Excerpt: When Belthar stepped out of his door on that first morning, the ground was cold beneath his naked feet. Yesterday he’d stepped out of his job in much the same way and found, in much the same way, that the ground had been cold beneath him then, too. But this was a different kind of cold.
This cold he relished. This cold he enjoyed without the comfort of his old and favourite slippers. This cold came up at him from the clay and the mud of his garden and smelled faintly of citrus. This cold sat on the leaves of his tree like a silk scarf on a delicate neck. This cold shivered and shook in the clean, clear air. This cold was alive, unlike yesterday’s cold, which was dead and smelled of must and dried up documents and long-closed files.
He looked around, squinting into the rising sun. His little three-roomed house stood above its landscape and his land sloped away towards a forest which he kept behind a fence fixed a hundred times with planks and poles, chicken wire and diamond mesh. The house itself was surrounded by a severely cut lawn, neat and green. Precisely one half of the way down the garden path, and precisely one meter to the right of it, stood an Australian blackwood. The tree had always chaffed Belthar, dropping its long, narrow leaves every Sunday at noon, just after he’d finished raking the previous week’s crop, and dropping them with precision, equally on the lawn to one side and on the black-tarred, brick-edged path to the other.
There were no other plants on Belthar’s land. In all his years at the office he’d never had time for them, their need for water or their demands for fertiliser and compost. It was enough that he mowed the lawn and raked the leaves.
‘I am not,’ he thought, a little bitterly after years at a desk in a room that looked out onto the blank wall of the building opposite, after years of listening to the hum and rattle of the air-conditioner as it tried to cool an office already chilled by the brittle politeness of three spiteful, busy-body accounts clerks, ‘my Earth’s keeper.’
The house had two bedrooms and a varnished wooden stable door and looked onto its garden through two large, cottage-paned windows. It glimmered prim and white under its low-pitched black roof, its neat porch arranged with a swing seat hanging from a naked and creeper-less wooden pergola.
It looked like a drawing by a child. Or, more correctly, like an adult’s version of drawing by a child, with all the blocks neatly coloured in and all the colours trimmed inside their lines.
‘What a mess,’ he thought.
This first week of his retirement stretched before him uncluttered by schedule. No need to get up at 6:15, to bathe at 6:21 and to breakfast at 6:34. No catching the bus at 7:03 to bring him to the coffee bar nearby his office at 7:28. No talking with strangers who thought they’d become friends because they’d shared the same counter from 7:31 to 7:43 each workday morning for years and years.
No clocking in at 7:59, nor clocking out at 4:31 each afternoon. No Saturday morning shopping.
Nothing. Just the leaves to be raked on Sunday before noon.
“I am not,” he said, aloud, “ever going to rake your leaves again. I won’t do it. Never again.” And he walked around the side of the house to his laundry where he stored his tools. He found his axe and his bow saw, inherited from his father and oiled and hanging precisely where they should, ready for the late summer day when the men would deliver the wood for the fires of winter, and he took his worn whetstone out from under its oily canvas cloth.
He sat on the step outside his laundry and sharpened his tools and the weak, early sun of spring began to warm him.
Belthar had lived alone almost for ever. Once this had been his mother’s house and then sometimes they’d had visitors, but when she died the visitors came less and less until entire seasons went by when Belthar was the only person who’d entered his door. And it had become a cold and unlovely place and he had become a cold and unloved man.