As my first day in Riverview wore on, things spiralled from bad to worse.
Don’t get me wrong. It all started out okay. More than okay.
Though I was stiff and rather tired from my sleepless night out in the cold, I couldn’t help but be struck at how green it was in this town. And the skies were blue, not grey with a sun choked by smog.
As I walked around, taking in the beauty of the place, it slowly dawned on me that, whilst (not) sleeping in the park had its up sides, it wasn’t really practical in the long run. I needed somewhere to stay, preferably before the sun set.
But who would take in a homeless, penniless fugitive?
As if by some divine intervention – just as I was seriously thinking of just handing myself in to the police – my attention was caught by a brightly coloured flyer pinned to a notice board outside the local greengrocer’s.
Family Trees: A Community Project
Do you want to make a difference and create a legacy that will impact generations? Riverview is looking for budding young farmers to help our town eat healthier and to combat growing obesity.
Interested applicants should drop by for a chat.
Elena Holmes, Agricultural Executive, Doo Peas Corporate Towers.
Okay. Confession time.
I’d never really had much of an interest in agriculture or gardening. I didn’t really know much about it, aside from what I’d read in boredom during my long days in James’s apartment. So it wasn’t really that part of the notice that caught my attention.
No, the bit that really peaked my interest was this:
**Limited Plots of Land Available if Required**
I was saved.
When I finally found my way to Doo Peas, aided by some overly helpful locals, I was expecting a large, industrial skyscraper to suddenly loom out of the hills. Surely this rather bland building couldn’t be the business centre of Riverview? The city boy in me found it hard to believe; it wasn’t even five storeys tall and there was a distinct lack of men in business suits coming and going in a never-ending throng.
But what did I know?
Riverview was a lot smaller than Bridgeport. It only stood to reason that the buildings would be smaller too.
Steeling myself, I approached the double doors. I had no idea what to expect, or even if they would accept me for their project. What if I had to have certain qualifications, or even a home address? What if the police had circulated my picture and this Elena person recognised me? What if it was all a trap?
I really hadn’t thought this through.
Somehow, though, I forced myself to go into the building (at this point, it was my only option). Unfortunately, once I was standing in the lobby, I froze. There were more people in here than I thought there would be from the size of the place. People carrying mugs of coffee and stacks of paper were running to and fro, in and out of doors and up and down stairs, chattering at high speed on mobile phones. I backed against a wall, my natural shyness getting the better of me.
I hadn’t been standing there too long when a man juggling a cup of tea and several folders took pity on me.
“You lost?” he asked me, muttering a ‘thank you’ as I relieved him of his tea before he dropped it.
“I’m looking for the agricultural department,” I said, whilst he readjusted his armful of folders. “For the Family Trees project?”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Come on, I’ll take you there. It’s on my way.”
And so I found myself in the office of Elena Holmes.
“I have to say, you’re the first person to respond to our advert,” she said breezily. “I admire your enthusiasm, Mr…?”
Now, coming up with a surname that didn’t betray who I really was hadn’t even crossed my mind. I must have looked like a complete idiot for the few moments in which I stared at her in confusion. Then – thankfully before she started getting too suspicious – what she wanted clicked into place.
Internally panicking, I picked the first word I saw, which happened to be the surname of a reviewer on the back of a book she had left open on her desk.
“Nesaren,” I told her, my voice surprisingly calm. “Gabriel Nesaren.”
Totally oblivious to the fact I’d just made a rather life-changing decision, Elena continued.
“And what do you think you can bring to the project, Mr Nesaren?”
I faltered as my brain tried to think of a good enough reason for me to be accepted onto this project.
“I’ve always been interested in agriculture,” I lied – a small, tiny, eensy white lie. I didn’t find it boring at least. When Elena nodded approvingly, I continued more confidently, though my nerves still betrayed themselves in my voice. “I’ve studied it extensively -” Well, I’d read a couple of books. “- And I think this would be a great opportunity for me to get started.”
Elena nodded again, a smile quirking her lips. I wondered if she knew that I was lying (well, kind of lying). But I was desperate.
“Okay, well, you certainly seem enthusiastic enough,” she said. “I guess the only thing left to ask is whether or not you have space on your lot for a garden.”
“Here’s the thing,” I admitted after a moment. “I don’t exactly have a lot.”
Surprise flickered over Elena’s face, but she controlled it well.
“Not at all?”
“No.” I made a face, before deciding to come clean. “I don’t exactly have any money either. I thought your project could be a new start for me.”
Now, I’d expected Elena to yell at me to get out of her office and never come back, or at least get angry. What I didn’t expect was for her to clap her hands and announce cheerfully, “Perfect!”
I was rather taken aback by this strange turn of events.
“I’m sorry – what?”
“As it happens, we have a house in our possession that’s in need of a little refurbishment. It even has a little garden. If you sign onto this project, I can let you have the house.”
“For free. Now -” She rummaged in her drawer and retrieved a stack of paperwork. “- I need you to sign a few forms and then I’ll get a taxi to take you over.”
There was a catch, there had to be. No one just gives someone a free house.
Oh, boy… what was I letting myself in for?
When I’d filled out the necessary paperwork, Elena bundled me into a taxi. I sat stiffly on the seat, just nodding at the driver’s questions. I was uncomfortable. Not only was this taxi harming the environment by only carrying me (you get somewhat environmentally conscious living in a city where you can barely see the sun), the driver could be anyone.
Oh, God, I thought, clenching my hands into panicked fists. He could take me somewhere and murder me, and then dump me in a ditch and no one would find me for days and my body would be eaten by crows and wild dogs…
That particular train of thought was cut off abruptly when I saw the house.
It was at that moment that I realised ‘in need of a little refurbishment’ was a euphemism for ‘shit hole’.
The house looked as though no one had lived there in years and, in that time, it had turned into some kind of community dumping ground. Amongst the old worn out tires, traffic cones and shopping trolleys, there was a broken dining chair, a lawn mower that looked as though it hadn’t actually mown a lawn in decades and a cracked, abandoned toilet.
That’s right. A toilet.
I stared in horror at my new lodgings as the taxi drove away. I was right. There was definitely a catch.
And it came with germs.
After a long moment of panic, I realised that standing on the pavement worrying would actually help nothing, and decided to explore further. I couldn’t quite face the inside of the house yet – in fact, the mere thought of it made me shudder – but I felt I could just about cope with looking around outside.
The back of the house was just as much a dumping ground as the front, though it at least boasted a picnic bench. A picnic bench that I’d douse with about a litre of disenfectant before I even thought about using it.
The ‘little garden’ Elena had referred to was a shambles. It was surrounded by a broken and rather sorry looking picket fence, and was basically churned up mud and weeds. There was even another shopping trolley to really complete the effect.
The only up side to the outside of the house was a small pond. If the rest of the property was anything to go by, however, the only thing I’d be fishing out of there were shopping trolleys and broken toilets.
I finally gathered enough courage to approach the front door, but was stopped dead in my track by this. A decapitated gnome. I really hoped that it wasn’t an omen of things to come.
At this point, I couldn’t see how this house could get any worse.
God, was I wrong.
First of all, the whole place smelled as though something – or someone – had simultaneously crapped and died in it. And had never been removed. As I stepped across the threshold, my eyes watered and I coughed, trying to adjust to the sudden seeming lack of oxygen. In the end, I had to pull my hoodie up over my mouth and nose until I became somewhat used to the stench.
Second of all, this was the kitchen. Yep. I was either going to starve, or die of e coli or salmonella or some other horrible disease that was lurking, waiting to jump out at me.
This was the dining area, which, I had to admit, was rather sad looking. At least there was one chair left that had all four of its legs, or I would have had to retract my earlier comment about the picnic bench.
The rest of the room was a kind of living area, with a mouldy old chair that smelled of damp and a bookcase with some books that were in surprisingly good condition. On the wall above the chair was an old pin-up calendar dating from about a decade ago.
I had a strong feeling that the vaccuum cleaner (so thoughtfully supplied) would not work or, if it did, would nowhere near be enough to rid this place of the smell. Or the dust. Or the germs.
I admit, by the time I got to the bathroom I didn’t have particularly high hopes for either cleanliness or functionality. I wasn’t disappointed. Even the toilet inside the house was broken.
There was a bucket and mop provided, but I decided immediately that I wouldn’t be using it any time soon. I’d buy my own when I could. The water in the mop bucket was probably alive by now.
And I don’t even want to know where that towel has been.
Another thing I wouldn’t be using any time soon was the bath tub. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl.
The shower wasn’t much better. The drain was blocked with God only knows what and it was caked in limescale. The only plus to the shower was that I wouldn’t actually have to touch it (beyond turning it on and off).
The final room to explore was the bedroom. Compared to the rest of the house, it was actually quite pleasant, though it still stank of mould and dust. That, and it had an old barrel thing for a bedside table. And the bed wasn’t really a proper bed.
But, on the whole, it was a nicer room. At least there were no suspicious puddles in here.
On the other hand, there was a rather creepy collection of letters and photographs pinned to the wall. Looking at them made me fret about the home’s previous occupant. Maybe it had been a serial killer. Or a stalker. Maybe they’d come back and get me in the middle of the night and…
Yeah, I had to get out of there. Clear my head.
So I found myself back in the taxi.
I didn’t really know where I was going, but I knew I would need some time to get used to the idea of my new accommodation. Eventually, I decided to go into town. At least there were plenty of things to keep me occupied there, and I might even be able to pick up some cleaning supplies. I still had a small bit of money left over from James’s wallet, but I didn’t know how far it would stretch.
After a time of wandering around town, I stopped off at the greengrocer’s to buy some food for that evening, as well as some seeds to start the garden off. I was worried that – if Elena or someone checked up on me, that is – they would kick me off the land if I hadn’t made an effort. Even if the house was terrifying and germ-ridden, I knew I could make it habitable in time.
Well, I hoped I could.
But first, before I could make a garden, I’d have to do some research on how to grow things. The basic premise was very simple. Put a seed in the ground, water it, weed it, and hope it grew into something resembling a plant. But that was with decent soil and everything, not the mudpit I had back at… well, home, I guess.
Thankfully, the Riverview library – or Wright Reading Room, as the entrance grandly proclaimed – was rather well stocked on gardening books. I picked out the most helpful looking one (Gardening for Dummies) and went to find a seat.
I read quietly for a couple of hours, but soon the library filled up with people and I found myself surrounded by strangers. Feeling uncomfortable, I checked the book out and left, taking it home for further reading. My study session was ruined.
In my time at the library, however, I had learnt that, in order to grow anything, I needed to do something about my dump of a garden.
I chose to walk home.
After putting the library book away on a dry part of the bookshelf, I headed outside.
First, I tackled the shopping trolley. At first, I thought it’d be as simple as putting it upright and moving it, but no. It was so embedded in the mud that I actually had to kneel down and yank it out. When it eventually budged, it was with this horrible sucking sound that made me worry that the garden was about to turn to quicksand and gulp me down.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
After I had moved the shopping trolley to the front of the house, I sat down in the mud with a sigh. How was I ever going to turn this garden into somewhere I could grow fruits and vegetables?
By this time, it was around midday and the sun was beating down with a relentless ferocity. I sighed again. It would do me no good just to sit around moping. I’d probably just fry.
I hit on (what I thought was) the rather genius plan of using the switchblade (don’t judge me) I always kept hidden in my sock to ‘plough’ the garden into something workable. Whilst it wasn’t the most efficient plan, it did actually sort of work.
By the time I was about halfway, however, the heat was unbearable. No one was around, so I slid off my hoodie and t-shirt and hung them up on the picket fence. Then I got back to work.
There was something satisfying about seeing weed-covered, unworkable mud turn into something vaguely fertile-looking. And all at my hands.
After a few hours toiling in the sun, the garden was done. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but hopefully now it would be able to support plant life. I was quite proud of myself, actually.
Of course, the fence would need fixing at some point.
But one step at a time.
Starting in one corner and working out, I made little mound of dirt to remind myself where I was going to plant my seeds. The gardening book had recommended planting in regimented rows, so that was exactly what I was going to do.
I made separate rows for each of the plants I had bought – tomato, lettuce and grape – and made separate little mounds for a small apple orchard at the other end of the garden.
Maybe I could pull this off after all?
With every seed that I planted, I felt more accomplished. I was giving back to mother earth; at the very least, it made up for the taxis I had taken that day.
More than that, though, gardening felt right. Perhaps I had found my true purpose in life, like everything that came before had led up to this moment? And everything would be worth it?
Though… it was a bit early to tell. My seeds might not even grow. And then where would I be?
When I’d finished, there were still a few hours of daylight left, but I went inside to read. I braved the rather mouldy arm chair, scooting over to the least damp side. My back was aching from ‘ploughing’ the garden, so neither the bench nor the dining chair were really an option.
I guess, once you got used to the smell, the place wasn’t so bad.
For dinner, I made myself a salad with the vegetables I’d bought in town (and a brand new (cheap) chopping board). I didn’t trust myself enough to use the oven, particularly in the state it was in. It’d probably explode and set the house on fire. And I’d burn in my sleep.
No, I don’t want to use the oven. Ever.
The salad actually turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself. Despite the fact I basically just chopped up everything and mixed it in a bowl. Yep. My cooking skills haven’t much improved since the days of heated up soup.
After I’d eaten, I washed up. The water was brown, but I washed up my plate anyway. It had probably been stained by the rusty pipes or something.
Ugh, this place really needed a lot of work to make it remotely habitable.
Because I’d thought about using the oven earlier, I had to check it.
In case it did decide to explode.
All was safe. I think.
Better check it again to make sure.
… Yes. Safe.
And then, of course, I had to check the taps for good measure.
I was too worried about germs to sleep in the actual bed, but I was so tired after being awake for a solid forty hours, I couldn’t do it any longer.
So, I compromised with myself.
I stripped down to my underwear and climbed on top of the rather scratchy covers, tossing and turning until I was comfortable. The bed was little better than the solid ground, but at least I was off the floor where I could catch a chill or something.
Or be eaten by bugs.
There was probably lice in the bed. And they were going to eat me alive.
Lice lice lice lice lice!
After I had checked the covers to make absolutely certain there were no lice (or mutant lice for that matter), I settled back down to sleep.
Despite my brief panic about bugs, sleep came surprisingly easily.
But it didn’t last.
I woke a couple of hours later to shouting and laughter. Some kids had set up outside my house, setting a pile of tyres on fire for warmth. Like a campfire. Half blind with tiredness, I stumbled out of bed and managed to frighten them away with much gesturing and flailing, though not before one of them had pissed on my poor headless gnome.
When all was silent again and I’d finally got the fire to go out, I couldn’t sleep. I was too scared they’d come back, maybe bringing with them parents and torches and pitchforks. Perhaps they’d drive me out of town. Perhaps they’d string me up from the nearest tree.
Maybe they’d set the house on fire next.
I huddled on the bed and tugged my hoodie around myself for warmth. After a moment, I started to hum a lullaby I vaguely remembered my father singing to me when I was little in an attempt to calm myself down. My voice shook.
It was going to be another long night.