Amelia strode through Victoria Gate into Kew Gardens. She held an umbrella over a colorful bag from Hamley’s toy store, leaning forward to shelter her head as well. She was of medium build. It was how she thought of herself: medium all the way around. Medium height, medium brown hair, medium weight, and mid-thirties.
This was no time for foolishness. Angraecum mauritianum was a modest orchid, perhaps, but extinction was dark and terrible. She would swing down from the yardarm, cutlass in her teeth, and snatch the flower from its maw. But not like that. The theatre was behind her, glittering magic that triumphed nightly, twice on Saturday. Where, when the greasepaint was cold-creamed away, everything was just the same, and she still couldn’t pay her rent.
It was time to grow up. Edward was right. “Honestly, Mimi, you act as if this was all a lark. That you just wave a hypothesis at the world and everyone holds hands and sings ‘What a Jolly Holiday.’ That’s not science. It’s about data, about meticulous measurements and controlling the variables. You can’t be a botanist if you keep trying to be a clever boots.”
He had dumped her, but left that nugget of truth. She had a lamentable tendency toward clever bootism. But her new hypothesis was ironclad. She would work hard, she would be painstaking, diligent, and systematic. No leaps, in logic or tights. And Angraecum mauritanium would live, not on stage, but in reality, where her love had withered.
* * * *
Amelia bustled into the lab, wrestling the Hamley’s bag in one hand and the dripping umbrella in the other. Her frameless glasses slipped down her nose.
Nigel ignored her, intent on his computer. His head jerked to the beat leaking out though his earbuds. The gauges in his earlobes bounced to the rhythm. His long face was pocked with acne scars.
Amelia put down her bag and rescued her glasses. “Wesbrook and Shanpoor, 2011, Annals of African Zoology.”
Nigel glanced over. “Been Christmas shopping, then?”
Amelia blinked. “Pardon?” She furled her umbrella.
Nigel pointed to her bag. “Toy store.”
“Don’t be daft, it’s only September. By analysis of remains of the raven parrot on Mauritius, Wesbrook and Shanpoor determined that it became extinct in 1975, plus or minus three years.”
Nigel mimed a drum break.
“Don’t you see? The youngest Angraecum mauritianum is thirty years old. The parrot and the orchid were symbiotic.”
Nigel blinked vaguely, wrinkling his brow.
“Do keep up. Our Angraecum produces the largest seeds of any orchid. I’m convinced they only germinate if they’ve passed through the digestive system of the raven parrot.”
Nigel shook his head. “It’s not happening.”
“I’m not mucking about in parrot shit.”
“Please take those earphones off. I said the raven parrot has been extinct since 1975.”
“Plus or minus three years. I heard you. I’m not mucking about in parrot shit, extinct or not.”
“Of course not. A parrot’s digestive tract is far too variable.” Amelia unpacked three identical boxes, each bright with pictures of colored stones. “Gem tumblers. Parrot gizzard simulators. We control the speed and length of rotation and the chemical composition of the medium.”
Nigel’s eyes narrowed. “What chemical composition?”
“It must be unique, since no other bird seems to have the knack. Do a literature search, everything you can find about the—”
“Shit avoidance.” Nigel crossed his arms. “It’s why I went into botany.”
“For pity’s sake, man, a literature—”
Her computer chimed. She cursed at the screen. “Quick. Hide all this.” She pulled up a chair and smoothed her hair.
Nigel threw his anorak over the boxes. She pasted on a smile and accepted the call.
The screen showed the face of a tanned man with curly black hair, greying at the temples. Behind him a squad of graduate students, wearing immaculate white lab coats, peered into microscopes or conversed in earnest tones.
“Jason,” Amelia said. “How perfectly dreadful. The day was going so well.”
“Amelia, honey. You’re overcompensating again. Your thighs quiver at the thought of me, and I know it.”
He spoke with a thick New York accent. Or what Amelia assumed was a New York accent. Thick, anyway.
“What do you want?”
“You’re giving a talk in Miami.”
“Indeed I am.”
“What on? You made no more progress on those damn flowers than me.”
“A real disappointment. I’ll have only null results to report. Still, it will save cleverer researchers some time, knowing what not to try.”
Jason’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t sound disappointed. What are you up to? We’re supposed to be collaborators.”
“We’d only be collaborators if you did any work. And may I say, that’s a fine lot of extras the studio sent you today.”
One of the youths on the screen glanced up, lips pursed.
Amelia slumped her shoulders. “Oh, very well. I’ll just have to blurt it out. I’m sure it’s that volcano; periodic eruptions spread some gas over the island that the seeds need to germinate. If I can work out the chemistry, I’m sure those seeds will pop right open.”
“Chlorine, I’m rather guessing.” Amelia nodded vigorously.
“You exposed your seeds to chlorine gas?” Jason grinned. “I don’t think.”
“That’s what Montreuille et al reported.”
Jason seemed to be trying to look over Amelia’s shoulder. Thank God for Nigel’s anorak.
“Don’t tell me that’s Nigel. You haven’t got rid of him yet? What did you call him? A bloody useless git? What’s a git?”
Amelia turned in alarm. Nigel grabbed his anorak and stormed out of the door.
Jason leaned forward. “Gem tumblers.” He tapped his chin. He grinned. “Artificial gizzards. Wesbrook and Shanpoor. Raven parrots. Of course.”
The screen went blank. Clever boots had struck again.
Amelia pushed herself back from the computer. “Nigel!” she shouted. “You stinking sack of fetid Helicodiceror!” She yanked the door open.
A balding man stood there, with a patterned jumper and a knit tie. He leaned back, eyes wide. “I beg your pardon?”
“Hello, Philip,” Amelia said. “Sorry, I—”
“The director wishes to see you. He said it’s rather important.”
* * * *
“Plant one and a half million crocus bulbs? Absolutely not, Sir Emory. It’s quite out of the question.” Amelia crossed her arms, and then, for good measure, her legs as well.
She sat in an airy office, with floor to ceiling windows, botanical oil paintings, and wainscoting in African mahogany. Sir Emory was barrel chested, his bald head fringed with white hair and expansive jowls. His bristly mustache was strikingly like the Lophocampa caryae caterpillar.
“I do apologize. I did not express myself clearly.” Sir Emory rose halfway out of his seat. “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and, incidentally, owner of these Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, commands you to plant a million and a half crocus bulbs. Deus le vult.”
“That’s fine and well, but my research is at a critical point just now, and I can’t possibly take…why does she want to…?”
“A gift. Some American periodical celebrating its one hundredth anniversary. One gathers its readership is elderly. Her Majesty does appreciate signs of devotion from the colonies.”
“Yes, well, the monarchy is largely titular at this point, and the Royal Academy of Sciences is anything but. If I’m to have my grant renewed, I’ll need to show strong results in short order.”
Sir Emory quivered. His mustache bristled. Quite like Lophocampa caryae’s threat display. Surely an example of parallel evolution.
He stood. “Whilst I draw breath, there is nothing titular about Her Majesty the Queen.”
Amelia slumped in her chair. She was not going to win this one. She gasped. Clever boots tiptoed in from stage left, finger to her lips, grinning wickedly. Children squealed and pointed. “Very well. Seeing as it’s the Queen.”
Sir Emory squinted.
Amelia nodded. “I think, with the traffic, the pets, natural fertilizer is best. Non-toxic.”
“Elephant compost. The Royal Zoological Gardens. Keep it in the family.”
Sir Emory turned red. He opened and shut his mouth.
She gave him her most innocent smile. It would serve Nigel right.
* * * *
Nigel leaned forward, his eyes as wide as his grin. “You’re joking. The Horse Guards?”
Amelia frowned. When was she going to learn? “Her Majesty volunteered the Horse Guards. On account of there being rather a lot of them. The bulbs, I mean.”
“I’m to tell that load of toffs playing soldier to wade about in elephant—”
“You’re to ensure that the bulbs are planted, preferably pointy side up.”
Nigel bounced in his chair. “Brilliant. Wait ‘till I tell me Mum. Amelia, you may call me a git anytime you like.”
* * * *
Amelia perched before a tabletop hothouse, two by four feet, filled with peat pots. Each pot three inches square and labeled. The hothouse temperature and humidity matched that of the Mauritius islands in October. Full spectrum grow lights hung from the ceiling. No green poked out of any pot.
To her side three gem tumblers rolled patiently. Her last seed batches. She added three rows to the table in her lab notebook with a straight edge and a blue ballpoint pen.
This was how science was done. Right angles. Each step built reproducibly from the last. Edward would approve.
Nigel poked his head into the lab. “The class parasites backed a lorry into the pagoda.”
* * * *
Sir Emory glowed red again. Not just his face, his entire head. Wisps of hair stood out like contrasting cirrus clouds. Red sky at morning. His eyes narrowed, and his mustache quivered like…but her powers of zoomorphic simile failed her. Nothing in the animal kingdom boasted quite that hue. Not even the more colorful variants of baboon—
“How did you contrive to back a lorry into the only building in the Great Lawn? Bloody thing is a hundred and sixty-four feet tall. You must have noticed it.”
“I was in my lab, doing the research I am paid to do. I assumed the Horse Guards— “
“This is an outrage. I’ll not sit here and listen to you slander Her Majesty’s elite troops.”
“I assigned responsibility for planting those crocuses to you. How dare you claim dereliction of duty as an extenuating circumstance.”
* * * *
Amelia burst into the lab. She dashed over to the tumblers. They were turned off and cleaned. After Sir Emory’s flogging, she’d wanted nothing but a cup of tea and a hot bath. She hadn’t remembered the tumblers until that morning.
“They were running when I got in,” Nigel said. “I planted the seeds, what was left of them.” He pointed to three pots in the corner of the hothouse.
Amelia said, “I forgot them, after Sir Emory…He’s holding me responsible for the damage to the pagoda. He’ll have our budget to pay for repairs.”
She sank into a chair. “Our grant is up in December. They’ll demand to know how we used their precious funds. We’ll never be renewed.”
She closed her eyes. She wasn’t good enough. That’s what her leaping about was designed to hide. She couldn’t control scientific variables. She couldn’t control her life. She bled chaos. Who was she to save the orchid? Angraecum mauritianum was a victim of false pretenses.
She opened her eyes as Nigel slipped back onto his seat. He looked away.
“What did you do?” Amelia sat up.
“Nothing.” Nigel folded his hands in his lap.
* * * *
Her hearing was in three weeks. The pots of dirt remained pots of dirt, day after day. With positive results, perhaps her funding would be renewed despite the pagoda. But with null results…Her presentation in Miami would be her swan song. What else could a washed-up botany researcher of medium competence do? Secondary school teacher? She shuddered. She’d rather waitress.
She picked up her lab notebook. The paper smelled thick and rich, with the power to consecrate whatever was written therein. She would miss her notebook. She looked at the table she’d drawn: speed, duration, chemical composition of the media, date and time. Neat, ordered, solid; a portrait of the person she had wanted to become. Her eye landed on the last three entries. The duration entered was 80 minutes. They had tumbled eighteen hours. That was falsified data. That was a crime.
She reached for a blue pen, paused. What did it matter? None of the seeds had sprouted. Certainly not those three, after grinding all night. Why not just leave it as is? It looked so proper. So confident.
She couldn’t do it. The notebook was a record of the truth. If the truth was that she was incompetent, so be it. She was not a liar. She turned on the light. She crossed out the duration, wrote in the correction, initialed and dated it.
A hint of something in the corner of the hothouse arrested her. She gasped. Barely visible, a green tip gleamed from behind a crumb of dirt.
* * * *
Amelia smiled at the two men and a woman. They peered at her from behind a table. The men wore suits, the woman a tweed dress and pearls. Amelia willed her hands to relax.
One of the men took off his spectacles. “Whilst we do appreciate that you show promising results, given this…gross misapplication of research funding, I simply don’t see how we can renew your grant. I mean to say, crocuses?”
“The request came from the Queen,” Amelia said.
The panelists looked at each other. One man rolled his eyes.
The woman cleared her throat. “Be that as it may, had the Royal Academy wished to fund the planting of crocus bulbs, it would have done so. Your funding—”
Edward had let her down. Painstaking lab work couldn’t save her. Clever boots was all she had left. Amelia lifted a small pot from her briefcase. Two delicate leaves arched to the light.
“I understand the gravity of my offense. You are quite within your rights to cancel my grant. However, if you do, no-one will complete my work. The orchids are old, and soon there will be no more seeds.” She raised the pot before her like a chalice. “What you see here will be the last Angraecum mauritianum on Earth.”
* * * *
“What do you mean, Angraecum sesquipedale?” Amelia shouted.
Nigel thrust out his chin. “I planted it after Sir Emory—”
“I waved it in front of the committee. I lied to their faces.”
“What’s that? You got your funding? Congratulations.”
“You bloody cretin, that’s fraud.”
He held up his hand. “Please, don’t mention it. You are most welcome.”
She wouldn’t be a waitress, she’d be in prison. She wasn’t incompetent, she was disgraced. She snatched the pot with the fraudulent orchid and bent to heave it at his smirking face. Something caught her eye. She lowered the pot to the table. Trembling, she brushed aside the sesquipedale leaf. A monocotyledon poked out of the dirt. Its apex acute, not obtuse like the sesquipedale. She had never seen this leaf before.
She grabbed her notebook. “Which one is it?”
“One of the three that tumbled all night.” Nigel was right behind her, his eyes wide. “That seed was wrecked. The coat completely abraded.”
* * * *
Amelia strode into the bright spring day, trundling her suitcase behind her. The taxi to Heathrow waited at the Lion gate. She would be in Miami in ten hours.
White clouds morphed and chased each other in the pale blue sky. A breeze rustled the tree branches, softened by a fuzz of leaf buds. She breathed the tang of new life. The cool air on her skin alternated with the warmth of the sun, the light shocking after a dark winter.
She passed the pagoda, splendid in its bright new paint. Its red tiered roofs and golden spire drew the eye upward; the solidity of skilled craft thrust toward the limitless possibilities of the heavens.
Around her stretched the fields of crocuses. Crocuses in billows of yellow, purple, lavender, and white. So many thousands, she lost all sense of them as individual flowers; they illuminated the earth as if she had slipped, like Dorothy, into a parallel technicolor world. A world where she was the heroine of the story; where she had the power to achieve her dearest desire simply by clicking her heels and wishing it true.
Her mobile rang. She looked at the number and smiled.
“You’re coming to Miami.”
“Indeed I am. I shall give my presentation.” She pretended to read. “Induced Germination in Angraecum mauritianum.”
“You have nothing to present. That raven parrot idea was a bust. I tried a thousand variations. You’re just coming to see me. You want to get in my pants.”
She smiled. It didn’t matter anymore; her talk was tomorrow. “Do you know, it turns out the raven parrot was constipated.”
There was silence on the line. She savored each second.
“Fine, but you haven’t answered the real question,” Jason said. “Why only Mauritius? The raven parrot was endemic to Reunion as well. It flew between them. If your theory is correct, why is the orchid only—”
She hung up on him. She would research soil gradients, rainfall patterns. She saw rows of pots, labeled by chemical consistency, micronutrient composition. But he would beat her to it. He had the resources. She had Sir Emory.
She had saved the orchid, that was the main thing. Tables of data, of course, but it was clever boots who won in the end. Time to give her her due.
She rang Nigel. “How far from Reunion to Mauritius?”
“Hang on a sec…225 kilometers. Why?”
“Run a chemical analysis of the Angraecum mauritianum seed coat. Look for psychoactive compounds.”
“You think they ate the seeds to get high?”
“No nutritional value. They wanted that seed coat. After they couldn’t fly, not far. Why?”
Banner Image: Kew Gardens from Pixabay.com