aren't so bad,' he said, taking a decent swig.
Henry rearranged some limbs and groaned in dispute.
'Hire an agency,' Pawley advised him.
'Escort agency?' Dr Bee inquired.
‘Whatever your needs,’ said Pawley. ‘Make hay while the sun shines. All flesh is grass, after all.’
Michael Wilding was born in Worcester, read English at Oxford, and has taught at the University of Birmingham, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the National University of Singapore and the University of Sydney, where he is now emeritus professor. He has also been a milkman, publisher, postman, newspaper columnist, apple-picker, Cosmopolitan Bachelor of the Month, Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and Chair of the New South Wales Writers' Centre. www.michael-wilding.com