That was the year I decided to grow flowers. I wanted our yard to be glorious, colourful, bright and beautiful, for us, for the bees and the butterflies and for the planet. I love bees and the work they do. I had decided that bees are good, snails bad, evil in fact. I soon realised I was the kind of contradiction of a person who loved dogs but ate fishes. I could not eat a dog but I would happily munch on a fish-finger sandwich. What had I become? A person that compartmentalised creatures: I liked squirrels, sure, but I’d be more excited to see a fox. I loved the sparrows and blue tits but not the pigeons. One rule for butterflies and ladybirds and another for the slugs. Looking back I don’t like that about myself, my view of animals and insects was divided: good and bad, pest or pet, friend or foe.
That spring I was mostly alone and hurting. The world needed me to be strong and brave and I did my best at appearing like that. I put my best foot forward and kept my chin up and all those other things we learn how to do, to cope, to perform. In my solitude, in the evenings, I curled up in all of the cushions, built a wall of soft pillows and watched gardening shows. The TV presenter Monty Don was a gentle voice in the dark, showing me how to grow flowers and tend these gigantic and fragrant blooms: lilies, delphiniums, lupins, hollyhocks and asters. Monty grew them tall and grand. He knelt in the mud and looked up into the camera with his kind face, his capable hands lovingly touching buds and leaves. He talked about his jewel garden, how he had nurtured a magnificent array of cannas, sunflowers, zinnias, dahlias and tulips.
Now how I loved the sound of that – a jewel garden – so grand and magnificent sounding. A jewel garden where colours thrived, the regal purple and blues, the bold reds, the fleshy peach and sumptuous pinks, the vivid and tropical orange and yellows. I wanted all of this, the brightest blooms, the biggest trumpets. I wished for all the big bell-shaped flowers here in my tiny yard, flowers with a shape so soft and cave-like, that a tired bee can drink, collect pollen, and then sleep inside their cup of petals. Monty told me how the bees loved these flowers best, and so now I wanted to grow a jewel garden. I was industrious, watering and nurturing the seedings but cautiously watching for anything snail-like to spoil the picture.
That was the year Richard was sick. I mean really sick, coronavirus sick and cancer sick. First it was covid and then they found cancer. It was terrifying. Shocking. Shattering. Our biggest fears and horrors melded into the terrors that many people were feeling. I knew I wasn’t alone; thousands of people were holding their breath for their loved ones too. The world was sick, really sick, global pandemic sick. The planet was sick, flood and fire and war and destruction and climate catastrophe sick.
Lockdown wasn’t kind to anyone I knew. It wasn’t easy. It seemed like we were all sick: heart sick, soul sick, mentally sick, spiritually sick, emotionally sick, economically sick, Brexit sick, panicked sick, grief sick and well, while the world was divided and in turmoil and as I waited for Richard to come home from hospital, I made flowers grow. I was not permitted to visit him due to the coronavirus restrictions. I could do nothing but wait at home and hope and pray he would come back to me in one piece.
It was such a strange time, it was just as my debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death was being published, Richard started chemotherapy. We were in lockdown and everything was out of my control. I couldn’t control his pain, the nausea, the chemo sickness, seeing him in so much discomfort, hearing it in his voice, though he was very good at being brave and stoic: a patient patient. I couldn’t control anything, not if the treatment would be a success and if he was going to be OK. As for work, I certainly couldn’t control if my book would reach bookshops and readers in lockdown. I couldn’t control book sales or reviews. I couldn’t control my family and friends and their worries and anxieties. Our phone calls were all punctuated with helplessness and concern. I couldn’t control the escalating numbers as thousands of people caught a virus that was spreading and mutating. I couldn’t control the 2020’s, the death toll, the rise in racial hatred and prejudice, war and violence, bigotry and fascism, billionaire greed and corruption. However I could control what I was doing, me alone, me with my hands and feet, my eyes and breath and energy. So, just like many of us, I signed all the petitions, donated to charities, backed my friends’ projects, attended online funerals, made banana cake, wrote protest poems and stared at social media watching it all unfold … but what the hell? Each day the world made uglier shapes, a daily spew of lies and panic, chaos and catastrophe, loss and grief.
I was determined I was going to help the bees and nurture and grow some amazing flowers in pots in my backyard. Just to be clear, right now, I imagine you are picturing a green and lush garden with neat grass, ancient trees and a water feature, but no, my yard is just a tiny concrete square, pots of mud and potential in a humble backyard in east London. Each morning I’d be up and talking to plants, congratulating the first budding flowers. Beautiful thing, how lovely you are this morning! You are doing so well! I told myself I did it for the bees and the butterflies and that I did it for Richard. I imagined that when he came home from hospital and was recovering, how my love would sit out there with a blanket on his knee and a cup of tea. In my imagination he would be a bit like a recovering war hero. I didn’t grow much food, not that year, just one tomato plant, one broad bean and the herbs. I grew mint in an old wheelbarrow and the snails couldn’t seem to find it there. The thyme died and I tried not to think of time dying. The sage grew huge, I laughed to myself that there is not enough sage in the world to smudge and cleanse these times. But I put most of my energy and time into growing flowers: eye food, heart food, soul food, bee and butterfly food.
It was so strange to talk about these themes of death and injustice and fear as though it was abstract and not something we were all living through in that dark hour.
During this time I was doing a tour of online gigs and radio, the book was something I had worked hard for and wished for all my life, it was a very big moment career-wise for me. Behind the scenes I was going out of my mind with worry and panic as cancer and covid shadowed our home. It was overwhelming. I had to dig deep, find some armour to hide how worried and distressed I really was on Zoom events and radio shows. One morning I cried on live radio talking to Lauren Laverne on BBC 6 Music about David Bowie and ‘Heroes’, I choked up talking about my gratitude for the NHS. It was so strange to talk about Mrs Death Misses Death and these themes of death and injustice and fear as though it was abstract and not something we were all living through in that dark hour.
Richard was in and out of hospital. The NHS nurses were so brilliant, our phone calls and messages went like: today he managed to have a bite of a piece of Marmite on toast. I’d report this back to the family. We laughed about Marmite a lot in our Whatsapp group of family and friends. I feel so much gratitude, we were so lucky to have that network of support and love. I had to be patient and strong and hold on and wait for Richard to recover, for nature and medicine to work miracles, and for Richard to come home to me, and well, then he’d see our little backyard and see these miraculous flowers. I kept hold of that one visualisation: My love would beat cancer and come home and see the flowers bloom.
I’d be up at dawn and go on snail patrol: checking the rims of pots and the cool dark places for sleeping snails. I wore special purple gardening gloves for this task and felt like a customs officer or border patrol patting down my pots for snails. Some mornings I’d find as many as 20 or 30. All sizes, massive kings and queens and tiny young baby ones, all sizes and colours, their beautiful shells in swirls of lavender, chestnut, amber and greens. Snails like marbles collected in a pot. They were like cockles gathered in a bucket at the beach. I would find as many as I could and then I’d leave the house with them and walk to the end of my street and go into the park and gently release them there to start a new life. I’d set them free and say welcome to your new home. I’d think the snails would look lost and blink up at me and I’d feel bad. I’d tell them the park was massive and lush and they would be much happier there. I banished them to the park where, despite my feelings of enmity towards them, I hoped they would be happy and free. I read that snails know where they come from, that they can find their way home, and I just hoped they wouldn’t find their way back to my yard.
I felt guilty about all of it though. I dreamt that one giant snail would come and find me and cover me in goo and slime and pick me up and crush me and how I would deserve it. How one giant snail god would come and seek revenge and swallow the house whole and how I’d deserve that too.
I began reading more and more online about snail deterrents and defence strategies instead of enjoying the flowers. I tried copper wire and wound copper tape around the pots – this was a good deterrent, I’d recommend it. I also tried a beer trap, I read that snails love beer. The problem is that I would have a disgusting jar of dead snails in beer slime and not know what to do with it when it was full. Also dead things attract flies, the snail cadavers attract more flies, and then also more slugs and snails, so I would have to dig a hole and bury them deep. I would become like Dennis Nilsen, a snail serial killer, digging holes to bury beer-sloshed, slimy snail bodies. The exodus to the park seemed like the kindest option.
The snails ate an entire petunia one night. Then they destroyed a whole tiger lily plant and a glorious purple delphinium was stripped to a stick. Each morning instead of watching the sky get lighter, instead of watching the sun rise, instead of writing poems or working on my new book, I would take my mug of tea outside and be out in the yard at dawn in my old T-shirt and my purple snail-collecting gloves. As the sun rose, I was looking down at the slime and mud and poking about in the dark corners of the yard instead of looking up and noticing the first of the hollyhocks, or noting a particularly beautiful copper-light of a sunrise.
Finally the summer came and Richard was sent home from hospital. He was all bruised and swollen but he was recovering and he was going to be OK. Eventually his scars would fade. Oddly that sorrow and intense worry would also slowly fade. I cared for him as we stayed in another lockdown and waited tentatively for his appetite to return and the Marmite on toast to be eaten. Eventually we were given the all-clear. I am so lucky, he is so lucky, we are so very lucky. It was so strange because as covid and cancer left our house, I noticed the snails slowly disappeared too.
I see now how the snails helped me, they made me breathe slowly, they took my mind off my problems, they motivated me to leave the house and go to the park
I learned so much about the snails: how they mate, how they are both male and female and how the shells grow with them inside. I suspect they have no idea what humans are and I’m not surprised they squeak, froth and spit if we pick them up without knocking first. I learned to gently tap on the shell so they know I might be moving them. Each snail is so individual and exquisite. I see now how the snails helped me, they made me breathe slowly, they took my mind off my problems, they motivated me to leave the house and go to the park. Looking back now I have so much gratitude for the snails. I think snails are magic. I also think when the world is in so much turmoil and darkness that growing flowers and nurturing hope and beauty is a rebellious act as much as it is healing.
How strange is this world: if you aren’t careful you’ll look for what is wrong, bleak or broken, instead of what is growing, blooming and beautiful. You’ll see the bad news and not know your own good luck and fortune. There I was hunting snails, instead of new blooms, looking for slime trails, instead of budding fruit, looking for disappointment instead of blessings. I made a promise to try to remember to notice the good things, the small things, the smell of rain on the roses, to look up at the new dawn sky and see the potential in every new morning.