I find Bub, my fellow community volunteer, and her ninety-five year old next door neighbour, Elsie, sitting on garden chairs in front of their terraced houses. Well wrapped up to keep out the December chill, they’re gossiping over the low fence between their gardens. Bub has squashed her scraggy fair hair into a bobble hat far too small for her. Elsie, who is rocking a faded tartan beret from circa 1962, holds an enormous green cabbage. As if she’s directing traffic, Bub raises a hand.
‘Lovage, stop right there! Them yellow flowers is exactly six feet from my door. The pink ones mean you’re too close.’
When I gave Bub a few plants left over from one of my gardening jobs, I didn’t expect them to be used as a measure of social distance. Nevertheless, I halt by the winter pansies, giving the cyclamens a wide berth.
Elsie is looking grumpy, so I try to cheer her up with a joke about the massive legume.
‘What a big one you’ve got, Elsie!’
My attempt at humour completely misses the spot.
‘The council brought this lump, with my lockdown supplies. Whatever were they thinking? It would feed a family of ten. What’s more, cabbage makes me fart. I’m hoping Bub will take it off my hands.’
Like me, Elsie lives alone. One of the benefits of flying solo is the freedom to trump without shame, but I resist the temptation to point this out. I’m hoping to guide the conversation around to a far more intriguing topic: Bub says Elsie knows the dark secrets of my eccentric clients, the brothers Red and Sky, and I’m hoping she’ll spill the beans.
Cabbage? Beans? I promise this story is not all about vegetables. Or flatulence. Bear with me.
Bub puts on what she thinks is a tactful expression, but it’s actually somewhere between disdain and indigestion. ‘I wish I could help you out, Elsie, but it’d take me and Clive until this time next year to eat that monster.’
‘Can’t your daughter use it? She’s got mouths to feed.’
When Bub shakes her head, her bobble hat slips a little further upwards. ‘They won’t touch cabbage. Youngsters prefer kale.’
‘What’s kale got that cabbage hasn’t, I’d like to know?’
I long to say, ‘a killer social media presence’, but the inevitable explanation would take at least three hours and it will be dark in two. ‘It’ll soon be Christmas. Why not pickle it?’
The brothers’ surname is Pickles.
Bub is as keen as I am to change the subject. ‘With all these Covid tiers, there won’t be much of a Christmas this year. Clive thinks we should cancel it.’
Elsie snorts her derision. ‘Not likely. Even Hitler couldn’t make us cancel Christmas. Of course, our men were away in the forces. The children had been evacuated. Food was rationed. The presents were home-made. And there was a paper shortage, so we couldn’t wrap them.’
I raise my eyebrows. ‘It doesn’t sound like a bundle of seasonal fun.’
‘Fun had nothing to do with it. We celebrated, whether we felt like it or not, because there was a war on. Stiff upper lip, you know!’
‘Sod that for a game of soldiers. Pun intended.’ While we’ve been chatting, Bub’s bobble hat has made a bid for freedom. She drags it firmly down over her ears. ‘What are you doing for Christmas this year, Elsie? You’re allowed to mix three households, so my kids and grand-kids are going to visit in shifts.’
‘That’s all very well for young things like you and Clive. You’re only about sixty. I’m hoping to make my century, so I’m pulling up the drawbridge. On Christmas Day, my family are going to form a guard of honour, two metres apart, along my path and down the street. I’ll wave to them from upstairs, like the queen on her balcony.’
As so often when I talk to Elsie, I’m confused. ‘I thought you said not even Hitler-’
‘This is a different kind of war,’ says Elsie, brandishing her cabbage as if she’s about to launch it like a cannon ball. ‘The enemy is invisible, so we have to choose our weapons.’
The conversation is spinning so far out of control, I’m beginning to fear I may never learn the truth about Red and Sky. Fortunately, Bub has at last remembered why I’m hovering on her path with my wheelie bag of gardening equipment in tow. She waves me to a plastic chair provided for the use of visitors. I give the seat a quick wipe with my beanie hat and make myself as comfortable as is possible when conducting a social life out of doors during a UK winter.
‘Elsie, tell Lovage what you told me about the Pickles brothers. She’s been doing their garden.’
‘You don’t say! I used to clean for Ruby, their Nan.’
I’m hanging on Elsie’s every word. ‘What was Ruby like?’
‘Ruby was very pretty, but no better than she ought to be. She had ideas above her station, even though she came from a family of ne’er-do-wells, and she didn’t care what she did to get ahead in the world. Nobody was surprised when she took up with Percy Pickles.’
‘That can’t be his real name!’
‘It’s what everyone round here called him. You see, he owned a pickle factory.’
Bub is impressed. ‘He must have been rolling in money!’
‘Yes, Percy was very rich. And very married. He and his wife lived together in a magnificent mansion in the country, but they didn’t get on. According to Ruby, he couldn’t get a divorce because, in those days, the scandal would have been bad for business. He and Ruby met when she was working at a night club in the city as a hostess.’
At the word ‘hostess’, Elsie gives an enormous wink. Getting into the spirit of the story, Bub and I wink back.
‘It was love at first sight, according to Ruby. Within days, Percy set her up as his mistress. When she fell pregnant, she wanted to move back here to be close to her no-good family, so he bought that big house and visited her and their son whenever he could. Percy doted on….whatever was he called? I think it began with H. Herbert? Horace?’
I hold my breath. The only names I’m interested in are Red and Sky, but when Elsie tells one of her stories, you have to go with the flow.
‘I remember! His name was Marmaduke. Duke, for short.’
Phew. We’re back on track.
‘Percy and Ruby spoiled that child something awful. When he was growing up, his pockets were always stuffed with cash. The local wide boys who, to be blunt, were mostly his cousins on Ruby’s side, were all over him. When War broke out, Percy arranged a reserved occupation for Duke, but it didn’t take him long to get involved with the black market. By the time the War ended, he was up to his neck in organised crime.’
Am I designing a Mafia garden? It sounds glamorous but unlikely. The budget would be higher.
‘To keep his boy out of trouble, Percy gave him a job abroad as a commercial traveller for his firm. Duke caught the travel bug and went on to sell British pickles all over the world. Wherever Duke happened to be living, Ruby visited him as often as possible. I remember how delighted she was when Reginald was born. Her first grandson.’
This is the information I’ve been waiting for. ‘Does he call himself Red?’
Bub sniggers. ‘Wouldn’t you, if you’d been christened Reginald?’
Elsie is well into her stride and pays no attention. ‘When Percy died, he left Ruby the house, but she was hardly ever there. She carried on living the high life, globe-trotting to see Duke, always travelling first class. Nobody understood how she could afford it. People said she had a fortune in gold hidden in the garden.’
‘Eventually, after many years of enjoying herself, Ruby died in her sleep. Not long afterwards, Duke was killed in a gun battle in Columbia.’
I’m trying to get my head around this twist in the tale when Bub says, ‘Are you sure about that, Elsie?’
‘Or am I thinking of the film I watched last night? I nodded off towards the end. Anyway, first Ruby, then Duke, passed away. Soon after, Reginald-’
‘Red!’ I interject. Elsie isn’t having any of it.
‘As I say, Reginald showed up and moved into the house. He was divorced by then with a family to support, and he was pleased as punch to have somewhere to live. Of course, the first thing he did was hack Ruby’s lovely flower garden to pieces, but I doubt he found the treasure. Apart from that, everything went smoothly until one day a stranger showed up and demanded a share of the house. Sigmund, he’s called – or is it Siegfried?’
At last! ‘That’s Sky! I must say, I prefer Siegfried. It’s much sexier.’
Bub keeps trying to pair people off. Sometimes she gets it right. ‘I knew it! You’re sweet on Sky!’
‘No way! That man has the fashion sense of a gnu.’
Our attention has wandered and Elsie is becoming impatient. ‘Do you two want to hear the rest of my story or not?’
Bub and I humbly beg her to go on.
‘It turns out that Siegfried, or whatever you want to call him, is Reginald’s half-brother. Duke had two wives. Ruby knew, but Duke swore her to secrecy. Can you believe she used to stay with both his families and never told on him?’
‘It does explain why she could afford so many holidays abroad,’ I say.
Bub agrees with me. ‘What’s a little bigamy in the family if it means you can hit the beach three times a year?’
Elsie ignores us. ‘I hear Sigmund is single too, and just as much in need of a place to live as Reginald. He insisted on moving into the house to stake his claim. The two of them were trying to sort things out when Covid came along and we all went into lockdown. Now, for the foreseeable, they’re stuck with each other.’
I ask if Duke’s two baby-mammas are entitled to a share.
Elsie knows the answer to this. ‘No, because Duke didn’t actually marry either of them.’
Down-to-earth Bub asks if Ruby made a will.
‘What? Go legal? That would never have crossed her mind – or Duke’s. Girls, I’m going indoors in a minute. It’s brass monkeys out here. Whatever was I talking to you about, Bub? Oh, I know. Catch!’
Elsie stands up and lobs the giant vegetable over the fence like a rugby ball. For an old lady, she has a powerful right arm. When Bub tries to catch it, her bobble hat falls to the ground, revealing grey roots four inches deep. The cabbage rolls majestically down the path, decimating the cyclamen and winter pansies en route.
I set off for home with my mind on Sky and his brother, Red. I think about all the flattering things they said to me which, thanks to Elsie, I now know were attempts to get me on their side. But, if there is a treasure, why don’t they look for it together and agree to share?
Then I have my lightbulb moment. I realise that the brothers don’t trust each other. Each of them hopes I’ll find the loot and hand it over to him. That’s why they both want to be my favourite.
I’m a little disappointed that Sky doesn’t fancy me, but I also feel relieved. At least I know where I stand. Even better, I have a chance of finding the buried treasure!
Tucked under my arm is the giant municipal cabbage. I’m a bit short of funds this year, so I’m going to pickle and pot it to make delightful Christmas presents for which, I’m sure, my family and friends will be deeply grateful.
This socially distanced Christmas, flatulence won’t be a problem.
Loarn has self-published the first ten stories from ‘Up the Community Centre’ as a novella, ‘The Thank You Sweets’, available on Amazon. Her next adventure in self-publishing will be her first crime novel, ‘Accounting for Loss’. Loarn blogs about new books and her self-publishing journey on her website, www.patersonloarn.co.uk She has Level 2 BSL skills, and her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students. Loarn is also a conservation volunteer.
Vintage Pickles is a brand new episode of ‘Up the Community Centre’