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.
‘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.’
‘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.’