There is an urban legend well known in this area regarding The Plant Man.
Footage exists, blurry and ill-lit, of the trespassing fiend, but it never provides a good look at his face. Only a flowerpot held in one hand, or the reflection of a streetlight on leather, or a flash of a camera glinting against a pair of shears. He exists only as a rumor; a giggled whisper in someone’s ear at the pub, an inside joke at uni, and a viral sensation.
None of these things mean he is not real.
That being said, the only person who can corroborate the truth about the Plant Man is the man himself. And unfortunately, Anthony J. Crowley has no idea that it’s him.
It started as a prank, as mischief, just to grind the gears of overall annoyance in the area in order to meet Crowley’s monthly quota for Downstairs. Trim a few hedges into strange shapes, rearrange a few geraniums...you know, provoke subtle discord. If it helped the plants in the process, well, that was just incidental.
The first couple times were largely successful for Crowley’s bad deeds quota, so now it has become a routine. Crowley regularly sneaks out in the middle of the night under the cover of darkness, and does some much needed pruning of other people’s urban gardens.
The urban garden is a fad that has begun cropping up again in cities. People have grown tired of the bleak modern glass and cement buildings surrounding them at every turn. It is well-intentioned, Crowley can admit, but the problem is that the motivation to build a garden like this is significantly stronger than the education provided on how to maintain it. The results have yielded disheveled plots with poorly planned sun exposure, hideous petunias dangling out of windows, and ignorant people watering succulents to death. Crowley can practically hear them screaming. The plants, not the people.
He is well aware of the fact that most people in this age do not view vigilante gardening as a savory endeavor. If Crowley were to be caught rescuing somebody’s poor wilting fern on some rooftop, it would be not only embarrassing, but also would involve the tedious process of having to wipe memories and impersonate utility workers in order to get out of there.
In other words, it would cramp his schedule, which would cut into his sleeping time and in turn make his morning rushed. The main goal of the whole thing has always been to get a few garden interventions in without compromising his ability to meet Aziraphale for “brunch” the following day. Crowley doesn’t much care for brunch itself, despite having invented it, but that really isn’t the point.
In short, he must avoid getting caught. Unfortunately, he does get caught. Often. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any rumors about the Plant Man. Crowley believes he’s stealthy, a real secret agent. He is wrong.
One sunflower. That’s all it takes to go viral.
One night, Crowley is eagerly preventing another instance of unintentional herbicide. In the midst of cleaning up someone’s tiny excuse for a garden, he can’t resist propping up a drooping sunflower at the front gate of the luxurious brownstone. He strays a little too close to the sight range of the front door. But how can he possibly know this is a mistake?
See, Crowley has been around a very long time; he has seen his fair share of security systems. Swords, chamber pots, heavy books, firearms, multiple locks, hired guards, even primitive burglar alarms. He’s heard rumors of devices that could monitor even the opening of a window.
But he is no match for the nifty automated doorbell that records a video of his attempt to nurse a sunflower back to life. It sits obediently and observes in silence. It is mounted against the wall, impassively filming the figure in all black who wears sunglasses at night.
If the automated doorbell was intelligent and naively well-meaning, it would have considered this an innocuous gesture by a Good Samaritan and not bothered to notify the owners of the brownstone.
If the automated doorbell was intelligent and slightly vindictive, it would have recorded this incriminating video of Crowley and notified the owners immediately, with maximum prejudice.
In Aziraphale’s perfect world, the doorbell likely would have operated under scenario one. In Crowley’s perfect world (had he known about the doorbell at all), it likely would have operated under scenario one too - but not because he is a Good Samaritan, that is just rude.
In the real world, option two is the most likely scenario, and that’s exactly what happens.
Mr. and Mrs. Jacobson are on vacation in the Canary Islands until the following week. Their doorbell sends them an update with a dutiful PING and the attached video of someone bustling about their measly garden. Frankly bewildered, Mrs. Jacobson holds out her very thin iPad to her husband to show him the video again.
Mr. Jacobson forwards the perplexing video to both his lawyer and his housesitter because that’s the kind of person he is.
The lawyer, who is accustomed to being bombarded by Mr. Jacobson’s annoying emails and knows how to prioritize, ignores the video to focus on more pressing matters.
The housesitter, Maya, is taking a break from studying for exams and has not known Mr. Jacobson long enough to ignore most of his emails detailing some outrage or another. She opens the email and watches the recording.
Maya thinks the video is the funniest thing she’s ever seen, and sends it to her uni group chat. By morning, someone’s posted it to Tumblr and it already has thousands of reblogs. Local news outlets pick it up; the university publishes an online article to their newspaper site about the newly dubbed “Plant Man”. People add comments below the article, sharing their own similar stories about the Plant Man. They all have the same description of what they’ve witnessed.
Maya, who by now has realized that the video going viral is probably her fault, feels slightly guilty. She couldn’t have known the impact of her actions when she shared the video, but now some poor, unidentified man has been dubbed a vigilante horticulture cryptid by the media. She hopes he’s okay.
Crowley has never been better, actually. He’s enjoying watching Aziraphale cut into a Scotch egg at brunch. He has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t follow the news. Why would he?
By that winter, the Plant Man has been sighted countless times. There is now a website called PlantWatch that chronicles the movements of this Being. There is another website, HoaxAnonymous, whose staff develop an adversarial relationship with the PlantWatch folks. HoaxAnonymous proclaims the Plant Man is not even real. Anyone can dress up with all black and sunglasses and go around at night with trowels and potting soil. Anyone can make a video and say it’s the Plant Man.
PlantWatch in turn argues that the man’s build is consistent: long and spindly. Wiggly hips. He perhaps has auburn hair? Or red? Difficult to replicate the same shade with dye in each separate video. Your move, HoaxAnonymous. HoaxAnonymous’ reply is not publicly printable.
Maya, who is well into her semester and extremely stressed about an upcoming paper, has tried her hardest to move on from the Plant Man obsession sweeping London. But try as she might, he pops up everywhere.
People at the market across from her flat are selling shirts with the blurry image of Plant Man walking like Bigfoot, and the caption, I SURVIVED THE PLANT MAN . Her friend Alex has an encounter with the Plant Man, who apparently replaced her cactus with a new one and a note that said The last one was too far gone, try again. More sun, less water.
Maya wishes she could erase the whole thing, go back and never share that video. But she can’t and the damage has been done. She has to find other ways to distract herself from the guilt. Luckily, her degree is difficult and her classes are demanding. The combination of English Literature and World Religions is grueling.
So tough, in fact, that the research for her paper on religious texts and the propagation of mythos through transformative works is going extremely poorly. None of the stuff she’s found online or in the stuffy library has been as helpful as she’d hoped. She supposes she could have chosen an easier topic for her paper, but Maya is not the kind of person to give up easily.
Instead, she gets desperate. She searches for nearby bookstores. Maybe they have journals discussing Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost or Gilgamesh. Critical analyses of anything, at this point.
She finds a bookshop in Soho. Not through its website (it doesn’t even have one, which is her first clue that she’s probably going to have some luck), but through Google Maps. It’s listed almost like an afterthought. Like, oh right, there’s a bookshop here? We think? Dunno. There’s no information listed. Just the address and the name. Whoever A. Z. Fell is, he seems like the antiquated sort.
But it’s enough for Maya. She makes her way to the bookshop, only to discover it’s closed. The hours are the oddest ones she’s ever seen. The note explaining this is handwritten and fastened to the glass door:
If it’s Monday, I am closed.
If it’s Tuesday, I am open from 10 am - 12:30 pm, unless it’s raining, in which case I am closed.
If it’s Wednesday through Friday, I am open from 5:30 am - 8 am and 7:30 pm-9 pm, unless it’s autumn, in which case I am only open 12-1 pm, 2 pm - 2:30 pm, and 11:25 pm - 3 am.
If it’s Saturday, I am open all day, assuming the door is unlocked. If it is locked then I am closed.
If it is Sunday, I am closed for the holiday.
Today is Wednesday. It’s six pm. It is not autumn. So she decides to go to the tea shop across the street and have a cup until seven thirty to see if Mr. Fell opens his doors.
While she waits, she notes that a ridiculously nice black car has pulled up in front of the bookshop. A small man with ethereal white hair steps out of the passenger door, brushes down a frankly ancient looking jacket, and waves to the driver. If Maya didn’t know better, she’d say the driver looks suspiciously like the Plant Man. The reddish hair, the sunglasses, the all-black outfit. It’s difficult to tell in the dim light of the street lamps. Maya eventually dismisses this as her mind playing tricks on her. She sees the Plant Man everywhere. He’s haunting her. This is just another one of those times. Maya is just losing it.
The car pulls away, and the lights go on inside the bookshop. It’s nearly opening time, so Maya drains her cup, thanks the man at the counter, and wanders across the street. She watches the clock on her phone until it turns to seven thirty exactly, and then steps up to the door. She finds it unlocked, and thanks her lucky stars, because it is freezing outside.
The bell chimes, and the man at the counter looks up in surprise, like he genuinely wasn’t expecting anyone to come to his shop when it was actually open for business. This must be Mr. Fell.
“Er, hi,” says Maya, taking off her wool hat and gloves. She shoves them into a pocket, though it’s still chilly inside and she wishes she could keep them on. She steps up to the desk, and the man looks like he might run away. Odd, that.
“I was wondering,” she continues, “if you might be able to help me. I’m looking for books about -”
The man’s eyes widen. “Oh, my dear, most of my books are not for sale, I should tell you that straight away.”
“That’s fine,” Maya shrugs. “I’m just writing this paper for English and World Religions, and need to research. I don’t want to like, actually buy them. I can’t afford to, and my flat’s far too small. If I could just have a look through, that would be great. If it’s not too much trouble.”
At this, Mr. Fell’s whole demeanor changes. He goes from cagey to positively charming. The temperature in the shop ticks up a few degrees, the lights brighten, and the man smiles. If Maya thought this man seemed rather cherubic before, it is nothing compared to now. He is practically glowing at the thought of not having to sell her anything. What a strange man.
“Let’s discuss what you need for this paper. I was about to make a cup of cocoa, would you like one?”
“It’s awfully cold outside, it’s the least I can do. Who knows how long you were waiting out there. You’re not lactose intolerant?”
Ordinarily, Maya does not accept anything from strangers. Least of all, beverages she did not purchase or physically see get poured. Also, she’s just had tea. But Mr. Fell has already bustled into a tiny room behind the counter that looks like a kitchen. It seems like an odd thing to have in a shop, but here it is. There is no door separating the rooms, so Maya can see him already pulling down two mugs. She finds she can’t refuse.
“Um, I’m not. Uh...thank you. Mr. Fell.”
Somehow, he seems to understand her wariness and ensures she can see the entire cocoa-making process. When it’s prepared, he hands her a steaming mug and gives her an encouraging smile.
“Why don’t you tell me all about your paper? What exactly do you need? What can I help you with?” he says.
He steps out from behind the counter and leads her over to a cluster of dusty armchairs. Maya heaves her heavy backpack to the floor with relief, noting how much warmer she feels now. The bookshop is a lot more hospitable when she apparently isn’t a threat to its merchandise. She and Mr. Fell take sips of their (frankly divine) cocoa, and then Maya dives in.
By the time the shop is supposed to close, Mr. Fell has already provided so much help that Maya wishes she could just credit the man himself. He’s a walking fountain of knowledge. How on earth he knows this much is unfathomable and probably impossible. But the books are what she needs to cite, and he allows her to take a few photos on her phone for later reference.
“Don’t worry,” she assures him between snapshots, “I won’t share these with anyone, it’s strictly for academic purposes.”
“I’m not worried,” replies Mr. Fell. “You seem trustworthy.”
“Thank you, but I’m really not.” Maya doesn’t know why she admits this, it just comes out. She feels like she trusts Mr. Fell, even though they hardly know each other.
“What on Earth do you mean?”
“Well...earlier this year I accidentally made this video go viral. You know all the Plant Man stuff? That was my fault. I feel terrible. I’m trying not to share stuff as much now. Learned my lesson.”
Mr. Fell looks confused. He straightens his tartan bow tie. “I’m afraid I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The Plant Man? He’s been all over the news. Gone viral.”
“My dear, I’m sure you can tell I’m rather old fashioned, I am not great at keeping up with the fads of the time.”
“Oh. Well then.” If she’s already confessed this much, what does she have to lose? She shows him the video that started it all. The sunflower. The Plant Man.
As Mr. Fell watches the video, his expression changes at least six times. At first, it’s genuine curiosity, then the expected confusion, amusement, and surprise. But then it jumps to something like recognition, and then something that might be horror.
When the video ends, Mr. Fell responds in a tone of wild disbelief. “Oh my. And you’re the one who originally shared this video?”
“Ah. Oh dear.” He sighs, rubs his hands on his knees, and then he laughs. “Of course.”
“I’m terribly sorry for being so cryptic. It’s, well,” he laughs again. “I know that man. He’s my friend.”
“You what .”
“The Plant Man. As they’ve so accurately named him. That’s my friend, Anthony.”
“You’re kidding me. This is a joke.”
“No. Well, I’m not joking. But I do find this entire series of events extremely funny.”
“Y-you’re not angry?”
“Angry?” Mr. Fell’s eyes crinkle with devious amusement. “Never. This is ineffability at work in the world. Pure and simple. I’m delighted. I cannot wait to tell him all about this.”
“Wait. Tell him? You mean he doesn’t know?” Maya sits back in her chair. “I ruined his life! He’s famous. Infamous. How could he not know he’s the Plant Man?”
“My dear, you didn’t ruin anything. And Anthony doesn’t really pay attention to things like this. He likely has no idea. But I think you’ll find he’s been famous for a long, long time already. He really won’t mind. Oh, I can’t wait to show him, he’s going to be so pleased.”
Maya has no idea what that means. Already famous? For what?
But Mr. Fell is already clearing away their mugs. A subtle, kind signal that she should probably get going. And so she does. She packs up her notes, thanks this absolute angel of a man profusely, and goes home. Even though it’s rather late, she can’t stop thinking about the encounter, so she turns on her laptop, and begins to write her paper.
Maya gets top marks on her paper, and decides to stop by the bookshop to thank Mr. Fell. She brings him a tin of cocoa mix as a gift. The subject of Anthony comes up, and she learns that Anthony and Mr. Fell take a cottage in the South Downs during early summer each year. When she hears they’ll be gone for a few weeks, she gets an idea. And when she asks Mr. Fell, he tells her it’s brilliant, so they make a plan.
At brunch a few weeks later, Crowley notices Aziraphale is wearing something new. It’s some kind of shirt, hidden underneath his usual waistcoat and jacket.
“Angel, what are you wearing?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Aziraphale says serenely. He opens his jacket so the shirt is visible. It’s a picture of Crowley, stalking down the street after what is obviously one of his plant rescue missions. The words I SURVIVED THE PLANT MAN are emblazoned across Aziraphale’s chest. “It’s you, my dear.”
Crowley stares at the shirt for a long time, nonplussed. “That’s me,” he says, uncomprehending. “But why? How?”
“You’re famous again,” Aziraphale says. Crowley lifts his eyes to find that his friend is trying very, very hard not to laugh. His lips are pressed tight, his nose is all crinkled.
“How in the -”
“Caught red-handed, I’m afraid,” Azirapahle smirks, buttoning his jacket again. “Or, is it green-thumbed?”
“Oh, shut up."
“I rather like this, I had no idea you’d taken such an interest in the plants of London.”
“Yeah, well,” he sighs, and makes a noncommittal gesture with one hand. “Nnnn.”
“It’s bound to earn you a commendation. People are going to be invested in the mysterious identity of this being for quite some time. Imagine all the inefficiency and wasted time and arguments. You’ve even got two websites currently duking it out over whether or not you’re a hoax.”
“Are you angry?” Crowley asks.
Aziraphale leans in, incredulous. “Why would I be angry?”
“Because you can’t thwart this? It seems like it’s spiraled far beyond our control. I’m on a t-shirt.”
Aziraphale takes a bite of buttered toast and chews thoughtfully. Finally, he says, “No. London’s our little Eden, isn’t it? And who would stop the gardener from keeping the place in top condition? Think of all the plants you’ve saved. You’re making the city better.”
Crowley turns slightly pink. “Shhh, angel, someone will hear you.”
“Oh, it’s all going in your reports anyway, what does it matter? I’m just viewing it from a different perspective, is all.”
“I have a reputation to uphold. And I have plants at home that cannot find out about this.”
“Ah! Speaking of your plants,” Aziraphale lights up, “I met a very nice young lady who has offered to mind your flat for you while we’re in the country this summer. She said she’d absolutely be willing to take care of your plants. I already vetted her. Shall I give you her number then?”
Crowley considers this. “Yeah, all right. Why not? I’ll call and set up a day where I can train her to yell at them properly. But, why did she volunteer in the first place?”
The side of Aziraphale’s mouth quirks up. “She called it a penance, of sorts.”
“I probably shouldn't ask. But. What did she do that was bad enough to get this as a penance?”
“Oh, nothing,” says Aziraphale. It’s true. “Just consider this as the story coming full circle. The things we put out in the world have a way of coming back to us.”
“On that we can agree,” sighs Crowley. “Just promise me you’ll never wear that shirt again. Don’t need that coming back to us.”
“I’ll do no such thing. It’s stylish. Besides, I bought you one too. It would be funny if you wore it.”
Now that , Crowley thinks, imagining the possibilities herein, is an idea.