I am taking pictures of ailing house plants. There are a few casualties: a furry reddish thing is droopy, a stripy green and white chap has yellowing leaves and something spiky has a withered arm (branch, whatever). “Excellent, excellent,” I mutter to myself, holding them up to the light to get a better shot.
The plants belong to my elder son, who is away. His Covid testing job became so boring when infection rates plummeted that relations between the cleaning and security teams deteriorated into a Sharks v Jets-style beef, while others spent their 12-hour shifts doing crosswords. Instead, he found a conservation volunteering gig far from home, finally escaping the suffocating family cocoon of the past year: no more sitcom repeats and Wednesday night takeaway rota. I’m delighted. I hope all his cohort of newly minted adults get the chance of a few months of carefree fun before another year of student debt and awful job prospects hits.
I feel for his brother, though, still stuck in this suffocating family cocoon. His father and I are both stranger and even more boring to be around after 15 months of togetherness. I am now tediously involved in the garden bird dramas outside my office window, with code names for every magpie and blackbird; my husband is haunted by the draughty windows in our new house, walking round shaking them and pondering possible solutions aloud. For a treat, we look at broken furniture in online auctions, or walk the streets trying to work out which of our neighbours won the People’s Postcode Lottery (local gossip says this happened, but is frustratingly unspecific).
Secondary glazing and sparrows in the suburbs: this is the unenviable life of our remaining nestling. In the evenings when we watch TV together, my younger son glancing up from his phone to veto anything featuring Kevin McCloud, I can feel the insistent vibration of his impatience; in 18 months, I predict, we will not see him for dust.
In the meantime, the half-empty nest has its own strangeness, hence the plants. Why? Because it has been more than three weeks since the elder fledged, and getting him to communicate even the most cursory information has proved near impossible. I have tried open questions (“How is it?”) and closed (“What is the worst thing you have eaten?”) with no success. I am not worried, but, after 19 years of meals, laundry and catastrophising, it feels very strange indeed.
Thankfully, I have discovered one thing is guaranteed to generate a response: plant problems. He left us in charge of his absurdly extensive house plant and vegetable seedling collection, each labelled with a Post-it note of care instructions. But the notes have fallen off and I seem to have the opposite of green fingers - glyphosate fingers, maybe. A picture plus: “What should I do about this brown crispy bit?” has a magical effect, generating a barrage of follow-up questions. “Is the stem firm or spongy?” he will reply instantly. “Send me a closeup. When did you last water it?”
Sometimes, once I have softened him up with horticulture, I can get him to divulge a scrap of information about his life. Last week, he even spontaneously texted me, asking me to snap up a rare cactus (there’s a sort of tulip fever for fancy house plants at the moment). I cynically leveraged this request into several searching personal questions.
So every day, I prowl around, looking for problems. Can the tomato seedlings go out? Who needs a spritz, a seaweed feed, more or less water? There’s something very neat about it. My frustrated nurturing instincts (the younger is ferociously independent and hates a fuss) have found a perfect focus. The plants do not need a constant supply of energy drinks; they do not interrupt my train of thought to mansplain protein. They don’t astonish me like he does, or envelop me in precious, casually bestowed physical affection – the pat on the head, the giant leg crushing mine on the sofa. But they do need me.
And when it all goes wrong, it’s even better. I have spotted a strange white deposit on that rare cactus: time for its closeup.
Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist