The Underground Allotment
By Rowan Edmonds
A dystopian fantasy set on a London allotment.
It seemed too good to be true: a roof over your head in a fashionable postcode, and all for the modest rent of £60 a year.
It could have been perfect, but then you had to go and get ideas above your station. Why, oh why, did you dream up the idea of building an underground basement extension?
“A gripping tale, with beautiful nature descriptions, and the quirky, original style characteristic of an Edmonds’ novel.”
ISBN 978 1 912226 29 0
You had never been a thief. Even in your darkest moments back home, you had never stooped so low as to steal from your neighbours. Your personal code of honour would not permit it. You don’t like to think of yourself as a thief now. There must be some other term, which would better describe your activities. A recycler, perhaps? That would tie in nicely with the theme. If the reference had not been culturally inappropriate, you might have considered yourself something by way of a Robin Hood character. Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, except, in this case, when you talk about the poor, what you really mean is you. But the fact is that you have never heard of Robin Hood; know nothing of his legend, or of his deeds. Also, your personal code of honour would not countenance the deliberate dissembling. The simple fact is that you are a thief. But you are learning to live with it.
On a scale of thieving, you like to think that your crimes would be considered fairly small fry. Petty pilfering rather than grand larceny. The kind of thing you might have been sent to the colonies for two hundred years ago, but which would not even be worth troubling the local magistrate’s court over today. In Saudi, you might have lost a hand once upon a time, but you were a long way away from the Middle East now. If the history of theft was laid out on an axis, there’d be the major heists over on the left hand side––the Brink’s-Mats, and the Hatton Gardens, and the Great Train Robberies, although, once again, the references are ones outside your cultural ken––then would come the robberies with violence, the house burglaries, and the street muggings; further on would be the white-collar crimes, the tax evasions, the financial frauds, the misappropriation of funds; and then on the very far right hand side of the axis, there would be you. A virtual nonentity. An insignificant blip in the crime statistics. Nevertheless, sufficient to nag at your conscience.
You could not claim that yours was a victimless crime, but you liked to think that if you could spread the extent of your thieving over a sufficiently wide number of victims, no one individual would suffer too greatly, perhaps not even notice. That would be the ideal scenario.
Once again, you have never read the book, never heard of the character, have no similar cultural reference point from which to draw upon but, if you had, you might liken your situation to that of Peter Rabbit stealing carrots from Mr McGregor’s garden. Might liken it quite favourably. Even ironically. You might also take a moment to contemplate how you have ended up, alone and penniless, such that you are forced to steal in order to survive, in this strange, unfriendly country, which holds dear in its collective public consciousness such diverse and ignoble icons as Robin Hood, the Great Train Robbery, and Peter Rabbit. You might, if you were not cold, and if you were not hungry, and if you had a mind to being philosophical, which you do not.
Yours is the mind of an engineer, both by nature and by training. You are a problem solver; adept with your hands; logical of thought. You observe a progression of unrelated events, and you find an order for them, which satisfies a need. Take your current circumstances: you have already noted that you are cold and hungry. A lesser mortal might fail to respond to these stimuli, but your background is such that you take action. The cold requires you to find some place where you can get inside and take shelter from the chill night air, but that will have to wait. The hunger requires you to remain outdoors a little longer. Remain outdoors and thieve.
It had taken you several weeks to discover the allotments. Initially, you had sought sanctuary on the harsh city streets, scavenging in the bins behind restaurants and fast food outlets for leftovers to eat. The pickings had been surprisingly rich; your newly adopted country was wealthy and their waste was correspondingly extravagant. But there had been a pecking order on the night-time city streets and, as both a newcomer and a foreigner, your position in the order could be described most flatteringly as lowly; more accurately as perilous. It was after the second beating that you had decided to move on; discover pastures new.
And there were pastures; pastures to your eyes, which had gazed for too long only on landscapes of urban desolation, poverty, war and decay. Here, in the middle of the big, noisy city was an unexpected oasis of calm. Of green. Of possibilities. There is the engineer in you speaking again. Assessing. Measuring. Weighing up those possibilities. For the first time in many months––months? Years more like––you felt an emotion, which you had thought had been lost, buried beneath the rubble of your homeland: optimism. Like a young Philip Pirrip, you even began to consider whether you might not be blessed by Great Expectations, not that you had ever heard of Philip Pirrip, of course.
While January might not be considered the peak growing season, nevertheless the bounty that could be obtained from the allotments was plentiful by your standards. Much of the produce was unfamiliar to your eyes, and it was a matter of much trial and error before you hit upon a balance of nutrients and taste, which appealed to you. It was the hard way that you discovered that Brussels sprouts are very bitter uncooked––and only marginally more palatable after cooking, in your humble opinion––and that parsnips are surprisingly tasty raw, but do not go far to slake a gnawing appetite. There were none of the citrus fruits, which you grew in your own country, no oranges and lemons, nor were there figs, pomegranates or melons, not even in the greenhouses, which maintained a temperature marginally higher than the outside freeze. But it was easy to live off cabbages and leeks and, if your diet was slightly deficient in both proteins and carbohydrates, well, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
As for shelter, your choice of accommodation was almost as varied as was your menu. Most of the plots of land were accompanied by a wooden shed, ostensibly for storing tools, whilst several owners had converted their sheds into something more substantial in the way of a summerhouse, a number sporting elaborate verandas and offering accommodation over several separate rooms. Your first couple of nights in the allotments, you had spent in a traditional tool shed, the principal benefit of which being that it had been unlocked. You had cleared a space on the floor between an array of hoes and a vicious-looking scythe, spread a couple of canvas sacks, which had once stored fertiliser, on the ground beneath you and pulled a large blue square of tarpaulin over you for a sheet. You had slept fairly snugly if a little uncomfortably, benefitting from the peace of mind of knowing that you were unlikely to be disturbed by a policeman moving you on, or from a mindless drunk pissing on you when the pubs closed. However, tonight, you had loftier ambitions.
Earlier in the evening, you had chanced to notice that the door to one of the roomier summerhouse-style constructions was only latched by a simple combination padlock over a lightweight hasp. It was an invitation too good to turn down, with the potential reward of a much more spacious bedroom for the night, perhaps even some form of padded divan, which would raise you up above the level of the floor. If your luck was really in, running hot and cold on tap.
Picking locks is not a skill in your thieves’ inventory, but you would defy anyone who was neither infirm nor arthritic not to have a lock of this design open inside ten minutes. In practice, it takes you fifty-two seconds, not that you are counting. The technique is very simple: listen out for the minute variations in sound when the combination wheels engage with the correct number; feel for the slight depression of the tumbler when it clicks into its corresponding cog. It is something that can be done blindfold, which is just as well since the night is starless and you have no desire to draw attention to yourself by showing an artificial light.
You slip the padlock from its hasp, loosely reattaching it once you have eased the door open a fraction. The door swings outwards with a harsh rasp, sounding unnaturally loud in the still night air. You take a pace inside, closing the door behind you, accustoming yourself to the sudden deeper darkness. Your eyes are unable to discern shape and form in the black interior. You can feel your heart racing. This initial moment of trespass is always like this. You expect the unexpected, even when rationally you know that you are alone. Nevertheless, there can still be traps for the unwary: objects to be dislodged; things left on the floor to trip over. Where, superficially the darkness is a great leveller, rendering the beautiful and the ugly alike; the rich and the poor equally indiscernible and featureless, in practice the dark provides endlessly distinct mazes, each unique with their own hazards, which have to be learned and negotiated.
You stretch out your arms, feeling tentatively ahead, like a sleepwalker; take a second step, sliding your foot forward slowly across the floor as though you are crossing a narrow walkway. Your foot finds the first obstruction; kicks against something hard. It feels like the wooden leg of a piece of furniture. Your hands explore further; discover fabric; trace the shape of a chair, quite a large chair, with upholstered arms and seat. It seems a peculiar object to find here; out of place. You hold on to the back of the chair to guide you, as you ease your way around the obstruction; decide to take advantage of this rare opportunity for a spot of comfort, while your eyes adapt to the low light. The seat cushion sinks low under your weight. You can understand now why the chair has been moved here: some of the struts, which support the seat have collapsed; it is either waiting to be mended, or has been deliberately ‘junked’; not comfortable enough for the family home; too good to be thrown away. However, by shifting yourself forward, it is still possible to sit in reasonable comfort. Your hands encounter a table top in front of you, and you lean your elbows on this, resting your head in your hands. Vision begins to return slowly, the room around you seeping into your consciousness incipiently; objects closer to you appearing first out of the darkness, sufficient to allow your brain to make a best-guess estimate of what it expects to see to fill in the most remote corners. There is a mug on the table top, in a striped pattern of colours that you cannot discern, and a small, metallic-looking dish, which is full of cigarette butts. There are a pair of gloves, grubby and worn, folded together, and next to them a pair of secateurs, in the closed position. The table is wooden, what might be described as rustic, and roughly square in shape. Beyond the far edge of the table is another chair. Superficially, it appears a matching pair of the one that you are sitting on. It is pushed back from the table, still largely cloaked in darkness. You focus your gaze upon it, staring straight ahead until, little by little, you see first the white sclerae of a pair of eyes, then the nose and then the mouth of a man sitting immediately opposite to you, staring directly back.
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