The Little Bantam

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A sixteen year old girl arrived to help in the nursery

Submitted: February 27, 2017

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Submitted: February 27, 2017



The tree nursery business has always had its ups and down, and in our case, we relied on the farming community, which in turn has its ups and downs. Farmers were moving away from trimmed gorse hedges and establishing post and wire fences which helped mitigate escapee gorse plants, but reduced available shelter for livestock. In particular sheep, especially during lambing. So we produced many species to provide shelter, to encourage better grass growth and to provide fodder for bees

During one of these downturns I was on my own managing the container yard. So called because all the plants were grown in some form of container, as against open grown, which were in a paddock situation and sold bare rooted. The rest of the workers were at the other nursery, thirty kilometres away, were forest trees were grown because that part of the business was booming. One day, the owner came to me to ask if I would look after Natalie, in other words take her under my wing.

I knew Natalie’s story, she had come home from primary school to find her mother dead on the floor! She had suffered a brain aneurism. So Natalie’s father had carried on as best he could by sending her and her siblings off to a boarding secondary school in the city when they were old enough. Natalie didn’t quite hack the boarding school and wanted out as soon as she could, so her dad approached the nursery owner.

Natalie’s father dropped her off, and although I knew him, we shook hands formally when he brought her in to meet me. He was a staid, professional man, not easy to joke with. Natalie strode like a little bantam hen behind him, as if she owned the place and she shook my hand with the confidence. A short, slim girl, not long past sixteen, with short, blonde hair, a complexion to match and a voice with a rasp of someone who had smoked for her entire life! She was a non-smoker.

She didn’t say much at first, listening to my instructions and complying with them. We were pricking out Eucalyptus seedlings at the time, and I suggested to her that gentle was the ideal. I could hear her ripping the taproots as she pulled the seedlings from the trays! Within a week you can tell if the seedlings are going to strike, and her’s were better than mine! Anyone who has had much to do with plants knows about ‘green fingers’. Well, I’ve found that some nursery workers have them, others don’t. Natalie did, and she could be rough as guts with plants, yet they thrived! Her cuttings also struck very well. Mind you, I didn’t dare have her showing new recruits her techniques!

We had these big shade-frames that we put out over newly pricked out seedlings. They were made of one inch galvanised pipe five metres by three, with shade cloth stretched over. They were awkward to lift and quite heavy. Natalie, tiny as she was, never baulked, if I could do it, she could do it! She was fiercely determined and fiercely independent and actually a treasure to work with. Her father and I tried to encourage her to do an apprenticeship but she said that she hated school and didn’t want to study again – ever. But she was bright! Maybe because of her home environment, I don’t know, but at smoko and lunchtime, while I was on the phone, she read. Not girly stuff! History and biology were among her interests and she read the newspaper and would chat away with me on topics that interested her. 

Just about every morning when Natalie’s father parked his car beside my office to drop her off, there was an argument going on! I could hear plainly enough.  Sometime she would come into my office red-faced, other times she would mutter about her ‘old-fashioned father’. I didn’t offer an opinion, sometimes it’s better not to. However, one day there was a particularly heated exchange outside! Natalie came into my office with fire engine red hair and cheeks to match!

‘You’re a father,’ she stormed, ‘you wouldn’t growl if one of your sons dyed his hair – would you?’

‘Of course not.’ I lied with my tongue firmly in my cheek.

Once the heat had gone out of the argument and we were talking sagely, I suggested that her blonde hair was attractive and that her father will always struggle with change. She countered that she felt the need to experiment. I agreed that it was her that it was her right, but the fire engine red was not the way to go for the first time. She agreed that it didn’t turn out quite the colour she expected and she agreed to try some less gaudy colours. Her dad gradually moderated at that.

From time to time Natalie and I had company in the prop-shed, and as time went on, business again picked up so we took on a young fellow who the Labour Department had sent out during the lifting season at the other nursery. We turned out to be a good team and produced some nice plants. And it is fair to say that a few tricks were played to keep the day’s activities flowing.

The day Natalie turned twenty, I used spray paint to write, ‘Toot, Natalie is 20 today!’ and nailed it high on the fence where northbound traffic could plainly see it. All day she asked, almost frustrated, what the tooting was going on about! Just before day’s end, I took her to show her. Her ear-bashing was good-humoured. About that time it was obvious she had a boyfriend in tow, because each weekend she was off to the city! Our suspicions were further aroused because she never wore a watch so on Friday afternoons, she kept asking what the time was – like every five minutes! So eventually we nagged her into telling us the young fellow’s name. ‘Wayne Kerr.’ She told us straight faced. Of course we fellows had a bit of a snigger, but it took us a long time to realise she had fooled us in good and proper!

Not long after, she took a job nannying in outback Australia, paternal argument may have been a motivating factor, but she was there for her father when he needed company! Natalie and I made a pact that in five years’ time we would meet in Sydney and we did. We met at the bottom of the Sydney Tower and like a bantam hen, she strutted around the complex as if l she owned it! It was her shout up in the restaurant!


She is happily married now, with kids of her own – I hope they’re little bantams!



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