Jalapeno — four

Jalapeno — one
Jalapeno — two
Jalapeno — three

She returned home that evening to find Oscar already back, laid across the sofa, streaming something on his phone and still in his work clothes,

“Boss was off, so we had an early dart — thought I’d messaged you about it?”

The company where Oscar worked was the kind that you occasionally saw profiled in glossy Sunday supplements, and had featured on at least two Buzzfeed articles about the design of their head office. It was, invariably, the first thing that was brought up if he mentioned where he worked, and he’d have to tell them that, no, they didn’t have sleep pods, or an indoor tree-house for meetings, or an on-site complimentary bar. The company’s nod to having a location in what was often jokingly-not-jokingly referred to in all staff emails as the provinces, they shared a floor of an office space with a recruitment consultants. They got around criminally underpaying their staff by getting in a crate of beers on a Friday afternoon, and turning a blind eye to lateness.

“I’ve only been in five or ten minutes”

The theme music for the American version of The Office accompanied his voice as he finished an episode they’d both seen several times before, the most obvious indication of this tiniest of lies. The dishes he’d intended to do when he’d got in were still in the sink, and he’d needed the toilet for the past 40 minutes without bothering moving from the settee.

It’d been three weeks now, and there was no sign of life in any of the pots. Important discussions had been had held — mainly through Lillith’s internal narrative, but sometimes over messenger with Oscar, too — on the cause of the problem. The packets had suggested there would be green shoots within 10 days, all things being equal. But no matter how often she checked, all that stared back from the ceramics was an abyss of sodden clods of earth. She took one pot in her hand and pawed at the mud, hoping to unearth a reason why.

Initially there were worries that the three in the living room weren’t getting enough light, so they were moved to the bedroom which meant they got a bit of sun for a few more hours in the morning, but they were still just as lifeless as their cousins in the kitchen. That trio were a particular disappointment — not only were they on their home patch, constantly having the dishes that they should be garnishing being prepared around them, but they got all the sun they could muster on the slender windowsill by the sink.

Having made the mistake of mentioning her foray into food cultivation at work, her colleagues had grasped ahold of the topic with grim determination. While they could talk endlessly of children, house moves, or forthcoming holidays to one another, Lillith last had a thing when she was newly single a few years back, when she’d be asked daily over coffee how Tinder worked and if they could have a look at her matches.

Since that slip-up it seemed there wasn’t a member of the team that didn’t have greenfingers. A woman called Helen from the Guildford office had emailed, offering to send over old copies of Grow Your Own. The dream had long been to get an allotment where she could potter round with people who looked like her granddad and grow her own marrows, rather than being tagged into photos by James from the communications team showing off his own patch. After that, all her Facebook targeted adverts were for sit-on lawn mowers, plant food, and retirement plans.

Office consensus had laid the blame on the quality of the soil: once, in another moment of weakness following a particularly tough barrage of questions on the subject, she’d admitted taking it from the building’s communal garden to a chorus of tuts in the kitchen. Last Tuesday as she left the foyer en route to work she was stopped in her tracks by a single bluebell blossom, surrounded by green shoots, just to the left of the entrance. Lillith almost punched in joy the air when she saw it, bringing it up in conversation with anyone who talked to her. On the way home, she picked it and put it in a small glass of water in the bathroom, watching it die a little more each day as she showered.

Oscar was tasked with watering the seeds, something that she checked this particular evening by going round each pot to touch test and see if the soil was dry. A friend had once said that getting a couple getting a dog is practice for them having a baby — if the damp soil was anything to go by, it was a resounding endorsement that he’d be able to make the step up to canine caring within the next few years. She wondered what kind of dog he’d want to get, the compromises she’d have to make in order to get a Collie and call it something suitably droll like Ian or Barry.

Even so, they remained barren and steps needed to be taken. Google’s first result suggested the fluctuations in temperature throughout her flat may mean it was not warm enough consistently enough for them to germinate. After double-checking to see what the word meant (‘begin to grow and put out shoots after a period of dormancy’), Lillith reset the thermostat for the nth time, before posting another message to the building Facebook group begging for someone to get the heating sorted. Carefully worded to appear offhand, the post imagined a world in which the building’s inconsistent central heating was aggravating her asthma, and how the nightly coughing was ruining both her and her partner’s lives. Please, she implored, let’s get this sorted once and for all. It would get 3 likes and no comments, quickly discarded by the social media platform’s algorithm as being unengaging content.

Driven by the number of responses it had been getting, the major topic in the group was currently a transphobic meme posted by one of the most prolific posters. Accompanied by nothing but a few cry-laughing emojis for context, it was out of keeping with the intended use of the group, although it was generally now in the spirit of it. After losing 5 minutes in the comments section — a steady descent from people asking the image to be removed to threats of violence in the building’s hallways against any perceived enemies of free speech — Lillith returned to Google. The second search result claimed the seeds may have been sown too deep for them to properly grow. Taking a spoonful of soil out of each container, she carefully sifted for seeds and placed them back under the slightest dusting. She wondered if she should get involved in the discussion herself as she scattered the soil.

The third search result was American, and had an unrelated video she couldn’t stop autoplaying. Exiting the Chrome app, she laid back on the bed, and held the phone above her head as she flicked through Instagram: Francis Jones, a boy she’d matched with on a dating app and chatted with intermittently until he sent a dick pic, had posted a video of a gig he’d been at but Lillith didn’t recognise the name; Patricia Clarke, a contractor from work, had made herself paella for dinner; Olive Nowak, it seemed, was back with her partner judging by the posts of their dimly lit faces snuggling in bed and accompanying heart eyes gifs. A notice that she’d caught up on all the latest content popped up, and her stomach rumbled as a reminder of her hunger. She to the living room, the tinny disembodied American voices becoming louder as she approached.

“It’s probably time we get some Baby Bio on the big shop. It’d be good to have in anyway, do you think?”

A response would never come, Oscar apparently more interested in a convoluted storyline about falling in a koi carp pond than getting involved in a discussion about that particular investment. She opened up the cupboard where the tins lived, already knowing what was inside.

“I dunno what I want. Have you eaten already?”