Gardening, muffin-tops and hormones

I once had a farm in Africa’. Do you remember that movie starring Meryl Streep? Well, I once had a garden in Africa. I therefore, had to have a gardener.

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My first gardener was from Malawi. For some reason I don’t understand at all, most gardeners in Joburg hail from Malawi and so, Lincoln from Malawi found himself working for me. The problem was that Lincoln intensely disliked all women, especially me. He was unashamedly a misogynist. Now, not liking your boss is almost always a career limiting move and not conducive to the longevity of one’s career. There was an incident in which he had a tiny cut on his finger and I put a pink Little Mermaid plaster on it, which clearly insulted his manly ego, and so he left in the night and went to work for the burly, hairy Afrikaner next door!

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After Lincoln I met Ephraim. Ephraim found me. The grapevine in Sunninghill is more like the all-encompassing thorns that grew around Sleeping Beauty’s castle for a 100 years. One is not quite sure how it works or where it started, but boy, it is more effective than LinkedIn can ever dream of being. So Ephraim showed up on a sunny day and announced that he was the horticulturist I was looking for. He actually used those words. I was so impressed that I employed him on the spot. (The pen really is mightier than the sword). Ephraim started the very same day. He was ambitious and terribly optimistic and was so convinced I’d employ him that he had his overall and sunhat with him and was ready to start work immediately. He was good. He was mind-blowingly good. He swept through the gardens, pronouncing each shrub’s Latin name, moved withering little seedlings to where they prospered in the sun, pruned gnarled old lemon trees back to their former glory and fed the beds a combination of his secret mix of compost and chemicals. In his lunch time he drew pictures of the terraces he planned to build, designed extensive irrigation lay-outs and wrote down the names down of plants I had to buy. He even found strange plants from exotic lands that could finally grow in the dead spots below my trees. He chopped up roots that lifted pavements and foundations and charmed some rose bushes right out of their depression. I waved him off on Friday and secretly could not wait to see how he would continue to transform our sad gardens into a paradise again on Monday.

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But, on Saturday morning, Mr Ephraim appeared at my back door. I was scrambling an egg when he announced that he needed to be paid in advance. I was about to argue when a wave of stale alcohol breath hit me like a tsunami. Mr Ephraim must have been smack bang in the middle of a bender and I was his ticket to continue. I told him patiently that he would get paid at the end of the month as agreed and that he seriously needed to get out of my kitchen. He did not budge. He was quite drunk, but I am quite stubborn.

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Our fabulous relationship evaporated with the steam of the eggs but our stand-off in the kitchen lasted considerably longer. Horticulturist extraordinaire refused to leave and I refused to pay him hoping he would sober up and see the errors of his ways. At lunch time after some heated words I got our sturdy security men to throw him out, but he only made himself comfortable in front of our gate. I might be stubborn but I am not completely stupid and when Ephraim started harassing the guests coming into the property I went to the ATM drew money and paid him. (This was long before internet payments, e-wallet and cash-send). I swore under my breath that at least this would be the last I’d see of him, but unfortunately it was also the last I’d see of the vision of grandeur for my paradise garden.

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And so it is that out of desperation that Forward ended up with us. ( I am not even going to start about his name!). If you are comfortable in a two piece with the odd shoulder pad, a boardroom or taking a lift to your office, I am convinced that you do not employ your staff the way I do. There is no notice that goes out to advertise an internal position, there is no advertisement in the gazette and heaven forbid we ask an employment agency to be involved. No, on my way to grab a litre of milk at the local 7/11 I asked a security guard (whose first name I only knew because I can read name badges) whether he knew of a gardener. Being a security guard he definitely did know of a gardener looking for a job (I get that you do not get that logic, so I need to add, that whether he was a security guard, a cashier or a receptionist, on this continent, with our horrendous unemployment rate, being of a certain social-economic standing, you always know of a close friend or relative looking for a job – I am not saying this is right, this is just the truth). Forward worked and lived at a house close to where said security guard with name badge operated his boom control. Forward had a day free and was willing to come and work for me. A thorough investigation was done into Forward. I phoned his employer to get a reference and this was the reference in its entirety: “Forward works best under supervision”. Such was my dire need for a gardener that this was all the recommendation I needed. I assumed that his employer just couldn’t get the best out of his worker. Of course, I would get him to blossom and my delicate petunias and violas would flourish with him.

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I was wrong. There was little growth, especially in my garden.

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Reader, I have been planning this blog for a while now and the only way I can describe my relationship with Forward is that it is like a muffin top developing around your waist. It does not happen over the course of a day. It is a slow process. You are aware that it is happening and you are aware that it is not a good thing, but you are not worried because you know you will eventually go on a diet and you will do crunches, burpies and sit-ups and you will join Weight-watchers and read Tim Noakes’ book, so the weight will come off… or that is your plan at least. But that never happens, and so it was with Forward. One day I woke up and 25 years had passed and Forward does not work for me one day a week anymore, but five days a week. He no longer lives near the boom gate, but has somehow managed to find himself living in an en-suite staff room originally built for management. Forward and my muffin top it would seem, are here to stay.

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The years went on and I fell pregnant in the early 2000’s. This was the same time that there was a spout of break-ins and petty theft in the area. As always the builders were blamed and in fact, there was a lot of building and renovating at our neighbours. Now, my husband will tell you that on the day that his sperm hit my ovum, it was with such force that all the logic in my body went straight out of me. One would think this would not affect me too much as I was already blonde to start with, but it did affect the poor souls around me. Our guest house was targeted with an incident or two of theft… nothing dramatic on a South African scale; no bloody executions or murderous hold ups. It was the odd computer or fax machine (yes it was that long ago) so nothing that could warrant my emotional explosion which is about to be revealed.

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On a beautiful autumn Wednesday just before Easter, I saw Forward lean over the fence and chat to one of the builders. This annoyed me. Actually everything annoyed me (no glowing candy-flossed pregnancies for this old witch). I shouted at them to stop talking and do some work and left it at that. However, that very night we had a break-in in which the infamous robbers stole our petty cash box and our brand new hi-fi. I automatically knew that two and two equalled 96 and knew Forward was the go-between. How else did they know we had petty cash and how else did they know we had a hi-fi. I also decided that they must’ve escaped through my neighbours yard because they must’ve been the builders working there. So I got on the telephone, and as one does in SA, did not report a crime. Oh no, I am not in Jozi with a visa, this in my pozzy. I phoned to invite the cops for breakfast. By then I knew officer Tembo and detective Mokoena well. Whilst they were having a bit of bacon and egg I told them the story and between bites of croissants and gulps of cappuccino they took down my statement and they arrested Forward the notorious informant and put him into their police van. The next day was Good Friday so I did not anticipate that much would happen until the next Tuesday when we could lay matters to rest.

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However, on that very night, we got robbed again. This time, it was clear that Forward was not involved! He could not have been as he was lying on a little mattress in Sandton police cells. (I am so ashamed as I am writing this that I am blood red).

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I dropped the charges and he was released immediately but was (rightly) very angry with me and came to give me notice, stating he would cease to work for me immediately.

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Now, I am not a endocrinologist, but the power of a hormone is quite something, and a woman full of them I suspect is not something you want to negotiate with. I looked at Forward’s notice and did not accept it. I told him he has to work 30 days’ notice or we could go to the CCMA (I blame the audacity on the tri-semester).

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Forward came back to work his notice and on his first day back I personally took him his tea. I humbly apologised and admitted that I was wrong, unreasonable and a complete and utter monster. He stayed quiet for a while, shook his head and said very profoundly, “Mommy, we all make mistakes, don’t worry.” He then merrily worked his 30 days notice, plus an additional decade and then another decade, and he is still here.

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Even though Forward and I never spoke of the Easter-break in jail, it did hover in my conscience and once the child left my body, some of the logic did return. I also believe that Forward never quite got over the experience either as he was very careful of any hormonal changes in me. With my second pregnancy he worked like a dream and never bothered me in the least with his problems. Truth be told, we cannot give Forward all the credit for the second gestation’s peace. I avoided HIM. Forward had a funny smell which I never noticed before this pregnancy. Maybe like dogs hear different frequencies, pregnant women can smell differently. I could smell Forward’s feet rotting in his rubber boots from miles away. He refused to wear socks and the odour of Athlete’s foot and rubber did not mix well for me. In order to avoid Forward’s aroma, I decided he needed an assistant. Forward proudly announced that his son was looking for a job and the matter was settled. Now, Forward has never mentioned another human or relative in all the years I knew him. Unlike other staff whom went home on weekends or back to rural areas during vacations, Forward always remained, not only in Sandton, but really quite literally in a 3km radius of where he lay his head each night. But, I owed him, and agreed that the young Forward the second could come and help in the garden. Forward arrived and introduced me to his son proudly. “This Mommy, is Disaster”. I got a fright and thought Forward acquired a sense of humour over night, ut alas alas, the son was indeed named Disaster. I asked him, “Forward, why did you name the poor guy Disaster?” He looked at me and said, “because M’am, you should have seen his mother.” This then, explained why my friend Forward had not left and not ever gone home and not been to see his probably many other children and family members for as long as I’d known him.

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And just like the fat accumulated around my waist, so did the years accumulate with Forward in my employ. We did not have an easy relationship. We had many many fights, mostly about things that Forward managed to break, but then Forward started breaking my heart too (No man, get your mind out of the gutter, this is not a romance novel, I did not fall in love with the poor fellow). No, each morning when I got to work, Forward was looking sicker and weaker than the day before. His decline was rapid. I could see on a daily basis how his frame was getting thinner and his skin turned a dark unhealthy navy blue. I went to him often and asked him if he wanted to see my doctor, but he declined, smiling widely and assuring me he was fine.

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His smiling started waning and we suddenly saw severe mood swings. For the first time ever, Forward would argue with me when I asked him to do something. I have never been unreasonable (okay, except for the jail episode) but he performed many unpleasant tasks, like making compost or scrubbing an empty pool with acid, so when I asked him to dig a hole for a tree and he exploded instead of asking how deep the hole must be, I knew this was no longer the Forward I knew and loved. I didn’t understand whether he was simply in so much pain that he started behaving like this, or whether whatever disease he had was affecting his brain function. I increased Disaster’s days, and therefore directly the troubles I faced, and indicated to Forward that he needed to slow-down. Forward’s mental state did not improve. He muttered and was grumpy, but it would seem that if we stayed out of his way he would tolerate us.

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I was busy on the phone explaining our dinner options to a very French Congolese one day when I looked out over the garden and there, in a heap next to the petunias, Forward was lying on his side, removing weeds. He was so weak that he could no longer stand or sit up while working. Despite his toothless grin and assurances of his excellent health, I put my foot down and loaded him like a sack of spuds into my car and drove straight to my trusted doctor. It was confirmed that he was indeed very ill and it was recommended that he should retire and go home to Malawi.

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Forward was not known for his excessive monologues or extroverted disposition, but a sad silence enveloped him after the talk with the doctor. His eyes were small and dull and he had sores around his mouth that were painful to look at. I left him and did not force the issue of going home. I suspected that apart from Disaster’s disastrous mother, the rest of Forward’s family had written him off. Like most migrant workers, Forward probably came to SA to earn money for his family back home, but I doubt whether he ever sent a cent home, so who was going to look after him and nurse his weary body.

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Mamma Nan must have had other plans, as I was excitedly invited to Forward’s surprise farewell party. The surprise was not for Forward, but for me, as I was the sponsor of the festivities. We got Forward gifts, and an impressive new wardrobe. I framed his long service award and I got his investments I had made on his behalf liquid. The chakalaka was made, the pap was cooked and the cake with his photo on the edible icing was proudly displayed. I made a speech and we all agreed that this was a very merry retirement party. I bought his bus ticket online and he started getting excited too.

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Mr Nine got him in the car and off they went. He had a bit of cash and just before the infamous Park station, Forward jumped out of the car telling Mr Nine he needed to do some last minute shopping. He disappeared in the rabbit hole of town only to appear again hours later with cheese curls, two live white chickens and a satellite. This all the while Mr Nine, me and the rest of the staff frantically tried to locate him. Be that as it may, we bundled him off onto the bus and waved him goodbye. He was dressed in his best suit, he had padkos that would last to Cairo, never mind Lilongwe, and he had cash to spare.

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Unlike my muffin top, Forward was no longer there. It was as if a piece of furniture was missing. Things did not feel the same. Getting hold of Forward on the phone was difficult and after a few months we lost contact with him. I did not know whether he died in the arms of his forsaken mother, whether he was walking the streets of Lilongwe or whether he was admitted in the hospital.

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Turned out it was none of the above. Eleven months later whilst counting the little butter portions in a pathetic attempt to control my stock, Mr Nine popped his head around the fridge door: “Mrs Mac, I have a surprise for you”. I was delighted, I love a surprise and I loved that one too, because when I got to reception, there in all his glory, was Forward, smiling proudly as if he single handidly saved me from a lifetime of suffering. He beamed and told me that I need to go and pay the driver of a private car who brought him home from Malawi a ridiculous amount of money.

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Turns out Forward went home, got better, distributed all the gifts and clothes he got, spent all his money (no doubt making up for the decades he was missing) and when the going got tough, got a lift with someone straight to my front door where I could re-imburse the driver. He came back with only the clothes on his back. He moved straight back into his room, told me I need to buy him a uniform, and as I am typing he, is busy pruning the roses happily whistling the same tune he whistled when I accidently employed him all those years ago.

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Let’s hope my muffin top goes before he does again.

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