OLD MR KESSEL LIVED next door. He lived alone in a red brick house with a backyard that Josh thought must go on forever. Mr Kessel’s yard was filled with trees, and the trees were often filled with wrens, magpies, cockatoos or galahs. It reminded Josh of the Australian bush. One day last summer his family had left town and driven to the mountains where they’d embarked on a three-hour bushwalk. Josh remembered the grey-green leaves, the warbled voices of birds and the smell of lemony eucalyptus baking in hot sun.
Every day without fail Mr Kessel dug, raked or weeded his garden, and occasionally he just stood quietly underneath a scribbly gum with a tin cup of coffee in his hand. In those moments he stared at his garden with a gleam in his eye and a crooked smile on his face.
Mum sometimes made friendly chitchat with Mr Kessel over the fence. But Josh and his little brother, Matty, never did. They were fascinated, and also a little terrified, of the old man. He spoke with an unfamiliar accent—not an Australian one like their family did. He seemed as tall as a giant, and his skin looked as tanned and wrinkled as an old leather shoe.
But the most incredible thing about Mr Kessel was his right leg. It wasn’t real. Josh and Matty had discovered this fact by accident. There was a gap in the wooden fence between their backyard and Mr Kessel’s, which the boys sometimes peeked through. One day while peeping through the crack, they saw the old man hoist up his trouser leg. There should have been soft hairy skin underneath the fabric. But there wasn’t. Instead, the boys glimpsed some black and silver metal. Matty squealed, and Mr Kessel looked towards the fence with surprise. The brothers jumped up and ran as fast as they could back inside the house.
Josh wondered how a big man like Mr Kessel could lose a leg.
* * *
One Saturday afternoon Josh and Matty were playing cricket out in the backyard. Josh was batting; Matty was bowling, and Lola, their Silky Terrier, was fielding.
They played fast and hard. Matty was a reasonable bowler and Josh an exceptional batsman. Little Lola ran back and forth endlessly with her nose in the air and her eyes on the ball.
Matty rubbed the red cricket ball against his thigh, the way he’d seen players do on television. He looked his brother up and down and ran towards him. With a powerful overarm throw, he released the ball. It arched through the sky. Lola quivered with excitement, and Josh held his bat in position, never taking his gaze away from the oncoming ball.
SMACK! The bat whacked against the ball and sent it soaring high into the blue sky. Up, up, up it went, and then with an elegant curve began its descent. The boys held their breath, their eyes growing wider and wider with horror as they watched the ball fall. It wasn’t going to land in their backyard. It was headed straight for Mr Kessel’s garden!
Lola raced to and fro like a doggy ping-pong ball, but Josh and Matty stood like statues. They heard the tinkle of breaking glass. And then there was silence. Josh groaned. What should they do?
The boys raced towards the fence and peeped through. What had they broken?
They glanced towards Mr Kessel’s house, but the windows were all intact. They gazed the other way and noticed a small building half-hidden by trees; it was a greenhouse. See-through walls glistened in the sunshine—except in one spot where there was a jagged new hole.
Josh and Matty looked at each other with guilty faces. They realised it was only a matter of time until Mr Kessel came outside. They were too scared to retrieve their ball in case they bumped into the one-legged giant. Instead, the boys pulled up their stumps and disappeared inside the house. They thought it wise to lay low. They settled themselves in beanbags in front of the television and switched on a favourite movie.
About a half-hour later the doorbell sounded. Lola yapped her way down the hallway, but the boys looked at each other and didn’t say a word. Josh felt heavy inside, as if he’d swallowed ten cricket balls all at once.
They heard their mum’s voice, and in between her speaking, they heard the accented voice of Mr Kessel. Several minutes later, the front door clicked shut. Footsteps marched down the hallway and Mum appeared before them. She was holding their cricket ball. With a hand on one hip she asked, ‘Anyone care to tell me what happened?’
Josh looked down and kicked at a crumb on the carpet. ‘It was an accident,’ he muttered.
Matty remained mute.
‘I thought I’d raised two honest boys. I’m disappointed. You should’ve come and said something right away.’ Mum paused. ‘It’s going to cost Mr Kessel a lot of money to fix his greenhouse.’
‘Sorry, Mum,’ said Josh with a remorseful voice.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ echoed Matty.
‘It’s not me you need to apologise to. It’s Mr Kessel.’
The boys looked at each other with panic in their eyes. Were they going to have to speak directly to the old man?
‘Tomorrow afternoon both of you will go next door and apologise. Mr Kessel and I have talked and decided that you will help pay for the cost of fixing the greenhouse.’
Josh and Matty looked at each other again with even more panic in their eyes.
Mum continued. ‘Mr Kessel will have to get the greenhouse fixed straightaway, but every Sunday afternoon you’ll earn money by helping him in his garden. He won’t give you the money directly, but he’ll keep a tally of how much you earn. That money, plus pocket money from home, will go towards the cost of replacing the glass.’
Josh now felt like he’d swallowed twenty cricket balls.
* * *
The next day the boys walked over to the red brick house and timidly knocked on Mr Kessel’s front door. Floorboards creaked as heavy steps drew close. The door swung open and Mr Kessel himself towered over them.
The old man looked down at the boys and there seemed to be a twinkle in his eyes. ‘Welcome, Joshua. Welcome, Matthew,’ he greeted them. He used their full names, not their nicknames like everyone else did.
‘You can call me Benjamin,’ he said.
The inside of his home was simple and neat, and the air smelled like a mixture of musty books, sausages and sweet-scented flowers.
Benjamin Kessel led them through the house and into his backyard.
‘Welcome to my bush tucker garden,’ he said.
Josh and Matty looked around. They didn’t know what a bush tucker garden was, but felt too shy to ask. They stood beside a rectangular wooden trough where spinach-like leaves sprouted. Matty stroked one with his finger.
‘That plant’s called Warrigal greens,’ said Mr Kessel. ‘It’s delicious cooked in omelettes or stir-fried with other vegetables.’
Matty wrinkled his nose. It looked like spinach, and he hated spinach.
‘Don’t turn your nose up at food until you try it,’ said Benjamin, as the twinkle returned to his eyes.
Throughout the next hour, Benjamin gave the boys a guided tour of his garden. He showed them flowers, bushes and many varieties of trees: macadamia, lemon myrtle, Illawarra plum and pepper leaf.
He pointed to a wattle-tree. ‘Wattle seeds are delicious in cakes and desserts,’ he said. ‘One day I’ll make you pancakes with wattle seed ice cream.’
Matty forgot to be shy and responded with a loud ‘Yum!’ The old man smiled at him.
‘And you can try some of my lilly pilly jam with the pancakes,’ he said, pointing to a slender branch laden with unripe berries.
They came near the small greenhouse where they could see a big hole in a window. It was time. Josh pressed his lips together, took a deep breath and forced the words out of his mouth. ‘Sorry, Mr Kessel—I mean Benjamin—for breaking the glass,’ he said in an almost-whisper.
‘I’m sorry too,’ mumbled Matty.
Now the hole with its sharp, nasty edges was right before them, but Benjamin only smiled and said, ‘These things happen.’ Then he added, ‘It’ll be fixed this week, and all will be well.’ He said nothing more about it and led the boys inside the greenhouse.
Rows of tiny germinating seedlings surrounded them. Plastic markers identified the plants. Josh read some of the names: bush tomato, rosella flowers, hibiscus, saltbush … and there were many more.
‘Have you guessed yet what bush tucker is?’ asked Benjamin.
Josh had become so interested in the plants that for a moment he also forgot to be scared.
‘Is it … um … plants you get food from?’ he asked hesitantly.
‘Yes,’ said Benjamin. ‘And where do you think the plants come from?’
The boys looked blank, until Josh finally guessed: ‘Australia?’
‘You’re right. All these plants are native to Australia.’
Josh wondered why a man with a foreign accent would grow nothing but Australian plants. He felt so curious he asked with more confidence, ‘Are you from Australia?’
The old man looked at Josh with a thoughtful expression. ‘I was born in a country called the Netherlands, but twelve years ago my precious wife, Annika, died. It was a difficult time. My son had moved to Australia several years before and wanted me to come here. So I did.’ He paused. ‘At first I missed home …’
Josh thought Benjamin’s blue eyes looked a bit watery.
‘Gardening gave me something to do when I felt sad about Annika. And growing bush tucker plants helped me settle into my new home. Now, I’m thankful to live here, to be near my son and family. The garden reminds me of how lucky I am.’
Benjamin took them to a shaded garden bed where smooth green tips poked through the soil. ‘All my plants are Australian, except for these. They’re from the Netherlands. Like me, they’ve learnt to grow in foreign ground.’
‘What are they?’ asked Matty.
‘Tulips,’ said Benjamin. He said no more.
Throughout the next weeks, the boys lost all fear of their neighbour and looked forward to Sunday afternoons. Benjamin taught them to remove weeds to plant new seeds in little containers and to transplant seedlings into the outside garden. But Josh’s favourite job was picking berries, pods or leaves from the garden.
* * *
One Sunday, when colourful tulips bloomed in the bush tucker garden, Benjamin invited Josh’s whole family, including Lola, for afternoon tea. Fat pancakes were placed on each person’s plate, and on top of these Benjamin scooped wattle-seed ice cream and dolloped lilly pilly jam. Even Lola gobbled down a doggy-sized pancake on the ground.
Josh tucked into the creamy treat, and wondered why he’d ever been afraid of his neighbour. He took a spoonful of speckled ice cream, but before bringing it to his lips, he had a thought. He’d been thinking about gardens so much lately he’d forgotten something.
‘Can I ask you something, Benjamin?’ he said.
‘Of course,’ answered the old man.
‘How did you lose your leg?’
Mum looked at Josh with an I-can’t-believe-you-just-asked-that expression.
But Benjamin didn’t seem to mind. ‘It was a car accident,’ he said simply.
‘Oh,’ said Josh.
An awkward silence followed; no-one knew quite what to say next, but then Benjamin’s face crinkled with a crooked grin.
‘Want to have a look?’
The boys eagerly nodded their heads. They watched their neighbour lift his trouser leg, revealing the metal limb. He unstrapped it and held it in his hands for all to see.
‘You could use it like a cricket bat,’ shouted Matty with excitement. Everybody laughed.
Josh looked around Benjamin’s bush tucker garden and decided he was lucky. Even though Benjamin was old, Josh knew they were lucky to live next door to him
Between mouthfuls of ice cream and admiring glances at Benjamin’s leg, Josh felt a warm sensation growing inside his chest. It was the sort of feeling that comes when you know you’ve made a new friend. a friend does something kind for you.