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The Short Stories of
Nicholas Hancock

Published by The British Hancock Society
by arrangement with the author.


Copyright  ©  2008 Nicholas Hancock.  Permission  is granted  to  distribute  in  any  medium, commercial or non-commercial, provided author attribution and copyright notices remain intact.

THE PLANTING

THE PLANTING


        The last British cattle were still smouldering in their nation-wide pyre, turning the air black with soot. If you got at all close up-wind, the smell of sizzling fat was overpowering. Down-wind was almost certain death. All of us cursed the smuts sailing slowly down on us from the holocaust.

We Hendersons are a vegetarian family, so I must admit that, beyond the expletives, there was an element of smugness at home.

One morning at the allotment my wife Nora stood ankle-deep in mulch, watching the descending particles while our mongrel bitch Semaphore chased them, snapping and snarling.

         Have you noticed that so many gardeners end up looking like their favourite vegetable? Hers was beet: wine-red hair and earthy complexion colluded with a brachycephalic head to mimic the thick, fleshy taproot. Indeed, a brown smock and disappearing boots had her rooted to the spot.

‘Think God likes the smell?’ I asked her.

‘Well, we know He eats meat.’

‘Do we?’

‘Sure, Daryl. Why d'you think He rejected Cain's fruit and veg? . . . What I object to,’ she went on, still rooted, ‘is being forced to accept this meat-fertiliser from the atmosphere.’

Dave, our seven-year-old (he's a parsnip - white and shapeless), appeared at the gate.

‘Why aren't you at school?’ I said.

‘And why aren't you at work?’ he answered, bending to tear up a parsnip. ‘If you really want to know, our teacher was telling us about MAD.’

One of Nora's feet uprooted itself with a crisp squelch.

‘What the heck?’

‘Mycotic Asparagus Disease, Mum. BSE-contaminated bone meal seems to have done the trick.’

‘And you come all the way here to tell us that?’ she marvelled.

‘All five hundred yards, Mum. But, look, MAD's serious.’

‘So's this law that allows magistrates to fine parents of truanting kids,’ I quipped.

‘Listen to the boy,’ complained Nora. ‘Anyway, that lets me off the meat hook. No asparagus here.’

Dave shook his head patiently. ‘There's cross-species contamination.’

‘That's plant species, I take it?’ she asked. ‘Well, they don't know yet, do they! Might affect mammals that have eaten infected vegetables, Mum.’

‘And your teacher told you what this disease is like?’ I asked. ‘I mean, symptoms and that?’

‘Dissolves the myelin from the plants' neurones - ‘

Nora interrupted. ‘Don't be daft. Plants don't have nerves.’

‘That's what you think. Don't keep abreast of the latest developments, do you! Seems they have sensory as opposed to motor neurones. No kind of cortex or cerebellum either, for that matter. But they do have ganglia and are capable of feeling heat and cold.’

‘Pain?’ I laughed.

‘Pain too,’ he said without raising his voice.

Nora took parsnip-munching Dave by the shoulders and propelled him gently to the gate. ‘Thanks for the warning, son. Now back to school.’

As soon as he was gone, I burst out laughing. ‘Oh, my God - oh, my God, that is funny!’

‘Assuming it's the pack of lies I hope it is, yes.’ Nora let out a little chuckle. ‘Nerves in plants! What will they think up next?’

* * *

When MAD struck I was helping my son with his maths homework in the sitting room. ‘Come on, Dave. Seven sevens?’

           Nora had just come in with an armful of groceries, hanging her smile on the hat stand. What she saw through the window made her drop the carrier bag, and yogurts mingled indiscriminately with tofu and soy all over the carpet. I followed her gaze. In the back garden a couple of carrots thistle-down-floated, fronds whirring helicopterly in evening sunlight.

‘Forty-nine, Dad.’

            But I wasn't listening. A carrot gunship had sailed through the open window and was attacking Semaphore. That is to say it was dive-bombing her, firing seeds at her with unnerving accuracy. Nose smarting, the bitch sought refuge behind Nora, her tail sending out messages of distress. Meanwhile my wife had grasped the ornamental fire tongs and was thrashing the space about her. The air-borne carrot was too quick for her, whistled in behind the tongs, releasing its miniature shots straight into each eye in lightning succession. I banged the window shut on the tail of a second carrot.

               If you have never seen vegetables in flight (which I can scarcely credit), it must be hard if not downright impossible to imagine something habitually so motionless become faster than thought. There were two of them in the sitting room. Their hostility was evident, but I was unable to see from the circling, faceless carrots how they apprehended us, through what organs of sense they perceived us. Yet it was plain from their purposeful behaviour that they were well aware of our presence.

‘Dave,’ I remember shouting, ‘dial 999!’

               When he'd scarpered and Nora had panted upstairs to secure our bedroom windows, an excited Semaphore and I were left alone making footprints through yogurt in the sitting room with two combative carrots. Our sharp Japanese knife proved ineffective: the vegetable's hard enough to dice on a chopping board; in the air I could do little more than increase its pugnacity. The bitch's snappings and passionate barking only added to my confusion, and I slipped to one knee as a green rotor sawed air above my baldness. Desperate, I grabbed the scissors, snipped with little optimism as the pink bodies whirred once more towards me.

               My astonishment may be imagined when the blades tore strepitously through stiff flesh and one half carrot fell to the carpet, the other half continuing awhile to gyrate feebly before joining its sister in the tofu. Its companion, alarmed, made all speed for the garden, forgetting the intervening glass: stunned, it landed on the sill.

               Dave trembled in the doorway. ‘Police can't come. All their cars have been attacked. Oh, look, Dad!’ I followed the direction of his index finger. The whole carrot bed was on the move. Shaking the last crumbs of earth from their tails, the creatures were rising as with one purpose, a shrill cloud of red and tender green, while beyond them the first onions stirred and began rolling towards our neighbour Ms Jones's kennel, from which came an excited yelping.

When we remembered the skylight, it was already too late. The staircase was thick with the flapping bodies of radishes. Panting and anguished, Nora descended with them.

                Exhausted, we were on the point of giving up when three territorials in protective suiting broke through the hedge dividing our garden from the Shaws'. One of the soldiers directed a tongue of flame across the vegetable beds. Potatoes and carrots dropped dead or quivered in extremis. An elongated fire-plume reached out over three gardens: Ms Jones's dog stopped yelping.

We opened the back door and emerged, hands in the air. Behind us flew a host of vegetables straight into the devouring whoosh of the flame thrower.

‘Have a nice cuppa tea,’ suggested Nora.

* * *

               Days of national calamity followed nights of national agony. For us Hendersons I cannot exaggerate the tragic consequences of MAD. With a brutal suddenness the only vegetarian foods unaffected were from overseas. There was no way we could afford their interstellar prices, and we were reduced to buying BSE-suspect meat that farmers had saved from the conflagration. Tears streaming down our cheeks, we were obliged to eat the charred flesh of once-living, sentient beings like ourselves.

               Each Sunday we would share one Egyptian potato or an American runner bean in solemn Eucharist - a communion with a dead past, not an assuaging of hunger. Our teeth sank into cow muscle, swallowed traces of cooked blood. As if this were not enough, there was the ever-present fear that we were incubating the BSE agent or the MAD virus.

               There were unconfirmed reports of a link between the new disease and a yet more novel infection called NUTS - for Neuro-Urceolate Toxaemia Syndrome - in which nerve cells take on the shape of garden urns, releasing poisons into the circulation; locomotion was rumoured to be ultimately arrested, fibromas on the feet sending down radicles into the earth, while the extremities of fingers and nose developed chlorophyll. The fact that MAD and NUTS worked in diametrically opposite directions was explained by Professor Greenstalk's equation, M =x / N .

                Every day as we sat down to the torment of our flesh-eating I would look from Dave to Nora for incipient greenness about the nostrils. Had we turned too late to meat? What was the incubating period for NUTS? Was it a painful death? Science was of little help. Government advisers were telling us not to panic; Opposition scientists were advising total, uninhibited hysterics.

One morning I woke to find Nora's space beside me vacated and already cold. Her clothes were gone. In alarm I called for Dave.

‘Yes, Dad?’ He came running in his pyjamas.

‘Dress!’ I spat out as I dived into my underpants.

              It was a fine autumn day, and leaves crackled pleasantly under our soles as we made for the allotment. We found Nora standing in the middle of what had once been a bed of cabbage, ankle-deep in mulch. Her features were barely recognisable, had been flattened into the approximate sphere of a face. ‘Darling!’ I screamed. We could see what had once been a mouth trying to open. With my fingers I scraped away the mulch around her boots.

‘Dave, she's rooted! Your mother's turning into a beet!’