by Felicity Anderson-Nathan
My gran slips the paper packet into my hand as smoothly as a Rockefeller passing a tip. I squeeze it into my rucksack with the bulk pack of off-brand chocolate she has already pressed into my possession.
“Plant them in a sunny spot,” she says. “But not too sunny.”
It’s a packet of lettuce seeds: winter purslane. My gran has always grown as much of her own food as possible. She’s thrifty like that. Her garden is barely big enough to swing a bag of compost but every inch is crammed with pots, hanging baskets and racks of seedlings ready to be thinned out. She grows strawberries and mint and potatoes and monstrous cabbages no one ever wants to eat. She can bring something out of nothing. Life from seeds, food from dirt.
She’s been doing this since before it was cool or eco-friendly – she was just poor and had children to feed. My mum grew up hating it and she always took pride in giving us food she had bought: exotic fruits, cadbury mini rolls, restaurants. Our garden was a perfect square of lawn. She tutted over the beetroot stains on my Christmas best when I helped my gran to prepare the lunch and she scrubbed at my hands with a potato before I was allowed to play with any of my presents.
“I grew that – with a lot of help and a bottle of non-organic fertiliser, sure, but I grew that.”
It must break my gran’s heart to see her profligate grandchildren buying bags of pre-chopped vegetables in Waitrose and then throwing their slimy remains in the bin at the end of the week. I can imagine her wailing over my fridge, dressed all in black with a lace trimmed handkerchief pressed to her mouth.
She pats my cheek – I’m the only one of us kids who still lets her get away with that.
At home, the seeds seem out of place. I’ve never had any luck with growing things, not even cress in primary biology class. It seems wasteful to throw them away and surely somewhere I must have inherited that affinity for the earth? It can’t all have mutated out with migrations and the softening effect of a British education.
I mostly use my balcony for drinking beer and impressing pretty girls but there’s a nook which would take a pot. It’s sunny, and while I still don’t know what “too sunny” means, I decide to chance it.
My first batch of seedlings wither when I spend a weekend in Berlin; the second make it all the way to the tub but are demolished by snails I didn’t even know I had. I grow frustrated. I call my gran that night and beg for her help. Like a patient doyen, she instructs me to pour out two shot glasses of vodka: one for the snails, one for me. It turns out that the buggers love alcohol but can’t help overdoing it. I sympathise. She invokes even grislier methods involving sequiturs and slimy heads but I lack the nerve.
After that I call her whenever I need advice. I set her up with a picture messaging app for her phone and send her photos: are they well spaced? Do they need more water? Less? She laughs at all my fussing – in her experience seeds just grow – but I can tell that she enjoys it. She has big plans for my botanical future and propagates cuttings for what she has started to call my garden.
My lettuce flourishes. I grew that – with a lot of help and a bottle of non-organic fertiliser, sure, but I grew that. More than anything I like having an excuse to talk to my gran.
I invite her to my flat, something I’ve never done before. The steps seem steeper as she climbs them but she doesn’t complain. I serve her the lettuce with warm forelle pears and slices of beetroot. I study her as she eats every scrap, chasing the nubs of walnut around the plate. She pats me on the cheek.
We have this one-foot-square common ground and I’m going to nurture it.
Felicity Anderson-Nathan | @flick_writes
Felicity Anderson-Nathan is a writer, tutor and freelancer. She’s a proud Write Like a Grrrl-er and spoke at the Edinburgh Book Trust Story Shop this year. You can find her on twitter @flick_writes.