“Are you content? Even satisfied? Perhaps to an inordinate degree? We can help you change all that, and now at a reduced price! Pay a visit to the Colonel McRapon Plant School and get some of our new Failure-aniums – now only 2 pounds each! – and just sit back and relax, as your complacent happiness and deluded ease withers away! Remember: Colonel McRapon Plant School, 17b East Wryless Road, Sommershade.”
This advertisement, overheard on the commercial radio while I was out buying legumes for the annual meeting of the Bulstrode-Whitelock Society (I would of course never listen to such stations in the propriety of my home), was exactly what I needed to hear.
During my visit to Miss B. the evening before, she had casually mentioned how she had entered a disappointment contest earlier this year, and how the Mock-Bishop of Gideonsclere had recently soared into the lead by being devastated when he realised that all his intense disappointment over the last month had not already put him in the first place. The Mock-Bishop’s score, Miss B. had said, was well nigh unassailable, and several other competitors had pulled out of the race. Miss B. had confided that she was contemplating doing the same, unless she was severely disappointed during the weekend.
And now, like a plum falling out of a tree to which it had previously attached itself by that impermanent forca naturae by which such things are made possible, a potential solution to her worries had presented itself, and lay in my lap like a well-grilled partridge. I made a mental note of the address, and went out there immediately after having had some tea and almond biscuits at the Hamster and Egg Café on Borley Place, near the New Camber Canal.
Sommershade, of course, is on Caroline’s Rock, so it took some time going there by bike, and I had to stop several times to keep the concentration of tea in my veins at a favourable level: first at Apple Beach, then again in Tyeside, and finally just at the border between Dutch Harbour and Sommershade, at a lovely garden café named The 17 and 1. Not being a local, I took the opportunity to enquire with the matron of the establishment if she knew about this Colonel McRapon Plant School, and she kindly gave me more precise directions.
Within thirty minutes, I stood in front of the gates. A large sign, possibly brass, formed an arch over the entrance, and in green letters could be read:
Colonel McRapon Plant School (Est. 1947) – We Grow Lilies Better Than They Do Themselves!
On a collection of smaller signs could be read diverse messages, such as:
“Home of the Ever-Popular Revolving Sunflower”
“One pound, three and five for a hatful of Parnassus Bulbs – You can’t make these prices up!”
“Yes, it is True – We Have Manure!”
“Ask about our Reindeer Repellent (Patented)!”
“Creditors NOT Welcome, and will be shown out the Kitchen Entrance”
All of these signs were covered by small, cheery pictures of carnations with various facial expressions – all very droll of course – and this, as I entered the Plant School, was a recurring theme. On buckets, walls, signs – even, I found, on the Colonels spacious vest and colourful apron of gum arabic. His moustaches were dyed bright red, and he had a happy face drawn at the tip of his pear-shaped nose.
I could go on forever about my visit there, but that is hardly the point of this anecdote, so suffice to say that after having assured him that I was not a creditor, had admired his revolving sunflower for a bit – “The first and only one in the whole of Cordhamptonshire! And don’t you listen to that daft Sir Gerald in Marshtown; his merely swivels, it doesn’t rotate all the way round!” – and almost fallen for the old “well, can you see any reindeer here?” trick, I managed to get hold of three small samples of his advertised plants.
Thus burdened with both the legumes and the small sprouts that, I hoped, were to bring such disappointment to dear Miss. B., I returned to my bike, only to find that it had been repainted while I was chatting with the Colonel. Instead of purple and orange, the Empress’ colours (May she be blessed with fair winds!), it now sported a carnation motif, with happy faces drawn on the saddle and the front light. I called for the Colonel, and asked him if he knew anything about this, but he just blamed a bad nest of badgers across the road, and told me that I’d just have to wash it off when I came home.
I telephoned to Miss B. as soon as I came inside my flat, and we arranged to meet at the Inn of Three Spoons in Launcelot. I put some spoons in my pocket – the Inn was true to its name – and set off. When I arrived, Miss B. was already there, looking dejected.
“I was hoping you’d be early, so I came here early as well, but of course you weren’t,” she said, and gained a few points. “I also notice that you have repainted your bike, which is something of a pity, because I liked the old colours, and now I expect I shall never see them again. Oh, the foolishness of hope!”
“According to my sources, a bad nest of badgers in Sommershade is to blame,” I said, and sat down across the table from her. “I am, at any rate, innocent. And would you kindly adopt a less pessimistic tone when I am around? I find it ill becomes you.”
“Never!” she said, vehemently. “If I am to beat the Mock-Bishop, I cannot rest for a moment. While I was waiting for you, I have already been disappointed that it didn’t rain and, when a small shower passed by, that the sun was out for only such a short moment, and I have high hopes that I will reach the magic border of 2500 points before this evening is over, but what are hopes made for if not to be quashed underneath the steel boots of reality? We are toyed with by a sarcastic fate, I tell you!”
“Ah, well, never mind all that, please,” I said. “I have here, in this little basket, the answer to your present problems.”
“What is it?” She clasped her hands together and rolled her eyes ominously. “Please let it be a castle in the sky, a thousand pounds and my own pony!”
“You are not even close,” I said. “It is a new kind of plant, which is called a Fail-geranium.”
“’Failure-anium’?” she said, thoughtfully. “Did you come up with that silly name?”
“No, it was a Colonel out in Sommershade. Who, “I added, “I might add, had also bred a rotating sunflower, of which he was very proud. I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life! Nevertheless; back to the fail-geraniums. According to the ads in the commercial radio it is guaranteed to smash your dearest hopes and dreams.”
“Keep talking,” Miss B. said,” I want to get my hopes as high up as possible. I’ll have a currant cake without the cake, and a cup of Duke of Chichester Goose-and-Plum tea, please,” she added to the waitress, who was just passing by on her way to the ladies’ room.
“Make that two of each,” I said, “and if it is not too much of a bother, you could put the cake from my friend’s currant cake on my plate. I quite like to have the cake and the currant mixed up.”
“I have no time for such nonsense,” the waitress replied. “I’m on my way to the ladies’ room. Your order will have to wait, but when it comes, you’ll have to pick the currants out yourself, as I don’t have a spoon.”
I knew this game, reached into my pocket, and produced a small metal spoon with a gilded line running through the handle. “You may, if you wish, borrow one of mine,” I said, and gave the spoon to the waitress, who took it and stomped off towards a back door, with a grim expression on her face.
“Let me see these wonder plants,” Miss B. said, and I obliged her, putting the basket on the table between us, and uncovering the three small sprouts I had bought. They didn’t look very much.
“They don’t look very much,” Miss B. said, “But then again perhaps I was foolish to expect them to. Are you sure they are a kind of geranium? They look more like carnations.”
“I guess that if you set out to grow a new kind of geranium,” I suggested, “and all you get are carnations, then that would be a failure of some sort. It never said in the advertisement what sort of failure it would be. Although I must say that they look suspiciously like the flowers painted on my bike. You know, these painted carnations were all over the place at the Plant School.”
“Fascinating,” Miss B. said, with not a drop of sarcasm in her voice. “I wish you had taken me with you there, but I guess I set my ambitions too high… ‘If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still end up among the stars’. What tripe! Have they never heard of gravity? But I guess gift card designers need not be very — aha! — gifted.”
I didn’t now if I was supposed to laugh at her pun or not, so I didn’t, which disappointed her, which may or may not have been her goal in the first place.
“What are these things supposed to do?” she continued. “And, more importantly, how quickly will they be able to do it? The contest is over by the end of the month, you know.”
“The Colonel never told me. He gave me this pamphlet, in which everything was to be explained, but when I came home and opened it, someone had drawn carnations across the whole text, so only parts of it is intelligible. I can see a ‘… not in direct… until after… a hammock seating five… blue and mother-of-pearl…’, but that’s about it. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. They’re already looking a bit larger, you know.”
“But not nearly large enough,” Miss B. said.
The weeks went by, and I went about my business, just as Miss B. went about hers. We met regularly, but the subject of the flowers never came up. I sensed that she was not quite as dissatisfied with them as she had hoped to be. In fact, when that fateful day came, when the final tallying of points was due and we met outside the Black Fish Inn in Bardshead, she was actually wearing a wreath made of them.
“That wreath becomes you,” I said. “Did you make it yourself?”
“Yes,” she replied. “They started to wilt yesterday, and I didn’t know what to do with them. This way they came to some use at least, despite having made no meaningful impression at all on my score for the whole time I’ve had them.”
“None at all?” I asked. “Not even making you dissatisfied with how they failed to help you?”
“Well, they have helped me somewhat, I guess,” she said. “But only in sufficiently large ways. Nothing earth-shattering. Not enough to be satisfied with them, but too much to be dissatisfied with them.”
“A curious state of affairs,” I said. “Do we have time for a cup before we have to be there?”
“No,” Miss B. said, emphatically. “The Mock-Bishop may be disappointed if we’re not on time, and I need to deprive him of every point I can if I am to win. It is better if we are there early and thus can hope that they are, too.”
I shall not reveal how this anecdote ends, because it may be embarrassing for some of the involved, and any way it was all over the Cordhamptonshire Times for weeks afterwards. It is, in these cases, better to let the past be past, and focus on the future. However, before I stop, I will of course summarise the moral of this story.
The moral of this story is:
The Failure-anium never stirred
Her fortunes as the ads avered
It’s what, if you permit, we call