By Roddie McKenzie
Green Fingers © Roddie McKenzie 2014
Published in “Watermarks”, Nethergate Writers, 2014.
Demian Best heard the letterbox clatter just as he finished the solo. Putting his Telecaster down on the unopened books on his desk, he went downstairs to see what the post had brought. Stooping to pick up the white envelope, he turned it over and noticed the blue university crest on the side bearing his address. Going back upstairs to his bedroom he threw it onto the pile of similar un-opened envelopes, before slumping back on to his unmade bed.
Raking in the overflowing ashtray on the nightstand produced a half-smoked spliff, but patting down the bed failed to produce a lighter. He tossed the crumpled roll up onto the nightstand and gazed around the room for other distractions. The objects tumbled into his vision like the avalanche that follows opening a cluttered and overloaded cupboard.
The metallic waste paper, overflowing with empty beer cans and crumbled Natchos bags sat next to the similarly overflowing straw laundry hamper. Raising his head to the desk he took in the tumbling tower of DVD sleeves, spilling silver discs, flanking a neat pristine pile of scientific papers. A shrivelled houseplant rusted nearest the window shading a calculator and data sticks which sat on a text book- plant genetics, whose edge was misted with dust in the morning sunlight.
He got up and saw beyond the detritus to the window and the Tay retreating, imperceptibly, over the grey mudflats of Kingoodie Bay, bordered by the green rolling hills of Fife. The river had an uncomplicated beauty, a simplicity; he watched it flow and retreat day after day.
But what he needed right now was a buzz to lift him out of despondency. Rattling through his tobacco tin yielded nothing. Maybe Shug up the street had some. Soon he was standing in front of the paint-peeling door of Shug`s semi . No-one was in. A dip into his flattened wallet told him the The Kingoodie Hotel was also out. He kicked some moss from Shug`s overgrown step; the weekend was coming up and the cupboard contained little more than a couple of stained and mouldy Cup-a-Soup packets. The uni had suspended his stipend for non-attendance, the rent could wait, but his belly would take more convincing. Meanwhile, he needed something to take him away from this monotony and the accusatory books and lab notebooks that demanded his attention.
Then it came to him- and the flicker of a smile cracked his lips. The `shrooms that Shug mentioned – he could gather enough for a buzz and maybe some to sell a few baggies around the pub. That would bring the groceries in. With a new lightness in his step he jogged back to the cottage, banged through the rickety gate and behind the shed at the back of the house. He mounted his bike and set off along the narrow winding shore road that ran between ancient hawthorn hedges, speckled with red berries.
Where the Huntly Burn reached the river was a broad meadow. That`s where Shug said he went for fungi and `shrooms. It took Demian less than 5 minutes to cycle there. He dismounted and looked at the old meadow- golden stalks of ragweed caught the weak sun, dying docken stems rusted along the margins. But the only way he could see of getting there directly lay through the golden rushes that rose head-high along the shoreline. That would be hell to plouter through, blundering blind from one muddy pool to the next. There must be an easier way- and then he noticed the wood that flanked the burn. Hiding the bike behind the hedge, he followed the burn down to the bay ducking under the low-hanging branches of alders and birch, the burn gurgling under the orange bracken.
There were the great china white plates of horse mushrooms, fluted yellow trumpets of chanterelles and the glistening brown caps of penny buns. All good eating- might as well get some for the tea he thought, but it was the tiny little brown caps with a nipple on top that he was really looking for. After half an hour he gave up- Shug had probably been up here already. Still there was some fungi to fry if he could cadge some butter from Mrs Barber next door.
Somewhat despondent, he pushed his way back into the wood and worked his way up the other bank of the burn. The air smelt of musty decaying vegetation, slippery underfoot as he stumbled and contoured his way along the bank. His negative thoughts were suddenly dismissed as he encountered a potent, musky odour- wait a minute! Could it be? It was ! In a patch of sunlight pooled in a clearing he recognised the saw tooth-edged starburst leaves of Cannabis sativa– great big ones! There must have been at least thirty plants, seven foot high and tucked in against the back of an old line of pollarded hazel tree.
That afternoon in Shug`s tumbledown living room, Demian cleared a space in the jetsam of pizza boxes and empty beer cans and sat down on the burst and suffering couch. From his back pack he drew out a bulging supermarket bag, a musky odour insinuated its way into the room as he pulled from the bag some of the exotically-patterned leaves. He held them out to Shug who was twitching like a blood hound.
“Smell`s like weed- let`s dry some of it out in the oven and give it a road test”, Shug drawled in his best Hollywood home-boy voice.
An hour later in the fume filled kitchen, they rolled the desiccated vegetation into a spliff and fired it up. Shug held the spliff like a connoisseur of fine wines appraising a vintage Cabernet.
“Smokes like weed”. He passed it over to Demian, who took a lungful and after a few moments, expelled a stream of smoke.
“Yeah, hits the spot, doesn’t it?”.
“Mighty fine, mighty fine, Demian…… how much of this is up at Huntly Burn?”
The wallpaper flickered and rippled as Demian took another puff.
“I counted about thirty plants”
“Well brother, we ARE in business, let`s get up there and get the harvest in before someone else does”.
Demian paused for a moment but was swept away by Shug`s suggestion. Money worries and intoxication requirements solved!
But as they drove up there in Shug`s battered and rusted VW van, problems appeared- the road was too narrow to park on and a community payback squad were hedge trimming close to the entry point. It was too hot. They went back to Shug`s to consider plan B.
The river looked like plates of beaten gold in the setting sun as they set out across Kingoodie Bay at twilight in Shug`s Lidl -bought dingy (usually employed for lazy picnics in the surrounding bays) and in the darkness, the lights on the distant road bridge glowed like a computer game. They had paddled up the Huntly Burn from the Tay drunk on cider and scenes from “Apocalypse Now” and Brando`s “the horror , the horror” , upstream on the imaginary Nung River. The sniggering stopped as they slid ashore. It was a quick machete harvest into bin bags.
Demian pushed off and leapt into the now overcrowded dinghy.
“Right, lets get back and get some of this stuff cured and marketed. If we pick up some freezer baggies at the store I could take some up to the Union tonight, lots of new freshers who will pay well to get a hold of some of this weed. Much do you think we got Shug?”
“Well that was the lot- I would say when it`s dried out we`ll have about three and a half kilos- sell about half of it in hundred gram baggies”.
“Wow, that`s some serious dosh then”
“How do you think it got there?”
Demian picked up his paddle. “Who cares- it`s ours now- finders keepers”.
A week later Demian was coming out of the Kingoodie Hotel , when a scruffy, thin-haired man in a denim jacket, whom he had failed to notice in the public bar, followed him out.
Demian was halfway across the car park and nearly at the entrance to the nature reserve which went through the darkened stone tunnel under the railway, when he turned to see the figure silhouetted in the Hotel lights.
“Yeah?” The stranger sidled up to him.
“ I hear you might have some mellow home grown weed for sale?” Demian looked him over- didn`t recognise him as a regular, but he looked too decrepit to be a cop.
“Well, yeah maybe. How much do you want?”
“I`ll take all your carrying- big party coming up this weekend”
“OK, I can give you six one hundred gram bags”, Demian fumbled in his knap sack.
“Haud on- not here”, the stranger nodded to the tunnel, “I don`t want to be pulling out the readies here”. Demian nodded.
He had no sooner entered the tunnel when two very large men with tattooed hands grabbed him and slammed him against the wall.
“This him Eddie?”
“Yeah, this is Harvest Boy”. The greasy-haired stranger glared at Demian.
“Now, there is the small matter of what you have done with our property”.
Demian clattered across Shug`s kitchen table and took out the tenant in a flail of limbs as Shug sat anticipating a deal with the three fine dudes that Demian had introduced as customers at the front door. The two burly men picked Demian and Shug up and sat them side by side on chairs. Eddie sauntered up.
“Ah want a wee word wi the, brains”, he sneered, “of this wee op-eray-shun”, and ironically, glared at Shug.
Demian felt that bladder sphincter weakness and tide of sweat reaction he remembered from school, when Geo and his pals had surrounded him. This took a turn for the worse on hearing Shug`s reply, which suggested his cognitive and emotional functions were somewhat blunted from sampling the product:
“You gentleman seem to be a wee bit freaked- don`t worry, we won`t turn ye on tae hard drugs or otherwise gie ye eh herd time, we`re a` fellow travellers – ken whit eh mean? Eh? Eh?”
Eddie didn`t see the intended beneficence of Shug`s little speech. As he pinned Shug against the chair with an arm across his chest, he rasped the hunting knife he suddenly gripped, against the bristles of Shug`s two day unshaven neck. The blade was sharp- little slicks of blood appeared on Shug`s whitewashed skin.
“Ye laddies, ye don`t get the picture dae yiz? Ye stole oor dope that we wir gaunaae sell inside Castle Huntly. That wiz oor chance ae huvin` some seed corn tae mak oor wey back intae society as honest brokers. What ye hiv done is rob men of a means of making an honest living. Now, I would be really interested to know how you propose to put this right”
Davie and Donnie came in and nodded in unison. The lamplight glinting off their Raybans.
“We searched boss- nae dope, but some dosh here, “ Donnie held up a money box bulging with notes.
“Well, ye MIGHT find some dope if ye took the fucking shades aff and looked in the mirror- dae ye think it`s Miami Vice yer in? Search again !”. Eddie took the box, turned back to Shug and smiled.
“See what ah mean, we`re jist honest brokers looking fur what we are due. But we`ll take this, as a down payment for our inconvenience”.
Demian noted the salty incontinence in Shug`s armpits and felt it on his own brow. They had little option but to nod in agreement. Eddie leaned back, taking the blade away.
“Well, as we are aw men of the world, we would be a happy tae gie ye a two year ten percent discount on further herbal supplies.. as we have disposed of the current merchandise man . Also as a discount to our open prison co-workers..we..”.
Shug got Eddie`s knife snagging the skin between his index and forefingers as they extended so magnanimously on the tabletop for the deal that he thought he had. As the shining steel impaled the formica table, the thud drew everyone`s attention. Davie and Donnie rushed back into the kitchen, got antsy, scowly and instinctively broke a few chairs. Shug`s response to this latest loss of reason was doing a runner – in his pants.
Eddie drew back in disgust.
“ I don`t care how you do this but you got a week to come up with payment or a solution”.
Dannie leaned into Demian`s bruised and bleeding face.
“We`ll be back”. The last word was drawn out, as if uttered by a constipated Schwarzenegger.
Donnie sounded peeved.
“ Ya bass… it wiz ma turn tae say that”.
The front door banged as the trio left.
Shug shook his head and recovered a baggie that he had hidden behind the loose skirting board.
Demian grabbed the bag out of his hand.
“No you don`t – we need this”.
The following week Demian was back in the lab, committed to his research project. Past doubts gone. His supervisor was impressed “fantastic strides “ he had called it. In that week , the gene shuttle that he had previously stalled on, was ready for testing. His prototype genetically –engineered plant was a potato, a specimen of which he revealed at a somewhat more critical meeting at the weekend.
“ A tattie, you bring me a tattie! You had better not be taken the piss!” Eddie growled. Donnie and Davie stirred restively.
“Please- just give me a minute to explain how the gene shuttle works” said Demian, his face white and tense.
“ A tattie! Ah dinnae git it. So this gene shuttle thingy will do whit?” Eddie, scowled.
Demian began a sketch in biro on the back of a sheet of paper.
“You can move genes from one plant to another- see the things that plants make are usually made by enzymes in the plant- flower colour, height, taste, etc. The enzymes are coded for by genes, which are made of DNA. Move the DNA between plants and you can produce plants that make all sorts of useful things- like banana plants that produce vaccines in the fruit. Do you see what that means for our, er… common problem ?”
Eddie stared at the sketch silent for a moment and then grinned showing his blackened teeth.
“All sorts of useful things can be made you say?”
Davie shook his head; detail made it spin. Donnie`s big moon face glowed like a Halloween cake.
“Far –out man, eh git it noo. Ye`ll mak tatties full o` chocolate fur the boys in the big hoose”
Eddie laughed. “Not quite Donnie, but you`re close”.
Demian was gratified to discover that Eddie had a true entrepreneur’s eye for a good deal. Less expected was his admiration for the genius of scientific innovation so that that in a burst of uncharacteristic generosity, he agreed to include Damien and Shug as partners. On the strength of this and his rather conventional PhD, Damien had, by the summer, been mysteriously head hunted by a pharmaceutical company in Barranquilla, Columbia. What the hell else was he to do?
In Columbia, emails from Shug arrived to continue the tale. Everyone lived well and prospered, at least for a while. Castly Huntly noted record numbers of prisoners willing to take up horticulture as part of their rehabilitation. Prisoners deserted their Playstations for honest labour in the estate fields. Disciplinaries and segregations fell to an all time low. By all accounts, it was a glowing example of the triumph of rehabilitation. When the emails ceased, Demian learned the finale from Yahoo News.
The unfortunate decision of the governor to insist on serving the inmate –rated top quality home produce at a banquet for the Minister for Justice and a group of interested journalists rather couped the glass that was up to that point, clearly full for all involved. But it wasn`t long before potatoes at Huntly were found to contain the gene for the enzyme that made sunlight, water and other molecular bits into cannabis.
Some years later, an envelope in scrawled handwriting arrived at Demian`s poste restante mailbox. Danny sat on his balcony in the tropical humidity and struggled to read Shug`s scrawl on the damp paper. It seemed HMP had transferred Shug from Perth to Castle Huntly after two years. Demian laughed as he read how Shug grew to hate hoeing potatoes. But his eyes watered as his erstwhile business partner related how, he grew to love that view from the fields of the river broadening into the estuary. Shug said it was a like highway to the freedom of the seas. Demian gazed out over the broadening Rio Magdalena and wiped his eyes. His river would never take him home again.