Wednesday, 5 September 2012
The Other General
I never was sure what was supposed to be happening with the General’s plant and antique collection. It seemed to me to be an odd mixture of tired out succulents and dribs and drabs of Victorian and Georgian clutter that whilst interesting had no real value at all. The old man had other ideas and regularly regaled me with stories of how the vegetation and memorabilia he had collected had come to him via his family and, as far as was possible in a military career followed him around the world. Now of course the whole collection had come to some kind of abrupt and final rest in his bungalow in Eastbourne.
The plants, large and ugly, all green and yellow variegation sat in brass pot holders in the conservatory. Some were bruised and battered, others tough and gnarled, they looked tired out and pot bound but still each one managed to produce green shoots. They wee also subject o a strip watering and feeding regime. The General kept the details in a note book (each plant being numbered) and all had to be watered and fed according this complex rota. He still typed out a monthly rota that I had to follow. Naturally he typed the instruction on an ancient mechanical typewriter that thundered and chugged like a twenty pound Howitzer.
The typewriter represented the more useful objects in the Victoriana collection. In truth there wasn’t much of it either. It all resided in the study, on shelves and in hampers; books, ornaments, medals and office equipment, cards and games and odd dirty looking boxes of rubbish. The General however treated it all with care and reverence and none of it, not even the typewriter ever left the room.
My duties were simple enough, keep the house running, follow the various rotas (all monthly), do some driving and collection work and, when he was busy or in some mood; overcome with nostalgia or reflection, leave him well alone. Once in a while he’d send me up to London, there I’d collect a large consignment of Cuban cigars, vintage port and malt whiskies and return them to him. These would be deposited in the cellar and consumed, bit by bit by the General. I was never offered a drop, not that I wanted one. Strong drink and it’s late night consumption never did appeal to me or indeed agree with me. He was happy to drink and smoke alone, tapping on the typewriter or thumbing through books and journals. He did occasionally hint that he was close to completing some project or other but I never did see any them (whatever they were) come to fruition.
On Thursdays, once the chores were done and the plants cared for I drove him up to the Conservative Club where he took lunch. Lunch lasted from twelve until about four thirty. This was my afternoon off and I quite looked forward to it. When I collected him at four thirty he was well oiled, tired and even more cantankerous than usual. He sit in the back of the Jaguar and try to pick a fight. He’d argue with my reflection in the driving mirror about UK foreign policy, welfare payments, the Euro zone or whatever the hot topic had been amongst his cronies. I’d try to humour him with polite banter in return but I wasn’t really interested, any engagement in this mood would not be constructive. Once I’d returned him to the house he’d spend the rest of the evening talking to himself and the plants in the conservatory.
It was a September Thursday when it all went wrong. The Olympic summer and the wet weather was over, he’d been to the club and the usual pattern of behaviour had taken place. I was in the kitchen making myself a coffee, I looked up at the clock, it was now about eight thirty. I was at the table ready to tackle the Times crossword, it helped me relax. It helped me switch off and think in other directions.
It was at eight thirty five when the first loud explosion occurred. It came from the conservatory, the door blew in, it flew past me and hit the far wall, a cloud of hot dust followed, then more debris. I was under the table coughing and dazed. WTF? I was shaking, stunned.
I struggled to my feet. That was when the second explosion took place, this one came from the study. The wall on my left bowed and spewed dust and plaster parts. There was more smoke and heat and I was back on my back, this time on the far side of the kitchen and I passed out.
I awoke in a hospital bed, a policeman stood at the foot. A doctor appeared and said a few words, he was reassuring me. “You’ve been through quite trauma, remarkably you’re escaped relatively unscathed, a few cuts and bruises, minor concussion. I’m sorry to say that your employer, err the General was not so lucky. I’m afraid he was killed in the explosion.” The shock of it all washed over me, I’d survived, he was dead, what the hell had happened? Who’d blown up the house and taken out the old boy?
The police officer stepped forward. “Opium!” He said, “what do you know about it?” I shook my head, it hurt, no ideas or answers were available either, my head was starting to spin again and I slumped back into a disturbed unconscious state.
Weeks later at the inquest I heard about the opium, the plants, the nick-knacks and the explosion. The plants were rare members of the poppy family. Humoronous Glycernia, apparently the only plant in the world of nature that, at certain times gave of a mildly explosive substance. It seems it took a long time to be processed in the plants and mature into it’s most potent form, a volatile sap that dripped from the leaf ends that tainted and poisoned anything it touched. Over the years it had touched the General’s possessions, his journals, his skin, the pots and various artifacts and items. The slow build up, in the evening warmth of the late summer conservatory was just at the right mixture for detonation when the general’s cigar tip touched some dried out and mature sap resin. A chain reaction followed in the conservatory and the study, the explosions immediately killing the General, flattening most of the house and stunning me.
When the will was eventually read there were no big surprises, the Conservative Club got the biggest share. I believe they built a new wing with a modern conservatory onto the restaurant, it is to be used as a function room. That was their share of the proceeds. There were other beneficiaries here and there, charities and various dull military associations. As for me, he left me the Jaguar, it had 135,000 miles on the clock and four bald tyres but hey I‘d escaped with my life…I also got the typewriter. It was bent, battered and in pieces when I collected it, in a brown cardboard box. There was an old, hand written and weather faded label on the lid, I struggled to read it…“Humoronous Glycernia Seeds: Bombay March 1947. Handle with Great Care, can be Flammable in certain circumstances.”