By Jez Patterson
Tom had his
eye screwed to the microscope he’d brought down to the
breakfast table. “Peculiar…”
“Wassatlookinat?” Julia’s mouth was struggling to
contain all the Squidge she’d stuffed in it. Pink-orange
juice had run garish fangs down to her chin and streaked
her forearms. She licked her fingers in a hopeless
attempt to try and clean herself.
“Probably nothing,” Tom said. He stared at the plate of
Squidge slices. Mouth-watering. The aroma the
kitchen’s cooler was blasting his way triggered a
childhood memory of standing next to a candyfloss
machine back when fairs still toured.
Julia crammed in another wedge and started to suck out
the juice like a vacuum cleaner fallen in custard. When
it was empty, she chewed up the flesh and got it down in
one gulp. Her stomach rumbled. Or maybe it was the baby
in there roaring for more.
Probably nothing. The mantra was becoming less
convincing. It was that ‘probably’ he was finding harder
to gulp down.
“Wannsome?” Julia asked.
“Not just now.” Tom turned back to the microscope.
“You have to do that in the kitchen?”
pays the bills, hon.”
you’re not hungry? Nope? Then all the more for baby and
When he increased the magnification, all Tom found to
swallow was a nervous cough.
Tom’s disquiet rode with him into work like a
pessimistic lab partner. The real-life versions weren’t
much more enthusiastic about his proposal to
“Give me a
moment first with this damned thing.” Herman gave the
room-cooler a thump with the soft edge of his fist. It
changed notes. The technicians at JYH Pharmaceuticals
claimed Herman played the cooler like a Caribbean
oil-drum. The cooler bore dents enough to resemble one.
“Stupid. Damn. Thing. Better off lining the walls with
fridge-strips and having done with it.”
“Except they give you asthma,” Kenneth said, practical
“At this rate, we might as well be out there,” Herman
said. Their lab windows were clouded with condensation
because the filters were clogged and the techs weren’t
doing their jobs. The jungle beyond steamed and fronds
of sticky undergrowth trailed down from its waxy canopy
into mud that bubbled like simmering treacle. Difficult
to believe this had once been the country’s second
cleared the condensation and bleached the glass, the
windows would eventually slime up with something
resembling moss dissolved in sparkling mineral water.
Even in those places where the jungle had been cleared,
puddles of the green froth filled every dip and
crevasse. If you were outside for any length of time, it
settled on you and made it feel like you were sweating
the oozing, syrupy gloop.
“If you’re both quite finished?” Tom said. His
colleagues’ faces were shiny, their shirt collars and
armpits oily. Herman looked ready to bust a vein and
Kenneth was fanning himself with an old report. Tom
sighed. “Okay. Let’s go to my office -- at least the
cooler’s working there. I’ve brought my scope from
“You bring some beers too?” Herman asked, wincing as he
peeled his shirt from his armpits.
In Tom’s office, they tilted their heads towards the
stream of air and sighed like men denied an earlier
“We need to
look at Squidge again,” Tom told them.
“What on earth for?” Herman said. “Every test we’ve ever
done has shown zero pharmaceutical qualities. High sugar
content, little fibre, good for energy, blah-blah-blah.
We’ve got a hundred other species out there with better
prospects queued up to be tested and certified.”
“Have you spoken to management?” Kenneth asked. “They’re
the ones making us stew in these conditions -- all
because we haven’t found them anything new and wonderful
since Hyper-alert. Over half our filter and vent
fans have burnt out and not been replaced. They’re
punishing us. It’s like living in a dirty aquarium.”
right,” Herman said. “They haven’t put anything new on
the market in the last five months besides a new
laxative and that cream for mole removal. They’ll
outsource the testing if we don’t come up with
“We’re running out of illnesses to cure, that’s the
problem,” Kenneth said. “Back in the good old days there
were more diseases than doctors could shake a hypodermic
at. Now we’ve too many cures. Too many cures spoil
the bottom line.” Kenneth shook his head at his
failed attempt to rewrite the corny phrase. “Hell, you
know what I mean.”
“I know all that. Don’t you think I know all that?” Tom
paused to control his breathing. “Look, since the apple
had its day, Squidge has become the most popular new
fruit on the market. Last quarter it even outsold the
Truberry and Joosepips. Taking into account Squidge
trees only began fruiting eleven months ago, that’s
quite some achievement.”
“Is this a presentation?” Herman asked. “Need I remind
you that we don’t own the rights to Squidge. No one
with me. The stuff has already become a staple part of
most people’s diet so anything that might affect the
world’s supply of Squidge is something worth knowing
about. Agreed?” Tom waited for their nods. “And the one
problem with Squidge has been trying to grow more
“It’s not exactly a pressing concern,” Kenneth said.
Squidge had seemingly been sown across the world like a
grain warehouse exploding. Trees had sprung up and
fruited before they’d even been noticed poking through
“They’re so plentiful, it’s not worth trying to plant
more,” Herman said. “Or finding out how to.”
“That’s not what I’m proposing. Just remember that we’re
dealing with something unknown. We keep picking all this
new stuff that’s growing and testing it to see what it
does, but we’re only ever concerned with the future
commercial applications, not its past.”
“Quite some past,” Kenneth said with a grim smile.
planet’s core temperature rose and the ground started
warming from below, everything above had softened or
wilted. The panic had turned to wonder when seeds that
were buried -- deep and very much unknown — began
germinating and growing upwards into a climate they
remembered from their time.
‘The Time That Horticulturists Forgot,’
Kenneth had called it. Tom thought about that deep
underground heat. Why not ‘Plants From Hell’?
not everyone’s in it for the money,” Kenneth said.
Kenneth’s wife and sister worked for an NGO that
distributed their discoveries free of charge before
companies like JYH could patent and control availability
of the new drugs. “Collectively, we’ve found treatments
for almost every disease and ailment out there. It’s
exactly what the greens always predicted: nature
provided a cure for every disease it created. It just
never occurred to anyone that the cures were dormant
whilst the diseases were still up top running amok.”
“That doesn’t explain how Squidge spreads, how it
germinates….” Tom said.
“It’s seedless!” Herman said. “That’s why kids and old
people love it. You can consume the whole thing -- skin
and all -- and there’s absolutely no wastage.”
“Then why do the trees even produce fruit?” Tom said.
“Why bother if it’s got nothing to do with disseminating
“Maybe it found another way but carried on producing
fruit as a remembered habit,” Herman said. “What does it
matter? The things are everywhere. Who cares?”
“No, I think Tom’s got a point,” Kenneth said. “It could
be worth looking at it again to safeguard supply. What
if the trees get hit by a blight? How would we replace
them? Cuttings didn’t take when they were tried. Neither
does it produce runners, rhizomes, suckering or bulbs.”
odder than some of the other stuff sprouting up these
days. Even the slime-froth looks like it’s breathing,”
“You’ve noticed that too?” Kenneth said.
Tom snapped his pencil. “Plants don’t carry on
unnecessary habits. Squidge has evolved over thousands,
millions of years. No one ever saw the original seeds we
presumed were down there and that sprouted into these
trees -- but every plant has to produce the next
generation. These things can’t be immortal.”
and thought, ‘Hell’s Own Horticulture Handbook’.
This morning’s discovery was due to be announced in
nothing but imaginary B-Movie titles.
“Maybe it switches off the reproduction function when it
reaches maximum capacity,” Kenneth said. “Maybe it only
produces seeds when it senses it has enough space for
them to grow.”
“A plant isn’t so kind to its neighbours,” Tom said.
“Besides, the ground around the Squidge orchards isn’t
what’s limiting their spread. The fruit is being
produced to help it spread. Somehow. It must be.”
“Except there are no seeds,” Herman said again.
It was time
to show them. The only reason he’d avoided doing so at
the outset was because he hoped they’d jump in and give
him reason to think he was wrong somehow.
“I’ve been looking at the cells,” said Tom. “Up close. I
mean, really close. And if you get them big
enough, you see that they have these hooks.”
“So?” Herman said.
“They remind me of seeds that hook onto animal fur or a
sheep’s coat. Burrs, for example. Only, these are
Kenneth and Herman frowned. They were all trained
botanists, even if their current work was searching for
the commercial applications of the plant-life now
“There’s a reason why fruits are made sweet and tasty,”
Tom said, remembering Julia and the breakfast plate of
So animals would eat them, get the seeds in their gut.
The seeds couldn’t be digested and so were shit out in
another place. It was a symbiotic trick in order to be
spread to new areas. If Squidge contained no seeds, why
were they trying so hard to be consumed by being the
most delicious thing around?
“So what are the hooks designed to hook onto?” Herman
Hooked, thought Tom and swallowed an awful urge
to giggle. In every sense, that’s what they want.
baby, the whole nation’s spreading addiction to Squidge?
The Squidge cells he’d examined were smaller than a
human blood cell. But it always took two to tango. Just
like most things in life. In creating life.
remembered old cartoons where children swallowed peach
stones and woke up with a tree growing out of their
heads the following morning. Presumably feeding on their
brain tissue the same way pot plants did their specially
mixed compost. He looked across at Herman and Kenneth
and at their shiny faces, and tight, rounded stomachs.
It was air-conditioned in his office. They weren’t just
sweating as a result of the warming planet. And they
wouldn’t be the first species to become extinct under