Saturday, May 12, 2007

An unusual challenge

I assume that folk who visit this site are in search of things that are a little off the beaten track. So having got here, please cast your eye down my little "slice of life" short story, because there's something unusual about the circumstances in which it was written.

The title is "Walk in a herb garden ", and it runs to slightly over 1500 words.


It was the best holiday they had ever had.

Derek and Fiona Cooper had to begin with preferred organized package holidays. Gradually they ticked off all the places they wanted to see, plus a few more which Holiday programme had said they must see. Having seen them, they couldn’t really see why.

Friends, more accurately erstwhile friends, had recommended other destinations. Derek and Fiona prefer not to talk about those, thank you very much.

It was Derek’s idea – the cheap flight to Toulon, picking up a hire car, and going into Marcel Pagnol country. He’d liked the film you see. What was it called now, La Gloire de Mon Au Pair or something ?

Actually, it was the French film star who played Marcel’s mother that made the greatest impression on Derek. He thought she was really dishy, and the music was quite good too.
Fiona on the other hand was entranced at the idea of those sun-parched limestone hillsides, and that abundance of herbs, just there for the picking.

Every night at the motel or nearby resto she chose anything on the menu that looked as if it might have herbs in it, on the assumption that if it had au or à la in its name, it was a fair bet it had herbs.

Derek’s aperitif was unchanging – a small lager first as a concession to French refinement, followed 5 minutes late by a proper half-litre. With the stomach suitably lined he was ready for anything that France or Fiona would throw at him.

When a week later they handed back the car at Toulon, Derek assumed that her herbal pilgrimage was now over, and he could return to “proper food”. How wrong he was. In the previous 7 days Fiona’s flirtation had developed into an all-consuming passion. Her every waking hour centred on those clumps and cushions of aromatic foliage that defied the oven-like condition on those hillsides in and around Aubagne and Garlaban.

Within minutes of parking the car on the hard-standing at the front of the house, Fiona was sizing up the frontage carefully, viewing it from different angles, and peering under the car.

It took Derek, busy with unloading suitcases, just a short while to twig to what was going through his spouse's mind, but when he did, his comment was short and sharp. “No”, he said, “ don’t even think about it , dear. Non, a thousand times non, comprenez ! "

“It’s comprends, my dear" she replied ”assuming we‘ve managed to break the ice after spending a dirty week together in France”. During the following week, the neighbours assumed it was another of those bad Cooper household holidays.

They heard the raised voices, the slamming of doors. Gradually word got around. Fiona was determined to have her herb garden, and since they had no back garden to speak of – barely room for the dustbin, rotary drier and rusting barbecue, it would have to be at the front. But where was Derek going to park the Toyota ?

The following Saturday, the peace of Peston Street was disturbed by the sound of a pneumatic drill, as Derek broke up the slab of concrete inside the carefully drawn rectangle that he had marked out. Its dimensions were carefully chosen such that with care he could still park his car above the excavated section.

A day later he backfilled the plot with Fiona’s planting mixture of chalk, sharp sand, broken pottery, and a few unmentionables, which she deemed would simulate her Provencal hillside. It was the planting out that bothering her now.

Could she trust the maximum height figures she had gleaned from library books and off the internet for all those new and exciting herbs ? She decided to take a chance, and soon the mail order packets arrived with the daunting Latin names.

Thereafter, the car was never on the hardstanding during the day. If Derek had a day off work, the car had to be parked on the street until one hour after sunset. Fiona was quite insistent about that. She also got Derek, reluctantly, and with much muttering under the breath, to mount vertical panels of aluminium sheets on the fencing surrounding the plot. Fiona said they would capture the maximum amount of sunshine.

During heavy rain she would rush out with sheets of polythene. Gradually, the herbs established, the bare earth gradually was colonised, and Fiona became a changed person, radiating spiritual contentment, Derek returned to his holiday aperitif habits as herbs gradually intruded on every meal that Fiona placed in front of him.

In time her repertoire of recipes increase, and her confidence grew. Inevitably, the problem with that car parked off-street became a source of marital friction. When Derek drove off each morning, Fiona was straight out, mourning the loss of each lopped stalks, or the foliage that had been roasted against the exhaust manifold. Derek dreaded the first 10 minutes of arriving home each night, as Fiona reeled off the list of damage, and insisted that something just had to be done.

At the weekend, a sullen Derek was to be seen stomping the lines of vehicles at the second hand car dealer. The salesman watched as he knelt under various vehicles, measuring up their clearance.

A few days later, the Toyota was gone, traded in for a pittance, and in its place was a Korean all-terrain vehicle with balding tyres, a remarkably low mileage for a five year old vehicle, and what the salesman described as a once in a lifetime finance deal ( one-third deposit , 14.5 % over 3 years plus 150 administration fee ).

For the next few weeks, Fiona was in renewed ecstasy, planting out ever taller herbs .
Let’s invite the Jones’s in for a meal” she suggested . “I’ll do them that recipe you so like she said. Let’s not dwell, dear reader, on the details of that flawed decision, or the strain it put on relations, between man and wife, between two sets of friends.
Suffice it to say that after a few mouthfuls of Fiona’s recipe, it became clear that the aromatic flavour they were tasting had less to to with Provencal hillsides, and more to do with the leaking oil sump on that 4X4 with the dodgy paperwork.

It was Fiona who discovered the trail of drips leading from the underside of vehicle across her precious herbs, adding a certain je ne sais quoi. Castrol lab technicians would have known exactly what, identifying partially degraded viscostatic GTX generously endowed with particles of soot and iron filings. The marriage survived, yet again, but now the vehicle was banished to the street, prey to every passing dog, vandal, and wingmirror.

Derek was back again with that hired pneumatic drill. Having decided that la coexistence between herb and car on the same plot was no longer possible, he had been persuaded (read nagged) by Fiona into breaking up the entire slab of concrete, thus quadrupling the area under herb. But Fiona suddenly realized she now had a problem with this larger plot. How was she going to harvest herbs at the centre, without trampling others to reach them ? Derek tried various solutions, like placing ladders and even hired Kwik towers over the bed to reach the middle, but then went and injured his back. His insurance company rejected his claim on the grounds that he had infringed paragrpah 93 subsection H. of the policy schedule.

He mentioned the problem to Fred at the Rotary, who in turn mentioned it to Bill down at the allotment, who brought in Alistair at the horticultural society. Within weeks there was much swapping of back-of-envelope drawings on possible solutions.

There was one thing on which everyone was agreed. There would have to be access pathways to the centre. But each square foot of path was one less for herb. What was the optimum pattern that provided best access with least sacrifice of planting area ? In time, word of the Derek’s conundrum spread, and began to engage and then ensnare a progressively greater range of experts.

Food began to go cold on plates in the Senior Common Room of the local university, as mathematicans attempted to struggle with the novel problems thrown up. Eyes began to gleam as the prospect of Nobel Prizes looming for cracking open entirely new area of mathematics.

You see, the problem defied all the usual methods of calculus - differential, integral and infernal, that CERN and NASA routinely use to deliver optimum solutions. They simply could not cope with the multivariate, polynomial equations that had to be solved.

Professors began to neglect their research and students as they applied themselves to numeric analysis. Even so, they found that their computers slowed as they tried to seek that perfect solution, in some cases grinding to a halt as processors began to overheat and melt, and printed circuits began to buckle under the load.

It’s not known exactly how long the Cray supercomputer at a certain elite institute was diverted surreptitiously onto the task of solving Derek’s problem. All we know is that key multimillion pounds programs booked on it months, sometimes years in advance, in areas as diverse as genetic sequencing, criminal profiling, modelling the Big Bang etc gradually slipped from their deadlines, leaving scores of frustrated angry researchers.

But the problem WAS finally cracked, and Derek put it immediately into effect, overcoming a lifetime of republican sympathies. Shortly after remodelling that herb garden, he began to get UKIP and BNP literature through the door, and passing cars with tatooed, skin-pierced men would sound their horns as they passed.

Why you may ask ? Because they had seen Fiona and Derek, out for a walk in their optimised herb garden, she pruning, thinning and harvesting, and he collecting up the cigarette ends tossed there by passing pedestrians. You see, the 4 criss-crossing paths, two at right angles, with two diagonals, created a patriotic Union Flag !


Well, what do you think ? Any literary merit there ? Even if there were just a smidgeon, I'd be tickled pink. Why ?

Well, it's like this. Iwoke this morning to find that Jamie McNab on My Telegraph had posted an appreciative comment re my "Nightmare" (see previous post), referring to my "enchanted keyboard". That gave me an idea. Why not make "My Telegraph" serve a useful niche role for whatever interests one has, ignoring that Amazon flow of constant new comment that sweeps everything away within tens of minutes. So I asked Jamie to provide three titles that were capable of humorous or satirical treatment.

What you read above was composed in just over 3 hours (including proofreading). after receiving his title. I've been given two others: "Encounter with a panda" and "Changing an electric lightbulb". They are taller orders, but I'll give them my best shot tomorrow and on Monday if possible (fitted around meeting visitors).

Speedwriting is fun, and forces one to concentrate primarily on plot and pace.

Looking back, I think my beginning was rocky - it risked losing readers at the outset. Candid comments are invited ! I mean that. Without feedback, there can be no learning curve.


Gigi said...

It's not bad at all, Colin. It needs tightening up a bit but you did say it was 'speedwriting' so that's normal. You could cut phrases such as "more accurately erstwhile friends", "why you may ask?" and maybe the details about the car deal...but I read the story to the end and that's always a good sign!!

Keep posting 'em...

ColinB said...

Hi Gigi

Sorry to be so long in replying. Things have been a bit hairy today on My telegraph.

Your comments are very useful, and will remind me in future not to get side-tracked, even if opportunities for wry comment have to be sacrificed. As you say, one has to keep it tight.