GREEN FINGERS

CHAPTER 1

It looked as though the other flowers in the greenhouse had backed away from the dragon arum. They knew that space belonged to the deep red bloom, and woe betide any fuchsia that dared to cross it with a pretty pink sepal. Penny put the livid flower in a corner where it was dwarfed by the grapevine. The red lily shouldn't have been there at all. Knowing nothing about plants, her father kept it like a pet. Given the poorly state of its leaves, he had probably been watering it with malt whisky. The gardener drew the line at flowers that didn't know their place. Wilting or not, the dragon arum would have to go back to his study and its alcoholic diet. Penny was very possessive about her greenhouse. The riding lessons, piano tuition, and party frocks she could live without, but no one messed with her flowerpots, especially Lola, her younger sister. Fortunately, whenever she came over from Philadelphia to stay, the ten-year-old spent most of her time glued to the Internet. Playing with potting compost was the last thing on her mind Mr Wicks, the housekeeper, ensured Lola kept away from junk food, dubious websites and didn't buy four-wheel drive desert buggies on eBay and, apart from that, left her mainly to her own devices. She was so far ahead of her own age group there was no point in sending her to school for the couple of weeks before the summer holidays. Lola was probably ready for graduation back in Philadelphia anyway. Unlike her World Wide Web wise sister, Penny had a jaundiced view of technology. To her, plants were far more important and computers were best planted in a deep hole. They kept people from the natural world, the soil, insects, and need to have a bath every now and then. However bizarre or exciting, the images on Lola's monitor were only two dimensional, even when printed out. The bugs gardeners dealt with could be eliminated by washing up liquid or slug pellets. Try spraying a virus-infected computer with washing up water and see what happens. Lola was very grateful that her older sister kept away from her PC. Penny cross-pollinated an ornamental daisy in the hope it would produce a prize bloom. She covered the flower to deter insects that might have had other ideas, then opened the windows to allow in a few bees to pollinate the tomatoes. The daisy from last year's experiment remained resolutely in bud and she couldn't wait for it to open. The thing would probably turn out to be a disaster - all her daisies were. Penny had won no end of awards for her fuchsias, fruit, squashes, and vegetables, but her hybrid daisies turned out to be either fifteen feet tall with straggly petals or giant mop heads on short stems. Her friend, Mr Bellingham, told her to stick to plants she could look in the eye. He didn't have much time for flowers, apart from petunias and tagetes. His allotment was full of onions, potatoes, parsnips, beans and cabbage. The Bellinghams ate so many potatoes they were shaped like King Edwards. Any one else might have wondered how a 14-year-old could manage a huge garden and spacious greenhouse; Mr Bellingham was old and wise enough to see no harm in it. It was hardly Penny's fault that her father was a wealthy executive. The retired train driver reckoned that those who wanted to grow things should fill as much space as they could. With a garden the size of Penny's, that was hard work.

CHAPTER 2

The large ginger tomcat stopped sniffing the greenhouse roof for rivals to listen. An odd, chittering sound was coming from the open window. It wasn't high pitched enough to be mice. It might have been large beetles locked in mortal combat. Though not edible, they could be good sport. Oscar poked his scarred nose inside. Before the rest of him could follow and ruin the lovingly propagated pots below, there was an enraged crackle, and several of his whiskers were singed to their roots. With a yowl of rage, the tom lost his grip. He skidded down the glass into the water butt. All dignity now lost, the neighbourhood's feline bully hauled himself out. Oscar slunk off to the wildlife thicket at the bottom of the garden where there was only an audience of caterpillars and a hedgehog who paid attention to no one. Lola would have been in bed four hours ago if she hadn't discovered a website on unexplained phenomena. Unable to free herself from its intriguing tentacles, she came to a page explaining how the aurora borealis was really there to conceal an alien spaceship just above the North Pole. Her concentration was broken by the sudden commotion outside Penny's greenhouse. Lola quickly logged off and glanced outside before leaping into bed. It was bound to have woken her father. Troy Masters rolled over in bed. He wished he hadn't eaten that working supper of fish curry, strawberry sorbet, and white wine. With a daughter who grew enough vegetables to supply her class with sensible alternatives to burgher and chips, he should have brought his clients home for a healthy option. Penny could make impressive vegetable dishes. Unfortunately, his important clients expected something more pretentious than leek casserole or tomato salad. Troy sat up with a start. That wasn't his stomach grumbling. It was the ruddy tom from next door trying to get into Penny's greenhouse. As the wail of the humiliated Oscar faded into the distance, he reached for his watch. It was half past three in the morning and there was a board meeting at nine. At times like these the executive thought about retiring to the coast to throw pots. Not for long, though. He had become too attached to his large house and expensive car. So Troy set the alarm clock, and took a swig of herbal sleeping potion from one of the bottles on the table by his bed. If the lifestyle of Penny's father gave him a heart attack before she reached 16, she wouldn't starve. In fact, with her healthy diet she could live to be 200. Her sister would probably link minds with a computer instead, and end up in some virtual reality limbo. That would be their mother's problem.

Oscar's angry yellow eyes glowered out from the nettles. Playing safe, the local hedgehog took a detour round him to reach the compost heap where she regularly crunched beetles. And the eerie glow coming from the greenhouse was nothing to do with her. If humans thought their tomatoes needed night-lights, why should Prickles be bothered? The resentful ginger cat continued to seethe until its fur was dry, and then sneaked off to beat up the Persian cat three doors down.

An hour later, Lola climbed out of bed and logged on to raise her friend in Arizona. Negotiating time zones was enough to make an insomniac out of anyone.

"What's new Lola?" asked Mario.

"This neighbour has a stupid cat which is always trying to get into Penny's greenhouse. It just woke the neighbourhood up," Lola typed.

"What did it want to get into the greenhouse for?"

"No idea. Must be something she's growing."

"Your sister sounds great. Around here, 14-year-olds are only interested in diets, sleepover parties and Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"Well, she wins prizes and things. When she isn't digging she spends most of her time at the allotments talking to the gardeners."

"What's an allotment?" "Sort of garden without a house. People rent them to grow things. Our grandfather used to have one before Dad bought him a house."

"My Mum's got a large garden. Think Penny could send over some English seeds for her to try out?"

Lola wasn't sure. "Pen mentioned something about them being stopped by customs because of pests and things. I'll get her to send a seed catalog. She might know how to get round it."

There was the skirling of an enraged cat a couple of gardens down. "Oh no, Oscar's coming back! He'll wake everyone up again. Better go."

CHAPTER 3

Gordon handed out the last punnet of raspberries. Now everyone in the class was satisfied, except Damien. He had an allergy to any fruit with pips, green vegetables, the class guinea pigs, chalk dust, and computer studies. Gordon would have given him a stick of rhubarb, but Penny was always scrupulously fair. She remembered to include a punnet of blackcurrants for Damien. The seeds in them were so small, even he wouldn't notice them. Gordon usually carried the hamper to school when Penny had fruit to share around. The 14-year-old was six feet tall and looked eighteen. Unfortunately, Gordon's brain resolutely remained 13. Penny often had to rescue him from awkward situations. Mr Ellis came in to take the register. Gordon handed him a large punnet of raspberries and note from Penny.

The teacher swallowed some fruit as he read it. "Well, it's not her fault I suppose." "She promised to be here by break."

"What did the doctor say?"

"Her father must have taken a swig from the wrong bottle by mistake. The hospital are pumping his stomach just in case."

Mr Ellis secretly smiled. It was gratifying that the wealthy also suffered such indignities. "Unpleasant." He peered at the stained mouths of his class. "All right. Save some for lunch. A little fruit might help cleanse your digestive tracts after your regular surfeit of pizza and chips."

"Hi Liza, how's things?"

Liza's laboriously typed reply appeared on the screen. "Dad brought home a new puppy last night."

Well, at least it was an improvement on the Easter bunny she had been obsessed about several months ago. It was now called Tiffany May and lived in a pink hutch with a Barbie doll for company. "What's his name?"

"We haven't decided yet. How's things with you?"

"Dad poisoned himself last night so they took him to hospital and pumped his stomach."

While Liza absorbed the news and thought up a reply, Lola had time to pull on her T-shirt and jeans. "Hell. Is he alive?"

"They brought him home an hour ago. He'll live. Have to go shopping with Mr Wicks now. Bring you back a gob stopper."

Thoroughly drained and a light shade of grey, Troy Masters attempted some damage limitation over the missed board meeting. After spending and hour on the phone with a severe headache, he was a shadow of his confident executive self. The hospital had given him a bottle of glop that tasted like china clay to help reline his stomach. At least he had been cured of eating curried fish suppers and keeping his medicine and cosmetic bottles together on the bedside table.

Penny pushed some homework into her school bag. "I'll be back before teatime. If you feel like anything to eat before then, I've put some potato and leek soup by the microwave."

The mention of food made her father feel even more nauseous. "And don't drive anywhere until you feel right." It was pointless telling him to switch off his mobile. If Troy Masters had a berth on the Titanic, he would have been trading shares over the telegraph as it went down. Penny quickly plaited her straw-coloured hair and dashed out. A few minutes later, a ginger tom poked its scarred nose through the open French windows. Troy snatched up a tumbler and hurled the water at him.

CHAPTER 4

The bulldozer thudded into the trunk of the old oak tree. Musty Adams and Renata Blake refused to be shaken from its branches. A man wearing a peaked cap decorated with enough silver to dazzle the sparrows saw what was happening. He bellowed at the driver. "Stop that! If you injure any protester, you'll be the ones arrested!"

The contractor's security team had been too immersed in their sadistic game to notice the police arrive. The eco warriors now felt safe enough to come out onto their highway in the sky. Gordon and Penny watched from a safe distance. The thuggish security men had picked on the adult-sized Gordon more than once.

Renata and Musty waved to them and came down from their precarious perch.

"How long can you hold out?" Penny asked.

Renata tucked her mop of auburn hair back under her headband. "Ages. Another farm has started to send in supplies."

"And the council are looking at a new petition. Could mean a new inquiry," added Musty. Gordon was puzzled.

"Why are the contractors trying to kill you?"

Musty shrugged. "They just get bored, not having anyone to beat up."

"You can say that again," The six-foot schoolboy murmured.

Musty pulled a paper bag from his knapsack. "I managed to grab these before the bulldozers ripped up the lower downs."

Penny took the bag. It contained the roots of windflowers, cowslips, and fritillary bulbs. "Thanks a lot. They should do fine in the new meadow."

"I'll keep an eye out for harebells, and there's plenty of scabious if you need it."

"Are you all right for vegetables?"

"We've got carrots and spuds, but if you could part with a few beans..?" asked Renata.

"I'll see Mr Bellingham. He grows enough to supply a canning factory."

There was a scuffle behind them as some protesters tried to prize the caterpillar treads from the bulldozer. Several policemen moved in to break up the disturbance.

Musty rubbed his hands with relish. "Oh well, back to the fray."

The two veteran activists bounded back to their camp like excited gazelles.

"They shouldn't be climbing trees at their age. What are those two on, for goodness sake?" pondered Gordon. Penny shrugged.

"No idea. I certainly don't grow it for them." She looked at her watch. "Better get back. Promised to send a seed catalogue to one of Lola's cyber friends."

"Can they grow our stuff out there then?"

"In Arizona?" Penny shrugged. "Don't really know. Lola says that Mum's new house has got a huge garden which needs planting out, but that's in Philadelphia."

Gordon nodded sagely, then asked, "Where's that?"

"East coast." He still looked puzzled.

"Bit nearest to us. They can probably grow most things we do." Given the way her plants were doing at the moment, Penny wouldn't have needed to smuggle cuttings to the US. Some of them could have swum all the way.

CHAPTER 5

Troy Masters slept like a drugged dormouse. He was exhausted after watering Penny's greenhouse while she took Lola swimming. All the plants were flourishing so well, he thought it would have been better to let them go thirsty for a few days. Penny inherited her green fingers from her grandmother who had grown an alpine garden on top of a tower block. The nearest Troy ever got to jungle was the potted palms in office block foyers. That night Oscar avoided his regular route over the greenhouse. Last year's hybrid daisy now had a bud straight from The Little Shop of Horrors. If he lost any more whiskers to the malevolent thing inside it, he wouldn't be able to feel his way back through the gaps in the neighbourhood fences. A dull glow cast the lurid shadow of the Japanese maple against the wall of Lola's bedroom as she was in secret conversation with her cyber friends.

She glanced down at the greenhouse. "There's that eerie glow again."

"Why don't you take a gun and go down and find out what it is?" suggested Max.

"They don't allow people to carry guns over here, especially ten-year-old kids. It's probably some experiment my sister thought up. She can be really weird at times."

"Don't you get on then?"

"Sure. She treats me like a talking plant. Half the time I feel as if I should burst into flower."

"Boy, she does sound weird. What does your Dad think?"

"He hasn't got a clue. He probably thinks all teenagers want to plant the Sahara with forests."

"You don't then?"

"Somehow I'm all Mum's fault, but since I showed him the right way to use a spreadsheet he let's me do what I like. It's Mr Wicks who keep checking up on me. Mum gave him instructions before I came over. Just as well he doesn't live in. He'd stop me logging on in the middle of the night."

"Sounds as though you've got a great place there."

"The house is huge. Don't know why Dad needs so much space. Even if he married Linda and started another family there'd still be room for a small zoo."

"Who's Linda?"

"Girlfriend Dad had ever since he broke up with Mum. Good cook - giggles a lot."

At two in the morning in the greenhouse below, strange chittering sounds came from the leaves of the coleus and grapevine. Fuchsia buds burst into flower and small frogs leapt into space, snapping at phantoms. The ginger tom heard what was going on and watched from the safety of the rockery. He could nonchalantly side-step buckets of water, but needed a head start if whatever was in there suddenly decided to burst out. The sun rose and the chittering gave way to the dawn chorus. Oscar slinked off to hunt bird. The glow in the greenhouse faded, leaving a mattress of green spangled with flowers, many of which shouldn't have been in bloom at that time of year. Tendrils had insinuated their way around flowerpots and through the slats of the bench. Roots groped up from the greenhouse floor and shook fibrous fronds with them. Bees flew in to a pollen filled wonderland dripping nectar and radiating in ultra violet. It seemed to be saying, "I dare you to return to the hive and waggle dance the way back to this honey pot." Bedazzled and bewildered, some bees tried to do just that, dooming many brands of mild honey to be spiced up by alien nectars.

CHAPTER 6

Mr Bellingham forked away at the compost heap as though he had declared war on the slugs living inside it. The robust 70-year-old would have inflicted even more damage on the county council's planning officer if he had been foolish enough to visit the allotments at that moment.

"Yeah, them ruddy road builders will cut off the allotments," he told Penny and Gordon. "We'll all have t' take a half mile detour t' get here. That ain't going t' be much fun with a wheelbarrer full of spuds. What happened t' all them promises about getting people out o' their cars? Suppose the bloody government realised that half the population've lost the use o' their legs. Lazy beggars would get lost if they stepped onta the pavement without sommat to beep 'em in the right direction."

Gordon was too young to be car dependent and had parents who believed that the Devil invented the combustion engine to destroy mankind. "Surely they'll build a bridge or something over it?"

"Like they promised t' fell them bloody leylandii when they reached twenty foot?" The gardener stabbed his fork in the direction of a twelve metre high wall of fir trees casting a shadow over the allotments. "Look at the size o' them bleeders now."

"But there's a law against letting leylandii grow that tall," said Penny.

"Not when the council planted 'em t' screen us hoi polloi from them new up-market flats. Can't see the beggars suing theirselves." Mr Bellingham had a point.

Penny changed the subject and pointed to the pallet resting on the water tank. "Gordon brought those strawberry plants I promised."

"Grand, lass. I'll put 'em in before it gets dark." Having given the molluscs munching their way through his compost enough aggravation for the day, Mr Bellingham stabbed his fork into the vegetable border and went to his shed. "That lad o' your's be able t' manage this down t' the protesters then?" he called back.

Penny flinched at his turn of phrase. Gordon just smiled benignly. He saw no shame in being Penny's 'lad', whatever it meant.

Mr Bellingham pulled out a large crate filled with French beans, cauliflower, and calabrese. He handed it to Gordon who balanced it on his shoulder. Penny still wondered at how easily her friend managed to lift such weights. She still had trouble manoeuvring an adult-sized wheelbarrow.

"Are you sure you can part with all this, Mr Bellingham? Will you have enough left to freeze?"

"Of course we will. If them hippies manage t' stop that ruddy road, I'll grow 'em a years supply of cannabis."

"You're not planting that - surely?"

He laughed. "Nah, but if them Ancient Britons could grow hemp, it'd give me no problem. Old Hemlock had some self sets sprouting in his compost heap last year. Thought they was weeds and dug 'em back in. Didn't tell him. Bad enough with the smoke from that pipe o' his. Thought o' 'im dancing on the water tank with a radish behind each ear right put me off."

The mention of hemp reminded Gordon they had to finish their homework on Ancient Britain. Penny had been so busy it hadn't crossed her mind either. "We'd better be going. I need to know how Dad is."

"Still poncing around with that mobile phone is he?"

Penny gave a pained smile. Troy Masters would be poncing around with his mobile phone until its microwave emissions cooked his brain.

Lola loaded a tray with empty cups and plates. "But are you sure it was all right?"

"Of course," Troy reassured her for the forth time. Why was the usually confident girl behaving as though he was Captain Hook? Her chutney and cheese sandwiches were better than anything out of a cellophane packet, even if of the doorstep dimension, and were the first things he had managed to eat all day. Then Troy realised that this was his other daughter. He was more used to communicating with a girl who could persuade lupins to grow Brussels sprouts and treated him with long suffering benevolence. Lola was used to holding her conversations through a computer screen. Trying to please a real father probably was a bit scary.

"I tell you what, how would you like to take Penny to the cinema?" Troy announced.

It sounded like a boardroom proposal and Lola suspected that Captain Hook was humouring her. "I think she already knows the way." "I'll drop you off and pick you up," he ploughed on regardless. "It would do you good to get out once in while."

"Mr Wicks makes sure I walk at least five miles every day. I don't know how he manages it at his age. It's ruined my trainers. Anyway, that's your third glass of wine and Penny says you shouldn't drive."

"I'll give you the taxi fare and you can go for a meal in that new restaurant afterwards."

Lola took a deep breath. How do you tell someone that their generosity was enough to make even a greedy kid like her giddy? "Look, Dad… I really, really do appreciate the new computer and you letting me spend all day on the Internet. That's enough… really. I don't expect treats all the while. And I know Penny's happy enough with a garden the size of two baseball pitches. If you carry on like this, we'll just end up fat and selfish and no one will love us when we're older."

Troy Masters was taken aback. "I didn't realise you watched chat shows?"

Lola groaned and changed the subject. "Did you know that something inside Penny's greenhouse glows at night?"

"Probably a reflection from someone's security light. Probably Mrs Bannister's - scaring off the foxes before they leave paw prints on her patio."

No, her father obviously knew nothing about it, so Lola took the tray out to the kitchen and washed up before he decided to take an interest.

CHAPTER 7

Penny glanced through the post when she came in from school the next day. Mr Wicks had left a note. She tossed the bills onto the hall table and opened the message from their housekeeper. His sister was flying down from Scotland and he had taken Lola and Mrs Wicks to meet her at the airport. As she settled down to tackle her homework, the phone rang.

"Penny? That you?"

"Hello Mr Wicks." She hesitated. "Everything all right?"

"Oh yes, we had a grand day. Lola's enjoying herself, so we'll bring her back later if that's okay? And I've borrowed the strimmer to tidy the lawn's edges."

"That's fine. Dad won't be back until late and she'd only be sitting in front of the computer anyway. Beats me who she finds to talk to half the time." The Telecom envelope caught her eye. "At least the bill won't be too bad with the broadband package. I'm sure Mum doesn't let her stay online for so long."

"Well, she is on holiday, isn't she." Mr Wicks' tone became suspiciously casual. "Wouldn't be fair to make her weed the garden all day."

That sounded a good idea to Penny. It would have been better than sitting in front of a PC monitor. "I'd better get out to the greenhouse. Everything in there must be gasping. Dad's idea of watering plants is tipping his wine dregs into the nearest flowerpot."

"So, you haven't been out there yet?" Penny was puzzled. Whenever Mr Wicks had something to say, he usually came straight out with it. "I've haven't had time since Dad drank hair tonic."

"I noticed something in there when I took the strimmer from the shed. Didn't go inside in case it was one of your experiments."

"Experiment?" Now what had happened? It must have been pretty dramatic to bother Mr Wicks. He was never fazed by anything. He was a small man, but could have been taken for a barrister. One glance over his half moon spectacles could have wrung contrition from a mass murderer, and he was the only person Lola really paid attention to. Penny had been going to make herself a sandwich for tea. Now she'd lost her appetite. Experiment? What sort of experiments did Mr Wicks think 14-year-old schoolgirls went in for? Homework could wait. When she had finished talking to Mr Wicks, Penny darted out through the French windows into the garden. A film of condensation made it impossible to see inside the greenhouse. When she tried to open the door, something pushed her back. She was tempted to call Gordon, more for moral support than a strong shoulder. Whatever was blocking the way suddenly shifted. Penny fell forwards, but was now reluctant to go in. She pulled herself together. It was her greenhouse. She had grown everything in it. What was there to be alarmed about? The gardener stepped inside. All the plants had doubled their growth. Some, which should have been dormant, had burst into unruly flower and sent out corkscrew tendrils that bandaged the slatted bench. The contents of many flowerpots were no longer recognisable. It was hardly surprising Mr Wicks sounded perturbed. Some blooms wore self-satisfied expressions, and others were studded with stamen smiles that could have scared off hornets. Many pots had been cracked open by roots trying to reach the water of the hydroponics mat on the lower bench. What must Mr Wicks have thought? Did he really believe that she could have conjured up this display overnight? Was this really her greenhouse? Penny had green fingers, but not green enough to cultivate a jungle. The teenager was tempted to phone her father, and then realised there wouldn't have been any point in bringing him home from his first day back at work. He would now be in his element, juggling shares, and advising billionaires where to invest. He had no idea which way up an umbrella plant went. Penny pushed a window open to clear the condensation then noticed last year's hybrid daisy experiment. Its huge bud was bulging as though something was trying to burst out. The bright golden petals sensed she was there and slowly unfurled to face her. The dome of stamens inside started to pulsate with light.

"That's not possible," Mario rapidly typed.

Lola didn't have much of an imagination, especially in the early hours of the morning when she should have been fast asleep. How could she be making it up? "But it is. I'm looking down at the greenhouse right now. It's glowing inside. I can see all the plants. They're huge. It's like a mad florist's. Penny must have things living in there."

"Your sister's probably using some peculiar fertiliser." Mario was three years older than Lola and knew about these things. "Our local park's got glasshouses. They grow things that look as though they come from another planet."

"Penny's plants look as though they want to invade another planet." There was a pause. A sure sign Mario didn't believe her. "It's true."

"Why not find a Web site that can tell you what they are?" Mario suggested. That was a good idea. It was two in the morning, so Lola jotted down a reminder to herself. She would do some serious searching as soon as she came back from Mr Wicks' morning expedition to the supermarket.

CHAPTER 8

Knowing the contractor's security guards wouldn't threaten him while the police were watching, Gordon beamed them an insincere smile for devilment as he walked past. There were abusive mutterings about his parentage, and a muted threat to break the long-legged youth's neck, neither of which amounted to a breach of the peace. Being able to rise above the intimidation brought a manly glow to Gordon's spirit. In a few more years his gangling limbs would develop enough muscle to pulverise any one of the thugs into their oversize wellies. Though he would never do it, the thought was comforting. Protesters swung down from the trees at the sight of the fresh beans and calabrese the teenager carried. Living out of donated tins, however well intentioned, could get boring after a while. Nettle soup wasn't much of an alternative. As the contents of the crate were shared out, a woman who was far too plump to be swinging through trees thrust a large enamel mug into Gordon's hands. He drank the tea laced with something that gave him another warm glow. Cotton wool contentment diffused the 14-year-old's body.

Suddenly a familiar voice boomed across the police barrier. "Now then, Gordon Wright, what're you doing down here?"

Having an uncle who was a policeman meant that you could get away with nothing. Sometimes Gordon wished the all-seeing relation could be promoted to a position in the Outer Hebrides, but then he wouldn't get a pitch side vantage point at football matches. "Hello Uncle Len. I'm only drinking tea."

"I know what you're drinking. I can smell it from here." Uncle Len tossed his nephew a packet of peppermints. "Just be sure it's off your breath before your mother comes home." He walked off to chat with the security team.

Gordon grinned sheepishly. They would have stomped him into the mud when he tried to get past their barrier several weeks ago if it hadn't been for Uncle Len. Now it was apparent that Gordon was a minor, another concoction was quickly brewed to sober him up. Musty Adams was preparing the hearth to steam some vegetables. It was a marvel to watch the way he ignited a blazing fire in a well of damp peat under the gridiron that held their kettles and cooking utensils. This skill was important - lighting fires in trees not only annoyed the squirrels, it risked burning down the very wood you were trying to preserve. There was also a serious danger that Musty's straggly locks would catch fire.

"Tell Penny I've spotted some orchids on the downs. We've got inspectors coming to see if it can be made a site of special scientific interest."

"Great." The only thing Gordon understood about botany was the weight of vegetables. "Rumours about the new petition aren't so good though."

"Oh…" It now seemed that nothing could prevent a wide ribbon of tarmac slicing the district in half. It wouldn't only be badgers and Mr Bellingham who had trouble getting from one side of the motorway to the other.

Lola scrolled through a dozen Web addresses containing anything botanical and bizarre. There were blooms that looked, carnivorous, amphibious, and down right dangerous. None of them resembled the plants in Penny's greenhouse. She went on to an address promoting orchids; flowers with full membership of the weird club. Eventually Lola realised she was searching in the wrong places. She needed to speak to someone who knew about these things. There had to be some interactive site she could log onto.

CHAPTER 9

Penny dashed home from school the next day to examine her hybrid daisy. Making sure no one, especially the nosy Mrs Bannister next door, was watching she went inside the greenhouse and opened a window to clear the condensation. The grapes had swollen to deep purple maturity. They were supposed to be white. The leaves of the coleus had bands of riotous colours that never appeared on the seed packet and the straggly calceolaria that had been hanging onto life after a white fly attack were now blooming like a stall of brilliant handbags. The cacti seemed to be behaving but the lithops, which had never displayed so much as a bud, had bright double daisies bursting from their pebble shaped leaves. Then the large hybrid daisy bud turned to face her. Penny was unsure whether to take a photograph or panic. She went to the far end of the greenhouse and sat in her wicker chair, now entwined by tendrils, to think. There was no reason for her plants to suddenly burgeon like this, and flowers should turn to face the sun, not follow the gardener's movements with such keen interest. Plucking up courage, she gently tugged at the daisy's petals to see if it would open again. They angrily snatched themselves back. Penny jumped. The only prize this plant could win would be for a bad attitude. Show judges wouldn't appreciate an exhibit that refused to make eye contact. This hybrid, however remarkable, would have to stay confined to the greenhouse. The condensation had cleared from the windows and Oscar was staring in with blackmail in his expression. Penny closed the window to allow the glass to steam up again. It was obvious that nothing she did now would slow the growth of the plants. If anything, they were liable to burst out of the greenhouse. She seriously considered going to the library to Google for similar instances of plant misbehaviour. The problem was, her credibility as a technophobe would be jeopardised if someone she knew saw her. If it got back to Lola, the teenager would never live it down. And who in their right mind would post stuff like that on the Internet anyway? Penny had her own library of plant books. It would make better sense to plough through those instead. At least anything she found in them could be believed. Eventually remembering where she had put the rusty key, she locked the greenhouse door and went into the kitchen. The fright had given Penny such an appetite she went into the kitchen and made a tomato sandwich. Oscar watched accusingly from the rock garden. He obviously believed that she was responsible for the mad plants. Her father would have soaked the tomcat with the soda siphon. Penny couldn't be bothered. While Oscar was sitting on the rockery, he wasn't digging up the borders. Resisting the temptation to go out every five minutes to check on the greenhouse, Penny went to her room and spent the evening looking through plant manuals. There was no mention of glowing flowers. The only mobile ones were triffids. There was a call from Philadelphia. Penny found it exhausting pretending to her mother that nothing was wrong, and went to bed early in the hope that everything would be back to normal in the morning.

As usual, Lola sat up half the night surfing the Net. Then she found it - a laboratory where white-coated technicians examined flasks of strange botanical substances, or teased apart spaghetti-like goo behind protective screens. The lab was a government department linked to public safety. The night shift scientists seemed unconcerned about the world being free to watch them. Lola was transfixed. She made a note of the address, emails, several phone numbers and bookmarked the site. Then she logged off and went to bed. Should she call them? Which was worse, a sinister greenhouse glowing under her bedroom window or having to explain to an annoyed older sister that she had reported her to a government department? She decided to sleep on it.

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