HIS LORDSHIP'S ASPARAGUS UNDER THREAT
Recent brief mention of Biffo’s favourite vegetable renders failure to recount the story of ‘Parsons and His Lordship’s Asparagus’ unthinkable. For us at Amblewick it is a tale as fresh today as it was when first we became aware of it. It is perhaps the sturdiest record of how the formidable relationship of a gent with his man has blossomed so luxuriantly during the course of more than sixty years.
It is also interesting because it recalls the very first time that Biffo and Julian interact – rather than having a vague awareness of each other’s presence – as in two pieces of Estate Furniture. We give it to you as it came to us……
Biffo rises from a leisurely breakfast in the Morning Room, lights his pipe and dawdles contentedly out of the French windows and into the rose garden. The day is unfolding as days should and the prospect of lunch with Corrie at Pangleton lies tantalisingly ahead.
He and Tessa ‘The Nose’ potter towards the main gardens beyond the lake. He loves that first view of the smooth green Long Avenue sweeping upwards two hundred yards to the maze. In high summer, on either side of the avenue, banks of stately Dahlias, Delphiniums and Red-hot Poker soar; backed by Lilac and Magnolia and softened by Love-in-the-Mist and spreading carpets of Aubretia – hither and thither, butterfies, wild Forget-me-not and Pheasant’s eye - on this spring day, a mass of daffodil, crocus, tulip, narcissus, and lush new green. For her part, Tessa, untroubled by seasons, pays surgical attention to the silvery sorrel; nibbling at the freshest shoots amongst the flowers. This kaleidoscope of ever-changing colour never fails to magic Biffo – sheer Amblewick Heaven. Moments later his greatest joy - baby asparagus spears peeping cheakily from long, raised beds concealed behind the flowers. He gazes at them fondly, and shortly is relieved to be joined by Harry Richardson, his head gardener - rather than by the dreaded McCormack-Judd - new to the job and chock-full of scientific theories of modern gardening which leave his employer cold. Biffo is all respect for the man’s talent with asparagus and other vegetable varieties - it is the fellow’s attitude which rankles.
Biffo loves asparagus. Even after his liberal breakfast the image of those neat green spears nestling in melted, salt, farm butter affect him to the depths of his being. He’s been away in town for a week, so their progress has been considerable.
“Beautiful, aren’t they, Harry? Not long, now, eh?”
But Harry seems preoccupied, not quite his normal gardencentred self - champing at the bit, somehow – wanting to be off. Biffo takes the hint and with a last fond gaze at the luscious shoots he accompanies his loyal retainer across the avenue, past the wishing-well and into the potting sheds where the men gather daily for ‘elevenses’. The atmosphere is fraught – heavy somehow – none of the usual banter and good cheer.
McCormack-Judd has his nose in a selective weed-killer catalogue; his lank blond hair plastered in its customary slick across the forehead.
“An Aryan,” reflects his employer, “dodgy little squirt when you observe him in repose. But, there again,” Biffo is an even-handed man, “the asparagus really does do him credit.”
Harry hands his employer a chipped breakfast cup and saucer brimming with that strong, milky, over-sweetened tea without which gardens the world over would run to seed. Biffo accepts the beverage, and places it on an upturned Spalding seed-box next to the half beer-barrel upon which he normally parks on these occasions. He notes contentedly that the scentless potted purplevariegated carnation - a variety he deplores - is still within easy pouring distance.
This daily garden-gathering is a rite which has its origin in his father’s time. When the old chap turned his toes up Biffo continuedit because, well, because it was one of those landmarks in the day which punctuated life - indicated order – an attribute with which hehad been only meanly gifted when talents and virtues were being handed out!
Harry is the first to speak - hesitantly.
“Your Lordship, since you was away all last week we weren’t able to speak to you about this ‘ere before.” He pauses, and Biffo senses distress. “Them garden prawns, Your Lordship, is getting to be a proper blight. Every forkful of loam you turns over, up the blighters comes.”
His Lordship observes his head gardener mildly over his reading glasses - perched forgotten on the end of his nose. He is relieved.
“Thank God that’s all it is” he thinks - but knows he has to be seen to have his wits about him when it comes to pests. “Jolly poor show, what?” he ejaculates with what he hopes will pass for intelligent concern.
“Just so, Milord,” Harry is now confident of his employer’s attention. “McCormack-Judd has a plan to use a new genetic pest formula what he do have found!”
“Do he indeed?” Biffo’s command of grammar is fragile and easily disturbed.
The said McCormack-Judd is apparently still absorbed in his catalogue - but a faint pinking round the ears indicates his awareness of the direction in which matters are proceeding.
“Jolly good show.”
Biffo does his best to sound positive; but nuzzles Tessa’s black velvet ears to mask his failure.
“Better toddle on with the old pest-control, what?” he supposes.
“Only one problem, Milord…..”
Harry is looking a bit weedy notes his employer - and weediness is foreign to Harry’s nature. He is one of those 40-year-old brown and sinewy men with the constitution of a Clydesdale in its prime.
“Problems normally overcome immediately, what?” Biffo is confident.
“Milord, McCormack-Judd tells me that the problem stems from one particular bit of the garden and that if we don’t fork it over pretty smartish, and treat it, the whole darned place will be infested.”
“Jolly good show, fork away then!”
Biffo is drifting off into a Pangleton world of smoked salmon canapés, ice cubes and tinkling glasses. He imagines that his visit to the gardens can now be terminated. Feinting in the direction of the greenhouse doors to his left he empties his tea cup deftly into the variegated carnation on his right.
“Very good then chaps, carry on, what?” he announces, rising to his feet.
McCormack-Judd has removed his nose from the catalogue and is clearing his throat in a predatory manner.
“I think your Lordship should be aware that the problem outlined by Mr Richardson concerns Your Lordship, personally.”
He speaks in that cold and soulless tone employed by tax officials and the frostier kind of Anglican clergyman Biffo notes with a slight but pertinent shudder.
“Yes, Milord,” Harry is wringing his hands. “The beds involved are very close to your Lordship’s heart.”
“Not the Dahlias?” Biffo blenches.
“No, Milord, not the Dahlias. ....”
“Well, then, I’m sure you’ll have the matter under control in no time, what?”
McCormack-Judd permits the wisp of a sickly smile to creep from the corners of his thin lips - and die.
“The asparagus beds, Milord,” he leers. There is an unpleasant glint in his pale grey eyes.
“Eyes with no linings……”
Biffo shivers involuntarily. He then registers the full import of the under-gardener’s words with horror.
“I say, not the asparagus! That’s not on at all!” He is visibly shaken. “I mean, I say, we can’t mess about with the asparagus, now can we? Jolly perky they looked to me just now and, well, given a week or so we’ll have them on the table, what?”
“Leave those prawns for one more week, Milord, and they’ll be all over the place - chrysalis, adult Maybugs, new lot hatching out, and then you’ve got real problems. Unfortunately, Your Lordship, the asparagus will have to go.”
McCormack-Judd blows his sharp little nose on a surprisingly crisp-looking handkerchief which he folds meticulously into the resultant mucous.
“If we do not take immediate action,” he adds darkly, “the entire garden will be at risk - including the green-houses.” Judd’s eyes glow with relish at the effect these words are having upon his employer.
“A genius with the plants and greenery this young man may be,” Biffo broods sourly, “but doubtless he is also a devotee of a brand of socialism the principle feature of which is unvarnished envy. The blighter is,” the peer observes shrewdly, “savouring my discomforture.”
Biffo has indeed been moved to near-terminal distress.
“I say, Harry, can nothing be done? I mean to say, the asparagus, what? If we lose those beds it’ll be at least three years before any more will come!”
He subsides onto his half-barrel as if slow-punctured.
Richardson canters to the rescue, offering a little strand of hope.
“I took the liberty, Milord, of mentioning the matter to Mr Parsons when I took the nectarines to the kitchens a few mornings ago. He gave me to understand there just might be a solution to the problem, Milord.”
Biffo pounces upon the proffered straw.
“Good old Parsons! What was the plan of campaign, then?”
“Mr Parsons did not divulge, Milord - said he’d have to think it over - but he did say he was what he called, ‘confident of a favourable outcome in the matter.”
A faint glimmer of light becomes discernable to Biffo’s watery eyes. With Parsons in the lists the auguries might well be changing for the better.
“Well, well, I suppose I should toddle off and consult the oracle, Harry, don’t you know?”
He almost beams.
“I reckon that might be the best thing, Milord.”
Harry, in turn, is looking more his old self - less weedy - more brown and sinewy.
“Yes, well, jolly good show. I’ll potter along then. No other business, was there?”
“No Milord, I think that just about sorts everything, for today at least.”
He doffs his cap, giving a quick scratch to the widow’s peak which once defined his hairline.
Biffo and Tessa navigate towards the castle, the green baize door, and the butler’s pantry. Over the years the good Parsons has grown to be his foremost strategist and councellor. The man has a natural flair for the sorting out of things – for benign order - and he shares Biffo’s distaste for the Trustees. He doesn’t care for it at all when the Castle commissariat is threatened. When funds are on the short side the admirable Parsons is inconvenienced. He does not care for His Lordship’s Trustees, no, not at all – and this shared dislike has forged an even greater bond of trust between them!
“Capital chap, Parsons.” his Lordship muses.
He very nearly trips over Mrs Fenner’s nephew, Julian – up from London for a working summer holiday - and who is playing marbles on the top step of the staff staircase.
“Sorry, Guv,” the boy blurts, “thought you was Mr P.”
“Never mind, dear boy, but can you locate the estimable Parsons for me?”
“I reckon he’ll be in his pantry - leastways, that’s where he parks most mornings. Likes to read the Financial Times after we’ve cleared the morning room. Can’t think what he sees in it - all lists of figures and stuff seems to me.”
“Absolutely, old chap, splendid assessment, but be so kind as to escort me to the wizard, immediately, there’s a good chap.”
”An eager child, if somewhat pert........”
Biffo ponders vaguely as they descend into the unfamiliar subterranean service regions of his house.