HOTHOUSE

Kirsten Griffiths

As long as he didn't have bowls that day, Bert spent most of his time in the hothouse. Truth be told, he would always rather spend his days at home in his toasty glassed-in sanctuary, with its scents of potting mix and tomatoes, its rustling newspapers and the sound of the tui in the garden outside. But he had promised Marge that he would keep going to bowls with the boys, that he would keep going to the Cossie Club on Thursdays – that he would keep going.

"I know, old girl, I know," he said as he reminded himself that there was a roll up at the bowling club tomorrow. Today there was no bowls and no Cossie Club, and Bert slowly breathed in the soothing warmth.

A rock hit the wooden workbench. Bert's body jerked – he felt hot pain in his bad shoulder as his neck muscles twisted. It was almost as if the sound of breaking glass overhead was an afterthought, hitting his ears a split second after the reddish rock flicked through the edge of his vision.

"Stone the crows!" He stared at it, there on his bench, looking like a stranded lump of frozen flesh.

Bert looked up. Through the single broken pane the spring sky showed a sharper blue. It was time to hose off the thin coating of grime again. He couldn't tell what direction the rock had arrived from – maybe those Wilson kids over the back? He strode across the neatly trimmed lawn, his outrage mixed with a deep uncertainty about what he would do if he actually caught a nine-or eleven-year old smirking with an empty hand over the fence. Marge was the disciplinarian, and the diplomat. She would have known what to say.

He was relieved to see that the yard across the back fence was empty and the house quiet. All the neighbouring properties were still and empty, everyone was at work, or school, or gone into town. Bert squinted upwards. The wind was cool but the day was bright with just a scattering of brisk clouds. A few dark birds circling, too high up to make out their kind. The tui started up his war song again. Bert went into the house and made himself a cup of tea, then took it back out to the hothouse.

***

It was hard to be sure whether the dark mark on the work table was freshly arrived from the impact of the falling rock, or whether it had already been a part of the mosaic of scars and stains that recorded Bert's solitary days. Bert reached out his hand and patted the rock a couple of times with his fingertips before picking it up. It was heavier than its size suggested, reddish and oddly formless – neither rounded, nor flattened, nor angular. At one end its surface was was pocked and bubbled. It looked as if another flesh was beneath the outer layer, like black glass covered with a thick hard blubber of red metal.

Bert sipped the mug of tea in his right hand, while his left hand cradled and turned the rock back and forth. He felt a prickling in the palm of his hand. Did the small craters that pitted one end of the rock have sharp edges? He put down the mug so that he could position the rock more carefully, using just the callused tips of his fingers. It didn't feel rough to the touch. He put it down on the bench and went back into the house to call the glazier.

***

The young guy who came to fix the glass was called Craig.

"Kids, eh. Little buggers."

Bert half-nodded. "How much?"

Craig pulled out his mobile EFTPOS thingummy.

Bert counted out some green twenties and handed them over.

The young glazier had to nip out to the van parked in the driveway to get an invoice book. He filled out a receipt. "Cheers."

Bert went back out to the hothouse. He looked at the rock sitting on the workbench. A bumblebee thunked against the windows. He reached up to the shelf with its neat parade of gloves and secateurs and slug pellets, and carefully lifted down an old biscuit tin. It was one of those blue ones with a picture of white shortbread biscuits arranged in front of a backdrop of tulips and a windmill. He opened it up and placed the rock in it, next to the other bits and pieces that had turned up in the soil and in nooks and crannies over the years: screws and washers, a large green glass marble, a chunk of old white pottery painted with blue swallows. He put the tin back on the shelf, picked up the dirty mug, and went in to start cooking tea.

***

At bowls, Bert had a good yarn with Nev and Paddy. Nev was a bit of a joker and Bert's quietness sometimes brought out the worst in him.

"That Glenys is giving you the eye, Bert." Nev winked and leered. "You've made a conquest there, mate."

"Get off with you!" Bert hoped his face wasn't reddening.

"Aw, leave him alone," said Paddy.

The ladies looked over from the kitchen hatch. Sue, Nev's wife, glared at him and brought a plate of sausage rolls over to Bert. "How are you, Bert? How's that beautiful garden? Saw your marigolds out by the letterbox. Don't know how you do it!" Sue smiled at him brightly.

Glenys carried a tray of fish paste sandwiches in one hand, and a plate of pikelets in the other. "Your favourite," she said to Bert, "tuck in. There's plenty. I packed you some extra to take home for your tea. There's a Tupperware on the bench."

***

After bowls, full of scones and sausage rolls, Bert thought he'd better check on the tomatoes. When he went into the hothouse, he saw the rock sitting on the bench. He looked up at the tin on the shelf.

"I'm dreaming things, aren't I old girl." He shook his head. "You always say I'd forget my own head if it wasn't screwed on."

He started to reach up for the tin, but then stopped and looked at the rock. He hesitated for a fraction before picking it up and putting it onto the windowsill. The geranium cuttings looked like they had rooted well, so he moved the shallow tray onto the work table and started potting the best ones.

***

The next morning, after Bert had finished putting away the groceries, he went out to the hothouse. There was a bonsai tree sitting on the table. It was a pine, though not a variety Bert recognised, and snaked at an uncertain angle out of its shallow rectangular container. The tree reminded him of a dancer; you'd think it was about to fall but instead it held itself in a split second balance, eternally ready to spin back into waiting arms. It reached its green needles like a thousand fingers into the waiting air. Its ceramic pot was glazed shiny black, mottled with grey and blue. Bert had the odd feeling that the bonsai tree was smiling at him.

It wasn't the first time Glenys had left a plant in the hothouse for him when he wasn't home. Usually it was lettuces or impatiens. She was a keen gardener too, but he never knew she had the persistence for cultivating bonsai. Bert had always admired bonsai trees, but he'd never aspired to the artistic side of gardening. Marge was the one who'd belonged to the Floral Art Society.

Bert looked at the windowsill, to where he thought he'd left the rock. "Must have put it in my pocket." He dug into his pockets, but only found a handkerchief. "It'll be round here somewhere."

The tui sang, and in the warmth of the glasshouse it was hard to feel anything but calm.

***

Bert left earlier than usual to go to the bowling club committee meeting. On his way there, he stopped in at the public library and borrowed the two books they had on bonsai care and maintenance. After the meeting finished, he went up to Glenys.

"Thanks for the beautiful – "

"Bert! You are going to come to the quiz night at the Cossie Club, aren't you? It's for a good cause."

"Um," said Bert.

"I know, I'll come pick you up. That way I can pick up that Tupperware of mine."

"Er," said Bert.

"Great, I'll see you on Saturday at 6."

"Thanks?" said Bert.

Glenys was chatty, but gentle with it, and Bert found he didn't mind the company at all. The Tupperware was duly returned on Saturday, and by the time Bert came home from the supermarket on Tuesday, it was back, sitting on the work table, filled with warm cheese muffins.

***

Bert was really annoyed the morning he discovered that some cheeky bugger had pinched his bonsai tree. It was the first time he'd had a valuable thing in the hothouse, and he'd never bothered to put a lock on the door. Too late now.

A cat sauntered across the lawn. It wasn't one of the familiar neighbourhood moggies. It was large, black and white, one of those cats that looked like it was wearing a fancy suit. Its ears were long and sharp, and its eyes were blue.

"You're a handsome fellow," said Bert. "You haven't seen a stolen bonsai pine, have you?"

The cat strolled into the hothouse and leaped up onto the bench.

"You're a mischief, aren't you?" Bert scratched under the cat's chin with the roughened crook of his index finger.

The cat's purr was a flawless metallic whirr. It spent the day watching Bert tend to the plants, and curled up next to him while he read the Waikato Times. Near tea time, Bert got up to go and start dinner.

"Come on, time to go home."

The blue eyes opened slowly.

"Come on." Bert picked up the warm body. The cat was heavy. He placed it on the sun-warmed concrete path that led from the back door to the washing line, and went into the house.

***

No one came to claim the cat. It turned up in Bert's garden the next day, and the day after that. It wasn't any trouble so Bert let it hang around, occasionally scratching it behind the ears. He'd always wanted a cat. It wasn't Marge's fault she had been allergic.

On Friday he looked out the kitchen window to see the cat trot across the lawn with a limp black rag hanging from its mouth. The tui.

Bert raced outside. "Ya filthy bugger!" he roared. "What'd you do that for?"

The cat stopped dead, dropped the bundle of black feathers. "Sorry, mate," it said. "Thought you'd be sick of the constant My tree! My tree! Piss off, this is my tree! hey ladies, check out my huge tree!"

Bert stared at the cat.

"Besides," said the cat, "a cat's gotta eat."

"What did you say?" said Bert, in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

The cat blinked at him and sat down next to the tui's corpse. It began to wash its front paws, perhaps to cover some embarrassment.

***

When Bert went to the supermarket, he contemplated the shelves of cat food. He was prepared for a choice between a tin of jelly meat and a plastic tub of chunks of raw flesh, but here were pouches of chicken casseroles, individual dishes of flaked tuna and salmon, and attractively shaped biscuits, some even with tasty fillings. Bert chose some of the individual pouches.

When he got home he opened the cupboard where Marge kept the mismatched china, ready for taking a plate to committee meetings and funerals. He chose a bowl decorated with big yellow flowers and a grey saucer dotted with bright colours. He filled the bowl with water, squeezed some Beef ‘n Venison D'Lish onto the saucer, and placed them outside, on the step by the hothouse door, where the cat was waiting. It purred loudly as it lapped at the gravy.

***

The next time Glenys visited, she brought a date loaf and some little pastry savouries filled with egg and vegetables. She made them a pot of tea and they sat in the lounge on the floral armchairs. Glenys saw the bonsai books sitting on the mahogany coffee table.

"Bert, I didn't know you were interested in bonsai," she said. "How clever!

They're quite an art aren't they? I've always thought they were lovely, but I'd never be game to try something so complicated."

"Oh," said Bert, "but I thought –"

"Oh and speaking of things horticultural, did you hear about the Flower Show coming up? Sue and I thought we'd have a go as a team."

"Ah." Bert smiled, felt confused.

"But your Marge, she really was the genius with flowers, wasn't she? I'll never forget that one she did with all the proteas and leucadendrons. So exotic!"

Bert agreed that yes, Marge really did have a gift for flowers.

***

Nothing prepared Bert for opening the door of the hothouse the next morning, and finding Marge sitting there. She was perched on the edge of the work table, feet swinging, the way she used to years and years ago, before her hip gave up. She was wearing her white bowling uniform.

Marge looked straight at Bert with a face he couldn't understand. He couldn't tell if it was the face she had worn on the day they got married, or the face that looked at him across the breakfast table before he went to work at the dairy factory, or the face that grew thinner and thinner week after week in the hospital. She looked at him with her blue eyes. Marge's eyes were brown.

Bert let out a kind of wail.

"Sorry, mate," said the cat. "I won't try that again. It was easier to get in this way." It leaped down from the work bench and brushed against Bert's leg as it strolled out onto the neatly trimmed lawn.

***

"I'm more of a dog person, myself," said Craig, wiggling the cat flap into the hole he'd just cut in Bert's back door.

Across the lawn behind him, Bert saw a black and white collie sitting in the shade of the kowhai tree, pink tongue lolling in a doggish grin. He shook his head at it, frowning. Luckily, the glazier was busy rummaging for a screwdriver and didn't notice.

The cat came over and smooched the corner of the grey metal toolbox.

"Hey there puss," said Craig, "it's a nice life being a cat, isn't it?"

***

After Craig had gone, Bert and the cat sat in the lounge and looked at each other for a good long while.

Bert broke the silence. "You can stay," he said, "but no more shenanigans."

The cat didn't say a word.

"Are you going to tell me where you came from? Why you're here?"

The cat blinked at him slowly. As smooth as the arc of a bowl on the green, it stepped lightly off the floral sofa and onto the bonsai books on the coffee table. It sat down and washed its face.

"Reckon you might have a point," said Bert. He went through to the kitchen and flipped through the phone book. He picked up the phone.

"Hello Glenys?" he said. "I wondered – that is, um – would you like to go out for lunch with me after the Flower Show?"

Outside, in the sunshine, another tui sang war from the kowhai tree.