Six years ago my then employer sent me to Dorset for three days, and since my then employer was myself he chose to reduce costs by having me stay with friends, Tom and Jenny. They lived the wrong side of Dorchester for my purpose but, compared to my usual drive, the inconvenience was slight.
In hindsight it is possible to say there was a certain unease from the moment of my arrival, in time for supper on Sunday evening. Tom was quiet and Jenny distracted, but it was certainly not anything that troubled me at the time. I do remember that Tom did not eat well that evening, leaving his plate half finished, because I remember making an effort to finish mine with gusto, gorging myself on a second helping, knowing that nothing endears you to a host so well. It was good fare too: a chicken from a local farm and vegetables from their own garden. The new potatoes, dug only that afternoon, were particularly fine.
Afterwards, in the slow twilight of the summer evening, Tom went out to water the plants while Jenny loaded the dishwasher. I was still a smoker then so did the ungallant thing and accompanied Tom. We strolled the perimeter of the garden, enclosing just over half an acre if I remember right, talking while Tom, hose-gun in hand, expertly doled out water to each according to their need. When we had worked our way around back to the patio I had thought we were done but Tom, with something of an exaggerated put-upon sigh, quarter filled a bucket with water and, after nipping into the kitchen, emptied into it a large quantity of table salt.
"The one thing about gardening I've never come to terms with," he said, "is the murder."
He strapped on an LED head torch, of the kind a potholer might use, and dazzled me with it. Then, bucket in hand, returned to the vegetables.
I followed of course, curious to observe this new ritual. All horticulture is strange and arcane to me; plants seem to grow despite our efforts where they are not wanted, why would they require our efforts where they are? But the purpose of the bucket was an especially tantalising mystery.
Tom squatted on his haunches and began to gently turn down the leaves of his lettuces. As I watched from behind his shoulders he found his quarry nestled deep within the folds of the plant. Tiny, translucent in the light of the head-torch, was a snail.
"I think it's a quick death," Tom said after he dropped the creature in the bucket. "The salt, you know." I looked and the snail was not moving, but then they are not renowned for their animation are they? Snails.
Tom checked his plants methodically, working through the leaves with his fingertips like a collector browsing LPs at a record fair. First the lettuces, then the brassicas - broccoli and young sprouts, then the runner beans, carrots, beetroot, and finally the potatoes I had enjoyed so much. He plucked off up each snail he found between thumb and forefinger and dropped them into the killing bucket. In the quiet of the countryside you could sometimes hear a small squeak as they went in, air escaping from under the shell I assume, but still piteous.
I picked up one he had missed. It's shell was a pleasant combination of earthy browns and pastel greens; its malleable body, extended long and thin, a lighter shade of the same. Its eye stalks waved languidly as it twisted its head from side to side. I remember thinking that it had a friendly countenance, for something so soft and vulnerable to stretch all the way out and not retreat at the first sign of danger. It seemed trusting. Naïve. Somehow charming. I put it back down again in a dark corner where Tom had already checked.
After twenty minutes Tom stood up, pressed the heel of his hand into the small of his back and winced, and announced he was done. We walked back to the house together where Jenny was already waiting on the patio table with three brandy glasses and a bottle. The bucket rattled like a shingle beach in the surf.
I did not sleep for some time that night. It was too warm, and the night was too dark and too quiet, the occasionally hoot of an owl no substitute for the police sirens of home. I thought of Tom's insistence that he would not use slug pellets so as not to risk poisoning any hedgehogs. We had wondered, tipsy and giggling by then, how radical vegan gardeners might manage pest control. Would they humanely relocate the snails? Would they pick off aphids with tweezers and transplant them to other, sacrificial plants?
I worked late the following day. Even with three days there was not enough time; design meetings, and compliance meetings, and meetings to plan meetings about meetings. I did not return until nearly nine o'clock. I had warned Jenny this would happen and she had a plate of dinner ready to go in the microwave. I found Tom on the sofa looking pale and unhappy.
"He hasn't eaten a thing all day," Jenny said as she set me up with an occasional table in front of the television.
"I'm alright," said Tom. "I just feel bloated."
I did not sleep again that night. It had become clear during the day that my employer, blinded by the promise of a large pay-cheque, had committed me to do far more than I was able in the time. Had he been anyone other than me I would have grabbed my laptop and dashed him off an strong worded e-mail. Instead I planned out how the following day would need to be less about getting down to work and more about managing expectations. I did not expect it to be easy.
Sometime in the night I heard Tom run from his room to the toilet and the sounds of retching as he threw up. Just before the flush and cistern drowned everything else out I heard him curse out loud.
The following evening I did not see Tom at all. "He's gone to bed," Jenny said. "He won't admit it but he's really not well."
Wrapped up in my own problems I perhaps did not appreciate how worried she was. In hindsight she must have known what was happening. Perhaps, like I think Tom did, refusing to believe her own eyes.
I had planned to go straight home the following evening but it was clear I would now need to work very late to finish the job. I asked her if it was okay for me to stay one more night. I had to ask twice before she answered.
That final night I did not get back till gone midnight. I was exhausted, expecting no more than to pad through a darkened house to the guest bedroom and drop straight to sleep. Instead I found the patio doors open and Jenny sitting on a garden chair hugging her knees. In the vegetable patch Tom's head-torch bobbed up and down and cast its light hither and thither. "He's been out there for hours," Jenny said. "I can't get him to come back in."
I walked out and found him. Even in the dark it was obvious what a poor state he was in. He was kneeling on all fours in the bare earth and breathing heavily. He had trampled all his lettuces and half his potato crop flat. The bucket was thick with snails, so much so that survivors, who rode above the salt water on the shells of the dead, now climbed back up the sides and over the rim.
Tom looked up at me and said, "I don't know where they're all hiding."
I put an arm around him and lifted him to his feet. "Come on," I said. "Let's get you to bed."
"I don't know where they're all hiding."
Jenny came out and helped me get him upstairs where we put him, still dressed and filthy with mud, straight into bed. He did not say anything else. Only lay there and watched us with frightened eyes.
Jenny, apparently understanding something in his look, started closing the bedroom windows.
"You'll suffocate," I said. It was probably the warmest night that year.
"Could you close yours please," she said.
She did not say why and I did not ask. I closed the window and crawled into bed. For a while I lay there thinking over what had just happened and rehearsing questions for the morning in my mind but I must have fallen asleep before long. Like I said, it was late and it had been a very long day.
I awoke in the night uncomfortably hot, we later calculated it was just before half past three. I was already more on top of the bed clothes than under them and, the room desperately stuffy, I decided to open the window again.
Maybe it was this movement, the creak the floorboard, which woke Jenny, or maybe some unheard sound a moment before had woken us both. Before I even reached the window she screamed and kept on screaming.
In their room, her bedside light turned on, she was kneeling up on the bed and shaking Tom, trying to rouse him. It was immediately obvious she was not going to. His face I remember far better than I would like; a livid purple and frozen into a desperate gasp for air, and his eyes wide open and half crimson with blood.
The windows were still firmly shut, as was the door. We later traced silvery trails across the carpet to, an old house, the vent in the chimney where there had once been a fireplace.
At the corner of Tom's mouth, climbing back out onto his cheek, was a snail.