Trollope, the gardener: profile of a noteworthy man

by Colin Bower (Sept. 2006)


I have a firm view on this matter: no man ought to have to clear up another man’s dog shit.


But I see I have already trapped myself in ambiguity. “Another man’s dog shit…or the shit of another man’s dog?” By analogy, if I had said “no man ought to have to clear up another man’s horse shit” the ambiguity is brought out a little more. And if I had said: “No man ought to have to clear up another man’s bull shit”, few people would imagine I would be referring to the excrement of a male cow. But, in respect to my opening sentence, I mean the shit of another man’s dog.


This is all a hopelessly diversionary way of getting to my point, which is Trollope, standing at my kitchen door early one cold and dark winter morning, firing the following words at me: ‘Plastic…shit…dog”. In the face of my incomprehension, he repeated himself, and became a little angry that his meaning was apparently not evident to me. I was later to learn that his combined habit of speaking only in head words and with a forceful directness gives the erroneous impression of his being angry. Not at all. He is far too decent and cheerful a soul to give way to a cheap inflammation of the emotions.  Still, none of this helped me at that particular moment.


By means of hand gestures and repetition, Trollope finally communicated his meaning. He wanted a plastic bag in order to trawl through the garden scooping up the dog shit.


“Oh no Trollope” I protested, “No man ought to have to clear up another man’s dog shit, I will do it”. And with that I grabbed the spade, strode off to the nearest offending turd, and flicked it with practised ease into a dark and dank corner of the garden where no one ever goes. For many years I have proceeded thus, and I have never become aware of mounting piles of dog shit causing any sort of a problem. It just sort of disappears; out of sight out of mind, as they say. But Trollope was unimpressed. “What happens if I end up working in that corner? he asked. “Then I will have to work in all the dog shit. No good. I pick it up”.


Even then, for the ensuing few Fridays I was out of doors early to remove the dog shit myself, on account of my firmly held opinion on the matter.  But I gave in eventually. The first words Trollope habitually utters on arrival are: “plastic…shit…dog”, and I now know what he wants. He shows absolutely no compunction about the necessity for this unsavoury work, indeed he goes about it with his characteristic purpose and urgency. But then, oddly, he always leaves the plastic bag with its offensive contents lying in full view under a tree. At the end of every Friday he leaves the garden immaculate, except for this plastic bag lying brazenly in view. It is my job to dispose of it in the dustbin. I do not object to this arrangement in the least, even though the weight of the bag always surprises me, and an unbidden mental image of the conversion of good food to excrement that is the ineluctable consequence of living is the disagreeable accompaniment to this task.


Trollope is not his real name, but it is analogous. His first name is the surname of a noted Victorian novelist. It is a widespread and inexplicable custom in South Africa, transcending all cultural specificity, to give the surnames of famous people as the first names of boys. In America, by way of comparison, you could name your boy “Kennedy”, in England, “Churchill”, which might not make unduly bizarre first names, but you can see how tricky things could become when people look back longingly to the early years of this century, and name their boys “Bush” or “Blair” for instance. In the case of Trollope, it being so odd a first name, I always had to run the full name through my head, “Anthony Trollope” before I could alight on his correct designation. In the early days of our acquaintanceship, I inadvertently called him “Anthony” once or twice, which visibly displeased him. I think he thought I was making some sort of superior joke about him.


I am now only involved in matters of hiring and managing the domestic aspect of our lives because I work from home (eg. I’m semi-unemployed). My wife used to insulate me from all of these matters. Our previous gardener was David, a lanky and lugubrious man, who – I was later shocked to discover from my study overlooking the lawn – strolled into our garden not before about 9.30 in the morning, slept in languid ease under a tree at midday, and was gone by 4pm. I think he suffered from deep depression, which is unsurprising given the hardship of life for those at the bottom rung of the employment ladder in South Africa.  He was regularly losing his home to the ravages of fire or flood, challenging contingencies when you live with a wife and young children, and our relationship was characterised by a Byzantine web of advances and loans meant to ameliorate his circumstances. He seemed to attract bad luck, and one day, for no apparent reason he simply said: “I am finished working here”, and was gone.


We regretted the circumstances of David’s life, but we were in a way relieved to be free of employment obligations, which in South Africa includes taking on the burden of national poverty relief, a task that should rightfully fall to a government which claims it is capable of eradicating poverty, which taxes us all to achieve this purpose, and which always fails dismally in doing so. That of course is another story.


It seemed to be nanoseconds after the precipitate departure of David that Trollope was on our doorstep, so to speak. It was obvious that he needed work, his manner was engaging (if a little fierce), and did he knew how to close a sale! Having only just determined on a “no hire” policy, I had within five minutes or so of discussion engaged his services on a fortnightly basis. His wages? I am ashamed to say I offered R100 a day. I thought this was the going rate. “That man at number 12 pays me R150 a day” was his riposte. “What! R150! I’ll offer R130. That’s it, finish and klaar”.*  He was extremely dignified in his response. “R130 is money, that’s what you offer, that’s what I accept”, and he laughed a genuine deep-throat laugh which seemed to say: “the whole spectacle of this odd life amuses and interests me… how funny and intriguing that you should pay low wages…it’s not my life that matters, but the life I participate in…always so fascinating,” which is a position of noteworthy stoicism when you are at the wrong end of the feeding chain in life. I’ve come to know that laugh as characteristic of his outlook. By the way, I can’t lose face by admitting now that my offer was too low, so I make up the leeway by buying him good tobacco for his pipe, or incorporating various bonsellas* with his wages, as if these were entirely co-incidental developments arising out of the unique circumstances of any given work day.


He has also been clever enough to generate employment now mostly on a weekly basis.  He works at my neighbour on Thursdays, and says to me over the fence, more in the manner of a highly paid consultant who can take or leave an assignment than a gardener desperate for a day’s wages: “Hmmmm, I think I had better come tomorrow, your place…eish!*” affecting a look of forlorn despair at the modest debris the recent storm has left on my patio, “it’s looking bad”. He’s inordinately clever (not scheming) as a seller of his services; he makes himself indispensable. So when he pitches up for work early on Thursday at the neighbour’s, he always comes first over to our place and – unbidden – takes our refuse up onto the road for collection. In this and other ways, he positions himself as our partner in the enterprise of owning a house, rather than as our gardener.


It had barely passed 7am when he arrived on the first Friday of his employment. He had travelled all the way from Nyanga, some 20 kilometres away, and what I would regard as a dispiriting commute by train, bus and taxi of well over an hour. His arrival took me quite by surprise as I stood in my kitchen door drinking my first coffee of the morning, and trying slowly to come to terms with the frightening demands of new day. “Aargh! ” I inadvertently cried. “Aaargh! Trollope. You. So early!” Now Trollope is no great shakes when it comes to the English language, and in recording his comments, I sometimes place in his mouth words and phrases he could not possibly have uttered. But I want you to understand the ready philosophical resonance, the wit and the wisdom that I hear in the fractured syntax and the deployment of head words as missiles, so I will paraphrase freely. “No problem” he says, “I worked on the mines, I’ve always been an early riser. No problem, I like it”, and laughs.


But I had no task-list ready, and was reluctant to let him loose on my garden. So I said: “Nice to see you so early, Trollope. But just relax for a while. Here have some coffee. Sit down. Take it easy. We’ll start work just now”. I made these suggestions for my benefit, not his; I really didn’t want to engage with practical matters so early in the morning. But the arrangements I recommended did not suit Trollope, he likes to begin work immediately, and it was within minutes that he was at my door with that three word request I have already told you about.


Every Friday he arrives in the half light of dawn. He strides down our front garden path with the jaunty bearing of a Royal Naval sea captain who has just disposed of the Spanish Armada and returns to his home in Merrie England in the confident expectation of a connubial joust in the double bed. His pipe in his mouth is always at an impossibly insouciant angle. On the greyest of winter mornings, when the air is raw, and the rain sweeps in occasional showers, his response to our greeting “How are you today, Trollope?” is always the same: “Me? Number one! Number One today!” Ah, the English language, so rich in metaphorical life.


The intensity with which he sets to work on arrival, drinking his coffee on the run, as it were, is a source of some alarm to me. I am concerned that in his quest for real work, he will chop down a special tree or something, for his appetite for work is prodigious, and he cannot stand to be hanging around waiting to be told what to do. He would love nothing more than to be instructed to dig up the front garden and put it at the back…and then put the back garden at the front. This is work he understands and hungers for. I have given up trying to slow him down. In the early days I would say: “Trollope, I want you to take your time, and prune all the dead wood off this tree. See, like that one over there that I have already done. That job took me three days. It’s hard work. Take your time. Take plenty of rests. Take each branch and carefully cut all the dead bits, but don’t by any means cut anything that is growing”. He looks positively contemptuous of this sort of instruction. Clearly I am asking him to do women’s work. His idea of trimming a tree is to attack it frontally, hack away whole branches, and give it a damn good thrashing for having had the temerity to become luxuriant. So I have learnt to keep him away from trees.


On his first day of work he had in no time gained access by uncertain means to our roof, and called me from his elevated position to express his disgust with the state of my gutters. Now I don’t mind if the gutters are full. Who cares? The water has to go somewhere, and wherever it goes it ends on the ground where it feeds the plants. Far more important to trim the edges of the path than have clear gutters, in my view. But Trollope was indignation personified. How could any decent person live with gutters so disgracefully blocked? Here was a task proportionate to his appetite for work. He dangled precariously from many overhangs, and he cleaned those gutters as if he were cleansing the Augean stables. He hacked away forests of living branches dangling low over my roof (I quite liked them there), and he made a hard day’s work of it. He was happy, and so I was as well.


One day the petrol lawn mower refused to yield to Trollope’s efforts at pulling the starter chord. I have a horror of any device that requires you to pull repeatedly at a starter chord. I know with gloomy predictability that I’ll pull my arm out of its socket without effect. This stems from a nasty experience I had once in a hired boat with a little outboard motor. The motor stalled not five minutes after launch, and there, in fill view of the crowds, I pulled at that chord with no result for 10 minutes, and had to be rescued directly in from of the club house. And so I am always amazed when the lawn mower yields to my efforts. But on this day it was implacable, a useless, heavy, inert lump of iron, steel and plastic. Trollope and I responded in characteristically different ways. I knew it was never going to work; would have to undo sundry bolts, put it with considerable effort on the back of the truck, where it would roll around and bang maddeningly when I drove it to the repair shop. It would be out of commission for 19 days, it would cost a fortune…and in the meanwhile my garden would look a mess. In other words, I was instantly depressed. A lawnmower that does not work represents a heavy defeat.


Trollope’s reaction was more positive. He envisaged no such problems, only opportunities to do something interesting, and was convinced he would be mowing in no time at all. He said: “Bring me your plug spanner. I know what the problem is. I’ll just clean up the points on the spark plug with some sandpaper”. This assumed two things: that I had a plug spanner and that I had sandpaper (fine grain), an assumption wrong on both counts. He took this news as something like the equivalent of being told that life was no longer worth living: a simple impossibility. “Then a shifter…get me your shifting spanner…quickly….I know how to fix this…”. “Trollope” I said “I don’t have a shifter either, or if I do, I have no idea where it is”. I’m not sure whether it was incredulity or contempt that I detected, and then he managed an adroit change of subject in a tangential direction away from the problem at hand (but you can readily see how he made it). “I have got…now let me see” he said: “I have got a 13 spanner, a 14…” he stopped to think hard, “a 16…yes, a 16…and a 17”. The fact that his metric spanners merely increased in size by sequential whole numbers did not detract from what had been an arduous attempt to recall the specifications of his tool kit at home. “I worked with machines once…know everything…can fix anything”. He was visibly disappointed in my neglectful way with important tools.


Once I had to help him in the tying up of some bougainvillea branches to a pergola. This created a tricky issue of command: who was to do the main work, and who was to be the helper?  I am deferential by habit, and I also hate to do a physical job in the public gaze as my techniques are idiosyncratic (I cannot stand to paint a wall conventionally from one side to the other, I like to have multiple points of entry, so to speak; when I mow I insist on random patterns), so I rather hoped he would do the job, and let me be the helper. But I became aware that he expected to see me assume the leadership role. So eventually I was the one up the ladder with a long length of rope with which to secure the branch, and he was the one on the ground giving advice. It was that nasty nylon rope that can never take a knot because it’s so shiny and smooth and cannot get a purchase against itself. I have had many an experience trying to tie items to roof racks and the like with rope of this sort, at great harm to my normal state of equability and my marriage.


I knew I was approaching that moment when I was going to have to make good with a knot. I knew Trollope was watching me critically from the ground. I assumed an air of indifferent confidence. But you know how it is. You tie a knot that immediately starts loosening, so you tie another to keep the first knot taught, and then another to keep the second knot taught, and you could keep going on in this way until you have reached the gateway to paradise itself, and then the most recently tied knot would go slack, and then the next knot before it would go slack, and sooner rather than later your whole rope from the gateway to paradise back to your pergola would go slack. This was the existential challenge facing me as I whistled. The threat of losing face was high. But I succeeded triumphantly, finally defeating the propensity of nylon rope to untrammel (yes, I know it’s not a word, but it should be, and I hope I will be credited as its creator), and securing my branch effectively. At which point Trollope made a strange observation allied with a facial expression of something approaching mirth. “I can see” he said, “that you’ve never done a first aid course”. His laugh was brief, but no less hurtful for that.


He was right, I hadn’t. “Why do you say that Trollope?” I asked, knowing full well that he had obviously seen through the arbitrary and uncertain stratagems I had used to secure the rope. “Because at first aid we learned all kinds of ways to tie knots”. So, Trollope won that unspoken competition between us. I should have been the handlanger*, he the main architect of the enterprise.


His pride in first aid frequently surfaces. Once he told me of his disgust at a first aid course that he had attended in Cape Town, after he had been already trained in first aid on the mines. “I asked the instructor” he said (you must imagine him telling me this in head words only), “I asked him how you would bandage an injury down here”, and to my astonishment he gestured vigorously to his own testicular region, and was sensitive enough to give a short laugh. “When a man has a bad injury there, how do you bandage it?” he had repeated his question. “That man didn’t know the answer” he told me. “I told him. You need a three way bandage. I know how to do the three way bandage when a man has an injury here”, gesticulating again. I found it hard to envisage this freely sweating man in his tattered gardening clothes displaying the skill of a surgeon and the sensitivity of a nun bandaging the profusely bleeding genitals of a man who just been caught in a bad accident with that most important of trauma remedies, a three way bandage.  But Trollope is a man who forces one to confront one’s preconceptions.


In the bad old days, and  I really mean the bad bad old days, some 50 years ago, when I was just a kid, I remember that gardeners would be fed a lunch of bread cut doorstop thick, thinly spread with mixed fruit jam, and served with a half a pint of sweet tea in a tin. We have moved on since then, but not to the extent that I had imagined when we first became acquainted with Trollope’s dietary requirements. He eats no bread. No Munich rye, no German or Portuguese roll, no crusty white bread, no farmhouse loaf, no whole-wheat and no bread disguised as toast. If his lunch plate contains bread, it is returned with bread. One day we were caught short with nothing more than oven fresh German rolls, expensive cheddar cheese, and Italian salami. This we knew would be unacceptable to Trollope. My wife had to dash down to the deli counter of the local supermarket to buy a nice portion of chicken a la king with rice.


We have learned from these lessons, and our own eating habits are now modelled around Trollope’s requirements. So every Thursday night now we prepare ourselves a nice big stew, and we curtail our appetites to ensure that a good portion is saved for his lunch the next day. He dines like a king.  And yet one would not think so from appearances. Secretly I have observed him, and he eats these spectacularly delicious meals with indifference, barely noting what’s on his plate, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand with an impatient gesture the moment he is finished, and returning his plate without comment, let alone any display of gratitude. He commences work immediately thereafter. I have remonstrated with him about this. “Trollope, you should relax a little after lunch, you know, let your food go down.” He dismisses such concern. “No time, work to be done…” I don’t think he understands my phrase, “let your food go down”, but – more to the point – he doesn’t understand it because he has no use for it.


One time a large thorn tree I had been nurturing for 18 years blew over in a winter squall. I was sorely grieved, but we got the municipality in, and by dint of cutting off a large number of branches, we were able to haul the tree back in to an upright position, and secure it by a retaining rope to another tree nearby. Trollope happened to be working next door at the time, and he came out into the street and interested himself in the proceedings. When a significant pile of cut thorn wood branches lay on the road, he approached me in excitement, but with something of a conspiratorial air, and whispered. “That wood, eish, good for fire, you keep that wood, I cut it up for you.” His eyes danced with joy at this windfall bounty. Our own supply of hardwood for hearth fires and braaivleis!* It was hard to believe, but he was celebrating my good fortune as if it were his own. But therein lies the philosophical resonance of the man – good fortune doesn’t exclusively have to be your own in order for you to enjoy it!


I hired a chainsaw for him with much trepidation (“Oh no, of course I used that kind of saw before…I worked in a forest”). I could see him with bright red blood spewing from the artery he had just severed, and I cravenly worried about the insurance claim. I begged him twenty times over to take care, to keep the safety handle on, etc. He just looked on with an indulgent grin. He attacked that large pile of logs like a seasoned lumberjack, and had his work finished by lunchtime, chuckling much of the time at “our” great good fortune to have hardwood logs. But here’s an odd thing: he became covered in saw dust, and complained about the effect this was having on his clothes. Now to my way of thinking, sawdust is clean dirt. It smells nice, and you just brush it off. Trollope, who cheerfully goes down drains, works in bogs, and goes home after a day’s work in a miasma of hard earned ripeness was upset about what the sawing job was doing to his clothes! Did I have an overall for him? I didn’t, although even if I had it would hardly have helped as he was nearly finished with the job. But I did manage a solution. I offered him a virtually new pair of smart trousers made redundant to my needs as a result of my encroaching corpulence. A transaction of this sort requires some delicacy of manner from both of the parties to it. But he took my cast offs with dignified delight. A lesser person – or even just a different person – might have been offended or even insulted. But Trollope has a robust notion of his intrinsic worth that runs no danger of being compromised by a little charity. And this gets me to what he represents to me as a human being.


What we have must seem so much to his so little. And yet his life is too full of work to be done and even pleasure to be taken – however modest it might be – for him to be concerned with the inequitable conditions of  that life, such conditions as require him to be the grateful recipient of someone’s second hand clothes, for instance. Our garden is hardly palatial – no pool, fountains, terraces, walkways and rills – just a plot that I have made arboreal and green over a 20 year period. But for a man who lives in a shack surrounded by bare earth, it must seem like paradise. He never evinces the slightest envy or jealousy. He is delighted at my hardwood windfall, and instructs me carefully not to waste it on braaivleis, and yet his own place, in the miserable Cape winter, is probably heated – if he is lucky – with nothing more than a smelly paraffin stove.


We have an old single mattress deteriorating under a lean-to. Trollope expressed an interest in having it – after all, we weren’t using it. I checked with my family, and apparently it was to be useful to us at some unspecified time in the future for use to sleep on in the back of our truck. So I declined his request. It has remained in the same place under the lean-to for the six months since then, unused. Life must seem a little unfair. He has a wife and six children, all but one of them who live back in the deep rural area of the Eastern Cape, his home.  From what little he earns, he will remit an allowance to them, and he will also save so that once a year he can afford to go back and join them for a month. There he will sit in his village, drink beer, possibly work a little in the fields or with the cattle (field work is normally the duty of the women, but the culture is slowly changing), and, if it doesn’t sound too patronising, he will be happy.


Actually I was tempted to write: “Happiness is depicted in his demeanour every day”, but “happiness” is not the right word; it is something more profound. I remember in this regard that pair of well known lines by D H Lawrence: “A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough/Without ever having felt sorry for itself”. Trollope’s happiness is inseparable from a refusal to see any need to feel sorry for oneself. Everyday that he wakes up he feels as if he is “Number One”. Most of all, he clearly never compares the circumstances of his life unfavourably with others.


He gardens with passion. “Trollope” I once asked him. “you worked in mines, with machinery, you can drive a forklift, you’ve worked on boats and in the harbour, you can paint, and you worked for 11 years doing high voltage electricity installations…you can earn much more using those skills than in gardening”. These were the words he spoke in reply: “Me, I’m like for gardening”. Now one of the intrinsic factors contributing to the enjoyment of gardening is that you’re working in your own garden. You work in it all day in summer, and at the end of the day you open a beer, and get pleasantly intoxicated looking at the green paradise you have created for yourself. But it’s quite something different when you are gardening in winter in somebody else’s garden! Poor Patrick for instance, he helped me over nearly ten years to get my garden established, and now that I can sit and look out at big trees we planted together, he lies dead from AIDS. But regarding Trollope: he says he likes gardening, but I have a growing suspicion that he was once hurt badly in the big wage-earning league. Not physically, but someone did something cruel or mean to him, and he must have vowed never to return to such a life.


His pipe is almost invariably empty, although you never see him but it is clenched in his teeth. I asked him what he smoked, and – predictably – he gave me the name of the very cheapest pipe tobacco available in South Africa, tobacco that – were I to try to smoke it – would take the skin off the back of my throat. So one Friday I bought a pack of good aromatic Dutch tobacco for him. He was delighted – but I gave to him with a condition attached. “I want to get my old meerschaum pipe out and smoke a pipeful with you before you leave at the end of the day”. “Sure” he said.


Whether he forgot or not I don’t know, but at the end of the day, as he was preparing to leave, I reminded him: “Hey Trollope, aren’t you going to let me fill my pipe with your tobacco?” “Oh sure” he said, but with the merest suggestion of embarrassment. So he let me fill my pipe, and then made as if to leave. “No” I said, “you also smoke with me”. I thought there would be a kind of camaraderie in us smoking our pipes together outside the kitchen door. But I made an error of judgement, and it shows how a gardener can easily have a more refined sensibility than a semi-unemployed writer and editor who once went to university. We are friendly, Trollope and I, but we are not friends, nor ever can be. By suggesting we smoke together I was albeit in a very tiny way disguising the real nature of our relationship: employer and employee, rich man and poor man, and – in the discredited lingo of years long passed – master and servant.


He puffed just once or twice, and then was gone, his work finished, his obligation delivered, and the next phase of his livelong day now to face. He knows when to make his entrances…and his exits. I wouldn’t want to sentimentalise Trollope, but he is more than a wise man and a brave man, he is a philosopher and he has never read a word of philosophy in his life.


* finish and klaar, an idiomatic expression signifying with some degree of emphasis that something is irrevocably finished; klaar is the Afrikaans word for “finished”.

* bonsella, a bonus.

* eish, a catch all word expressing surprise, alarm, pity, lust or anything else really.

* Handlanger, unskilled assistant.

* Braaivleis, barbecue.




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