We’re having a drink at the old man pub on the corner when she asks me if I want to move in together. I say yes but I can’t stop thinking about all the plants she has, how she can’t stop buying them and growing them in jars and pots, how they’ve completely taken over so that her flat has disappeared behind a wall of green, about all those leaves and bugs in my pristine place.
She gets another round and we plan everything out there and then, making notes on her phone about the stuff we need to organise. I shift uncomfortably in my seat, eying the hydrangeas in the hanging baskets outside and feeling the hostility of the old men more intensely than usual. Neither of us mention the plants.
Later we head back to her flat. I can’t sleep. The leaves from the monsteras on the windowsill that hang over her bed keep brushing against my face. The bed is barely a double and I get a face full of them whenever I try to get into a better position. I want to crack the window but I can’t reach over the plants, so I just lie there roasting from the condensation, getting caressed by the leaves. She wakes up a couple of times and asks if I’m okay. I tell her I’m having trouble sleeping, that I’m thinking about work again.
I rent a van and drive it down from the depot. Her place came furnished so there isn’t much to take apart from the plants, just a couple of shelves of books, bags of clothes, framed pictures and a box of paperwork containing letters about pensions and student loans. I hope she’ll leave some of the plants behind or post on social media that they’re going free and people can come and pick them up if they want, but she doesn’t, so they all come with us.
It’s a three-ton capacity van, the second biggest they had, but it still takes several trips to move everything. She’s got plants in every room, covering every surface, reflected in every window and mirror, everything from ferns, vines, aspidistras and cheese plants that almost reach the ceiling.
We load them into the back and she sits in the passenger seat, a pot in each hand. There’s a big fern on the seat between us and two smaller ones on the dashboard, partly obscuring the view. I haven’t driven anything since my early twenties and definitely never a van. There’s a couple of near misses when cars appear out of the blind spot created by the ferns.
I’m distracted and thinking about work again, specifically that if she wasn’t here with me it wouldn’t be so bad to get into a little crash, to wrap myself around a tree or a lamp post, just to get signed off for a while. I could hit a bridge and then someone could call the number you’re meant to call to report a car hitting a bridge while I wait slumped over the dashboard, bleeding the priceless blood that will get me signed off for six months.
I lose count of the number of trips it takes to get everything up to the flat. The plants in jars or plastic pots or trays are easy, not so much the ones in the huge ceramic planters. I get stuck on the first floor with a wrought iron trough filled with ivy and a neighbour on his way out asks if I need help. I’ve never spoken to him before and it’s awkward carrying this thing up two flights of stairs with him. I dip my toe in the cesspit of neighbourly small talk but the words run out quickly, and then we only speak to negotiate corners or when one of us needs to stop to rest for a minute. There’s no escape from the silence until we reach the top, when a look of cosmic regret comes over his face and he scrambles back downstairs.
Soon it’s just us and the plants in the flat. I feel self-conscious that I don’t have any, not even a neglected cactus in a pot by the kitchen window, bought on a whim from a Tesco Express or handed to me with a bottle of wine by a friend coming over for dinner. It’s a running joke among our friends that I’ve never owned a plant and she owns a forest, and now that we’re standing here in the void I’m waiting for her to say something, to finally comment on how I don’t have any, not even a neglected cactus, but she doesn’t.
I take the van back to the depot and catch the bus home. When I get back I find she’s gathered the plants in the living room so that they’re covering almost the entire floor space. She’s circling the perimeter working out where to put them. The rest of her stuff, which doesn’t look like much at all now, is in a pile by the door.
She starts moving pots around the flat, ignoring or stepping over the pile, or kicking it out of her way. She kicks a couple of my things that I’ve left lying around, not maliciously but absent-mindedly, to make way for the plants.
After the move comes the furrow of everyday life. The furrow is swampy and full of stagnant water. I’m crawling through it daily and if it doesn’t drown me it will kill me by viral infection. Work is bad. My manager has told me to start accounting for my time. Someone on my team has been off for two weeks with a dodgy stomach. I’m getting 150 emails a day. I spend the night sweating through the bedsheets. In the morning I wake up thinking the room is on fire.
She’s working from home but I’m going into the office every day. In the evenings I take long hot showers to burn that place off me. Sometimes I fantasise about burning it off with petrol and fire, right in the middle of the reception area or the staff room.
When I get back it always looks like there’s more plants than before, especially the big ones. I’m probably imagining it and I don’t say anything because I don’t want to sound crazy, but I’m sure there’s more. She’s propagating them as well, in tiny pots and jars filled with water.
It doesn’t take long before everything begins to turn green, like moss spreading across the flat, covering every surface. What was oak or oak effect or reassuringly matt white is now lush and green and veiny. There are huge planters in every corner and the windowsills and shelves are lined with jars. Rooms must be entered and navigated sideways. The straight lines and right angles are gone, broken apart by branches and leaves. I miss the straight lines. They gave meaning to something. I don’t know what.
Parts of the flat are becoming inaccessible. I can’t find the toilet at night.
It’s a jungle out there.
Work just keeps getting worse. I’ve passed out in the stationary cupboard a few times. I smack my head repeatedly against the hand dryer whenever I’m in the toilets, sometimes against the tiles, and spend long periods of time stabbing myself with a biro under my desk. I’m running on a single plastic cup of water a day and no lunch. My inbox runs out of space every morning, rapidly replenishing with more stress as soon as I’ve purged it.
Her job is stressful too, there’s more riding on it at least, whereas mine is fundamentally pointless but admin heavy, but she couldn’t be more relaxed. Her serenity is monumental and terrifying. My thoughts are like a network of bridges to nowhere that are wired to blow, the columns and cables falling into rivers of shit lined with barren banks where no plants grow, just pure filth.
She curates the perfect conditions for herself and the plants. There’s always a gardener’s sweat on her and soil under her fingernails. She pulls the blinds down when the sun rises, only putting them up again in the evening. She keeps the lights dimmed, waters them, mists them, plays ambient music. She attends the orchids with cultic devotion. The same with the peace lilies, which I can’t stand to look at, not when I’m at war.
The more plants she acquires, the more relaxed she becomes. She drinks only bottled water or vermouth and eats grilled vegetables. She reads massive expensive-looking books with glossy pictures of Greek icons or abstract art. She sits on the floor among the plants or lies down so that the leaves swallow her completely. She doesn’t emerge for hours.
Everything she wears fits loose and flowing – jumpsuits, dungarees, blankets wrapped over her shoulders. Whatever I wear feels uncomfortable and too small, like it’s strangling me. Sometimes it is. There’s a jumper wrapped around my neck and it’s getting tighter, constricting my throat. I’m pulling the sleeves.
She ignores her work, leaving her laptop unattended on the floor for hours at a time. In the morning I watch with fear as the grey rows of her inbox multiply with unanswered emails. She doesn’t care about work and neither do I, I tell myself, except for some reason I do care and it’s killing me.
I can’t begin to touch her relaxation. I’m getting speared by aloe vera wherever I turn.
She tries to get me thinking about things other than work. She recalls memories from childhood and I try to join in with sedate recollections of my own, but I just keep thinking about when all those people died in the big fire. We try a bunch of techniques to clear my mind but I keep getting hung up on similarly disquieting memories.
She says that when it’s dark and raining outside it reminds her of being in the pram with the rain hood up and the reassuring sound of the rain on the plastic while you’re dry and warm and everything is muffled and cosy. I lie down on the floor and close my eyes and for a second I’m back in my pram, squeaking along, but it’s not relaxing, it’s humid and uncomfortable in my puffy child’s jacket and all I can hear is the sound of my mum intoning on the subject of hyperinflation, my dad walking beside her disputing her findings, her data, and their words aren’t muffled, I can hear every single one.
I wish I had reserves of serenity or something like plants in my life, but there’s a wall inside me that prevents it. I ask her to impart some serenity to me but she just smiles and says I need to learn how to relax. There are other things we can try, she says. I tell her to just inject it into me and she laughs. I tell her I’m not joking, I’ve got nothing here.
She pulls four or five big plants into the middle of the living room floor. They’re an island with water all around, she says. She can see the water but I can’t. I need to see it and submerge my feet in it, because that would feel good, especially if the water is warm and lapping like she says it is. But nothing happens when I sit on the edge of the island, ensconced in the leaves, even when I close my eyes. The darkness only fills with bad stuff, like how the other day my manager said she had concerns about my time management.
It’s brought up again the next day. My manager tells me she wants to help me allocate my time better. There are issues with prioritisation, she says. I tell her there’s no time left to allocate, that time has run out, there isn’t a second left, but she says there’s always time if you know how to prioritise, that time can be produced through force of will. It’s the public sector so they can’t sack me. Instead time will continue to contract and I will remain stuck on a continuous plane of discomfort and fear.
I’m looking for other jobs but none of them sing to me, and anyway I can’t summon the necessary blood circulation to instruct my fingers to fill out the applications. I want to spend the day lying on the floor with the laptop on my stomach and my head propped against a huge cushion like she does, acclimatising myself to the plants and the low-level lighting. I need those vibes, any vibes, but there’s no relaxation in me. Even when she massages my back it’s just the feeling of manipulated skin. The brain remains electric.
I’ve had to start working in the evenings. She helps me reply to emails and tells me to speak to other people at work and to join the union, but in the meantime to remember that it doesn’t mean anything, that eventually it’ll all rot like leaves, that I need to find ways to unwind and let everything slip through my fingers, to forget myself. The mention of leaves takes the shine off her reassurance a bit, but I try to do what she says, so I lie on the floor imagining I’m the evening light that’s breaking through the blinds, but I can’t stop thinking about emails, the ones I’ve replied to, the ones I need to reply to, the ones I’ll ignore and live to regret it.
I don’t turn up to work the next morning. Nothing triggers it, my body just fails to go through the usual motions. Instead I’m lying on my front on the floor, pushing my face into the wood. I’m three hours late. My phone vibrates on the floor next to my head every twenty minutes or so. I’ve told myself that my manager can eat shit but actually I’m terrified. She’s left voicemails. I should have gone in. I’ll go in, I think, but an hour later I’m still on the floor.
I watch as she wanders around the flat doing her morning stuff. She waters the plants, reads a couple of articles on her phone, moves the mouse on her laptop every few minutes, then climbs out of the living room window to the small roof terrace. She started planting out there when she ran out of space in the flat. She moves a few pots out of puddles from the rain the night before, hopping about so she doesn’t crush the weeds that are growing out of the brickwork. When she’s made a big enough space she stands on her head and hails the morning traffic passing below.
I’m trying to be serene about not going in, curling myself up tight enough on the big cushion on the floor to fit my entire body on it. My eyes are closed and I’m trying to do what she’s been telling me, trying not to be human, to metaphorically or actually die or somehow discard myself. I’m reconciling myself to my organic nature, or trying to find some other nature I haven’t discovered yet, imagining that I’m not a person, just a lump of flesh lying prone on a cushion inside a building in this city, or damp roots suspended in soil or water.
She climbs back inside and settles on the floor with her laptop. I climb out, following her steps and dodging the weeds. There are plants everywhere, so many that the brickwork has disappeared behind them. I lie down among them, moving the pots to make room for my body and sinking back into the leaves so that they form a roof inches above my face that drips all over me. I’m trying to imagine that I’m not here, that I’m fully reconciled to nature, that I’m in a forest with the sound of trickling water nearby where I’m not me but everything else instead, plant, rain, soil, water, light, season, waterfall, tide, sunlight, skin, fur, tendon, a sunbleached femur in a ditch, mountain laurel, outcrop, algae, a frog’s pulse, damp, juicy rot.
It starts to rain. If I lie here long enough I will die and if it keeps raining I will rot and become nothing, I think to myself, but the thought slips away, and instead I’m just lying under some plants thinking about emails, spreadsheets, performance reviews and how my phone is still vibrating in my pocket. The plants fail me. Or I fail them. They’re a wall that stops me reaching where she is, a place where nothing exists, where, if I could reach it, all I would do is spend my days squatting naked on wet earth, surrounded by dripping trees, rain coursing off my skin, slowly eating a handful of green shoots with no plans ever except to find more green shoots and eat them.
Alex Aspden is a writer based in London. His short fiction has appeared in multiple publications. He has previously been shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.