Grow Food Eat
Supply and demand and cost and funding - Economics wasn't my strong point but I could learn. I'd already persuaded the very tight owners of the home to increase my food budget, explaining that it would decrease their medications budget, if people were eating good, healthy food. Thea's food was the best I'd ever eaten and already I'd seen a difference, after buying from her for only three months. My residents looked brighter, were more talkative and active, and seemed to have gained a glow. All of it unquantifiable, but I knew it was there.
The tomatoes were for a summer salad I was making myself. I tried to work in a different part of the home every week. This week I was on kitchen duty. I think the staff found me a bit barmy, but I didn't care. My job was to improve lives, and to do that I needed to know how every inch of the home worked.
Whilst I was chopping the tomatoes I couldn't resist eating a few. The scent took me back into my childhood and my dad's greenhouse. The colour was deep summer sunsets, late in the evening, staying up far longer than I should have because the adults murmured, made soporific by wine; I'd be forgotten. By the time they remembered I'd be dozing in the hammock under a crocheted blanket, secure and happy. My childhood never stayed like that, of course, but then childhood never does. As I bit into the flesh of the tomato I could hear my father's voice, calling to me...
'Emma?' said Mark, our chef.
I came to. 'Sorry. I was miles away. The taste of these...'
'Matches the expense,' grumbled Mark. 'The supermarket ones were perfectly fine.'
I sighed. 'Just taste one, and you'll know what I mean,' I said.
Mark took a small tomato and popped it, whole, into his mouth. He closed his eyes as he chewed. His frown disappeared and his face became smoother, suddenly attractive. Mark spent so much time looking cross that I'd never seen him like this. He looked, suddenly, younger. He opened his eyes, and smiled.
'You're right,' he said. 'I could taste my working holiday in Spain. best time of my life.'
He went back to peeling carrots and started whistling. I'd never heard him whistle before.
I usually ate with the residents, moving tables each day. This way I got to know everyone more. I urged the other carers to do the same but so far, only one of the nurses had joined me. Today, I noticed, Caroline was already sitting with Mrs Littlewood, looking awkward but sitting there nonetheless. I smiled to myself. Things were changing, slowly but surely. Caroline was one of my less cheery carers. A woman who seemed to begrudge everybody everything.
The salad was perfect. Mark had made a real effort with presentation, for a change. I saw him hovering by the kitchen door, watching. I nodded at him and mouthed, 'thank you'. He nodded back.
Today I was sitting with two sisters, Emily and Edith, and a newcomer to Greenacres, Mr Smythe, who so far hadn't settled in very well and was unseasonably grumpy, cloudy in summer. I longed to get him to smile but so far, had failed, instead getting a catalogue of things that were wrong with his room, with this place, every single day.
Mr Smythe wasn't going to have any salad until I held the bowl out to him, and out of some upper class politeness, he took it. As with mark, when he ate the tomatoes, he closed his eyes and his face changed. I held my breath and watched as his face seemed to grow smoother, just like mark's. His frown disappeared and he smiled.
'Delicious,' he said. 'Just like my grandmother's home grown, back in the thirties... she used to supply the school, you know. I got to taste her tomatoes every day during the summer term.. oh, what memories...'
The two sisters were chatting, their faces lit.
'Do you remember we used to steal from Tom Sergeant's greenhouse?' giggled Edith.
'Oh I do... I recall him chasing us out of the garden that time, just after the war when he was short of seeds. Oh! Do you remember his face?' Emily covered her mouth.
'Like a thundercloud!' Edith squeaked and they both dissolved into peals of laughter.
All around me, I could hear memories being relived. There was laughter, exclamation and joy in the room. Like children, I thought. As if they had fallen backwards into their lives. Even Caroline, her face usually grim, was laughing.
'This was such a good idea,' she called over to me. 'I am enjoying myself!'
I noticed that Mark was still there, by the door. He saw me and smiled, shaking his head slightly, as if in disbelief. I got up and stood next to him.
'The tomatoes,' he said. 'Like magic. Look at them all!'
We watched the room. Soon the salads were gone, and slowly, the laughter faded and everyone quietened down. 'That was amazing,' I said. I went through to the kitchen, picked up the phone and called the number I had for Thea Allbright. She answered as if she'd been sitting right next to the phone.
I explained what had happened and asked if I could order double the amount of tomatoes for the next delivery, in three days.
'I can do that. But... this effect you talked of. It probably won't happen again,' she said. 'I find sometimes thing like this can happen, with a special crop. But it tends not to happen twice. It's as if you get immune...' Her voice had gone dreamy.
'What do you mean, immune? What effect? Do you know what I'm talking about?' Until then, I'd not even been sure that what I'd witnessed wasn't just an effect of the summer sun, the changing season. Not food... But she knew what I was talking about.
'Immune? What?' she said, her voice sharper. 'Sorry, I'm not sure what you mean.'
'About what you just said. the effect of the food?' I reminded her.
'All I said was I might not have enough for a second crop so soon. Remember I only grow in small amounts,' she said.
'Right. Well, I'd like to talk to you about that,' I said. 'I'd like to maybe buy more.'
'That won't be possible,' she said. 'I'll deliver cucumbers tomorrow as your chef ordered, and peas, and also some early potatoes.'
We said our goodbyes and I put the phone down, confused. I watched Mark, chopping with a fury for the evening meal, and decided I'd imagined the whole thing. He was frowning; life was normal once more. I looked into the dining room and everyone was quiet. Caroline was clearing plates ready for the second course, chicken breasts and cream sauce. I helped the rest of the staff clear and serve the food. Nothing unusual happened and as I watched the quiet room, I could hardly remember how everyone had laughed, a few short minutes ago. I shook my head, to clear it.
The following day it was hot again and salad was the menu I chose. Pasta salad with raw peas and cucumber, mixed in with a gentle sauce of creamy herbs.
Thea had dropped off the order, again almost running away after she'd delivered it.
I took a cucumber, and regarded it. I cut the end off, and bit into it. I wasn't a fan of cucumber, but this was different. It was crisp and tasted... bright. I couldn't describe it any other way. I closed my eyes...
... and saw my dad, before he got sick, sitting in his green house door, trousers rolled up, cucumbers on green stems twirling around the shelf, dangling off it. My dad smiled at me down the years and I remembered how he smelt when he came in from the garden: earthy, fresh and sun kissed...
'Are you all right?' Mark's voice held concern, not something I'd heard before.
I realised tears were running down my face. I nodded. Suddenly, I dreaded lunch.
I handed out tissues one by one. The two sisters hugged each other. My Smythe sat and wouldn't talk to anyone. I walked from table to table, comforting.
The phone rang. I took the kitchen extension. I recognised the voice, that was peaking very fast.
'The cucumbers, not the right ones. I got the orders muddled. Please don't eat them; they were meant for a wake. They were... never mind. Just please, can I have them back?'
I held the phone out towards the dining room. 'Too late,' I said into the mouthpiece.
It took me ages to find the farm. And when i got there, it was less a farm than a smallholding - a very small, smallholding. I knocked on the door but nobody answered. I walked around the building. Out back there were raised beds, greenhouses, plots with green growing in neat lines. Wheelbarrows stood between plots, loaded with various produce. One held potatoes, one held courgettes. I walked over to the one filled with potatoes. There was a piece of cardboard on top, saying: 'First Earlies. Your Grandmother's Hugs. Happy, Childhood.' I put the sign back and went to the next wheelbarrow, full of courgettes. The piece of paper in here said: 'School- Memory Enhancers. To be hidden in soup (give kid-friendly recipe).'
I walked to the first greenhouse. The piece of paper on the door said 'Cuc's. Generally, fathers. Generally, sorrow. Good for grieving.'
The tomatoes were next. I'd already guessed what the sign would say: 'Happiness, childhood, great for the elderly - Greenacres?'
'Hey!' a voice startled me. Thea was running towards me, yet it wasn't Thea. The Thea I'd met had been young, attractive. This woman was older, wrinkles ingrained with dirt surrounded big, sad eyes. 'You can't come in here,' she said. And she grabbed my arm.
'Who are you?' I said, resisting.
She was bending down and pulling me along. As we passed a wheelbarrow she plucked something from it. It was small purple - a plum. I had time to read the piece of card on top: 'Plums - to forget. Good for dealing with anger, transgression.'
'What you have to understand,' she said,' is that for years my family have been persecuted. I've been happy, settled here for years. I do not intend to have that spoiled. I won't be punished, or investigated. I help people. That's my calling. It runs in the family and I will not be stopped.' She held out the plum to me. The voice changed. 'Eat this, and be a dear,' she said. 'It's the easiest way. Alternatives are... messy.'
I took the plum, glanced at her and saw death in her eyes. Death and life and knowledge and timelessness. I nodded. I bit into the purple flesh and closed my eyes, as I saw flashes of my life blink through my mind. Gone.
I walked up to the door, Chef Mark's order in my hands. 'Can you deliver this tomorrow?' I asked.
The woman who took it was attractive. 'Potatoes? For Greenacres? I've got the perfect ones,' she smiled, perfect teeth flashing.
dad breaking eggs for eggshells,
yolk and white saved for later, an omelette
the only recipe he knows.
I take the shells and fill them
with clouds stolen from the bathroom,
still holding the lavender scent of mum’s soaps and skin.
With each soft word, pause, and touch,
we grow together, gently,
as if on cotton wool.
He crouches to let me sprinkle seeds
then stands to put our project on the shelf, sunny
and just out of reach.
“Escape. Break your umbilical’s,” she urged her infant brood, most of whom clung to her limbs in terror. She shook her arms trying to dislodge them, but only five broke free, screaming as they plummeted to the ground.
They had refused to believe the God`s were evil, just as she had disbelieved her own mother when she was still a suckling.
“But the God`s are good and kind,” she and her siblings had protested whenever their mother tried to warn them of what lay ahead. “They tend to the herd, they make it rain when we are thirsty and the skies are clear. They even heal us when we are sick, and keep us safe from the carrion that would drag us off, yet you claim they are wicked, how can you say such things?”
Her mother had told them then the old stories, as she herself had told her own brood when her time to bear children had come.
“There was a time before the God`s came to our world,” she told them, “a time when there were few Terchen and the world was a dangerous place full of animals that would carry the infants away and eat them. But then the God`s arrived and killed the carrion of the sky and the ground who ate our young, and we rejoiced at our saviours. But we soon realised we had only traded one predator for another. For the God`s desired our children as much as our tormentors of old, only more so, and while our old tormentors took only what they needed, the God`s took all our children. For their flesh and blood was nectar to them.”
“But still the God`s were not satisfied, we did not produce broods large enough to fulfil their desires and so they experimented on us, melding us with non-Terchens, blending us until we were no longer purebloods but mongrels, mongrels that had litters five times larger than before, litters greater than we had ever borne in all our history. They bred us then, building up our herds, wiping out all the other species that did not provide food they desired, until we were all that was left.”
This had silenced the children, it had not gone unnoticed that the other Terchen`s in the herd had gone quiet, nodding as their mother spoke her truth.
“Look down,” she`d instructed them. And they did as they were told. “You see how I am tethered, staked to one spot, who do you think did this? It was the God`s, the God`s you think so highly of.” She said all this without rancour, but in a tone that said, `I don’t blame you, I understand, but someday you will see, and when you do it may be too late,` and as it transpired that day was not too far in the future.
It had been another glorious day, the children had turned their faces to the sun, enjoying the warmth of it on their skin when a lone God, wandering through the herd, had without warning, wrenched one of Paula`s brothers from their mothers arm, turning Kevin over in its hand, inspecting him. She watched the God take a blade and gut her brother, running the edge along his belly, exposing his innards, until he`d split him in half. Then to her horror the God bit into her screaming sibling, his enormous teeth grinding Kevin`s flesh to pulp, his blood dripping from the God`s lips as he chewed. And then the greatest indignity of all, he`d tossed the remains of the body away as if her brother had been nothing but thrash, and she`d vowed then that she would never be food for the God`s. better to be taken by the animals, she thought, at least they would eat all of you.
She would never forget the day the God`s arrived for the culling, the deafening roar of their machines, the way the air shimmered, her mother`s screams that they should leap if they could, to save themselves. She had been one of the lucky few mature enough to break their umbilical’s, her heart in her throat as she`d plummeted to the ground, so dizzyingly far away, sure she`d never survive the fall. But survive she did, and heeded her mother`s advice, “Make for the long grass,” she`d told them, “Burrow deep, make your nests there, the God`s will never find you if you do, but stay underground, beware the lure of the sun.”
She had nested where she came to rest, digging down into the dirt, comforted by its warm embrace. And there she stayed, safe from the prying eyes of the God`s, for how long she did not know, blithely unaware of the changes taking hold of her body. She had entered the ground an infant and greeted the new season as an adult.
She forgot her mother`s warning, the lure of the sun proving too much, her new body yearning for the touch of its warmth, and that had proved to be her undoing. For as she`d reached for the sky, the God`s, ever watchful, had discovered her lair, and dug her out, transporting her to another part of the world, tethering her to a newly planted stake, imprisoning her to that spot for the rest of her life.
And there she had lived until she was of child bearing age and the God`s had brought their inseminators, wicked little creatures that crawled all over her body, seeking out her secret places, teasing them until they willingly spread their lips, granting them entry.
At first she`d resisted, but the feel of those things inside her dulled her will until she didn’t just invite them in, but craved them, driven almost to insanity by their touch, yearning for their caress, demanding they impregnate her fertile places, and they, they were more than willing to oblige.
Now as the God`s infernal culling machines worked through the herd she did as all Terchen mothers before her had done, as her mother had done, and urged her children to save themselves. Of the five who`d leapt four made it into the long grass and safety. But the fifth, possibly confused with terror had wandered out into the open, into the path of the culling machine.
She shouted to the God that was operating it to look out, but he paid her no heed. And the child, who had forgotten almost everything her mother had told her, in a panic, attempted to burrow, but there was no time. One of the machines wheels, a thousand times larger than the infant, rolled over her and Paula screamed when she saw that it had been crushed to a smear of blood and guts when the wheel cleared it.
She attempted to shrink away from the machines claw as it reached for her but the tether held her fast and the claw slid around her waist, clamping her so tightly she couldn’t breathe, so tightly that it broke her skin, she felt the blood oozing from the tears and screamed in pain, but the careless God and his unheeding machine ignored her.
It began to shake her violently, her world blurring, the sound of her shrieks drowned out by the screams of her children as the vibrations tore their umbilical’s free from her protective clutching limbs, and they fell by the hundreds into the things outstretched baskets.
When it finally released her from its grasp she saw the baskets curl away, her crying children begging her to save them, but there was nothing she could do, they were beyond her reach. And she was forced to watch as they were upended into the belly of the machine, leaving her crying and railing in equal measure at the evil God.
But he ignored her, moving on to the next apple tree in the row, he had a hundred more to harvest that day and it was already after eleven o`clock.