Jack Pettigrew Just Stole the World’s Rarest Lily
The boy, the one with scruffy hair, the one not paying attention, playing with the toggle on his anorak, standing friendless at the back of the little group, is about to become one of the most wanted people in the world. The devil makes work for idle hands and so it proves to be when he gets bored of that toggle.
The teacher, reading from a guidebook bought hastily in the gift shop while the kids were queuing up for the loos which is now tucked into her bag where she hopes they can’t see it, is still droning on. It’s cold and wet outside – hence the anorak – but it’s boiling and humid inside this massive greenhouse. The boy’s grandfather has one just like it, but obviously a lot smaller. And it doesn’t look like a jungle. Jack loves it in there, the squeak the door makes when his granddad slides it open, the bags of stickily sweet smelling manure along the ground from which his granddad grows the best tomatoes. They never taste the same indoors, from a plate – you have to eat them straight from the plant so they taste of the vine.
His classmates are distracted, half of them listening to the teacher, the other half talking amongst themselves, messing about. Jack doesn’t like any of them.
There’s a track neatly laid out which you follow through the false jungle. It doesn’t go very near the plants, not the exciting ones anyway. You just look at them, but Jack finds that he wants to know what they feel like. There are several spiky ones, others that look like they’ve been snipped out of a fur coat, and lots that look silky and smooth, one even glasslike.
Jack likes the small ones. Not the big, showy ones that are as tall as two rugby players standing on each others’ shoulders, but the small ones, the little heroes. He knows that if a plant looks tiny and insignificant, but they have bothered to bring it to Kew, then it must really be something special.
The group moves on without him. No one notices Jack, they would rather he was not there if they did. A small tropical stream runs through the greenhouse and when he catches a glimpse of it at a certain point, he realises it’s his chance. The crocodile of schoolkids trails off around a corner and, just for a minute, for a few glorious seconds, Jack is entirely alone in this few square feet of rainforest containing the world’s rarest plants.
He wants something. Standing, by himself, his love for these strange, endangered, weird and wonderful plants feeling like its about to burst right out through his chest, he wants something to keep. Something for a rainy day, something for when he has the Sunday night blues, a secret. So he slips, quick as a fox, where the stream is narrowest, not even getting his feet wet, across to the other side where, in the shade of a monstrous triffid, lie 20 tiny, delicate little plants, each with a small white bud.
It’s not much to take, he thinks, as he scoops the little ornament out of the soil with one hand and dips his mucky fingers quickly in the stream as he crosses back, tucking the plant into his now empty lunchbox, job done.
He catches up with the others, the teacher not even noticing his brief transgression, and he hugs the thought of the tiny little lily sitting in his backpack. It’s his granddad’s birthday next week and this was the perfect present. He’d go straight to the greenhouse and plant it there to keep it safe, and secret.
The lily is one of only 25 left in the world, 20 of the specimens in that quiet spot by the stream in Kew and the botanical curators at Kew release the story to the media before Jack even reaches home. His granddad’s in for a hell of a surprise.