When Siobhan took the downstairs back bedroom in the house in Honor Oak she knew, on opening the floor length curtains to her French windows, that the garden would be her particular project. There were signs it had once been loved: a plastic compost bin and a small shed, but it had long since been taken over by brambles which now piled up atop one another in tangled clumps. Yetta (upstairs front bedroom) said she was not an outdoor person, and Louise (upstairs back bedroom) said she spent all her weekends with her boyfriend in Victoria Dock, so Siobhan's the garden became.
Just a fortnight after moving in, on a warm June morning, she made a start.
Yetta had pointed her to a ring of unlabelled keys in the kitchen drawer and to one of these the padlock on the shed had yielded. Inside, beneath a grimy film of cobwebs which stacked up in the corners like snowdrifts, was a small potting table with broken pots and a mouse-eaten bag of seedling compost, and, above it, a shelf populated by dusty glass jars in an assortment of sizes and shapes. Siobhan could still make out the labels on some of them: jam, pickles, sauerkraut – but those were not what they contained. She wiped the dust off one with her thumb and saw in it only a collapsed and decayed, ancient, shapeless Thing. She put it back, disinclined to open it.
On the back wall of the shed was what she wanted, neatly hanging on nails, a spade, a fork, a hoe, a pruning knife, and a trowel - Siobhan owned only a pair of gloves she had bought that week and some floral print secateurs which, while attractive, did not look capable of more demanding work than dead-heading a rose. She took the spade. The handle, once wiped of cobwebs, had the comforting smoothness of years of use, and the whole thing felt strong and ready for work. Above where it had hung was a red leather strap screwed onto the wall. The strap appeared to have been taken from an old suitcase, both halves of it attached so that it could be buckled up and used to secure something. It was high, about as high as she reach, but there was a trail of old screw-holes beneath it as if its height had been adjusted over the years.
She emerged to find a neighbour leaning on the fence and smiling at her. "You've got your work cut out for you there." She said.
Her name was Mrs Giddens, Siobhan knew, for the others in the house had discussed how she always seemed interested in everything they did. Every Amazon delivery, every guest leaving in the morning, there was Mrs Giddens' face in the window.
Siobhan decided she liked the face. It has a square set to the jaw, and a strong brow, but it was smiling in a manner that suggested smiling was what it mostly did. She resolved that she would be the one to befriend the neighbour.
"I don't think it's been touched in years," she said.
"Not since Miss Loveridge died," Mrs Giddens said. "That was oh... seven years ago."
"Can I ask you a favour," Siobhan said. "Could I use your garden waste bin. Only I don't know yet if it's going to be worthwhile getting one, and none of us have a car to take anything down the tip, and it's all brambles and you can't compost them."
"She grew them you know, the brambles."
"For the fruit?" Siobhan asked.
"No," said Mrs Giddens, "not for the fruit. I'll ask my Tom to take the bin around and you can fill it up. We can mulch the lawn cuttings."
Siobhan worked the rest of the morning, cutting back the long tangled shoots with the secateurs until she had cleared enough space to dig out the roots. She learned quickly to be careful, for the branches held each other under tension and when released were prone to whipping violently free. The thorns had a knack for finding the bare flesh between her sleeves and gloves, and one in particular caught her right across the cheek, drawing blood in three pinprick scratches. She soon filled the garden waste bin and began piling up the cut branches beside the fence. As she approached the back of the garden the brambles became older and thicker, their thorns so large and sharp they pricked her fingers even through the gloves. Eventually she reached a clump in too deep to dig out and so tough that her secateurs would not cut them further down than waist-height. These she had no way of removing.
The day was nearly done anyway and she made herself a cup of tea and surveyed her work. She had uncovered a patio which, while no longer as flat as it had been, would look rather fine with the application of a hosepipe and broom. On either side of it were brick raised beds. Beyond it the garden was divided in two by a path, on the right hand side there was nothing but bare earth and an unhappy looking crab apple tree. In the left hand corner the last surviving brambles still held fast.
That evening Yetta and Louise admired her work. Louise was particularly excited. "It's marvellous," she said. "I'll be able to open my bedroom curtains."
Together they all agreed to chip in some money for plants. Yetta volunteered to help in any way she could and Louise volunteered her boyfriend, who had a car, to drive them to the garden centre.
The following Saturday it turned out that Louise's boyfriend already had plans and, after helping carry a selection of bedding plants back on the bus, Yetta discovered she had little enthusiasm for kneeling on the ground and getting her hands dirty. Siobhan arranged the new garden by herself.
Mrs Giddens face once more appeared over the fence. "You've done sterling work there."
Siobhan thanked her for the compliment. "I hope so. I'm on a bit of a learning curve. Do you think I could borrow..."
"...the garden waste bin again, no problem. Just keep them well watered when they're young and they'll be fine. Could you not get those out?" She gestured to the clump of remaining brambles in the corner.
Siobhan, who had spent the last hour not just planting but pulling out the small insistent shoots of brambles which had re-emerged even in the last week, looked wearily at the clump which lurked malignantly in the corner. "I'll have another go when I've done this, but I can't get the spade under them."
"Miss Loveridge used to feed them I told you that. She used to transplant the little ones into that corner too."
"She sounds a strange one."
"It was her mother was the really strange one. Used to run seances and tell fortunes. She used to grow mushrooms down by the back wall there, and then borage and comfrey and other things to compost where it was sunny. My Tom and I, we think her daughter grew the brambles to crowd out the mushrooms."
Siobhan stood up from her work and leaned on the spade. "Couldn't she just dig them out?"
"Oh you can't dig out mushrooms, underneath the ground they're like microscopic hairs. They can go for miles sometimes, I saw a David Attenborough on it. Me and my Tom, we think they were special mushrooms, you know." She tapped the side of her nose. "To aid communication with the Spiritual Realm. Her mother was awful cruel to her though. Used to lock her in the shed. So maybe she just wanted to destroy them out of spite"
"She locked her in the shed!"
"I remember hearing her cry out here some nights. But she was a lot older than me so I didn't really understand what was happening."
“You lived here when you were a girl then?" Siobhan asked.
"Born here," Mrs Giddens said. "I moved out when I married my Tom but then six months later my mum got sick and we moved back in. That's the only six months I lived anywhere else. I don't think I would have come back if old Mrs Loveridge was still alive though. She used to terrify me. The language on her! Called her daughter … the S word."
"The S word?"
"You know... S L U T. You nasty little... word. She'd shout so loud we could hear it through the wall. I can still remember it. 'It's the shed for you, you dirty little word You'll never be rid of me you nasty little word' Over and over. She spent her last years in a bed in the dining room, what would be your bedroom if I'm right, and we used to hear her shouting orders out the doors. Water this. Dig up that. And always with the language. I'm not boring you am I?"
"Not at all," Siobhan said. "It's so good to know the history of the place."
"Her daughter was a very different person. You never heard so much as a hello from her. She tried to read the fortunes for a bit, with her mother's regulars, but I don't think she had the knack. You need to be a people person to do that. So she just lived alone and grew her brambles. Listen." She gestured Siobhan closer and lowered her voice. "My Tom says he's still got some of the proper stuff. The stuff you can't buy any more. If you want he'll do your brambles with it."
"Weedkiller?" Siobhan said. "I'd rather not if I don't have to. Because of the bees."
"We thought that might be the case," Mrs Giddens said. "But the offers there."
Siobhan's second attempt to clear the bramble clump was no more successful. Despite throwing it down with all her weight the spade would not cut through the roots, and they were too deep to lift out. She tried to cut the shoots back with the pruning knife from the shed but it was blunt and the sawing motion brought her hands within range of the thorns. No matter how careful she was, they caught her. At one point she shifted her weight only slightly and a discarded branch pierced her jeans and stabbed her painfully in the knee. She could have sworn she had placed all the cut branches to one side.
That evening she went round next door and asked if Tom, she almost said "your Tom," could please deal with them. He turned up the following day wearing a respirator and black rubber gauntlets and told her to close the windows and not to venture into the garden that day.
Over the next few days the clump of brambles turned brown, withered and shrank. Siobhan left them for two weeks before, one Saturday morning, slicing through the brittle dried-up shoots with her spade at ground level and finally ridding the garden of their squatting presence. She did not trouble to dig out the roots but instead placed over them a potted azalea, an extravagance she had been unable to resist. That same day, when she did her rounds plucking out the little bramble shoots which still came up around her flowers she spotted a number of spherical white mushroom in the corner next to Mrs Giddens fence. She let them be, interested to see what they would do.
That evening the three housemates, Louise unusually home for the weekend, sat outside at the bistro-style, filigree metal table with matching chairs they had ordered, drank a bottle of white wine, and laid plans for a "patio warming party."
"Everyone's going to be so impressed," Yetta said excitedly.
Siobhan had put cornflowers, marigolds, and white geraniums in the raised beds, all of which were now blooming, she had placed ornamental grasses by the sides of the paths so they spilled over it, and in the shady spots heuchara and clematis, with lupins to add height. Even the crab apple had perked up.
On the Sunday she finally cleared out the shed, dragging the potting table outside and hosing it clean. She saved the good pots and filled a bin bag with anything broken. She emptied the shelf of glass jars and, in the bright sunlight, peered into them. The contents of most had long since rotted away beyond recognition, often to nothing more than black dust. In one she recognised, after looking at it from all sides, the long decayed corpse of a mouse, the withered shape of a toadstool emerging from its belly, and in another, unmistakably, fingernails and hair. After finding these she simply dropped the entire collection in her bin bag. As she replaced the contents in the newly clean and spider-free shed, she noticed again the red leather strap on the wall and guessed it's purpose. Standing under it and reaching up she realised that if it was strapped around her wrists she would hang just high enough for it to be painful. She went and found a screwdriver and a chair to stand on and it, too, was consigned to the bin bag.
For the next two weeks before the party Siobhan took to dead heading and weeding the garden every evening. With one week to go she decided she did not like the mushrooms. They had started to spread beyond the shady spots and some were large enough to almost overshadow her little annuals. To her eyes they had a ruinous look about them, all crowded tightly together, and with tinges of blue and orange, and soft frangible flesh, and skin pale as the skin of a dead person. She dug them out but the following evening noticed that they were already returning, little grey lumps pushing up from under the soil.
The only place they did not seem to sprout was around the azalea pot, where the brambles had been thickest, until one day, just two days before the party, she noticed two thin, grey, upright growths at the edge of it. She lifted the pot and there were three more, folded down and pressed into the ground. The five of them were close together and arranged in a slight arc so that they looked for all the world like fingers reaching up out of the soil. Was there not a fungus that looked like fingers? The impression was so strong that Siobhan flinched when she sliced the spade through them, half expecting it to hit flesh and bone. But no, they were the soft matter of mushrooms and offered no resistance.
The following morning they were back already. And in the evening there were two clumps of five, both lurking, bent and crushed beneath the pot. She mentioned them to Mrs Giddens when she went round to warn the neighbours about the party.
"That's the thing with fungus," Mrs Giddens said. "It spreads under the soil or through the plants, even through animals sometimes, and there's very little you can do about it. That David Attenborough on it was fascinating."
I thought maybe your Tom...?" Sibhan said.
"Something to put on them? I don't think so or he'd have done it where they pop up our side. They're probably harmless anyway. You'll want to show the garden off tomorrow I suppose? You deserve to."
Wanting it to look its best, Siobhan put off her final clearance of the garden as late as possible, just before she showered and changed. When she lifted the azalea pot she found two clumps of five digits again, both bent back the way fingers do not bend, but also, between them, the top a large white dome rising from under the ground, a thorny little wreath of broken dead brambles in a circle around it. She sliced away the fingers as usual and covered the dome back over.
The party was a success. Louise and her boyfriend strung fairy lights from the upstairs windows to the back fence, while Yetta and Siobhan moved the kitchen table outside and set up a bar there. Everybody loved the garden, and Siobhan had a marvellous time telling how she had cleared it and showing photos on her phone of the brambly wilderness it had been. Whenever the guests took too close a look at the flowers though, she worried they would spot a mushroom and be repelled, and at the back of her mind the entire time was the weird dome beneath the azalea pot; she wished she had dug it out when she had the chance. She drank too much perhaps, or Yetta mixed the drinks too strong, for at some point she found herself suddenly alone on the patio furniture, dizzy and slightly confused, and realised to her embarrassment she must have passed out.
The night was dark and quiet. The fairy lights were still lit above her head but the kitchen table and chairs had been moved back inside. She could see that there were a few stragglers sitting in there but she did not feel like joining them, instead she staggered through the open French windows into her own room and collapsed on the bed.
She woke, feeling woozy and borderline nauseous, with the midday light streaming under the hem of the curtains which moved in the breeze. She pulled herself out of bed, sitting on the edge for a moment before standing up, and went to look outside. The little table was crowded with empty bottles. Somebody's jacket hung on one of the chairs. At the far end of the garden, the azaela pot was overturned.
She rubbed her eyes, trying to remember if that had happened during the party. The sunshine was already bringing on a headache. Something moved behind her. She turned around but, her eyes, adjusted to the daylight, could barely see.
Then it stepped into the crack of light from where she was holding the curtains open. Naked and white, thin arms and fleshy hands, tightly folded skin under its neck like gills, a thin slit of a mouth, a hairless broad white dome of a skull.
"It's the shed for you, you filthy little slut!"