‘Agnes Wagner’s Gardening Club’ by Barbara Jaques

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‘I’ll ask you again. Will she let me join?’

‘I think so. I don’t see why not,’ Meryl mumbles.

An unsatisfactory reply, I feel. I am less concerned with what Meryl thinks and more with what she knows. ‘But what about Agnes? What does she think?’

Meryl draws a long breath, holding it in her chest for a moment, before releasing it with a string of creaky vocals. Dunno, is the word finally extruded.

‘Jim’s joined?’ I am asking after Jim Wagner, Agnes’ husband. Historically, Jim has been excluded, but I have heard that he was recently given his green card; Agnes’ own design. I have never held one, though glimpsed Meryl’s earlier; no name, just a scientific looking word and a picture of Agnes’ profile in white silhouette against a background of sage green. I thought it looked like an exceptionally thin rectangular cameo brooch, and I want one.

Meryl again draws and releases a breath, but this time does not say anything. I have been trying to extract information for the last ten minutes. Meryl is about as much use as a nematode in a drought.

Agnes Wagner’s gardening club is renowned throughout the county for both its secrecy and its members’ incredible levels of knowhow. Allegedly, all sorts of things go on there, such as propagating cuttings from rare Argentinian bluebells and cultivating camellias from fuscias. Beyond the group’s coveted boundary, significant information is never shared. The only way to access anything not already detailed in books or on the Internet is to join. It’s not easy, but once you’re in, you’re in.

‘How long since you proposed me?’

Meryl slowly sucks her teeth. ‘A month,’ she mutters, eventually. ‘And a day.’

‘Is it always this long?’ My fists are clenched. I have never known her to be so uncommunicative.

‘Hmmm. Uh. Well. Yes.’

I think Meryl has changed since joining the gardening club. For one thing, her voice is deeper, but more significantly her words are fewer. They say people change after spending time with Agnes Wagner, and surely this is the point. Arrive ignorant and become informed; watch fingers grow ever greener and brighter and more verdant. But Meryl’s change is different. Possibly, she thinks she is better than me. Of course, as a member, she is.

‘What’s the most time it has taken for someone to hear back?’ I ask. I am thinking about the Flower and Produce Show in four months. It’s been running for fifty years and for the last twenty Agnes has been crowned champion of champions.

There is some talk of excluding her, in the same way border collies cannot enter the same agility classes as other dogs, because genetic predisposition offers unfair advantage. It is okay to be like a collie, but not actually be a collie. Last year, Agnes and her club took the top six places in five categories, sweeping the board had they also managed to win Most Suggestive Vegetable. This was awarded to Phil, who always wins the category, even though we all know he grows his amusing carrots in a specially made mould.

Meryl has not answered my question, so I ask another. ‘How long before they told you whether you’d been accepted?’

She shrugs and then sighs. ‘A week.’

‘But you just said it always takes this long.’

‘I meant to say a month.’

I wonder at this. Did Meryl mean to say month and accidentally say week? I try it in my mouth. Mo–eek. No. I think she is lying. ‘Admit how long you waited, and I will leave this off.’ I hold up a length of fleece I’d planned to use for wrapping a delicate plant, just before the interrogation began; something soft for gagging her. I hadn’t expected that she would be quiet anyway.

‘I don’t mind what you do,’ she whispers.

Her jawline has raw patches and looks weepy and sore. I resolve not to use anything on her face. I am guessing she’s brushed against euphorbia sap and then sunbathed. Last time she was naked and I try not to picture her blistered bottom. ‘But how long, Meryl? How long?’

Now Meryl is thinking. At least, I assume she is thinking. It is very hard to tell, since she is more subdued than usual. Her tender-looking face barely moves. I repeat my question.

‘Uh,’ is her reply.

‘For the love of modified tulips, Meryl! Talk to me!’ I am thinking I might search her pockets for the membership card. Maybe a clue is there. Meryl is bigger than I thought, broader, leaning against the beanpole structure and shifting it slightly as she makes herself more comfortable. But she will not resist me. Her hands are tied. I’d taken her by surprise, and though she’d fought back it was feebly. ‘This is your fault,’ I say. ‘You were the one who suggested I try and join. You were the one that told Agnes about me and my buttercup-pansies; I’d only taped them together just to see. You. You were the one, Meryl. Not me. I just mentioned I was interested. You made me want more.’

Meryl shrugs, silently, and I want to punch her square in the nose.

An hour passes with me splicing buds and trimming trailing ends. Meryl is sleeping, still tied up and sitting on the square of paisley patterned carpet I kneel on when committed to serious weeding. Periodically, she snorts, raises her head, before nodding off once more. Her jaw line falls into folds as her face droops, all more raw than I thought.

Maybe I have overreacted, I think, as I tie up a still-soft berberis shoot, pricking my thumb as I do it. Maybe tying up a friend is different from tying up a plant and a step too far. I smile a little, feeling kind, for at least she is on my little piece of carpet when she could be sitting directly on the damp soil. I am glad to have brought it. As I ponder questions of morality, friendship and horticulture, Meryl says something; speaking in her sleep. I don’t catch the words, hearing only the voice. It’s deep, as if she is possessed. What the hell has Agnes done to her, poor thing? How can one gardening club be worth all this. And is it worth it, is the question I must I ask myself.

Yes, it is. Agnes Wagner’s gardening club is all anyone with sap running through their veins wants to be part of. To lose oneself so completely in the delights of the contrived natural world is a luxury few can afford. The truth is, I would forfeit Meryl’s friendship entirely if it meant acceptance into the club and to know what Agnes knows.

I nudge Meryl with the tip of my welly boot. ‘So, will she let me join?’

Meryl stirs and appears confused, as if waking prematurely on the operating table. ‘Huh?’

‘Don’t start that again!’ I say. If she says huh one more time I may have to fill a watering can with leeches and pour them over her head.

What I do not realise until that moment is that the club is due to meet at Meryl’s and we are standing in Meryl’s garden; at least, I am standing. Some distance away is the sound of a motor and I know it is Jim Wagner’s tiny blue tractor. It’s even older than Jim and the slow chug is loud. Agnes won’t let him buy a new one. She prefers him to mend and adapt what he already has.

I look at Meryl, returned to her dozy sleep.

My mouth dries. I am worried. I have been pruning and fiddling and picking at plants that may have been intended for Agnes to prune and fiddle and pick at. I think about hiding, partly for safety but also because I will be able to eavesdrop and perhaps find out whether or not I have been accepted. The thought of belonging to her esteemed society thrills me. Though the chugging is drawing closer, I believe there is plenty of time.

But now another sound glides over the top of it; the higher pitch of a more modern vehicle. Not a tractor, big or small, but something fast: Agnes’ ride-on mower; new, because she is in charge and knows a lot about biological things but nothing about mechanics. I gather my gloves and secateurs and make for the huge laurel Meryl has allowed to take its own form. Not clipped or trimmed or shaped, it stands as nature intended. No. As nature is. Only Agnes is allowed intention. Inside, amongst the long rangy branches, I will be hidden, alone in a vast cavernous space like the dome of some great building. Or an amphitheatre.

Agnes arrives. I cannot see her face, only the smooth way she pulls up, leaps from the mower, and wanders across to Meryl.

Meryl! I left her there, tied up and sleeping. I console myself. I had no time to do anything else. Agnes will assume it was an attack from the rival club set up last year by someone she rejected. They are a brutal bunch and inclined to terrorise, even spitefully nipping new buds from the thorniest of roses should they decide against you. Tying up flimsy Meryl would be a walk in the park.

I watch Agnes with interest. I have never met her. Even now, I can gather only that she is of indeterminate age, average build, with loosely coiffured blond-brown hair. She stands over Meryl and gives her a solid kick in the thigh.

‘Huh?’

That huh makes me want to kick Meryl, too.

The chugging is close now, and I know Jim is about to enter Meryl’s driveway. Agnes looks up and I follow her gaze. There he is. We watch the painfully slow progress until the tractor is parked and Jim clambers off. For a moment I think I am mistaken. This is not Jim, whom I have seen many times. This person is small. But then I see his face, unsmiling and pale. He must have been unwell, or on a diet. Or perhaps membership of Agnes’ gardening club is taking its toll. Tiny worlds can often be the most pressured. He joins Agnes and they both inspect Meryl, who remains tied to the structure meant for runner beans and not for torture. Agnes speaks. I cannot describe her voice, other than it makes the hairs on my arms stand on end. I listen, finding it hard to understand the conversation. She cocks a thumb in my direction and my stomach lurches. But she carries on talking and I think she doesn’t know I am here, after all.

Jim touches his face and Agnes slaps his hand away. It happens twice more. The final slap is hard, incorporating a grip and a shove, so that Jim’s arm is forced down to his side. Either Agnes is incredibly strong or Jim really is very unwell. He staggers a little and seats himself on a low wall. I think he looks much as Meryl did when I first got here; a sort of absence hanging over them both.

Agnes is talking about heads. Not the sort with petals and seeds but with hair and eyeballs; human heads. I heard a rumour that she is growing celeriac inside a human skull, this year hoping to outdo Phil’s unfeasibly phallic carrot with her own dramatic entry. But the category is Most Suggestive Vegetable and not Scariest Vegetable, and so I suspect she may miss out yet again. Perhaps for Agnes the word suggestive does not bring to mind sexual innuendo. Suggestive of what, then? She is clever, so I can only suppose I am too stupid to understand. She talks on, and the way she uses certain gardening terms strikes me as odd: bud, spur, sprout, graft, hormones, rot, perish. I have no idea what she is talking about and wish I was clever, too.

Jim leans forward and holds his head in his hands and Agnes shouts for him to grow a pair and man up. He is crying. At her feet, Meryl groans softly. Agnes tells her to be quiet, before crouching down and loosening the twine around her wrists. I feel I am merely absorbing this act, a peripheral scene drawn in through osmosis, since my gaze is captured by Jim. I am still thinking about the root vegetable-containing skull and pondering what this might imply about Agnes. Apparently, she once successfully grew a radish inside a rat skull and really enjoys experimenting, always thrilled by success. But growing entertaining vegetables does not seem enough to satisfy someone like her, skull or no skull. Something else is happening.

Though the face is obscured, I now recognise the form resting on the low wall as a person other than Jim. Mannerisms, size, overall bearing, remind me of another and with a skittering heart I know this is Meryl; Meryl, if not for Jim’s face. Realisation hits me hard as a heavy blow across the head. Another realisation: the blow is actually Agnes wielding a tree stake. As I fall, my thoughts are with the person Agnes has abandoned in a moaning heap. A person astonishingly like Jim, and is Jim, if not for the fact of Meryl’s oozing face. The other word I heard Agnes say is suddenly loud in my head: transplant.

And as I lie there and watch the stake rise high above me, I wonder whether or not this means I have been accepted into Agnes Wagner’s gardening club.

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