The Family Rhubarb

By Gemma Elliott

It was time to divide the crown again. This had been happening for more than a century and it was thus impossible to trace back exactly what fraction of the original rhubarb crown remained. Traditionally, every time a member of the family married, they would be gifted a section of the family rhubarb plant, usually separated from the motherplant of their parents. More recently, in line with changing values, the family had decided to award a plant to any family member who was forming a household with another person, no matter whether legal marriage was involved.

Once presented, the new couple usually place their rhubarb crown in the ground of their garden and watch it flourish. Eventually, if they have children, it becomes their turn to divide and pass it on. In the meantime, they enjoy a plethora of crumbles and, more recently, home-prepared flavored spirits and elaborate frangipane tarts. Of course, not all family members choose, or have been lucky enough, to live in a home with a garden, but thankfully rhubarb was also known to thrive in a pot on a doorstep or a balcony. 

Sharon’s plant had lush green leaves and thick, healthy red stalks. Her son, Matthew, was due to marry his university girlfriend at the weekend, and so she was splitting the crown as her wedding gift. Her late husband, John, was on her mind as she dug into the soil around the plant. He had been very pleased with his inherited rhubarb, nurturing it until it was perfectly sweet. Sharon’s rhubarb pie pales in comparison to John’s, but she had hope that Matthew might make his father proud with his own fruit creations.

Matthew and Laura met in their second year of studying when his flatmate, Sam, was in an on-off relationship with Laura’s friend Amy. Things were not always perfect between the two of them, but they made it to graduation as a couple, appearing in the photos that each of their grandmothers displayed on mantle pieces and sideboards. Before either could really stop and assess where they were, they were moving to London together and taking up graduate jobs that promised to pay well eventually.

Now, they had moved back to Scotland. Matthew and Laura had bought a semi-detached house for as much as a studio flat would have been down south. It was an exciting time for everyone. They were getting married a week after picking up the keys for their new home. They had a small suburban garden, five miles from Matthew’s childhood home, in which to plant their portion of the family rhubarb.

But, in all of the packing and the planning and the payments, both Matthew and Laura were separately having doubts. They hadn’t rushed into this, having met a decade earlier, but neither felt quite right about their relationship now that it was being formalised. Sharon, of course, didn’t know this – they hadn’t told one another never mind anyone else – and so, with difficulty, she was attempting to unearth her rhubarb to divide it for her son.

The plant was not cooperating. Its roots had spread wide and deep in the decades since Sharon and her husband gave it over to the ground. On a recent episode of Gardeners’ World, Monty Don had informed her that splitting a rhubarb crown was an easy task, and she considered herself a relatively accomplished gardener, but she was growing more and more frustrated. It almost felt like the rhubarb had no wish to be rehomed. Eventually, with the help of her young weightlifting neighbour, Sharon eased the plant out of the ground just enough to slice a spade through its centre and scoop half into a glittery gift bag. Sharon’s remaining half crown slipped back into the soil easily, as healthy as ever.

Matthew and Laura went through with the wedding. They had to, people had already paid for a kettle and casserole dishes for the house. And it was fun, and they felt loved and special, and, after the honeymoon to a Greek island where all they did was have sex and drink wine, they felt closer and happier than they had in a long time. Before they left for the trip, they had planted their crown, sealing the deal of their marriage. They had been roped into many conversations at the wedding, some verging on competitive, about the ideal conditions to care for one’s rhubarb. The consensus was that you didn’t have to do very much except remember to stick it in the ground and make sure it gets a bit of light, but not too much.

They shouldn’t have had to think about it, should have just been appreciative of the plant when it eventually bore fruit after a while in the earth. But the rhubarb began to cause Laura some anxiety a few months after their holiday when she got home from work one day to find it leaning to one side as though caught in a violent storm. Nothing else in the garden had been affected. She righted it and it seemed fine for a few more weeks until it did the same thing again, and again, and again. Matthew didn’t believe her, said there had been no wind at all – it was a warm late summer by then – and that the plant always seemed fine when he looked at it. This trivial issue caused one of their worst arguments ever, with accusations of lying and gaslighting. 

Secretly though, Matthew was also worried about the rhubarb. He had furtively pulled out a stalk as a little test while Laura was out with some of her new colleagues. After a rinse under the tap and a dunk into some sugar, he was anticipating the glorious sweetness he knew from childhood. Instead, it was so bitter that even the sugar tasted unpleasant. Thinking he’d pulled it too soon; Matthew didn’t say anything to Laura. He checked with his mum a few weeks later, messaging her a series of photos, and she said that it looked ready to go, but once again the taste was horrible. On closer inspection, he noticed that the centre of the stalk was leaking a brown sludge.

Later that evening, after he had forced himself to vomit up the tiny amount of rhubarb that he had consumed, Matthew broached the subject with Laura. She blamed him, saying that he never did anything around the house – true, he didn’t keep up with household tasks – and that he had neglected the garden – also true – and the plant – not really true, rhubarb needs so little care. The argument grew and spiraled, put down roots of its own, and bloomed into words shouted and wedding gifts thrown. By morning, Matthew and Laura were fairly sure that they were going to divorce, and the rhubarb had withered and died in the night.

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Gemma Elliott (she/her) lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and works in local government. She has most recently published short fiction in Neon, Idle Ink, and Divinations Magazine. Gemma can be found on Twitter or Instagram @drgemmaelliott.


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