Tim Dowling: have my homegrown courgettes poisoned us all?

On Sunday evening I come in with the first harvest of courgettes from the garden: two green, four yellow, all of a size, like a competition display.

“Behold this magnificent bounty,” I say to the oldest one.

“Exciting,” he says, without looking.

“Get used to it,” I say. “You’ll be eating these for the next six weeks.”

The youngest one sits opposite the oldest at the kitchen table. They play the same game on different laptops – power cords are stretched across the room, making it difficult to navigate the space.

“Honestly, I’m just trying to make your supper, is all,” I say. The oldest one reluctantly unplugs his computer so I can get to the fridge.

“I grow the food, I prepare the food,” I say.

The middle one is driven from his room by hunger. He stands over the courgettes, turning them over and over to see if they’re done, while I boil potatoes.

“OK, we can eat,” he says. “Let’s do this.”

After filling her plate, my wife returns to the sitting room to watch Antiques Roadshow, while my sons stay in the kitchen to argue about football. As is usual on a Sunday, my loyalties are divided: this time I join my wife in front of the TV, plate on knees, a glass of wine at my elbow.

Before I can say what I’m thinking, the middle one comes in and says it for me.

“What’s wrong with these courgettes?”

“I don’t know,” I say, an overwhelming bitterness filling my mouth.

“They’re not very nice,” my wife says.

“Is it the yellow ones?” I say. “Or the green ones?”

“I can’t tell,” the middle one says. “Everything tastes the same.”

“Sorry,” I say. “Something went wrong.”

When I look up “bitter courgettes” on my phone, I expect to find warnings against picking them too young, or cooking them with certain incompatible spices. I do not expect to find website after website talking about courgette poisoning.

“What do you mean, poisoning?” my wife says.

“Diarrhoea, abdominal pain, vomiting,” I read. “Hair loss.”

“Stop eating!” my wife yells.

It turns out courgettes can become laced with natural toxins called cucurbitacins under stressful growing conditions, or due to accidental cross-pollination. It’s meant to be extremely rare. Plates are scraped. Antiques Roadshow is put on pause.

“Killer courgettes,” I read. “Seeds recalled, mum rushed to A&E, blah blah blah.”

“How much do you have to eat?” the oldest says.

“A few grams,” I say. “Most people are fine. Someone did die, but not recently.”

“Did you poison us to have something to write about this week?” the youngest says.

“That makes no sense,” I say. “Why would I poison myself as well?” I wait out a long, accusatory silence.

“When will we know?” my wife says.

“I dunno, hours?” I say. “And then two weeks to see if our hair falls out. I’m sorry.”

The prospect of imminent poisoning makes everyone giddy. I finish my wine. My wife finds a bar of chocolate. The last thing anybody remembers is the oldest one’s defiant declaration.

“I reckon if we make it to midnight, we’re fine,” he says.

I wake at three with my stomach in knots, beads of sweat standing out on my forehead. This, it transpires, is just the start: only a staggered onset prevents a critical shortage of loos. No one escapes.

“I heard you whimpering,” my wife says, at eight the next morning.

“I know,” I say. “I don’t think I’m done whimpering, by the way.”

At midday I am sitting in the kitchen, feeling drained. The oldest one is across from me, hunched over, brow resting on his crossed hands. The youngest one comes in cradling his stomach, his face the colour of parchment.

“I just had to cancel a work meeting,” he says.

“What did you tell them?” I say.

“Food poisoning,” he says. “I didn’t get into toxic courgette syndrome.”

“It’s a thing,” the oldest says. “They can look it up.”

“Do you know what?” I say, as my stomach lurches. “I may have eaten my last courgette.”

“I won’t miss them,” the oldest says.