Breath of Nature


Unlike her mother, Elvira did not possess green fingers. As soon as she tried to nurture a plant into bloom, it promptly took exception, wilted and died. Retirement had given her all the time in the world to try and remedy this. As she particularly loved flowers, many more plants suffered a similar fate before it had to be accepted that horticulture, on any level, was not her forte.

There was always the Internet to fill the time, but its pop-up pages, spurious links to sites that either wanted to sell you something or infect your operating system were beginning to make it too tedious to bother with. And Facebook was a different dimension for someone who had known others so intimately as a nurse.

Then one day Elvira typed in "crocheted flowers". She didn't know why, only that she was good at was crocheting, and had often wished she could so easily crochet people back together when all medical help had failed. Why not crochet flowers instead? The members of the social club she attended regarded artificial flowers as hideous anomalies and spent much of the time bragging about their immaculate gardens filled with exotic blooms. They were all retired as well, and had the time and money to spend hours wandering the aisles of garden centres looking for that one plant which would out bloom everyone else's.

Existence to Elvira, after a career of others depending on her - often for their lives - meant much more than that, and enforced retirement was eroding the sense of what she had achieved. Now there was all the time in the world to ponder on mortality, it began to make less and less sense. So she would crochet flowers instead of trying to fill the house with living blooms. It would take her mind off all those humdrum inconsequentialities and might even help her to solve that great imponderable she had seen so many have to face - the very nature of existence.

Elvira sat in front of the computer screen, tapping away in searches for crocheted flowers, hardly expecting to find a page on how to crochet a potted plant. The best result was a website with a range of realistic looking flowers worked in fine silk and stiffened to form everything from exotic lilies, orchids - even a strelitzia - to ripe fruit. This remarkable filigree work was in one ply thread, the stitches so small they were barely visible. It was hardly surprising that the lacy petals needed to be stiffened.

The patterns and instructions on how to create them were free to download as a PDF, yet there was nothing in the covering text to suggest where the website, "Breathe of Nature", originated from.

The only problem was, did Elvira have a crochet hook that fine? Probably not. But "Breath of Nature" had an eBay account from which hooks, silk and stiffening medium could be purchased, and at a price her pension could afford. There was also a link to another website in an incomprehensible dialect. Working in the NHS and having to help patients fill in forms, Elvira was familiar with the way most languages looked. But this one could have been ancient Sumerian for all she could tell. And the flower people depicted in it were just as peculiar. It was difficult to tell if they were flowers turning into humans, or humans turning into flowers. It was all very strange, yet had a sinister parallel with her opinion of Homo sapiens, which had hardened considerably over the years. It had eventually reached the point where Elvira wondered if most people deserved to be helped. After one husband walking out because of her unsocial working hours, and the other because he had found a younger model - a trainee nurse with startlingly large eyes, despite which she still managed to administer wrong doses - there was every right to feel cynical. Or was she just getting old, and all the niggles that had built up during her lifetime reaching the point where she wished people would turn into plants?

Why not crochet flowers, free from the demands of selfish humanity, or even be transformed into a flower? Elvira wondered what that would be like.

She printed out the instruction pages then went back to the eBay listing, determined to crochet at least one bloom convincing enough to fool the neighbours when it was put in the front window.

As soon as the needles and thread arrived there were no more visits to the social club. Elvira sat for hour upon hour, happily working away at her filigree creations. Friends occasionally called to make sure that she was all right, and neighbours noticed that her groceries were now delivered. Even her cat, which used to be the centre of attention, spent most of its time basking on the front porch.

Months went by: nurses at the hospital where she used to work continued to call round every now and then, wondering why they had lost contact. Persuaded that Elvira was content and healthy enough, they left her to her consuming passion, now and then dropping in to marvel at the floral wonderland being created.

Months blurred into years and still Elvira crocheted away. Beautiful exotic pot plants appeared in every window; so many they blocked out the light. Resenting that it was no longer the centre of attention, the cat wandered off and found another home several streets away. The visits of well-meaning friends became fewer, and the members of the social club began to wonder if she was still alive.

Then one day her doctor, not having heard from Elvira for so long, and concerned that none of her prescriptions had been renewed, tried to reach her by phone. There was no reply, so Dr Kemble decided to pay her patient a visit.

Unable to raise anyone at the front door, and being a fit young woman, she climbed onto the wheelie bin and reached over to unlock the side gate. The garden had run wild, invading the side passage and making it difficult to get to the back door. Dr Kemble tried to peer through the kitchen window but flowers blocked the view. Foliage had pushed up the latch so she opened it, sending several plants tumbling into the sink.

Now she could see inside.

All the kitchen units were covered in blossoming vines, their tendrils clinging to the light fittings and plate racks. In the hallway a tangle of foliage weighed down by fruit tumbled through the banisters, using the hatstand for support. Even if the doctor could find the key, it was unlikely the rampant vegetation would have allowed the door to be pushed open. So, expecting Elvira to be lying comatose somewhere in this jungle, she clambered through the kitchen window.

Phoning for an ambulance would have been pointless before she found her patient, though a fire brigade axe might have come in useful. Pulling the vines, stems and tendrils aside, Dr Kemble forced her way through the hall, only to find that all the rooms, as well as the stairs and stairwell, were filled with the extraordinary foliage. None of the plants had roots, feeling silky and organic to the touch. As well as hanging from the light sockets, they dangled from cracks in the ceilings as though feeding on air.

After pushing huge orchids aside it was possible to see into the front room. This was full of bizarre fruit enclosing the furniture in a multi-coloured blanket.

But there was no Elvira.

Dr Kemble fought her way through the foliage and up the stairs. Only the bathroom was relatively free of plants, though there was not much evidence of it being used recently.

Things looked bad.

Yet again, the bedrooms were filled with leaves and flowers, but no Elvira. The only other place was the roof void, and it was unlikely her barely mobile patient would be up there.

Double checking the house and small overgrown garden to make sure that Elvira had totally disappeared, Dr Kemble phoned the police.

Their initial enquiries confirmed that no one had seen the retired nurse leave the house, even to visit the local supermarket, post office or chemist. The neighbours assumed Elvira to still be crocheting away with the skeins of fine silk thread that had been regularly delivered.

A forensic team was called in to do a fingertip search. It took days for them to gather up all the invasive foliage and bag it for examination. The only DNA they expected to find was that of silk worms. Then, as it seemed suspiciously organic, they took samples from the tamarind shaped fruits the doctor had found in the front room.

Each one contained Elvira's DNA.