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  • Writer's picturesamuel butchart

Nature Strip

Herman X. was woken up again this morning by a squad of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, whipper snippers and vacuum cleaners, which came howling down the street at exactly 7 am. As per usual they stopped right in front of his window, where they stayed for several minutes – hacking and gobbing and slurping away at the nature strip – before moving off down the street at a nonchalant pace. Herman was lying in bed in a state of nervous dormancy. He didn’t even bother to plug his ears anymore. He was pretty used to it by now, this babel of petrol-powered garden tools, given that lately it was always 7 am, and that he was therefore constantly being woken up by the council.

As the council approached the far end of the street, the howling tapered off into a sort of distant, wistful moaning – as though an old widow were grieving somewhere in a desolate valley – and Herman began to doze off again. His repose was short-lived, however, for soon they reappeared in front of his window. The thing is, the councilmen love to start early – ideally when everybody else is still in bed. It is pretty lucky for the councilmen, then, that it is always 7 am. But for the rest of us it is a terrible inconvenience. I for one haven’t had a solid morning’s sleep for God knows how long. It doesn’t help matters that I’m a light sleeper as well. It's gotten so bad that nowadays I'll wake up in the middle of the night at the clicking of a Cambodian peasant's knees as she squats in the dust to pat the family rooster.

I am being facetious, of course. There is no ‘night’ anymore. And Cambodia certainly didn’t survive the apocalypse. Neither did Vietnam, or Thailand, or any of the other nations of south east Asia. Come to think of it, neither did those of north west Asia. Or north west Europe. Or anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere. Or the Southern Hemisphere. That’s right, Argentina is gone. Mozambique is gone. New Zealand is gone (but that had nothing to do with the apocalypse). In fact, the only part of the earth left unscratched by the apocalypse was the eastern seaboard of Australia.

Nobody really knows what caused this terrific global misadventure, but one of its more salient consequences was that one day the clock stopped abruptly at the seventh hour and never budged again. As I said, the councilmen got pretty lucky. They were rostered to start at 7 that morning anyway, so none of them noticed at first that the clock had stopped. Around half an hour later, a few of them noticed that the morning was dragging a bit. A full hour later, they had all more or less agreed that it was unusual for it to be 7 am for this long. Before the apocalypse, 7 am typically only lasted for about a minute. Now it just goes on and on, and so do the councilmen.

'I’ve got to hand it to them,' Herman thought to himself, 'for all the commotion they make they have never once been late.'

Incidentally, one of the other more noticeable side-effects of the apocalypse was that everything in nature started growing at around 700 times the rate that it previously had. This meant, for instance, that by the time the councilmen got to one end of the street, the grass at the other end had already grown back around 5 inches. So, for all my grumbling it must be admitted that the councilmen can’t actually stop. They can’t stop even if they wanted to – which, luckily for them, they don’t. They just have to keep at it all morning in order to prevent a repeat of the Day of the Triffids. It is considered an essential, albeit costly, public service – costly to the rest of us who are gradually dying of sleep deprivation.

But I am not here to air my own grievances. I am here to tell you about my neighbour and colleague, Herman X.

One morning recently something very unofficial happened on our street. Herman had been woken up by the council several times already (as had I) and decided it was pointless trying to sleep any more. So, he got up, dressed himself and went outside for a routine inspection. Once again the councilmen had left the nature strip looking like a bald-headed POW with an advanced case of shell-shock.

Good, he thought. It's all business as usual. Then he picked up the broom and began sweeping the veranda.

‘You missed a spot!’ he shouted as the councilmen came back around. But, incredibly, they passed by without even stopping to salute him.

This patent act of insubordination greatly surprised Herman. The councilmen had always stopped in front of his house for a few minutes just to do an extra good job. Perhaps he had insulted them right now by telling them how to suck eggs. They are a proud race, the councilmen. He and the other officials would do well to remember that. In any case, he would have to reprimand them at some point this morning. But for the moment he was suddenly feeling very tired and would go back inside for a lie down.

He had managed to get a few minutes' shut-eye when he was jolted awake again – this time not by the council, but by a horrible, penetrating silence. A silence that seemed to burrow into the heart of the neighbourhood and lay eggs inside of it. Herman had never heard anything so disturbing in his life. What was going on? Where on earth were the councilmen? He couldn’t hear a single whipper snipper in action. He couldn’t hear the soothing rattle of the ride-on mower, the slow crescendo and decrescendo of the leaf blower. Why had they stopped?

Herman stepped outside and peered up and down the street. He could see the councilmen huddled together down one end, standing around and smoking cigarettes. He set off down the street to find out what was going on. Along the way his pulse quickened when he saw that the grass was already around five inches tall.

He approached the councilmen, who were still standing around, smoking cigarettes and spitting on the ground. All of them were impossibly brown and leathery, and all of them had large, porous, red noses. This, together with their short shorts and their high-vis jackets, made them look exceedingly cartoonish.

‘Excuse me,’ Herman said, scratching the bald patch at the back of his head, ‘I just came from down the street, and I, ah, noticed you men have stopped working.’

‘Yeah,’ grunted one of them.

‘I am just wondering, you know – why.

‘Smoko,’ grunted another, who was happily ensconced in the seat of his ride-on mower.

‘I beg your pardon?’

Smoko,’ he repeated.

Herman looked at him incredulously.

‘You can’t be serious,’ he said. ‘If you all don’t start working again right away the nature strip is going to block out the sky before long.’

The man on the ride-on mower shrugged and spat on the ground.

Look,’ Herman pointed, ‘it’s already five inches. In a couple of minutes it’ll be ten.’

Not one of them budged. They just stood there looking at him, variously dragging on their cigarettes and spitting on the ground.

‘Come on! What are you doing? Don’t just stand around. Get back to work!’

‘Listen, boss,’ said the one nearest to Herman, ‘we haven’t had a break all morning. We’re dog-tired. It’s about time for smoko we reckon.’

Herman noticed he was wearing a small, heart-shaped locket around his neck. He was a big hulking man with a long bushman’s beard, and the locket seemed rather unaccountable to Herman. It was something you would expect a little girl to wear. Not a man. Not a council man.

‘Well, that may be as such,’ Herman began, ‘but unfortunately there’s no time for smoko anymore. You know that. However inconvenient it may be, you just have to suck it up and get on with it. There may be time for smoko one morning in the future, but this morning is not that morning.’

The councilman, who was absent-mindedly fingering his locket, seemed to consider this for a moment, and then replied with surprising diplomacy,

‘We disagree.’

He unclipped the harness of his whipper snipper and set the machine down on the footpath. Then he took a cigarette from his front pocket and stuck it in his beard, behind which there was, presumably, a mouth.

‘This isn’t open for debate,’ Herman said with growing desperation. ‘If you don’t get back to work this instant I’m afraid I’ll have to terminate your employment.’

‘Fine. No time to spend our wages anyway.’

Herman was flabbergasted.

‘Well, I’ve misjudged you then. I didn’t think you were in it just for the highly competitive government salary. I thought you loved the job.’

‘We do, mate. We love the job. There’s just no work-life balance.’

There was nothing Herman could really say to this. He knew the man was right. It was no secret that the Post-Apocalyptic Committee for the Advancement of Work-Life Balance had failed to make any progress on this issue. The truth was, there was no work-life balance anymore for anybody – not for stubborn councilmen, nor for petty bureaucrats like himself. But there was nothing to be done about it.

‘Alright, if you won’t do your job, I will,’ said Herman defiantly. Who he was defying exactly he didn’t know, but that was unimportant right now. He went over to the ride-on mower and politely asked the councilman to alight from it.

‘Mate, you can’t do it on your own,’ he said with a smirk.

‘Well, it would appear I don’t have much choice.’

‘Look, the grass is already ten inches.’

‘Please step down,’ Herman commanded him.

The councilman raised one eyebrow at him, shrugged and peeled himself out of the seat. Herman climbed on and fumbled around for the starter button. The councilman reached over him, flipped a switch and the mower spluttered to life.

‘Here – you’ll need these,’ he said, handing Herman a pair of earmuffs.

Herman nodded at him and then fumbled around for the accelerator. A few moments later he was away. The mower plunged into the thick grass and began to noisily chew it up. He tried his best to maintain a steady course, but it was difficult, as the nature strip was barely more than a metre wide.

After completing one lap, he climbed down from the mower, picked up the whipper snipper and tugged at the starter cord. After twenty or thirty reps, the engine turned over and off he went again, hacking away at the edges of the nature strip, doing his very best to make it look nice. But he had never been much of an artist, and worse, bits of the ‘whipper’ kept breaking and disappearing into the sky, which freaked the shit out of the local magpies. He had no idea how to refit the whipper, so he gave up and went to get the leaf blower. He blew some grass clippings around the street for a while, which seemed to him a fairly pointless activity. Then he pressed a button on the machine to reverse the airflow – perhaps giving the street a good vacuum will elicit a deeper sense of fulfilment, he thought bitterly.

By the time he had done all of this, not only was he completely exhausted, but he hadn’t even put a dint in the nature strip. The grass at the far end had already grown back at least five inches. He sat in the gutter of the street for a while panting and sweating. A couple of magpies strolled passed him, perusing the nature strip, evaluating his hard work. They seemed unimpressed. He glanced over at the councilmen, who hadn't budged from their new settlement at the end of the street.

Herman remembered something. He stood up and briskly marched over to them. They were huddled loosely in a circle and talking among themselves.

‘It is my duty to inform you men that this morning at 07:00 you failed to salute an official. I’m afraid I have to issue you with a verbal warning,’ he said with maximum formality.

The councilman wearing the heart-shaped locket turned around to face him.

‘Didn’t you sack us already?’

‘Next time I’ll have no choice but to issue a written warning.’

Herman turned around, walked back to his house and climbed the steps to the veranda. He picked up the broom and began sweeping. The dead eucalyptus leaves creaked and groaned as he piled them together. The grass clippings lay there silently like fallen soldiers on a battlefield. He was beginning to get a nagging feeling that this was all rather futile. Yes, he thought. This was all rather futile. This was all terribly futile...

He gave up on the veranda, went inside and got into bed. I’ll just have a quick nap, he thought. I’ll just have a quick nap and then get back to it.

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