HEATHER Neale is a good match for her garden – bright, colourful, and benefiting from the absence of cigarettes.
Her garden is having a good year. “The best by far,” she says. Flowers are blooming, vegetables are thriving. Her kangaroo plant has hiked up to twice its normal size, and even the apricot tree is in on the party, producing fruit for the first time in 10 years.
“I suspect it finally got pollinated,” says Heather, but the reason behind the rest of the garden’s unprecedented bountifulness is in no doubt.
“I gave up smoking, and all of a sudden, I had money.” A smoker for the past 60 years – “if
I can give up, anyone can” – Heather says she could finally afford to buy compost and good fertiliser, something she’d never managed before. “I bought tonnes of it, all the right stuff,” she says, and her garden is certainly paying her back.
Living in her small Whakatane unit, Heather considers herself lucky to have space to garden. “It makes such a difference,” she says.
“I can’t understand people who just leave their sections bare and don’t do anything with it. Flowers add so much to life, I think.”
Her carefully-tended property, “just a bare patch of mud” when she’d moved in 11 years ago, is awash with colour. The curving path at the rear opens to beautifully landscaped garden beds. Giant forget-me-nots, campanula, lantana and daisies flourish alongside irises, spraxias and roses. There are fruit trees, a potato patch and a vegetable garden, recently made much smaller after she found it getting too much.
“People tell me it’s an old-fashioned style garden. I don’t know what you’d call it,” she says.
“I just know that I love it and I’d garden all day every day if I could.”
At the age of 78, Heather retired this year from 10 years of voluntary work as a Friend of the Emergency Department at Whakatane Hospital, supporting family and friends of people being admitted as well as supporting nursing staff where they can.
It’s one of many voluntary positions Heather has held over the years, often in the field of mental health working for organisations such as Lifeline. She has first-hand experience of the issues these conditions can produce, having long ago been diagnosed with depression herself. She has also suffered with other conditions, anxiety and agoraphobia amongst them, before, at the age of 60, being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Growing up in a family of nine children, many of whom were eventually diagnosed with bipolar (or not), she says it was hard to recognise the signs. “There are a lot of big personalities in our family. People grew up to be singers and performers and so on. The house was always filled with projects, people racing around for days pursuing some ambition or another, and then everyone would be exhausted and need to go to bed for a few days. I just thought that was normal.”
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder is but one of many things not obvious about Heather.
You wouldn’t know that in her 30s, a single mother to her two daughters, Heather wrote a short story that was later selected by a post-graduate German student doing a doctorate thesis on the best short stories across the world.
Her story, The Hedge, (see page 2) previously published in literary magazine, Landfall (and later featuring in the magazine’s best stories of the year collection) was chosen as one of the world’s top 10, alongside stories by renowned writers, the late Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, and others.
Living in Auckland at the time and part of a writers’ group, the story was one of several she wrote, with others being published in Broadsheet, a women’s magazine produced from 1972 until 1997.
Heather was asked to write for Radio New Zealand, scripts for 15-minute plays to be broadcast. “I didn’t do it. I couldn’t write things that long,” she says, but she did, despite having never finished high school, apply for university entrance, and take on degree study in English.
Later, Heather made a trip to Europe, a formidable challenge. Her mental health issues at the time included agoraphobia, which made getting on the plane an astonishing achievement in itself, but with both of her daughters now grown and living in Europe, and one about to be married, Heather says she made a personal commitment to get there. She made it, not only to the wedding, but purchasing a train pass for Europe as well. “I had very little money,” she says. “It was all smoke and mirrors.”
“It was partly on an organised trip, but not all of it,” Heather says, allowing ample time for the “tie-dyed pink tights and a pink T-shirt wearing 50-year-old”, to find herself in a number of comical predicaments.
“People tell me I need to write a story about that month,” she says. “I know what I’d call it; Adventures with Don and Sara.” It’s Heather’s comedic reference to her medications at the time, Mogadon, and Serepax. “Because I couldn’t have done it without them”.
“Actually, I had the time of my life,” she says. One mishap occured during a journey on the Orient Express out of Salzburg, Austria. Waiting on the platform for a train to Germany, she was befriended by a platform guard. “He hit on me,” she laughs raucously. “It turns out that he thought I was a transvestite, but after I told him I was a housewife from New Zealand he was lovely anyway. He said ‘marry me and take me back to New Zealand’. I said ‘no,’ but that I had four hours to wait for the train so I’d have an ice-cream with him.”
“We had a great time and he told me that if I waited, I could get a seat on the Orient Express, so I did. It was amazing”. But getting off the train four hours later she found she had disembarked at the wrong station, along with a woman translator for the European Economic Community who made the same mistake, .
“It was isolated, with just a station master there and for some reason he got very suspicious of us. He seemed to think we were spies or something.” Telling the women to wait, that another train was coming, Heather says they were surprised when a train pulled in carrying hundreds of French military personnel – diverted, she believes – and shocked when a cluster of soldiers got off and surrounded the two women, “pointing their guns at us, and shouting”.
“It was clearly a big mistake,” Heather says, finding the incident ridiculous, and even funny.
Attempting a joke with the stern soldier in charge, “so many Frenchmen and so little time,” she told him. “This is not a joke,” he’d barked back in a thick accent.
The matter was resolved, but the incident, it would appear, was typical of situations Heather attracted.
At the age of 60, Heather spent a further three years studying, this time, social work. “I really thought I’d train and then work in that job till I was 80,” she says. “That was the plan.” But it wasn’t to be. Six months out of training, and now working in the field, Heather had what she refers to as a “breakdown, of sorts”.
“I was just flying at the time. I had so much going on and I couldn’t stop, not even if I’d wanted. I was out of control. I thought I could have it all.”
She ended up hospitalised and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In a scenario typical of the disorder, Heather was on a manic high, “hypo,” and couldn’t stop it.
“It had never been diagnosed before,” she says. “I guess it was the stress of the work that brought it out. I couldn’t work in that field any more”.
Life is calmer for Heather these days. Gone are the frenetic and troubled days. She keeps her condition in check; her garden undoubtedly contributing the best therapy.
She plays petanque, and bridge and belongs to the Red Hatters Society, a celebratory and fun social group for women aged 50 and over. Meeting monthly, the group dress in outlandish red hats, purple clothes and “bad-taste jewellery” for fun and revelry.
“We were the geriatric fairies in one of the Santa parades,” she says. “It was pouring with rain the whole time and we got so cold my fellow fairy went into shock and had to be wrapped up in tinfoil.”
Heather laughs raucously. She often laughs raucously. Though life when she’s gardening is calm, there’s always plenty of other things to laugh at and to celebrate. The successes of her family being one of them, coming, as they have, from a forever financially struggling single mother.
“My granddaughter just graduated from university with first class honours on a double degree,” she says. “That’s pretty good I reckon”.
ADDING LIFE: A selection of plants in Heather’s garden, photographed by her daughter, Trudy Atherton.
JULIE jumped from her scooter. Bright with paint and importance it carried on, unaware of her leaving, then obediently slid sideways into the hedge. The handle, like a nose, and still warm from Julie’s grasp, sniffed the flowers she had stopped to see. Bees crawled slowly out of the orange trumpets ‘getting nectar’, Julie informed herself with her fiveyearsold wisdom. Nectar was that sweetness to be sucked, the reward for carefully peeling off the overlapping green bottom.
The hedge was a very important part of her life. It hung flatly over the footpath. On misty mornings glistening spider webs were to be found, fairy clocks masquerading as dandelions grew beneath it, and today it was a strip of Xmas paper. Shiny green and decorated with orange blossoms it stretched to the street-corner, its gifts hidden in the branches.
For treasure was to be found in its tangle. Balls that had been mysteriously swallowed up in it were found, hair ribbons pulled free of little girls’ hair hung awaiting the diligent searcher. Catapults missing out of boys’ pockets fell out of the branches to be claimed anew.
More important than anything, though, was the fact that in behind the barricade sat Andrew’s house, square, surrounded like a fort. Julie stood on one leg and counted by fives how long she could balance and waited for Andrew to come out.
A heavy wooden gate filled the only break in the hedge and Julie didn’t dare reach through the slot cut in its blank face. The catch could be undone but today was Saturday and Mr Adams was home. After five during the week, and all weekend, the gate stayed shut, slammed in the face of people. “Mr Adams didn’t like people,” Mum said, “That’s why he keeps the only hedge in the street. The chimney is all that looks over it.”
Thinking of Andrew’s father caused Julie’s heart to skip then sink. He’d cut it, he’d cut the hedge today, he always did when the flowers hung all over it.
The gate would open today, out would come the planks, the wooden horses carried by that horrid big man. Red in the face he would cut, snip, swear and all the lovely flowers would fall on the path.
Would fall, be gathered up, stop being beautiful and become `Work’ (which was good for everyone Mr Adams said). Margaret, Andrew’s big sister, popped into Julie’s head.
She had red hair and her mother kept it in two bunches of ringlets, coils that bounced and swung when she walked. Julie dreamed of having bouncy red ringlets, thought her the prettiest girl in the world. And one day Mr Adams did the same to her as he would to the hedge.
A basketball (forbidden in the neatly tilled garden of the Adams) had been thrown and missed by Margaret and her friend. It had smashed the glasshouse that held pride of place in the yard.
When Mr Adams came home he sat Margaret on a chair and cut. Let fall, one after the other, each curl and then red-faced finally looked at his daughter.She didn’t even cry.
Like the hedge when he’d finished with it, was silent, ugly, spiky all the softness gone.
There was no need to stay. He went inside, Margaret already carefully sweeping up, taking to be burnt the clippings.
Julie slowly picked up her scooter, wiped her nose on her sleeve (for tears had come).
Andrew wouldn’t be coming out today and the hedge hung shadows on the path.
– Heather McGrath, 1977
By Lorraine WIlson