So just where do you…?

Ulysses and Bertie were walking the late-winter garden. Frost lay on the ground, above them the overcast sky was a uniform grey.

Bertie looked at the bare earth and leafless twigs. He would have kicked through fallen leaves if Ulysses hadn’t swept every single one of them up. He sighed and his breath plumed in the air. ‘I hate the winter. It’s so dull and lifeless.’

‘Oh, I don’t know-‘

‘It’s like everything’s dead. I know it isn’t really, it’s just all this endless dull grey, it saps the juice out of you.’ Startled at his own imagery, Bertie glanced across at Ulysses, cheeks flushing in the cold air. He should have known better.

‘There’s plenty going on if-’

‘All this dead dark earth. The frost, the cold. It’s like a desert, a winter desert on a lonely world orbiting far from its sun.’

Startled, Ulysses stopped walking. He dug out his notebook and wrote a few hurried words. ‘It is?’

Bertie wandered on, hands stuffed in his pockets. ‘A dying world, where civilisations cling on underground, whole empires, faded glory, ancient technology half understood.’

Ulysses scribbled frantically. He looked down at his notebook rather guiltily, put it away and hurried after Bertie.

‘Bertie, the ground is bare because we’ve just put down the manure. ‘ Last weekend end Ulysses and Philly had worked their middle-aged backsides off barrowing two cubic yards of horse manure off the front drive. He still felt it in the backs of his legs. Ulysses showed Bertie the tips of the daffodil leaves, the low red peony buds, and delicate spring green shoots of clematis. ‘It’s a quiet time but there’s always plenty to do, and there’s always something going on. Half the time it’s out of sight. You just have to know it’s there and be patient. Prepare the ground.’

~

Back in the kitchen Ulysses put the kettle on. He felt the weight of the notebook in his pocket like a pressure on his mind. ‘Bertie, that stuff you were talking about in the garden – cold worlds, dying empires and that.’

For a moment Bertie thought he was going to be pulled up on his juice-sucking imagery. ‘Was I? Oh, yes, that.’

Ulysses straightened his shoulders. ‘Would you mind awfully if I used it? It’s given me some ideas.’

‘Of course not, uncle.’ Bertie beamed with pleasure. ‘You’re welcome.’

The tea brewed. Ulysses poured and put out a plate of biscuits. They sat at the heavy old table, sipped tea and dunked their biscuits,

‘What are you working on?’ Ulysses said.

Bertie wanted to say something grand but he was between projects. The winter grey had left him staring out the window. Now he couldn’t get the idea of sucking juices out of his mind. ‘Er, vampires, I think.’

‘Vampires, eh.’

‘Yes, I know, not very original, and over used.’

‘Maybe they could be plants. A hot jungle, fast growing thorny vines, beautiful orchid-like blooms, a soporiphic scent.’ Ulysses loved kicking ideas around.

‘Perhaps…’ Bertie wanted to like his uncle’s ideas but he just didn’t. ‘Perhaps – A murder mystery. A gardener, a mad one… The Bloody Shovel.’ Bertie’s eyes glittered. ‘Thanks, uncle.’

‘Sounds a bit close to home.’ Ulysses chuckled.

‘Write what you know, isn’t that what you say?’

‘Cheeky pup!’

‘How’s aunt Philly?’

‘In good form. A writing day today and not to be disturbed. Except for tea.’ Ulysses poured a third mug and carried it across the hall to Philly’s room. He tapped on the door and went in. Bertie glimpsed aunt Philly standing by the window looking out at the garden. It looked as if she had been there for some time. Bertie knew the feeling well. But now he had some ideas, and to be honest, he was itching.

Ulysses put down the tea and withdrew. He caught Bertie’s look. ‘Plenty going on in there, you’ll see.’

~

Judgement Day

Philomena Plott was happily accepting a Pimms at the village fete when saw Cousin Dolores bearing down on her like a large, highly coloured barge torn free of its moorings. She glanced around frantically but realized that unless she took a dive over the ha-ha there was no escape.

“Ah, Philomena,” Dolores Plott-Muggins said. “So, that piece of mine, what did you think?”

“Um…well…” Philomena took a fortifying gulp of Pimms and nearly choked on an intrusive mint-leaf.

“I wasn’t quite sure what you were trying to do, to be honest,” she said, once she could breathe. “But perhaps that was me.”

“Not sure what I was trying to do?” Dolores leaned closer. “How do you mean?”

“Ah, well, perhaps…” Philomena said, “just a matter of taste, probably. You know, different genres and all that…Lissy! Over here!”

Ulysses Plott’s ears were attuned to danger, and he heard the raw panic in his wife’s voice even through the roars of outrage from the beer tent, where the cricket was on, and the happy babbling of small children beating each other over the head with toys from the lucky dip. He strode to the rescue.

“Ah, Dolores,” he said. “What’s up, old girl?”

“Just asking Philomena what she thought of my piece. Not her genre, apparently.” Dolores huffed. “Did you read it, Ulysses?”

“Sorry, old thing, on deadline. No time,” Ulysses lied without a moment’s hesitation.

“Oh, well, I don’t suppose it matters, I’ve already sent it off,” Dolores said. “Ooh, there’s the Vicar. I have something for the parish magazine. Not their usual thing but I’m sure they need material…”  She strode determinedly in the direction of the Vicar, whose unsuspecting rear view the Plotts regarded with guilty relief.

“Was it ghastly, the piece?” Ulysses said.

“I hardly know, I was trying so hard to find something to say about it – she’s gone all experimental and I really had no idea what she was doing. Oh, dear.”

“You worry too much, Philly. And she’s already sent it off, so I’m not sure why she wanted your opinion anyway.”

“Well, I gave it. Sort of. In so far as I had one.”

“You told her what you thought? Honestly? Gave her some tips on what might improve it?”

“Well, I would have done, yes, but they’ll only improve it if she’s trying to do what I’d do.”

“Trying to tell a story, wasn’t she?”

“She was trying to tell her story, though, not one of mine.”  Philomena took a despairing slug of Pimms.  “Honestly, Lissy, I give all this advice and I never know if I’m getting it right.”

“Hmm. Remember when I was asked to judge the vegetables at that show?”

“Oh, yes.” She rolled her eyes. It had been something of a scandal at the time.

“Judged them the way I thought you were supposed to judge vegetables. By taste! Still think it’s perfectly sensible.” He had gone properly prepared too, with his campaign primus stove, salt, pepper, oil….his moustaches quivered at the memory. “Never heard such a fuss. If I’d known they just wanted me to judge on size and glossiness, I’d have done it – winners would have been bloody inedible, though.”

“But some people want to grow them just for size.”

“And if they want to, they should. Ought to tell a chap first, though.”

“I suppose.”

“Remember when Bertie gave us that blank verse kitchen-sink comedy of his?”

“Oh, lordy, yes.”

“Couldn’t make head or tail of it. Told him so. Thing is, Bertie actually wants criticism. Doesn’t get a fit of the vapours the minute you tell him something’s not working.”

Philomena snorted, and glanced over to where the Vicar was being slowly backed into the rhododendrons by her determined cousin. “Like Dolores when you told her that character was so wet you wanted to drown her but it would have been redundant.”

Ulysses flushed. “Hmm. Yes, well, probably shouldn’t have said that. Not there to make jokes. Not that she’d take a blind bit of notice anyway.”

“But she might, that’s the thing. What if I’m too harsh and put someone off completely?”

“If someone’s a writer they’ll carry on whatever you say, and they might learn something. If they asked you why their carrots weren’t flourishing, you’d tell them. Wouldn’t worry about putting them off gardening.”

“You worried about making that joke to Dolores.”

“Wasn’t relevant, that’s why.”

“I just want to get it right, that’s all,” Philomena said. “I wonder if there are any books on how to critique…”

“Philomena. You already have 53 books on writing. I counted. Twice.”

“But this is different. Writing and critiquing aren’t the same thing!  Besides, I’m sure some of those books are yours.”

Ulysses gave this the ignoring he felt it deserved. “Can’t ensure you’ll always be perfect at something by buying a ton of books on the subject. Whether you’re critiquing a story or a flower bed, it’s simple. Just be clear, honest, helpful and polite. And prepared to kick people’s bottoms if they need it.”

Philomena smiled. “Not a bad philosophy for life, when you think about it,” she said.

Preparation

If there was one thing Ulysses looked forwards to more than going to the St. Werenfridus summer fête, it was coming home afterwards. Eternal optimist that he was, he never remembered this until the inevitable late afternoon encounter.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t enjoy himself while he was there. Strolling around the vicarage lawn he had a perennial interest in ‘Guess the Weight of the Cake’ (never won, disappointing, especially this year as it was covered in smarties, but that wasn’t the point), a child-like delight in the Tombola (prize every ticket ending 0 or 5, he always gave back the toiletries), and entered in the flowers and vegetables competitions (usually did quite well). It was just that some of the people- no, that was unfair, everyone in the village was lovely. Almost everyone. All except two really, and there was nothing really wrong with them, not really. And they were relatives so you had to make allowances. Even so, it was just-

Here came one of them now: Maxwell Armitage Plott-Muggins. Maxwell, dapper and trim in white trousers, deck shoes, and a summer blazer, saw Ulysses and raised his hand.

Drat, spotted me, Ulysses thought. He looked around for an ally, for Philomena. She’d been there a moment ago, right beside him. Ulysses could move pretty fast when he needed to, you had to when you had a rhino on your tail, but Philomena had that enviable knack of just being able to vanish. Ulysses imagined a rhino crashing out of the rhododendrons. It wouldn’t have been entirely unwelcome.

‘Hello Maxwell,’ Ulysses beamed genially. ‘Fancy a beer?’

The beer tent was one of the reasons the fête survived. Not because it sold beer, but because it had a television for the cricket. An innovation of the new curate, the plump and bearded Al Kidder, the beer tent had got the church steeple fund moving again.

Today, despite the fact that the sun was shining, that he had a pint of good ale in his hand, and the Kiwis were following on at Headingley, Maxwell wore his disappointed face. ‘Hear you’ve had some luck.’ He attempted a smile, it too came out disappointed.

‘Had some news all right,’ Ulysses said. ‘Novel’s being published next month, and my first short story collection is out in the autumn.’

‘Congratulations.’ Maxwell didn’t take his eyes off the telly. ‘It’s all happening for you these days.’

‘Seems that way but they’ve both been in the pipeline for a year. I met the publisher, and the chap who’s doing the collection, at the same convention.’

‘You told me.’ Maxwell drank his beer. ‘That was lucky.’

Ulysses tried to explain. A mutual friend had introduced him to the publisher, a friend he’d never have made if he hadn’t been going to conventions and writing groups for years. The book itself had taken over a year to write, twice that on submission, and he’d been writing short stories for two decades. ‘You’ve still got to do the work, Max.’

‘Pardon my American, old bean, it’s still a crap shoot.’

‘Things you do one year don’t bear fruit straight away.’

‘Wish I had your luck.’

Exasperated, Ulysses looked around the tent. The curate caught his eye, teeth flashed in his bushy black beard and he walked over.

‘Greetings, gentlemen. Lord Plott, I was wondering if I could ask you to cast your expert eye over my new vegetable patch?’

‘Of course, delighted,’ Ulysses said, vastly relieved to be rescued. ‘Not sure the old eye is that expert though.’

‘Nonsense, I have seen your entries in the vegetable competition. Those courgettes, the rhubarb, your asparagus. I am sure you will win a rosette.’

‘Well, the asparagus is pretty good. Even so, first prize…’

They both knew what he meant. The gold-ribboned rosette simply couldn’t be thought of as first place when the widely acknowledged greatest gardener in the parish, probably the county, and for all Lord Plott knew the whole country, never competed and never appeared. The enigmatic, reclusive, and downright difficult Gertrude Wort-Cunning.

‘And you, Mr Plott-Muggins, are you showing today?’ Al said.

‘Stuck some asparagus in but stuff hardly came up.’

‘Perhaps next year.’

‘Thought I’d dig it up and try something else.’

Behind the cake and handicrafts stalls a grassy path wound through shrubbery to a square of worked earth – the curate’s vegetable patch. Ulysses was astonished. Broad beans stood chest high, heavy green pods bulging. Sweet corn was even taller, the strap-like leaves gleamed with health. Runner beans were already topping out on the canes.

‘Stornary,’ Ulysses laughed with delight. ‘Last year this was just-‘

‘A neglected patch of stony ground.’ Al Kidder’s eyes twinkled with pleasure. ‘Over autumn I cleared it, raked and hoed, and dug in a hundredweight of horse manure.’

‘Absolutely strornary. You must have worked your- Put some hours in.’

‘It was hard work indeed.’

‘You’ve done marvels.’

‘Good soil,’ Maxwell said. ‘Lucky to have that.’

Al looked Ulysses in the eye. ‘It’s the labour you put into the year before that bears fruit today, is it not, Lord Plott?’

Maxwell had nothing to say.

‘So, did you have a nice time?’ Philomena asked Ulysses as they walked home that evening.

‘Yes I did. Lovely, smashing. That curate’s a bit of a gardener. Bloody Maxwell though. He just doesn’t get it, silly sod.’

‘Now, dear, you sound about six years old,’ Philomena said.

‘Bloody six-year olds don’t bloody swear.’ And they don’t win first prize for asparagus either, Ulysses thought. Then he remembered Gertrude and frowned.Call it second place, that would do.

~

Harsh Necessities

Bertie Inkgreen found his aunt Philomena in the front garden, wearing heavy boots and the expression of someone cleaning out the cat-litter.  She stamped her foot.

“Everything all right, Auntie?” Bertie wondered if she and Uncle Ulysses had been having one of their rare but fervent disagreements.

“Oh, hello dear.  Yes, yes, everything’s fine, apart from these blasted snails.”

Bertie looked at the mess of goo and shell-fragments where his aunt’s boot had landed a moment before.  “Urgh.”

“Quite.”  Philomena booted the debris into the forget-me-nots. “How are you, Bertie?  How’s the novel?”

“Not bad, auntie, pretty good, actually.”

“Excellent.  Lunch?  G&T?”

“Well…” his stomach was still churning slightly at the sight of former snail.

“Come on, Bertie, I don’t know about you but I need it after a morning’s wholesale slaughter.”

He followed her meekly up the steps.

The weather was good enough for lunch in the garden.  Bertie settled happily into one of the ancient wooden seats and let the sun warm his eyelids.

“Novel going well?”  Ulysses Plott asked.

“Yes, splendidly, thank you.  20,000 words, really pushing on.”

“Excellent, excellent.  And how about that short story contract you asked us to look over, were they happy with the alterations we suggested?”

“Um…”

“Bertie,” Philomena said.  “You did send it off, didn’t you?”

“I will, as soon as I get back,” he said, opening one eye guiltily.  He perceived his aunt’s stern expression and hastily shut it again.

“Now, Bertie, it’s been hanging around for at least two weeks.  You haven’t lost it, have you?” Philomena said.

“No…” Bertie had been in the process of reaching for his chicken sandwich, but his hand found the gin and tonic instead.

Ulysses barked laughter.  “I know where the contract is.  Disappeared into that suitcase full of undone paperwork, hasn’t it?”

Bertie took an unwise gulp of Ulysses Plott Strength G&T, and spluttered for several seconds.  When he recovered, they were both looking at him like cats watching a fallen nestling.

“It’s not a suitcase,” he protested, sounding feeble even to himself.

“Grown, has it?  A trunk?” Philomena suggested.

“No!”  He shrugged.  “I do get a bit behind, I know, but…”

“Bertie, dear,” Philomena said.  “You don’t get a bit behind, if you were any more behind you’d be back in front again.”  She frowned and blinked down at the glass in her hand.  “Lissy, how much did you put in this?”

“No more than usual,” Ulysses said.  “Now, Bertie, got to keep up with the paperwork, you know.  Part of being a professional, and all that.”

“But it’s not writing,” Bertie said.  “That’s what one’s supposed to concentrate on.  Stories, imagination, not all this…” he waved his arm, scattering a small rain of gin onto the tulips, “all this mundane stuff.”

Philomena patted his arm.  “Bertie, dear.  I hate paperwork.  Lissy, now, he’s got his all sorted, lined up, and sent off before I’ve brought myself to open the envelope, most of the time.  But we all have to do it.  It’s like snails.”

“Is it?” Bertie said.

“Of course.  Look at the garden, Bertie.  Coming up beautifully, and we’ve only lost a few things – but that’s because we’re out every day getting rid of the wretched snails and slugs.”

“I thought you used pellets,” Bertie said.

“Can’t use ‘em more than four times a year,” Ulysses said.  “Besides, don’t scatter themselves, you know.  Don’t buy themselves from the shop, either.”

“But once I get an agent, won’t they deal with all that?  Paperwork, not pellets.”

“Hmmph,” Ulysses said, and held up a hand.  “One,” he said, ticking off a finger, “might not happen, or at least not for some time.  Meantime, still got to do the paperwork.  Can’t let it all mount up hoping an agent’ll sort it all out – people won’t wait for contracts forever, and even if they did, no  agent wants you turning up with five years’ worth of paperwork for them to sort out.  Two,” he ticked off another finger, “agents don’t deal with everything, you know.  Look at short stories.  Still got to send them out, most agents won’t.  Good one might look at the contract for you, but you still have to sign it.  Not to mention tax returns – agents don’t generally do those for you, either.”

“But I’d rather be writing,” Bertie said.

“I’d rather be picking dahlias,” Philomena said, a little sharply, “but if you don’t keep the wretched slugs and snails in check, there won’t be a dahlia to pick.  Leave the paperwork too long and you start worrying about it, then you can’t write anyway.  Or you’ll lose a sale, or end up with a big fat tax bill.  Or all three.  None of those is good for your wordcount or your career.  It’s horrid, I know – I don’t actually enjoy squashing snails, it’s vile – but it has to be done.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Bertie said.

“Course we are, dear boy,” Ulysses said.  “Another drink?

“Better not,” Bertie said, with some regret.  “Not if I’m going to do that paperwork when I get home.”

“Right you are,” said Ulysses.  “Now, tell us more about the novel…”

Too Much is Just Enough

It was Spring. The Plotts were up with the sun and about their morning routines. Philomena was writing, Ulysses was out on Morning Inspection.  Standing inside the lean-to, he looked down at his seed trays with a mixture of fond pride and wincing guilt.

‘Ulysses Pleasant Meriwether Plott,’ he said to himself, ‘You’ve been and gone and done it again.’

The lean-to built against the south side of the house was an ideal place to start things off. A sun trap during the day, when it wasn’t raining, it was warmed a degree or two by the house at night, just enough to keep the frost of.

Two weeks ago he’d sown his seeds and now they were coming up. Dozens of them. Taken all together it was possible there were actually hundreds. He peered at them through a huge old magnifying glass with a broken handle* he kept on a hook by the door. The seedlings were all so green, so tiny, and so enthusiastic. Ulysses loved the spring. Winter rolled away, the sun shone, the air warmed, and things grew.

Oh how they grew.

Serried ranks of seed trays and little pots sat on the lean-to’s shelving in neat order: aubergine, basil, broccoli, cucumber, dahlia (mixed), cabbage, leeks, marigold, melon (2 sorts), sprouts, sunflower, and more.

Ulysses sucked his moustaches, he chewed his lip, he knew what he was going to have to do and he didn’t want to do it.

So he had a cup of tea instead.

~~~

Philomena was already in the kitchen, bustling around as she whisked up some cheesy egg puffs. Three to a pan, three pans on the hob, she turned out near-endless piles of small, light pancakes nine at a time.

‘Morning, Lissy,’ she beamed.

‘Morning dear. How’s it going?’

‘Oh, I’ve been having a wonderful time,’ Philomena enthused. ‘I’ve been cutting.’

‘That’s something I need to do, but it’s difficult.’

Ulysses put the kettle and laid the table.  As the kettle boiled he took down the pot and chose a tea. His mind still on his problem, he visualised endless rows of seedling enlarged through the magnifying glass. Unbidden, his hand strayed to the Nepalese ‘Autumn Flush’ and he filled the pot.

Everything was ready, they sat at the table.

‘I suppose it’s easier with words,’ Philomena said. ‘These secondary characters of mine proliferate like weeds. Then I have to go and root them out.’

‘My usual trick is to invent a new one for every little event,’ Ulysses said.

‘And when you look back you find you can combine them all into one, and get a more interesting character into the bargain.’

‘Or you can just kill them off.’

‘Well, you could,’ Philomena agreed doubtfully. ‘It’s not really a workable strategy if you’re writing light-hearted romance.’

Ulysses conceded the point. Sometimes it was hard to justify throwing away something that was perfectly good.

‘I know, it is difficult when you have a favourite,’ Philomena said, ‘It’s the same with those bits of dialogue, the scenes that you really like but don’t have anything to do with the story.’

It was uncanny, almost as if she could read his mind.

‘But I do so enjoy doing it, cut it all out, conflate those characters, trim it all down. All those unnecessary words, I love finding them, even the bits I really, really like. You can see the shape, what you were really writing about.’

It was a good feeling, Ulysses remembered it well. ‘I keep all the bits I chop out in a separate file.’

‘You need them, you need to write them, so you can get rid of them.’ Philomena sipped her tea, ‘Darjeeling?’

‘Nepalese.’

Philomena guffawed in a most unladylike manner, ‘Isn’t that where you and that brigand woman…?’

‘Yes indeed,’ Ulysses said rather proudly. The Plotts had few secrets.

Philly placed both hands on the table. ‘Right, time to get back to work.’

 ~~~

Ulysses did the washing up and thought about what Philly had said. She was so right, having too much, too many scenes, or characters, or sheer numbers of words, was exactly what you wanted. Far better to be in that situation than come to the end and realise you’d got to find 30,000 words from somewhere.

It was a bit like having a big vegetable patch and not enough to go in it. All that bare earth, wasteful and boring to look at. Novels were novel-length, and a vegetable garden was just that, not a window box. You had to have enough, and the way to do that was to not worry about having too much.

Thinning out was just another way of making sure you kept the best bits.

Ulysses Plott hung up the tea towel. He squared his shoulders, parade ground style, and walked briskly back to the lean-to. It was time to get back to work.

It was time to kill a few darlings.

~~~

* 6” across, set in an antique brass surround, the black ebony handle had been ritually broken by a bandit queen, the Laughing Orchid of Janakpur, after a night of, well, quite extraordinary examinations.

Passion

Lady Philomena Plott came into the kitchen with the post.

Lord Ulysses folded his paper neatly along its creases and laid it aside.  “Anything good?” he said, tweaking an errant crumb from his moustache.

Philomena flicked through the envelopes.  “Bill, bill, ooh, the new Thompson and Morgan catalogue, yummy, no I’ll save it for later…one for you, one for me…this feels like a cheque, good…”

Ulysses watched with quiet amusement as his wife flittered through the post.  He stacked his share into a pile, whisked his paperknife through the seams with practiced precision, and had divided everything into Read, Recycle, File, and Rubbish while Philomena was still reading her first letter.

“Hmm,” she said. “I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology.”

“Excellent.”

“Yes…” she said.  “Yes, well, it’s good money.  And they’re well known. It would be a bit of a coup.”

“Splendid,” he said.  “Good for you.  More tea?”

“Mmm,” she said, frowning at the letter.

Ulysses smiled to himself.  Already working on an idea, no doubt.

***

Three days later, he was concerned.  Philomena wasn’t herself.  Sporadic bursts of typing, followed by long silences and intermittent muffled swearing came from her study.  The smell of her favourite essential oils permeated the hallway and when she left her door open he noticed there had been an outbreak of talismans, totems, crystals and other paraphernalia around her desk.  She disappeared frequently into the garden, weeding with a ferocity unusual even for her; and when the garden was stripped of every available weed, she filled in seed catalogue order forms.

Lord Plott found one of these lying on the kitchen sideboard one morning as he wandered down in search of tea.  Philomena came down a moment later.  He waved the form at her.  “Jerusalem artichokes, Philly?”

“Oh, yes, those.  Well, I thought it might be worth a try.    After all we don’t have any.”

“We don’t have any because neither of us can stand the bloody things, Philomena.  Remember?  Gave us both godawful wind and even after we thought we’d dug them all out they grew like weeds, took us three years to see the last of them off.  Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh, I suppose,” she said, sighing.  “No, actually.  This story’s giving me trouble.”

“Thought so.  Want to chat?”  He handed her a mug of steaming brick-red tea.

Philomena wrapped her fingers gratefully around the mug.  “Well, it’s just not coming,” she said.  “I’ve tried three different beginnings, and none of them feel right.”

“What was this one for?”

“That anthology.”

“Oh, yes, what was the title again?  I don’t think you told me.”

“Criminal Damage.  It’s contemporary crime.”

“But…” Ulysses paused, a man entering territory that might, just possibly, be mined.  “New direction for you, old girl!” he said, watching her over the rim of his mug.  “Excellent stuff.  Flexing some new writing muscles, eh?”  Internally, he winced at the clumsiness of the metaphor.  Philomena didn’t seem to notice.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right,” she said.  “Well, back to it, then.” But she remained leaning against the counter, staring mournfully into her tea.

“Philomena.”

“Yes, dear?”

“Give it a week.”

“Yes, dear.”

***

One afternoon some days later, Ulysses passed his wife’s study.  Her fingers blurred over the keyboard; the essential oil burner remained unlit, half the talismans had been put away.  She looked up and beamed.  “Tea?”

“Tea,” he confirmed.  “You sound busy.”

“Oh, yes.”  She bounded out of her seat and patted his head.

“So,” he said as they sipped, looking out at the garden where the first daffodils quivered, buds still tightly wrapped against the February winds. “What are you working on?”

“Oh, just an email.”

“An email?”  Damn, he thought she’d got over her block.

“Yes,” she beamed.  “I wrote back to those lovely people at Criminal Damage and said I was too busy and could they find someone else for their anthology.”

“Ah.”

“I can’t do contemporary crime, Lissy darling, I hate it, all that misery and no magic, it’s just not me.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to say…”

She grinned at him.  “I know you weren’t.  The thing is one should try new things, but if you already know you hate doing something, what’s the point?  It would be like growing…”

“Jerusalem artichokes?”

“Oh, yes.  Or, well, what if you hated roses, but you grew them because you thought you should?  All that time and trouble and wasted feed…”

“You’d still have roses, though,” Ulysses pointed out, with inexorable logic.

“I don’t think they’d do very well.  Love shows, Lissy darling.  Passion shows.  If you haven’t got it for what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it.  Because lack of it shows, too.  Even if I’d managed to come up with something, it wouldn’t have been a very good story.”

“No passion,” he said.

“No.”  She put her mug down.  “Speaking of which…” she took hold of his cravat, and started moving towards the stairs.

Ulysses Plott went to his fate, smiling beneath his moustache.

Vegetable Kingdoms – Pt.1

Truth be told, it was the most enormous marrow,  both in length and girth.  Green it was, with stripes of deep and buttery yellow.

Resting against it, a rosette of yellow silk enclosed the words ‘Country Champion’.  A large silver cup stood to one side  Behind the trestle table, which sagged under the massive vegetable’s weight, stood Lord Ulysses Plott, a grin, almost as wide as the marrow was long, plastered across his face.

In front of the trestle, Lady Philomena Plott stood in conversation with Al Kidder, the  bull-chested and white-bearded Curate of St. Werenfridus.  A passing spectator deposited their empty tea-cup on the trestle, which groaned alarmingly under the additional weight.

‘Stand back, Lady Plott.  That table is about to be squashed by the squash,’ Kidder gave a deep-chested laugh.

Philomena regarded the marrow, its sheer size and gentle but definite curvature.  ‘It’s vegetables like this that make you doubt the sanity of the Doctrine of Signatures,’ she said.

The sun was setting by the time the Plotts headed for home.  Philly was driving, Ulysses had had a couple of celebratory gins, and then a couple more.  She didn’t mind in the least, he’d done the same for her several times.  Today was his turn, and he deserved it.

As they bounced along the winding lanes in their old Citroen, the enormous marrow nestled in heap of old blankets on the back seat, Ulysses said: ‘They said I couldn’t do it, Philly.  They weren’t interested in my methods, they didn’t even want to talk.’  He smiled a smile of deepest satisfaction, ‘I showed them.’

Philly had heard it all before, and more than once.  She sympathised, she really did.  She patted Ulysees hand affectionately, ‘I always knew you’d do it.  You and your remarkable marrow.’

‘I know you did, m’dear.  Even on the days I stopped believing it myself.’  Lord Plott coughed, cleared his throat, and blew his nose.  ‘Couldn’t have done it without you, my sweet.  Kept me going.’

‘Well, that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?’ Philomena said.

Ulysses settled back into the passenger seat, ‘This has been one of the best days of my life.’

#

The next day Ulysses was up at his usual time, spent a long morning writing science fiction, and the afternoon in his garden.  As the days went by, his writing mornings grew longer and longer.  Words were pouring onto the page, good ones too.  By the end of the week it was all he was doing.  Out in his part of the garden Michaelmas daises set seed, Brussels swelled on the stem, and old raspberry canes rattled in the wind.

It wasn’t long before Philomena noticed.

‘Cup of tea?’

Ulysses looked up from his writing, ‘Slice of cake? Splendid idea. ’

The kitchen table had always been neutral territory.  The kettle boiled, Philomena warmed the pot and made the tea while Ulysses cut two generous slices of his home-made fruit cake.

They sat down.  Ulysses poured.  China clinked on china, that familiar, comforting sound.

Philly looked her husband in the eye.  ‘What’s up, Lissy?’

There was no avoiding it.  Ulysses realised he was glad to get it off his chest.  ‘It’s this marrow thing, Philly.  In the end, winning that prize just wasn’t what I thought it would be.’

Philomena thought back to her first novel deal, that heady moment of joy, the champagne, the laughter.  After so many years – vindication.  Then, a few days later – nothing.   She’d never mentioned it.  ‘It’s funny, isn’t it, when you get what you want, your feelings aren’t what you thought they would be.’

‘That’s exactly it.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t feel glum, and I’m not down in the dumps, it’s just that…’

‘You thought you’d be happier about it for longer?’

‘That’s just it,’ Ulysses patted the table with a small flourish.

Philomena leaned towards him, eyes intent.  ‘But are you satisfied?’

‘Yes,’ Ulysses said after a moment.  ‘Yes, I am.  Maybe that’s the answer – happiness is fleeting, a thing for the moment, it’s the satisfaction that endures.’

‘And maybe Kipling was right.’

Momentarily puzzled, Ulysses looked down at his slice of home-made cake.  Then the coin dropped.  ‘Rudyard?  Triumph and disaster?   It was all right for him, Nobel laureate and all that.‘  He scratched at the hairs on his chin, ‘Maybe it wasn’t that important after all.’

‘It was to you.’

‘Yes, it was,’ Ulysses exclaimed.  ‘Still is, actually.  Bloody pleased with myself.  But that’s it, isn’t it?  Job done, game over, and time to move on.  Time, in fact, to get back out into the garden.’

‘How about we eat down in the Poet and Castle tonight?  Have a chat with a few friends and listen to what they have to say?’

‘Good idea, I fancy a stroll.”

To be continued…?

Magpie

Ulysses Plott, wandering downstairs in search of a cup of tea, heard the sound of furious typing from his wife’s study, and nodded with satisfaction. Good old Philomena.  Excellent self-discipline.

He stuck his head around the door. “Fancy a cuppa?”

Philomena jumped, and minimized the screen. “Ooh, yes please.”

Hmm, Ulysses thought. 

“I’ll come down,” Philomena said. “I’ve been sitting here too long.” She hustled her husband out of the study and in the direction of the kettle.

“How’s the novel going?” Ulysses said.

“Oh, you know…” Philomena waved a hand. “Getting on.” She peered out of the window.  “Blasted caterpillars,” she said. “Look at those Brussels’ sprouts. Leaves like a lace doily.”

“Last night’s frost should have finished the little devils off,” Ulysses said. “Where are you on the novel, then?”

Philomena shrugged, still looking at the sprouts. “Oh, you know. About a third of the way into the first draft, I suppose.”

Ulysses’ moustaches twitched. He knew his wife very well; and she was showing all the signs. “Come out into the garden,” he said.

“Just for a bit. I should be working.” Philomena pulled on her flowered wellingtons and an ancient padded jacket, and followed him out into the damp and chilly November afternoon.  “Ooh, look at the size of that slug!  Where are my scissors?” 

Ulysses shook his head as Philomena disappeared into the shed. Normally, he was the one who dealt slugs the coup de grace with a pair of shears. Philly preferred to ease them from this mortal coil with slug pellets. She was being evasive, and he had a horrible feeling he knew why.

“Where’s it gone?” she said, appearing with a pair of garden scissors.

“Run off,” Ulysses said.

“Really, Lissy.  Slugs can’t run.”  She looked around, snapping the blades of the scissors with unusual eagerness, and avoiding his eye.

“Chickweed,” Ulysses declared, and bent, a little creakily, to tug out the offending plant. “And look at that greenhouse. Dreadful state. Tell you what, we’ve been meaning to put that new pane in. Might do that this afternoon.”

“Yes, why not?”

“Or I could finish repainting the shed,” he said. 

Philomena glanced guiltily at the shed, where a new coat of glossy green paint came to an end about halfway down the wall. “No, don’t do that, Lissy. I’ll finish it.”

“You’ll probably need some new paint. I think the other stuff’s gone solid. Well, it was two years ago.”

“As long as that?”

Something clattered up from among the raspberry canes, and flew to the roof in a flash of black and white and silver. “Ah, magpie,” Ulysses said with satisfaction. “What’s it got, can you see?”

Philomena shaded her eyes. “No idea. Bit of silver foil, perhaps?”

“What does it think it’s going to do with it? Typical magpie, grabbing at something it can’t even use just because it’s shiny.”

“Mmm. Well, I must just go and…”

“Philomena.” Ulysses injected into his tone the sternness that had held men to their lines in the face of overwhelming odds, mosquitos the size of starlings and the news that the week’s supply of tea had failed to reach the camp. 

“Yes dear?”

“What were you doing when I came into the study?” Ulysses said.

“Writing, silly.”

“Writing what?”

Philomena looked at her wellingtons. “Um, well, I had this idea…”

“It wasn’t the novel, was it?”

“No.  But Lissy, dear…”

“It was something new, wasn’t it?”

“Well it just seemed like so much fun…

“So you were just going to take a few notes and get back to the novel?”

“Well I haven’t got a deadline on the novel, after all, so I thought I’d just…”

“Have an affair?”

“Lissy!”

“You know perfectly well what I mean, Philomena.” He shook an affectionate if muddy finger at her. “You start that story and halfway through you’ll get another nice shiny idea, and abandon the story, and it will sit there unfinished. And so will the next one. And the poor old novel will end up trunked. I know you, my dear. Your one weakness, a nice fresh young story, eh?”

“You’re such a grump, Ulysses.”

“I’m nothing of the sort.”

“You are, you’re a grump. And you’re right, of course. I do so hate it when you’re right.”

“Hah.” Ulysses put his arm around his wife’s shoulders and gave her a brisk hug. “No reason why you can’t work on as many short stories as you like, once you’ve got that first draft under your belt, eh?”

“Maybe I should finish the shed first.”

I’ll finish the shed. You get back to your novel.” Ulysses saw her back into the house, his moustaches quivering, this time with satisfaction. He’d bought new paint for the shed a week ago. He’d just finish getting that chickweed up first…

 

Bertie’s First Sale

His face glowing with excitement, Bertie burst into Lord Ulysses Plott’s rickety old wooden greenhouse, ‘Uncle, uncle, I’ve sold my first story!’

Ulysses looked up from potting on some seedling jacarandas, ‘What’s that? Excellent news, I knew you-‘

‘It’s totally brilliant. I know it’s only to a small e-magazine, but it’s a start, and you’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t you? They don’t know me from Adam, so it’s not vanity. It’s not as if they’re doing me a favour, and that counts for something. Uncle, they said like my writing, they liked my story, and they’re going to publish it-’

‘Splendid, Bertie, I-‘ Ulysses tried to get a word in, but Bertie gabbled on like an over-excited goose.

‘They’re not going to pay me,‘ Bertie rocked back on his heels and guffawed like a veteran, ‘It’s a ‘for-the-love’ market, but they’ve got standards, high ones too, and I’m in. Anyway, strike while the iron’s hot, I’ve decided to get an agent-‘

Oh dear, Ulysses sighed to himself.

‘I’ve picked a few that are suitable-‘

‘Bertie, hang on-’ Ulysses said.

‘This afternoon I’ll email them, let them know I’m available-’

‘Bertie!’

‘And they can fight it out and make me an offer-’

There was nothing for it. Ulysses inhaled, filled his barrel chest with air, and roared: ‘Ten-SHUN!’

Bertie had never been in the army, yet a primal, near-atavistic reflex snapped his heels together, slammed his arms straight against his sides, and jerked his chin, quivering into the air.

Every pane in the greenhouse thrummed.

Still got it, Ulysses thought with satisfaction.

In the frozen silence, a terracotta flower pot fell into two neat halves with stoney ‘plink’.

Strornary, Ulysses thought, Probably shouldn’t do that in here.

The world began to turn, Swifts whirled high overhead, ‘tee-pee, tee-pee.’

‘Now then, Bertie,’ Ulysses said.

A puzzled frown passed across Bertie’s brow. He relaxed his limbs, he took a breath, ‘Anyway, as I was saying, uncle Ulysses-’

Ulysses knew he’d given it his best shot. He let Bertie carry on in the forlorn hope he’d eventually run down.

Chattering at full throttle, Bertie took a step forwards, and Ulysees took a step back. Soon he was in full fighting retreat down the greenhouse, his upraised finger and defensive vocabulary of ‘Yes, but’s, ‘Even so’s and ‘Then again’s an inadequate defence against Bertie’s stream of over-excited expostulations.

With a relief almost as vast as the time he’d been plucked from the crocodile-infested waters of the Bismarck Archipelago, Ulysses saw his wife, Philomena, approach.

Philomena put her head into the greenhouse, ‘Everything all right?’

‘Tis now,’ Ulysses said under his breath.

Bertie pecked her on the cheek, ‘Aunty, I was just-‘

‘It’s just that I thought I heard someone shouting.’

‘No,’ Bertie said slowly, then brightened, ‘I was just telling uncle Ulysses about my news – I’ve sold a story!’

And he was off again.

‘Splendid,’ Philomena said, ‘Marvellous,’ then, more than a little disconcerted, ‘How lovely.’

Philomena and Ulysses exchanged a look.

Ulysses elbowed a large pot off the racking. It burst on the flagstones with the sound of a 51mm mortar.

Bertie carried on.

When required, Pholomena had the voice of a brass stentor. She used it now: ‘What are you doing over there, Lissy?’

‘Potting on my jacarandas,’ Ulysses bellowed his parade-ground best.

The greenhouse panes began a discordant vibration.

‘Potting on?’

‘Indeed I am!’

‘How interesting. Do tell.’

One of the panes sheared with a teeth-jarring crack. Ulysses winced, and carried on, ‘I’m glad you asked.’

Bertie finally noticed nobody was listening. His monologue trailed away into a blessed, if rather disappointed, silence.

After a moment, Ulysses put his hand on Bertie’s shoulder, ‘So you’ve sold a story. Why don’t you tell us about it?’

‘I was… Um…’ Bertie took note of the mass of potsherds around his uncle’s feet.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, useful for drainage,’ Ulysses lifted one of a dozen feathery-leaved seedlings out of the seed tray, ‘Just potting on my jacarandas.’

Over the years Bertie had picked up a fair bit of garden lore. ‘Aren’t they a bit difficult?’

‘You can say that again. The one in the conservatory flowered this year, first time ever. This lot are from the seeds.’ Ulysses gently transferred the seedling into a larger pot, already part-filled with sandy soil.

‘Gosh, well, that’s good…’

‘Lissy’s been trying for twenty years,’ Philomena said quietly.

‘Twenty years, isn’t that a bit of a…’ Bertie didn’t want to finish the sentence. Ulysses helped him out:

‘Waste of time? I don’t think so, I enjoy it, you see. And finally I’m getting there.’ Ulysses’ chest puffed with pride, ‘Not many people get ‘em to flower.’

‘What’s the secret?’ Bertie said politely.

‘One step at a time,’ Philomena said. ‘You learn as you go along.’

‘Got some breaks too,’ Ulysses said. ‘I met a chap a few years ago who suggested I try a different soil. Met him at a country fair and we just got chatting. It turns out there’s an enthusiasts group you can join. Nice fellow, didn’t know me from Adam.’

‘Yes, just like at that magazine,’ Bertie said, ‘I-‘

‘Oh, you know them, do you?’

Bertie gave his uncle a thoughtful look, ‘No, I don’t’

‘I was blooming lucky too, because I was just about to start mouthing off about how I knew it all. I thought I was pretty good, but talking to him I found that other people had done much better.’ Ulysses gave a gruff, self-deprecating chuckle, ‘Did me a real favour, I’d have looked a proper fool if I’d gone ahead.’

‘A lucky escape,’ Bertie said with a rather fixed smile.

Ulysses tamped mores soil around the root-ball, ‘Over-confidence nearly got me. Enthusiasm’s the thing, not showing off.’ He handed the pot to Bertie, ‘Put a splash of water on that, would you? The can’s just over there.’

Philomena waited until Bertie had the watering can in his hand. ‘So, Bertie, now you’ve broken your duck, what are your plans?’ Philomena said.

‘I- I’m not sure.’ Bertie carefully poured water into the pot, ‘I did have some plans, I think I need to think them through.’

‘Very sensible. And congratulations.’

‘Thank you. I think I-,’ Bertie looked around, ‘I’d better get going.’

‘Off to do those emails?’

‘No,’ Bertie scuffed the ground with his heel, ‘I think I’ll leave them for a while.’

Fondly Ulysses and Philomena watched Bertie walk down the path to the gate. Ulysses found Philomena’s hand and gave it a squeeze, ‘Nick of time, that was.’

‘You’re the crafty one,’ Philomena said.

‘Keen as mustard, that lad. I knew he had it in him.’

‘Fancy a cuppa?’

‘Splendid.’