“It’s a Triffid!”
It was indeed – or a near relative. A great, sprawling weed had sprung up, practically overnight threatening to choke the alpine rockery that meant so much to us. “We might have to burn that one, Gwyneth.”
Gwyneth squealed with delight at this potential mayhem. Her Harry Potter glasses fair misted up. “Can I do it, Mummy?”
“You can help, but that’s all. I’m not letting you loose with a blowtorch.”
Of course, I would give it a good going over with the cutters first.
We moved in last May. Shortly after, my partner Simon said, “I need to find myself, Megan,” and moved out – a manoeuvre that probably had more to do with the Child Support Agency not finding him. For the time being, he lived in Glasgow. Presumably, if things hotted up he’d go abroad. He could not go far enough for me. I had a part time job and the house was paid for. Gwyneth had started school so I was feeling pretty independent – more than a match for an alien plant with ideas above its stamens.
We’re not Welsh, by the way. Gwyneth got her name because Simon fancied Gwyneth Paltrow. Seeing as she’s a size 6 blonde and I’m a size 16 brunette, that should have told me something, I guess.
Most of our neighbours kept to themselves and the only time the telephone rang it was someone doing a survey on frozen artichokes and whatnot. The novelty of being able to do whatever I liked soon wore pretty thin. The house almost cleaned itself – or so it seemed with Simon gone and Gwyneth at school. The weekends were welcome bursts of activity rather than time to put the feet up – too much of that during the week.
To be honest, my part time job was a joke. I helped out in a record shop; a real record shop that sold vinyl classics – everything from Albinoni to Zappa. A labour of love by an ageing hippy called Laurence, who frankly would have been better spending his money on a cleaning lady rather than me. Of course, I could get a proper job. I often thought about that. I used to be a PA – and I really was a PA; not a clerk with delusions of grandeur. I was trained in a posh secretarial college in Oxford and I had a BA in Communication Studies from Sheffield. I used to deputise for the Company Secretary and I was understudying for the job for when she left on her impending career break. By a quirk of fate (or rather, a defective coil) I had the career break and my CV took a nosedive in the credibility department. I know that I shouldn’t do myself down by saying that I’m ‘only a housewife’ but have you ever tried talking up nappy changing and balancing the family budget when the other candidate has not only boosted the profits by twenty-five percent during her lunch hour but brought up a family of three? Everyone exaggerates – except me, that is. I’d love to be able to dissimulate and get what I wanted by fitting, amoeba-like into whatever empty space comes my way. But there’s something in my square-peg nature that makes my edges razor sharp at the merest sniff of a round hole. I come out with phrases beginning: “Of course, I know you wanted someone who…” and then go on for ages – spikily defensive – about how I’m nothing like that, but I’ve got loads of other qualities – ones they’ve studiously avoided asking for, probably. I once spent ten minutes explaining just what it meant to the planet me being a vegetarian – I’ve no idea why. I went back to eating meat the next day, too.
When I looked at the Triffid after lunch it wasn’t half as bad as I remembered it. Somehow cutting it back or even just trimming it seemed a waste of time and effort. “Have you shrunk?” I asked it, out loud. I could have sworn it had, too. It was nothing like I remembered, though I suppose we all exaggerate things that strike us as ugly. I had convinced myself that it covered half the fence, whereas it only covered the post. It didn’t even look ugly any more. Unusual or… exotic – that was the word. I could certainly live with it – well, for the time being. If only it had some flowers in interesting colours it might even be quite presentable. Still a weed, of course. I mean, foxgloves have pretty flowers, but they are weeds. Wonder what the difference is? Probably something spurious: like the difference between dogs and foxes; or gerbils and rats.
Gwyneth, of course, was devastated by the news that we wouldn’t be using the “flame-thrower” on it – I worry about her sometimes. She certainly doesn’t get that from me. Even she admitted it was pretty when she came back from examining it. “Perhaps we shouldn’t nuke it just yet, then, Mummy,” she added.
Privately, I thought calling it “pretty” was going it a bit.
But when I went out to look later I was surprised to see some flowers had opened and buds were promising further blooms. The flowers varied in shade from lilac to heliotrope. Well, I had wanted interesting colours and there they were.
“You ought to get that looked at, Megan!” I did say most of our neighbours kept to themselves, didn’t I? When you are young, female and single, nosey, creepy men come with the territory. Bob Ward lived next door. He was overweight, oversexed and over here every five minutes.
“I rather like it.”
“Yes.” He suppressed a shudder. “But you ought to get someone to tell you what it is. I think you will find you don’t like it half as much when you know more about it.”
Like you, I thought. I could say this for Bob Ward. Really, he gave condescension a bad name. “I would get an expert to come and look at it,” he persisted. “Yellow Pages. That’s where to start.”
Weighing the pinking shears in my hand I could think of a better place to start. Why couldn’t the silly man find something better to do? Come to think of it, why didn’t he move to another town?
Gwyneth was space mad,so we watched a programme about the Mars Rover, which is riveting stuff when the other channels only have the Olympics and you’re desperately trying to answer an eight year old’s questions. An eight year old who knows more about it than you, that is. In the end, I asked the questions.
“If that’s on Mars, who’s filming it?”
“No Mummy. That’s an animation.”
So we sat and watched the animation: cameras and probes reaching out like branches and opening up like flowers as if to catch the sun; and tiny drills boring into the soil. No people: it seems this was just a probe to send back information. It was one of those times I almost missed Simon. Personally, I would have preferred to watch the Olympics – particularly as we Brits were doing spectacularly well for once. It was Simon that Gwyneth got all this Space Stuff, and Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings from. Why couldn’t she like ballet like me? But then where had liking ballet got me? Maybe if we’d had computer animations and all the other fascinating stuff children are surrounded by these days I might have had more ambition. We had computers then. Oh yes. Only they weren’t anything a child of today would recognise. There was no Windows, no Internet and no email to speak of. I was of the generation that thought an electric typewriter a pretty nifty beast. Gwyneth’s computer didn’t even need a keyboard. Seeing her, recumbent, dictating her homework to a machine whilst listening to a CD through headphones was just too weird for me.
I’d caught up somewhat with word processing and spreadsheets. Had to; it was my job. But I was never comfortable with computers. I was not creative. Gwyneth was using hers to write music, produce videos and do all sorts of imaginative stuff and all I’d ever managed to do was write letters and balance the books. It was this that nagged at me. Here was I, working in a record shop, just able to operate an electronic cash register while Gwyneth was acquiring skills that were clearly beyond me and would remain so. I was dreading the day when Gwyneth started making money with her computer. I was sure it was coming. She’d set up a dot com and be on her way to her first million before she was a teenager. Then what would I do? Lose her, probably. I felt my eyes moisten at the thought of her spoiled by wealth, tempted into God knows what…
“Mummy, can we watch ‘The Wiggles’ now?” Oh well, perhaps not.
That night I had my best night’s sleep ever. I didn’t expect to. As a matter of fact, I was all set for a bad night but it seemed that as soon as my head touched the pillow I was off. I awoke completely refreshed too, although I had the oddest dream. It was easy to see where it came from, but it was peculiar. I dreamed I was a space probe: opening my big cameras and golden reflectors to the sun and drilling into the ground. “I just can’t put down roots here!” I thought – and I suppose that was what it was really about, with Gwyneth’s Mars Rover thrown in for good measure. The Triffid was in there too, and I suppose I felt empathy for it or something because everyone wanted to uproot it and in the natural order of things it had just as much right to a bit of soil and a bit of sun as any of us, didn’t it? Anyway, it was the only dream I remembered having in ages, even if it made no sense.
I awoke wonderfully refreshed and with more energy than I was used to. It lasted too. I had the urge to do something about the job situation and before I knew it, I’d fished Thursday’s paper out of the bin and was circling advertisements left right and centre. I made notes too, and hijacked Gwyneth’s computer to rewrite my CV. I wrote in a frenzy. They always say a good CV is ten per cent perspiration and ninety per cent imagination.
“Mummy, what are you doing?”
“Gwyneth,” – be firm, I said to myself – “Gwyneth, you have to teach me. You have to show me how to do all those wonderful things you do on your computer. You have to show me right away.”
“But why, Mummy?”
“Because I’ve put them down on my CV. That’s why.”
And she did show me. She showed me everything.
I suddenly found that I was imaginative after all. Some deep well of creativity overflowed within me. And life took on new meaning.
It was the most productive Sunday ever. Gwyneth enjoyed showing off her knowledge and I amazed myself by how quickly I got the hang of it.
Most of that week was a fuzzy blur. I sent off twelve job applications, each one meticulously researched and accompanied by a customised CV. I was even using colour and watermarks and special paper to make mine stand out from the pile. But apart from these details I hardly knew one job from another. I know I took notes and carefully managed the applications on a database, but if you were to ask me about them I doubt that I could actually remember any one of them. At the time, each looked well within my capabilities; I was sure of that. In fact, it was amazing how many jobs were really easy when you thought about it. People like to make them sound harder than they are. Basically, (I realised) most jobs can be broken down into checking information, recording any changes and taking appropriate action. Whether one did it face to face, on the telephone, by letter or by email there wasn’t much else to it. The hows-and-whys were just details.
Anyway; each application was carefully filed with all the relevant documents so that when called for an interview I had only to open the envelope and read my notes and copy of the application form to prepare.
Interviews – it turned out – were like the Number Seven Bus. I went two weeks without getting one and then three came at once. I sailed through them on an adrenaline high quite unlike the quasi-cannabiscene haze of past experience. I had no thought and no time for anything else. My deep freeze was groaning from all the ready meals I packed into it.
Looking back, it had to happen. I was thoughtless and unfeeling. Poor Gwyneth was not the sort to crave fish fingers and baked beans and though I was no Jamie Oliver – and she was not in the slightest cranky about food – there was definitely a shortfall in the kitchen where Gwyneth was concerned.
The day came when Gwyneth looked down at her Spag. Bol. and up at me with saucer eyes, put hands to her temples in a dramatic gesture, pouted and said – she could pout and talk at the same time, that girl – “Mummy, when are we going to have proper food again?”
“Gwyneth, that’s from Marks and Spencer. It’s better than I could ever cook.”
Gwyneth frowned. She could frown, pout and speak all at the same time too. “I wish you’d try then, Mummy. I wish you’d try very hard!”
Well, what could I do? Riddled with guilt I went straight to Waterstones and bought the latest potboiler from TV land and spent the whole of that evening – and the next – dicing, chopping, simmering and stirring. I’d never realised how easy cooking could be. Just goes to show that school cookery teachers don’t know everything.
But there was no pleasing Gwyneth.
“Mummy, I never see you.”
And it was true. I had become Superbitch-and-a-half; always busy busy busy.
But it was all for Gwyneth, wasn’t it? Well, I wasn’t sure about that. What was happening to me? What indeed? My life had turned upside down.
There were good things. I used to be a martyr to migraines. Now I never had a headache or any other kind of ache or pain. I never had bad hair days either.
Isn’t it funny how you never miss some things that at the time are real pains in the bum – until they just fade out of your life and you never notice them going?
Bob Ward was like that.
“He’s moved away to another town, Megan,” his wife said.
I felt rather guilty when she said that; using almost the same words I’d used a couple of weeks before. “Why doesn’t he move to another town?” I’d said. But half a mo: what was she doing saying that? She’s his wife for God’s sake. Another town?
“He didn’t tell me where…” she was going on with just the right mixture of bitterness and contempt in her voice. “He said he’d be in touch once he’d ‘settled in’.” She paused before adding, “With his floozie.” She’d been drinking, I could tell. Nobody says ‘floozie’ when they’re sober – do they?
I had to ask: “How do you know he’s gone to another town then?” God I can be so nosey at times.
“That’s what he said,” – her eyes filled her face – “on the phone. He said, ‘I’ve moved away to another town.’ And I said to him… ‘You stupid bastard!’ I said. I said: ‘You stupid bastard! Where? What “other town”?’ And he just said, ‘Never you mind. I shall be in touch when I’ve settled – about sending my stuff on.’ Can you believe it? Well. So I said, – she grinned to herself – “I said: ‘I’ll send his stuff on alright! On to St Luke’s Charity shop! – That’s where I’ve sent his stuff on to.”
“Oh Ruth! Good for you!”
“No one says, ‘never you mind’ to me.” She grabbed my arm. “Come in and join me in a celebration drink.” So I was right. I followed her into the house. She had an open bottle of wine on the table. “He bought this on eBay you know. It’s Cha… Chard… It’s a claret…” She poured me a generous measure. “Nine hundred and six Euros it cost. – ‘Cheers!’ Only one hundred and six left now. I’ll send him the empties.”
“Cheers! Oh Gosh.”
“To Nine hundred and six Euros! – Hic!”
“Gosh, Ruth! You can’t just throw all his stuff away.”
“Why not?” She grinned at a thought. “If he can be ‘Ruth-less’ – then so can I.”
“Ruth! You could sell some of this stuff! I mean I know it feels good now but think what you could do with the money! What else have you thrown out… I mean there’s his wine, and his clothes… You’ve not taken anything else to the charity shop have you?”
“Oh yes. I certainly have. Couldn’t miss an opportunity like that.”
“An opportunity like what?”
“His golf clubs!”
“Oh yes. Well, I can see your point there. But… I suppose he’s taken the car?”
“The new car. Yes. Otherwise, I was going to raffle it. But yes, he’s taken it.”
“Ruth! What are you like? Come and sit down.” The truth was that I could see the floodgates were about to open. I mean you can have all the revenge you like but marital infidelity is still marital infidelity.
To be honest, I felt just a tiny bit guilty because in a way I’d wished it on her. Well wished it on him. And she was suffering. Have to be careful what I wished for in future. Who was it who said: “Be careful what you wish for – you just might get it,”? I mean it wasn’t my fault he’d gone away, but I still felt guilty as if… That’s me all over you know? If I have some good luck and then I realise that someone else has had to miss out for me to have that good luck, I feel bad about it. I can get quite depressed thinking about how… oh, how we in the west live well on the sweatshops of the third world for instance.
Ruth was about ready to use up several trees worth of Kleenex by the look of things right then. “Only the other day I was thinking about you,” she said.
Oh. That’s sweet of her.
“And I thought, she’s lost her husband. Serves her right! She didn’t know how to keep the lovely man! – How wrong could I be?”
Quite a bit wrong, actually, I thought. Your husband had this belief he was a babe magnet. He broadcast it on all channels so you should have noticed. My Simon was trapped by some ‘Jezebel’. Oh God, this wine, it’s got me at it now.
“D’you know something, Megan?”
“What’s that, Ruth?”
“Go on, Ruth.”
She shook her head a few times before going on, “I thought the bastard was having an affair with you!”
I wasted a good mouthful of Chardonnay and ruined my interview blouse at that. “Me? Why ever did you think that?” I bit my tongue. I was just about to say: “I can’t stand the man,” but I changed it to: “Oh, so you weren’t really shocked then… er, if you thought something was…?”
“Shocked! Of course I was shocked! I was prepared to put up with a bit of slap and tickle with the neighbours. It’s when he up sticks for some undisclosed location that I…” She made a dive for the tissues. “Bob! Why couldn’t you make do with Megan here? Oh! Why do they always have to go for somebody younger?”
I nearly said: “Hey! I’m not as old as you,” but thought better of it. I just contented myself with the old cliché: “Well, I expect it was all for the best…”
The next day I was opening the mail and there it was;
“We would like to offer you the appointment on the terms given in the accompanying job description…”
I did my Maori Fertility Dance all round the lounge. “At last! Woo Hoo! I am on my freakin’ way!”
Then I read the job description. “I can’t do that!” – and I couldn’t. There was no getting away from it. Agnes down at the chemist’s – we call her Agnes of God because we treat her like a confessional (but don’t tell her that) – she said that they always made jobs sound harder than they really were, to put off the work-shy. But there was no getting away from it. This job had me using Front Page from day one – with Dreamweaver – and I had to train up a new assistant at the same time. I’d only glanced at Front Page to familiarise myself with it and I hadn’t even taken Dreamweaver out of the box. Up till then I thought it was a Stephen King horror story. And what was this: ‘Firework Suite’? Wasn’t that by G.F. Händel? And what had it got to do with ‘Dreamweaver’ – whatever it was? I remembered discussing it at the interview, but they didn’t seem to ask any in-depth questions and somehow they got the impression that I knew how to use all this stuff. Oh well. “Suppose I’ve got time before I start there to try it out and see what it’s for.”
In fact, I did have a look at it, prompted by the second acceptance letter that arrived the following day. That mentioned Dreamweaver Firework Suite too. In fact the only thing that didn’t mention it was the instruction manual that came with the Dreamweaver thingy that I’d bought off eBay for fifty quid. Their Dreamweaver was a five hundred quid jobbie that did all kinds of things that I knew nothing about. Somehow I’d convinced them at the interview I was some kind of guru who would solve all their problems and bring them enlightenment as well.
The third job offer came and that did not mention Dreamweaver. But it did mention something else. I honestly do not know how they got the impression that I was fluent in Japanese, but it seemed to be important as the job description talked about nothing else.
Can there be such a thing as too much luck?
And another thing, out of the blue, I’d got some kind of cooking compulsion. All at once, nothing was good enough for Gwyneth – whereas before anything was good enough for Gwyneth – even the occasional fish fingers and baked beans for goodness sake. Suddenly she’d got so picky and I was flogging my guts out to oblige. The thought of juggling all that and a new, high-powered job suddenly made me feel very weary. “What next,” I said out loud. “What else could possibly go right?” To clear my head I went out into the garden, looking for Gwyneth.
And there was Gwyneth walking, hand in hand with Simon.
Gwyneth ran over to me and pulled on my cardy sleeve. “He’s back, Mummy! I wished him back and he’s back!”
I mumbled something like: “Sometimes we wish for things we can’t… or shouldn’t have,” but she butted in.
“It’s the tree Mummy the tree! The tree did it! It’s a Wish Tree; a Wish Tree!”
And of course, my dream came flooding back to me. The Mars probe and… How did it go? Something about putting down roots. I had seen things from the point of view of a space probe – no a plant. And I was getting the same kind of thoughts again. I was having some kind of epiphany. Suddenly the garden was still. The birds stopped singing and the breeze dropped. “Toto, I don’t think we are in Kansas any more,” I whispered and drew my cardy around me. For the moment, Simon and Gwyneth seemed to have disappeared.
I crouched down in front of the plant and stared at it. “You are just a probe, aren’t you?” I took one of its leaves in my fingers and examined it. It seemed so warm and full of life that I might have been holding its hand. “I mean you’re not going to invade us are you? You are just here for information – isn’t that it?”
I began to think about how an alien probe might work. It seemed to me that all this Star Wars thing had started off on the wrong foot. And it was the same with Independence Day. The same with all of them. Why should Aliens do things in an identical way as us? We spend millions of dollars and years of research on developing a technology to reach another planet. But maybe that’s just a primitive way of doing things. Maybe it’s unnecessarily complex. Maybe a more advanced civilisation would have a more direct and simple way of doing things. Maybe they would grow a space probe. And if the probe were telepathic, they wouldn’t need to go there themselves. Not necessarily the woo-woo type of telepathy either. Maybe something involving spores or filaments dispersed on the wind or drifting through space. The aliens could just sit back, tune in and watch us all milling around in our endless complexities. It would have to make itself inconspicuous of course. It would have to blend in.
I watched Gwyneth as she talked excitedly and so happily to Simon.
Suppose that blending in meant making us like it – by granting our wishes? Suppose it could sense the vibrations of our desires like a spider feeling the vibrations of a fly in its web? I thought of all our neighbours huddled around their TV sets, filled with a fervour for their national Olympic team: and the British team’s amazing succession of medal successes.
God, she worshipped him. “Gwyneth!” I called.
It explained a lot. Maybe primitive religions started when one of these things came down and tribes grew up around it: sustained by its bounty; a sort of arboreal horn of plenty. It would support one tribe, giving it some kind of narcotic induced superiority over all others so that they would worship it – and maybe fear it too. Maybe that’s what pulled us out of the slime. Maybe we owe our civilisation, our culture, our religions, everything – to an overgrown weed.
But what happened to them? Did they die or go back to where they came from? No. There was no need for that: they are telepathic; they die then – like a discarded toenail, a tiny part of a greater whole. One day the tribe find that the Wish Tree has gone and they either struggle on with what it gave to them or they slide back into barbarism.
Or maybe one day they killed it? Maybe the high priest decided he could get along without it? Or maybe there was a downside to the plant giving them everything they wanted? Yes, that was it. But surely, with all that power couldn’t it destroy anyone who even thought of killing it? No. I’d thought of killing it and it made itself beautiful. If I went to kill it now, what would it do? How many other defences did it have?
Oh, so I do exist. You’ve not just come all this way to see her? I thought. “Simon! How nice to see you after all this time!” I said. Come on, get a grip woman. Think about yourself for a change. “So,” I said – with more purpose but less articulation. “Simon.”
“I’ve missed you, Megan!” He sounded about as sincere as a politician on the eve of an election. It brought me back to earth.
“What happened? Did you ‘find yourself’ then?”
“I found I couldn’t live without you – and Gwyneth.
But I knew the real reason. I’d had my epiphany and now I knew everything. The scales had fallen from my eyes. “Tell you what, Simon. Gwyneth can stay with Ruth – she won’t mind. You and I’ve got some talking to do.”
So we went to ‘The Beach Hut’ – which was an upmarket wine bar a hundred miles from any beach – and drank Valpolicelli because we always drank Valpolicelli in The Beach Hut – except when we drank Sparkling Lambrusco and we were out of that phase by now. I realised that the Valpolicelli was probably a mistake – as was going to The Beach Hut. And yes, there was some of the old magic there still. But I needn’t have worried. It didn’t take much probing to get Simon to admit that – as Woody Allen once put it – where our relationship was concerned, we had ‘a dead shark on our hands’. Never did quite understand that metaphor, but if it helped Simon to grow up and face his responsibilities then that was fine by me. “Look, Simon, I shall never deny you access. But we need to agree on times. This turning up out of the blue business will just not do, OK?”
He smiled, reached out his hand, touched mine and said: “OK.”
It was going to be so hard to explain to Gwyneth.
And as for the Wish Tree; maybe Gwyneth would find solace in using the ‘flamethrower’ on it after all? I went straight to look at it before I fetched Gwyneth back from Auntie Ruth’s. (Why did that stupid woman insist on the auntie tag? Why?)
It was dead. There was no doubt. It had withered away to only a few dry strands. Now I knew the answer. I had wished it dead and it was dead. It could not survive people knowing its secret. It granted wishes blindly for as long as people didn’t know it was granting them. Once someone – anyone – knew it was the source of all bounty, but still wanted it dead, it had no choice. It was a beautifully simple strategy. No one would ever believe me or anyone else about the Wish Tree. The magic lasted only as long as it was unsuspected, and then as soon as it began to cause problems and the Wish Tree was suspected, it was snuffed out of existence.
“But where has it gone, Mummy?”
I looked at Gwyneth and brushed a lock of hair out of her eye. “Some things, precious, are just never meant to be.”
“But it was lovely! All those things it did. It brought Daddy back.”
“And that was not meant to be either.”
She shook her head with defiance, but there was a questioning look in her eyes. “Daddy isn’t coming back to live with us? Ever?
“No Gwyneth.” How to explain? “The Wish Tree wanted to be loved – very very much. And sometimes, when people want to be loved that much they try to make people love them by giving them things: presents; or by doing things for them. The Wish Tree tried to do that. It tried to give Mummy a new job and it tried to give you your Daddy back. But neither of us need those things to be happy. Of course, if I’d got a job by my own efforts or Daddy had really wanted to come back to us then, that’s a different matter.
“But he did!”
“No, dear. Your daddy came back because he couldn’t help it. The Wish Tree made him come back. He thought he wanted to come back to us, but he didn’t really. Just as those people didn’t really want Mummy to work for them. Maybe one day… But not now. Look…” I picked up my portfolio of designs that I had been sure at the time got me a job offer. “You can do better than that, Gwyneth. Anyone can if they use that program.”
She looked up at me, disbelieving. But she wanted to believe.
“One day, Gwyneth, you might do very well at something. I don’t know what but one day we’ll both know what it is. All those skills you taught me with the computer. One day I’ll find a use for them. Maybe I’ll start my own business.”
Gwyneth looked up at me and grinned. “Maybe I’ll be a teacher. After all, if I can teach you Mummy, I could teach anyone!”
I ruffled her hair. The cheeky minx. “Yes, Gwyneth, Maybe.”
She looked up at me with that pout she had. “What’s for tea, Mummy?”
I looked down at her. There was a childlike cynicism about that pout. “How would fish fingers and baked beans suit you?”
She grinned suddenly and her freckles danced for me. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe.”
And after all that ‘luck’ we’d had, “Maybe” sounded so good.