Forced Entry

“Marvellous, isn’t it, having them so early?”  Dolores Plott-Muggins waved a pallid strawberry in the air.

“I think I’d rather let them come on in their own time,” Lady Philomena Plott said, eyeing the strawberry with suspicion.   “I’m not terribly keen on forcing things.”

“But what if you need them for a dessert?  I promised I’d do Eton mess for the summer fête, and you can’t do that without strawberries,” Dolores said, pouting.

“Perhaps you could make another dessert?”

“Only now I don’t have to!”  Dolores beamed.  “Like I always say, Philly dear; you can’t let things dictate to you just because people say ‘it’s not in their nature to do that.’  Don’t I always say that, Maxwell?”

“Yes dear,” Maxwell Plott-Muggins said.

“You’re not listening, Maxwell,” Dolores said.  “He never listens.”

“Well, I don’t know, it’s like characters,” Philomena said thoughtfully.   “Characters are strawberries.  If you force them they’re usually pale and tasteless…”

“What was that?” Dolores said.

“Never mind.”

Lord Plott was carefully examining a drooping tub of petunias on which three small sticking-plaster-pink flowers struggled to bloom.  “I say, these johnnies are looking a bit peaky,” he said.

“Oh I know,” Dolores sighed heavily.  “Wretched things.  I said we should go to that garden centre in Kensington.  A much better class of plant.  Do have a strawberry, Philomena.”

“No, thank you, dear,” Lady Philomena Plott said.  “We ought to be going.  The courgettes need planting out and there’s so much else to do, you know how it is at this time of year.”

“We put our courgettes in ages ago,” Dolores said.  “Down there.”  She pointed her strawberry to where a few yellowish leaves waved feebly in the breeze at the end of long attenuated stems.

“Those are…early,” Lady Plott said.

“Oh well, we started the seeds in January.  Just because they say not to… This way we’ll have them earlier than anyone.”

Lord and Lady Plott exchanged a glance.   “And completely in the shade, too,” Lady Plott said.

“Well, we had to put something in there, and after all courgette plants grow nice and big.  They’ll cover the ground,” Dolores said.

“And that’s where you’ve put your carrots too?” Philomena said.   “I thought it was all clay.”

“Oh, yes, thick with the stuff,” Maxwell said.  “Nothing like root vegetables for breaking up the ground, you know!”

Philomena caught her husband’s eye again.  Whatever he had been about to say turned into an exhalation that set his grey moustaches quivering like a hedge in a high wind.  “Yes,” he said, when he had some air back.  “Got to be off.  Terrible traffic at this hour.”

Back in their ancient but lovingly cared-for Morris Traveller, the Plotts relaxed.

“Ulysses, your face,” Philomena gave a snorting laugh.  “I thought you were going to explode!”

“Using carrots to break up the ground.  Never heard such bally nonsense.”

“Oh, you know what will happen; they’ll get three distorted little carrots and claim the seeds were contaminated or the garden centre sold them the wrong fertiliser.  And those poor courgettes; they’re going to go all thin, and get mildew, and have hardly any fruit, and those two will never admit that they’re just not suited to that sort of ground.  It’s like shoving some poor character into completely the wrong situation just because you want them to be there for your plot.”

“Absolutely.  Like having a lifelong Baptist know how to mix a cocktail.  Ridiculous.”

“What had they done to those poor petunias?”

“Completely in the shade of the leylandii.  Haven’t seen a bit of sun all summer.”  He glared through the windscreen at the sky.  “Not that we’ve had any.”

“Now, Lissy, we had some this morning.  Oh, did you try a strawberry?”

“No thank you.  Looked like something I saw the medic whip off a young chap’s todger when I was out on the frontier with the Blues and Royals.  Been forcing them, hasn’t she?  Like the courgettes.  Thin and feeble.  Bit like that character young Bertie was having such a hard time with,” Lord Plott said.

“Which one?”

“You know.  Perfectly nice fella who suddenly bashes some chap over the head because Bertie needed him arrested.”

“Oh, I remember. Yes, dear Bertie, he’s still learning, isn’t he?”

“At least he does learn.  Makes a change from those two.  Can tell them till you’re blue in the face, they always know best.”

“I hardly bother trying, these days,” Philomena said, leaning back and closing her eyes.  Lissy was a dear, but he did tend to drive as though he were avoiding enemy fire.  “Why keep giving advice if it’s never taken?  One does simply get bored, eventually.  Anyway.  That chap of Bertie’s.  What was his name?”

“Bottle?  Pottle.  No, Farnborough.  In that thriller he was writing.”

“That’s the one.  Well, Bertie tried to force him to all sorts, didn’t he?”

“Hah, yes,” Ulysses said.  “Had him steal that car when he’s been perfectly law-abiding his entire life.  Chap didn’t even hesitate.  And how did he know how to hotwire a car?  Not the sort of thing you get taught in school, as I told Bertie.  Not the school I went to, anyway,” he said, with faint regret.

“I know.  And ‘He looked it up on the internet,’ is hardly good enough, even if it had actually been in the story, which it wasn’t.  Why did he look it up on the internet just before his life turned into a complete Eton Mess?  You don’t just happen to look something up that turns out to be massively convenient.   Oh, and the phone!  Out of battery just at the wrong moment.”

“Because he ‘just happened to forget to charge it.’  Lord Plott said.  “I told Bertie, in real life, of course people just forget things, or rush about like damn fools, for no good reason.  But in stories, people have reasons.  If a plant wilts, or does spectacularly well one year, there’s always a reason. Doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.

“Like poor Farnborough leaving his laptop with all the vital information in the back seat, when he’s been set up as obsessively careful about his belongings.  Now if Bertie had set him up to be as absentminded as…” she glanced at Ulysses, whose moustaches were quivering again, “all right, I know, as me,”  her husband gave a satisfied snort, “that would have been perfectly fine.  But he needed him to do it for the plot, so he had him do it.  It’s like trying to make petunias grow in the shade.  Doesn’t work, does it?”

“Not if you want characters that aren’t as thin the paper they’re written on,” Ulysses said.

“I’ve had characters simply turn around and tell me they won’t do something,” Philomena said.  “I always think it’s a good sign, even if it is annoying.  It means they’re coming alive.”

“Means you’re a daft old bat,” Ulysses said fondly.  “Set them up properly, you won’t try and make them do things they wouldn’t do in the first place.  Like putting carrots in clay.  Give them a nice sandy soil and they’ll grow straight as you please.”

“I like my characters a bit crooked,” Philomena said.  “But you know what I mean, Lissy.”

“S’pose I do.  Ah, here we are.  Right, smart togs off, gardening togs on, and let’s get those courgettes in before the blasted rain starts again.”

They linked arms and strode up the drive.

Getting Away from it All

It was the time of year when Ulysses liked to plan the Annual Expedition.  As a result, the dining room was redesignated as the Campaign Room, and holiday catalogues thumped down from the letterbox onto the doormat in a constant stream.

Philomena ate her breakfast in the kitchen – a soft-boiled egg, and buttered toast soldiers – and got on with her morning writing.  After an hour, just when she was thinking about a fresh cup of tea, there was a polite tap on the glass of the kitchen door.

‘Hello Bertie, you’re up bright and early.’

‘I’m taking a leaf out of your book,’ Bertie gave Philomena an affection peck on the cheek.  ‘Uncle U. asked me to help out with the watering while you were both away.’

A series of muffled thumps and expostulations came from the dining room.  Bertie and Philomena exchanged a look Ulysses had never seen.

‘How’s it going?’ Bertie said.

Philomena refilled the kettle and laid out two more cups.  ‘Don’t get me wrong, Bertie, I love our holidays, I jut don’t understand why, every year, it takes your uncle two weeks to prepare for a fortnight away.  It does get tiresome.’

‘Where are you going?’

‘No idea!’ Philomena said cheerfully.  ‘Never do.  Last year it was Angkor Wat, the year before, we went to Brighton.  I like surprises, and Ulysses likes the preparation.’  A look of puzzled despair crossed her face.  ‘I’ve no idea why.’

Bertie’s latest ‘How To’ book had been all about confronting fear of the unknown.  ‘I’ll go and ask him.’

‘You might get barked at,’ Philomena said as Bertie put his hand on the dining room doorknob.

‘But he won’t bite me, will he, aunty?’ Bertie said.

‘Oh, he doesn’t bite, dear.’

Bertie closed the door behind him.

Alone in the hall, Philomena smiled at some private memory.  ‘Not hard,’ she said under her breath.

 #

The dining table had been extended to its full extent.  It was covered in several maps, taped together at the edges, and the maps were covered in a scatter of little cubes of cheese, each with a black or green olive pinned to it by one of those little paper flags children use on sandcastles at the seaside.  Two high wooden easels flanked the fireplace, one supported a cork board covered in neat rows of pinned notes, the other a whiteboard covered in a multicoloured spider chart of circled words joined by different coloured lines.

Lord Ulysses Plott was using his mobile phone.  As soon as he saw Bertie, he beamed happily, and waved him into the room.

‘10:47 hours departure, 15:53 arrival, local time, five hours, six minutes, elapsed.  Splendid.’ Ulysses’ vast, white moustaches wafted up and down with his enthusiasm.  ‘Marvolio, effendi, uber-cooperando!  I genuflect across time and space.’

Conversation over, Ulysses slipped his phone into his waistcoat pocket, beside his pocket watch.  ‘Helps to speak a bit of the lingo,’ he said.  ‘It’s only polite.  Learn a lot from other languages, you know.  English may be wonderful, but so are Arabic and Chinese, and so on.’

‘So this is where you’re going?’ Bertie examined the maps.

‘Yes, but don’t tell Philly.  Mum’s the word.’

‘Cross my heart,’ Bertie said earnestly.

‘Splendid.’  Ulysses plucked one of the flags off the map, slid the cheese cube and olive off the stick and popped them into his mouth.  ‘Not going there, no time.  Now.  This watering you’re doing.  Forget the garden, just do the tree ferns in the conservatory and keep an eye on the orchids.  They should be fine, I’ve put them in the bath, damp and cool.  Questions?’

‘I’ve been talking to aunt Philly,’ Bertie said.

‘Oh.  Ha-humph, have you, indeed?’

Bertie held open the door.  ‘I don’t have a question, but she does.’

‘Oh dear,’ Ulysses looked quite crestfallen.  ‘Oh my.’

 #

Back in the kitchen, Philomena had laid out tea for three, including a plate of buttered muffins.  Ulysses sat down with a heavy sigh.  Feeling like an intruder, Bertie joined them.

‘Lissy, it’s just that I don’t understand why you do all this holiday preparation,’ Philomena said.

‘I just like to get things straight in advance.  No hitches, nothing unexpected.  Holidays should be spontaneous, and fun.  That takes hard work and planning.’

‘I do appreciate that, my dear, but does it have to be the same every year?’

Ulysses brow furrowed like a freshly ploughed field.  He sat back and folded his arms.  ‘I don’t see what’s the problem.’

Philomena turned her head and looked out of the window.

The silence became collar-tightening.  These are my favourite relatives, Bertie thought.  I dug this hole, I’d better get them out of it.

‘Uncle, how do you write your books?’ Bertie said.

‘What?  I plan, I design, I take notes.  No writing until I get too excited by all the ideas.  Weeks of work before pen hits paper.’

‘The same way you plan your holidays?’

‘Absolutely.’  Ulysses looked at Philomena out of the corner of his eye.  ‘It’s not the only way, but I like it.’

‘I agree there’s nothing wrong with it.  Aunt Philly, how about you?’  Bertie said.

‘If you put it that way, I suppose I’m guilty too.  I get a few ideas and set out straight away.  That’s part of the adventure, discovering where you end up, and how you get there.’

‘I don’t understand.  If you don’t know what’s there, how do you know where to go?’ Ulysses said.

‘Well, I might wander around a bit, but once I get to know the locals, so to speak, they let me know.’

‘That’s exactly what I mean.  I might set off with an itinerary, but once we arrive we find there are other things we’d rather do.  It’s just like my old CO used to say: “Planning’s essential, plans are useless”.’

‘So why do you-?’ Philomena exclaimed.

‘Why don’t you?-’ Ulysses retorted.

This time Philomena folded her arms and Ulysses looked out the window.

This wasn’t going well.  ‘So who gets their book finished first?’ Bertie said in desperation.

Philomena and Ulysses gave Bertie a strangely contrite look.  They both leaned forwards, elbows on the table.

‘That’s the funny thing,’ Ulysses said.

‘We take about the same time,’ Philomena said.

Bertie spoke slowly, carefully choosing his words, ‘Don’t you think you’re both doing the same things, just in a different order?’  Philomena and Ulysses gave non-committal shrugs.  ‘And in the end you both get the same result, in about the same time – a decent book.’

‘She’ll do a bloody good book,’ Ulysses slapped the table.

‘Lissy!  Language,’ Philomena exclaimed.

Bertie took a deep breath: ‘So why don’t you take turns?  Uncle, you plan this year’s holiday, Aunt Philly does it the next.’

‘I’d like that,’ Philomena said.

Ulysses moustaches quivered in near-panic. ‘But I wouldn’t know- I’d need to-‘

‘I think you’d both come up with the same thing – a good holiday,’ Bertie said.

‘Can’t just wander about, I-‘

Philomena put her hand on Ulysses’s and gave it a squeeze.  ‘Not all those who wander are lost.’

A lopsided smile twitched Ulysses’s moustaches.  Surreptitiously, he brushed the corner of his eye.  ‘Of course not, m’dear.’  He lay his other hand on top of hers, ‘Very well.  I’m not too old for a new kind of adventure.’

Philmena gave Ulysses a kiss.  Two bright red patches glowed on his cheeks.

‘Just as long as I can keep a map in my back pocket,’ Ulysses said.

‘Emergencies only,’ Philomena said with a laugh.

‘Emergencies only.’

 #

Arm in arm, Philomena and Ulysses waved Bertie goodbye from the front door.

‘Thank you, Bertie,’ Philomena called.  ‘You’ve been a great help.’

Bertie beamed with happiness, he departed with a distinctly jaunty step.

‘Smart young chap, that,’ Ulysses said.  ‘Old dog, new tricks.  Taught me a thing or two today.’

‘You and me both,’ Philomena said.

 

Learning Curve

“Aunt Philly?  Uncle Ulysses?  Anyone home?” 

“Bertie, dear boy,” Lady Philomena Plott emerged from the conservatory with a tray of seedlings.  She had an ancient straw hat on her head and, Bertie noticed, had accessorised a vintage silk dress with a vast ancient cardigan knitted from rope and a pair of flower-bestrewn wellingtons. 

“I like your boots, Auntie.” 

Lady Plott grinned at her colourful feet.  “They are rather good, aren’t they?  The shop had garden tools too, awfully charming hanging on a hook, but the second I put them down they were camouflaged by busy Lizzies. I couldn’t find the wretched things again until autumn.” 

“Bertie!”  Lord Plott came striding up the garden from the vegetable patch.  “Splendid.”  He squinted at the sun sinking towards the treetops.  “Over the yardarm, I think.  Fancy a G and T?”

“Oh, well, if you’re sure…”

“Philly?”

“Yes please.” Lord Plott strode off into the house and Philomena sank into one of the ancient wrought-iron chairs.  “What’s on your mind, Bertie?”  Her faded-denim eyes met his.

Bertie squirmed.  “Nothing, Auntie; just thought I’d drop by.”

“A lovely lad like you with nothing better to do on a Friday evening in Spring than visit a pair of old farts like us? I do hope not.”

“Auntie!”

“Well?  Come on, Bertie dear.  What’s up?” 

“The writing, sort of.”

“Ah, the fickle muse.  Playing you up, is she?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to write,” Bertie burst out, “I do.  But I wonder if I’m actually meant to be a writer.  I was talking to cousin Maxwell…”

“Oh dear,” Philomena said.              

“What is it?”  Lord Plott reappeared with a tray bearing a frosty jug, three glasses, a bowl of  millimetrically precise lemon slices, and assorted spicy items.  “Everything all right, Bertie?”

“He’s been talking to the Plott-Mugginses,” Philomena said, rolling her eyes.

“Pah.”  Ulysses introduced the tray to the table with unnecessary force, causing several dried lentils to leap from the Bombay mix and ricochet into oblivion.  “What have they been telling you?” 

“I asked whether writing can be taught.”

“You’re already a writer, Bertie,” said Lady Plott.

“Course you are,” Lord Plott said.  “Always scribbling away.”  He filled a glass, dropped in a slice of lemon, peered at the result, and added another inch. 

“Well, I don’t know, am I?   I mean, I’ve managed to sell a couple of stories, but I haven’t got terribly far. And when  I told Maxwell about this course I’ve booked on…” Bertie stared at his boots, which were plain brown lace-ups, and wished he had something more cheerful to look at, like his Aunt Philly’s wellingtons.  “He said real writers are born, and can’t be taught.”

“Rot,” Lord Plott said, with such emphasis his moustaches quivered for a good ten seconds.  “There you go.”  He thrust the glass into Bertie’s hand. 

Bertie took a grateful gulp and felt an explosion of alcohol burn past his oesophagus.  “Lordy,” he said.  He always forgot his uncle’s way with drink.  Probably as a result of his uncle’s way with drink.

“Your cousin Maxwell,” Lady Plott announced, “is an arrogant pillock.” 

“Philly!”  Lord Plott said.

“Well, he is.”  She took a long pull of her G and T. 

“But he’s published,” Bertie pointed out.

Was published,” Lady Plott said.  “At least twenty years ago.  And publication isn’t the only marker of quality, Bertie dear.”

“But surely if I were any good, I’d have got further?”

“Sold some stories, haven’t you?” Lord Plott said.

“Well, yes, but…”

“Good markets, too.”

“Yes…”

“Sold more this year than five years ago.”

“Oh, well, I was producing dreadful rubbish five years ago,” Bertie said.

“There you are then,” Lord Plott said, with the air of a man who has wrapped a present with military precision and finished it off with a perfectly aligned bow. 

“I’m not sure I follow,” Bertie said.

“He means you’re getting better,” Lady Plott said. “You’re learning.  Which wouldn’t happen if you couldn’t be taught, would it?” She pushed back a tendril of grey hair that was escaping from under her hat and smiled at him.

“Q.E.D.,” said Lord Plott.

“But what about innate talent?” Bertie said.  “Cousin Maxwell mentioned Mozart, and, well, he’s right, surely, genius is genius.  You can’t learn to be Mozart.”

“Don’t tell me Maxwell Plott-Muggins was comparing his thrillers to a Mozart symphony!”  Lady Plott snorted with laughter. 

“Er…”

“Genius my bottom,” Lord Plott said.  “Discipline, that’s what it is.  Your aunt,” he aimed his glass at Philomena, “may talk a lot of tosh about muses and hang crystals all over the place, but she works like a navvy.  Always has.  So do I.  Digging over your ground, putting the hours in, that’s the ticket.”

“Obviously Mozart was extraordinarily talented, Bertie, but he practiced so hard his fingers were deformed.  And he had passion.  Now, I’m not sure you can teach passion,” Philomena said, “but you can certainly teach discipline.”

“Passion?”  Bertie said. 

“You don’t need to worry, you obviously have passion,”

Bertie glanced down at himself as though he might see passion spilled down his front, like egg.  “Really?” 

“Of course, why else would you be so driven to get it right?”

“But what about imagination?”  Bertie said.  “You can’t teach that, surely?  Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t.”

“All human beings have imagination,” Lord Plott said.  “Someone had to imagine everything from the wheel to the computer.”

I couldn’t have imagined the computer,” Bertie pointed out.

“Maybe not.  But you could imagine being a pirate.”  Lord Plott’s moustaches curved up in fond reminiscence.  “Couldn’t get a word out of you for an entire summer that didn’t end in ‘yarrr!’”

“And someone not a million miles from this table spent most of that summer running around with a cavalry sabre in his hand, buried chocolate ‘doubloons’ in the vegetable bed for Bertie to find and then forgot where they were, and terrified the life out of the poor postman,” Lady Plott said.

“I only answered the door.”

“You were wearing a dressing gown, an eyepatch, and a sword, and you roared at him,” Lady Plott said.  “He complained.  Officially.”

“Thought it was Bertie ringing the bell.  Never mind that,” Lord Plott said.  “Gardening club.”

“I’m sorry?”  Bertie was beginning to feel a little fuzzy, and wasn’t sure what he might have missed. 

“You can learn a lot joining a gardening club,” Lord Plott said.  “See other chaps, ask them when they plant potatoes and what sulphur powder’s good for.  You belong to a writing group?  Same thing.”

Lady Plott leaned forward, excited.  “Yes! If you don’t know why your azaleas are looking miserable, another gardener will know the soil is chalky.  Same with writing,” she said.   “And you never know what sort of ideas you’ll pick up, just from talking to people who are doing different things.”

“Isn’t getting ideas from other people sort of cheating?” Bertie said. 

“Rubbish.  Even Shakespeare did it,” Lord Plott said.

“But,” Bertie said, “Cousin Dolores said she used to belong to a writing group and they stole her ideas.”

“Hah!”  Lady Plott sounded, for a moment, remarkably like her spouse.  “Probably someone took an idea from one of her ghastly poems and did something much more interesting with it.  Lissy, darling, who was that chap who said there’s no idea so good that a bad writer can’t muck it up, and no idea so bad that a good writer can’t make something of it?  Can you remember?”

Ulysses (known, though only to his wife, and under protest, as Lissy) Plott frowned, his eyebrows diving towards the bridge of his nose like a pair of hairy Stukas on a bombing run.  “Hmm.  No.  Look it up later.”

“Anyway, yes, writing groups.  Good ones.  And visiting other people’s gardens, that is, reading.”

“Oh yes,” Lord Plott nodded vigorously.  “Got to read a lot.  Otherwise it would be like trying to make a garden from scratch when you’ve never seen one.  Might not even know you need soil, or sunlight!” He gave an explosive bark of laughter. 

“Well, I’ve always read a lot,” Bertie said.  “I just don’t want to end up accidentally copying someone else.”

“Reading stops you copying.  If you don’t read how do you know what’s already been done?”  Ulysses said. 

“And it feeds the imagination,” Lady Plott said.  “It’s cross-fertilisation.  It helps you come up with your own ideas.”

Lord Plott nodded.  “Like loganberries.  Neither a raspberry nor a blackberry.  Something new and jolly tasty.”

“There are lots of good books on writing, too,” Philomena went on, “Just like there are on gardening; I’ll give you a list.”

“I’ll give you another one,” Lord Plott said.  “Philly’s will be all visualisations and playing Scrabble with your Inner Child.  Lot of tosh.”

Philly stuck her tongue out at him.  “They work for me.  Tell me, Bertie, how many books on writing did you see at the Plott-Mugginses?”

“I don’t remember,” Bertie said.  “I’m not sure there were any.”

“Well then,” she said briskly.  “Now, who’s running this course you’re going on?”

Bertie, after a moment’s struggle to remember, which he blamed on the gin, told them. 

“Ah, they’re excellent,” Lady Plott said.  “And fun, too.  You’ll learn masses.”

“Not like that one you went on, Philly,” Lord Plott said.  “Chap was a complete shower.”

“Well, yes, he was, horrid little man.  No idea what he was talking about.  Two hundred pounds down the drain!”  She leaned forward and patted Bertie’s knee.  “Do check their credentials, Bertie, that’s all.  If the tutor’s never had a thing published in the area they’re supposed to be teaching, then run away.”

“What was the course, Aunt Philly?”

“Writing erotica.” 

“Oh.”  Bertie took a large gulp of his G and T to avoid catching his aunt’s definitely twinkling eye.    

“And frankly I’m not sure the wretched man had ever even had sex,” she said.

“Ahem,” Lord Plott said.  “Now, Philly, don’t embarrass the lad.”      

“Pooh.  I’m sure he’s not that easily embarrassed.  Has that helped, Bertie?”

“I rather think it has, actually,” Bertie said.  He was feeling a comforting glow that wasn’t entirely the result of gin.  “So writing can be taught.”

“The only type of writer who can’t be taught is the sort who doesn’t think they’ve anything to learn,” said Lady Plott.

 “Absolutely,” Lord Plott nodded.  He raised his glass, catching the last rays of the setting sun.  “Chin chin!”

Thr First bee of Spring

It was the most beautiful late-February afternoon.  The air was warm, the sky blue, the daffodil buds strained towards the sun so hard you could almost see them grow.

Lord Plott heard the bee before he saw it, a low, ominous thrum.   There were few things Ulysses (Colonel, Lord U, etc, retd.) was scared of.  Bees were one of them.

He looked around nervously.  There it was, an enormous bumble, fat as the last joint of his thumb.  Tawny abdomen hairs shone, thick as a pelt; its black legs gleamed like waxed ebony.  He had to admit it was magnificent, but so was a tiger.

Shouldn’t be a bally gardener if you can’t take bees, Lord plot chided himself.  He knew there was nothing wrong with bees, just his opinion of them.

There were plenty worse things in gardens – nettles, brambles, those wretched wild geraniums with roots that went down and down, digging in clay, pruning holly.  It all needed to be done, the hard slog that got you something you could be proud of.  Same as writing a story.

Lord Plott was a contradictory man, and not too proud to deny it.  And he didn’t like giving in to fear.  Not even when it screamed, and ran at you with a bayonet.  ‘Gardner’s friend, the bee,’ Lord Plott would proclaim at the bar of the Green Man.  ‘Fascinating creatures.’

‘Bit like a writer, the bee,’ he mused.  ‘Work hard, whenever they get the chance.  Most of the time nobody notices.  And only a very few get to be Queens.’

The front of Lord Plott’s spring flower bed was lined with three parallel rows of crocus, yellow and purple, colours alternating, one inch apart.  Behind them were the daffs, not so advanced, but equally smart.  At the rear, a grudging concession to disorder, were a pair of shaggy hellebores, their purple, bell blooms hung in great clumps.  They’d still be out when the daffs flowered.  Purple and yellow, just like the croci.  Regimental colours.

It came to Lord Plott that what he was doing to his garden was editing it.  Looking all the things that could be in it, and deciding which ones he wanted to keep.  Leave too much in and you got an overgrown mess, no idea of what it’s all about.  Of course, if you wanted certain butterflies, you had to leave a few nettles.

And if you wanted seeds, fruit, and veg, you needed the bees.

This particular bee headed for the hellebores, each flower vibrated as it clambered inside.  Lord Plott felt a sudden, intense empathy.

‘Excellent work, not unappreciated at all.’  Unsure if bees understood English, he decided to encourage it with some bee noises.  ‘Bizzy-whizzy-wizz,’ he whuffed through his moustaches. ‘A-bizzy-whizz.’

‘What are you doing, dear?’ Philomena, Lady Plott said, behind him.

‘Nothing.’  Lord Plott straightened up smartly.  ‘Humph.  Just looking at a bee.’

Philomena came over to where he stood.  ‘First one of the year, how lovely.’

‘You remember Bertie and the lavender?’

‘Oh, don’t remind me,’ Philomena said, ‘I almost had a heart attack.’

Aged five, Bertie had poddled out into the garden one summer’s morning.  Ten minutes later, moved by an urge she found hard to define, Philomena put down her pen and went to see what he was up to.

She found Bertie beside the lavender bush.  Bees, stunned by the lavender’s heady scent, crawled groggily among the flower heads.  Bertie watched them with limpid eyes devoid of the concept of danger.  One by one he gently plucked the bees off the plant with his sticky, post-breakfast fingers, inspected each one carefully, and dropped them on the lawn.

‘It’s going to rain,’ Bertie explained.  ‘I’m rescuing them.’

‘S’tronary.’ Lord Plott said.

‘Children, dear.  You know something’s going on when it’s too quiet.’

Much as he loved his nieces and nephews, Lord Plott lacked an early-warning radar.  He did, however, know all about trouble when it got too damned quiet.  ‘You’re a clever old sprocket.  How’s that deadline of yours?’

‘Approaching like a kangaroo on Bolivian Marching Powder.’

Lord Plott gave a rather strained laugh.  He’d hoped that particular incident had been relegated to the past.  Diversionary tactics, that’s the thing.  ‘Talking of deadlines, I need to get the broad-beans in.’

Philomena put her hand on his arm.  Lord Plott braced himself for some pertinent, if gentle, invective.  Much to his relief, Lady Plott said, ‘How do you think Bertie’s getting on with that novel?’

‘Lots to learn and all, but look at that house of his – floor to ceiling with books.  He was reading before he was picking bees off the lavender.  If you don’t read, you’re going to struggle to write.  He’ll be fine, young chap used to sit up in bed and read the dictionary.’

Philomena kissed her husband on the nose.  ‘Same as you.’

Good Lord!  Lord Plott checked nobody was looking and kissed her back.  Splendid.

‘It’s the same as how you can tell he’s a gardener, fascinated by it since he was a child.  Even likes bees.’

Lady Plott shivered at the memory, ‘We should have kept a closer eye on him.’

‘Pups need to be left to run around and get into a few scrapes.’

Lady Plott had to agree, it was how she learned.  And she’d read the dictionary too.  Looking up the rude words was the beginning of a different kind of education.

‘I’ll put the kettle on, if you’ve finished humming to the bees.’

Curses, rumbled, Lord Plott thought he’d got away with that.

‘Then I thought you might like a little nap,’ Lady Plott said as she walked away.  Rather jauntily, too.

A nap indeed!  Spring was definitely in the air.

The bumble bee zoomed towards Lord Plott, circled his head twice and swung away through the air.

Ulysses gave it an elbow-quivering salute, ‘Carry on.’

How to get started? Bertie’s big problem.

Bertie Inkgreen walked up the gravel driveway to the Plotts on a crisp January afternoon.  Bertie was not serene.  Bertie had a problem, and was visiting his aunt Philomena and uncle Ulysses (Col. Lord U, etc, retd.) to seek advice.

On a day like this they would undoubtedly be in the gardens.  Bertie walked down the left hand side of the house, along a raked gravel path flanked by white-painted stones.  Early daffodils, crocus, and dwarf iris were lined up against the wall, tallest at the back, and evenly spaced.  This was Uncle Ulysses’s part of the garden.

Bertie found his uncle, wrapped in an ancient army greatcoat, trousers of beige cord tucked into bright pink wellies, and wearing a hat that looked as though it had some heroic role in the Siege of Mafeking.  He was staring at a row of broad beans with such ferocity they should surely have stood to attention.  ‘Blithering slugs, you got to admire ‘em,’ he grumbled.  ‘Ah, Bertie.  Cup of tea?’

‘Yes, please, uncle.’

If nothing else, Uncle Ulysses was organised.  It seemed mere moments until his battered tin kettle boiled on his old campaign primus.  Tea was served in blue-rimmed enamel mugs of a kind not made for at least a full age of mankind.

‘Now, what are you doing on a glorious day like this, looking as though you’ve been denied a weekend pass?’ Uncle Ulysses said.

Bertie took the plunge:  ‘The thing is, Uncle, I’ve this idea for a book.  And since you and Aunt Philomena are both writers, I thought perhaps you could help me.  It’s hard to find time to write.  When I do, I sit there, and nothing happens.’

‘Pah!’  Ulysses’s moustaches quivered with the force of his exclamation.  ‘You make time, young man, and you get on with it.  If I didn’t know you had Plott blood in your veins, I’d say you sound like one of those types who likes the idea of having written a book more than actually writing it.’

‘No, I want to write it, definitely.  When I think about it, I get excited, it’s just that when I get down to it,’ Bertie shrugged, ‘Well, I don’t.’

‘Right, my boy, if you want a productive garden, you’ve got to get out there and do the work.  No Gardening Elves with pointy-ears to plant your beans, you got to show some initiative.   Get your seeds – your ideas, you see?  And your compost – the stuff you need to make your ideas work, that’s your plot, you see?  And your tools – vocabulary, that sort of thing.  Then, sit your bottom in your chair, and get on with it.  Can’t expect to eat beans if you haven’t grown beans.  Can’t edit a blank page.’

‘What about the nothing happening part?’

Before Ulysses could answer, aunt Philomena appeared.  She wore one of Ulysses’ old tweed jackets over what appeared to be a pair of Chinese silk pyjamas, and muddy Doc Martens with roses embroidered on the sides, and a vast, shabby straw hat.  ‘Now, Ulysses, don’t confuse the poor boy with planning.  Another time.’

Philomena added more tea to the pot and stirred.  Bertie was sure that hole in the lid was from a bullet.  He peered closer, and Philomena gave him one of her unavoidable smiles

‘Now, have you got a good, firm, chair?’ she said.  ‘Backache is a gardener’s curse, dear boy, and a writer’s too.  And are you working at the same desk where you pay your bills?  That can be like trying to grow azaleas in alkaline soil.  Separate them out.’

‘All you need is discipline,’ snorted Ulysses.

‘Ignore him, Bertie.  You can’t solve everything with discipline.  Now, what if someone said to you, “Gardening’s a waste of time,” and “Why don’t you do something useful?”’

‘But that’s nonsense,’ Bertie said.

‘Exactly, but you might still hear the weevil of doubt.  You might hear that little voice every time you sit down for writing.’

‘Well, I do a bit,’ Bertie admitted.

Philomena struck a balletic, floral pose.  ‘I want you to imagine that voice getting smaller and smaller, then drop it in a jam jar and close the lid.  That person who said that – I expect they’ve never grown anything and live on those horrid frozen vegetables in little cubes.  No idea how a fresh tomato tastes.  If that’s how they want to live their life, so be it, but they have no right to tell you how to live yours.’

‘I don’t see what this has to do with getting the words down,’ Uncle Ulysses said.

‘Sometimes you have to get stuff out of the way first.  You can’t grow vegetables on ground full of old stumps and brambles, can you?’

Ulysses’s brow furrowed mightily, ‘Hmph.  S’pose not.’

‘It can be a little daunting,’ Philomena said.  ‘You look at a half-acre, and think, Gosh, I’m never going to fill all that.  The thing is, dear boy, you don’t have to.  No-one grows a whole garden overnight, and no-one writes a whole novel all at once.’

‘Absolutely.  One word at a time,’ Ulysses said.  ‘Bunch of words, line ‘em up, and you’ve got yourself a sentence.  Carry on, and you’ve a paragraph.  Then a page, a chapter, in the end you’ve a novel.  Same with gardens.  Start with nothing, bit of digging, bit of planting, one day you stand back, and it’s there.’

It was, Bertie realised, exactly what he had done with his own small garden.

‘Sometimes it can help to make a special place to write,’ said Philomena.  ‘With inspiring pictures, the right music, something that smells nice.  You’re giving respect to the Muse, you see?  Like a little temple.’

‘Ruddy New Age nonsense,’ Uncle Ulysses said.  ‘Just get on with it.’

‘Oh, you’re such an old crosspatch,’ Aunt Philomena beamed.  ‘It helps make a place for writing in your life.  You can’t garden unless you’ve got a garden, can you?  You need to get established, put down your roots.’

‘You can do it anywhere.  I grew tomatoes in my quarters,’ Uncle Ulysses said, ‘South-facing window, used some old ammo boxes.’

‘You’re quite right, dear.  But it was your room.  Permission to write, you see?’

‘Permission, hah,’ Ulysses said.  ‘Regular habits.  Sit down at the same time every day, and you’ll soon find the old noggin’s going, “Time to Write.”  If you want to get your potatoes up before the slugs get them, you’ve got to be out there with your spade, whether you feel like it or not.’

‘Yes, that’s very true,’ said Philomena.  ‘Habit does help.’

For a fleeting instant it was as if the sun came out, and Bertie saw a way through his personal bramble-patch.  ‘I’m going to try a combination of everything you’ve suggested.  Discipline, and setting a time, thank you, uncle.   And having a nice place to do it, and not listening to the voices that tell me I should be doing something else.’

‘Perfect, Bertie,’ Philomena said.  ‘Now, the sun’s over the yardarm.  Fancy a G and T? ’

Bertie felt a lot better.  I expect there are lots of other tips, he thought.  I wonder what they are?

Lord and Lady Plott discover the future…

Lord Ulysses Pleasant Meriwether Plott stared down at the e-reader in his hand with bemused amazement, “Good Lord, whatever will they think of next!”  He dabbed at the touch-screen with a blunt forefinger, frowned, and handed it back to Lady Plott.  “Think it’s broken.  Sorry.”

“It’s really quite simple, once you get the hang.”  Lady Philomena Plott showed him how it worked.  Again.

“No paper, then?”  Lord Plott scowled at the device with reddening cheeks.

“No, dear.”

Lord Plott’a big old shoulders slumped as he considered their beloved and ever-growing library.  “That’s it, then.  Books are dead.”

“Not really, dear.” Lady Plott sighed patiently.  “People will still have to write the new ones.’

“Suppose so.”  Lord Plott slipped the e-reader into his pocket and retreated to the breakfast table.  “S’trordinary.”

Concealed behind the upright newspaper came the scrape of butter knife on toast, the chink of teapot against porcelain, the stir of the tea-spoon.  All that could be seen of Lord Plott, left and right of each side of the newspaper, were the greying tips of his moustaches.

Lady Plott had never been able to work out how he managed to do it all with just two hands.

“Were you thinking of… um… some gardening today, m’dear?” Lord Plott said from behind the paper.

“Well, I thought I might.  It’s quite mild.  The broad beans could go in.”

“Splendid.  Might write about that, instead.”

Lady Plott went into the kitchen, put on her wellies and tied a scarf over her hair.  From the other room came Lord Plott’s cry of delight, “Just found one of your stories, Philly.  S’troardinary thing, this.”