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.

~

Guerilla Gardeners of Sarf London, innit?

Lord and Lady Plott got rather fed up with driving past this:

BeforeBefore

So we decided to do this:

AfterAfter

Location: STonecot Hill, B279 / A24 crossroads.
Pictures on left looking towards Sutton.
Pictures on right looking down Tudor Drive

Our thanks to the lovely people in the St. Raphael’s Hospice shop for letting us fill our watering cans.

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.’

 

First Response

Bertie Inkgreen pulled to a stop on the Plott’s driveway, spraying gravel in an extravagant arc.  Lord Plott ducked protectively over the rosebush he was strapping upright. “I say,” he protested.  “Bit of shrapnel there.”

“Sorry, uncle,” Bertie said.  “How’s it…”

Lady Philomena Plott appeared on the steps. “Ulysses!”

“You look flustered, old girl.  You all right?”

“I’m all right,” Lady Plott said, in tones that thundered with portent.  “It’s your wretched cousin Dolores.”

“Now what’s she done?”  Lord Plott said.

 “Remember that thriller she self-published?  Well, someone wrote a review of it on the internet.  And they didn’t like it.  And now Dolores is making a fool of herself.  Thought I’d better warn you before you saw it.”

“Sounds to me as though this requires gin,” said Lord Plott. 

The three of them, armed with alcohol, gathered in the glow of the gigantic screen (Lord Plott, despite a lasting cynicism regarding Gadgetry, was also a great believer in Efficiency. Besides, he lost his glasses a lot). 

A series of increasingly hysterical comments quivered on the screen.  Reference was made to Bullies, and Lack of Understanding, and the Fine Sensibilities of the Author, and Jealousy. Friends were dispatched to the reviewer’s webpage to make unpleasant comments. 

“Well, the reviews were a bit harsh,” Bertie volunteered. 

“Bertie, dear boy, one doesn’t respond to reviews.  It’s just not sensible.  And one certainly doesn’t accuse one’s readers of being…” Lady Plott peered at the screen, and winced, “Ill-educated bullies.’”

“I’ve responded to reviews,” Lord Plott said.  “One, anyway.  Chap pointed out a mistake I’d made about catching perch.  Quite right too.  Said thank you very much and used him as a researcher next time I wrote a story with fishin’ in it.”

“That’s different, Lissy dear.  But this…If someone criticises your melons at the local agricultural show…”

“I wouldn’t dream of criticising your melons, auntie,” Bertie said.  The fumes of a classic Ulysses Plott gin and tonic were already beginning to work their disinhibiting magic.

“Ahem,” Lady Plott said.  “If someone criticises anything you’ve grown, you don’t get all your friends to go round to their allotment with a flamethrower.  Not only is it jolly bad form, it’s very likely to give rise to comment at the Royal Horticultural Society. Remember that business with the Fontleroys and old Arthur, and the paraquat, Lissy?  Very nasty.”

“Yes, haven’t seen anything like it since I was out in Jalalabad. But old Arthur was mad as a hatter.  Dolores doesn’t have that excuse. Never used to be this sort of row going on,” Lord Plott said, jabbing a trembling finger at the screen.  “Seen too much of it recently.  People taking exception to reviews, ferreting out reviewers’ private information, encouraging other people to be threatening for them when they were too much of a bloody coward themselves to risk getting a well-deserved punch in the nose… I’m not convinced about this internet business; allows people to behave like a damned shower without facing the consequences.”

“Well,” Bertie said, “that’s not entirely true, you know.  Even if you do it anonymously, plenty of people have ways of finding out where you’re posting from.  Say Auntie Dolores set up some sock puppets…”

“Sock puppets?”  Lord Plott brightened.  “Now that reminds me of Figgy Timbleton.  Things that fella could do with a sock would bring tears to your eyes.” 

“What’s a sock puppet?”  Lady Plott said.

Bertie forced down his speculations about Figgy Timbleton and said; “Pretending to be someone else.  Say, if she went on and wrote, ‘This book’s absolutely wonderful, and you’re all just stupid, signed, not-Dolores-at-all,’ that would be being a sock-puppet.  But it’s often easy to spot them because they write just like the person they’re pretending not to be, and even if they don’t – well, people who know how to look can find out if they’re posting from the same address and things.  And since she has put her name on it…well.” 

“I don’t think you need to worry about there being no consequences, Ulysses,” Lady Plott said.  “Even if the silly old fool was about to get a sniff of a contract on her next book, don’t think many publishers would take her now.  Blatantly obvious she’s a loose cannon.  Of course, she could still apologise.”

“Have to do it properly, mind,” Lord Plott declared, whiskers aquiver with fervour.  “None of that ‘Oh it’s not my fault, I was misled, I was ill…’ hah!” The syllable had the explosive quality of a doodlebug.  “Stand up, face front, and  take responsibility for your bloody actions, that’s what I say.”

“Now Lissy, remember your blood pressure,” Lady Plott said.  “You’re going puce and it clashes with the hanging baskets.”

“But shouldn’t you ever respond to reviews?  I mean, what if they’re just wrong?”  Bertie said.

“Readers are customers, Bertie dear,” Lady Plott said. “And as such, they’re always right.  Even when they’re wrong.”

“Absolutely,” Lord Plott said.  “Reviews aren’t for the author, lad, they’re for readers.  Just like growing vegetables for the agricultural show.  Someone doesn’t like your tomatoes, they’ve got a perfect right to tell people they taste like used teabags.  Got no obligation to tell you they’re wonderful.  In fact, if they did, you’d go on growing disgusting tomatoes, and never learn better, what?”

“And sometimes you might have grown a perfectly good tomato and they just don’t like tomatoes,” Lady Plott said.  “Which no-one can do anything about, so there’s no point getting upset over it.”

“So what are we going to do about Auntie Dolores?”  Bertie said.

“Absolutely nothing,” Lady Plott said firmly.  “Woman’s an adult.  If she’s going to behave like a six-year old in a tantrum, then she’ll have to face the consequences.  Let’s go and see if that sweetcorn’s ready, and I’ll give you some for your mother.”

Lord Plott turned off the computer with a decisive jab.

The Ruthless Writer

Ulysses Plott was off his food, his breakfast newspaper, off his – well, just about everything.

“What’s up, dear?’ Lady Plott asked at lunchtime.

‘Oh, nothing,’ Lord Plott stared morosely out the window at the teeming rain.

‘Weather getting you down?’

‘No, no, the rain’s fine,’ Lord Plott said without enthusiasm. He pushed his largely uneaten lunch, a home-made cheese and bacon flan, around his plate. He sighed, folded his napkin, and shambled towards the back door. ‘Just going into the garden.’

Lady Plott was worried. Ulysses simply did not go off his food. Something was seriously awry. She recalled there had once been a macho trend eschewing savoury flans. It couldn’t be that, surely? Lady Plott baked a tasty quiche. She was proud of her quiche.

What could put a middle-aged man into such a brown study?
Lady Plott clutched her chest as a terrible thought struck her. Could it be? Lord Plott was so dependable, but shocking as it was, she had to accept these things did happen. He was only human.

Now, don’t mope, she chided herself. Real women don’t mope, they face the truth, come what may.

Lady Plott pulled on her flowery wellingtons and jammed her battered straw hat onto her head. Things like this only festered until you got them out in the open. She’d jolly well go and ask him.

Ulysses was in his vegetable patch, bent double, plucking slugs and snails off the broad beans and dropping them into a bucket.

Despite the orderly rows, the carefully laid out beds and evenly-spaced planting, the only word which adequately described Lord Plott’s vegetables was Devastation. Courgettes and marrows consisted of single brave leaves, the runners were barely off the ground, maize was a ragged ruin, and the broad beans themselves little more than tattered green stems.

‘Hello dear,’ Lad Plott said.

Lord Plott was getting on, he carried more than a few spare pounds, but he turned with the nervous speed of a startled gazelle.

It’s guilt, Lady Plott’s heart sank. He’s realised I know.

Lord Plott gestured forlornly at his gnawed-upon plantings. ‘Can’t keep up with the blighters. It’s this wet weather, they love it.’

To her vast relief, Lady Plott understood. ‘Oh, thank the Lord for that,’ she exclaimed. ‘You were so distracted, I thought you were having-‘

‘Oh don’t be a silly old thing,’ Lord Plott said.

‘-Writers Block.’

‘Never!’ Horrified, Lord Plott staggered backwards. His heavy heel came down with a sickening crunch on a large snail, he winced apologetically, ‘Sorry.’

Lady Plott held out her arms, ‘Come here.’

Bucket in hand, Lord Plott stepped across the bed onto the path with a bashful smile.

Lady Plott looked down into a crawling mass of molluscs in the bucket. ‘What are you going to do with that lot?’

‘Stick ‘em in the compost, where they can do some good.’

‘Hmm,’ Lady Plott’s mouth twisted doubtfully.

‘Cute little blighters really. I swear they have personality, little eyes on stalks, mouths on sideways.’

‘They all look the same to me. And there’s far too many of them.’

‘Do you know what they do when they-?’ Lord Plott’s eyebrows danced a fandango of innuendo across his brow.

‘Good Lord,’ Lady P said, as he explained, ‘That’s positively kinky.’

Arm in arm, they strolled through the drizzle to the compost bins. Lord Plott emptied out the bucket and they returned through Lady Plott’s side of the garden. Despite apparent randomness, with flowers, herbs, and vegetables all mixed together, Lord Plott couldn’t help noticing his wife’s garden was lush and thriving.

‘This is absolutely lovely, m’dear. Don’t know how you do it,’ Lord Plott said with a touch of puzzled envy.

Lady Plott discovered she was slightly cross. ‘Ulysses, I have to say you have become distracted by these creatures, to the detriment of your garden. I know you’re fond of natural things, but sometimes you have to be ruthless.’

Lord Plott looked down at the sparse scatter of slug pellets on the soil of his wife’s garden. ‘I rather hoped there was room for everything.’

‘What’s the point of your vegetable garden, Lissy? What’s it for? Why are you doing all this work in the first place?

‘Ha, well, yes, hmmm.’ Lord Plott stroked his moustaches. He knew the answer to that one, obviously. At the bottom of the garden was a patch of rough meadow, a nettle patch, and such, a refuge for creepy-crawlies of all descriptions. If only they’d stay there.

Lady Plott gave him a big hug, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t get rid of them, that’s impossible, but clear them out as best you can. It’s not as if they’re going to grow up into unicorns or butterflies, is it?’

#

A week later Lord Plott’s vegetable patch was starting to recover. New shoots, soft young leaves, and even a few flower buds had begun to show. Seated across the breakfast table, Lady Plot realised Ulysses himself was back to normal as well. The newspaper, held firmly upright, rustled in time with Lord Plott’s expostulations, while behind it came the rattle of spoon in cup, and the scrape of butter knife across toast.

One day I’ll find out how he does that, Lady Plott thought. Then she decided perhaps it should be one of the mysteries of their relationship that needed to endure.

Breakfast over, Lord Plott did the washing up and went to his desk. Late in the afternoon, he looked up from his writing and realised he’d worked right through to supper time. Lord Plott stretched, yawned, and went to find his wife. She was in her own study, busily working away. Lord Plott planted a big kiss on her forehead.

‘Hello, what’s that for?’ Lady Plott said.

‘Have you seen the time?’

‘Goodness, that was a session and a half. How about you?’

‘Book’s going swimmingly.’ Lord Plott drew up a chair and sat down, ‘Philly, your advice on snails was a real help. You see, I was having a bit of a problem with the latest story, and it was the same as what was going on in the vegetable patch.’

‘Too many slugs?’

‘Too many minor characters.’

If there was one thing Philly enjoyed as much as writing, it was talking about writing. She suggested they take the conversation into the lounge for a G&T.

When they were settled, Lord Plott continued: ‘I was spending far too much time on them, they were a big distraction. I wasn’t telling the story.’ He took a deep breath, ‘I’d forgotten what I was actually writing about, what got me excited in the first place, the ideas, the theme, the main characters. I wasn’t seeing the garden.’

Glass in hand, Lady Plott sat forwards, ‘What did you do?’

‘I took your advice. I got ruthless.’

‘You culled?’

‘Not so much culled, as merged. Some of these lesser lights do have to go, buts most of these characters are one-idea wonders, spear-carriers. I found I could squodge a few together to make one much more interesting character.’

It was a good idea. Lady Plott sipped her drink thoughtfully, sometimes her stories did feel like they had a cast of thousands. ‘I’d be worried I might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. What if one of them turned out to be Aragorn? Tolkein didn’t know who that stranger in The Prancing Pony was when he first wrote about him.’

Ulysses knew exactly what she was on about. Sometimes characters walked straight out of your subconscious into the story and staked their claim. ‘I think you’ll recognise them when you see them, like a wild seed, or that toad in the rockery. Things that actually add to what’s already there.’

‘That’s a good way to look at it,’ Lady Plott said. After all, writing, like gardening, should be a pleasure. Hard work, yes, but it should be fun.

‘And I haven’t got rid of them all. I don’t think you can, and I don’t think you should. Even Sophocles had his spear carriers. And there’ll be another crop in the next book.’ Lord Plott’s eyes twinkled, ‘You never know, one of them might grow up to be a unicorn.’

‘You never know.’

Realising they were both hungry, they went into the kitchen to look for some food.

‘You lay the table,’ Lady Plott said, ‘What do you fancy?’

Lord Plott gripped his cutlery handles down on the table like a hungry schoolboy, ‘Any of that bacon flan left?’
Inside, Lady Plott glowed with happiness, ‘I wasn’t sure men still like that sort of thing.’

‘Real mean eat what’s put in front of them and say thank you very much,’ Lord Plott pronounced. ‘Especially your tasty quiche.’