A story that got away

Sometimes, you write something for something – maybe as a single piece or part of a collection: it stalls and needs to be put down. That might be a poem, a story or even a whole book. Below is a story which we decided didn’t quite make the cut or fit for a collection , so I thought I’d offer it to you now. At this point, it was still being edited. It’s as mad as tits. I quite like it, though. Anyway, nothing is wasted. Have faith.

This story is about potatoes, sex, a kind of witchery and heated greenhouses.

Nightshade

‘Will your lordship please to taste a fine Potato? 

T’will advance your withered state. 

Fill your Honour full of most noble itches

And make Jack dance in your Lordship’s breeches.’

John Fletcher, The Loyal Subject, iii, v, 1617

It may be that you have never looked properly at the common potato, but the fault lies with you. No potato has ever been common, for it has a rich and delicious history dripping in lard, butter, spice with a finesse of debauchery. That is its nature. It is many things. And if you think the potato’s only role is to be mashed to smithereens, chipped, or, if you are the sort to go out for supper parties, misrepresented in dainty coils and piped, then you ought to read on. This is not a cautionary tale, but I will say that you ought to beware the potato because it is also a nightshade and may contain venom And best, also, not to assume certain things about it or the person who tends it. Or he who has the temerity to say he knows it best! Come wade through victuals and skate upon a dauphinoise with me.

My name is Belladonna, my middle name is Atropa and I like hasselbacks, the smell of earth and extraordinary strength and fervour. I like woodcutters and potency, sex and a fine table of celebration. I like bold funerals, colour and fire and run to satisfy cravings for green and purple berrie, the fruits of my kind.

I was once married to Earl Julius Clopton. I did my best by him, but had to assuage myself with extracurricular passions. Nights with him were cold and mechanical and he had the ardour of a soft, sad dish of cold whipped potato, made by a nanny who had never been hot or happy. I tolerated it until I could no more. If it had not been his fault, that would have been one thing. But it was his fault. He could not be tempted, would not deviate. There must be legions of these sprauncy fellows, ignorant and burying alive their glorious wives – delicious women who are crushed and miserable, eyeing fine sweet bacon but forced to live with their gammon husbands. It makes me shudder even now.

But as I was saying. The potato, yes. It was a subject awaiting an author. The potato has had a long and colourful life. A member of the botanical family, Solanaceae, a cult of flowering plants that ranges from annual and perennial herbs to vines, lianas, epiphytes, shrubs, and trees. It includes agricultural crops, medicinal plants, spices, weeds, and ornamentals. Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and the bold and shiny aubergine. It is native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Its distribution extends from our England to the Ukraine and the Iranian province of Gilan (I may have had husbands in both those places) in the east. It is naturalised or was introduced in parts of Canada and America. Some claim that all of the plants, like creatures in a cult, are damaging. This is because they have never met Atropa Belladonna.

I know best how to handle the Solanaceae. This is my family. I know that the foliage and berries are extremely toxic when ingested, for they contain tropane alkaloids. These toxins include atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine, causing delirium and hallucinations, and are also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics. These tropane alkaloids appear to be common in the family Solanaceae, as they are also present in plants of the genera Brugmansia, Datura and Hyoscyamus, of the same family but in different subfamilies and tribes than the nightshade. Ah, I am botanist and chemist as well as epicure and lover. I have a large family and an obscene number of cousins. 

We are bold, bold things. People are often scared of such boldness – of passion and impropriety. 

More fool them. Atropa belladonna has unpredictable effects and so does Belladonna Atropa. The antidote for belladonna poisoning is physostigmine or pilocarpine, the same as for atropine.   The antidote to me? I am cunning, so you must be vigilant but after that, though you may retch with the poison, I am invariably fatal.

The potato. What a colourful family it has! What you may think of as the common and grubby English tuber, was, to our ancestors, in fact the sweet potato: patatas, not potatoes, nightshade to your convolvulus, your – forgive me – morning glory,  and it was not until quite late in the potato quaffing that the English variety replaced the Spanish Ipomoea batatas, for our stolid lot were growing to love the Solanum Tuberosum that is such a bedrock of the gustatory experience across England And into it came a man, a most remarkable author. He became one of my husbands, whose name was Earl Julius Clopton. At first a doctor, his tuberculosis halted his work as Director of the Pathological Institute at the London Hospital in 1904, and he would then spend six months in a Swiss sanitorium It took him over two years to fully recover from the illness, changing the course of his entire life. Rumour has it that his strength was gradually renewed by dishes of creamy, sieved mashed potatoes. Baby’s food. That fitted him. He purchased a house in Barley, Hertfordshire and, because he could not return to practising medicine, began experimenting in the emerging science of genetics under the guidance of his friend William Bateson. After several failed experiments with guinea pigs, Monarch butterflies and hairless mice, Earl Julius Clopton decided to experiment with potatoes after seeking advice from his gardener, a man called Evan Jones, a salty and rough handed genius from Carmarthen whom I enjoyed many times and came to admire greatly. 

Evan Jones was one of those geniuses whose work is usurped by posh folk, but I held him as he wept about that, and he held me as I wept over his trugs and piles of hoes, mostly facing forward but sometimes held aloft because as well as being a potato expert, Evan Jones was a man of prodigious strength and appetite. He’d be pricking out seedlings, or pruning and by God, within minutes there was thunder and that man could be thunder anywhere  It pained me, appreciating his prodigality as I did, that he had been humiliated by his master in this way.

Later in his career, commenting loudly on his decision to study potatoes Earl Julius Clopton my then husband noted that he had, ‘embarked on an enterprise which, after forty years, leaves more questions unsolved than were thought at that time to exist. Whether it was mere luck, or whether the potato and I were destined for life partnership, I do not know, but from that moment my course was set, and I became ever more involved in problems associated directly or indirectly with a plant with which I had no particular affinity, gustatory or romantic.’

I was at a party at one of the country houses of his horrid and temperate acquaintances when I heard him say this. I often went to parties at country houses; the women I am sure thought I was once a whore, whom he had, by his grace, dignified; I had more class and elan than the gentry and was definitely lither of limb and of more prodigious imagination in bed. 

Earl Julius Clopton was guffawing his potato speech to the assembled company and, while it hurt me to hear him say that he had felt no affinity, gustatory or romantic, with the potato plant, I had thought that at least he possessed some imagination and would come on in time because he looked sturdy enough. When first I had that thought, that he might do, I had made a play for him and of course succeeded, sweet poison and all and, in time, came to have exquisite rooms in his mansion in Hertfordshire. I had been wrong. He was cold and mechanical and barely bit me or looked me in the eye. 

Then that eye went roving. The fine home was comfortable enough, the grounds were lovely and that was where my sweet leaves brushed against Evan Jones. There were lively times in the potting shed and hothouses as you have heard, it was close to London for the stews, court and the theatre and I was happy there. But oh, my horrid husband!

For here was the thing. Earl Julius Clopton learned from Evan Jones but took all the glory and Evan Jones was angry. That made me angry. My husband’s book, On the Common Potato was lauded as a noble work in The Spectator and a work of the most extraordinary scholarship by The Times. On another occasion, I heard him downstairs talking to friends, peers, old duffers from the House of Lords; Evan Jones heard them too because he had shimmied up the drainpipe and clawed his way in to visit me mightily in my parlour and there we lay. My husband was in his cups and chortling, ‘No-one knows as much as I do! I know more about the potato than any man living!’ I saw Evan Jones set his jaw and snarl; my own eyes were wide. My husband didn’t appreciate the potatoes. What did he know anyway? I had looked at drafts at his magnum opus – his spelling was not so fine for a titled Cambridge man, and with a doctorate too – and he had even failed to note that in the Renaissance, patatas meant sweet potatoes to many. They had come from Spain and oh, roasted in ashes, a delight of sweetmeat and do you know that some thought them similar to marzipan, only yet more delightful. Marzipan is a lovely thing to think about when you are in flagrante delicto.

In the book you would think he was an expert on all things, but the discrepancy here was only solved thanks to my perspicacity. I was perspicacious even when I was in a hurry,  and even a I smelled woodsmoke from the parterre and knew that Evan Jones had the hothouse stove stoked up to sultry and was waiting for me by the pineapples.

I digress. 

There were melons there too. In that wonderful hothouse. And avocadoes. And that – the paucity of scholarship here and there not the hothouse delight – wasn’t the only thing.

k….Earl Julius Clopton was unaware of the true glory of the potato and, while he alluded to its role as an aphrodisiac, he did not ingest them in that way. His book was marvellous on the potato story, I’ll give him that; he’d traced the tuber’s roots to the Andes and explained that it was of vital significance to the Incas, the fatal plantings, blight, a mythical connection with Virginia and confusion between the sweet potato, the Jerusalem artichoke and, would you believe, the truffle. But he would say all that, because he’d been tipped off by Evan Jones of Carmarthen. He was comprehensive enough on the link between luxury – which the potato was for the Tudor gentry – and sexual congress, but on the aphrodisiacal qualities he lacked warmth and insight. I have been laughed at for suggesting that the humble potato is one of the greatest antecedents to powerful sexual congress, but I am correct. As I am correct on tomatoes and aubergines. Love apples it is true and, don’t you know, applying aubergine juice to yourself as directed by the Kama Sutra is very effective and I could show you some very saucy haiku about aubergines if you are passing over my divan sometime.

My then husband’s noble study was published to great esteem and earls, viceroys and baronets, effete potato fiddlers all, came to our Hertfordshire home. I was in attendance then, though yearning for Evan Jones who had a secret sunken hot Turkish bath project on just for me, lurking behind the composters in areas where my husband never deigned to walk. 

Working with the servants, I gave out witty little dishes of whipped potato with commemorative spoons; I was a courteous wife. There were crisp and soft potato croquettes and little amusements of scalloped potato and chipped fripperies no wider than a baby’s finger. And the guests brayed and congratulated their host.  Later they sat down to a full potato-rich dinner and that, you see, is when our plan began to swing into action as we busied ourselves crushing berries. Because he’d missed it all you see. That is wrong to steal and covet the work and life’s knowledge of another man, that self-congratulation and uppity ways are appalling and may warrant drowning in a bowl of Vichyssoise. There is nothing quite as revolting to a woman of my hot temper as disappointed concupiscence; of fervour met with a tallow face and a very poor quality of aubergine. 

As I told you, my name is Belladonna, my middle name is Atropa and I like hasselbacks, the smell of earth and extraordinary strength and fervour. I like woodcutters and potency, sex and a fine table of celebration. I also like bold funerals, colour and fire and run to satisfy cravings for the green and purple berries of my kind. My husband had never even noticed my name: it means Deadly Nightshade and I daresay he just thought it was pretty, if a little whoreish. Evan Jones knew of course. A beautiful thing that could kill you. So that night, after our aubergine ritual and dishes of roasted tomatoes with the hot spices he grew just for me, I added something special to my current husband’s nightcap; the results of the crushing. The maid was in on it; they always are. And we put the green and black berries of the nightshade in the juice, and that was it. I thought of many things more theatrical –drowning in a barrel of potato potage or tying him to the behead and forcing him to feast on potato eyes until he expired. I even thought of chopping him and putting him in a pie, with an unctuous gravy made from his viscera.

But I am not a savage. Perhaps he choked a bit, but mostly he didn’t wake up and I played the widow. To my delicious shame, Evan Jones from Carmarthen later cut me out of my funeral weeds with his best secateurs and there had been another bold funeral. Soon, in a blackish ceremony, Evan Jones became my new husband. Oh, he was a hot man. But you missed the woodcutter clue perhaps? Ah. Harold Ebsen from Deptford came to maintain the estate’s woods and with him I found such delectation and he was fond of my whoring and knew more about the wild plants of the hedge and woodland than Evan Jones. Harold was a man more of the shade than Evan Jones of Carmarthen, who was ruddy-faced and of the sun, like a heliotrope, or a Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus. I have never found one man to be adequate. Have you? ‘Ah,’ I sing to my bosky young lover, ‘come, sweet boy. Wade through some victuals and skate on a dauphinoise with me. My name is Belladonna, my middle name is Atropa and I like hasselbacks, the smell of earth and extraordinary strength and fervour.’

A close up of a book

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