“Betty, they’ve done it again. Look, over in that corner.”
In front of the fence was a riot of colour, dominated by the yellow of daffodils. Betty looked where Mark was pointing. It still looked spectacular and she couldn’t see any gaps where flowers had been taken.
“I’m worried about the tulips. What if they start taking them?”
The tulip bulbs were pushing their way up and the first ones would be in flower within a week. They were Mark’s favourite. He now had over thirty varieties spread in clumps throughout their cottage garden. Around each clump were carefully selected companion plants whose sole purpose was to complement and support the tulips.
“I’m going to get a lock for the gate.”
“I don’t think that will work. Not unless you get a bigger gate.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
Betty continued weeding. They would have to do something. She couldn’t imagine how she would feel if someone stole one of her vegetables just before the autumn show. That was far off, but for Mark the spring show was less than two months away.
“Maybe I should dig them up and take them into the greenhouse.”
“They wouldn’t like that.”
“No. But at least they’d be safe.”
“Have you made your selection yet?”
“It’s too early. And with climate change I can’t even predict what will bloom at the right time. Unless we get a cold spell the Emperors will be over.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yes but if it continues to be mild I think I can force some Queens.”
“That’d be something.”
“Actually, that’s a good idea.”
“I’ll make a forcing pen around the Queens and it’ll also hide them from the thief.”
Mark spent the rest of the day constructing a cage to enclose the Queen tulips. He had to carefully judge the right amount of protection. If he overdid it the blooms would end up too weak to survive at the show.
It was four days before the next bunch of daffodils was taken. Betty was still eating breakfast when Mark burst in through the patio doors without even pausing to take his shoes off.
“They’ve done it again. They’ve decimated the Rip van Winkles. Gone. The lot of them. I’m going to call the police.”
“Here. I’ve just poured the tea.”
Mark accepted the tea and calmed enough to admit that they hadn’t lost all the Rip van Winkles, but at least eight blooms had been taken.
“I don’t think it is kids,” said Mark. “They’ve been cut, not just pulled up.”
“Young people all have knives.”
“I don’t think young people are carrying knives around so that they can cut daffodils.”
“You’re probably right.”
Mark’s anxiety grew along with the tulips. The Emperors had come into bloom and looked spectacular. If they had held back for a month they would almost certainly have earned him first prize. The Queens were just poking out of the ground. He hoped he’d got the timing right.
The thief hadn’t returned despite the abundance of wonderful tulips. All the early varieties had flowered and most of the midseason ones were in bloom. The late flowering bulbs were inching out of the ground, with the protected Queens at least a week ahead of the rest.
Mark was hopeful they would flower in time, but if not he should still have good quality midseason varieties to show. Unless the weather changed, which it is easily could. He decided to build a second protective shelter; in this case to slow the Darwins down. That would give him three options; the Queens if they were ready, one of the midseason varieties coming into bloom, or the Darwins that should flower later because of his shading.
Disaster came from an unexpected source.
Betty heard the news on the local weather while eating her breakfast. Mark was still out on his morning rounds. He hadn’t come bursting through the patio door, which she took as a good sign.
He still hadn’t returned when the toast and tea were ready. She popped her head out of the door and called him.
There was no response.
She slipped on her garden overshoes, wrapped her dressing gown tightly around herself and stepped out into the cold morning air.
She found him on the bench staring at the devastation in front of him. She sat next to him and took his hand. For several minutes they sat together in silence.
“I’m getting cold,” said Betty. “Let’s go in while the tea is still hot.”
She led Mark by the hand into the house. It was only after he’d eaten that she was brave enough to ask.
“How much have you lost?”
“Everything? Surely not. Flowers are pretty resilient.”
“They’ll survive alright but there’s no way they’ll be good enough to show. The hail has seen to that.”
“They said on the news that some of them were as big as golf balls. Is the greenhouse ok?”
“But some of your brassicas took a bashing.”
“If I’d known I would have put them away.”
“If I’d known I could have built more shelters.”
“What about the Queens and the Darwins?”
“Well that’s something. And I can always plant some more brassicas.”
Betty inspected the garden that afternoon. It was so sunny and warm that she could hardly believe there had been such a severe hail storm in the night. Many tulips were already recovering and lifting themselves back up after being knocked to the ground. Most had lost petals but together they still provided a great display even if they weren’t show quality.
There was only a week until the spring show. Betty crouched down to look at the Darwin tulips under their shade shelter. There were about fifteen of them. Mark only needed five. The most difficult part was getting five all exactly the same size and at the same stage of development. She counted at least nine that were still green with just a hint of colour showing through the tightly wrapped bud. It would be close. They could easily over develop in a week.
The Queens were still fully green with a good size flower bud. Betty smiled. They should be perfect. It looked like Mark had a good chance of retaining his title.
“Quick, quick. Dial 999.”
“It’s the thief. They’re back.”
“I can’t dial 999. That’s for life and death. It’s for emergencies.”
“It is an emergency. If they come quick enough they can catch him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw him walking off down the street. He’s getting away. Quick.”
Betty picked up the phone and then hesitated.
“I still don’t think I should phone 999. Not over a bunch of flowers.”
“It’s the Darwins. He’s stole the Darwins.”
Betty still hesitated.
“I’ll dial 101.”
“It’s too late now anyway. He’s gone.”
Betty put the phone down.
“Why don’t I make us a cup of tea?”
“I’m going to follow him. I’ll see where he lives and then we can phone the police and tell them.”
Mark rushed to the hallway and started putting on his coat and hat.
“Be careful. He might have a knife.”
“Maybe I should take one.”
“Don’t be daft. You’re too old to be carrying a knife around.”
“So was he. He looked older than me. I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be.”
“Take the mobile phone.”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“In the drawer.”
“It won’t be charged. No I’m going now. Before I lose him.”
Mark walked quickly along the street. He couldn’t see the man but kept walking. There were only two side roads and there was no sign of the man down either of them.
He started thinking about giving up but then as he turned the bend he saw the man ahead of him. With renewed vigour he marched on.
The man entered the driveway of a care home. He stopped at the door and Mark was hopeful that he’d catch him.
A woman in uniform and wearing a mask opened the door and let the man enter. Mark waved at her and she waited for him to approach.
“That man. He’s got my flowers.”
“I don’t know his name. But he stole my prize tulips.”
“Let me through. I’m reporting him to the police.”
“I’m sorry. We’re under strict covid control at the moment. No one can come in unless they are a dedicated carer. Even then they have to stay behind a glass screen.”
“Well… well. Get him out here then.”
“I’m sorry sir. I really don’t want to do that. You see Mr Dixon is visiting his wife. Poor man. Before covid he was here all day, every day. Now he gets fifteen minutes and he can’t even hold her hand. It’s not right. She’ll be passing on soon. I can’t see how him holding her hand is going to make things worse.”
“But what about my flowers?”
“He’s brought them for her, to brighten her day and to remind her of him when he’s not here. He brings a bunch every day. Tulips are her favourite. She used to grow tulips. I must admit I did wonder how he could afford them. I mean flowers are not cheap are they?”
“You can’t wait here.”
“You said he’ll only be fifteen minutes.”
“Well you still can’t wait here. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Mark stepped out of the entranceway and stood with folded arms. He checked the time on his watch.
After five minutes he turned and walked away. Betty was surprised that on his return he told her not to phone the police.
Mark moved one of the garden chairs so that he could watch the path while still sitting in the morning sunshine. He didn’t have long to wait before he was able to confront the man.
The man stopped.
“Please don’t take flowers from my garden or anyone else’s.”
The man nodded sadly and looked down at the small bunch of grape hyacinths already starting to wilt.
Mark was only gone for a minute.
He returned and placed the most exquisite bunch of tulips into the man’s hands.
“Tell your wife that those are the best tulips in the whole county.”
Mark smiled at the man who looked dazed.
“And tomorrow I’ll cut you a bunch of my early roses.”
Mark was still smiling as he walked back to the house. Betty was just coming out.
“Someone looks pleased with himself. I’m guessing your Queens are looking good.”
“They couldn’t be better,” said Mark.
He was just about to close the patio door when he heard Betty’s scream.
“The Queens. Mark. Someone has stolen the Queens.”