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-’
‘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.
‘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?’