Tilly woke gasping on her first morning in Hong Kong, worried the pollution had already crammed down into her lungs. She was buried alive, twelve flights above the ground, in a Tsuen Wan studio flat.
Instead of buying a sim card and sorting out a bank account, she lugged plants home on the MTR. Her backpack was stuffed with potting soil, and her granny cart sprouted fronds. She constantly apologised to other passengers as she banged against them on her way on and off the trains. At street level, she craned her head even though it was impossible to see her own balcony amid the mass of air conditioning units and all the clothes hanging out to dry on the strings that stretched between the buildings.
Slowly, the flat transformed. Her bathroom, with its cracked tiles and the showerhead that wouldn’t stop leaking, swelled into a steamy jungle. She scrubbed herself clean among peace lilies. A reclaimed serving trolley became home to a peaceful oasis. Spider plants dangled from hooks and tossed out their spikes as if hoping a prince would climb up and free them. The cigarette butts and crisp packets that wafted onto the balcony from the surrounding buildings were absorbed into a landscape of climbing vines and trailing stems.
At school, when sirens wailed, Tilly continued talking in her slow, measured voice. Her students were bored with typhoons and hardly glanced at the torrents whipping the reinforced windows. She calmed herself by remembering how she’d lashed everything down, weighted the bottoms of the pots, selected the balcony plants for their ability to sway rather than topple. She marvelled that the herbs in their strip of guttering gripped the dirt so tightly they were never uprooted. She would crouch on the balcony, rain battering her face, and use a pocket torch to check for ripped leaves.
On bad days, when she had to force her voice not to disintegrate, when she knew her colleagues were plotting behind her back and the MTR escalators were deliberately jolting her to make her fall, she searched through her garden until she found a plant that needed help. Its roots had seized up inside the pot, tight and scared. She brought the plant to the table and set it beside the latest stack of essays to mark. She never wore gloves; she held the weight of the root ball in her palm before she settled it into the pot that would be its new home. She gathered fresh potting soil around it, and lightly watered the plant to let it know everything was all right.
Finally, it had room to breathe.
Tracey S Rosenberg