by Jon Hepworth
The question that no one knew the answer to was ‘what happened to Penelope Plantaganat’s tulips?’
Outside the village of Little Compton this pressing question did not disturb a single mind.
Within the village the rumors circulated with an enthusiasm that can only be generated by those without enough to do; it was thought that Henry Prost, the Deacon, could have expressed a little more interest.
I was not sure why I was involved. I was an onlooker and not part of the story. I am still not sure why I was entrusted with the secret, unless the culprit thought that they could only enjoy the secret if it was shared with someone. That is my explanation and whilst I was pleased to be confided in I was not pleased with the position that it left me in. Should I divulge my knowledge to the victim and those parties that were struggling to find the answers?
The Little Compton flower show, held in May, was one of the center pieces of a busy horticultural schedule. Penelope had won the Best Kept Garden category for rather too long and the villagers had thought it was time for a change. However they did have to admit that the success was well deserved.
This year there was to be no flower show due to a variant Y of Coronavirus. The show, including the Best Kept Garden competition, had been cancelled in 2020 as well due to Lockdown.
Cynthia Raymond, who regularly came second in the competition, raised the question, ‘Is it right that Penelope still keep the trophy, won in 2019, when she hasn’t won Best Kept Garden in 2020 or 2021?’
A subcommittee of the Flower Show Management committee was set up to decide the matter. As the subcommittee could not come to a decision the trophy stayed where it was. Cynthia was scathing of the undecided subcommittee.
This year the magnificent black tulips that bloomed in the flower beds either side of the oak front door of the manor were decimated. The blooms were missing. The green stalks just stopped about three inches above the ground. The tulips had been a centre piece of Penelope’s garden. It was even more of a puzzle as this year there was to be no competition for Best Kept Garden; this made it unlikely that a jealous rival would be the culprit. Cynthia was off the hook, as were other competitors.
The pet rabbit was in danger of being casseroled as it had escaped from the hatch which young Jamie had made. Jamie assured his mother that the rabbit was entirely innocent, and anyway did not like tulips. Penelope decided, at the appropriate time, she would ask Jamie how he knew that.
Jamie said, ‘It’s the swans from the lake or the pheasants that strut around the garden. They could have done it.’ He did not like to mention that it might be Rufus, the Great Dane, whom he thought was a bit doolally.
The deer in the park were suspect, but there were no hoof prints to show that they had been into the garden. Slugs and snails were added to the list and so the list grew longer and longer.
In despair Penelope turned to Bert.
Bert worked in the garden. Buffy, that is Penelope’s husband, called Bert a gardener, but that would be a gross exaggeration and unkind to gardeners. The main challenge for Bert was never to be seen to be doing anything that could be described as useful. Bert would be lighting his pipe, or walking from the garage to the greenhouses or cleaning a spade or sharpening a scythe.
Bert would lurk and practice the art of being invisible.
Bert had been employed on the estate’s farm as a GFW that is as a general farm worker. The farm manager soon found out that this was a misnomer. Bert was always seen, that is if he could be found, about to do work, but never appeared to be actually working. After much subterfuge by the farm manager Bert had been transferred to garden duties.
It was feared that Bert was not entirely happy with this move, which was true. Deep within the recesses of his inscrutable mind resentment was building.
The grubby peak cap hid a wrinkled, grizzled and weather worn face. Hair sprouted from the sides of his cap in some disarray, undecided whether to straggle upwards or downwards, so in the end did both. The cap never came off. The clothing was a demob suit, its dark blue colour now faded to a grubby grey. A once white collarless shirt peeped over the top of a waistcoat. In a heat wave in midsummer or in the freezing cold of the winter the clothing never changed.
Buffy rather liked Bert; ‘Good chap’ he’d say.
They would spend time in the greenhouses examining the tomatoes and potted plants. People found it difficult to understand what Buffy was talking about as his voice would trail off into a mumble halfway through a sentence. Bert was the only one who could translate the mumble and understand; probably because Bert tended to mumble too.
Buffy was fond of the black tulips. "A good reminder of investment policy" he would say, which would baffle the uninformed.
His ancestor Bertrand Urquhart Fortescue Plantaganat (not to be confused with the Plantagenets) was given the nickname "Buffoon" as a result of being caught up in the Tulip Mania of the 18th century. That was a time when the madness of crowds took over and fortunes were made and lost over speculation in tulips. The Plantaganats only survived due to some judicious marriages and certainly no thanks to Buffoon Plantaganat. The black tulips which graced the front of the manor house each spring were a reminder of those days.
Buffy was not a suspect in the case of the decimated tulips; Bert was.
Bert, on the other hand, accused Henry Prost, the visiting deacon. Henry had arrived early for tea at the Plantaganat manor and had knocked loudly at the front door. No one replied so he had walked briskly up and down the gravel path in front of the house, swinging his umbrella with angry impatience. Bert said that the umbrella, with its sharp point, created mayhem and that he, Bert, had removed the evidence. No one could be sure if the damage had been noticed before or after the deacon came to tea. The Deacon did seem very uninterested in the conversation about the tulips. Penelope did not feel up to asking the deacon and so the matter rested until I came along.
I should explain that Penelope was quite happy to observe social distancing, wearing of masks, washing of hands and all that sort of thing. However she felt the social value of tea parties was sacrosanct and not included in ‘that fellow Johnson’s ban on gathering’.
About a week after the tulip incident I was walking through the garden which, even without the tulips, is a picture. Bert was lurking by the yew hedge sharpening his shears.
‘Hello Bert’ I said, by way of being polite, ‘lovely day - pity about the tulips’.
Bert sidled over to me, tilted his head slightly to one side and fixed me with bright, sparkling eyes. I stopped, mesmerised. His old weather-beaten face became even more lined as it creased into a smile and his few remaining teeth showed the stains of too much tobacco chewing. Then he shared his secret, he obviously had to with someone. The delight in the knowledge that he had radiated from his face, the look was almost one of ecstasy. The knowledge was too much for one man to carry alone, it had to be shared.
With his toothy smile he proudly announced, ‘I chopps all their ‘eads off!’