In the novel I’m currently writing, the setting is Victorian and the characters compete with each other to tell stories. Here is the story told by Charles Bickers, a botanist and entymologist.
THE GREENHOUSE GORGON
Great Uncle Willoughby was one of those inquisitive types so feted in our age: an explorer and adventurer but above all a scientist, setting foot in the dark places beyond even the reach of the Empire.
As a boy he filled his room with insects pinned to boards and catalogued blades of grass with an assiduousness that was borderline psychotic. He eschewed the conventional route of education opting, instead of university, to apprentice himself to one of the lesser-known explorers of the day: the late and largely forgotten Professor Maurice Fitzmaurice. Together they sailed the South China Sea and, for forty years, the soles of Willoughby’s shoes did not touch British soil.
But then, one year, a year framed in infamy, he returned.
A curious figure in safari suit and snow shoes, Willoughby peered out from behind half-moon spectacles and from beneath a shock of frizzy ginger hair. There were rumours he had a hand in the disappearance of Professor Fitzmaurice and the subsequent publication in which he documented the discovery of thirty-three hitherto unknown species of stinkweed may not have been entirely Willoughby’s own work. If at all.
It was under this cloud of suspicion that great uncle Willoughby came back to the family seat. A greenhouse, constructed following instructions he sent from abroad, was nearing completion, and he called upon his nephew (my father, Charles Bickers senior) to assist with the installation of some of the more exotic plants.
The boy worked hard and Willoughby was delighted to see his passion for flora and fauna passing through the generations. He called young Charles to the greenhouse one evening for a special treat.
“The time has come, my beamish boy, to reveal to you the crowning glory of my horticultural collection. You are among the first to see it on these shores. This is a great and rare honour for you.”
“Golly, Uncle; thank you, Uncle.”
Willoughby clapped his hands twice. A woman stepped out from behind some imported palm trees. She was dressed in a sarong and turban of bright colours and her face was veiled. She carried a large flowerpot covered by a cloth.
“That’s it, my dear,” Willoughby beamed. “Bring it in.”
The woman bowed her head and placed the covered flowerpot on a table.
“The far East, my boy! The South China Sea, home to many beauties; two of which you see before you right now. The first: my protégée, rescued from a fire in her village. They thought her a witch but we in the civilised world have no truck with superstitious fiddle-faddle, the saints be praised! She has been my constant companion and my stick of rock ever since, and nary a word spoken since I untied her from the stake. Never has she revealed her face; I suspect some damage was sustained during her incarceration – and we all know what the ladies are like with their vanity, what! I present the enticing and beautiful Shappa Haras!”
The woman bowed again and performed a graceful dance, evoking thoughts of the Balinese and the Chinese opera.
Young Charles clapped politely but uncertainly.
“Now, Shappa, ’tis time to reveal my greatest discovery. Behold, boy – oh, behold! The Willoughby Gorgon!”
He whipped the cloth from the flowerpot, revealing an ugly plant with a gaping maw and snakelike fronds.
“Ugh,” said young Charles.
“You are right to recoil, lad. The Gorgon is deadly. A flesh-eater! Note these markings: like googly eyes. They hypnotise its prey, drawing it ever closer until… SNAP! The jaws close and the unfortunate victim is dissolved in powerful gastric juices.
“Ugh,” the boy repeated. “It stinks.”
“It does whiff a bit when it requires feeding,” Willoughby conceded. “I believe its carrion stench attracts scavengers. Jackals, buzzards and so on. Then they catch sight of the ‘eyes’, come over all mesmeric and SNAP!”
“They’ll come flocking to see this, my lad. The only one in captivity. This will restore my standing among the horticultural academes. This will wipe clean any blemish from my tarnished reputation once and for all.”
“Er, Uncle?” Young Charles raised a hand to interrupt.
“If it’s so dangerous, how come it hasn’t had Miss Haras’s hand off yet?”
“Clever boy!” Willoughby tousled Charles’s hair. “Observant too! To answer your question: Shappa Haras is a plantvoyant. A fact which may have led to that little misunderstanding in her village. She can talk to plants in a way we are unable. And this why, my lad, you must never approach the Gorgon unless Miss Haras is present. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Uncle; no, Uncle.”
“Then all will be well. And now, my boy, tea! Lead on!”
Alone in the greenhouse, the exotic woman made an arcane gesture above the plant. The Gorgon nodded slowly.
A while later, the gardener had occasion to visit the greenhouse. With a sturdy broom he set to sweeping the floor. Behind him the strange and hideous plant perked up and emitted a blast of its rotting-meat stench. The gardener paused, reeling. He wafted a hand behind his back and carried on sweeping. The plant seemed to follow his progress around the greenhouse…
Suddenly, there was ‘eye’ contact. The gardener froze, transfixed. The plant lifted a tendril and beckoned the man to come closer… and closer…
The jaws clamped around the gardener’s hand, waking him from his trance. He wrestled to pull himself free and, with a scream, drew back a bloody stump that spurted and sprayed all over the floor. He swooned and dropped to his knees. The Gorgon’s jaws stretched wide and closed around the gardener’s head.
The disappearance of the gardener was followed by the absence of several other members of the household. Willoughby spent more and more time in the greenhouse, jealously guarding his precious plant. The mysterious Miss Haras remained at his side and danced for him.
“Ah, Miss Haras, Miss Haras! Allegations are being whispered. Fingers are being pointed. Our host – my brother – believes my beautiful Gorgon is at the bottom of the disappearances. He thinks the pong of it is putting people off and they’re leaving without giving proper notice. As you know, I am anosmic; I have no sense of smell. Tell me, is it really that unbearable?”
Shappa Haras gave a shrug and clinked the cymbals on her fingertips together. She handed Willoughby a sheet of paper.
“What’s this then, what?” Willoughby squinted through his half-moon glasses. “By Jove, it’s a list! Who are all these people? Friends of yours? Relations?”
The veiled head nodded.
“‘Little Geeta, scullery maid… Upjong Biltong, gamekeeper… Uncle Vanya, chauffeur…’ What are you suggesting? These people replace the missing staff?”
The covered face remained inscrutable.
“Well, I think it’s a capital idea!” Willoughby rolled up the sheet and brandished it like a baton. “I shall relay this list to my brother at once. You have saved the day! Oh, to kiss that unseen cheek! But no! To my brother! I am certain he will ship them all over forthwith.”
Alone with the Gorgon, Shappa Haras rolled her dark eyes.
But the friends and relatives were never summoned. Shappa Haras’s hold over great uncle Willoughby was broken soon afterwards.
Young Charles was home and, with no studies to occupy him since the mysterious disappearance of the governess, decided to pass the time watering the plants and generally tidying up. He knew better than to go near the Gorgon but, as he approached the greenhouse, he saw that the sphinx-like Miss Haras was already there.
She was gyrating to music only she could hear. The Gorgon was swaying in time. Young Charles watched, fascinated. Unfortunately, he knocked a trowel from the table. Shappa Haras froze. She turned to face the interloper; her veil was off. Young Charles gasped and recoiled to see her gaping mouth, identical to the plant’s, with snakelike tendrils. He tripped over a rake and fell to the floor.
Shappa Haras bore down on him, hissing. She reached her long fingers towards the boy’s eyes but came to a sudden stop. She stiffened and screeched with pain and outrage. She wheeled around to see great uncle Willoughby, pumping weed killer all over her from a spray gun. Shappa Haras shrank and screamed, melting like ice before a naked flame. After a moment, nothing remained.
“Uncle!” the boy jumped up and hugged Willoughby in gratitude.
Willoughby looked at the spot where the plantvoyant had been. “She was blighted, my boy,” he said sadly. “My little Shappa Haras.”
Behind them, the Gorgon blew one last noxious raspberry and flopped. Dead.
International renown never came to great uncle Willoughby. Perhaps nothing haunts a man like unrealised ambition. He spent the rest of his days in the greenhouse, cataloguing his discoveries and keeping a watch on the Gorgon in case it raised its ugly head again.
Some say his spirit lingers, so if you happen upon a foul stench, like that of an open drain or rotting meat in the sun, hold your nose and close your eyes. And light a match in memory of great uncle Willoughby, who is still watching over us with his weed killer spray.