James was the first person we’d run into since moving to the area. He’d held the block door open as I carried in a box of books, then brought round housewarming beers that night. Over the course of the evening, we’d become sort of friends. When I’d asked about the area, his eyes had lit up.
“It’s awesome, man!” he’d said. “There’s a festival every summer on the Green, loads of local pubs and so much good food—” He sat up, as if remembering something. “Oh, and there’s this one crazy place… like, it doesn’t have a name, but it’s on the High Street and has a green sign. You have to go.”
On the High Street, feet pour out of buses, splashing up little crowns in the puddles that no one bothers to look at. The pavement overflows and people spill into the road, forming little rivers in the gutters. Everything is the colour of clouds: the day has struggled for daylight, and it’s already growing dark.
“There it is,” she says, pointing across the street.
An empty sign painted dark green hangs over the door of an unassuming two-storey building. We ford the road and clatter through four rows of shopper chaos.
As we enter, I push back the hood of my soaking jacket. The place is made up of plants from floor to ceiling: succulents, air plants, palms, ivy creeping up the walls. I feel no breeze, but hear the leaves rustling around me. I can’t see any staff, nor any other customers. At the wooden counter, there’s a sign that reads “Back soon.”
We wander the overgrown aisles, watching the plants, holding hands. The shop smells of moss, damp earth and resin. All at once, I feel something, and turning round, see a plant with spear-like foliage resting one leaf on my shoulder. Dancing to music I can’t hear, it sways, then lays one leaf on her shoulder too. She looks at me, her eyes questioning. Her hand tightens in mine. The plant strokes down our arms to the hands that hang loose by our sides and gently takes them. My hand, where it is holding the spear-shaped leaf, tingles, and out of nowhere I find myself thinking: Everything is alright here. Slowly, the plant guides us towards the back of the shop. We are led through a low door, and as the ceiling makes way for cloudless blue skies, a ripple of relief breaks across my mind. My hand tingles again. This, something tells me, this is where you’re supposed to be. I feel the laces of my shoes digging into my feet. Without words, we’ve both had the same idea, and without words, we slip out of our trainers and feel grass between our toes.
Somehow, we are in a clearing, and around us are palms and vines and so many other plants I don’t know the names of. It doesn’t seem to matter. A flock of red parrots flies overhead, squawking. Out of the back of an unnamed shop on a gloomy South London day, we’ve emerged into a forest. Nothing here is not beautiful.
She looks at me again, smiling now, then back at the plant.
We’d like to give you something. Don’t worry, we don’t need it.
The sections we’re holding now detach from the plant, and in our hands we’re left holding three leaves and a length of stem. Beside me, I hear a sharp intake of breath.
Hurry home and put us in water. Come back whenever you need us.
Reluctant to leave but feeling compelled by the instruction, we pick our way carefully through the undergrowth and climb back through the low door into a shop that seems pretty ordinary now. We pull on ill-fitting socks and shoes, then nurse our plant-children back towards the door, through which I can still see rain falling. The road is sodden. I’ve got the stems in the inside pocket of my coat, my arms folded to protect them from the ongoing street melee. A preacher with a speaker and an umbrella tries to deafen me and hand me a flyer at the same time. The smell of weed hangs like a low cloud. There is no end to the queue of Deliveroo drivers waiting outside McDonald’s, to the people flooding out of buses. Those little crowns that no one bothers to look at now splash red, like brake lights or tropical birds.