I wasn’t being politically correct. I just didn’t feel comfortable calling it ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue’.
I mean, for one thing, I got on with my mother-in-law really well. She was kind, supportive, interesting, inspiring, good fun – in fact, as far from the caricature as it was possible to be. So calling the houseplant by that name felt like a betrayal. It’s something I’ve come across a few times in the past. Names for things that hang around too long, a fragment of grit in the soft parts of an oyster, accruing a showy veneer, a superficial value. I’d rather just spit the thing out and start again, with a new word.
Cathy, the shop assistant in the garden centre, was sweeping up. It was hot in the houseplant section, humid as a rainforest, bland music overhead instead of birds. Cathy was wearing a large button badge: Here to Help, but it should really have said Here to Sweat. She was sweating so much I wanted to sit her down and run off to find water, maybe a mountain stream in the patio furniture department or something. I could fill a coconut. There was a silvering sheen running right and left from under the collar of her forest green polo shirt, down over her sternum, plunging into the ravine of her décolletage. How she was going to get through the rest of the day without IV fluids I had no idea. Hopefully she was on a half-day.
‘Yes?’ she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand and then not so much leaning on her broom as propping her entire body up on it.
‘Have you got any Sansevieria?’
‘Sansevieria. I think that’s what it’s called.’
She shook her head.
‘What’s it look like?’ she said.
‘I think it’s other name is Snake plant.’
‘I think so.’
‘Never heard of it. Show me a picture.’
‘It’s a really common houseplant,’ I said, pulling out my phone and going into Google history. ‘Tall and thin. Green, yellowy. You can’t kill it, apparently – which suits me. Low maintenance. There!’
I show her the picture.
‘So it’s Mother-in-Law’s Tongue you want?’
‘Yep. That’s it,’ I said.
She led me through a three-tiered jungle of Cheeseplants, Dragon Trees, Spider plants, Figs and cacti, to a shelf of Sansevieria of differing sizes.
‘There you go,’ she said. ‘Mother-in-Law’s Tongue.’
The one in the middle looked about the right size for the windowsill, so I took it down.
‘I’ll need some compost to go with it,’ I said. ‘What do you recommend?’
‘I’d recommend not re-potting. You can see – look – it’s got a fair bit of growing in there before it needs potting on.’
‘Yeah – but – I don’t like the pot.’
‘What d’you mean?’
‘Well it’s plastic. I’ve got one at home that’ll be really nice.’
Cathy shakes her head, and the drip of water that had been collecting at the end of her nose drops away. It’s like she’s watering the collection all by herself, just by wandering round.
‘Has it got a hole in it?’ she says.
‘Yes. It has.’
‘At the bottom?’
‘Well – yep. And I’ll put some shards of pot in the bottom to improve drainage, too.’
I thought that would impress her, but she gives a little shudder.
‘If you have to,’ she says. ‘Me? I would NOT repot it.’
‘I suppose I could just drop this pot into the nice pot.’
‘People do,’ she said.
‘It’s just – it wouldn’t look so great. This pot I’m thinking of – it’s only just a little bit bigger. I think it might be alright.’
‘Suit yourself,’ she said. ‘I can only advise.’
I felt awkward. It was easier adopting a dog from the RSPCA. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she’d insisted on a home visit, to see where I was going to put the plant. What plans I had for it when I was out.
She watched as I picked up the Sansevieria in one hand and a small pack of houseplant compost in the other and headed for the tills, warning shrieks all around me now – hers, or the capuchin monkeys in the canopy, it was impossible to tell.
* * *
In the car, I put the Sansevieria in the well of the passenger seat, using the compost bag to wedge it in place as best I could. It looked a bit shivery as I turned the engine over, so I tried to reassure it.
‘You’ll be fine in the new pot,’ I told it. ‘Don’t listen to her.’
But I could feel Cathy’s giant eyes superimposed on the sky above the glass canopy of the garden centre, following my car as I turned out of the car park: Cathy Kurtz, sweating, distractedly pulling off her wig, passing a hand backwards over her shining head: The horror! The horror!