Friday, 14 December 2012

Margaret Jones and the Weedy Dealer

Ages ago, all the way back in first year, I came up with the idea of Margaret Jones, an eccentric botanist who uncovers a Drug Lord's giant stash. Her story has been building slowly in my head and this term I finally got around to writing some of it. If you can't remember Margaret Jones here is a story of her as a child: Margaret Jones' Childhood Adventure, or a tale of Hilary Bishop in: Margaret Jones' Rival. What I've written here is the beginning of Margaret Jones' and the Weedy Dealer. I had quite a few tutorials about this piece and one of my lecturers, who is a professional editor, said she could see it working quite well in the publishing world as it is a unique and quirky idea. Let's hope that comes through in the marking. Also, after reading through this I just remembered how I was going to end it, but I had so many other assignments that I forgot. Damn. Anyway it's still good so give it a read!

Margaret Jones and the Weedy Dealer 

Margaret’s knee twinged. The sharp pain shot straight down her leg. Her ankle buckled and she fell into the damp undergrowth. Glasses askew, Margaret desperately tried to recall if she had taken her arthritis medicine that morning. She straightened, wary of her knee. Putting most of her weight on her right leg, she massaged her left. Once the pain had subsided Margaret checked in her pack. She eventually found the Advil box crushed at the bottom, underneath some dirty underwear and loose teabags.

‘Damn it.’

She remembered then, she hadn’t taken them that morning, or the morning before, or even the morning before that. She briefly wondered whether taking three at the same time was safe before popping all three pills. Out of her many-pocketed satchel she pulled out her Dictaphone, a present from her son. She rarely used technology (Andrew had been trying to explain the World Wide Web to her for the past five years) but the Dictaphone did have its advantages over a notepad and pen. Mainly because Margaret was forever losing her pen, then finding it later knotted in her frizzy hair.

She pressed the record button and a little red light blinked.

‘Must take arthritis medication,’ she said clearly into the small mike. She rewound it and played it back to herself a couple of times just to make sure she really would remember. Satisfied, she swung the pack onto her shoulders and continued trekking into the jungle.

‘Day thirty eight in the Vietnamese jungle. So far no sight of the Aquilaria Crassna,’ she spoke into the Dictaphone. ‘I’ve not lost hope yet, though. I’ve been on far longer expeditions before. After all, it took me months in Russia to find the Silene stenophylla frozen in the ice, and then those Russian botanists took all the credit for reviving it. Bloody commies. And did they even mention my name? No. Probably that witch, Hilary Bishop’s idea…Oh, now, what was I talking about again?’ It was at this point that Margaret realised that the confounded gadget hadn’t even been recording.

‘Just as well, I suppose.’ She readjusted her pack and satchel, cleared her throat and made sure she pressed record this time. The red light was on.

‘Day thirty eight in the Vietnamese jungle. Still no sighting of the Aquilaria Crassna, but I’m not overly concerned. I know it’s out here and I will find it eventually. In the mean time I have seen some very interesting specimens of the Paphiopedilum genus. My particular favourite is the delenatii, its fragrance was beautiful, sweet and delicate.’

She had tried to take a photograph with her digital camera (another present Andrew had bought her for the trip) but she couldn’t get the damned thing to work properly. She couldn’t figure out how to turn off the flash and it just wouldn’t focus. In the end she had thrown the camera into her pack and drawn a diagram of the flower instead.

‘I will endeavour to find the Aquilaria Crassna. Its threatened status grows more severe by the day, and for all I know it could be extinct already. Finding this plant is one of my last chances of resurrecting my career.’ She sighed and pressed the stop button. The red light went out.

Margaret was putting the Dictaphone back in her satchel when she saw a neat piece of paper poking out of the left pocket. She plucked it out and unfolded it. Across the top was the University of Cambridge insignia and underneath The Department of Plant Sciences. Margaret ran a hand through her hair. She read the stowaway note, her eyebrows rising higher and higher up her forehead. Phrases like ‘keep your valuables safe’, ‘watch out for strangers’ and ‘don’t forget to use bug repellent’ made Margaret wonder whether the writer realised that she was not a child, and in fact hadn’t been in a very long time. Only when she looked at the neat Andrew Bennet-Jones signature at the bottom did her indignation fade. It was in her son’s nature to fret over everything, especially her. And, she supposed, she did give him good reason to. She folded the letter carefully and placed it in between the pages of a notebook. Andrew would be glad to see her back home soon, though probably disappointed that she hadn’t found the Aquilaria Crassna. It had, after all, been his idea to search for it.

Through the treetops Margaret could see the beginnings of an orange sky and set up her small tent, forgetting to spray herself with bug repellent. Inside the tent she took off her glasses, folded them, and laid them carefully on the floor beside her. Once settled into her sleeping bag she hummed simply to herself. She twiddled her thumbs and tapped her toes. But still that niggling feeling did not go away. Being an explorer could be quite lonely at times and Margaret was finding herself wishing she had someone to talk to. She had tried travelling with people before but she had found that no one had really shared her passion for plants and they ended up frustrated, as they had to stop for every new flower Margaret saw. Likewise, Margaret would get annoyed at them for not wanting to stop and look at the new flowers. In the end, it was just Margaret on her own again but she found she liked it that way.

That was until tonight.

The jungle was eerily silent; no nocturnal bird calls, no whispering of trees, nothing – never a good sign. Her mouth grew dry. Andrew’s words circled in her mind. Watch out for strangers. Any man she’d meet out here would be strange. Even stranger if they wanted an old woman like herself. Though she had never really considered herself old - Snap! A branch cracked like a gunshot. Margaret was not scared of much. She’d once kept spiders and snakes as pets, she loved climbing tall trees, and the darkness had proven to hold some very remarkable plant life. Yet this noise sent her heart racing. She fumbled for her glasses, having already forgotten where she had put them, then eased herself out of her sleeping bag. She paused every time the slippery fabric rustled, waiting to see if she’d been heard. Even the creaking of her gammy knee joint set her on edge. She made it to the tent entrance just as more twigs crunched. This time much closer. Margaret reached for her pack and pulled out her trusty machete. She held it in one hand as she leant forward and tugged at the fastening of the tent’s entrance with the other. Although she pulled as slowly as she could, the buzz of the zip seemed as loud as a nest of angry Vespa Crabro. She stopped. The minutes ticked away before she heard another noise. A scuffle to the right, only feet away. Before she could lose her nerve Margaret tore open the tent, machete raised, and leapt outside to face her attacker.

She came face to face with nothing.

She looked around her. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the fine light of the half-moon that filtered through the trees. At her feet was a large scaly ball. Her racing heart began to relax and she lowered her machete. She waited, careful not to make any noise, and soon enough the scaly ball uncurled. A large creature, nearly a metre long, lay before her. It lifted its pointed head towards her and blinked both its beady black eyes. It turned, each of its diamond-shaped keratin scales moving together as it continued its night-time scavenging. The creature’s long nose sniffed around her tent before it plodded off into the jungle undergrowth.

‘Watch out for poachers, little fella,’ she whispered after it.

As soon as she was back in her tent, Margaret reached for her Dictaphone. ‘A Sunda Pangolin,’ she whispered. ‘A member of the Pholidota order, not to be confused with the Pholidota orchid. Simply put: a scaled anteater.’

Margaret tutted to herself as she climbed back into her sleeping bag; fancy being scared of a Pangolin. She was losing her touch. Andrew would be disappointed.
‘Day fifty-four. I was sure I would have found the Aquilaria Crassna by now, or at least been close. But nothing.’ Margaret stormed through the jungle, shoving vines and branches aside - she had a machete but she hated to use it on living plants. ‘I’m starting to think any plant would be good, not necessarily the Aquilaria Crassna. Just something to take back to England. Something to show those snobs at Kew Gardens.’

The jungle was alive with noise; birds sung across the trees, insects buzzed as they flew from anther to stigma. There was a rustling as a group of Cat Ba Langur monkeys, their orange fur burning intensely in the afternoon sun, scurried through the treetops. Margaret smiled as the monkeys chatted to one another and didn’t feel so alone. With a wave to the Cat Ba Langurs, she continued her trek. Bursting through a thick clump of trees, she found herself on the edge of a gaping trench. She wobbled for a moment before regaining her balance.

‘Thank goodness,’ she breathed, wiping at her sweaty brow that had attracted many annoying midges.

She turned to walk alongside the canyon. Only her knee twinged.

As she tumbled down through mud and roots she remembered she hadn’t taken her arthritis pills for a while. In fact, it had probably been nearly a week. She tumbled head over heels for what felt like hours. When she finally came to a stop at the bottom Margaret thought she was going to be sick. She lay in a muddy heap, leaves clinging to her hair, and took a few deep breaths. Eventually the world stopped spinning and she sat up, realising the Dictaphone still in her hand. Somehow, Margaret had managed to keep hold of it through the entire tumble.

She popped it in her pocket before checking her body. Her arms were okay if not a little bashed. Her satchel had flown from her shoulder but her pack had wrenched her arms backwards as it was torn from her. Her head and back were all intact. She ran her hands over her hips, they were good too. Margaret couldn’t believe her luck. Her friend, Joyce had fallen out of bed and needed an iron pin in her hip. She had just rolled down a hundred-foot hill and come out dandy.

It was only when she looked around and everything was blurry did she realise something very important was missing. Her hands flew to her face. ‘Blast.’

She crawled around in the musty ground, her fingers sinking into the sodden dirt, desperately trying to find her glasses.

‘Bloody nuisance. Maybe Andrew was right, should’ve gone for that laser eye surgery after all.’

Panic was rising within her when she touched the long arm of her glasses. She quickly shoved them on and was disheartened to see a large crack down the left lens distorting her vision.

‘Double blast.’ She took them off again but could barely differentiate between petal and leaf. ‘It will have to do,’ she sighed as she placed them back on her nose.

The contents of each bag was scattered around her. Grumbling, she crawled around collecting all her possessions.

Once everything was back in their correct pockets and pouches Margaret got her bearings. By the way the plants were growing she could tell she had taken a tumble to the East. She was off course; she had been making her way down South. She looked back up the hill. There was no chance of her ever being able to make it back up there again, even if she was a spry, young woman. She pulled out her Dictaphone.

‘An ill-footed mishap has caused a change in route. I will continue my course and hope to be back on track by nightfall. I will…’ Margaret trailed off.

While talking she had been scouring the surrounding trees. There were plenty of Renanthera citrina, whose flowers looked like tiny men jumping for joy, and a very striking Cycas condaoensis, which many people would laugh at but she never found phalluses humorous; it was, after all, a very common shape in nature. But tucked behind some fallen leaves of the Asian Koki Mosau (a species of tree that she’d always felt sorry for after it was badly decimated during war time) was an unusually shaped plantlet. Slowly, she crept towards it as if it were a Large-Antlered Muntjac that would easily scare. When she was inches away she spoke into the Dictaphone.

‘It’s not the Aquilaria Crassna,’ she whispered, ‘but I have come across the most curious plant. It is only a foot tall, it should be struggling to survive in this jungle yet it has an erect Caulescent stem. It has five minuscule digitata leaves sprouting at the top of said stem. Each leaf is a deep shade of minty green. It has no flowers, buds, or nodes.’ She leant forward and rubbed between her finger and thumb. ‘It is puberulent, with fine hairs on each leaf.’ She breathed deeply. ‘No overwhelming smell.’ She looked around her for any other plantlets, or even a fully grown specimen. Nothing.

Margaret rummaged in her pack and pulled out the digital camera. She spent a couple of minutes working out how to turn it on before remembering to take the lens cap off. Leaning in close, as she still hadn’t worked out how to use the zoom, she snapped a dozen or so photographs. Satisfied, she put the digital camera away and pulled out her knife. Tenderly, she cut one of the leaves and part of the adjoining stem from the plant. She would have it preserved as a herbarium and sent off to Kew. She could already hear their cries of excitement at this new plant. ‘Who found this wonderful new specimen?’ they would ask. ‘Why, the brilliant Margaret Jones, of course.’ Finally, she would be a renowned botanist once more. That would knock Hilary Bishop off her pedestal.

Humming off-key to herself, Margaret placed the plant sample safely in her satchel. She searched the undergrowth and found a long, smooth branch, perfect for a makeshift walking stick. Walking a couple of steps she was pleased that her knee was no longer as stiff as it had been before. Everything was beginning to look up.

‘I may not have found the Aquilaria Crassna but sometimes you have to count your losses. This unknown plant could be more important to my career than Aquilaria Crassna ever could be. Andrew, I’m coming home.’

To celebrate Margaret brought out a box of tea bags and a battered tin cup from her pack. It was only once the water had stopped boiling that she realised the jungle was silent.

Suddenly, a gunshot split the air. Margaret jumped, nearly dropping her Dictaphone. Another blast sounded, and tree bark shattered only feet away from her. Without hesitating, she instinctively ran deeper into the jungle, away from danger.

‘Bloody poachers,’ she cursed, as she half ran, half hobbled past looming trees and a number of colourful flowers, that would have normally caught her attention.

Soon the gunshots were far behind her and she allowed herself to breathe. If there was one type of person Margaret didn’t want to meet while on her expeditions, it was poachers. The scourge of the natural world. They were greedy and vicious. Just because she was a human being wouldn’t stop them from doing God knows what. Her hands were shaking, and it had nothing to do with her arthritis.

He could feel the withering pain in his arm again. Absently he rubbed at it while he paced the room. It had been nearly an hour since he had sent the men out and still nothing. They’d better have good news, he thought. He glanced over at the monitors that lined the walls. There were cameras hidden all over the plantation and some in the surrounding jungle, too. The fields were clear, each guard manning his post, submachine gun poised. That woman, that strange, old woman, who had appeared out of nowhere, had gotten close. Too close. If she had walked only a few steps further she would have been right in the middle of his crops. He gripped his arm tightly. She had to be seen to.

There was a knock on the door.

‘Enter,’ he said quickly. Even he could hear the pain in his voice.

Two guards walked in, AK-47 assault rifles slung over their shoulders. He could tell from their sullen expressions that they had not been as successful as he would’ve liked.

‘What happened?’

The first one looked to the other before speaking, ‘We scared her off, Boss.’


‘But, she’d seen this,’ the other guard said as he pulled one of their crops from behind his back. ‘Looks like she took some of the leaves, too.’ The roots dropped dirt onto the floor. He looked at it, his lip curling.

‘And you just let her get away?’ The pain in his arm was growing. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

‘We didn’t let her, Boss.’

‘She was quicker than she looked.’

‘She’s an old woman. She was using a branch as a walking stick and you couldn’t keep up with her?’ he exploded. The pain reached new heights, and not for the first time, he wanted to tear the crippled thing from his body. He collapsed into his chair.


‘Get out,’ he hissed. ‘Get out there and find her.’

‘Then what?’

‘Finish her.’

The two men nodded. One guard left but the other turned and placed the hybrid coca plant on the desk in front of him. He stared down at it.

He might have been a pushover once. A pansy. A wimp. But not any more. Dirt went flying as he swept the plant off the table.

That woman was going to be sorry she ever messed with him.

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