Nature claims back the land with rapid and devastating effect in Patrick Griffiths’ speculative short story. Illustration by Guy Shield.
It was the sight of Apricot’s lifeless body that finally convinced Jay’s mother they should leave their home.
Just a few months before that day, there was no sign of the impending crisis. Jay would frequently play on the low, wide sill of his home’s bay window, rolling a collection of metal and plastic toy cars back and forth. He often stopped to stare out of the window where he would invariably see Apricot, sitting on a bench at the far end of the small triangular green on the other side of a quiet road in front of the building. Apricot lived in a neighbouring flat, although she seemed to spend most of her time sitting contentedly on the green, by herself, a gentle smile rarely far from her face, usually staring into space, apparently either deep in thought or devoid of any thought whatsoever. On occasion, when the sun began to set, Jay would watch as Mrs Crawford stormed across the green, grabbed Apricot by the arm, and guided her into their building, sometimes apparently grumbling, sometimes quite loudly protesting about how thoughtless Apricot was, or how stupid she must be, or what a burden she was to the elderly woman. Apricot would always remain calm, however, and would even look up to Jay and wave as she walked by. Jay had never talked to her before but he always timidly waved back.
The first time Jay noticed the knotweed was on a warm day in April. Apricot was transfixed by a single stem rising from a small thicket of sickly nettles underneath the false acacia tree. The almost luminous lime green plant stood out from the browns and deeper greens surrounding it, although there was nothing to suggest it was anything other than an innocuous weed.
A group of four boys – the Fisher brothers and two of their friends, older kids who went to the high school – slowly cycled on the road around the edge of the green that day, laughing amongst themselves and shouting out taunts in Apricot’s direction, calling the girl ‘retard’ and ‘bitch’ and other words Jay didn’t understand. It wasn’t the first time. Apricot just continued to stare at the new plant, ignoring the teenagers until they grew bored and pedalled away from the green, down the road, around the corner, and disappeared out of sight.
When Jay left with his mother for school the next morning he noticed that the light green plant had grown quite substantially and there were several smaller shoots wrapped around the legs of the bench. He waved to Apricot but she didn’t see him as she continued to stare at the plant, as if waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
Over the following days, the nettles withered and the lime green weeds began to spread all around the green, in the shadow of the trees at first, then radiating outwards into the grass. One evening, on her usual trip to retrieve Apricot, Mrs Crawford stopped to pull some of the plants out of the ground, which were now several feet high. It appeared to be quite a struggle, with roots staying firmly in the soil, stalks snapping, and tendrils clinging on to surrounding plants, trees, and the bench.
Jay’s mother had noticed the rapid spread of the weed as well and made a comment that the council should do something about the unkempt green. Soon afterwards, a bored-looking bald man drove a lawnmower in circles around the green, and around Apricot, chopping up the weeds and throwing their clippings all over the grass in the process. Apricot’s only reaction was to watch, her happy, quiet demeanour never faltering. Jay’s reaction was one of joy, at the sight of the shiny red vehicle buzzing about.
The whole of the green was a lighter shade the very next morning. Even from the bay window, Jay could see that there were thousands of tiny sprouts completely covering the area. When he left for school he also spotted one of the weeds poking through the paving slabs in front of his building. He quickly bent down and plucked it, looking at it as his mother pulled him along. It was quite ordinary – several small soft leaves of that lime green colour protruding from a smooth, speckled, hollow, tube-like stem.
Jay noticed that awareness of the weed’s presence was increasing. He overheard his mother talking to a friend on the phone – she said she had seen the plant all around town and reiterated that the council should do something about it – at which point Jay hoped to see the impressive lawnmower again. A local newspaper also printed a story that gave little in-depth information, only stating that the plant was spreading, it was apparently harmless, and suggested its sudden great numbers were simply down to climactic conditions.
The bald lawnmower man did not return and the green became overgrown, with several patches of the weed reaching the height of most passers-by. The larger stems were now more rigid, like bamboo, doggedly standing fast in the wind, only their leaves and cream-coloured blossom gently wafting.
Jay’s mother had put weed killer down on the pavement where Jay had picked the shoot, but the plant soon returned, tiny sprouts lined up like soldiers along the perimeter of the paving slab, pushing up the slab slightly as they forced their way through.
The local radio station interviewed a botanist who claimed the plant was a type of knotweed, probably an invasive species that had been introduced to the country and taken hold at an alarming rate due to favourable conditions and being able to take over niches previously exploited by native species. He reiterated that it was harmless, would likely eventually be self-regulating, and could even be eaten, just like other species of knotweed.
Concern soon grew, however. The majority of paving slabs outside Jay’s building cracked as the weeds pushed through. They were soon everywhere and it seemed that no amount of pruning or spreading of weed killer was doing any good. A television news discussion programme included another confident declaration that the weed wasn’t in fact an invasive species, but a hybrid – essentially a new species – that must have come about from the cross-pollination of two closely related knotweed species that were invasive. As such, it was an unknown quantity. While this confused Jay and, to a large extent, his mother, such articles, reports, and discussions had fast become a source of great interest for the many who wondered what was happening to their neighbourhoods.
The government announced an emergency deployment of industrial herbicide, applied by converted gritters. It was the only time Jay had seen Mrs Crawford usher Apricot inside in the middle of the day, as residents were told to stay indoors as the chemicals were liberally sprayed over every outside surface. The action appeared to be successful at first, the leaves and stems wilting and browning, appearing to have died. The government claimed victory and congratulated themselves for their rapid response but, as the weeds steadily came back, some experts claimed they weren’t rapid enough. Repeated efforts were even less effective and a desperate attempt at biological control with the introduction of an imported aphid-like insect also proved unsuccessful. It was ‘a clear demonstration of adaptation’, yet another ‘expert’ stated, ‘building up a resistance to poisons and predators like a rat’s resistance to warfarin or the ticking time bomb of bacterial resistance to antibiotics’.
The knotweed became a staple ingredient of the population’s food, including that of Jay’s household, as the plant overpowered crops and the availability of traditional foods became limited and costly. News programmes shifted from debates and discussions to reports of panic as many fled their homes to travel to areas less affected, which itself caused chaos on the roads, at ports and at airports.
Travel was impeded further by the state of the roads, with the weeds pushing through tarmac, making some completely impassable. The media was filled with spectacular images but Jay could see it with his own eyes; villages, towns and cities were beginning to look like nightmarish jungles with blanketed walls, green buildings, lampposts covered in tendrils, walkways carpeted in leaves, and even suffocating trees showing barely a sign of bark.
Only essential business continued as most workplaces and all schools were closed. While Jay’s mother worried, the young boy was excited by the drama, not fully comprehending the implications of food limitations, infrastructure difficulties, or the weakening structural integrity of buildings. Even when the electricity died, Jay’s mother resolutely stayed put, explaining to Jay that she knew best, they didn’t have anywhere else to go, and that she didn’t want to leave the place where she had lived since she was a child and, in turn, where she had raised her son.
To add to the excitement, the army travelled around in monstrous trucks to ensure order and safety, distributing canned fruit and other basic foodstuffs, candles, batteries, and wind-up radios. Not that there was enough for everyone. They encouraged those remaining to leave their homes and travel to shelters, to the north, and abroad. Jay’s mother wasn’t the only one to refuse. She also refused to share responsibilities, to look out for others, and be looked out for in return, by sharing homes with those who were just as unwilling to leave. She hesitated when she saw Jay staring at Apricot though, as two uniformed men tried and failed to communicate with her before walking away. Jay’s mother comforted him and said she was sure that Mrs Crawford would take good care of the girl.
Jay hadn’t seen or heard Mrs Crawford for several days, however, and he watched Apricot with greater concern that evening as she sat alone on her leafy bench as the light started to fade. The Fisher brothers were taunting her once more, prodding her with weed stems, spitting on her hair, joking and laughing, obviously knowing full well that she wouldn’t retaliate. They left her alone as a full moon started to rise in the sky.
The next morning, Jay quietly got up earlier than usual and crept through the hallway, where weeds now poked through the skirting boards. He poured brown water from the kitchen tap into a blue plastic cup and took out a fistful of dry knotweed cake from a tin before creeping back down the hallway, carefully opening the door and walking outside. He stepped over the cracks in the pavement, cartoon-print slippers protecting his feet from the hard stems of some of the older plants, crossed the destroyed road, and walked over to Apricot.
While her hair glistened with dew, and weeds had twisted around her feet and ankles as they climbed up her legs, a weak but definite smile could still be found on her pale face. She gently tilted her head upwards. Jay stood in front of her, nervously hesitating for a brief moment, before holding out the cup of water and cake. Apricot’s smile widened and she set free a tear from her eyelid with a blink. The boy gazed into her emerald eyes as she graciously took the gifts from his little hands and then he sharply turned and ran back to his home.
Later that day, when Jay rolled his cars around the harmless-looking plants growing through the window frame, he looked up at a four-by-four steadily making its way around bumps and holes in the road. Sat in the back, the Fisher brothers sullenly looked out across the green at Apricot, lying face down on the ground in front of the bench. A multitude of the lime green plants delicately reached across her body, weaving in and out of her clothes and running through her hair. Jay’s mother walked up behind him, looked out of the window, then knelt down, kissed his cheek, wrapped her arms around him, and held him tightly.
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