The Shade of the Sycamore Tree

I was on my way to sign in with the rozzers at the St Kilda cop shop when I saw the notice taped to the bakery window. In scratchy cursive it read; ‘Gardener wanted. Home maintenance skills desirable. Twenty hours per week. Dependable. Reliable. Trustworthy. Call Mrs Z’ and gave a Toorak phone number.

I was none of those things, but I could push a mower, swing a hammer, pull a weed and sweep a path. Plus, I was off the gear, out of a job, and really fucking needed the money.

When I called the number a curt, officious woman with a gravelly voice and a thick accent answered. Bypassing pleasantries she took down my details and summoned me to appear before her at noon. I’d had Magistrates sentence me with more warmth.

At the address I’d been given, a series of blue-grey conifers peered over a high brick wall. Grand gates barred entrance but when I pressed the buzzer the accented voice greeted me, “You’re on time. Excellent.”

The gate swung open. I stepped through the gap and it closed behind me with a familiar clatter. Walking down the crunchy stone drive felt like a trek through the Black Forest. This was no ordinary suburban garden and I fought the urge to watch for wolves. Behind the wall of conifers stood an oak tree reaching for the sky. Underneath it, rhododendrons and azaleas sported seasonal colour. Back then, I couldn’t have named any of those plants.

The front of the two-storey house was guarded by a dozen white roses standing to sweet-scented attention. I’d been told to go to the back door so I followed a path into the shadow made by a thick canopy of chestnut trees.

Standing on the rear terrace, leaning on a rail with a shiny pen in her hand was the woman I’d spoken to. Looking like a monochrome wren, she was small, grey, earthy but elegant. She wore black slacks and a black woollen jumper. Her silver hair was tied up in a no-nonsense bun.

“Mrs Z?”

“Zalinski. Greta Zalinski. And you are Robert.”

“Robbie. Yes.”

“You’re older than I thought you’d be,” she said, studying me fiercely. “Are you strong? Healthy?”

“Yes ma’am,” I lied.

“You look half-starved and you’ve got a crooked back.”

I straightened up under the withering examination.

“I’m strong enough,” I responded, not believing it myself.

“We’ll see about that.”

Mrs Zalinski descended the stairs and ushered me around the massive garden. The property seemed to have swallowed several neighbours’ plots; forming a patchwork of secluded outdoor rooms on a gently sloping block. It was other worldly, more botanical garden than backyard and it was no wonder she couldn’t maintain it herself any more.

Using her pen as a pointer Mrs Zalinski drilled me for plant knowledge. Could I trim back a particular tree? Re-lay a path? Repair the abandoned swimming pool that was currently an eyesore beside the terrace? I said yes to all of it of course.

At one point, towards the rear of the property, near a high brick wall hidden by a mane of jasmine, Mrs Zalinski paused her questioning and stopped.

“Robert, in this area, beyond this gate, is the only part of the garden I really care about.  Honestly, you can ruin the rest of the garden – and I rather think you will – but this, this space is sacred.”

I nodded.

She opened the gate and we stepped inside a walled courtyard that was a bit bigger than half a tennis court. A garden seat sat in a corner. Six rectangular plots of manicured garden beds formed  a row in front of a centrepiece tree. Behind the tree and off to one side there was a seventh bed filled with flowers of gold that seemed to shimmer under the early afternoon sun.  

“Paulus, my husband, planted the sycamore from a seed he carried from Poland.”

The tall, round domed tree dominated the stunning secret garden. I followed Mrs Zalinski around as she identified various plants in this delicate jewel-box landscape. It was warm and I rolled up my sleeves absent-mindedly.

She stopped mid-sentence, looking at the prison tattoos on my forearms. 

“Mrs Zalinski, my gardening knowledge might be a little rusty, and I mightn’t be the cleanest cut bloke you’ve laid eyes on, but honestly, in my life, I’ve learned the importance of sacred spaces.”

She looked me up and down and thought for a while then said, “Yes, you’ll do.”

In the weeks following she left copious fat gardening books in the workshop for me, but lacking images they were mostly useless. Instead, I spent evenings at the library reading publications full of leafy photographs.

It was there that I found a book about Melbourne’s successful Jewish post-war immigrants. In it, I discovered that Paulus Zalinski had travelled to Australia via Israel after the war. He sold newspapers from a corner kiosk, eventually opening a book store on William Street specialising in legal publications. Soon the shelves of every judge, barrister and solicitor worth bribing heaved under the weight of new books. Eventually that bookstore became two, then three, then a dozen. 

Almost as a footnote, the book said Greta Zalinski kept house, raised three children and owned a jewellery store in Windsor. She was elected to council in her fifties and fought over-development for five terms.

* * *

Over the years Mrs Zalinski’s trust in me grew. I potted, planted and took great care of the secret garden. Elsewhere, I cleared huge swathes of escaped ivy along the driveway in a multi-year battle of wills.

Mrs Zalinski would occasionally appear with a cup of tea for me. One day she told me about her husband’s business success, tinged by the early deaths of two of her children. Her only living child, Michael, moved overseas after university. Hers was, to me, a sad and lonely story but she never saw it that way. 

“I have my memories for company Robert, and a book to write them in.”

I’d spent a small fortune of Mrs Zalinski’s money repairing the swimming pool, though I’d never seen her use it.

Nearly a decade after I’d started the job the city was in the grip of a heatwave. It was a Thursday and I was hot. I was bothered. And, as I was unable to use power tools on Fridays, I thought fuck it, time to give myself a day off.

While I never worked weekends, by Sunday my Catholic guilt had got to me. 

So, that balmy Sunday I unlocked the gate and went to work. As I rounded the terrace I heard opera playing over a radio. There was a splash of water from the swimming pool. Mrs Zalinski, naked as the day she was born, was languishing in the crystal water just a few feet away from me. I froze. Unnoticed, I backed away out of sight, but tripped over a chair, crashing to the ground.

“Who’s there?”

Fuck, I thought, pausing for the right words.

“Who’s there? Who’s there, damn you?” she shouted.

Think Robbie. Think. I could hear the water moving.

“It’s me, Robbie. Sorry, I just, I’m here to do the wateri–“

Mrs Zalinski, her eyes thunderous grey, appeared above me, naked, water dropping from her body, her silver hair snaked across her shoulders.


“Huh?” I flubbed.

“You’re lying on my towel.”

“I, ah,” stammered, handing her the towel.

“What are you doing here?” she sneered, “It’s Sunday.”

As she stood over me I noticed the faded tattoo on her forearm. Suddenly, I felt the weight of her trauma and the unutterable burden she carried. She saw that I’d noticed it and the anger went out of her in an instant. She wrapped the towel around herself.

“It was a lifetime ago but the scars last forever.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “For everything.”

“Go on, get on with whatever you’re doing,” she said, and climbed the stairs to the terrace. Pausing, she continued, “No more Sunday visits Robert.” 

* * *

For another decade I toiled on the garden and chipped away at endless repairs. One of the conifers died so the house looked like it had lost a tooth. Worse, the ivy returned.

But always, the sacred courtyard shined. One spring afternoon I was on my knees digging in the wormy soil of the courtyard garden when Mrs Zalinski’s shadow appeared. I looked up, squinting.

“Do you know why there are seven flower beds in this courtyard?” she asked. 


“There’s one for my husband. And six are dedicated to the memory of those murdered in the Shoah. Six garden beds for six million souls – it’s not nearly enough.”

A magpie carolled somewhere.

“Come. Sit with me.” 

I steadied her elbow as we walked to the corner seat.

“Robbie, I’m afraid I’ve been quite ill.”

“I didn’t know,” I said, suddenly seeing her frailty. “Can I help?”

“Not even God can help,” she said, then smiled, “Don’t get old, it’s bad for your health.”

We sat in silence.

“Tell me, all those years ago when I first walked through the gate, you were unimpressed with me. Why did you give me the job?”

“I didn’t give you a job Robbie. I offered an opportunity for atonement.”

I looked at her, confused.

“You don’t think a millionaire’s widow, friends with every legal eagle in Melbourne, isn’t going to do some research on you before letting you in their front gate?”

She laughed and placed her hand in my hand before continuing.

“I know a lot about people and I know that greed wasn’t at the heart of what you did. You’d lost your children and found heroin. Who was I to judge?”

“Thank you”, I said quietly, the view of the garden growing blurry. 

“Robbie, I’m going into care soon. I’ve left the house to Michael – he’s in New York – he’ll likely sell it and no doubt some developer will bulldoze all your hard work.”

“Of course.”

“That said, years ago I set up a sub-division to split this courtyard off from the property,” she said, turning to face me. “I need you to have it.”

“What? No, I can’t.”

“You can and you will,” she said, smiling softly.

“The courtyard will be inaccessible.”

“True. Which is why back then, to give you access, I purchased next door. That’s yours too.”

“Why?” I asked, shocked.

“That Sunday at the pool, when you saw me vulnerable, naked, the thing you cared about most was this awful mark on my arm and what it meant for me.”

Mrs Zalinski rolled up her sleeve as she continued. 

“I could see you were wondering at it – the scale of man’s inhumanity to man. And to me.” She paused, adding, “I need two things from you.”

“Name them Greta.” She smiled as I used her first name for the first time.

“All of a sudden you’re a landowner and it’s Greta now,” she chided, grabbing my hand tighter.

“I’ve written a book; a kind of book of the damned, listing the name and story of every single person I encountered in Auschwitz. The ones who died within hours or days, the ones, who, like me, sold their soul to survive. The innocent. The rapists. The thieves. The murderous filth, they’re all named. An old friend of Paulus will publish it but it needs to be arranged after I die.”


“Secondly, at my funeral an empty casket will be buried while I join Paulus here, buried under the shade of the sycamore tree.”

“Your husband is buried here?”

“That’s his grave,” Greta said, pointing to the bed of golden flowers.

“Is burying you here legal?” 

“Of course not. But it’s been arranged.”

I looked into her eyes and nodded.

“I spent three long years inhaling the smoky ashes of a million of my people and most of a lifetime recording their stories; their souls will finally rest when I do.”

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