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.