“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.
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.
“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.