So my wife challenged me to write a story about plant pots. And here it is, the longest thing I’ve even written, by a hell of a long way. And it’s the second of my stories to be set in Upshott Creek (the first was up here, but I have entered it into a writing contest which demanded unpublished work, so I’ve taken it down for now), which I expect to be a recurring place in my work from now on. Hope you enjoy.
The first inkling of what was to come was when the ‘Welcome To Upshott Creek’ sign was changed.
‘Welcome to Upshott Creek’, it now read. ‘Proudly sponsored by Self Raising Flowers Garden Centre – We’re Potty About Plants’.
But even then, no-one knew what that would mean for the town.
The Mayor, Reginald Jeremiah Lofferthwaite – real name Reg Gunk – looked up from his paper. He eyed his Deputy, Mary Mee, over his glasses. Mary was very sensible, level-headed, practical and community-minded. Completely unsuited for a career in politics, he thought. She looked exasperated.
‘Reg,’ she said. ‘You can’t just take a decision like this without consulting the council first.’
‘But Mary,’ said the Mayor, adopting a tone so buttery you could spread it on your crumpets. ‘I can. The Mayor of Upshott Creek has, and I quote the statutes, “full control of all matters affecting the town’s financial situation in an emergency. His or her authority is total and may not be questioned, or else the questioner will have a plague of warts cast upon them by the town witch.”’
Some of Upshott Creek’s statutes were very old, and very stupid.
‘But… but… what emergency is there?’
‘We don’t have enough plant pots.’
‘That’s hardly an emergency.’
‘It is. I’ve got rose bushes need repotting. So I found a way to get some. They gave us loads of plant pots for just a tiny alteration to the signage.’
Mary sighed. ‘But that’s not an emergency,’ she said through gritted teeth.
‘Again, I refer you back to the statutes. “In an emergency, the definition of ‘emergency’ is the Mayor’s alone. His or her authority is total and may not be questioned, or else the questioner will have a plague of locusts cast down upon them by the town witch.”’
‘So you can decide what’s an emergency, but only in an emergency?’ said Mary?
‘Yes,’ replied the Mayor.
Mary tried to wrap her head around this.
‘So what emergency allowed you to define the lack of plant pots – correction, your lack of plant pots – as an emergency?’
‘Well, going back to the statutes…’
‘Oh, stop it!’
‘You should see this as a great thing, Mary,’ said the Mayor. ‘We’re the first town in the country to be sponsored. We’re trailblazers!’
‘How much are we getting in return for this, then?’ asked Mary, considering the leaking public toilets in the town square, the leaking fountain in the town square, and the leaking water pipe beneath the town square. (People tried to avoid the town square.) ‘I mean, besides a few dozen plant pots.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked the Mayor.
‘We are getting some money for this, right?’
‘Oh Mary,’ chuckled the Mayor. ‘I’ve got us something better than money. Take a look out of that window over there.’
Mary glanced at the Mayor, then shuffled warily over to the window. The Town Hall car park was full of hundreds, thousands, of plant pots of all shapes and sizes. A truck the size of three tanks was leaving, having dispensed its cargo.
‘Oh… sugar!’ she exclaimed. She was the sort of person who didn’t like to swear. She closed her eyes, rubbed them, then opened them again. The plant pots were still there.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ said the Mayor, getting up from his desk and putting his arm around her shoulders. ‘Thousands of plant pots. Much better than money.’
She couldn’t look at them any more, so she looked at the Mayor. But she couldn’t look at him either, so she studied the backs of her hands instead.
Was that a wart?
The following day was the weekly council meeting. There were dark rumblings from the councillors around the table as the Mayor entered. They hadn’t been able to get parked, so had been forced to leave their cars in the municipal car park and traipse to the building on foot. This hadn’t put them in a good mood. The Mayor sat.
‘Order, order,’ called Clark the Clerk.
‘I’ll have a beer, please,’ called Councillor Watson in response, as usual. He was ignored, as usual.
‘Now,’ said the Mayor. ‘I expect you all want to know about the plant pots. I believe some here think we have too many.’
‘I have worked out,’ said Councillor Heaney, who was a wizard with a calculator (not literally, although the council did employ a warlock in Accounts), that – taking into account the fifty you’ve taken yourself, Reg – that Upshott Creek now has a plant pot per person ration of 37 to one.’
Discontented mutterings from around the table.
‘Don’t people want 37 plant pots each?’ asked the Mayor. ‘I mean, they’re free!’
‘Upshott Creek, Reg,’ continued Councillor Heaney, enunciating each word carefully to control his temper, ‘is a small town, of narrow streets, of small houses and, as such, of small gardens. People do not need, or want, 37 plant pots each.’
‘Well, I can’t send them back,’ said the Mayor. ‘We’d have to pay to get Self Raising Flowers’ truck out here again. Fuel, manpower, it all costs.’
‘What do you suggest then?’ asked Councillor Watson.
‘Gentlemen,’ said the Mayor, leaning forward and steepling his fingers. ‘I have a suggestion.’
‘You’ve banned hats?!’ stuttered Mary Mee, who’d missed the meeting due to the municipal car park being oddly full for 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon.
‘Yep,’ said the Mayor. ‘We’ll be going round soon collecting everyone’s hats. Don’t worry though, for every hat we get, we’ll be giving people ten plant pots instead. And they can wear those as hats. In fact, they’ll be required by law to do so. The people of this town need smartening up.
Mary stared, open mouthed.
‘Don’t do that, you look like a dazed trout,’ said the Mayor. ‘I told you not to worry.’
‘Not worry,’ screeched Mary. ‘The people of this town love their hats! Some of them have more hats than socks! This will never work!’
‘Course it will. It’s all handled. The remaining plant pots we’ll keep in storage, and maybe hand them out in a few months, when people want new ones,’ he said, opening the office door. ‘They’re bound to want to try out a new look by then.’
A doubtful look crossed Mary’s face.
‘Now I’ve got to get to another meeting, this time with a trowel and a rosebush,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave you to bask in the aura of a political genius.’
Mary basked in the aura. It smelled of pickled onions. She looked out of the window at the plant pots, despairing. It was then she caught sight of her reflection. Was that a wart on her forehead now?
And she was sure that had been a locust in her bathroom this morning.
Wednesday. The binmen had been tasked with the job of delivering the plant pots as well as collecting hats and rubbish.
‘Here you go, Mr Sloane,’ remarked Robbie Robson, one of Upshott Creek Council’s Junior Kerbside Waste Disposal Management Executive Advisory Executive Advisors, passing him a stack of plastic plant pots. Mr Sloane handed over his vintage 1950s top hat, mournfully.
‘Try one on, why dontcha?’ said Robbie.
Mr Sloane, who was one of those people who wore a full double-breasted suit, polished boots, braces and a bow tie even in the middle of the day, placed the plant pot over his bald spot, trying manfully to maintain his dignity. He looked at his reflection in the bin lorry’s wing mirror. His moustache, always sensitive to his moods, drooped. The plant pot fell off.
‘We’ve got string as well for those who can’t quite get their pots to fit properly,’ said Robbie helpfully. He chucked Mr Sloane’s rubbish into the back of the truck, and his hat into a tow trailer, which was already chock full of bowlers, berets, baseball caps, fedoras, fezzes, flat caps and an abundance of other titfers (a word that had made Robbie snigger when he’d first heard it earlier that day).
Robbie handed Mr Sloane a length of string, and the bin lorry moved on.
A month later, and the townsfolk were unhappy. They were tottering down the street, shopping or going to work, all with plastic pots tied awkwardly to their heads with string. Little Jenny Fossett missed her fluffy hat shaped like a panda and Francis and Edith Reusgegger, from Zurich, missed their baseball caps with cuckoo clocks on. The two local bobbies on the beat, Bill and Ben, were especially upset. Every night in Upshott Creek’s most upmarket bar (it had toilets), the Leaky Cock, there was grumbling and hostility.
The mood of the town was beginning to filter back to the Mayor. ‘Reg,’ said Mary, ‘this has to end, and it has to end now. The residents are revolting!’
‘They certainly are,’ said the Mayor, who thought the old ones were the best ones.
‘People are complaining their pots are chafing their ears.’
‘Tell them to buy earmuffs.’
The Mayor ignored this. He was busy admiring the rosebushes he’d brought in to decorate the office.
‘And there’s even,’ continued Mary, fiddling with a wart on her chin, ‘evidence of an underground hat club.’
‘The first rule of hat club is,’ bellowed Jane Molloy, club leader, observing the crowd in the basement of the Leaky Cock, ‘You don’t talk about hat club! The second rule of hat club is…?’
‘We don’t talk about hat club!’ chorused the crowd.
‘Then, ladies and gentlemen, you may put on your hats!’
Sighs of relief from the attendees. Off went the plant pots and on went the bowlers, the balaclavas, the bonnets, the Stetsons. ‘I love your trilby,’ said someone. ‘That is a truly epic beanie,’ said someone else. ‘Can I touch your wimple?’ said a third. (Even the town’s nuns felt like things had gone too far.) Jane put on her own hat, a very fetching Homburg, and watched, satisfied, as the town reconnected with its love of headwear.
From the corners, someone spied, and snickered, and spied some more.
‘How do we know about this club?’ asked the Mayor.
‘We’ve got spies,’ said Mary.
‘We don’t employ spies here, Mary.’’
‘No, I mean Gary Spies, nicknamed ‘Mince’. He works in our IT department, but he knows all about going undercover. He used to work for MI5.’
‘Well, cleaning the toilets there. But he reckons he picked up quite a lot of tricks. Disguises, how to sneak into places unseen, that sort of thing. So now I use him to make sure we know the mood of the town. And right now, it’s not good. Not good at all.’
Three days later, another meeting of Hat Club convened. The Leaky Cock’s basement was fuller than ever, and there was an aura of anticipation. (This aura smelled of damp; the basement had a ventilation problem.) ‘Mince’ Spies skulked in the shadows, waiting.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ began Jane. ‘The first rule of Hat Club—‘
And that’s when the door was kicked open. ‘Nobody move!’ screamed Sergeant David Mee, shoving his way in, Constable Barry Barrows trailing behind him. ‘Nobody touch any hats! If I see anyone so much as finger a wimple…’
A snigger from the back.
‘You’ll all be in the Iron Maiden before you have time to say…’
‘Run to the hills!’ yelled someone. The crowd suddenly surged, the heaving mass powering its way past Sergeant Mee and Constable Barrows, trampling them underfoot.
‘Fu… futons!’ hollered Sergeant Mee as he got back to his feet. Like his mum, he didn’t like to swear either.
‘Sarge,’ said Constable Barrows as they tramped back to the station.
‘Do we really have an Iron Maiden?’
‘Used to. They made us get rid of it. The goth family at the other end of town bought it to use as a coffee table.’
His phone rang.
‘Hi mum,’ said Sergeant Mee. ‘Locusts? In the downstairs toilet? Are you sure?’
A piercing squeal, from a woman who doesn’t swear but could very easily be tempted, nearly bust open Sergeant Mee’s eardrums
‘OK, OK, I’ll get home now.’
The following day, Mary Mee came to work still picking locust droppings out of her hair. She was in quite a state.
‘Ah, Mary,’ said the Mayor as she came through the door. He paused, and looked at her. There were warts festooned across her face. Her grey hair, normally scraped back tidily in a bun, was a tangled mess. Her dress was crumpled, and her eyes were wild. The Mayor took all this in.
‘Make me a cup of tea, would you?’ he said.
He took another look at Mary, and thought better of that. ‘Are you OK?’ he ventured.
‘…locusts…’ Mary managed.
‘You look like you’ve got a bee in your bonnet about something,’ he said. ‘Of course, bonnets are banned now. Hey, where’s your plant pot, you should be wearing that, it might keep your hair under control. You know it’s the rules now.’
‘…locusts…’ said Mary again. ‘…Hundreds…. in my hair… my face… my eyes…’
‘Locusts,’ said the Mayor thoughtfully. ‘And warts.’ He cast his eyes towards the old statute books, arranged neatly in rows on shelves at the far side of his office. He strode towards them, and flicked through a few.
‘I never thought the old statutes would be true,’ he commented, as he scanned the pages, seeming to look for something specific. I mean, we don’t even have a witch here any more. We burned her in Upshott Creek’s last great witch trial. I mean, she wouldn’t really have been a witch, no such thing. But they were darker, less well-informed days then. 2009, goodness me. How little we knew here back then. So what’s causing this…? A-ha!’
The Mayor stabbed down at a page, bruising his finger a little.
‘Here we are,’ he said, sucking at it. ‘In the event Upshott Creek no longer has a witch, any locusts and warts, to be cast down upon those questioning the Mayor’s authority, will automatically be conjured up from the residual magical energy of the next most magically-inclined resident in town, most likely without his or her knowledge that anything is going on.’
‘Hmm,’ he said.
Down in Accounts, no-one really gave a damn that young Bradley Wigginbottom claimed to be a warlock. He regaled his colleagues with tales of black magick (‘with a ‘k’, that’s important’), and of all the times he’d spent dancing around Upshott Creek woods in only his underwear, chanting magick spells and waving his staff, all to make the town’s loveliest maidens fall in love with him.
Of course, this had never worked. The town’s loveliest maidens refused to go anywhere near him, even when he offered to buy the drinks – an offer that goes against the grain for an accountant, as anyone who knows an accountant will testify – while his colleagues did nothing more than humour his incredible tales (where ‘humour’ is used as a substitute for ‘ignore’). In fact, Bradley was beginning to doubt his powers himself.
Then the Mayor burst in, followed by a mass of hair and warts and insect droppings that Bradley could just about identify as Mary Mee. ‘Bradley!’ he demanded. ‘I want you to take this curse off Mary immediately.’
Bradley looked blank. ‘Curse,’ he queried?
‘The locusts and warts – get rid of them immediately.’
Everyone else in Accounts looked on with interest.
‘Um,’ Bradley offered.
‘Statutes…’ Mary muttered, wiping wart juice from her eyes.
‘Oh, of course, said the Mayor. “Most likely without his or her prior knowledge”. OK, so you don’t know about this?’
‘Know about what?’ said Bradley, beginning to get stressed.
‘Do you have a magic wand?’ asked the Mayor.
Bradley looked offended. ‘A wand?’ he snorted. ‘We warlocks do not use wands. We use staffs. Witches use wands.’
‘And if you’d like to remain on the council’s staff,’ retorted the Mayor. ‘Then I suggest you grab it now.’
‘It’s at home.’
‘Then go and get it.’
‘Well, OK, but I’ll be at least half an hour. This won’t come off my time sheet, will it? It’s just that I’m already a couple of hours in debit with my flexi, and…’
‘Just get the frigging staff, Bradley!’
Mary Mee nearly fainted at the unnecessary language. Bradley scampered out the door, donning his plant pot and grabbing his cloak from the coat stand on the way. It had ‘Number 1 Warlock’ embedded on the back in silver studs.
An hour later, Bradley returned. Someone had nicked his parking space, and he’d had to drive around for ages looking for a new one. He walked into the Mayor’s office, where the Mayor and Mary were waiting with assorted officials. He brandished his staff.
‘That’s a large one,’ said one of the assorted officials.
‘Nice thick shaft,’ said another.
‘He must need two hands to polish that big boy,’ said a third.
The Mayor threw the assorted officials out.
‘Now then, Bradley, if you could just do whatever it is you do to sort Mary out, that would be lovely,’ he said.
Bradley looked uncertain. ‘See, the thing is, sir, I’ve never actually managed to make any spells work.’
The Mayor sighed. ‘Look, son, according to the statutes you’re the one causing this poor woman’s face to look like bubble wrap…’
‘I never did anything!’ protested Bradley.
‘No, no, I know,’ said the Mayor. ‘This is all a bit weird. I mean, if this was a story, you’d wonder if the author had written himself into a corner and this was the only way he’d come up with to get out of it. But let’s just go with it. Give it your best shot, eh?’
‘Right,’ said Bradley, uncertainly. He stood in front of Mary. ‘Ho-ba-dee-ba-ho-key-co-key,’ he chanted, waggling his staff in her face. ‘Doop de doop de doop.’
‘That’s ancient magical chanting, is it?’ asked the Mayor.
‘Magickal. With a ‘k’. And yes, it is, actually. I’ve read loads of books. Hocus pocus, piff paff poof.’
There was a bang. Bradley’s staff erupted in Mary’s face (which the assorted officials would have enjoyed immensely). She reeled back in shock. A fusty, foul-tasting smoke filled the room. The Mayor threw open the windows.
‘Did it work?’ he shouted, as the smoke cleared.
‘I… I don’t know, sir,’ came the reply. Bradley held his staff tight, his knuckles beginning to whiten. ‘I’ve never seen it do that. Like I said, I’ve never been able to make any spells work before. I mean, wow.’ A broad grin began to spread over his face. ‘But did you see the smoke? Magick, actual, real magick!’
‘We’ll see, lad,’ said the Mayor. ‘The smoke’s clearing now. How are you doing, Mary?’
The fog thinned. Mary had her hands over her face. ‘Get me a mirror!’ she demanded.
‘Got a mirror, Bradley?’
‘No, sir. You, sir?’
‘Oh for poop’s sake,’ muttered Mary through her fingers. She went over to the window and slowly removed her hands, watching her reflection in the glass. The Mayor and Bradley stood agog.
The warts were gone.
A broad grin spread across Mary’s face. ‘Yes!’ she squealed. ‘Yes, yes, yes! Thank you, Bradley, thank you!’ She ran over and gave him a huge kiss on the lips in excitement, before remembering herself and looking embarrassed. She straightened her dress. ‘Yes, er, thank you. I really do appreciate this, thank you.’
Bradley blushed, and looked at the floor. The Mayor grinned the sort of grin that suggested he wasn’t going to let either of them forget this moment.
Then Mary seemed to remember something. She reached into her bag and retrieved her phone. She dialled home, where her son, Sergeant Mee, was on sick leave recovering from trampling-related injuries.
‘Davey?’ she said as he picked up.
‘They’ve gone, Mum,’ said Sergeant Mee.
‘Yep. All dead.’
‘You say that Mum,’ said Sergeant Mee. ‘But now there’s thousands of dead locusts all over the floor. Where’s the sweeping brush? And can you bring some more bin bags home?’
Bradley couldn’t wait to tell the town’s loveliest maidens all about this. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to pay for their drinks.
A new day dawned. Mary and Mayor Lofferthwaite were hard at work. Well, Mary was. The Mayor was pruning his roses again. They were both startled from their tasks by the harsh jangling of the Mayor’s phone. He picked it up.
‘Sir, there’s an angry mob here,’ said Janet, the receptionist. ‘They call themselves the Hat Club.’
‘We told you not to talk about Hat Club!’ shouted a voice in the background.
‘They want to talk to you about reversing the hat ban,’ continued Janet. The Mayor heard cheers of agreement. ‘What shall I say?’
He sighed. ‘OK, I’ll be right down.’
Then he went right back to fiddling with his bush.
Half an hour later, the Mayor emerged from the building, removing his pruning gloves as he did so. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing so important as his roses. He eyed the mob, who were beginning to chant unpleasant songs and had come up with several surprisingly ingenious rhymes for ‘Lofferthwaite.’
‘Right, who’s in charge here?’ he asked.
Jane Molloy elbowed her way to the front. ‘I am,’ she said.
‘Why aren’t you wearing a plant pot?’
Jane waited a second to try and control her temper, and failed. ‘Because it’s a plant pot!’ she yelled. ‘Plant pots are not hats! They’re uncomfortable, they scratch the top of your ears, and you’re wrecking people’s lives just so you can have somewhere to keep your bloody rose bushes, you daft old fool. WE WANT OUR HATS BACK!’
‘Yeah!’ cheered the mob. ‘Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats!’
The Mayor made shushing sounds. ‘OK, OK!’ he said.
The mob was too busy having fun shouting ‘Hats!’ to listen.
‘SHADDAP!’ screamed Jane.
‘As I was saying,’ said the Mayor. ‘I, as your Mayor, pride myself on doing what’s best for the people of Upshott Creek. I accept that this venture, while worthwhile…’
‘…hasn’t been as well received as I’d hoped. Consequently, I hereby repeal the ban. Your hats will be returned to you soon by the Kerbside Waste Disposal Management Executive Advisory Executive Advisors.’
‘Hurrah!’ cheered the mob.
‘And will they be taking these damn plant pots back?’ asked Jane.
‘Fine,’ huffed the Mayor.
‘Hurrah!’ cheered the mob again. ‘Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats! Hats!’
And they all went to the Leaky Cock for a pint, leaving the Mayor alone outside the Town Hall.
Hundreds and thousands of flower pots were once again in residence at the Town Hall car park. The Mayor looked at them, and sighed.
‘So what are you going to do with them now?’ asked Mary, through mouthfuls of lunchtime carrot soup. Her skin looked better than ever, and it was only if you looked closely into her eyes that you might detect the faintest smudge of trauma.
‘I don’t know, Mary. I just don’t know.’
He looked at the plant pots again. Then he looked at Mary’s soup bowl, and back to the pots. A smile flickered on his lips.
‘Although I may have had an idea. Do you really like that bowl?’