There were flowers in the fridge. That is, not flowers but flowers-to-be. You see, Garth used it as a growing place. Said some seeds need lower temperatures to spring forth. The idea seems peculiar in its own right, I know; yet if you had a picture of the apartment, it made sense. There were flowers everywhere.
You’d stand there, waiting. The drrring-ing of the bell fading. Then the door opened, and you entered the gardens of Babylon contained within 600ft2. A jungle, accommodated in a one bedroom flat in Hackney. Paradise abloom inside an old man’s home. Flowers and plants and short trees and the occasional bush, spread out all over the living room, on furniture and pushed under chairs, in the balcony, in the kitchen, on the sill, looming by the sink, hanging from the ceiling, in the bedroom, in desk drawers, open cupboards, on the bookcase, by every window, next to lamps, behind the sofa… I never believed I’d find flora overwhelming, but in Garth’s apartment, where it flourished, it was, and I did.
My friendship with Garth was the sort of friendship that develops between old men. It is natural, I think, when you’re in the withering years of your life, having produced no offspring and with only death to talk to in your bed at night, to relate to the same loneliness as yours when encountering it on the face of another. So, childlessness and the stark absence of other people in both our lives formed the common ground where the seed of our friendship was planted. I first met Garth in a waiting room at a clinic, where he overheard my name and felt compelled to ask me about it. Before either of our appointments was called for, we had exchanged not just names, but histories and stories, loosely connected episodes composing nevertheless the overall frame of the 161 years we numbered together.
Due to my brother and his family living close by, as well as the company of a few old students who remembered to visit me every now and then, I felt I was the less lonely between the two of us. Soon, however, I realized that, had it not been for his strange perception of the world, Garth would have counted more acquaintances in old age. And that ‘soon’ was as soon as I was invited to his apartment for the first time.
The question begged itself right at the entrance. Why did a retired diplomat, second-generation British of Russian and Kazakh heritage, that had served briefly as a military attaché, had passed by the Ministry of Economic Warfare and HMDS before wading his way through several ambassadorships in a handful of countries around the planet -and who, at first glance, seemed to exhibit no particular interest in botany and horticulture- own a flat inhabited by every single kind of flower and plant imaginable?
‘People hurt,’ was Garth’s opening undiplomatic statement, when he began explaining to me the concept of the greenhouse he practically lived in. He navigated me through a maze of leaves and branches, stems and buds, revealing meanwhile with stunning honesty how his unusual obsession worked. Its rules were simple. One plant or flower for every person. One flower for each person in Garth’s life who had in some way hurt him and with whom he had ceased to communicate.
Other people solved (or didn’t) their problems by talking, arguing, writing to each other. Not Garth. Garth took everything in, whatever the specific circumstance entailed each time, severed every manner of contact and bought a flower for you that he kept at home.
The strange symbolism of his habit reflected on his choice of flowers, I understood, as he elucidated further. This, here, was a bougainvillea from Panama – for Alejandra, who on her 21st birthday party had tangoed with another man, though Garth was the better dancer and her partner at the time. She always painted her lips this shade of purple, just. There, by the shoe rack, yes, that hooked spine cactus was a species from North Africa – for Tom Mannford, who a decade-and-a-half ago had taken legal action against Garth regarding some obscure dispute over their uncle’s inheritance. The lilies -watch your head- hanging from the swing-like pot from the ceiling were for old colleagues that never called anymore. Lilies generally prefer acidic soils. The freesia by the TV? Ah; Marina… You see. The freesia’s flowers have six petals. Marina lived with Garth for six years before their divorce. 1966. Bluebells, a yucca tree, mint, lemon myrtles. Jonny-C, Dinah, Helen-Marie, Lee; a heated dispute over politics, a filthy lie about Garth’s dog ran over accidentally, a betrayal concerning money borrowed never returned, a disinterest in Garth’s wellbeing during some illness in Oman.
Oh, man… The madness of it all. It would not be the truth to say that Garth hurt more than the rest of us, no. But it would probably be true to say that he did for longer. Only in the very beginning I thought it was, perhaps, an imaginative manner of coping, healing wounds. To be so harmless. Momentarily, I had a glimpse of his perspective, the niceness of receiving the pain, over any matter, petty or crucial, and offering only your absence in return, inflicting no share of damage back, never ever harming the other. Fleetingly only; forthwith, I saw it for what it was. Unhealthy, yes, and wrong. The constant presence of friendship and love and acquaintance broken growing green all around Garth’s apartment. And mind. For these were no flowers, no innocent flowers. They were alive memories of pain. A garden of all that went wrong, carefully tended. Sure, Garth didn’t retaliate, didn’t argue, never shouted. He also didn’t forgive and never returned. A professional mourner.
You’re right if you guessed I never told him all this. I didn’t. Of course I didn’t. I did believe it was self-punishment what he exercised, a tremendous martyrdom of love without compassion, yes. But to tell him? Think. Wouldn’t I become another flower in his unpardoning parterre? Sure I would. He had been doing this for so long he had become too susceptible to insult, regardless how inadvertent. Instead, I asked how it had all started.
Then he told me about Clémence. French. And inclement, as it turned out. Garth talked for most of that evening of my first visit. He had made dinner for us and we played chess. We dined and we chessed and he talked about that woman, or about the woman that woman had been when he knew her. She was the one, true love of his life. The big one. He had tears in his eyes when he captured my queen, and three moves before the shah mat he excused himself to go to the bathroom, where he remained for quite a long time, leaving me to ponder over my poor options on the board.
Garth’s story hadn’t moved me, not emotionally. But then, I’ve read so much fiction, and taught it. It numbs you, sometimes. I could relate, though, to him and her, as characters in one of the books I used to analyze. It made sense, and the scene where she departed, taking her green eyes and his heart with them and her, was strong. I could picture a young Garth, freshly arrived from Kyoto, finally re-assigned close to her after years of hopeless official manoeuvres, now standing alone in his Parisian maisonette which had been stripped bare from every sign of her presence. I could understand why he was unable to throw away the flowers he had got for her on his way from the airport. Until then, he didn’t know roses had meanings; that white meant friendship, blue sorrow, red love. That three red roses together meant I love you, each for every word in the sentence. That if they were thornless, they signified love at first sight, and if entwined they meant to message Marry Me. A cheap paperback randomly picked at Doha International Airport between fitful, jet-lagged intermissions of sleep had informed him on all this.
What didn’t quite fit was why he had kept them, the three roses he had got for her, two of them entwined and their thorns removed by him. I, personally, could not understand why he would carry them with him afterwards, for twenty years, and begin accumulating more flowers once he settled in London, setting out on his eccentric commemorating fixation. It seemed a perverse way to deal with the past. In a way, remaining in the past. When Garth returned from the bathroom, making a show of having been undecided over which bottle of wine to choose for us next, I was looking at them, the dead rose trio on his desk, the only deceased flowers in his collection, and thinking.
I do not recall whether this was precisely the moment when the idea to sabotage his sick paradise was first born into my mind. Maybe it was, but also the thought occurred to me that I, too, like everybody else, would betray Garth one day. Inevitably, the time would come when I’d say something he took to the heart. ‘People hurt,’ he had said, hadn’t he, and you could tell from the manner in which he pronounced the words this was an idea ingrained in him, a belief deeply rooted inside his being. He had grown perceptive and vulnerable in an exhaustive way, that I knew a casual word, a flippant remark, a simple comment from my side could trigger my replacement with a pot, by the bed or outside the cellar door. It was… choking. In a way, I betrayed him to ensure I’d never betray him. Ha.
Once the devil’s thought existed, I turned it in my mind for quite a while. I’m understating: I planned this for months. I calculated. I schemed. I plotted. I went through every potential way I could destroy his flowers; researched pests, investigated types of parasites and at some point I was about to order rare plant-eating termites from Australia, before changing my mind for the ninety-ninth time.
The very solution I knew, of course, all along. I was just so very afraid of it. I recognised it as the only way, in the end.
Fire. Not just tongues but lips and whole mouths of flames consumed the green world around me. It was heaven ablaze and the night blushed scarlet from where I passed in the apartment, igniting the hanks I’d stooped in pure alcohol. The furniture caught first and the carpets, and soon the smell of burning chlorophyll intoxicated the air. I had disabled the fire alarm. The plants were fizzling, sizzling as though calling out one last cry. What a terrible cliché it seems now, yet this was my thought at that moment: I imagined them speaking all the words Garth and the people in his life had left unsaid, released finally amidst my verdure holocaust.
I left the kitchen for the end. Opening the fridge, I carried and tossed the small pots into the bonfire at the centre of the living room. I was afraid they might put out my fire before it reached the kitchen, before it had consumed everything, and I wanted every plant gone, no exceptions. This was, in hindsight, my mistake. Only I knew, apart from Garth, that he grew plants in the fridge. Then though, I didn’t know that only I knew. That I was his last remaining friend.
As I said, I’d planned this thoroughly. I had announced to him my trip to Portugal weeks before. I’d booked three tickets. One, five days before the fire, a flight I obviously missed, a second, which I took, and the return, two weeks afterwards. I had made sure the woman that lived in the ground floor of the same building was out too, when I broke in, nevertheless the fire never even reached that far. I knew Garth had enough savings to repair the damage. Even if I was proven to be the instigator, I didn’t care. At my age? I didn’t worry about myself. I only needed him not to be sure it was me. But he did. Of course. From the flowers in the fridge. Out of.
I often imagine this man returning home from the theatre, to find his house ablaze, smoke and fire rising up to the skies. His garden, evaporated. A life’s work burned to ashes within moments. I believed I was doing him a favour. I, the saint and demon. Saint demon. I imagined him shattered, at first. Then, changing. Realizing he couldn’t shut out the world like this. Allowing people to return to him once more. He couldn’t start the plant business all over again, I believed; it had taken him years to build his garden of isolation. He wouldn’t suffocate in it any longer. He’d come to life, after the death of all his flowers.
I was wrong.
Returning to London, I called him perhaps more times than it would have been wise or unsuspicious. Garth didn’t pick up the phone once. Then, I passed by his street. His floor had been repaired, there were no signs of the fire. I rang his doorbell and knocked on his door. Garth didn’t open. I caught sight of him at the balcony as I returned to my car, the balcony now strangely nude of any vegetation. When he turned and went inside, I noticed the small solitary pot upon the plastic table. A new flower. Its delicate buds yellow, like the core of fire. I had lost him.
How did I know the plant was for me? Oh. I forgot to introduce myself and my rare middle name, which invited my first conversation with Garth. I am Jeremy Narcissus Walsh, pleased to meet you.