I Seek the Green Pain
Whiteacre Hall belonged to my father-in-law but its greenhouses were my wife Rose’s domain.
One summer evening, I thought I’d pluck a flower to wear in my buttonhole at dinner.
Rose cut blooms from her walled garden when she wanted something to liven up the inside of the Hall.
I was allowed to wander wherever I pleased in her ancestral home and gardens provided, she warned, I felt confident I could defend myself from attack.
That was good advice. Things at Whiteacre were seldom what they seemed.
The three greenhouses ran along the south side of the house.
The temperate zone housed plants that were no less dangerous for needing conditions cooler than the hothouse but more humid than the dry house.
Glass doors prevented the temperature from equalising between the sections.
This protected the exotic plants brought back by Godfrey Ffanshawe, Fifteenth Lord Whiteacre, from the Far East two hundred years ago.
It allowed these tropical buds to co-exist with the trees and flowers brought back from Africa by his son Charles, First Baron Whiteacre, thirty years later.
Each house provided a distinct bio-system for plants to flourish.
Lush foliage of West Indian Avocado and Kaffir Lime blocked the entrance but I forced my way through.
Inside, the hothouse was steamy and womb-like.
The undergardener, Tendril, eighteen-years-old, was pruning a giant Venus Flytrap. She doffed her cap. Locks of brown hair, the same colour as mine but much less curly, had worked their way loose.
She’d worked up a sweat in the moist air and her skin glistened.
“Evenin’, Mister Flint, sir.”
I’d asked everyone to call me Toby, but it didn’t seem to be catching on.
Tendril was unapologetically ripe for the taking, no matter how often I spurned her advances. She wore a low-cut apple-green T-shirt over her racing-green trousers.
She may have been perspiring, but she smelt musky, like sandalwood. Spicy and earthy. Rich and warm. Perhaps our being on first-name terms wasn’t such a good idea after all.
“Something for the mistress?” The glint in Tendril’s emerald eyes warned me of blossoming trouble. “Pomegranates is croppin’. Way to the underworld, my father always says.”
“Is he about?”
Rootstock. My wife’s headgardener. Weatherbeaten by fifty winters. Red-faced and balding. Stooping with the years. But content to potter inside the greenhouses with his secateurs. And reeking of old whisky, stale sweat and roll-your-own.
But Rose wasn’t happy about Rootstock’s enthusiastic pruning. Plants needed to be nurtured, not cruelly culled, she’d complained only last night. And she felt that his daughter was naïve around the more dangerous specimens, too. Our undergardener needed to show them more respect before they taught her a lesson, Rose had said.
Tendril gestured languidly towards the dry house. In between was the temperate house: a mixed ecology that supported thousands of carnivorous plants and their prey. Mostly giant insects and arachnids. Caterpillars as big as dinner plates. Butterflies with a metre’s wingspan. Amphibians. Lizards. Small mammals, too. “Take care!”
Tendril leant into the flytrap and her voice became muffled. She pulled back out and added, “Hurry back, sir! Plenty o’ time to play in the bushes before your wife serves the main course.”
I went to find Rootstock before I landed myself in serious trouble with the boss.
Two lime-green frogs the size of dogs hopped past me as I pushed my way through the sweaty hothouse to the temperate zone. This was no Eden-like paradise. Almost every bush and tree could be lethal. Rose’s father had lost a beagle in here last week, the carcass picked clean by a squalid Greenblood Orchid that was already partly run to seed.
Rootstock had dug the plant out afterwards, burning the tubers on a bonfire; it had generated a foul stench that had suffocated several of the cattle grazing in the next field. Putting the orchid out of its misery, he’d called it. Almost all of the plants in Whiteacre’s greenhouses looked as if they’d only be too happy to do the same to us. I shivered as I passed the orchid’s rotting stump.
I found Rootstock tending the vines growing on the ceiling of the temperate greenhouse. There wasn’t enough fruit on them. The small amount produced last year had been too sour to eat. His gnarled hands were pinching out buds and poking around in the leaves. A pile of branches lay scattered on the floor.
“A good prunin’s all these plants need. The mistress goes too easy on ’em.”
I stared up at him. The largest vine twisted until it had wrapped itself around his muscular arm. He clipped it off and threw it away with the rest.
“Come next summer you’ll ’ave a grape harvest fit to get the mistress blind drunk on. Get a seed sown then, Young Master. Nine months later you’ll ’ave a ripe fruit.”
Rootstock hacked out a hoary cough that I found repulsive, especially when it was linked to hints about my marital life.
A vine root emerged from the sandy soil and grabbed my ankles. I grappled with it, reaching for an axe to chop at the foot-thick roots. Rootstock hurried down the ladder and snatched the axe from me. He cut through the vine with one blow despite its thickness. It whined, curled up, reformed and sulkily retreated underground.
We heard a frightened cry from the hothouse. Tendril!
Another Greenblood Orchid had sprouted from the rhizomes since I’d passed by. It had Tendril in its grasp and was wrapping itself around her. She struggled bravely but the plant was clearly getting the better of her.
Rootstock waded into the bed and chopped through the stem with one swing of his axe. A pungent aroma of rotting flesh and dung rose from it. This smell was how the Greenblood Orchid attracted its prey. I raised my knife, poised for another attack. The plants cooperated, utilising an elaborate hierarchy, whenever challenged. Rose had told me about it one evening as we strolled through the hothouse.
Rootstock yanked out a matted tangle of muddy tuber. It splattered us in a smelly liquid. Tendril fell to the ground, gasping for breath. It was hopeless. I looked away rather than witness her suffering. The liquid was spurting out of her arteries, too.
I dragged Rootstock away. We cowered in the temperate zone, deciding how to hit back.
Rootstock’s knuckles turned white as he gripped the axe. “That orchid’ll pay for taking my Tendril.”
I glanced over my shoulder. The larger species of plants appeared to be gathering in the centre of the temperate zone, around a stone fountain. The water usually gurgled from the mouth of a statue of a man. Rose had told me it was the Lord of Enchantment. “I seek the green pain,” she’d mused as we’d meandered past it one evening. I hadn’t dare ask what she meant.
“Plants is plotting, damn them. I’ll show ’em who’s master ’ere.”
I motioned to Rootstock to hush. The boughs of the withered fig tree were drooping towards us. I was pretty sure it was listening to us. But Rootstock was distraught. He was devoted to his only daughter. “I’ll burn every plant in this greenhouse for drinking the precious water of my girl.”
I stared at Rootstock in disbelief.
“The blood of sacrifice. The death of a child always follows the cutting of the orchid’s flowers. The old mistress lost her younger boy fifteen years back. Drove her mad… How d’you think that happened?” he asked me.
I didn’t! If there was one thing I’d learned during the few months I’d lived at Whiteacre it was not to make enquiries about the genesis of past family tragedies.
A rustle made me snap round. The fig tree! In mere seconds, it had sprouted green again. Plump fruits, giant, like massive testicles, hung from its branches.
“Mind yourself, Master Tobias, a fig tree can be good and bad. But you’ll never get anything but heartache from one that’s withered.”
I curled my fingers around the handle of my knife. Rose had laughingly told me that countless spirits lived within a healthy fig tree. The Africans held it to be sacred. The family had heard tell of this belief from the travel journals of their distant ancestor, the Victorian explorer Charles Ffanshawe. His portrait hung in the Hall’s gallery. He’d brought the fig seeds home with him, along with countless others, and had grown the ancestor of the tree that sulked behind us. I heard another rustle in the foliage. Very slowly, Rootstock and I turned around.
The fig tree’s largest fruit swelled until it was the size of a man. Rootstock hacked at the trunk with his axe, whilst I swiped at the fruit with my knife. The fig exploded, drenching us both in ripe seeds and rotting fruit. A man clambered out from inside the ruined pod. He nearly toppled over but eventually he righted himself. Charles Ffanshawe stood before us. He had sideburns, a bushy beard and he was wearing a burgundy velvet dust jacket and black tie.
The fig tree bent over and wrapped its branches around Rootstock. Charles and I grasped his waist and tried to pull him back from its grip. But the harder we pulled the further it drew him in. Finally, his muffled cries for help were stilled.
I staggered towards the greenhouse door. “Toby?” Rose’s voice called from outside. “Everything okay?”
My wife was the sort of woman who would take the sight of Charles Ffanshawe, dead for a century and a half, in her stride. I told her what’d happened to Rootstock and Tendril. She sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we can’t just behave like we own the place. We have to nurture it. It’s our moral responsibility.”
Charles grumbled something from the depth of his throat that sounded decidedly like a denial, but he didn’t overtly challenge Rose. We knew who was in charge here, even if Charles had hacked his way through a whole jungle to reach the fabled lost city of Ztasi in Central Africa.
“You two have caused havoc.” Rose folded her arms. “Guess I’ll have to sort it out.” I stared at my shoes, covered in fig slime. Charles shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We’ll ask the blessed tree for its forgiveness.”
Charles and I followed Rose towards the dry zone. The olive tree, monumentally large and over four-hundred-years old, grew in the centre. Its trunk was bent with age, but the fruit was still good. Rootstock and Tendril had never dared touch it. The greenhouse had fallen into a primordial darkness and I shivered.
Rose tentatively approached the olive tree and knelt before it. She placed her hands on its massive trunk and bowed her head. I couldn’t understand the tongue she spoke but a beam of green light shone out of the olive tree and up towards the sky. The light gradually enveloped the heavens and the earth.
The olive tree slowly opened. Its trunk split right down the middle. First Rootstock, and then Tendril emerged, blinking, into the daylight. Tendril seemed withdrawn. She was no longer as bouncy and fecund as before.
Rootstock said, “How do, Missis,” and doffed his cap to Rose.
“Earth Mother,” Charles chuckled. “Hugging trees.”
Rose looked him up and down. “Next time a plant swallows you I’ll leave you to rot, Uncle. Dinner was ready half an hour ago,” Rose muttered, as we turned back to the Hall.
We walked Tendril and Rootstock home. They seemed none the worse for their adventure.
“Toby, you can explain to Cook why her hard work was a waste of time.”
Charles laughed out loud. “Been inside that blasted orchid for a hundred and fifty years. I’ll eat anything…provided it’s not vegetarian. Caught on since I’ve been away, has it?”
I smirked. Rose knew my thoughts on that subject already.
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