The R.H.S study zombie.
The pressure was mounting, like the snow was falling. Words were becoming meaningless, disjointed, and paragraphs re-read until they became tired, worn out tropes. A single light above a small, old wooden desk in front of a narrow window looking out from the loft. It was very dark out. Helen exhaled and shut the folder with resignation, the one on surveying that troubled her so much. The sheets she had arranged to hang from the exposed rafters stirred slightly in sympathy to her and the snow still fell, meaning no work tomorrow, so no excuse to not study. Looking like a massive session, which was not good as the longer she was at it, the less she seemed to retain. “Bite sized.” She thought to herself, and thought of things to break up the the long day ahead of her tomorrow. “Re-arrange my room, inventory the stock for the Saturday market, maybe help Dad to the doctors, start soaking the Hibiscus seeds that I collected in Autumn. Oh, and study till my head explodes!” It had to be done as the exams were only a couple of days away, and she felt no where near prepared. It was now late, so Helen decided to turn in for the night.
As she lay down, her mind swam with words. The curves, lines, slants and hooks of letters jangling and clanging against each other. Numbers loomed in her mind’s eye, then raced away to infinity. Plant names got jumbled up, so a Rosa rugosa became a Rosa kusa sub-macrophylla Subspecies “unpronounceable”.
Sleep came, and in her dreams the Royal Horticulture Society tutors from the course pounded her head with words and witty anecdotes, meaningless and factual and her body sunk away from them into leaf mould, with macro and micro organisms scurrying over her, detritirvores eating the scarce knowledge leaking from her brain and her skin flocculated into the useful aggregates so helpful in plant health and her body became one with the Principles of Horticulture.
The next day was white and clean, the grey, green and brown world replaced by a built up growth of frosty fur. Helen hit the books again, ignoring the theory of bite sized chunks of study – determined to master the difference between collimation and rise and fall surveying. By eleven thirty she gave up. Her head hurt, and her inner ear was ringing from the deafening internal repetition of abstract notions like the bench-mark, back-sight, intermediate-sight, foresight and such so Helen decided she must have a break. The Hibiscus seeds waited in their envelope, so she fetched a jar of water to soak them, dilligently recording the date in her journal along side the collection date and provenance. Much more interesting than studying. Helen thought as she watched the seeds tumble and turn slowly over and over in the clear water, much more satisfying than the constant reading and note taking. Helen bent closer to the jar, wondering which seeds will grow, which ones will not.
A light lunch, and a quiet walk in the crisp snow was what Helen felt was needed to be ready for another go at revision. The cold air chased the rest of the fugue from her mind and on the way back from the park enabled her to entertain such fancies as in each foot print she left in the snow a perfect Hibiscus flower budded, bloomed and died with a sigh.
An hour or two later she felt defeated by surveying and gave it up and concentrated on garden history, much more her style, she, who loved vintage gear and believed so often that she belonged to an earlier era. The rest of the afternoon Helen embedded herself in the Oxford Companion to the Garden for far to long than was necessary. Outside the sky turned pink, that caused shadows and coloured light to lay across her room, turning the hanging sheets into vertical landscapes of countries, seas and valleys, continents and mountain ranges, fascinating Helen in their intricacies and scale. The moment passed as the gloom descended and she turned back to the window. It now reflected Helen’s wan face with blue eyes that looked over-read under the single light above the desk.
Physically forcing herself to once more tackle surveying – the only weak link in her preparation, her head drooped closer to the page…
And her eyes snapped open by a movement. She must of fell asleep! Her head was literally in the folder, forehead resting on the cool writing. Out of the corner of her eye the Hibiscus seeds were stirring in their jar, some floating up, some down, some swelling up and then sprouting fast, bursting through the engorged outer shell, the root radicals feeling their way down, sprouting root hairs, fixing themselves to the bottom of the jar. Above this the hypocotyl of the plants emerged above the water and unfurled their plumules, producing a stalk, which at their apex budded and bloomed glorious, large, colourful Hibiscus flowers that turned their faces to Helen. The centre of each flower was a mouth and they started quoting the R.H.S jargon that usually bamboozles the average lay-person with words and terms like inosculation grafting, Sustainable Urban Drainage, totipotentcy, site limitations, the angle of repose of soil, mycorrhizal fungi, field capacity, soil pans and platy, blocky, subangular and massive soil structure. They voiced in unison, singing out plant names, height and spread, their merits and season of interest, and above all the difference between collimation and the rise and fall method of surveying.
Mesmerized, Helen was getting close to the singing flowers. One darted out and kissed her with flowery, pollen lips and she woke up with a start, head resting on her open work book, seeds floating gently in their jar. This time her reflection in the dark window looked positively haggard, eyes wide, ginger hair awry. She heard a voice and it took a moment to realise it was the voice of her father, calling her to dinner.
That night she went out with Paul, a fellow student on the course. They met at a pub with the idea of a group study as tomorrow was exam day, but Paul’s enthusiastic rantings about all things gardening, especially fertilisers and seaweed tea in particular, was distracting and not really helpful in what Helen was wanting to achieve, but she let herself be carried along with his words. Maybe that’s what she needed at this stage. Perhaps she had taken in all she could. Please just get them over with and whatever the outcome, so be it.
Several drinks later, Helen’s mind was at ease and the dream she had earlier in the day seemed a distant memory. The exams now didn’t bother her. “Bugger the R.H.S.” She thought. It was like Scientology anyway, what, with its levels, constant payments for courses and exams, the almost secret knowledge they promoted was cult like, but well respected, so needed, thought Helen, a relative newcomer to gardening.
At home again, no more study and time for bed. The weird dream the result of brain strain, besides, the alcohol made her luxuriously drowsy, so drowsy…
Helen melted into the leaf mould again, sinking deep into the mulch until only her face showed above the surface. The jar of Hibiscus seeds bubbled and frothed, toppled over and seeds germinated, roots spreading fast, crawling into and over the floor, lush, green growth like bunting clung and crept on the walls and behind the hanging sheets that defined the shape of the attic bedroom, making shadows that writhed and twisted. Flowers soon bloomed all around, huge, pretty, tropical, in shades of orange, yellow and red until Helen’s bedroom looked like a madder than mad Hawaiian shirt of enormous proportions, that soon extended outside to encompass the earth.
They also grew closer around Helen, greedily using the sustaining nature of the leaf mould to exponentially expand to lift and cradle her in a loving embrace. The flowers once again formed mouths and whispered R.H.S nonsense regarding setting out, construction, planting regimes, surveying terms, growing systems, the soil root environment and organic practices. The micro and macro organisms emerged in their thousands and marched in concentric circles around Helen all chanting R.H.S mantra in high pitched voices. Helen realised she had no body anymore, just a face above a conglomeration, an architecture of soil, organisms and plants. She opened her mouth and a Hibiscus flower opened, beautiful and vivid, with, ripe, nectar and pollen dripping lips and spoke with her voice, loud above the others, repeating theories and measurements, history and chemical formula of nutritional and biological value. On and on all night this went and Helen’s brain was like a heavily stirred botanical porridge. Eventually, one by one, all dissipated untill Helen floated whole again, naked, in a sea of Hibiscus flowers under a starry night, finally lucid, finally realising she had all the knowledge locked in just waiting for those tricky R.H.S questions to release it.
Morning. Helen opened her eyes, fully expecting herself to be totally transformed into some strange R.H.S study zombie-like creature made of flowers, mulch and creepy-crawlies and her room and beyond a lush forrest. But no, the room was as it should be and light slanted through the little window from a normal world onto the hanging sheets and played over her precious pieces of objet d’art all in their right places and the jar of Hibiscus seeds stood firm, some seeds on the bottom and some still floating, indicating the viable from the unviable. Helen lay back in peace, and a serene calm washed over her.
Later, as she got ready for the long day ahead the level of expectation rose and she felt the pressure mounting like never before and the calmness from earlier fled her entire being. As she looked in the mirror, her face was flushed, her blue eyes were large and bright and glistened with a film of almost-tears and her red hair, no matter what she did, curled and fizzed in an almost wild way, so she left it, and her house in a detached way, with her consciousness taking a step back, she proceeded on autopilot.
Mindless now, she drove to the botanical garden where the exams were held at the appropriate time. On the way, glances to the sidewalks and in the review mirror revealed minute flashes of bright colour, otherwise it seemed very quiet, not that she noticed or cared anymore.
Once there, she hardly acknowledged Paul, or anyone else, and when she grasped her pen to start writing her student number in the examination booklet, a sliver of green tendrill slipped out of her sleeve and wrapped around the pen and when the exam started in earnest the pen moved as fast as her wordless mouth could utter the silent syllables. If anyone cared to look, if they weren’t so intent on their own personal dilemma that is an R.H.S exam they would of seen a remarkable sight; Helen’s lips were very full and bright with colour, dusty with pollen that fell as her mouth worked, and drifted and floated like dust motes across the room. Where she sat insects and bugs crawled about on the floor and her shoes and trouser legs were caked in fine leaf mould. If they happened to see the hand holding her pen they would of gasped in astonishment, as they were joined together in fine, looping strands of iridescent green filament, like exquisite, natural jewellery.
Helen does not remember returning home, she didn’t have the post-exams drinks she herself suggested to Paul and the others a few weeks before hand. Falling into her bed she sleeps for what seemed forever but awoke the next morning light and breezy, as if a huge weight had lifted from her spirit, and the last couple of days were a surreal fantasy. Outside there even was a hint of spring as snowdrops bloomed and birds sang and chased each other.
Not surprising to all but her, those who knew how focused and dedicated to the course she was, (perhaps overdoing it a bit) Helen passed with flying colours. In fact a coveted commendation was hers. The resulting level three qualification secured her a job in an a fantastic garden, below an ancient castle, to her delight. Only one of the seeds from the jar germinated and from it grew the most lovely Hibiscus bush that she kept in her room. It was always in bloom and in the still of the night, so soft that you can only hear it if you are asleep, the flowers sang quietly to her sweet, horticultural lullabies.