“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…”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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!”