Aziraphale scanned the Guardian’s two-page spread of the summer’s best Edinburgh Fringe shows. ‘Oh look, Armando Iannucci’s doing a reading, he's good. And there’s a play about Margery Kempe, do you remember her? Mad as a box of frogs, but jolly good fun.’
‘Hmm, yes. She might have been a bit less mad if you hadn’t gone completely overboard on her visions,’ said Crowley, taking Aziraphale’s newspaper and scanning the listings. Before the angel could protest, he continued: ‘Why don’t you just go? You go every year.’
‘Oh, I shouldn’t. I already closed the shop for a week so I could go to the Hay Festival. Didn’t want to miss Sandi Toksvig.’ Aziraphale took another bite of his chocolate croissant and made a face as it disintegrated all over his jacket.
Crowley sighed, folding the newspaper. ‘Look, straight swap. You go to Edinburgh, see as many shows as you want, go to that hot chocolate place you like. Leave the bookshop to me. And then when you get back, I’ll toddle off to Burning Man and you can look after my plants.’
Aziraphale narrowed his eyes. ‘That’s all? No catch?’
‘That’s all. Just water them every three days and mist the leaves daily. I like to talk to them a bit, too. Give them a bit of encouragement.’ Crowley drained his tiny cup of espresso, which he had convinced the barista was pronounced expresso, if you wanted to be authentically Italian about it.
Something fluttered in Aziraphale's chest. ‘You secret softy.’
Crowley rolled his eyes. ‘Go on then. If you catch the 11 o’clock train you’ll be there just in time to grab a room that’s suddenly become available at the Witchery.’
Aziraphale let out a little squeak. ‘Oh, that’s my favourite hotel outside of London!’
‘Chop chop, then. Wouldn’t want to miss it.’ Crowley caught the barista’s eye. ‘Another expresso, please, Nina.’
By the time he turned back, Aziraphale was already out the door.
A week later, Aziraphale arrived back in London. Edinburgh had been wonderful. Naturally, every play he had chosen to see was excellent, every talk incisive, every concert divine. The deep-fried Mars bar he had scoffed after coming out of a late-night comedy show had been pretty bloody brilliant, too.
Burning Man had started on the last day of the Fringe, so Crowley had left the key to his apartment on the counter in the bookshop. True to his word, the place was impeccable. He’d even neatly entered the sale of a dozen books into the ledger, although Aziraphale could have sworn he didn’t carry any copies of the Necronomicon.
Aziraphale decided to pop into Crowley’s flat to check on the plants before dinner.
Crowley’s flat was mostly grey and sparsely decorated, though it did have a fabulous view over the river. When Aziraphale opened the door, the lush greenery dotted around the living room trembled as if rustled by a sudden breeze, although the air in the room had barely been disturbed.
‘Hello there,’ he murmured. The angel picked up the plant mister that Crowley had left on the table and gave the nearest peace lily a few squirts. ‘Don’t you worry. I’m here to look after you.’
He pottered around for fifteen minutes, misting the dozen or so plants in the apartment and polishing a leaf here and there.
When he closed the door behind him, all the plants sagged a little in relief.
‘Ooh, good afternoon!’ crooned Aziraphale as he stepped through the door. The apartment was warm and the plants looked a little droopier than the previous day, though still prize-winning by human standards.
‘I suppose it gets hot in here with those big windows, even if it is north-facing,’ said Aziraphale, picking up the mister. He gazed out over the river to the Houses of Parliament. ‘Nice view, though. If you like architecture, I mean. Probably not if you like competent governance.’
He suddenly felt a bit silly. ‘I don’t suppose you care, being plants. Left or right, good or evil, it’s probably all the same to you.’
For the first time in their evolution, the plants keenly felt the lack of eyebrows to raise in disbelief.
They’d been wanting mouths to scream with for a while.
By the morning of the third day, the plants looked decidedly more wilted than they had when Aziraphale had first stopped by.
‘Drinkies today, my dears! That’ll perk you up.’ Aziraphale filled up the watering can Crowley had left and stood on his tiptoes to reach a trailing pothos perched high up on the wall. He gave the cheese plants and fiddle-leaf fig a generous glug of water each, checking that the soil was moist but not too wet before moving on.
‘Now, I’ll just make myself a cup of tea, and then I’ll read you the new Salman Rushdie. It’s quite good, though my lot still aren’t too keen on him.’
The angel wandered through the dining room to the kitchen. On the way, he passed the eagle lectern from the church they’d been in when it was bombed in 1941.
He felt a twinge in his chest that was both embarrassing and exhilarating.
Funny that Crowley would choose a bit of church architecture for his minimalist flat. Maybe he liked the idea of annoying other demons when they dropped by. Or maybe—
No. Aziraphale gave himself a little shake. Enough of that.
He pushed through the kitchen door and filled the kettle.
On day four, despite the previous day’s watering, the plants were languishing more than ever. Aziraphale discovered a brown mark on the pothos, and one of the cheese plants had lost a big leaf overnight. He gingerly lifted up the foliage.
‘Oh dear, what’s wrong? Am I not paying you enough attention? I'm not smothering you, am I?’ Aziraphale ran his fingers through his hair and sat down on the sofa. ‘What’s his secret, hmm? Is he miracling you?’
The plants gave an almost imperceptible shudder, but the angel didn’t notice. The sofa was surprisingly comfortable. He imagined Crowley sinking into it after a long day of tempting. The demon had left an emptied glass of whisky on the side table, and it caught a beam of light from the window. Aziraphale brushed his thumb along the rim. He swallowed.
‘I’ll just pop back to the bookshop and see if I’ve got any books on horticulture,’ he muttered apologetically. ‘I’ll be back shortly.’
Aziraphale did not, in fact, make it back to flat, but instead spent the evening poring over a 1909 volume of Beautiful Flowers and How To Grow Them. The next morning, he took it to Crowley’s apartment and read out various sections to different plants.
‘The india-rubber plant,’ he admonished, ‘... is really not a good room plant. Indeed! Are you listening? … draughts, close air, and alternations of temperature cause its lower leaves to turn yellow and fall; when this happens the plant is the reverse of ornamental.’
The rubber plant was unmoved. It had been through much worse than this.
Aziraphale sat down heavily on the sofa. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault, I know. You’re just a plant. I just don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. I'm an angel. This shouldn't be so hard.’
He gave the plant an apologetic look. ‘Don’t worry. Crowley will be back in two days. Just—try to hold on that long, all right?’
The rubber plant shivered and dropped two more leaves.
In desperation, Aziraphale closed the bookshop early and trekked down to a garden centre in Dulwich, where he bought a special spray for leafy houseplants.
Not that it helped, of course.
On day six, Aziraphale took the peace lily to see the head gardener at Kew. He cornered her as she was transferring plants from the nursery to the Alpine house.
‘Looks alright to me,’ she said, carrying a tray full of baby pitcher plants towards the rockery.
Aziraphale hurried after her. ‘But look, its leaves are going brown! And it lost one of its spathes yesterday. Please, I’m looking after it for a… a friend, and it was fine when he left it with me. Could you please take a look?’ He held the plant out beseechingly.
The gardener sighed and put her tray down. ‘A friend, hmm?’ She bent over the peace lily. ‘Soil feels about right, I don’t think you’ve got root rot. The brown could mean either overwatering or underwatering, so it should right itself if you and your friend are careful with it for the next few weeks. Maybe it’s getting a bit too much light. Try moving it around to see where it’s happiest.’
‘Oh—all right.’ Aziraphale must have looked particularly dejected, because the gardener patted him kindly on the arm before picking up the tray again.
‘Don’t worry too much. My friend killed a bromeliad she was supposed to be looking after for me while I was on holiday once.’ The gardener leaned in conspiratorially. ‘She bought me a new one when we moved in together.’
When Crowley got out of the taxi from the airport, he found Aziraphale standing outside his building, pacing and muttering to himself.
‘Oh!’ Aziraphale took in Crowley’s tan. He’d undone an extra button on his shirt, and Aziraphale had to force his gaze back up to the demon’s face. ‘How was Nevada?’
‘Great. Hot. Lots of drugs. Edinburgh?’
‘Oh, good, very good. Funny, you know. And I do love that hotel.’ Aziraphale nervously tapped the key to Crowley’s apartment against his left palm.
Crowley let him fidget for a few moments, then asked, ‘Are we going in?’
‘Well—look.’ Aziraphale straightened up and thrust out the key. ‘Before we go in, you should know—your plants are… Well, they’re not dead, but I don’t seem to have your green thumb. I did just as you said, but—they may be a little worse for wear. I'm sorry.’
Crowley raised an eyebrow.
‘C’mon angel. Let’s see what the damage is.’
They took the lift to Crowley’s floor and stepped into the flat. Aziraphale held his breath. Crowley looked around. The plants began to shake violently.
‘RIGHT, YOU LOT.’ Crowley slammed the door behind him. ‘HOLIDAY’S OVER.’ He walked over to the long-suffering rubber plant. ‘DID YOU THINK I WOULDN’T BE BACK? DID YOU THINK YOU WOULDN’T PAY FOR THIS?’
Aziraphale gaped. ‘Crowley! This is what you’ve been doing?
‘MY FRIEND TOOK TIME OUT OF HIS DAY TO TAKE CARE OF YOU, AND YOU DO THIS? YOU MAKE ME SICK.’
‘Bloody hell, Crowley!’ Aziraphale pushed himself between Crowley and the plants. He held up his hands.
‘Crowley, these plants—they've got—they've got post-traumatic stress disorder!’
He could have kicked himself. What a ridiculous thing to say, Aziraphale, really, you always make a mess of—
Crowley set his jaw and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath in. ‘Right. Right.’ Turning back to the plants, he picked up a small heartleaf philodendron that was still looking distinctly worse for wear. He glared around the room. ‘YOU ALL KNEW WHAT WOULD HAPPEN. I’M TAKING PHIL TO THE SHREDDER.’
The plants quaked. Crowley turned on his heel and stormed down the hallway towards apartment’s other sculpture, the one of a demon and angel wrestling. Aziraphale scurried after him.
‘Crowley! Please don’t—look, why don’t I take it? I’ll put it in the bookshop. A little greenery might be—wait, what’s this?’
Crowley pushed through a door Aziraphale had never noticed before. The smell of dirt and foliage hit him and he realised the room was absolutely full of plants.
‘Oh my goodness—Crowley, I didn’t even know about this room, I haven’t watered these or anything. Don’t shred them, it’s all my fau—wait a minute.’
Crowley had shut the door behind them. He carefully put the philodendron down beside a straggly spider plant and a slightly balding cactus, then turned around and switched on a paper shredder filled with what looked like plastic store loyalty cards. The shredder let out a monstrous gnashing noise.
Aziraphale gasped in delight. He put his hands over his ears and began to laugh.
‘It was a ruse!’ he shouted over the racket. ‘You’re just retiring them!’
‘Shhh,’ hissed Crowley. ‘They’ll hear you!’
Aziraphale tried to suppress his smile and failed. ‘I knew you weren’t that bad, really. But why?’
Crowley switched off the shredder. ‘AND LET THAT BE A LESSON TO YOU!’ he yelled, loud enough to be heard in the other room. He sighed. ‘The residents’ association has a competition every year, and I can’t stand Mrs Wright and her prize-winning begonias.’
Aziraphale laughed. ‘Very well, then.’ He offered Crowley his arm. ‘You’ve had a long journey. Ritz?
‘Ritz,’ agreed Crowley, taking his arm.
They walked out together, taking care to close the door behind them.