Buses were his first obsession. His earliest memories were of playing with the lead-painted toy Routemaster he received on his 5th birthday. Well, it was more engage with than play. Sure, the beloved model was steered around the right-angled edges of the mat on the floors of his parent’s house but without the random joyrides, collisions and screeches one would expect from a child of that age. Instead he kept strictly to a pre-determined route with regimented stops and at scale speeds appropriate for mass transport vehicles. Through his teens his obsession grew. He could recite their numbers and routes by heart and he cycled vast distances in his holidays to capture photos of previously unseen buses.
This made him an odd-ball in the eyes of his peers and a figure of some ridicule and mockery. If he knew this, it didn’t outwardly affect him. But after he outgrew the toy bus in favour of the real thing, he they were never his: by definition they were public property. They had to leave him when they stopped running at night albeit twice in his 20’s he was thrown out of the bus station during the early hours having snuck in to sleep on a Leyland Titan.
Inevitably he met Sandra on a bus. Sandra was 5 years younger, wide eyed and not generally found attractive by the opposite sex. She fell in love instantly with his passion, and listened enthusiastically, at first, to his recitals of timetables and the idiosyncrasies of the Dennis Dart SLF. He never really seemed that bothered about her, but then he had his buses.
Now married for 15 years, the buses were still never his and he constantly resented this. Then, one day, he just gave up on them totally. No notice. No reason given. In his head he had reckoned that if they didn’t need him then he certainly didn’t need them.
With his passion gone, the marriage soon ebbed, at least from Sandra’s viewpoint. Frankly from his he had never seen it any other way, so whilst she became more dissatisfied and alone, he basically just existed, no more: no less. A man with a void.
However one day a documentary about allotment growing he saw by chance awoke something inside him and he set about turning their wasteland of a terraced-house garden into a veg patch. Sandra was thrilled to see her husband take up an interest, to rise from his virtually dormant state, to see that passion she so admired all that time ago re-ignite.
Within no time the weeds were gone, prodigious quantities of organic matter were dug-in to improve the soil, beds created and tilled, compost bins put in place and books on vegetable propagation devoured as eagerly and quickly as the radish and lettuce that soon grew as his first crops.
When he spent their savings on a greenhouse Sandra disguised the disappointment in missing out on the honeymoon trip they never had when they were first married. She wanted to nurture his new-found spirit and zeal. After all, she considered herself a good, dutiful wife.
As a boy he hadn’t liked cucumber. He had found the sharp taste repellent albeit he was not especially fond of any salad ingredient. But cucumber was the worst, it was mushy, bitter and came back to haunt him in his burps for hours after no matter how flavoursome the other foodstuffs he had consumed with it.
The cucumber now reintroduced itself to his life. Though he still loathed their taste which he could recall exactly from his childhood, he read articles on their production within the small library of veg-growing books he had built up. In his mind, he considered it obligatory that he should therefore grow them, the authors having gone to so much trouble to describe appropriate methods and techniques for their successful cultivation.
What it was about them he couldn’t say, but having grown his first crop, he immediately fell into the kind of obsession that buses once provided. Outside of the greenhouse the cabbages bolted, the broccoli went to seed, the caterpillars stripped the cauliflower leaves and the weeds returned to the newly-fertilised soil with a new vigour and determination in case their luck should turn against them again.
He decided very quickly that he must raise cucumbers of every available variety, maybe even cross-breed new strains himself. He read everything he could on cucumber botany and cultivation. This wasn’t a lot, he found, and planned to write his own definitive book for all of the fellow enthusiasts he imagined there to be.
His passion did not extend to other members of the Cucurbit family such as gourds or melons, he found sufficient depth and delight in the cucumber with it’s Marketmore 7, Straight Eight and Bush Champion forms, whilst the Asian, Armenian, Japanese and Persian cucumbers took his thoughts to those far off places in his mind as he sowed their seeds and tended their vines.
He could not conceive of entering his children as he called them, much to the distress of the childless Sandra, into Vegetable Show competitions. He would surely have won prizes, but this meant sharing them with the world, and buses had already failed him in this way. No, his children were his to nurture and enjoy alone, and the thought of him or anyone else eating any of them he found abhorrent.
Winter appalled him; his precious cucumbers withered, died and rotted despite his best efforts and futile installation of expensive heat and light systems. It was Sandra’s inability to salve his total grief and emptiness during these long cold months that finally caused her to leave. He didn’t realise she had gone until two days later, he was so self-absorbed by his longing and planning ways to maintain his crop through the next winter.
Any loss he did feel for her was replaced by the eventual return of spring. With it came sufficient natural warmth and light to foster a new season’s growth. He indulged himself in the production of cucumbers for the whole summer, and if anyone had seen him during any of his reluctant occasional trips out for food, they could not help but notice his smile, as wide and vibrant as a slice of water melon.
But inevitably the first frosts of autumn drew close and he put into place his plans to defy nature and keep his crop with him through winter. This did not stop him fret constantly and like that water melon, now out-of-season, his smile putrefied into a saggy mulch.
His despair grew so deep his nights became as restless as his days were unfulfilled. One cold winter night he had the most dreadful but all-to-real dream. He dreamt he was in his greenhouse lying on the floor, his most-prized ‘Summer Dance’ cucumber hanging above him, tantalisingly close to his face. He could not resist the smooth lustrous skin and reached up to take a bite. As he broke into the yielding flesh his initial horror was replaced by succulent joy as its cool, refreshing juice eased over his dry night-time palate. There was not the sharp, bitter pulp he recalled from his youth, but instead a rich luscious texture, bursting with a flavour so, so fresh. Despite his anguish in masticating the object of his obsession, he could not help but chew off more of the cool, luxuriant fruit. Greedily, he stretched up further and devoured the remainder of the cucumber, the whole thing, it seeming to will its rich juice to dribble down his chin as he gorged. Oh, the joy…and the pain!
It was his neighbour, Keith who found him. The milk bottles had not been taken in for three days and the greenhouse lights had not been turned off at night. The Coroner pronounced ‘death by poisoning’. The police soon located Sandra: no one else had a motive. But neither Sandra nor the police would have expected the reason a cucumber would have been injected with formaldehyde was to try and preserve it through the long winter months.
story: Martin Strike
illustration: Martin Strike