Her plot really belonged to an old art college friend, but he had gallery representation now, didn’t have time to keep it up, he said, did she want it, and she said yes, nothing to lose, I’ll give it a go. There was a five-year waiting list so she kept it on the down low, didn’t talk to the other allotment-holders in case they busted her. He warned her about the weeds but how bad could it be, she thought. The time outside would be good for her. Fresh air, a bit of physical work. After so long off work, it was something constructive, unpretentious. She bought a second-hand fork and a spade, and a book with step-by-step advice about how to cultivate crops through the seasons. It was early Spring – a good time.

At first, everything there looked dead. Shit, she thought, what have I got myself into, I can’t do this. She was wrung out, a dry, ragged dishcloth of a person. There were six beds, a few straggly bushes. She began in March with the biggest bed. Gave it a good dig: turned over all the hard, downstomped earth, and it looked better right away, like it was ready to start growing something. That made her feel good. She didn’t really know what she was doing, but she liked the idea of making things grow strong and tall, so she thought she’d put in longstemmed, determined things, climbers. Things that would take. She decided she’d count the weeks, from the day she started planting.

From week one, she was pretty sure there was a man living there, a stone’s throw from her plot, in a bright yellow tent part-hidden by brambles. Every time she was there, he’d pop out of the undergrowth and make her jump. He’ll get kicked out by the council, she thought, but I’m not dobbing him in, I’m illegal too.

Things got going in week five, April. In that month last year, according to a cheerful app she used to have on her phone, it was the size of a sesame seed.

She went twice, three times a week if she felt strong enough – and every time, she didn’t want to leave, stayed as long as possible, weeding and digging, so absorbed she forgot the time. She felt safe there, away from her flat, the busy street, the honking traffic. There were just gentleswishing leaves and chirping birds, it was peaceful and still. She nestled there, at one remove from home, two removes from work, three removes from everything else, layers of protection. She thought about Edgar. He’d laugh if he could see her here, in nature. How wholesome, he might say, sardonic, and then his eyes would be drawn by the bit of skin between her tshirt and the sides of her dungarees.

The weeds didn’t seem too bad, there weren’t that many. She dug out two more beds and put in bulbs, sowed seeds. The ground was all stony, she found a lot of broken glass, but with great care she picked it out and wrapped it up in newspaper and took it away. There were snails because the ground was still damp from winter. She didn’t like to kill them, didn’t even like touching them, so she got gloves on, gathered them up in a shoebox and shook them out in the park on the way home, which seemed like the nicest thing.

Her energy levels were pretty good, her blood tests came back fine.

In May, everything was so green it hurt her eyes – shades of acid lime – the trees seemed fluorescent, unnatural. She decided the guy in the tent was definitely living there. She went down early one morning to cut the grass with a rented push mower and the noise must have woken him up. He came out and stood there looking at her for about five minutes, but she pretended not to notice him. She had on sunglasses and kept her head down, but through the dark lenses she uptrained her eyeballs to watch him turn his back and piss into a watering can.

By week seven, the weeds were coming up a bit – it must be the time of year, she thought – so she spent a whole day there hand-pulling them. She ached by evening, and got home too late and too tired to do anything except order takeaway and watch 24 Hours in A&E.

The next morning, she woke early from a dream about the studio. It had been months, and she missed it – it was the one job she’d had that she enjoyed. Edgar had said to take as long as she needed, told her to keep in touch, but she knew that after this long, he’d probably be onto someone else. Most likely the new girl, though the new girl seemed to have her wits about her, she thought as she grabbed a banana, threw it in a bag and left.

The weeds were an invasive kind that could regenerate from tiny fragments of leaf, stem or root, she’d read – so you had to get all of it out, take it away, ideally burn it. She pulled a couple of buckets from the shed, and filled them with the green fronds and black rope-like roots that she tugged up, so many that the buckets weren’t enough, she had to make evil-looking piles of the stuff on the grass. Lying there in small uniform heaps, they were like witchy offerings, like something from a gallery installation.

It was two, perhaps three hours before she straightened up to get her breath back, and started back with a yelp – a large fox was crouching on the roof of her shed, not ten feet away, watching her, steadily. At her cry, it bounded down, scrabbleclawing wood. It turned and met her eye again, as if checking that she wasn’t going to be the one to leave, before vanishing. She sat for a minute, jangled, before tuning in to the rattle of her stomach, ripcording like a petrol-powered lawnmower, and remembering her banana. She forced a few bites, and as she chewed, she thought about the fox, wondered where it made its den. Whether at night, the man in the tent heard the foxes mating. She’d heard foxes at it, once, and almost phoned the police – she’d thought a child was being murdered. To her it was the sound of chaos unleashed, reality tearing at the seams, the worst thing she could imagine. She wondered if it sent chills through the man as he lay awake under the thin nylon. Whether he ever woke up crying.

This time last year, illustrated by cartoon fruit in the app, with googly eyes and grin, it had been the size of a blueberry.

By June, she’d read up some more, and learned a series of strategies for tackling the weeds: the first was to cover them up for months at a time, starving them of light and oxygen – weakening, suppressing them. Alternatively, she could pull them up, just like she’d been doing, though she’d read that digging might make them worse – tools could chop roots and leave bits in the ground that would sprout back. The final way was to use chemicals; unwise, if she wanted to eat whatever she grew. And she might. So she covered some of the beds with old, flattened cardboard boxes, weighed them down with bricks. The rest she kept tending, plucking all the weeds from the surface, and she couldn’t help it, even if it wasn’t for the best, she went down with her spade, six inches, a foot, and wrenched out their snaking roots. As she worked she made a mental list of her enemies, the people whose lives she could infect with the weeds if she found some ingenious way to do it. She’d read that some were so invasive they’d grow through floorboards, devalue homes – that if they got under your house you might never sell it.

For the rest of that month she went almost every day, and it started flourishing – became viable, she thought. Her strawberry plants grew bushy and their swelling fruits ripened; her sweetpeas started to creep up the bamboo tripods she’d stuck in. She started getting angry enough with the snails that ate the red berries to start flinging the bastards into a bucket of water to drown, or squashing them underfoot with a shudder. She took home plastic bags full of the holey fruit, determined not to waste it. She washed the slime off, ate them in front of a show called Medical Mysteries. One night, it was about a man with testicles so huge they dangled to his knees so he couldn’t walk and had to have surgery. She dozed in the screen’s lurid light, breathing a  strawberrysweet scent into the warm air of the room as she drifted among visions of monstrously appendaged men who trailed shimmering goo as they moved.

It got hotter, and there was less rain, so she needed to go more often to water everything and keep cutting the grass that grew and grew, and to deal with the weeds, which grew even faster, even without water. She stared at them, incredulous – why were they so much more alive than everything else? She dug a shallow trench for a row of bean seedlings, and as she exposed the cool depths of the soil, she went cold. The roots were everywhere. It was as though they knew they had to stay underground, but were multiplying there, covertly. Her skin prickled as she hacked at them, twisting and prising them out of the dark earth and casting them into a huge pail. For a split second, as she dumped in a freshdug batch, she saw them writhe like eels, and brought one ragebooted foot down inside the bucket – stamping – fuckers! She was stronger now, the empty feeling was filling in, and she was glad to have this project, this distraction. She was wresting control. She’d learned that leeks had to be blanched, peas trained, rhubarb forced. She used string, wire, canes. A different kind of art.

As everything grew, she began measuring it all. The tomato plants got to ninety centimetres; her beans only ten before the snails devoured them. The raspberries didn’t grow up so much as out – thirty, forty centimetres across, small flowers attracting bees, then magically transforming into little maroon velvet fruits. She ate them straight off the bush, staining her fingers with their crimson operating-theatre ooze.

At the end of the ninth week, she counted fifty ruined strawberries, saw the size of the pile they made, perfection spoiled, and the fury rose in her. She searched the culprits out, twenty-three of them, from their hiding places, lined them up on an old plank and waited until they peeped out, extended their tiny headnecks, antennae. She took a closeup photo of the biggest one, sent it to Edgar. She pictured him opening the message at the studio; knew he’d be fascinated by it, by the seeping grey membranes. He’d look at it again in private, she thought, it would probably turn him on. She knelt very still, watching as the creatures began to move, and felt a horrible thrill fizz through her body as a couple were swooped on by crows. With their beaks, the birds struck the molluscs against the wood, cracking their shells and downgulping the soft bodies. With a grim smile, she stood and clapped to scare the crows away, then took an old half brick and in a kind of controlled frenzy, smashed the rest of the snails one by one, crushing them to a terrible paste, not flinching, not even when slime flew into her face. When she was done, she sat back, satisfied, and saw the man from the tent, staring at her from across the way, with an uncertain look. She waved at him and wiped her spattered cheek with her sleeve.

This time last year, it was the size of a grape.

That night she watched two old episodes of Bodyshock: one about a woman so morbidly obese that a wall of her house had to be bulldozed to get her out to take her to hospital; and another about a little girl who cried tears of blood. As she drowsed on the sofa, she thought about the man in the tent, and what he might be doing at that moment. She began dreaming, and he was cooking escargot in a pot on a fire. She saw them inside his mouth, slurpsliding down his gullet, and then she was inside the half-ton woman, as the gastric bypass unfolded in ghastly technicolour. Slippery tubes pulsed fluid – mucous, liquid-secretions. The history of medicine that she’d studied at school was conjured up again in fragments: the four humours in all their bile-wet glory and dreadful imbalance. Surgical instruments danced through innards, probing, glinting, refracting imaginary light off the insides of her resting, twitching eyelids.

In week twelve, after a dry spell, she decided to take a look under the suppressing cardboard. She lifted the stones and peeled it back; it was starting to disintegrate, trying to become part of the soil. It didn’t come easily, because it was attached to the ground by weird pinkish tendrils that were piercing the card and growing through it. Starved of light, they were alien-coloured and weak, but they were alive. They grew horizontally – dragging themselves blindly across the flattened ground, groping for space where there was none: zombie shoots. She got near to the ground for a closer look. These mutants were worse than the green, healthy weeds. With a gloved hand she plucked at some and they snapped, rubbery – they were still strong, still well anchored deep underground. The underside of the cardboard, which she was holding up near her face as she peered beneath, was stuck with dozens of inch-long orange slugs. She lurched back and kicked the cardboard away. They sat, juicy and dumb, clustered in groups, doing what, having slug orgies?

As she composed herself, something neon-yellow caught her eye from fifty feet. It was the man’s tent. It looked bigger. She frowned. Surely it wasn’t a new tent. Maybe he’d cut back the brambles and she could just see more of it. Idiot, she thought – he’s making himself conspicuous. She fleetingly felt sorry for the man, who must be homeless. How sad, how awful. But then she bundled her compassion into a ball, threw it in the shed and padlocked it. We’re all discarded in the end, she thought. In this month last year, it was the size of a lime, and that reminded her to buy some limes, and also some more gin, on the way home.

That night she watched an episode called The girl with eight limbs, and afterward slept only fitfully, on the sofa, sweating through a nightmare about a many-tentacled, grasping creature, following her as she walked the white-walled rooms of an exhibition.

On the hottest day of the year, she worked the hardest she’d ever, and listened to music on her headphones, which brought her alive. Devo, Television, Depeche Mode, her favourites. She even caught herself singing along. Her skin had darkened in the sun and her flattened cardboard boxes had done the opposite, they were a bleached out dusty grey. She was thin now, but her freckled arms and legs were strong and supple. She harvested fruit, summer vegetables, admired the tendrilcurls of her peas, the winding stems now all the way up the tripods. She’d done this, without any help, with her own hands, her own body. And the best thing was the beefsteak tomato, perfectly ripe: an heirloom variety, skin ridged and puckered like scar tissue, deep orange and purple striped, six inches in diameter. An inch for every month of last year’s project. And yielding from its stem on this day in late August, a day that might mark a year since the day that may have been. She didn’t need to cut the tomato, it came easily away with the gentlest tug, into her ready cupped hands. She rubbed its leaves and inhaled the deep green scent that smelled to her like a warm sleeping body. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do with it, she couldn’t imagine eating it. So she sat down in the grass, which was growing long again, and cradled the fruit tenderly with interlaced fingers, careful not to puncture its taut belly. It was heavy. She’d take it home and weigh it, she thought. Maybe look up a way to preserve it – make this miraculous, fleeting thing last longer. She took a photo, which was another way of canning or bottling it, she reflected, capturing it forever like a specimen in a jar, and after only a moment’s hesitation, she sent the picture to Edgar.

Senior freelance arts fundraiser, bid writer and copywriter

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *