My father had little truck with the sentimental flower fairies that grace the pages of so much girlish literature. Indeed, he went so far as to forbid me to exhibit any of my own watercolour efforts of that type anywhere he might see them. Despite promises made to my mother, I eventually wheedled the tale of the root of this particular aversion from him one stormy day.

While working through his biology doctorate, my father was required to spend much of his time in the university gardens at Kew. One day, they received a box of seeds from a remote plateau along with some scribbled care instructions in a crabbed and obscure hand, calling for chill and barren, dry soil.

For a couple of years, the plant grew slowly. Then there was an unexpected leak in the greenhouse during the spring rains, and in a mere fortnight the plant was a thick, lush creeper, coiled high around the girders, heavy with buds as big as a man’s two fists.

A young man, Rothschild, working alongside my father began to look pale and distracted at work. My father got it out of him that he kept hearing a husky female voice singing to him around the greenhouse, and he was going mad trying to figure out where – and who – the owner was. When he failed to show up one morning, my father, assuming he had made the acquaintance of the owner of the voice, grumbled, but decided he would cover for him for a few days, at least.

Having to do the work of two men, my father found himself there far later than usual. It was full dark when he was putting his coat on, and the greenhouse seemed full of a rare, heady fragrance. As he strolled a leisurely path to the door, it surprised him not at all to see the plateau vine had begun to open. Two or three buds has blossomed into great deep red flowers a good four feet across.

It was with somewhat greater surprise that he realised there was a woman sitting at the centre of the flower. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen, perfect, snow-white of skin and hair and with black eyes that seemed to look into the central of his soul. As soon as his eyes met hers, she began to sing – a low, soft, wordless song of incredible longing. He walked towards her – slowly, as though in a dream…

Just as he was about to touch her perfect hand, one of the older gardeners, still masked from spraying the bean vines, barrelled out of nowhere, slamming him through the large plate-glass window in a rugby tackle.

It took three more gardeners to prevent my father running through there, and much time to persuade my father of what the man had seen – my father approaching a great, white-stamened flower as though spellbound, entirely unaware of the razor-sharp tentacles twitching gently underneath as though waiting to spring…

My father was more than a hundred yards away outside the greenhouse when they went in, with masks and cotton wadding in their ears, to burn the plateau vine. Despite that, he still swears he could hear a sweet, high voice calling piteously for help above the roar of the flames. He collapsed, and was ill with what the doctor tentatively diagnosed as the brain-fever for some weeks.

At that point, my father sat silent for a long time, sipping his whisky and staring meditatively into the fire. “They found young Rothschild’s bones in the wreckage, after the flames had died down,” he said, eventually. “Despite the blackening from the heat, they could still find acid etching all over them. It was when I heard this that I decided to shift the focus of my doctorate to mammalian biology. Somehow the idea of the most vicious specimen of Felis or Ursine seemed to bother me rather less than ever entering those enchanting wrought-iron greenhouses ever again.”

Advertisements