The amaryllis appeared on the windowsill one Sunday morning in June. The bulb protruded from the soil in the cream-coloured ceramic pot, and sat next to the basil plant we had diligently kept alive for four whole weeks.
But, by the time Monday came around, the amaryllis on the windowsill was forgotten – at least for a while. There were problems in the house – the cracks, as it were, appeared around this time. The moths, first and foremost, arrived in their droves and ate their way through bedclothes and curtains and vest tops. They laid eggs in the corners of the carpet. We hoovered top to bottom; everything was turned upside down and either thrown out or washed in high heat. We named the living room ‘Laundry City’ while we air-dried everything we owned, shrieking and laughing at our own hysteria. We sprayed moth killer in every room, dotted moth traps around the place, and when my boyfriend came to stay, he would splat the stragglers dead on the walls.
They would re-emerge however, no matter how we tried to exterminate them. You’d open a drawer, and twelve would fly out. They congregated in coffee cups and and cafetieres. They balanced carefully on our bath curtains and photo frames. They changed in size and colour too – only tiny and a pale gold to begin with, they were now the size of a 2p coin, and black with white markings. Sometimes, they would follow me from room to room, landing occasionally on my shoulder or arm. Once, I caught myself in the mirror and saw that my hair was covered with these winged, delicate creatures – they flew away in unison before I could admire myself for too long.
Then some weeks after what we affectionately came to call ‘Mothgate’, there were the owls. They scared the moths away. They spoke to each other at first in hushed whispers, then became more brazen and would call out loud at 2, 3, 4am. They discussed Spanish history and Greek philosophy and the best chess moves, and spoke several languages. We would ask each other in the mornings in the kitchen, “Did you hear the owls? They were talking about the 30 years war.” Or, “The owls were arguing last night about something in German.” We laughed and laughed and mimicked their words.
As summer drew on, we missed the moths, and the owls kept us awake. The heat became unbearable, as with so many summers of those years, so there was no sleeping after July anyway. We stayed up, sketching the moon with chalk pastels and playing gin rummy, listening to the owls debate.
One day, after an especially hot July Thursday, I returned home to hear my housemate call me from the kitchen, “Have you seen this? The amaryllis. It’s grown a foot just today.” I peered at it, “Are you sure? I think it was already grown a little yesterday.” The next day, the amaryllis had indeed grown another foot, and folded itself where it didn’t fit in the windowsill anymore. We took a pair of secateurs from under the sink and cut it right down. It had grown five large pink flowers, which we cut away and placed in a glass vase on the dining table. Then we set the plant back in the windowsill, next to the basil. But by morning it had grown again, three feet this time, and sat contorted, leaning against the window and knocking the basil plant clean off the windowsill. By the time we had made a decision about the amaryllis, it was over seven feet tall and had smashed the ceramic pot it grew in, spilling soil into the sink and onto the counter.
It took both of us to carry the plant out into the garden. We dug into the earth and buried it.
The years passed, sometimes feverishly and sometimes quietly. I now lived alone in a much too small London first-floor flat, and did not think of the moths or the owls or the amaryllis. The days of hot summers had long gone along with my 20s, and London was now cold and raw.
I overheard a story one evening on the Piccadilly line, about an amaryllis buried not far from here. On an August morning, the neighbours awoke early and stepped into the garden to find the amaryllis had re-grown through the earth. It was no longer seven foot, but 15 or 20, bending over and bearing its pink flowers. Within hours, it had made its way back to the house. Its stalks wound their way around the outside walls and then smashed through the window in the back door. Once inside, they grew again and twisted around the furniture and up the stairs. Finally, they broke into the walls and fractured them lengthways. When the couple who now lived there returned at night, the house was cracked somewhere near the middle, and veering to one side a little. The amaryllis’ flowers leaned out of a window and gasped for air.
In my imagination, somewhere in the distance, the moths flitted and drifted to warmer climates in the night. And the owls talked of the hottest summers they’d ever known, and twittered to a calm before flying southwards, over the horizon and toward the hazy glow of the moon.