:: Article

Fertiliser

By Scott Morris.

 

Anna Atkins

 

The Queen’s Vine is the oldest of its kind, the most gigantic in all the country.

 

 

Like a gigantic monarch, the Vine demands the construction of its own palace and the employment of its own staff.

 

 

The Queen’s Vine requires a glasshouse, built to echo—and, in echoing, surpass—the palace in whose shadow it stands. The glasshouse is one hundred and nineteen feet long and nine feet tall, with a sloping roof against which the branches of the Vine are tied to receive the sun. It is one hundred and nineteen years old. As years of neglect cause the stone palace to slip slowly into disrepair, the Vine grows stronger and thrives, in part thanks to a succession of young, lithe boys, who devote their lithe, supple bodies to the plant.

 

 

The Queen’s Vine is so magnificent, so gigantic, that even this glasshouse cannot contain it. The roots strike out towards the palace. They lie four foot beneath an empty plot of soil, nine by ten. The boys allow nothing to grow here, for fear it might prove the death of the Vine.

 

 

The most recent of the boys, supple and serpent-like, lies prostrate along the palacemost edge of this plot, studying the other gardeners as they go about their work. The hedges need clipping. The exotics need feeding. The weeds need weeding.

 

 

At times, cuttings and trimmings from the other gardeners land on his rectangle of empty earth. He removes them, treading carefully. Pressed flat against the well-kept lawn, he clips away at the edges, maintaining a strict division between grass and soil. He is nineteen years old.

 

 

From the edge of the plot he sees the Orangery; he sees the gates, the Mews; he sees steam rising as the horses turn their insides out. He sees the kitchens, he sees Mrs O’Dowd struggling towards the compost mounds, he sees an ornamental heron lonely in the lake. He sees the two lurchers combine in a frantic knot. Across the Privy Garden, along the boulevards formed between the box trees, he sees the spire of the palace chapel and the hedgework surrounding the palace chapelyard, where the boys all come to lie. (The shadow of the palace makes it difficult to see things as clearly as he might.)

 

 

The gardeners say: that boy has some funny ideas. They gather in the Orangery, which is vast, wrought iron and glass. The exotic plants sigh, fog the glass and hide the men and their meetings from view. The gardeners are hairy, heavy, vicious. They have more in common with the stone and the soil than the slender green of the garden. A crate painted with a purple crown is pulled up, prised apart; the bottles inside are opened. They take turns. One by one, each affects a high-pitched stammer, an impersonation, squealing on their tip toes. The kumquat trees listen. Heavy laughter is heard across the grounds, well into the night.

 

 

In December, the Queen’s Vine commands the boy to paint her a sulphurous yellow. Eggs are hiding among her brown buds and the boy is expected to show no remorse. Mrs O’Dowd passes, carrying scraps, pokes her head in and says, “Well, that’s the poorliest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen,” which she says every year.

The boy—empathic, claustrophobic—takes his fingers to the Vine in early March. He picks back the shoots, tastes a couple, compares them to last spring. The Queen’s Vine stands bashful and nude before him, waiting to flower.

Throughout May, he walks the rectangle of his plot several times a day, stopping only to squat, to watch the dogs combine and divide, to think on death and the consensual frottage behind the glass.

Grapes appear in early June.

 

 

The boy watches the stablehand lead the royal messenger’s Windsor Grey from the palace to the Mews. The royal cart is drawn up. Out come portraits in oil, imperial trophies, awful carpets, crates daubed with purple crowns; in go kumquats, flowers, nineteen boxes of ripened grapes, roughly packed.

 

 

At other times, the Windsor Grey does not stop. It takes up position near the lake. The heron prepares itself. The horse’s rider loudly announces to the palace grounds that they should expect the Queen within the hour. Mrs O’Dowd and Mr Collins are thrown into a panic. They pour boiling water over the flagstones. They light fires in every room. They leash the dogs. They dust down the stringed instruments and have the gardeners rehearse in quartet. The boy stands proudly beside the glasshouse but the Queen never arrives.

 

 

The boy has some funny ideas. He struggles to put them into words, which fail midway; his sentences are lists, his words tend to balance precariously on one another, and these are willed upon anyone who happens to pass by.

 

 

He practices his sentences on the Vine, and is condescended to. He does not want to end up like the other boys, beyond the box trees in the servants’ cemetery. He is small and pliant (only five three) but has learned to aim for higher things, for a high life. “Life holds us like a wheelbarrow,” he says, in a sudden, high-pitched flash of coherence, “a barrowload full to wheel out and spread, whichever way it so chooses.” What he is getting at, the Vine eventually understands, what the boy is after is to end up beneath the empty plot.

 

 

One summer afternoon, on the boy’s twenty-fifth birthday, a man of uncertain nobility arrives and asks to see the ‘Great Conservatory’.

“It must always be referred to as such,” he says. “Your very own Grande Conservatoire! Look how the vines stretch outwards in perfect parallel, like the bars of an unheard masterpiece; those grapes, great heavy bombastic notes, sweetly divine, growing yet more dramatic, Teutonic, as their season approaches. What music!”

The boy only smiles politely, hating music as he does, having come to associate the sound of it with the violence of the other gardeners.

The uncertain nobleman and his horse leave with nineteen crates of grapes, which the boy allowed him to pick himself. He causes a great deal of commotion as he removes his horse from the stables. The boy cannot see much, standing at the western edge of his burial plot, only disturbed dust wafting towards the kitchens.

Almost an hour passes before Mr Collins happens upon the slender, trampled body of the stablehand.

 

 

The following day, the servants spread themselves alongside the edge of the stablehand’s open grave and watch the hurried layering of earth over the coffin. The boy turns to Mrs O’Dowd and says: “Life is similar to—in many ways—if you take a wheelbarrow—it’s just like—”

“What in Christ’s name are you getting at boy?” she hisses, a handkerchief to her face.

The boy envies the stablehand and contemplates him down there, each moment closer to being indistinguishable from the soil. He wonders how he might like the insides of earthworms and how they might like him in turn.

 

 

The stablehand is not replaced. Royal messages are now delivered by telephone or by motor cars, which park in the tennis courts. The horses grow restless, bored and fat. They break out of the stables and feed on the compost mounds. Mrs O’Dowd cannot face the struggle across the gardens, so gives the job of emptying the scraps to Mr Collins. The boy, visiting the kitchens for his daily servant’s meal of dry rabbit and dry bread, hears Mr Collins describe the Mews as ‘Augean’. Mrs O’Dowd says she does not know what that means but she does know that the smell makes her gag each morning just opening the windows.

 

 

One particularly violent night, after running out of drink and things to do, the gardeners file across the shadows of the lawns to pay him a visit. They surround the glasshouse and sing wildly. One begins to urinate in the barren plot, another takes off his boots and throws them through the glass, which is enough for all of them to do the same. The boy, a hero at last, runs at them with his hands covered in yellow and leaps, like a supple, exotic tree frog, as in a rainforest, onto the torso of the nearest gardener and pushes his fingers into his mouth. The gardener spits and pushes him off, while another grabs the boy and punches him hard in his supple stomach. Another spits, another kicks, then barefoot the gardeners return to the Orangery. The boy lies still for a while, among the wreckage of glass and soil, then sits up, removes his shirt and lies back down once more. He stares at the pain in his stomach and, as the night moves on, watches it flourish into a black-purple blot, which might just be the night.

 

 

That’s it for the gardeners, they are never seen again.

 

 

Months later, completing a circuit of the palace, the boy passes nobody. The banqueting hall is empty. The kitchens are full of woodlice. The groundskeeper has given notice but there is nobody to receive it and he has not been seen for weeks. Mrs O’Dowd and Mr Collins are by this point dead, passing away in quick succession. Mr Collins lies beside the palace chapel but Mrs O’Dowd has been taken back to her home town, by a sister, and buried there, which the boy struggles to comprehend. He passes the royal messenger as he makes his way towards the cellars. He hardly recognises him, dressed now in black. He has seen his face, his eyes, his silhouette change over time but never once his uniform. The boy helps him to carry the crates of grapes to the waiting motor car. Neither speaks. The stores grow sparse. He is forced to steal. He watches the royal messenger drive off and slips back to the cellars. He asks the Vine to keep their secret.

 

 

The dogs now detest each other, they keep as far apart as their instincts permit. Everywhere the boy walks, he hears hungry growling. He skirts the Mews, approaching as close as the smell will allow, watching the horses fight lethargically over a scrap on the ground. The compost mound has almost been levelled. The horses are fighting over a mere scrap, over a half-kicking rabbit.

 

 

On the night before his fortieth birthday, the boy dreams that the royal messenger visits and finds the cellar empty. There are no grapes left for collection. In stark contrast, he finds the Vine in its most extravagant season. The grapes pull the plant away from the wall, downwards, towards the floor of the glasshouse where the boy lies, still and stiff.

The Vine weeps over him, tears heavy and ready for removal. A doctor arrives from the neighbouring town in a black scarf and declares the cause of death to be cardiac arrest following complications of a tetanus infection. Likely cause: a puncture to the skin from a loose nail or rose bush. Or: bacteria carried in the manure of cattle, sheep or horses.

The royal messenger fills three crates and leaves.

 

 

The heron lies half-submerged in the ornamental lake, its legs snapped. After three days, men arrive with spades, one man with an easel. The boy waits for the digging to finish and predicts the dimensions necessary to hold his mass, which are slim and ungenerous besides the thick proportions of the men with spades. The painter offers consolation though the finished piece is hurried, completed in an hour, a watercolour of three newly planted alder saplings placed in the unused rectangle of empty earth adjacent to the glasshouse. A poor reproduction of the watercolour appears a week later in the local newspaper. The box topiary hides the boy from the sight, occupying by now the entire Privy Garden, each plant bigger now than the Queen’s Vine and all advancing towards the chapel and the boy, now too deep beneath the earth to be of any use.

 

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Morris grew up in Hereford and now lives in south London. His work has been published in Valve and The Short Fiction Anthology, and was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize in 2013.

ABOUT THE ARTWORK
The botanist and photographer Anna Atkins is considered by many to be the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images, and the first woman to create a photograph. The picture here is taken from Part IV, version 1 of her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843 – 1853) and bears the caption Chordaria flagelliformis.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 17th, 2016.