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Timor dropped his arms to his sides and stepped back to look at his work. A bonsai tree stood in front of him, proudly in its pot on an upturned stump which leaned against the dull green wall of his house. It was a white stinkwood tree and it was so old and he’d been training it for so long that even its leaves had become miniaturised. Its trunk was beginning to thicken into buttresses, like it would in the wild, and the soil in which it stood was covered in a thick, downy layer of moss, soft and green.He clicked his scissors unconsciously as he looked at the tree. He had hundreds of trees. He’d tried to count them, once, but that didn’t work because he was no good at arithmetic and he’d got too frustrated and angry. So he knew that he had hundreds of trees and that was enough. This one traced a perfect pattern against the wall and it was shaped like a triangle, higher on the left of the base than the right. He watered it with the gentle spray from an old watering can and then he bent his powerful arms around its pot to lift it and move it over to the bench where it usually lived.Like his bonsais, Timor’s house was small and perfectly shaped, a tiny model of the real thing. The paint on its plastered walls were powdering with age and the asbestos that covered its simple roof were themselves covered with black, powdery lichen. It had been built by the municipality, like all the houses in his neighbourhood and, like all his neighbours, Timor’s family hadn’t chosen the colour themselves. Nor had they chosen to live here. They’d simply been moved here when the government – and the municipality – had decided that these steep, clay-ridden slopes was more suitable for people of their kind than the comfortable, familiar and fertile Salt River Valley had been.Some of the houses were green like his and some were pink and some were blue and some were yellow, all pastel colours, except for the Hendricks house, which was orange, bright orange with white window frames. The Hendricks’ had painted it themselves soon after the municipality had transferred ownership of all the houses to their occupants, but the neighbourhood had been scandalised when they saw it emerging orange, one day, from its conformity of pale and powdery blue. But Timor didn’t mind; in fact, he hadn’t even noticed it at all ‘til Bettie spoke about it one evening at supper. She’d gone on and on about it, how Mrs Ruiters had said this about it and Tant Miems had said that and they’d even asked the pastor but he’d said we should love our neighbours as ourselves and Tant Miems said he was the pastor and he said that because he had to but she, Betts, was sure he was just as scandalised as everyone else and Timor, what did Timor think?But Timor didn’t think and her talk-talk-talk drove him crazy and he’d got up from the table and gone out to his trees.And Betts had just shaken her head and continued eating. She was tired of trying to talk to her brother.After he’d put the stinkwood back in its place, Timor picked up a little, two-pronged fork, an old table fork which he’d modified for pulling the weeds out of his pots. He worked as the mood took him, now prodding at the pots and now turning to the left of the path and now to the right. His bonsai benches were tiered three-high, the bottom bench wider than the middle, the top bench narrowest, and the trees were arranged on them according to size but there was no pattern to the pots. Timor grew his bonsais in anything that worked as a pot. Old plastic nursery pots, old seedling trays, old ice cream tubs, jam jars, plastic picnic bowls, fish tins (but he didn’t like tins, they rusted too quickly) and even his mother’s cracked soup tureen, his late mother’s soup tureen because she’d been dead nearly twenty years and her soup tureen had been cracked on the night of her funeral when one of the drunks had crashed into the table and knocked everything down. Timor had tried but he couldn’t fix it: it was good enough for a tree, though, and it reminded him of her every time he worked on it. He’d planted an ironwood in it because his mother had been a woman of iron, a hard, determined woman who scared Timor and terrorised the other children in the street with her high, angry screaming.It wasn’t a happy tree.All of Timor’s trees had emotions. The white stinkwoods were happy, powerful and strong; the oaks with their thick shade and heavy leaves were broody; the syringas were light and bouncy, little fairies with their soft shade and their pretty white and mauve flowers which came out before the leaves in spring. But the ironwoods were bitter, with their sharp and pointy leaves.He rounded the corner of the house into his narrow back yard where he had still more bonsai benches and, under a water-proof, plastic shade cloth, his miniatures, growing in their oyster shells. He preferred the giant coastal oysters, the cultivated ones were too small, but the giants weren’t easy to find anymore and anyway Timor reckoned he’d collected enough of them in his pile under an old tarpaulin. Oyster shells weren’t perfect for bonsais because they crumbled after a few years and then they needed to be replaced. But Timor didn’t mind repotting his trees; it gave him a chance to trim their roots and you needed to do that even more often than the shells crumbled away.His sister called out from the only door of the house: “Timor, come inside, supper’s ready!” She came to his house every night and cooked for him and then went home and cooked for her husband and her children, and she often ate with Timor, preferring his silence, sometimes, to the constant wailing and the unorganised uproar of her own home.He picked up a spray bottle and began to lay a soft mist onto the soil of the miniatures. The pressure from the watering can would have been too strong, it would have washed the soil out of the tiny bowls of the oyster shells, but the spray bottle settled a satisfying wetness on their little gardens.“Hey!” she screamed again. “Come inside, your supper’s getting cold!” and still he worked, holding each shell between his thumb and his forefinger to steady it against the wind from the spray.There was no room for anything except bonsai benches and pathways in Timor’s yard. The benches and their trees tumbled up against the board fence which hung crooked and skew between him and his neighbours. The paths of broken oyster shells scrunched under his feet and a few weeds poked out at the edges. Out front on the sidewalk stood an old Ford Cortina station wagon, its wheels removed, most of its windows out and its rusting chassis standing on thick blocks of wood soaked through with old oil and the last drippings of brake fluid and the grease that oozes out of rotten axles. And even here on the hulk stood trees in waiting, untrimmed saplings which Timor had brought home but hadn’t yet brought into his collection. These, too, needed to be watered, especially where they stood in the hot sun with summer almost here. He filled a twenty litre bucket which had once held restaurant mayonnaise and took it, and his watering can, out onto the street and began watering the saplings, soaking their pots and letting the water wash their leaves and refilling the watering can from the bucket. Then he went back to the miniatures and refilled his spray bottle and sprayed some more, forgetting completely about his sister and her supper. Inside, she turned up the television so that she wouldn’t her his crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch on the oyster paths as he walked and she ate bitterly before washing her plate and leaving without greeting him and walking up the road to her own house.At last it got dark and Timor washed his tools and his hands and came inside. He blinked in the harsh light under the single electric bulb which hung under a greying, hat-shaped shade in the centre of the room that was his dining room, his kitchen and his lounge. He looked for Bettie and, seeing that she’d eaten and gone, sat at the melamine table which had been the centre of his life since before they’d moved into this house, since his parents had bought it with his father’s Christmas bonus and brought it home with great ceremony when Timor had been six or seven years old, more than thirty years ago.The room was papered with pictures of trees. Some of them hung behind glass in cheap, thin, unpainted frames, but most had been cut from newspapers and magazines and stuck to the walls with glue and painted over with varnish. A plastic tree with glass-jewelled flowers stood on the old-fashioned television set with its sliding dials, and by the window the room’s only pot plant, a bamboo palm in a patterned pot of creamy white and electric green which Timor had found at a stall at a charity market, craned it’s neck to get at the light.Bettie had dished his food onto a thick blue and white willow pattern plate, cracked and chipped like all his plates, and she’d turned another one upside down to protect the food from the flies and keep it warm. He ate without noticing what he was eating and he drank a glass of water to wash it down after. Then he rinsed his plate and, leaving it unwashed in the sink, sat down on the blanket-covered settee to watch the evening serials and it was about half past nine when he went to bed.Timor was fit and powerful from his work on the oyster farm and he usually slept easily and well. But the moments before sleep were often the worst. He slept alone in the double bed which had once been his parents’ and as he lay down and turned on his side, he looked at the unused pillow beside him, emptiness filling him and he reached beneath the sheets and between his legs and he began to stroke.
Timor always woke before dawn, summer and winter. In summer he used the time before work to water his trees to protect them against the heat. He needed to water morning and evening in summer, especially now with the easterly wind blowing day after day, pulling the moisture out of the leaves and drying the soil. He worked quickly and whenever he stopped to fill his watering can he bit into a thick white bread and jam sandwich and drank huge gulps of milk straight from the bottle. The neighbour’s cat came and rubbed itself against his legs once and he soaked some of the bread and gave it to her, smoothing the soft fur on her ears as he bent down to feed her. When he was finished he went inside and washed and pulled on his green overalls and his heavy work boots and, locking the door carefully behind him, began walking to the filling station where everyone waited for their minibus taxis. When Timor’s taxi came, they were pushed and bullied in until all fourteen seats were full and Timor found himself squashed between a heavily breathing, hugely overweight woman who stank of supermarket perfume and a boy who looked about twenty but who wore the green and grey uniform of the town’s English high school. Conversation was impossible in the boom-boom room of the taxi for the driver had kitted it out with giant loudspeakers and most of the place under the back seats was taken up with humming amplifiers and whirring boosters. Timor had heard once that a maddened passenger had cut the speaker cables but he never asked what the driver had done to him because he was sure it would have been terrible. The driver used his vehicle like a weapon and drove without care for any one else on the road and rushed up behind other vehicles and swung out into on-coming traffic arrogant and unfeeling and Timor and the others allowed themselves to be bullied into town as they did every working morning of their lives.At last they stopped at the taxi rank, where rows and rows of taxis, mostly white and quite old, were pulled up next to the fussy wood and steel municipal awnings which were supposed to give commuters shelter from the sun and the rain but which really only made moving around more difficult. The tar of the rank was patched and potholed and the paper and packets which everyone dropped on the ground lay thick as leaves on an autumn forest floor. The sound and the fury were almost unbearable as the taxis played their music and vendors of gospel cassettes turned their cheap hi-fi’s to full volume, the crackle and rattle of loudspeakers at tearing point almost winning the war against the fire and brimstone of the preacher’s hell and damnation. Vegetable sellers had their little plastic bags of three tomatoes or three onions displayed on cardboard boxes on up-turned beer crates and they sat, silent, blanketed and alert, waiting for their customers and hoping.Timor climbed out and joined the crush of people walking southwards towards the Island. Builders and carpenters, labourers and plasterers, brick-carriers and boss-boys, all of them working on the hundreds of multi-million rand houses – many of which were almost as small as Timor’s, but none of which were nearly as cheap – which had sprung up where, until only a short while before, a sawmill had employed the people Timor had known all his life. Now the mill was gone and they’d cut canals into the Island and one island had become ten and the factory which had been the meal ticket of the poor had now become an exclusive preserve for the rich.They walked across the railway tracks at the shunting yard where the municipality brought the town’s rubbish to be squashed into trucks and shipped off to Mossel Bay, a hundred kilometres down the coast; and they walked along the causeway across the mud flats of theLagoon and past the entrance gate to the housing complex – where the builders and the builders’ labourers left them and went to have their identity tags checked to see if they had the right of entry and then stood around to wait for their bosses to collect them in their pick-ups and drive them to their building sites, because no-one was allowed to walk around unattended in this most precious of neighbourhoods; and those who were still together walked through the new shopping centre with its narrow streets and wide, overhanging balconies that had been artfully designed to protect, from the same sun and the same rain that beat down on the commuters at Timor’s taxi rank, the pampered pedestrians who would soon be shopping here. And all the while they talked, the walkers, about themselves and their families and their soccer teams and their cricket, about fishing and politics and rugby and the parties they’d be attending this weekend and about the drunken fights they’d seen last weekend. About the high crime rate and about their low wages and about the price of meal and about how many people they had to feed. And at last they came to the little, low, blackened-with-age wood building where the oyster farm had had its offices for almost fifty years. Timor collected his card and clocked in and went into the yard to get ready for the day. The farm manager came across to where he was standing and said “you’ll be in the restaurant today, Timor, we need you there because Willie’s on leave, OK? Just be careful you don’t talk too much. You’ll upset the customers,” and he laughed loudly and everyone who heard him laughed, too. Working in the restaurant meant standing at a trough in the kitchen all day and shucking oysters; but it was easy and on some days, like now, just before the summer holiday season, you had a lot of time to sit in the sun and smoke, if you smoked, while you waited for orders to come through from the dining room. Then when they came, you’d open the first two or three and after you’d got your rhythm the rest of the day became mechanical and you could let your mind wander. Timor swapped his boots for a pair of scuffed black Wellingtons and pulled on a pair of heavy protective gloves and collected a short, blunt-bladed oyster knife and slipped his rubber apron over his head and tied it behind his back. A number of take-away orders had already come in, orders for other restaurants in town, and he picked up the first oyster and began to work. These were cultivated oysters, grown in the Lagoon, rich and sea green with hard, paper-thin layers on the outside and white and grey and pearly and shiny on the inside, all of them similar in size and shape, not jagged and interesting like the coastals which grew on the rocks in the swell and the spray. He picked up the first one and cradled it in his left hand and slipped the knife under the top shell and with a twist severed the muscle that held the trapdoor shut. Then he rinsed it and, quickly looking it over, decided that it was a fine oyster and set it aside for Celia, next to him, who was working to count and pack the oysters into the white polystyrene take-away boxes which kept them fresh and cool.Soon the morning fell into its usual rhythm, and the women chatted around him and over him, sometimes asking him questions but never expecting a reply. They all thought Timor was slow and they accepted that and they included him in everything they did, they asked him to their dances and they took him with them when they went to The Drift or to Green Hole to braai and they weren’t guarded with him because they knew he wouldn’t repeat the things they said. And perhaps they were a little fond of him, and perhaps a little scared of his silence.Timor thought Celia was beautiful with her soft, gentle face and her smooth, cream-and-chocolate skin and she was always polite and easy to get on with and he enjoyed the morning alongside her. It was comfortable and the time went quickly. Buyers came and went, all the usual drivers from the restaurants in town and some of the restaurant managers and the delivery guys who brought the fish and the milk and the vegetables and the bread and the wine and the beer for the restaurant here at the farm. The waiters swept the dining room and the patio that looked out onto the Lagoon and laid the tables with thick, blue place mats and heavy restaurant cutlery and side plates and wine glasses. The kitchen crew diced the vegetables and made the salads and cut the fish into portions and repacked it ready for cooking and the chefs stirred their seafood soups and their paellas. And still Timor watched, and shucked his oysters. At midday the restaurant began to fill and Timor had to work quickly to get all the oysters out on time but it was pleasant work and he didn’t mind. Then the restaurant emptied again and Timor could take his own lunch and he sat in the sun in the yard behind the kitchen – by now the easterly wind had picked up and it took the edge off the heat – and he ate his sandwiches and bought a Coke from the bar and drank it from the bottle, and he dozed a little to pass the time. Back at his station he found that most of the packing had been done for the day so he fetched a hose and a broom and scrubbed the washing bay and waited around for half-past four. In the afternoon one or two stray tourists came through to see how the oysters were farmed, and the tour guides asked him to show them how to open an oyster, but they only watched once before moving on. They weren’t really interested and Timor was relieved that he didn’t have to talk to them or get friendly or have his photograph taken with them: he hated having his photograph taken, on display for the civilised world like a noble savage or an animal in a zoo.And then it was cha-iela time and it was over for the day and he could get back to his bonsais.In the evening he ate with Bettie and she talked about the weekend. “You’ll come to the braai on Sunday. Don’t worry, I’ll make some potato salad and I’ve already bought the chops and some wors, they had a special on wors at the Pick ‘n Pay, you don’t need to do anything. We can give you a lift. Ashwin says the band’s been practicing all week…” and she went on and on like she always did and when Timor had had enough he got up from the table and went out while she was talking and picked up his watering can and began to care for his plants.Suddenly there was a crash from inside the house and another and another. Timor looked up. Bettie was screaming: “you fukken bastard, what do you think I am, hey?” He looked into the doorway. She was standing at the sink, throwing his plates at the wall. There was food on the floor, spaghetti and tomatoes and a pool of water at her feet. She hurled another plate at him and he ducked and it missed and flew past and landed in pieces on the road.Timor watched as she swept the pots from the stove, scattering them and spilling their contents, the runny, fatty mince oozing across the printed plastic floor mat and under the dresser. “You don’t even have the manners to say ‘thank you.’ You just get up and leave. Who do you think you are? What do you think I am? Hey? Just a servant so that you can water your fukken trees?“Trees, trees, trees. What is it about those fukken trees? Why do you love those fukken trees so much? Why can’t you find yourself a woman like every other man and let her look after you, hey? Why must I look after you? Why can’t you look after yourself? What d’you think I am? “Ma’s been dead for ever. I’m not Ma!”She stopped, panting, and leaned her arms on the table. Timor looked at her, still stopped half through the doorway.“Trees, trees, trees,” she went on. “This is what I think of your fukken trees!” and she went to the wall and began to scratch at the pictures with her nails, but the glue was too strong and she couldn’t get at them; frustrated and crying, she lifted a knife and began to scrape, but the pictures refused to tear away.“Fuck!” she shouted. “Fuck you, Timor, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” But Timor had turned and he was walking down the street.There were many people in the street tonight as there always were on warm evenings like this, mostly teenagers, boys and girls holding hands and kissing and, some of them, getting ready to make love, their passion barely hidden as they groped for each other while they tried to not let it show. They stood at their gate posts and those who had patios sat on their patios and others sat on the steps at their front doors and as soon as Timor came out of his gate he saw that they were watching what was happening, none of them shocked and none of them surprised.Bettie followed him out into the street still shouting, and everybody was watching, but still she shouted and still he walked. She stood in the middle of the street screaming and crying and still he walked and still the people in the street stared dumbly at them both. The neighbourhood was built on a series of steep hills and valleys and the roads were steep and windy and soon he was out of sight of his house and he’d forgotten her and he continued walking. He passed the church hall and went out beyond it and into the little field of fynbos that flowered with pink and orange watsonias in Spring. He walked under the plane trees that lined the road outside the primary school and past the endless vibracrete wall of the stadium with its razor wire crown and its graffiti: “No Sex is Safe Sex” and “Kaiser Chiefs” and “Irie” and patterns of green, red and yellow dagga leaves and green, yellow and black election posters “Register Now To Vote.” The lights were on in the stadium and there was a soccer practice going on and still he walked. Down into the valley where the school children had built a park and a nature reserve and back up again towards his house. It was almost dark now but it was easy to see under the high orange lights that flooded the neighbourhood like the arc lights you saw in movies about prisoners of war.As he got closer to his house he saw that she had pulled all his saplings off the Cortina and thrown them into the street, there was potting soil and there were nursery bags lying around and young trees, their roots hanging limply on the ground. He got angry then, but when he went into his yard he found the she hadn’t touched any of his bonsais and he relaxed again. The front door was still open and the light was on but it didn’t seem as if anybody had been into the house since either of them had left.It was a mess. She’d turned the kitchen table over and all his plates and glasses were broken and everything smelled of used cooking oil when it settles. The walls were spattered with meat and the settee, which had always stood with its back to the dining area, was spattered with meat. And that pool of meat under the dresser, that was still there, too. Timor turned and went outside again and began collecting up all the saplings that hadn’t been too badly broken. He gathered them into bunches and shook the last of the soil from their roots and stored them in buckets of water: tomorrow he’d put them into pots again and maybe this was a good thing because it would force him to start training them properly. He stored the buckets on his potting bench on the south side of the house – he’d built the bench of old scaffold planking and it was here because this was always the coolest place where the trees wouldn’t suffer too much when he took them out of their pots to trim their roots and refresh their soil.
And then he went inside to begin cleaning his house.