‘The marrow, the marrow,’ she said in a voice that will haunt me every time I pass a greengrocer or walk the lonely haunted vegetable aisle of a supermarket.
Back in those days, of course, an allotment was a wild and dangerous place, a place for adventurers and those not afraid of the wild and savage heart of the artichoke.
Brassica Legume had that look of someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of the secret ways of vegetables; someone who had looked deep into the heart of the vegetable rack and survived all that it could do to her. If I was not mistaken, sometimes I thought I could see the fading leek scars on her elbows.
Due to a disappointment in romance I had turned towards the dark and forbidden need to grow vegetables. I had experimented with seed boxes and potted seedlings on my window ledge as a teenager, of course, but I had never wanted to become involved in gardening, not until that day I met Brassica Legume.
I had thought that we, Brassica and I, would - one day in the not too distant future, take up a small plot of land together and come our weeding day we would spend the rest of our lives working together in that garden, maybe even – one day – growing some cauliflowers together.
However, it was not to be.
One day I turned up at Brassica’s door and there in her porch I asked her to close her eyes. I whipped out my prize courgette and told her – without opening her eyes – to feel it.
She put out a slow, tentative hand, but as soon as her hand touched my courgette she screamed and ran back into the house, slamming the door in my face.
I banged on the door and begged her to let me in, let me explain, but she just screamed something mystifying about me seeing a doctor as soon as possible and to ‘keep away from me with that… that thing!’ and if I ever came near again and asked her to touch it like that she would ‘have me arrested.’
Perplexed by her behaviour, I gave up, tucked my courgette away and walked out of her life, I thought, forever.
Then, a few weeks later I met Brassica out on the street. She was carrying a suitcase and – eventually – let me walk with her for a while as I tried to apologise, but I could tell she was not really listening to me.
That was the day she left; leaving me on a bleak and windy railway station platform as she rode off to some distant horticultural adventure with another man she had met through the personal adverts in the back of a seed catalogue.
Then, several years later, I received a letter from Brassica, covered with mulch stains and with a pressed dried cabbage leaf I’d once given her as a romantic keepsake falling from the envelope I’d so hastily torn open when I’d recognised her handwriting.
In the letter, she begged me to come to her aid. So I dropped everything, then picked it up again, and ran for the train station.
She had – according to the letter I re-read sitting in the train – married the man from the advert in the personal column of the seed catalogue. Apparently, this Herr Doktor Sproutz was a world authority on vegetables with a professorship at the nearby University of Cudworth. They had settled down in a picturesque country cottage together to grow vegetables. All had been well at first, until he began sneaking back to their allotment at night.
At first she’d suspected he had a lover, or went off to meet one of the ladies of the night who hung around the allotments touting for business and in the hope of getting themselves a handful of radishes or a cucumber in return for their ‘services’.
However, one night she’d followed him, only to see him enter the allotment lean-to on his own. When Brassica built up the nerve to look in through the window she saw that her husband was standing naked in the lean-to with one of the biggest leeks she had ever seen and an economy-sized bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. At first, she’d wondered what he was going to do with such a prize specimen of the vegetable-growers art. However, Brassica’s letter did not go into the details of what horrors she’d witnessed that night.
Then, once I arrived at her cottage, Brassica told me she’d seen just what he was about to do with the well-lubricated leek.
‘I almost fainted then,’ she said, taking my hand and squeezing it. ‘B… but when he next turned towards the biggest marrow I’d ever seen and began oiling it up… th… then I did faint.’
She fell into my arms and sobbed against my shoulder. ‘The marrow, the marrow,’ she said in that haunted voice. I almost gave her my handkerchief, but then remembered when I’d last used it... and what for, and then thought better of it.
‘What am I to do?’ she said, once she had stopped sobbing.
‘I don’t know,’ I said honestly. ‘Just how big was this leek?’
I blanched when she told me.
‘…and the marrow?’
She told me about that too.
I felt my jaw drop and thought myself lucky to be sitting down, because I felt my legs go weak. ‘But how…?’ was all I could – eventually – say.
Brassica shook her head and wiped away her tears. ‘Just take me away from here,’ she said. ‘I’ve already packed my seed trays and my dibber.’ She looked up at me from under lowered eyelids. ‘I hope you don’t think that is a little too forward of me, especially since I was so cruel about your co….’
‘My courgette?’ I said helpfully.
‘Your courgette?’ Brassica blushed for some reason I didn’t quite grasp. ‘Oh, I thought it was your….’ She seemed to relax as though some great weight was suddenly gone from her mind.
‘Thought it was my what?’ I said, taking her hand.
‘Oh, nothing…’ she shook her head. ‘Nothing at all.’
I waited for a moment, but she said nothing more.
‘When will he… your husb… Herr Sproutz be back?’ I said.
Brassica turned and glanced at the clock.’ Oh, no,’ she cried. ‘He’ll be here any minute now… and if he finds you here…. Well, he has a temper, a vicious temper and he gets so jealous.’ She got up and began rushing around, gathering her things.’ Once a man took me to his allotment, just to show me his shallots…’
‘What happened?’ I said.
‘I shot him… dead,’ a voice from behind me said.
I turned and saw the gun.
A short time later, Brassica and I were tied up, bound together face to face, on either side of a roof-support pole in Herr Doctor Sproutz allotment lean-to.
‘You’ll never get away with this,’ I said, but Sproutz just laughed as he prepared something on a small camping stove over in the corner of his shed.
‘Oh… no…’ I could see the despair in Brassica’s eyes as she realised what her husband was preparing for us.
‘What?’ I said as tenderly as I could, staring into those fear-filled eyes only a few inches from mine. ‘I’ve always loved you.’ I added, wishing I could touch her. ‘Tell me, what is he doing?’
Brassica shook her head as her tears began to fall freely from her eyes. ‘Sprouts,’ she said.
‘What about him?’ I turned my head, hoping to catch sight of the dastardly German.
‘No… no,’ Brassica said. ‘Not him, the….’
But it was too late; he came towards us carrying an enormous plate.
‘Brussels sprouts,’ he said, coming closer.
‘Oh, god,’ Brassica moaned, almost fainting with terror. ‘Nooooo!’
‘Yes, my dear,’ Sproutz said. ‘My own creation.’ He turned to me. ‘Giant sprouts!’
He was right, there was no way such monstrosities could be natural. Each sprout was the size of a medicine ball and seemed to glow with some un-earthly green colour that made each of those monstrous vegetables seem far more dangerous than any ordinary sprout.
‘You’ll have to kill us both,’ I spat at him. ‘Neither of us is going to eat such an ungodly abomination.’
‘Yes, you vill die, both of you,’ the madman said. ‘And, yes, you will eat these sprouts I created. You vill have no choice!’
‘But why?’ Brassica said. ‘I thought you loved me.’
Sproutz laughed in her face. ‘No, my dear. I just used you… I only vanted you for your knowledge of vegetables.’
‘Why,’ she repeated as her tears flowed.
‘Because ve all know that var is coming soon and my government believes that chemical veapons vill be the veapon of the future!’
‘Hence the sprouts.’ I nodded. ‘One of the deadliest chemical weapons ever experienced.’
Brassica looked at me, puzzled.
‘You’ve been in the room with your family after the Christmas meal, haven’ t you?’
Realisation dawned in her eyes. ‘Yes, especially my aunt Edna. She always blames the dog, but we know it is her.’ She turned to face her husband. ‘You… you heartless baa.. bas… bastard!’
Herr Doktor Sproutz just laughed. ‘There will be no escape.’ He began to wheel over some device towards us - a giant hopper above a machine of some kind, beneath it he attached two tubes, each ending in a face mask. ‘You vill both have no choice but to eat,’ he said, fitting the masks over our faces.
Turning away from us he began to chop the already-cooked and immense sprouts into smaller, bite-sized pieces. He turned the hopper machine on and I could see the two tubes flexing as the deadly shopped-sprouts made their way – inch by inch towards our mouths. I looked into Brassica’s eyes, both of us knowing that eventually we would have no choice but to chew, eat and swallow. I gulped. I’d never liked sprouts.
Sproutz then took a candle, lit it and put it on the table, looking up to see us both staring wide-eyed at his dastardly trick.
‘Ja,’ he said. ‘When the gas builds up enough and reaches this naked flame…’ He turned towards the door. ‘Don’t worry I will be back to say good-bye before the end.’ He left, locking the door behind him.
Neither of us could speak, except with our eyes, then the sprouts arrived at our mouths and all we could do was eat.
I thought I would burst. Never if all my life had I eaten so much, and never so much of one thing. I vowed that if we were to get out of this alive I would never eat another vegetable again. I could see from the look of hopeless despair in my beloved’s eyes that she too felt the same.
Eventually, though, after the longest period of prolonged mastication in my life, I swallowed the last mouthful of sprout. A few moments later Brassica did the same.
A few minutes later, Sproutz came back into the leant-to carrying a full suitcase and a briefcase.
Seeing we’d eaten all the sprouts, he removed the machine, enabling us to breathe properly again, although, considering how many sprouts we’d both eaten we soon wouldn’t be able to breathe properly then either, at least not through our noses… and with the naked flame in the room with us, not for long either.
Sproutz hurried over to a filing cabinet and began transferring his papers to the briefcase. I presumed those papers contained all he’d learnt about making offensive chemical weapons from vegetables. A glance at Brassica confirmed my suspicions. We had to do something to prevent those papers reaching the German military high command, but our situation seemed hopeless.
I began to feel a stirring in my stomach.
A moment later, Sproutz sniffed the air. ‘I think it is time I said my good-byes,’ he said.
I glanced at Brassica. It seemed her eyes were swelling. I shook my head. ‘Can you hold it for a while,’ I whispered to her.
Brassica nodded through gritted teeth.
‘Wait..’ I whispered to her. ‘When I say, let it go… all of it.’
‘A…all of it…?’ There was panic in her eyes as she whispered back.
I nodded. ’All of it.’
She took a deep, despairing breath and nodded.
Carefully, slowly I manoeuvred us around the support-pole Sproutz had bound us to, until the candle was right behind Brassica and in-between her and where her husband was preparing to leave.
Sproutz fastened the briefcase and, after putting on his hat, picked up the suitcase. ‘Auf Wiedersehen, my darling and you… mister… mister… I’m afraid I don’t know your name?’
‘No, you don’t,’ I said.
‘No matter,’ Sproutz said and tuned to go. ‘Soon you vill have no need of it.’
I could see that Brassica was struggling to keep it in, screwing up her eyes and biting her lip. I could feel the tension in her body as she clenched herself against the inevitable.
Quickly I made sure the candle was between Brassica’s back and the fiend. ‘Now!’ I said.
I’m afraid I had to close my eyes as I attempted to breathe through my nose. Even with my eyes closed though, I could feel the heat as Brassica turned the candle flame into a deadly flame-thrower.
Sproutz screams were – mercifully – brief.
When we dared open our eyes once again, and breather through our noses, all that remained of Herr Doktor Sproutz was a scorch mark on the lean-to wall and a slightly-singed hat lying next to a pair of smoking shoes and the twisted charred remnants of a briefcase. Everything else was ash and smoke.
Brassica sagged against me in relief. She looked up at me and blushed.
‘Your aunt Edna would have been so proud,’ I said, straining to kiss her. She laughed and leant forward to kiss me back.
‘But how do we get out of here,’ she said, straining, but this time at our bonds.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I went to public school and had to eat their vegetables, so I’m used to this,’ I said, taking a strand of the rope that bound us between my teeth and chewing.
‘Sounds just like my school meals too,’ Brassica said, laughing as she too took a strand of the rope between those lovely lips of hers and began chewing too.