by Clare Harvey
The light from the tall window glinted on the pincers. Between their finely-engineered points, Lin held a tiny, red-leaved oxalis. With a purposeful prod, she inserted it into the wad of sphagnum moss where the other red-leaved species were already taking root. Further back along the wall, where she had first begun, tides of green tendrils lapped against jade fractals. Glossy weeping figs sheltered verdant ferns, whose close-held scent reminded Lin of woodland streams.
Amongst them, she had inserted an impostor, a high-quality replica of an alocasia in plastic and silk. Nobody had ever detected it there, and that was because the real growing plants were just as perfect. When she returned to her flat every night from her job at the distribution centre, that was how she chose to relax. Using a pair of curved scissors obtained from a surgical supplies company, she snipped any stalks that were withered and barbered her wall garden back to perfection.
A month before he left her, her partner Tim had said, ‘It’s too perfect. There’s nothing to show your plants are actually alive… it bothers me.’ She particularly remembered this, because it was the only time he had criticised her plants. All the previous disharmony had been about her reluctance to start a family
And his departure had caused her to pluck and snip more at the plants, not less. Originally, when she had begun to line her living-room-kitchenette with plants, she had longed for uninterrupted green, to counter the window view of slabs of grey – the unlovely flanks of neighbouring blocks of flats. At first, her plan had been just to grow plants over half a wall. Since then, a number of things had changed.
The first was that she had covered the whole wall, and then a second and third. The remaining side was mainly window but even that was overlaid by traceries of green ramifying from hanging baskets. When at last maximum verdancy had been reached, Lin had finally found herself sated with viridian.
‘Enough green!’ and with her slim steel trowel, she had punched a hole in the sphagnum, near the centre of one wall. Into it, she had inserted a dark red tradescantia. This plant had been eking out a few straggling shoots in the air-freshener dominated shower room. Now, allowed into the spotlight of the living room, it camped up with a whole bunch of candy-stripe leaves. If it could have spoken, it would have greeted visitors ‘Daaarling!’
Encouraged by this, Lin had excavated a space for a polka-dot begonia whose curved-wedge leaves added shape to the medley. In friends’ houses, dusty pot plants had called out to her ‘Take a cutting of me!’ and now the walls resembled a paisley design in green, red and gold.
However, that was not the only change. The residents’ association which had formed during Covid and then the climate change food shortages remained active. During one of the power outages, Lin had invited the five neighbours from her floor to share a beer in her candle-lit flat. They had been spellbound by her green walls, touching the stalks, burying their faces in the leaves, astonished to find they were not replicas, but real, photosynthesising organisms.
Des had said, ‘In this twilight, it feels as if the edges of your flat are melting into jungle, Lin.’
‘Well, I can assure you it looks much tidier by daylight,’ she replied.
One by one, each of the neighbours found an excuse to drop by during the day when the slice of sky threw highlights onto the glossy foliage. Des in particular returned frequently for longer and longer visits.
‘I want to make a trade,’ he announced. ‘I cook great stir fry. If I share my stir fry with you in the evenings, will you show me how to grow a green wall?’
Lin took a little while to think about it. When she was not at work in the distribution centre, the leisure hours with her precision gardening tools gave her time to herself. She even enjoyed the discipline of keeping the tools perfectly clean and sharp. She was not sure she wanted to allow another noisy man to rattle about in her flat, and in her life.
But somehow, before she had found a way to turn him down, it had become a regular event. The soft kick to the bottom of the door, the elbow on the handle, the clanging in with a great round-bellied wok and spatula. And just as she was trying to find the courage to say ‘No. Enough now. I need my quiet.’ all around her, she could see that her plants were in mutiny. They had grown swiftly on her well-lit walls and burgeoned and multiplied. Now they were stretching out pale roots as if to importune a passing stranger to take them home. They would have cheered and leapt into Des’s arms if they could. So she allowed the arrangement to continue.
‘The only thing I feel bad about is the fertiliser,’ Lin confided to Des. ’That’s why my plants are so healthy – I buy it in a bottle from the DIY Shed. It’s probably not great for the environment.’
‘Well at least from your flat, the nitrogen isn’t going to wash off into some river is it?’ But he had an idea. Mrs Way, across the corridor, had also come that night of the power outage to what she called ‘Lin’s woodland glade.’ Mrs Way had the ‘best’ flat – that is, she had a sheltered balcony. Bribed by some golden-hearted ivy and bright pink polka-dot plants, she agreed to set up a wormery. The inhabitants of the five flats on floor 8 now each saved their peelings for the wormery on Mrs Way’s balcony and she drained off the concentrated fertilizer from the barrel full of worms.
Lin and Des didn’t get all the fertiliser, however. Not by any means. It seemed every single person on floor 8 now had, if not a green wall, at least a green corner. Lin had bowed to her plants’ wishes to explore new pastures and had begun to give shoots and cuttings away regularly. She had not been the only source. Many of their plants had come from a barren corner of the DIY Shed, reserved for terminally ill flora, 30p a plant.
‘They should pay you,’ said Lin to Mrs Way. ‘Not everybody is able to nurse a plant back to life.’
But the folk of floor 8 were learning.
And there had been another change. Lin never discovered how it happened, whether through word-of-mouth or social media or simply zeitgeist, but within her block of flats, the greenness had spread to other floors, as if through arteries. Within each flat it was said that money plants vied with prayer-plants and were both rebuked by mind-your-own-business.
The landings had always been supposed to be shared areas, but had not been, because nobody wanted to linger there in the grey draft any longer than they absolutely had to. But even they began to blossom. Mainly, the dim quarters suited ferns, but the occasional slant of sun provided a haven for a deep green peace lily.
A year later, Lin and Des were sitting on their sofa. It was some time now since Lin had invited Des to move in and he had handed on his many plants to others in the block and arrived. They were eating stir-fry on trays and gazing at the green wall.
‘We could move the sofa round to see out the window,’ said Des.
‘I moved it here ages ago so I wouldn’t have to stare at all that grey concrete,’ said Lin. ‘We’re going to have to rearrange things a bit if, you know, if we decide we’re having a baby…Have to fit in a cot and everything.’
Lin stiffened. Des had opened up this topic several times recently, and one sunny, drowsy weekend morning, she had said ‘Yes’. Now though, she was far from sure. Des seemed to tire of waiting for her to respond, so he tried another tack.
‘Have you taken a good look out the window recently though,’ said Des, ‘It isn’t just our block anymore. There’s green sprouting up from balconies, green tumbling out of window boxes. The building opposite looks like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.’ Des sprang up, ready to push the sofa round to face the window. he clearly thought he had won his case.
Lin didn’t budge.
‘I guess I like looking at my plants,’ she said.
‘I like it too. I mean, I love it. But just sometimes, don’t you find them a little too perfect, Lin?’
Lin pinched her lips together and fell quiet. After a long moment, she stood and helped Des angle the sofa towards the window. He had been right. There was more green out there now. It was a much better view. Although, in her opinion, still not as satisfying as the green wall.
Over the next few days at work, her mind gnawed at the thought of her plants. Too perfect? How could they be too perfect? What did people want – papery brown stems, holes in leaves? Horrid.
But then one day she came home and discovered that perfection had deserted her, of its own accord. Something was eating one of her vines. Cartoon-style semicircles had been incised from the leaves. If she looked closely at the floor tiles beneath, there was a pepper of tiny droppings. Weevils? As she got to her feet again, she spotted a shiny, sticky patch on a streptocarpus leaf. Aphids! Perhaps it was when she had left the window open for some of the spring air, perhaps it was the number of neighbours now keeping plants, but somehow pests had invaded her flat.
She got out her plain steel leaf sprayer. It contained a strong and effective insecticide that had protected her beautiful plants on two previous occasions. She had just depressed the plunger and sent the first chemical onslaught into her wall when Des arrived home. Immediately, he erupted in coughing and spluttering. Lin put down the sprayer at once and ran him a glass of water. When he was able, he wheezed, ‘What are you doing? What is that?’
‘Just insecticide. Pests are messing up my plants.’
Des’s eyes met Lin’s. He looked anxious. It was clear the use of insecticide was no topic for rational discussion. Des’s asthmatic reaction made that impossible. Instead, what was being asked of Lin was a choice. Yet wasn’t this Des’s fault in the first place? If he hadn’t been so keen to spread plants around the neighbourhood, she probably wouldn’t have pests now.
Lin said nothing to reassure Des and he was very quiet as he made the dinner. Instead of whisking the bean sprouts rapidly round the wok, he pushed at them ruminatively. As they ate together on the sofa, looking out of the window at the greened block of flats, no doubt host to many invasive insects, Des said, ‘I could go hunt spiders in the hallway.’ ‘What do you mean?’
‘You know, like a bio-control to predate the pests. I could get ladybirds from the park too. Probably.’
‘I don’t really like spiders or insects. Just plants,’ Lin said. But all the same, the next day Des presented her with a plastic box containing some cross-looking spiders, kidnapped from the landing.
‘Can we try?’ he said.
When Lin held the box up against the green wall and took the lid off, the spiders quickly vanished into the sphagnum. At least they would be no trouble, she thought.
The scarlet ladybirds were more evident when they arrived as if the leaves were wearing jewels.
‘When did you bring those in?’ asked Lin.
‘I actually didn’t,’ said Des. ‘I hadn’t got round to it yet. Maybe they arrived through the window or under the door, the same way the aphids did.’
The green wall was no longer the perfect stretch of plant life which had always calmed Lin before. Although, if she were honest, there was more interest there, now that it was populated by prey and predators – like a miniature version of the Amazon rainforest. Herds of aphids grazed like tiny six-legged deer and were picked off by a pack of hungry lacewing flies. Meanwhile, a large house spider repaired his web, plotting to snare the flies. Unbeknown to him, a wispy daddy-longlegs spider had lassoed his back leg and would soon be finishing him off.
Then came a day when, as they sat side by side, Lin and Des were puzzled by a high musical chirping.
‘Is that a bird?’
‘Or a mouse?’
Concerned about what creature might be trapped in their flat they got to their feet and padded quietly about the room, hands cupped to ears. At last, they tracked the sound to a large fern. On the front sat a brown cricket, compact and with alert antennae. He gave a bright chirrup. They were delighted.
‘We’re even getting background music now!’ said Des.
Lin explained to him, that today was already a special day, because she was now certain, and had been just about to tell him, that she was pregnant.
Des put his arms around her and squeezed.
‘You’re not scared a little rugrat will mess up the plants?’ he asked.
‘Bring it on,’ said Lin.