Dim, reflected street lighting found its way into the alley, glimpsing features from the shadows: a large half-opened refuse bin, stacked pallets by a steel-clad door, timber leaning on a wire frame.
The boy looked back. Sebastian looked back. “My front yard! Urban Gothic is so alluring, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t.” Nell had been watching Sebastian’s long torso swing easily with the rhythm of his stride; wide shoulders, slender waist. “But I’m not a postcode snob,” she said.
He stopped, turning suddenly to meet her eyes, making the blood rush in her cheeks. She knew, as did he, why she was here. “It would be nice just to have a postcode!” He waved to the high wall on her left: “almost there!”
‘There’ was a doorway, steel-lined like a scattering of others punched into the sheer brick cliff-face of this minor chasm in the City’s heart. Sebastian’s long fingers played over the numbers on the lock. Strange, she thought, the determinants of attraction. Even in the unlikely setting of the discotheque, her eyes had been drawn – she had been drawn – to those fingers. A pianist herself, she knew there had to be a piano somewhere in this frail boy’s life. But here?
A switch flooded a staircase with warm light. “Only thirty-three,” he encouraged her; “I count them every time I go up. Helps fill in the time.”
“You’re lucky. Not everyone can live over a concert hall.”
He tilted his head, bird-like – another mannerism she found irresistible. “Over a garage, actually. It wakes me every morning at half-eight, when they turn the compressors on. Better than any alarm clock. Otherwise I hear surprisingly little from it.”
On the stairs he didn’t race ahead as some men might, but matched her pace so she, following, could drink in the grace and sinew of him as he climbed. Fitted shirt, tight flares, every ripple. Cream walls, brass rail, bare concrete treads. Thirty-three. Footsteps echoing; thirty-one, thirty-two…
“Here we are.”
So this was it, the theatre of her deflowering. Her birthday gift to herself. She had planned no less, coolly setting out, short, short dress and chilly in the early evening air, to lose the virginity that had begun to weigh like a yoke. Her twentieth birthday, still carrying the reluctant secret of her virtue on her shoulders. Was she nervous? Yes. She was doing something she could never have contemplated before: a first time, a first date; a pick-up, frankly, her friend Rosanna would call it that. But then, caution had only served to preserve the unwanted, and Rosanna was still at the discotheque, unlikely to be going home alone.
It was the scent that assailed her senses before all else, a subtle nuance to conjuring pictures of green fields and purple, heather-covered hills. As Sebastian opened the door; as Sebastian switched on the light it was almost physical…
“Oh, my goodness!”
…yet the hallway was small, a colourless vestibule only, and a metal spiral stair Stairs that once again led upwards.
“A bit more climbing.” He said.
Sebastian slipped his hand into hers. She was being coaxed, gently.
There was no door atop these stairs. There was an emerge – a rise from beneath through a floor reinforced thickly with steel beams into another world – from star-trap to stage –
“Nell?” He prompted her. He was expecting a response. Nell had been stunned into silence.
She found her tongue. “I suppose it’s good to have a hobby.” She said.
Foetid sweetness hung on air so thick it was hard to breathe at first, and humidity permeated her short, short dress so utterly its thin fabric clung to her skin. All about her, above her, even around her feet, as Sebastian led her up the last few treads of the stairway, was growing and green; relentlessly green. Sphagnum moss formed a carpet, softly yielding beneath her feet, weeping cherry made curtains they must brush aside to imbibe the heady glory of this place. An umbrella pine shaded them like a hood, a wisteria clambered and tangled its way randomly about trellis-lined walls. Planters, pots and containers were everywhere, large and small, brightly coloured or plain; each one abrim with leaf and growth, flower and life. A decadently large butterfly settled on Nell’s wrist.
“Do you like her? If you do she’ll be yours for a while. They know if they are loved.”
“What kind is she?”
Sebastian shrugged; “A white swallowtail, or something, I don’t know. She’s beautiful, though, isn’t she? How do you like my gaffe?”
“It’s amazing! Are you actually living here?”
“Of course – where else?”
Nell cast about her, seeking the accoutrements of accomodation. Certainly there were elements: withdrawing room furniture – a salon chair or two, a touch of Victoriana nestling between festoons of vine, a few small tables fashioned from stumps of hardwood, bookshelves extending high into the glazed roof, access to whose treasures could only be gained by a precarious set of library steps. But a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom? And where was the piano?
Embarrassed by the way her short, short dress was misbehaving in the humidity, she asked: “Is there somewhere I can…” and let the sentence rest.
“Freshen up? I mean, not that you don’t look…” His confidence also seemed to be ebbing a little. He recovered himself, “Through there. The date palm and turn left. I’ll fix us a drink – what would you like?”
“Oh, anything! This lovely thing – is she coming with me?”
“She’ll fly off. Give her a bit of a nudge if you want.” She did. Nell’s graceful passenger winged away to find companionship with three or four of her kind that were performing a complex ballet around a pendulous cluster of mauve flowers.
“Sehra Bhale – it’s Indian” Sebastian explained, noticing her rapturous expression, “They love the flowers. For the nectar, I guess.”
Only by traversing the floor did Nell get an idea of the true scale of this place. A full twenty yards away a date palm occupied a huge wooden barrel. The tree was all but fully grown so its crown reached high into the roof. From the same barrel sprang a screen of dense foliage, behind which she discovered the door to the bathroom and although she half expected the extraordinary here there was little more than a passing resemblance to a potting shed and aside from the presence of a stalwart iron garden tap, the necessary porcelain was white-ly normal. If a certain amount of loam had left a tidemark in the hand-basin it seemed no more than she should have anticipated. There was even a mirror…
“I fixed us these,” Sebastian said when she returned to him; “I hope you’ll like it.”
He cradled a stoneware chalice in each hand, one of which he offered to her. She glanced at the contents suspiciously. They were green.
“Swop you!” She said, trying to keep her tone as light as possible. Had it occurred to her he might lace her drink? She wanted to remain in command of her situation.
He just grinned. “Of course. They’re the same. I wasn’t going to – you know – try anything.”
She hoped she was arching an eyebrow, “I’m sure there are some things we could try.” Flirting, she decided, was the only way to cover her nerves. Her knees were about to give her away by shaking. “This place is stellar! Did you do all this yourself? You must be very strong! I mean, do you have a gardener or something?” As a line of conversation it was excruciatingly lame, but such was the gulf in her understanding she felt she must say something. The room was unquestionably affecting her. A first tentative sip at that green drink would deepen the affinity.
“On my gosh! Whatever is this?” Drinks can impress in many ways; by their alcoholic heat, a peppery sting on the tongue, or an intensity of flavor that can sometimes vanquish the most insensitive of palates. Sebastian’s cocktail ( she would be obliged to call it that) performed each of those tricks at once, and left a trace of warmth behind for good measure.
“Do you like it?” He was smiling more broadly now. “I make these myself, you know? This is one of my favourites,”
“It’s a bit heady,” was Nell’s verdict, “Some serious alcohol.”
“Really not. Only the natural sugars from the fruit I grow in here. Some more?”
Nell stared into her cup in disbelief. How had she finished the drink so quickly? Never mind; she enjoyed its taste. “Yes, please.”
“Let’s sit down,” Sebastian gestured towards a pair of salon chairs, “Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?”
“No,” She answered quickly; too quickly, perhaps, but all there seemed to be on offer was fruit. The chair was a little too upright, a little too hard, for her mood. She needed to relax. “Them – the palm and that – there are real trees in here, yeah? What made you do all this?”
“My jungle, you mean?” He nodded, “Fair question. I like plants and stuff – will that do?”
Nell frowned. Somehow, she had necked her second drink. It was only moments since he had poured it, but after all, if it wasn’t alcoholic… “Maybe just one more,” she said, uninvited.
He poured. There was a bottle. It was half-empty. “I wanted a garden,” he told her, “This place didn’t have one, but it was cheap and there was acres of space, so…”
“So this. Okay. Some of these guys, Sebastian, they’re seriously mature, aren’t they? They couldn’t have been like that when they came through the door. I mean, how many years…damn it, how old are you?”
He smiled angelically: a perfectly youthful, innocent smile. “Does that matter?”
“To me? I mean, no, I guess not.” Nell blushed, as enthused now by his beauty as she had been when he first asked her to dance with him in that disco; so long ago she felt almost in danger of forgetting it – of forgetting what had drawn her here. Her hand had reached for the bottle, she was topping up her drink without his assistance and he was smiling, and watching…
“You like me, don’t you?” He wasn’t seeking reassurance, simply stating a fact. “You want us to boogie, don’t you?” Blatant, but another fact, the articulation of which should have made her feel acutely uncomfortable but didn’t, not at all, because it was true, and yes, that was why she had selected him – why she had accepted his invitation.
“Can I call you Seb?”
“I’d like that.”
If a little courage had been missing, the mysterious green, rich drink emboldened her. Rising from her chair, she crossed to his and, demurely at first, perched herself on his knee.
“That’s nicer, isn’t it? I enjoy being close, Seb.”
His answering smile feigned innocence: “And I really feel close to you,” he murmured, as if he was half afraid to speak. “Are we -what do you call it – making out?”
She giggled, “Maybe not yet.” Stroking his arm, “Is there somewhere we can…”
“I don’t understand.” He clearly looked as though he didn’t.
“Somewhere we could be more cosy?”
The intimacy, how did it happen? When did they move from the chair and how were they suddenly entwined on a bed of soft, dry moss, and breathing together, almost as one? How had she learned the words she was whispering – how could the caress of his fingers be so impossibly soft as to chase away any last clouds of maidenly guilt, or resistance? Did ‘how’ matter? In a necessary pause she glanced at her cup which was, once again, stubbornly empty. She lamented it and he had the bottle ready in his hand.
Which was when he did this curious thing.
Nell extended her arm, offering the chalice to be refilled, but Sebastian did not comply. Instead, he tipped the bottle so all that remained within it cascaded over her. Green verdance filled her eyes, her nose, her mouth, poured down her neck, between her breasts. Diligently, remorselessly, the liquid probed and sought out each secret part of her, and it was clever, this balm. It was intelligent. It had no interest but in her flesh; it left the short, short dress unsullied in its quest yet it discovered all, absolutely all, that lay beneath.
She panicked at first. She would. She was outraged; though only for a second – as long as it took to feel the warm enclosure of her whole self, the gentle insidience of something that was rendering her limbs helpless to resist, her senses too benumbed to protest.
Fiery heat rushed and retreated in waves through her veins, leaving tiny rivulets behind at every pass. The blood in her body was changing, its flow was no longer the same. Sebastian was there and Sebastian was watching, but how close he was, or how far away, whether or not she could touch him, did not seem to matter. If her sight was fading, if everything was green, that was sufficient. That was enough. And in the end, the silence, too, would be enough.
In her altered state Nell could not see – would never ‘see’ again, but she could ‘feel’: her whole essence was of feeling, defined by twisting and climbing, but only Sebastian knew how that urge was driven by anger and aggression, for she could not talk, or shout out; so she had no way to express her pain.
Jarvis Bowbeaker prided himself in being incapable of surprise. After twenty-two years of steady progress in the plain-clothes division of his local police force he was fairly certain he had seen everything. So when he ducked beneath the ‘Scene of Crime’ tape and passed through the steel-clad door in the dank old alley, when he climbed the spiral stair to that room he was immured from its severest effects by experience. He merely dismissed the chaos into which he emerged as ‘disturbing’.
“You weren’t kiddin’ son, was yer?” He nodded to the young DC who stood with an older, slightly too well-oiled man on a patch of floor that had been cleared. It’s a feckin’ jungle! Are those butterflies or bats?”
“They’re butterflies, Inspector.” The oily man offered the explanation. “Tropical varieties. And the stench is down to a combination of ridiculously high humidity and rot. I’m grateful to you for requesting my opinion – I would hate to have missed this one!”
Bowbeaker cocked an eyebrow at the young Detective Constable. “Wilkinson, isn’t it? “What’s in it for us, son? Suspicious death?”
“Hard to say, sir. We’ll be waiting for SOCO’s report on that, I reckon. Been dead for a lot of years, Sir.”
“And you’re Professor Lombard, yes? Our biologist? What’s gone on ‘ere, then?” Bowbeaker encompassed the tangled overgrowth expansively; “All this?”
“Nothing. Well, nothing in the way of husbandry, anyway. This was tended and well ordered once, but not in the last forty or so years. Whoever started it was quite a horticulturalist, managing to mix species from a number of different climatic zones and combine them so they effectively formed their own micro-climate. But it seems they abandoned it.”
“Did a runner, most likely,” the DC opined; “On account of the death, Sir.”
Bowbeaker sighed, “Alright, son, lead the old horse to water. Where’s the deceased?”
“Well, that’s it, you see…” D.C. Wilkinson guided his superior and the Professor along a cleared path across the floor of the room. “Watch where you tread, Sir. This place is due for demolition. It was the demolition lads who found it. They had to hack through here…”
“No snakes, are there?” Bowbeaker thought he’d mention it. After all, the place was in most other respects a jungle, its floor a mass of tangled roots, their way veiled by liana and festoons of creepers of every kind. Why wouldn’t there be snakes? “Is that rain?”
“There’s hardly any roof. It was a glass skylight at some time or other, before these larger trees pushed through. Fortunately, you said, Professor, didn’t you?”
“Indeed!” Professor Lombard acknowledged; “Growth like this absorbs a lot of moisture. Drought would certainly have inhibited it.”
“And here she is.” The DC waved a hand aloft.
They had reached the far wall of the space, although that was hard to identify, clad as thoroughly as it was in greenery that clambered and tangled. Swiping aside a suspicious-looking insect Bowbeaker followed his young assistant’s upward gesture. Hanging almost directly above him and leaning forward as if ready to descend like an avenging angel, was a form that was unmistakably that of a corpse – or the remains of one.
“‘She’?” Bowbeaker questioned. “How d’yer know our Doe’s a Jane, Constable?”
By way of reply, Wilkinson pointed downward at the wreckage of a series of tubs, one-time planters in a line along the wall. The roots of their hungry tenants had long ago breached them and stretched out to claim their share of the mossy floor, but into each tub had been inserted a label, and on each label, faded but still distinguishable, was written a species name; T/spermum Jasmine ‘Rebecca’, Bomarea Tropaeolum ‘Holly’, Ixora coccinea ‘Anna Lis’, ‘Rosa Macha ‘Joanne’, Lonicera ‘Angelina’, and finally, directly beneath the corpse, Epipremnum Devil’s Ivy ‘Nell’.”
“Names for the species grown from each tub, Inspector,” Lombard contributed. “You’ll probably recognise most of them. The Christian names underneath have nothing to do with a variety, and so we thought…”
Bowbeaker drew a breath, which he held for a very long time.
“I reckon that must be Nell, Sir.” The DC said. “Weird, Innit? Sort of a marker for her, don’t you think? Do those other names mean anything?”
Bowbeaker nodded, because they did. “Rebecca Shelley, yes, I remember that one, and Angelina Scarcci. Nell Wrekins, too. All a bit before my time. Girls in their twenties who were listed as missing. I think the others will ring a few bells too, back at the office.” He stared into the canopy of forestation above each planter, half-hoping to see more evidence that these poor tragedies had ended here.
“Take samples for analysis and ask the lads to get her down. That’s hardly a dignified way to spend eternity. Who owns this place, do we know?”
“Trying to trace that now, Sir. It was a Council repossession A garage business traded downstairs; it closed thirty years ago. The owner died last March. All dead ends, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“Dead ends; yes.” Bowbeaker could not tear his eyes away from those human remains. “Constable, get a step ladder in ‘ere, will yer? I want to take a closer look at our Miss Nell.”
But he already knew, didn’t he? No more than a skeleton after forty years, and only intact because the ivy that held it in its clutches would let nothing escape, nevertheless there were certain details his experienced eye could not miss; like the sized 12 shoe that hung upon one large foot, and the shirt that was not a blouse, because enough threads remained to see it plainly buttoned from the right. Above (or beneath) all, the narrower pelvic bones that could belong only to a man. He could not be certain, but if his memory served, young Nell Wrekin was the last of those disappearances, all those years ago. Without knowing how, or why, he was quite sure she had something to do with whatever had happened here.
Bowbeaker silently watched as the body was freed at last from the grip of the vine, and it did not escape his notice the difficulty the SOCO’s people had in cutting away the stalwart wood that enclosed its throat. He stayed a long time with the scene, so it was only after everyone had moved to leave that he crossed to the ivy’s woody trunk, placing a hand on the bark.
“Nell Wrekins, is it?” He said, quietly, so none of the departing company should hear; “Ye’re Devil’s Ivy, right enough. Privately, I think yer did pretty well, back then, Miss Wrekin. And even though it’s technically a crime, I can’t imagine how I’d go about charging a pretty plant like you with murder, can you?”
Feeling the touch, which was soft and insistent, he looked down to see that a root had wrapped itself around his foot. He extricated himself gently. “Don’t worry love, I’ll ‘ave a word with the Professor. He’ll see ye’re taken care of.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content
Header image by Ambitious Creative from Unsplash;
Girl with butterflies by Victor Mendoza from Unsplash