We’d talked about starting a vegetable garden for years, but it took the pandemic to make us actually do it. I’d realised quite swiftly that the weekly Ocado delivery was a thing of the past and that if I wanted a reliable supply of lollo rosso and dill, I’d have to grow it myself. In a 1950s division of labour that seemed to suit the interesting times we’d ended up in, forcing women to give up their jobs so they could home school their kids and bake sourdough bread, he put up the wooden vegetable beds while I pored over seed catalogues and our boys slew foes on the Discord server.
I ended up with several packs of hastily purchased seeds with evocative names – Sundrift, Blush, Medley – from a well-known fragrant lady website. We started them off in leftover yogurt pots, then they graduated to the wooden boxes. I had started off a system of labelling each seedling clearly on tiny wooden signs but by the time we’d finished, I’d tired of this and just chucked them in unlabelled. Sometimes I would sit out in the garden pretending I lived alone and pull weeds and listen to Radio Four, switching it off whenever I heard the phrase ‘thousands of dead’.
The weather was a mixture of sublime sunshine and days of grey dampness, which meant the plants rocketed. It was only after about a month of growing that I went to check my seedlings and noticed something odd growing in the middle, a plant I’d not noticed before. It was a bright yellow colour, unlike the other green seedlings, and had, I noticed queasily, the exact same texture as human hair. ‘Did you label it?’ asked my husband when I pointed it out to him. ‘Perhaps you should pull it out. It’s probably a weed.’
I tried to pull the plant up, but it resisted me, and I was distracted by another chore and forgot to get rid of it. A few days later, I checked again and gasped. The small, yellow strands had multiplied, in fact clumped together and produced something that looked very like the top of a human head, emerging incongruously from the soil in a scene that reminded me of that bad Bowie movie set during the Second World War.
‘What the hell is it?’ we wondered, but decided to leave it to grow. Perhaps it was rare. However, when after a few long days of rain, I went back to check on it, I regretted my decision. Below the mat of blonde hair was a grey, almost fungal looking forehead, and a pair of gelid, expressionless eyes – but they looked familiar.
‘It’s Boris Johnson,’ I told my husband. ‘Boris Johnson is growing in our vegetable garden.’ Of course, he wasn’t really. At least as far as I could tell. He was in St. Thomas Hospital being treated for a bout of coronavirus which was either not very serious or life-threatening, depending on which cabinet minister was talking about it.
My husband wasn’t convinced but the more the head grew, the more certain I was. Once the lips emerged, with that familiar smirk crossed with a sneer, as clear a signature of the English public schoolboy as a surreptitious hand on your thigh under the dinner table or a raging alcohol problem, I was sure.
I knew a lot more than I wanted to about this man.
How he’d used the n-word in his novel, in spite of all the compelling reasons not to, liked Sudoku and enjoyed watching Withnail and I (‘Fuck off!’ we both exclaimed in unison when we heard this on the news). How one of his conquests used to recite Shakespeare as he approached her amorously (‘Once more unto the breach,’ I am sure she used to say, unless I hallucinated that page of the newspaper). The first name of his fifth, or sixth, baby. I didn’t want to know all this stuff.
The real-life Johnson came out of hospital and went on destroying the nation, applauded sycophantically by the media. The pod one just seemed to get bigger and bigger and more lifelike. His lips didn’t move and his eyes didn’t blink, but he was an increasingly sinister presence. The plants that grew closest to him failed to thrive. Invasive, you might call him.
A week or two later, we drove to the garden centre, which had just reopened. ‘Forty thousand dead,’ said the radio. I switched it off. Masked and gloved, we headed purposefully towards the tool area, dodging other shoppers who buzzed around us like wasps. There was a row of hoes, silver and gleaming. My husband stroked the edge of one gently and nodded.
‘It’s sharp enough.’
‘A weed is sometimes just a flower in the wrong place.’
‘Not this time.’
‘You voted for them once,’ I reminded him.
‘That was only because I liked that one that shagged the mother and daughter.’
We’d been living in Notting Hill at the time, a brief interlude before the urge to procreate forced us out into suburbia. The aforementioned MP was also famous for despising people who ‘bought their own furniture’, which probably didn’t happen quite so frequently in West London.
But by the time we’d got the kids fed and had a fortifying glass of wine and fetched the hoe from the potting shed, we had a shock. Johnson was gone. He’d left a huge hole in the ground and wrecked most of my broad beans and even worse, the peas (so delicate and so hard to grow). ‘Have you looked in the chest freezer?’ joked my husband (yet another panic buy). But he was nowhere to be found.
He’d lumbered off, perhaps to the Houses of Parliament, guided by a vestigial impulse in his vegetable brain. What happened to him next, I don’t know, although I found myself scrutinising ‘the real Johnson’ carefully on the increasingly rare occasions when he appeared on TV, looking for tell-tale signs, such as an inability to demonstrate empathy, or the sinister pallor of an underground creature.
What I find so terrifying – and it still wakes me up at night – is the thought that I was the one that planted him. What if I were to accidentally create another? Or perhaps he was self-seeding, a hardy perennial? I’m a fervently tidy gardener nowadays and nothing grows in my vegetable beds that shouldn’t be there, but I have never been able to enjoy eating broad beans again.
Tabitha Potts has several short stories in print anthologies as well as online. She was long-listed for the Sunderland University Short Story Award, a Finalist in MIROnline’s Folk Tale Festival and Highly Commended in MIROnline’s Booker Prize Competition. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a First in English Language and Literature from Oxford University. She runs Story RadioPodcast (www.storyradio.org) and you can read more of her stories on her website (www.tabithapotts.com) or follow her on Twitter (@tabithapotts), Facebook (@tabithaauthor) and Instagram (@tabithapotts).
[Editor’s note: British spelling and punctuation has been retained.]