“…The World Is Fair, The World Is Safe, The World Is Vegan!” The ritual opening chant ended, and The World management committee settled into yet another routine meeting.
Outside, a flock of schoolchildren were running down the street below the balcony, the blue of the ceiling lights sparkling off eyes as they fooled about in packs and clusters, and raised echoes that went bouncing off the tunnel walls right down to the fifth level. Most of the scene, the ubiquitous browns and greys of fabric, pavement and walls, failed to raise a glimmer. The Chairperson frowned down into an unusual gloom, made a note: the street mirrors needed cleaning again. Why did everything always need cleaning; it dulled life, all that polishing. As if on cue, a street-bot trundled into view, sweeping the microscopic detritus of the day—hairs, threads of fabric, food crumbs, shreds of paper, skerricks of schoolbag and gritty flakes of building material—off the paths and into the waste chutes. Thank god the waste system had been repaired again; last breakdown had taken over a week to fix and the lower levels of The World were ankle-deep in grot. When people had moved about, the swirls of dry skin flakes had floated for an hour in the stagnant tunnel air; after a few days they had closed the schools to save people breathing in the muck. Walking the streets had been banned. Again.
The Chairperson turned back to the meeting. Ceiling lights cast a star pattern of shadow chairpersons across the table, the committee members sitting opposite him, and finally, up the back wall. The dusty bluish plants covering the wall folded their leaves where his shadow fell on them.
“Mirrors” he stated baldly. Ceremony has devolved into brusqueness in his grandfather’s time, there was no need to say more. He had lived with these people his entire life; if they didn’t know his every thought, twinge, and bladder movement he’d be surprised.
“Noted” the Secretary. Yes, they knew each other’s thoughts. His back itched, and he could swear the Secretary had leaned towards him with a helpful stylus outstretched.
Outside, the school mob had gone. An idle teenager dawdled down the path, frowning. The committee dawdled on as well, through the routine agenda that hadn’t changed significantly in generations. Items were ticked, points were noted, tasks were signed off.
The newest item had been added before he was born: recycled materials weren’t lasting long enough, due to the continual shortening of fibres though the decades of re-use. Objects were returning to dust, faster and faster each cycle; that explained the rise in cleaning issues. But there had been a partial solution; thank god, as always, for the Kitchen Gardens.
That frowning teenager was reviewing her day and it had been, frankly, crap. Her friend Cat seemed to be in love, and, boringly, to be in love with someone else, and Daisy herself felt isolated, surplus to need and ready for recycling, grey as the compound walls; colourless. What, she had frequently wondered, was the point of learning how to spell the word ‘yellow’ in Grade One, when nothing was yellow, would never be yellow for her entire life? She didn’t even know what ‘yellow’ looked like. She leaned against the corner of the building where the wall had been smoothed by the rubbing of previous shoulders over eighty-something-thousand days, and with a stylus carved her name in the film of grey grease left there. Tiny pellets of merged fabric, sweat and skin dropped from the point of the stylus onto the path and a passing street-bot aimed obsessively towards them. Recycling.
Recycling: as tedious as air. As dull as water. The World was ancient: over 250 years old, and all that recycling had merged all colours into brown, or grey, or greyish brown. Daisy hated everything, but she hated recycling more than everything else. The age of this place; the age of everything in The World was oppressive and she wanted something young, fresh, new … special. Nothing, no-one, was special anymore.
She suspected even her name had been used a thousand times before.
Not for the first time, Daisy puzzled over words. So many words were just collections of sounds, especially names like those of her and her friends: Daisy, Cat, Dawn, Skye, River, Reyne, Birdy … these were just letters and didn’t actually mean a real thing. But then other words were solid: wall, ceiling, bot, bean stew … Daisy didn’t like reality much.
Daisy carved the word ‘yellow’ into the greasy film on the wall. The street-bot waited for the crumbs of scurf to fall.
On the other side of the wall, Daisy’s mother (whose name was also Daisy) was thinking about preparing dinner; blue ceiling light fell through the gaps in the upper floor, but the room was still very gloomy. Mirrors must need cleaning, she thought. The light that should have been bouncing in off the street was much reduced and the wall plants had shut up for the night already; in the morning, the family would wake up with headaches from the stuffy air.
“Breeze?” the mother called as Daisy dropped her bag in the vague direction of a cushion deck. Daisy turned on the fan, turned it off again as a cloud of dust rocketed into the kitchen.
“Broken bot.” Daisy looked around disgustedly; she finally found the fully functioning house-bot and lifted her morning’s discarded clothing from its sensors, then sloped off around the partition to her room. Dust swirled round her feet as she moved, the house-bot making a gear-grating attempt to deal with it.
“Daisy, I had a letter!” called her mother, “School outing.”
“Where…” came vaguely though the partition’s open window. Young Daisy wondered what the word ‘outing’ had once meant, because it didn’t seem to fit the reality: walking down a different tunnel, and then back again.
“The Kitchen Garden. You’ll love it! Do good in the exams, you might get a job there, next term. And it’s, well … you’ll love it” her mother came to the bedroom doorway, smiled proudly down at Daisy on the bed: “So grown up,” she murmured “you’ll need gloves soon.” Daisy collapsed inside. Her mother was intolerable.
Daisy closed her eyes and studied the light through her closed eyelids: lying with her face towards the window she could see her blood; shading her face with her fingers in just the right way and the whole private world turned a cool motley blue, like looking into deep buckets of water. Daisy was entranced. This was the only escape she knew.
The outing was, no really, it was great. Colours and smells that had to be named and explained to the group: green, red, white; soil and fresh sap; blossom. Bins of dark rich compost that looked nothing like the dreary dust of the streets; tubes and lines of water; warmth without stuffiness, and—oh god— a light that Daisy could only think of as ‘big’, pouring down from discs in the ceiling way above them, and spilling over the plants that rose in vines and tiers and columns up through the vast cavernous space of Level One. A dampness in the air that made some of the group gag, while others breathed deeply for the first time in their lives.
The air was alive, too. Tiny flitting chinks of wire and glass and hair were blinking in and out of Daisy’s peripheral vision, too fast and small to get a fix on, and moving fast in all directions; she’d never seen anything like this before. Magic? Tricks of the big light?
“Bugs” said the guide, seeing her squint at nothing. The word was meaningless, but ok… “Bug-bots, to be totally accurate. Pollinators.” Whatevs; at least she wasn’t imagining them.
The tunnels of Kitchen Garden stretched away for such a distance Daisy couldn’t at first understand what she was looking at. It was only when someone walked away from them … and walked … and walked … that Daisy could comprehend the scale of the place. The bright discs in the ceiling, the trestle tables and racks, lines and lines of growing foodstuffs, the flow of water, it all went on for further than she’d ever seen before. Who knew The World was this big, could be this fresh, contained all this green!
“Why can’t we live here?” she wailed, unintentionally aloud. The tour guide laughed, that ‘heard-it-all-before’ kind of laugh.
“Because we’d have no food or air or water.” he summarised. Obviously. Daisy felt an idiot. But, yay, she would be coming here daily, in a couple of months’ time. Well, if she got ‘top of year’ on the exams. Now she understood why being a gardener was considered an elite career. But what actually was ‘garden’? She’d read about the Garden of Eden in fairy tales of course, but she didn’t remember trestle tables were ever mentioned.
Cat gagged again in the moist air; Daisy smiled at her.
A month into her new roster in Kitchen Garden and Daisy was beginning to feel she legitimately occupied her lowly place in the hierarchy. She was years away from the experienced Compost staff, with their formulae and rituals, but she had a knack for pruning and for tech that had earned her a role as assistant monitor on the tomato lines, and the feeling that one day she might climb the organisational vines to a permanent position in, who knew, the Flavour Production team. There was a lot more mathematics to Garden than she’d expected, but she liked figures—they were more reliable than words. The smell of green tomato sap was now ineradicable in her skin, clothes, dreams. But it was more interesting than the bean lines that went row on row forever. Beans were beans; tomatoes were mysterious.
A dimming of the light caused her to look up for the third time since lunch break. Some of the discs above seemed to be, what had the induction leaflet called it: quarter-moon, when the light was cut out of some of the discs— ‘skylights’ the management called them, although she didn’t know what her friend Skye had to do with them, way up there? She studied the ceiling, wondered again what powered the discs and why did it change all the time, rolling through a cycle from pale to bright to red to dark to pale to bright to red to dark… about a day/night period for the full thing to happen; almost as if it was set to mimic the day-light/night-light cycle of The World, which made a kind of sense. Only it wasn’t always the same steady blue light of day-light. Sometimes, the bright time was dull, or the red was faded, or very brief … once the first pale was a kind of… hot white…? … a colour she couldn’t name. And there was no night-light just a steady darkness as far as she could tell, not that she’d been allowed on any night shifts yet. Several times it looked like shower water was splashing in the discs—skylights! she needed to remember the jargon—and that made no sense; but the head gardeners ignored it so she said nothing. She was even sure that over the month, the light length was changing, dark was just slightly shorter, and light was just slightly longer. There was maybe something wrong with the tech, like when the waste chutes had been blocked. Daisy worked on, but she had begun to frown again. If this continued, would she have to work after night-switch, when The World was asleep but the Kitchen Garden was in full day-light? No-one had mentioned this at induction.
Again, the light cut down, and again Daisy looked up. The dozen or so discs right above her looked like, well, she guessed the word would be ‘half-moon’: darkness covered about half of each disc in a broad ragged wedge of tunnel-dark, with torn edges. While she watched, two more discs acquired a scattered dark patch, suddenly, like it had been thrown on in bits. Then three more, receding down the line.
“What the Absolute?” Daisy wondered. Her work area was nearly as dark as if night-switch had been thrown. She looked around for a supervisor.
They were all herding together, in a group, walking away down the lines. Something was clearly up. Someone was gesturing urgently. Several were shouting back to colleagues still heading towards the huddle; that muffled shout when urgency—panic? —needs to be kept secret. Secrets were a rarity almost impossible to achieve in her home tunnel, but here in the Garden the air was thick with them and it was frankly beginning to irritate Daisy. She walked right up and leaned into the space between two technicians. No-one noticed. The gardeners talked over each other in a rush:
“Can we wait for rain?”
“For the last time why didn’t they think of this at the beginning? Poor design, I tell you. Shit design”
“We can’t just wait for rain. Can we? The impact on production will be—”
“Just follow the protocols. That’s why they’re there!”
“Why in god’s name no-one thought of dirt blowing over the skylights I have no idea! A simple system of sweepers and washers—”
“So, you’re to tell the committee?”
“Even a baby knows things need cleaning once or—”
“Not my job.”
“Shit design, that’s what it is!”
“Protocol will manage it. There’s always a … volunteer.”
“This is meant to be a closed system, we keep losing material at this rate, we’ll fall below sustainable levels in a few decades.”
“Yes; but it’s always an old, umm, volunteer. Well past breeding age.”
“Rain is preferable to even old people. Does anyone have a feeling about rain, just now?”
“Doesn’t matter how old the body, umm, person, is. Material is lost from the system all the same!”
“Better that than everyone starving, right? I mean opportunity costs and all that…”
“But, going Outside. That’s death for someone, and you know it.”
“And the body stays where it lays, dammit. Outside. No recycling. …” Regret mingled with frustration in the voice of the last speaker, a woman of considerable status as head of the Compost Team.
High above, more light discs turned dark, in twos and threes receding down the tunnel. As Daisy watched, fascinated, the first discs that were at half-moon, suddenly became all dark, although there was clear light coming from the ones far in the distance before and behind her.
“Let’s wait one day, in case of rain!” The group broke up, deferring to the authority of the Head of Compost.
Daisy had no idea what they were talking about, but the urgency and importance was clear… and three words were glowing in her mind. She ran back through the gloom. On the food plants that filled the vast space around her, the flowers were closing in the unscheduled darkness. Bug-bots nestled down in companionable swarms on the charging plates, folded their wings, slept.
Long after night-switch, when night-light was at its lowest setting, Daisy crept down the street to reach in through a certain window; it was a place she knew well, and the girl sleeping inside was as untidy as Daisy. Daisy lingered a moment longer to blow a farewell kiss.
“Yes? You are…?”
“Reyne, sir. I’m here like you needed” said Daisy, optimistically holding up her friend’s student ID card, with her thumb over the photo. “I heard you yesterday, when things—” she waved the ID card upwards “—were going dark; you said ‘wait for Reyne’, and so here I am.” Daisy kept her excitement held down, pressed between her shallow breathing and her thumping heart. In the dim light, the gardener looked utterly mystified.
“Reyne? Outside? No recycling…” Daisy urged again, her voice becoming squeaky with the deception, the urgency, the opportunity. “Skye’s lights?” She again gestured upwards with the ID card.
The gardener looked at her in puzzlement, through understanding to horror and finally a spurt of rude laughter.
“Rain? Rain’s not a person …” the gardener trailed off into silence, realising he was stumbling on the very edge of Garden esoterica; an incautious breach could mean anything: riot, mass despair, even possibly the loss of his job. Or worse, being sent Outside himself.
“Not you. We didn’t mean you.” He was almost apologetic, contrite.
“But I’m here!” persisted Daisy. This was unbeatable logic, surely. She rushed on, running on instinct and an uninformed recollection of what had been said the day before, “you need Reyne to be Outside to… to… and here I am. Reyne is better than old people!” she finished triumphally.
The gardener looked at her. It was just possible she was right; maybe a young person could do more than they expected. Maybe this time something could be done to fix that bloody shit design problem. Although this unnamed girl looked nothing like the face on the ID card she was now jiggling excitedly from hand to hand. He swallowed all ethical considerations in the face of greater practical needs. Certainly, she was smaller than the average full-grown adult; at the worst, there’d be less material lost from The World.
“Come with me … ‘Reyne’”
The important thing was, not to ask her real name. This was understood by everyone in the room: implicit, complicit, just one more forbidden word in the arcane lexicon of the Kitchen Garden. Need-to-know basis only, and they definitely did not need to know. Daisy was unaware of this; she forgot about covering the ID card and assumed her ruse had been totally successful. Reyne. She giggled inside herself with excitement while frowning in concentration as they ran through the tasks, the schema, the drawings, the equipment. She knew at a subconscious level that there were huge gaps in the information they were cramming into her; the main question was ‘why’. Followed by so many other questions she shut down thought and just looked out through unquestioning eyes with that fabulous word — ‘Outside’— dancing in her head. They said it so often. Like it wasn’t sacred. Like it was possible. Like it was real.
In her mind, Outside was coloured yellow.
They buckled her into a protective suit. The suit had gaps all along the seams and didn’t fit her in any meaningful way. Daisy didn’t care, since she didn’t know what it was supposed to protect, or from what. Another unanswered question; so many now it was pointless to think about anything. She did think about her mother, wanted to say something to her but was so uncertain what, that she focused on what she could say when she returned. How she’d be some sort of special hero, like in the stories. She’d have to tell them her real name when she returned, it would be the living end if Reyne got all the glory for this. They were steering Daisy towards a door and her daydreaming fell away, faced with the tangible fact of a door.
She’d read about doors in the fairy tales, and this door was surely a magic one.
For a start, it was a wall. A wall that took three gardeners to open, and that opened onto another wall. They pushed her into the gap between the two walls, and there was a shove of air against her back. Then silence. She was alone, clutching in her two anxious hands the broom she’d been given.
Then the wall in front opened. She stepped towards yet another wall, which also, after she felt that push of air in her back again, opened ridiculously slowly. The silence was full of heartbeats, she hoped they were hers. Light came seeping through the slowly widening gap.
Daisy stepped Outside. That would be the title of her story, she could see it: little kids in a circle round the teacher, maybe a theatre show …
Then it hit her: What the Absolute was going on in The World, if Outside was real, and it was so easy to go Outside? Why were they …? Why weren’t they…?
Then it hit her. A blunt object from behind. Just as she stepped through the door. Daisy fell to the …
“Grass!” she sighed, and everything went away.
Roughly one hundred years earlier, a young woman had failed her suicide attempt. Dawn had got through the Outside Doors from the Kitchen Garden after only a few short months of her gardening internship, wanting to end the unhappiness of being a teenager, pregnant, in love and abandoned. What she had understood all her life was that Outside was poisoned, that the air and the water and the weather would all kill her, as retaliation for humans doing all they could to kill the air and the water and the weather. This made perfect sense to Dawn; people were awful and didn’t deserve nice things. She had passed on through.
And she had found that there was life after World. She had found food and shelter and her baby was born, for the Earth had cleansed itself after the humans had left it alone. But both food and shelter were a constant challenge, alone as she was, and changed as the Earth was. When the loneliness or hunger gnawed at her belly, she would sit on the hillside and look over the underground garden’s skylights, like giant mushrooms along the valleys. And she’d think of the despicable father of her beautiful baby, working below and monitoring the light that was crucial to the survival of The World. How they would all die without that light. They would all die …
Dawn could be pretty dark, and realising that the end of The World was in her power was a pretty dark idea.
She had found a shovel-type thing. And one day she’d started to cover in the skylights with dirt. After she’d disabled the cleaning mechanisms with some regret, and difficulty, for they were exmplars of quality design.
What she hadn’t considered, of course, was there would be a response from below. A door had opened, and a frightened old man had come out, carrying a broom. The shock of the Outside had killed him instantly, however. Dawn had looked at him lying on the inedible green grass … and had lit a barbeque …
Steadily, the tribe had swelled with an influx—outflux? —of suicidal teenagers and nihilist poets. The Earth was repopulated by unrequited lovers, who found they liked being alive, having narrowly escaped the alternative – and had cheered up immensely upon getting a glimpse of sunshine on grass. They controlled the cleaning or occluding of the skylights, and the subsequent arrival of frightened old people with brooms, on a scheduled system. One could almost say a crop rotation system.
Daisy woke with a bump. On the side of her head. The grass was amazing, the light was overwhelming, the air was intoxicating. The air was also freezing; she’d never known what ‘cold’ felt like before now and it was nasty! And her broom was missing.
Voices? Three or four voices all talking at once; it was like being in the gardeners’ huddle again, except this time she was lying flat on her back.
“Don’t be vile, she’s less than half your age!”
“I meant, they don’t usually send sweepers this tender—”
“Yeah? Well, you’re still vile!”
“Just be quiet; all you guys are disgusting. Let me think”
“Take her to council. It’s not our call.”
“Yeah? Nah, let’s just make a start here. You get the barbeque going for her, and pass me the broom. We have to clear up the skylights, don’t forget. Don’t want the garden to die off…”
“Take her to council. They’ll know there’s been a harvest anyway. There’s always a harvest. It’s never failed yet.”
“Spoilsport!” said several voices at once. The one who sounded in charge leaned over Daisy, holding her broom in one hand like a weapon.
“The question is—” he peered at her critically, as if she were in a shop window “—are you more use to us alive or dead? Hmmm? Are you … breeder, or breakfast?”
Daisy twisted around on the soft sweet grass, looked back hopelessly at the door she had just come through, and saw it had no handle, offered no chance of return.
It did, however, have a rough sign lettered across the middle: Kitchen Garden.
First published in COLP Underground Anthology 2021
2 thoughts on “Kitchen Garden”
Wow!! so beautifully written …. I hope you’re pursuing more publishing opportunities?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks 🙂 I’m working on it, yes…