The Floating Garden: A Novel

The Floating Garden: A Novel

by Emma Ashmere


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Sydney, Milsons Point, 1926. Entire streets are being demolished for the building of the Harbour Bridge. Ellis Gilbey, landlady by day, gardening writer by night, is set to lose everything. Only the faith in the book she’s writing, and hopes for a garden of her own, stave off despair. As the tight-knit community splinters and her familiar world crumbles, Ellis relives her escape to the city at 16, landing in the unlikely care of self-styled theosophist Minerva Stranks. When artist Rennie Howarth knocks on her door seeking refuge from a stifling upper-class life and an abusive husband, Ellis glimpses a chance to fulfil her dreams. This beautiful novel evokes the hardships and the glories of Sydney’s past and tells the little-known story of those made homeless to make way for the famous bridge. Peopled by bohemians and charlatans, earthy folk and fly-by-nighters, The Floating Garden is about shedding secrets, seizing second chances, and finding love among the ruins.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742199368
Publisher: Spinifex Press
Publication date: 07/01/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Emma Ashmere is a writer whose short stories have appeared in various publications, including the Age, Griffith Review, Sleepers Almanac, Etchings, and Australian Women’s Book Review. She has a master’s in creative writing from the University of Adelaide and a PhD from La Trobe University in Melbourne on the use of marginalized histories in fiction.

Read an Excerpt

The Floating Garden

By Emma Ashmere, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins

Spinifex Press Pty Ltd

Copyright © 2015 Emma Ashmere
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74219-936-8


So now their standoff had come to this. The last of her lodgers had tossed their belongings onto the back of a cart and clattered off to take up an overpriced fleapit in Woolloomooloo, leaving Ellis Gilbey here, alone, peering from windows, rattling about an empty house.

She wiped her finger across the windowpane and looked along the street. It wasn't clear how much longer she could hold out against the latest barrage of Notices to Quit. The staunch ones claimed they'd hang on until they were prised out like oysters from the harbour seawalls, or at least until they'd seen the colour of the government's promises of compensation. Despite months of garrulous street meetings and the rousing talk of 'power in the union', Ellis had always known no one would pay. Just because the authorities had found enough funds to see off the big stevedoring companies which owned entire streets, it didn't mean they'd do the same for inconsequential tenants like themselves. When she'd tried to warn her neighbours of this, she'd been shouted down. Nobody wanted to hear talk like that.

She glanced around the bedroom. Everything was coated in a chalky sheen: the brass bedstead, the amber-coloured wardrobe with its broken leg, the red and gold satin coverlet inherited from a cherub-faced dancing girl who'd done a midnight flit, the faded sign saying Private! nailed to the door, the avalanche of papers engulfing her typewriter, and the prize of her belongings — the picture of a landscape hanging over the desk with its quiet dark valleys and sun-stroked hills. Ellis had inherited it when she took over running the lodging house. To remind you of home, the previous landlady had said. But for twenty-seven years this had been her home. Despite the creeping winter damp and the winds whistling Aeolian melodies through the cracks, this dingy room had been her place. Now the resuming men were coming to tear it all down as if the act of demolition was the beginning and not the end. It was a death of a suburb, house by house. Even the milkman no longer bothered clattering his cans over the cobblestones.

Ellis stepped back from the window too late. Girl had spotted her from her balcony and waved a bottle in the air.

'Fancy elevenses, Els?'

Ellis shook her head.

'Later then,' said Girl.

Hell, Ellis thought, but she gave a wave and went back to her desk.

This latest disruption had stopped her from producing anything useful the night before for her monthly column 'The Green-eyed Gardener'. For the past ten years or so, she'd never had any trouble dashing off monthly missives for the Australian Gardeners' Almanac. It kept her mind on easier, earthier things while bringing in a small and much-needed regular fee. What had started as an anecdote had turned into a column which now boasted a fervent following.

The Almanac's editors attributed the success of 'The Green-eyed Gardener' to two things: the fact it was written under the nom de plume of Scribbly Gum; and Ellis' depiction of a man she'd encountered long ago, a mean-spirited green-thumb, Mr Moses. Everybody knew someone like him. 'Putting on a Mr Moses' had even entered the local vocabulary. It was what people said if you crowed about the superior scent of your roses, or rued the progress of other people's runner beans, or were seen ringbarking somebody's almond tree because it blocked your sun, or caught dumping your weeds, snails and prunings over a fence.

Nobody except the Almanac's editors knew the true identity of Scribbly Gum. Together with the lodgings' takings and typing out invoices for Clements Brothers' Emporium, moonlighting as a columnist had provided Ellis just enough to scrape by, but now she was left to field the whole of the rent until she found another room for herself. In the meantime she'd finishher book: a compilation of her most popular columns with a smattering of gardening hints and a pinch of arcane gardening lore.

If she worked all night, she'd finish it before Dr Bradfield's men came to breathe down her door. Once it was published, funds would roll in and — and what?

Sitting here at the desk, Ellis was no longer sure. Everyone assumed Scribbly Gum was the well-heeled owner of a rambling productive garden estate. Comments such as Reveal yourself, Sir! regularly found their way to the Letters to the Editor, much to the editors' amusement. Apparently maintaining Scribbly Gum's mysterious identity had been a boon for sales. Ellis supposed once her book had come out, it would be easy enough to keep hiding the truth, that 'he' was a middle-aged 'she', soon to be evicted from a sunless and now eerily silent terrace house marked for demolition at Milsons Point.

That was the strange thing. While the digging machines screeched and hammered from dawn 'til dusk, and the force of the blasting could toss the tea cups from your shelves and cleave zigzag gaps in your walls, an unnerving stillness had begun to invade these waiting streets. Sitting here now the stillness was almost visible, lapping across the floors, cascading down the stairs, rising to nibble the hem of her dress.

Ellis left the desk. Her footsteps echoed down the hallway. She unbolted the back door and stood against the doorframe, tapping out the dregs from her pipe, staring out at the nettles and the tumble of nasturtium leaves floured by dust as the city raged on and the silence of the house breathed at her back.

She took out a few strands of tobacco and rolled them between her fingers. Privately, she referred to her tobacco as 'maidenhair' but there was no time now for private jokes. She shoved the pipe back into her pocket and ran upstairs, paused on the landing, opened the cupboard and counted the blankets and pillows. All were there.

In the smaller room overlooking the yard and the old night-cart lane, she could almost see Bradfield's miraculous bridge curve over the harbour beyond the ragtag rooves heaped with broken wheels and lumps of rock. The witch's hat steeple on the church was leaning back even further since the last southerly buster. Over towards Kirribilli, the occasional Norfolk Island pine and jacaranda tree afforded shade over wider, wealthier streets. By some quirk of geography those streets would stay intact while these houses and shops, these little worlds, dissolved into air.

The larger room looked across to Girl's stocking-festooned balcony. Ellis squinted up at the ceiling where tongues of paint were curling off and circles of damp rippled out. There were gaps in the floorboards where they'd buckled to form tiny hills. She swiped at a cobweb hanging down and swept a pile of dust sideways with her shoe. On hearing a voice, she stopped. The voice seemed to multiply as it rolled around the walls. Her lodgers may have gone but something of them remained, their aural vibrations, their astral transferences, as Miss Minerva Stranks would have said and Kitty Tate would have tossed her dark shine of hair and smirked behind Miss Stranks' back, mouthing to Ellis, and what does our apprentice Secretaire Spirituelle make of that?

Ellis put a hand to her throat. She'd let herself think of Kitty Tate and Miss Stranks and those wretched days back at the Hall. All that was in the past where it belonged. But the past wasn't over. It was here, crowding around her in this cheerless room. She sat down hard on a bed. A quarter of a century may have passed but it was still too difficult to think about Kitty Tate. Time had done nothing to ease her guilt. She'd tried to bury her regret since it had taken root inside of her all those years ago, but now with all the uncertainty of the bridge, it had begun to sprout new shoots.

It was best to keep moving when she felt like this. She set about wrestling the mattresses off the beds, took apart the bedsteads, and managed to manoeuvre them downstairs ready to flog off to the scrap iron man. In the kitchen, she found a knife, ran back upstairs and removed the brass door handles on the upstairs doors followed by the plates surrounding the light switches. If the landlord asked for them before she left, she'd surrender them all. If not, she'd pocket the modest spoils for herself.

She stood back and sighed. So, the house was all hers, but not hers at all.

* * *

She cradled a hot strong cup of tea and stared up at the picture shining over the desk. At this time of day the glass reflected oblongs of light, whiting out the sunny foreground, making it a pale lapping sea. Sometimes the lines of the mountain resembled the face of a woman turned upwards towards the sky. She moved her head so she could catch this effect, the profile of a woman reclining, her chin, her nose, her breasts caressed by the soft morning light, the slight smile on her lips as she raised her eyes, just like Kitty had across the bed, on that last beautiful, terrible morning ...

Ellis stood up so quickly she spilt her tea. That was the second time she'd let herself think of Kitty. It was time to get out of here, to begin somewhere else. The end of the week, that's all she'd give herself. If the government hadn't paid up by then, she'd go out and find another room far from the thundering path of the bridge, away from the memory of what had brought her here all those years before. She'd say to her neighbours, Girl, old Mrs Liddy and Clarrie, I've found somewhere else. And Mrs Liddy would cry out 'What, dear?' and she'd sit down on her milking stool and weep into her long black skirts, and Clarrie would cough and frown at his beloved poetry book, and Girl would call her a 'scab' or a 'dog' or something just as bitter.

Ellis jumped at the sound of a thump on the front door. It was only Girl, a bottle tucked beneath one arm, her pink feather boa dragging behind her in the dust.


They sat together on the back step. Ellis tapped her pipe against her shoe and stared at the shadows swimming through the mess of her backyard as Girl talked on about who was doing what nefarious thing to whom.

'This is a change, ain't it, Els?' said Girl. 'Having the place all to yourself.' Girl glugged another shot of port wine into their cups and raised it. 'To the two of us then, the lasts of the lasts.'

Ellis downed it. Girl poured another. 'Your turn, Els.'

'What? Sorry, Girl, I was miles away.'

'It's your turn to christen the next thirsty cup.'

'Oh. To us. The lasts of the lasts. To the dying days of Burton Street.' The wine was beginning to slur her words.

'The dying days?' Girl gave her nudge. 'Cheer up, Els. Alf Ostler reckons the government's going to cough up any day.'

'Does he now?' Ellis packed a good pinch of tobacco into her pipe. 'Then I'll celebrate with a double helping of maidenhair.'

'Of what?'

Ellis felt herself flush. She'd always been careful not to let slip her private jokes, especially not to Girl. In a house full of strangers and a street with flimsy walls and open windows, privacy was hard to win and even harder to keep. Now she'd never hear the end of it.

'What did you call your tabaccy, Els?'

Ellis struck the match on her shoe and watched it flare and stutter out. What did it matter now what she said? 'Tobacco reminds me of the dried stems of the maidenhair fern.' She eyed Girl, careful to keep her own face a blank. 'You know the ones?'

'Yeah,' said Girl, slowly.

'The Ancient Greeks called them ... Oh, don't worry.'

Girl splashed more wine into her cup. 'Go on Els. Loosen up. Nothing better than a good story to cheer us all up.'

'Well, they used to think the stems didn't get wet when they were put into water. And ...' She gulped her wine. 'They thought they looked like women's hair.'


'You know. Hair. Down there.'

Girl threw her head back and roared with laughter. Ellis listened to Girl laughing on, but it only made her feel more alone. She wished she was lying safely in bed staring up at the lodgerless rooms above, her curtains drawn against the world.

'Come on, Els. Treat yourself to a snifter or two. That'll perk you up.'

Girl unfolded a twist of paper and sprinkled a line of Sweet Tooth pain-relieving powder, as she called it, over the dimples on the back of her hand. The crystals sparkled in the darkening air. Girl raised her hand and took a sniff.

'See? Easy as you like. It'll bring them roses back to your cheeks.'

Roses, Ellis thought, with a sigh. According to last month's 'Green-eyed Gardener', Mr Moses' roses won every prize in New South Wales because they were fed a carefully balanced diet of banana skins and chicken manure, a recipe he'd copied by watching his neighbour through a much-used spyhole in the fence. For years he had been incensed by his neighbour's blooms which were larger and brighter than his own. But now, officially, his roses were a riot of colour. At the first sign of a withering bud, Mr Moses sharpened the blade of his bayonet and removed them with military precision. Do not blight your garden with specimens past their prime. Banish them immediately to the rubbish pile, Ellis had written, but the sentiment had depressed her and she'd left it out.

But Mr Moses, there is no such thing as death, she thought. There is only trans-for-may-shun! That's what Miss Stranks would have said, but so much for Miss Stranks and her patchwork of second-hand philosophies. Sitting here was like being sentenced to a kind of death. As of today, Ellis was no one with nothing and nowhere to go. She was no longer a quiet landlady running a neat, plain lodging house for women and girls. All she had to show for the past quarter of a century was a rented house full of shabby furniture and a ridiculous notion she'd save herself by writing a book of anecdotes about tossing tea leaves onto your hydrangeas to ensure they were the bluest in the street.

No wonder people laughed at her. She'd heard them do so often enough. She may be one of them cabbage-munchers, Alf Ostler had said to somebody at one of their first street meetings. But she fires off them fancy letters to the government like there's no shortage of coal in the stokehouse.

Ellis held out her hand. 'Go on then.'

'That's the way, Els.'

Girl patted out another trail of Sweet Tooth. Ellis coughed as she took a sniff and it tingled in her nose. Her heart began to beat thumpingly fast. She put her hand to her chest and looked at Girl, wondering what she was supposed to feel. She'd hoped it would be like opium, the so-called flower of forgetfulness. She could write about the uses of the poppy in her next column, which would be sure to pique the interest and the ire of the readership in equal part.

Girl began to hum a smoky tune. Ellis leant back against the doorframe, watching the dark sparring with the light. Back when Mrs McCarthy had run the house, the chokos ran thick and wild. The tight tendrils of the passion fruit vine clawed their wiry fingers at the air. River beans had scaled their bamboo stakes in their search for sun. The smell of lavender, rosemary, basil and peppermint had tinged the air.

Some nights when Ellis was lying in bed, a touch too much brandy having passed her lips, she let herself believe she'd have a house of her own one day, one with a real working garden, flowers and vegetables, an orchard, a running creek nearby, just like the one she'd worked in as a child with her mother back on the farm at Candlebark Creek in those fleeting days of plenty before her mother had died.

Her hand went to her throat. Girl's powder was no good. It had not let her forget at all. She could see her mother — really see her — as if she was standing a few yards away. She closed her eyes. It was no use. She could hear her mother's voice over the sound of Girl's tuneless hum.

Peppermint, Ellis? Warmth of feeling. Dried and crushed, stops the flow of blood when applied to cuts. Marigolds, Ellis? The old people used to dye their hair with its golden petals ... good for pairing with tomatoes.

Ellis must have let out a small cry because Girl went quiet.

'Come on, Els. Like I said, it'll do you good to get things off your chest.'

She looked at Girl, at her puffy eyes and the eyebrows plucked as thin as spiders' legs. Maybe Girl was right. Bottling things up didn't seem to be working anymore. She imagined throwing open the upstairs window and shouting out over the broken rooves and half-demolished streets: After my mother died, I had nowhere to go. I was taken in by Miss Minerva Stranks, the quasi-theosophist, who fell from grace when Kitty ... No, she could never admit to being part of that.


Excerpted from The Floating Garden by Emma Ashmere, Renate Klein, Pauline Hopkins. Copyright © 2015 Emma Ashmere. Excerpted by permission of Spinifex Press Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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