The Godfather: Peter Corris on flowers
‘Send me dead flowers by the mail’ – Jagger/Richards
I am indifferent to flowers, although I was surrounded by them at home as a child. Where I grew up, in the dreary south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne in a brick veneer house set on a quarter-acre block, there were flowers everywhere. My mother was an ardent gardener. She grew roses, hydrangeas, poppies and camellias. The last she sold sometimes to a florist shop but this was never her motivation. She weeded and pruned constantly and my father facilitated her interest by providing metre upon metre of concrete edging to the flower beds. He levelled the ground, set the wooden framework in place and, with me as an occasional unwilling helper, mixed the concrete on a sheet of iron and trowelled in and smoothed the cement.
For my mother, I believe, flower growing was a relief from, and a solace for, her boring domestic duties – something that took her as close as anything could to a spiritual experience. To my father, I think, the neat edging gave him a chance to exercise his considerable craft skills and was a symbol of respectability. Concrete paths and borders represented stability and a certain level of upward mobility. A well-tended lawn was the same.
None of this passed on to me. At no house or flat I lived in after leaving home did I or my partners pay any attention to gardens. This changed when I began to live with Jean. At a rented house we occupied for a year in Canberra she surprised me by taking care of the garden. She renovated hedges and flower beds and made a decayed fishpond attractive with appropriate flowers. After one of our daughters was born in Canberra Hospital, she remarked wryly that she was the only woman in the ward without flowers. I went straight to Fyshwick markets and bought a bucketful of the first ones I saw. I don’t know what they were, but when I next came in, proudly bearing them, the nurses laughed at the sheer volume, and so did Jean.
We moved to Melbourne, took a very short-term rental while negotiating to buy a house and Jean left it, after a very few months, beautified by flowers and shrubs and augmented by a carefully cultivated herb patch.
For Jean, I think, this had none of the associations gardening had had for my parents. From her childhood in country Victoria she had absorbed the urge, almost a responsibility, to till the soil, to create beauty as a reward for effort. Over the years all I ever did was dig the holes.
At various times I have enthused about our vegetables – climbing beans in Canberra, zucchini and sweet corn in Marrickville, cherry tomatoes on our island in Moreton Bay. But, as for flowers, in truth I would have echoed the sentiments of a golfing partner: ‘The only flower I’m interested in is cauliflower.’
Only in recent times have I come to buy Jean flowers at her birthday or as gratitude for her civilising of one of my manuscripts. I have only worn a flower in my jacket twice in my life – once, as I’ve written before, when I won a best-dressed-man competition and again when Jean and I were married at the Sydney Registry Office. But don’t ask me what the flowers were. As far as I recall, my character Cliff Hardy has never commented on flowers other than to remark on his failure to identify them.
We’re about to move into a block of flats with attractive garden surrounds. Jean will have a patch to potter in. I’ll smell the roses.