George, washed and dressed and limping slightly, descended the thickly carpeted staircase in search of breakfast, trying in vain to recall the events of the previous evening. He remembered a moment, after the third or fourth whisky, when he had been assailed by sharp hunger pangs, which refused to be satisfied by dainty confections of roquette and parsley. He had crept away from the fascinating Miranda a moment and had sneaked into the kitchen, where, in an old fashioned Westinghouse frigidaire the size of a wardrobe, he had discovered a delicious liver pâté sitting on a plate which he had devoured avidly, washing it down with a half bottle of Chardonnay. Feeling revived, he had returned to the garden to seek out the dream giantess. After that, his memory became a blur…
The first person to greet him as he staggered into the breakfast room was Stephan Lobachevsky, the Downunder trickcyclist from the Outback.
“Sorry about last night,” he drawled, with a faint twitch of the lips which suggested anything but sorrow. Seeing George’s baffled gaze he continued: “You were in the middle of a most amusing striptease when I interrupted you with an unfortunate gesture of the toasting fork.”
George ignored him, hiding his irrational feelings of disappointment by turning his attention to the hot plate, where eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, and little chi-chi quichey things vied for his attention.
Just as he was loading his plate, the door to the patio opened and Tom Huntingdon burst in, followed by a huge black labrador which leapt up and placed is paws on George’s chest, trying to get at his bacon and sausages.
“Down Bob!” said Tom ineffectually. Then, like all dog owners incapable of controlling the aggression of their beasts, Tom turned his attention to controlling the emotions of the victim. “Don’t worry about Bob” he said in an off-hand manner that clearly meant: “stop cringing, you spineless little turd”. “He doesn’t bite, only slavers.”
“He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” said Tom, unconsciously revealing his opinion of George’s position on the evolutionary scale. “Bob is a very intelligent dog, you know,” he continued, as if the IQ of the beast drooling over him would naturally be the first of George’s concerns. “He’s got a PhD in palaeopiezometry.”
“Oh really?” said George, holding his breakfast as high as he could above his head.
No, not really,” replied Tom affably, “But almost. Here! Down boy! Come on Bob! Eaties!” And they disappeared into the kitchen.
Just as George was lowering himself on to his chair, attempting a soft landing on one buttock, Tom emerged, crossed the dining room and bellowed up the stairs, “Vanessa! What have you done with Bob’s Pedigree Chum? I put it in the fridge last night…”
George’s appetite disappeared suddenly, and he decided he needed to compose himself quietly in preparation for the upcoming debate.
* * *
In the lounge, a frail figure in jeans and a beige cardigan was slouched in an armchair in front of the telly, watching the cartoons. Roadrunner was running rings round Wile E. Coyote, who was leaning up against a wall panting and muttering in a menacing tone: “I’d like to get him up a dark alley…”.
George recognised the prostrate beige-clad figure as Professor Phil Jones, climatologist, master of the surface temperature measurements, known to his friend as Jones the Graph.
Phil was running a finger and thumb up and down the columns of the Radio Times laid out on his lap, trying to align the programme times along the left hand side with the TV channels along the top. After a while, he gave up the effort, and turned his attention back to the screen, where Wile E. Coyote had run over a cliff and was treading air. George seized the opportunity:
“Hi. Do you mind? Could I have a look at your Radio Times? When you’ve finished, of course…”
Jones turned his attention to the intruder. “Why should I let you have a look?” he snarled peevishly. “You’d only want to change channels!”
“Sorry, I wasn’t… I only wanted to…”
But Jones was taking no chances. He seized the Radio Times and started to tear it into small strips. “There! Satisfied now?” he cried, as George beat a hasty retreat.
As George gently closed the door behind him, he heard a faint “beep beep” issue from the distraught figure in the armchair.
* * *
George retired to the garden, hoping to be alone for a moment. But Tom was there, being exercised by his great gloomy dog. “Like gardening, do you George?” enquired Tom. “Go up to the greenhouse there, have a chat with old Briffa, he’s potting out some seedlings. He’ll show you round.”
Bob the would-be palaeopiezometrist padded up to George, sniffed his trousers suspiciously, then, turning his back on him, spread his back legs and evacuated ostentatiously on the footpath before him. He turned round to eye George, with a sneer on his jowls which clearly said: “Put your foot in that lot mate. That’ll make you slide about,” then followed his master back up the garden path towards the house.
George skirted the organic skateboard and continued his exploration.
The back garden extended a hundred yards into Hampstead Heath. The crumbling red brick wall which surrounded it bulged outwards at several points, as if it was slowly encroaching on the Commons, in defiance of all physical and man-made laws. Up against the back wall, propped up by a withered wisteria, a greenhouse held itself precariously upright. Out of the crumbling shack emerged a portly figure, with a wild straggly beard and red-rimmed eyes. His battered mudstained boots gaped open, since the laces had been removed and knotted together to hold his trousers up.
Old Briffa stopped to eye George suspiciously. George approached gingerly, a nervous smile on his lips. “Morning!” He said, and searched for a suitably horticultural conversation opener. He noticed the morning’s new crop of mushrooms on the lawn between them. “Oh look!” he said in genuine delight, “I do believe they’re ceps. ‘Edible and delicious,’” he continued, citing from memory his pocket guide to fungi.
George was a keen gardener, planting enthusiastically everything which would grow in his Welsh hilside retreat, which is to say grass mainly, and its near relatives, such as parsley; rocket, cress, chives etc. His colleagues accused him of deliberately cultivating a lean and hungry look, but in fact it was simply the crops he cultivated which kept him always lean and hungry.
Briffa looked down and ground the mauve-tinged boletus into the ground with the heel of his boot. “Varmin!” he snarled. He spotted another, bent down to pluck it and held it under George’s nose. “See that? he muttered. See that stem? No rings. It ain’t natural.” Then, approaching his sweat-beaded hirsute face to George’s, and lowering his voice to a whisper, he confided: “They grows … at night! That’s why there’s no rings in the stems!”
“How interesting, “ said George, “And what are you growing in there?” he asked, eager to change the subject, and indicating the greenhouse.
“Bonsoi!” said Briffa triumphantly. He spoke Japanese with a distinct Norfolk accent, which left George a little nonplussed.
Briffa led him into the delapidated shack, and, ignoring the dozens of tropical plants withering untended in their earthenware pots, made his way to the far end, where he indicated a large dusty freezer chest, from which an icy vapour emerged.
George peered in. It was half filled with frozen soil in which were planted dozens of exquisite bonsai trees. Some were even emerging horizontally from the side of the chest.
“Amazing!” said George, genuinely impressed. And do they grow in there?”
“Not if Oi can ‘elp it” exclaimed Briffa proudly, and he broke off a miniature conifer just above the roots and waved it under George’s nose. “Look at them rings!” he exclaimed triumphantly, “Thinner ‘an a used Durex Gossamer what you’d pick up in the park on a Sat’dy night! There’s no warremth, y’see,” he confided. “They ain’t ‘ad no warremth fer thahsands of years!”
Too long closeted with this intense individual, George felt the overwhelming urge to breathe some fresh air, and, as politely as possible, started backing towards the door of the greenhouse. Briffa followed, waving the broken bonsai in George’s retreating face, obviously eager to continue his train of thought.
He straightened up suddenly and stared fixedly over George’s shoulder. “Henery the Eighth!” He said loudly, and George turned his head involuntarily, half expecting to see the Tudor monarch advancing up the garden path. “Henery the Eighth!” repeated Briffa in a whisper, fixing George with his rhumey gaze. Ever wonder why he wore them big woolly knickers?” He leaned over conspiratorially. “To keep the ‘eat in. No warremth in them Meddy-evil days. No warremth at all.”
Luckily for George, the ruminations of the monomaniacal gardener were interrupted by the housemaid approaching down the garden path, bearing a silver salver.
“Letter for you, Mr. Briffa,” she said, in a heavy Slav accent.
Briffa tore it open and stared at the incomprehensible lettering. “Here, it’s in Russian,” he said, “Can you translate it?”
Yes, Mr. Briffa. And she intoned, as if quoting a favourite couplet from Pushkin:
“In Yamal the reindeer are nibbling the larch,
where once the mammoth shat.”
Old Briffa stared disbelievingly at the neat Cyrillic letters. His ruddy face turned pale, and a tear welling up in his rhumey eye. Then, slowly and deliberately tearing the letter into tiny fragments and stuffing them down the front of his corduroys, he turned to George and said in a menacing tone: ”You never ‘eard that. You never ‘eard nothin’ o’ that, ” and stomped back into the greenhouse, his shoulders heaving, as if stifling a sob.
The sound of breaking pots and incomprehensible East Anglian oaths came from within the greenhouse, and George hurried back up the path towards the patio, where the guests were gathering for coffee and biscuits.