Queen of the May, Chapter 1

Enjoy this sample chapter of Queen of the May!

Had the few tea leaves that swilled around the bottom of her mug been in a mood to say anything, and had she the skill to read them, Shakti would have seen that this was the day she would lose her life. As it was, she just muttered imprecations at her empty mug and picked her way towards the kitchen through half-filled boxes and piles of paper strewn across every flat surface of the living room. She thought for a moment about just throwing everything out, taking it all downstairs to the huge, stinking communal bins and dumping it. Instead, she would make more tea.

The kitchen was as yet untouched by the cluttered mania of packing, but the rest of the flat was drowning in a low flood of stuff. Some of it she could recycle or give away, but much of it would end up in her parents’ attic. Lecture notes. Lab notes. Drafts of her undergrad dissertation and her doctoral thesis. She couldn’t throw those out.

She flicked the switch on the kettle, selected a small tea caddy from her collection and spooned some leaves into an infuser, dangling it into her mug. She opened the fridge to discover a disappointing lack of milk. She’d got through ridiculous amounts of tea during the packing process and the last dribble of milk had gone into the previous cup. Oh well, it was beautiful out, and this errand was a chance to leave the flat and enjoy a cloudless spring sky.

Shakti threw on a light jacket and slipped on the red and gold hand-made mojari shoes that her grandmother had sent over from Mumbai. On such a glorious day it seemed a waste of a walk to simply nip to the corner shop beneath her flat. Instead, she headed over to Blackstock Road, then on down Gillespie Road, away from the traffic and the buses and the mothers driving their tractor-sized pushchairs.

Before she reached the milk-bearing grocery store that she was heading for, she came upon Gillespie Park. She had passed it, hidden behind high red brick walls, buttressed as if fighting to keep the wildness in, twice a day almost every weekday for four years. She made a quick estimate in her mind: that totted up to nearly two thousand times she had walked on by, not allowing her curiosity to overcome her.

She could let herself to take a moment to enjoy exploring this tiny pocket of green hemmed in amongst Victorian terraces, post-war flats from the brutalist school of architecture and the massive football stadium. It was close to being her last chance to nose about the place, so if she didn’t do it today, when would she? Soon, she and Richard would be catching a train northwards, leaving London behind for the blooming wildflowers of the machair and her new life as a research botanist. She smiled secretly to herself, excited once again that she and Richard would be moving to Scotland.

Gillespie Park was not at all what she expected. Far from the manicured pleasantries of nearby Clissold Park with its rose garden and newly restored manor house, or the sporty Finsbury Park with its baseball diamonds and football pitches, Gillespie was a wild place. Billed as a nature reserve, it felt like a tiny unkempt corner of the Chilterns had somehow insinuated itself into central London. As soon as she had crossed the threshold, she felt as if she had stepped into another world.

Partly obscured by the weeds beneath her feet were a number of neglected mosaics dotted amongst the paving slabs. A muddy green frog grinned up from a turquoise pond still bright despite the dirt. A goldfinch sat on a black twig, a grubby grey sky behind it. A dragonfly hovered under a carpet of decayed leaves. Grass pushed up through the cracks in little clumps. It must have looked lovely when it was new, Shakti thought, but no one had bothered to weed recently and the place felt abandoned.

She let herself be drawn along the path which soon turned to packed dirt and grass, lengths of timber laid crosswise to make low steps every few yards and stop the whole thing being washed away when it rained. With a meagre strip of scrub to her right and the high boundary wall blanketed with creepers to her left, the trail opened up a narrow passage between houses like a tendril of ivy forcing its way through the mortar of the city.

The track took Shakti into a small wooded area, then forked into three. She wondered for a moment which to take before realising that it didn’t matter — the park was small and all paths would lead to the same place in the end. Above her, the trees joined branches, cutting out the warm spring sun and making her glad she’d worn a jacket. There was still a wintry undertone to the heat, but the air smelt of fresh earth and new growth. Leaves and buds spattered the trees with a bright, young green which promised to soon fully cloak the branches.

This was a peaceful retreat from the madness of London. Shakti wished she’d explored it sooner than a week before she was due to leave the city. The pathway opened up ahead of her, emerging from the tiny copse to reveal a small grassy area, rimmed by trees high enough to hide the terraced houses and blocks of flats that lurked outside. The sounds of urban life were muted by the walls and a calm settled upon her.

Shakti glanced around the tiny dell and spotted a stone bench set in the margins, its front carved with blades of grass in outsized mimicry of the fronds that surrounded and threatened to overcome it. She crossed the green and sat herself down on the bench, putting her handbag down close to her feet so that it was safe from any light fingers that might pass by. As she did, she spotted what for all the world looked to her like an Angraecum, which couldn’t possibly be the case. She rummaged in her bag and pulled out her pencil and field notebook, already half full of precious notes and ideas. She began to sketch.

Three narrow white sepals, their edges curled backwards, were arranged in a triangular configuration, rather like the Mercedes-Benz logo. Two more white petals, looking just like the sepals although a little broader, sat to the left and right of the central vertical sepal. At the bottom, the rounder paddle-shaped labellum made a little platform where insects could alight whilst questing for nectar. But that nectar was at the bottom of a long S-shaped spur that hung down behind the labellum. Any insect seeking dinner would need a very long proboscis indeed.

With skilled strokes, Shakti drew the bloom in a simple but accurate style, labelling each part of the flower in precise handwriting. There was no doubt in her mind that this was an orchid, and a rare one at that. Most species of Angraecum had been collected almost to extinction after their discovery in 1804. They were protected now, but the loss of both habitat and co-evolved pollinators was still a major threat. What was this flower doing in a scrappy little central London park?