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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’