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The Curse of the Giant Hogweed
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"FOR GOD'S SAKE, PETE, is that old coot still blethering?"
Professor Timothy Ames was sorry he'd bothered to wake up. He was also sorry he'd fallen asleep. These green fiber glass chairs were hell on an old man's skinny backside. What the Christ were they here for, anyway? He hated being lectured at. He wasn't used to assembly rooms carved willy-nilly out of erstwhile stately homes. He wished he were back at Balaclava Agricultural College in the hinterlands of Massachusetts, U.S.A., checking the boron in the beet fields.
His companion, the if possible even more distinguished Professor Peter Shandy, wished Tim would quit turning off his hearing aid. When it wasn't operating, Tim never knew whether he was mouthing words without letting any sound come out, or bellowing like a bull in rut. This time, Tim had bellowed. Peter could only be thankful they were at a British university, where it seemed not the done thing to notice eccentric behavior in elderly academics.
Perhaps the speaker had his own hearing aid turned off. Despite Tim's outcry and the few muttered "Hear, hears" that had followed it, Peter couldn't see that Professor Pfylltrydd was showing any sign of shutting up. So far Pfylltrydd had said nothing about the giant hogweed, or Heracleum mantegazzianum, that the overseas visitors didn't already know.
Naturally Tim and Peter had done their research before they'd agreed to come here and lend their expertise toward eradicating the oversized pest. They'd heard how this gargantuan relative of the cow parsley and the water hemlock was taking over the riverbanks and hedgerows. Smaller plants that couldn't grow in its noxious shade were threatened with extinction. Bird watchers were being carted off to the hospitals with severe cases of whiplash from craning their necks to hurl anathemas up its fifteen-foot stalks. Courting couples were getting contact dermatitis in embarrassing places from brushing against its venomous bristles. Nudist camps were all but wiped out.
Fishermen were succumbing to apoplexy in droves. The accursed weed grew so thick around the streams that they couldn't indulge in their piscatorial pursuits without importing machetes or sharpening up their ancestral broadaxes to hack their way to the water. And the dingy white flower heads were alleged to produce five thousand seeds apiece.
Peter Shandy intended to count a few headfuls of seeds. He was curious to know whether five thousand was a true figure or merely one plucked from the air by some sensation- mongering journalist. The chances were it was fairly close to the mark, though: Mother Nature was apt to err on the side of prodigality.
When it came to wordiness, Professor Pfylltrydd was also a child of nature, that was plain. He was talking about the excellent work already done by hogweed experts on this side of the water. They'd thought for a time they had the hogweed hogtied, but all of a sudden, the weeds had begun to spring new-bristled, taller, ranker, smellier, and more pestiferous than ever before. They'd spread almost overnight to places where no hogweed had previously infiltrated.
This meeting was being held in one such place, among the lush green hills where England blends so delightfully into Wales and the sheep all begin bleating in Cymric as soon as you cross the border. Peter thought he could hear sheep bleating now. Or was that still the old goat maundering on about the hogweed?
Tim was asleep again. Peter was feeling his jet lag. When this ordeal by windbag was over, would his hosts offer him and his companions yet more cups of milky tea, or free them to go somewhere and sink their nozzles into pints of the magnificent local bitter? Peter thought wistfully of the pub in which his wife Helen and her dear friend Iduna Stott were no doubt resting their weary feet and wetting their dainty whistles after an arduous round of the sights and the shops.
It had been understood that he, Tim, and Dan Stott, the third member of their team, wouldn't be able to spend much time with the women. Their hosts were paying Tim's and Peter's expenses, hoping for great results from the developers of such horticultural wonders as Brassica napobrassica balaclaviensis and Portulaca Purple Passion. Since he was here on business, he ought to be keeping his mind on the discourse; but it kept drifting off into reveries about the respective excellences of Helen and British beer.
Then Peter sat up with a jolt. The speaker had actually and finally stopped speaking. There was a spattering of applause in which he only just managed to join. The learned lady conducting the seminar, whose name Peter couldn't for the life of him recall, was now suggesting their distinguished guest Professor Ames, or perhaps Professor Stott, or even Professor Shandy would care to address some of the points Professor Pfylltrydd had just raised.
Tim didn't stir. Dan Stott, on Peter's other side, was sitting rapt in reverie, perhaps computing the number of hogs that might be needed to eat up all those acres of hogweed, and wondering what would be the effects on their digestive systems if they tried. Obviously, it was up to Shandy.
Peter couldn't remember any questions other than Tim's which had been brought up by Professor Pfylltrydd's discourse, so he decided to go with that one. He detached himself from his abominable chair, sauntered up to the front of the room wearing the expression of mixed humility and conscious self-satisfaction deemed appropriate for such occasions, took hold of the sides of the lectern, smiled (not broadly but enough to show he wasn't actually hostile), and said his piece.
"I expect you'll all agree that my learned colleague, if I may presume to call him so, has given us sufficient—er—food for thought at this juncture. Rather than take up your time with speculations on what might or might not be feasible courses of action, I'm simply going to ask that you point Professor Ames, Professor Stott, and myself in the general direction of a reliable car hire agency, a decent pub, and a clump of giant hogweed. Once we've done a little fieldwork, I trust it won't be long before we come up with some recommendations."
"On what do you base this confident expectation of a speedy result?" demanded the inevitable cynic in the back row.
Timothy Ames was awake now. He heard that one perfectly, and was ready with the answer.
"On the fact that Professor Shandy's wife has spent half the winter writing a paper on Belial Buggins, the Bard of Balaclava. She's been asked to present it at a conference in Arizona next month and there'll be hell to pay if we don't finish here in time to get her back for the presentation. Any further questions?"
There were none. Several of the listening savants smiled, one or two laughed aloud, and a learned academic discussion broke out as to which pub had the best bitter. The meeting was adjourned to the Pig in Clover. Peter had a pint and a plowman's lunch. Tim had a half and a small wedge of poacher's pie. Dan had the rest of the pie, a few pasties, and two pints. On their way to the car hire, he purchased five punnets of gooseberries and a whole Cheddar cheese to tide them over until they could get to a proper restaurant.
Peter had intended to rent a big car—big at least by United Kingdom standards—but there were only Fiats available. That was all right, they'd manage. Aside from their field equipment, he and the boys had little luggage. Peter himself carried his grandfather Shandy's old black cowhide satchel with a change of underwear, his razor, and field clothes to replace the good gray suit and white shirt he'd worn to the lecture. Tim had a clean pair of socks and a spare battery for his hearing aid crammed into a pocket of his hairy old brown tweed jacket. Dan had his cheese, his gooseberries, and a pigskin suitcase packed with God knew what—sandwiches, probably—by the loving hands of Iduna. Dan got in back with the impedimenta, Tim climbed in front on the passenger's side, and Peter got to drive.
He'd expected that; in fact, he'd have insisted on driving. Peter was not only the youngest of the three, he was also the most likely to stay awake, to recall where they were going, to keep on the left-hand side of the road, and to know a giant hogweed when he saw one.
Once they'd found a suitable place to start, he and Tim would begin collecting plant specimens and soil samples. Dan Stott's function, as head of Balaclava's animal husbandry department and a noted authority on swine culture, was more nebulous. Peter suspected Dan had invited himself and Iduna along mainly because he found something appealing in the mere concept of a giant hogweed, and might secretly be on the side of the enemy. Dan would bear watching. That shouldn't be hard, of course, Stott's dimensions being what they were.
Whatever might be in store for them, the three old friends were merry enough as they set off on their quest for the giant hogweed. Nor were they long in finding some. It would have been difficult not to. The hedgerows so sensibly allowed over here to grow up and provide natural fences, refuges for small wildlife, and antierosion barriers for the soil instead of being mowed flat in the alleged interest of modern efficiency, were being taken over by the biggest and ugliest representative of the Umbelliferae.
The band of hogweed-hunters didn't stop to examine any of the available specimens though, until they'd put a safe distance between themselves and the halls of academe. The woods, as Tim observed darkly, might be full of goddamn professors wanting to make speeches. They couldn't be too careful. Hence it was not until the Fiat had carried them well into Wales that Dan Stott, who had steeled himself not to emit grunts of anguish at each pub they passed, suggested they might now think of stopping for refreshment.
Peter didn't mind. The field behind the pub toward which Dan pointed was rife with some of the tallest and thickest hogweed they'd spotted thus far.
Tim was all for stopping, too. "At least they'll have a gents," he observed. "One thing about the British. And the Welsh, I suppose I'd better say before they run me out of the country. They've got a civilized attitude toward the natural functions."
The pub even had a parking lot, about ten feet square and surrounded by a high stone wall. Peter couldn't get the Fiat in, though, until a brewer's lorry had accomplished the patently impossible feat of making a full turn, then squeezing through a gateway some four inches narrower than the lorry. This being the land of Merlin, it took the driver three minutes. After that, they had the lot to themselves. Peter pulled up next to a rear door that led directly to the necessary offices. Dan, who'd finished the gooseberries but brought his cheese along for company, went with Tim into the men's room. Peter went on ahead to the bar.
As so often happens in country pubs, he found the room empty. That was all right. Peter didn't mind standing there admiring the mellow patina on the polished brass pump handles, weighing the relative merits of ale and lager. This place had an odd sort of atmosphere about it, he thought, and tried to figure out why. Perhaps it was simply that nobody was here, neither behind the bar nor hunched on one of the benches behind a pint glass as tall as his head. Perhaps it was because the pub was old. Really old, not tarted-up old.
To be sure, in this area anything not built by Edward the Second might be considered relatively modern. This had been a public house well before Edward's time, though. Maybe long before. Peter Shandy couldn't have said how he knew. The pub was clean enough, and reasonably well kept up. It must have been renovated many times. Nevertheless it smelled old. No, more than old. Primeval, like a forest floor that had never been cleared and put to the plow.
In centuries gone they'd brewed their own beer here, no doubt. It would have been thick and heavy, served in leather jacks that never got washed between one customer and the next. The customers wouldn't have been washed, either. They'd have had on crude homespun or leather garments, stiffened with sweat to the shapes of their bodies. The pub wouldn't have smelled old then. It would have stunk like a pigsty.
Not one of Dan Stott's pigsties, of course. Dan held to the tenet that a clean pig was a happy pig. No doubt he knew whereof he mucked; at least Dan's pigs always appeared happy enough. What the hell was keeping Dan, anyway? Where was Tim? Where was the publican? Where was anybody?
Great balls of fire, where was Peter Shandy? Gradually, without his knowing when or how, Peter's feet had moved from ancient oak planking to forest floor. This had never, not possibly, been anything other than forest floor. The trees around him had roots as big around as beer kegs, knotted into the earth like giant hawsers, as they needs must be to hold upright the incredible trunks growing from them.
There was a simple explanation for this phenomenon, Peter thought. He was drunk. No, that wouldn't work. He still hadn't laid eyes on the bartender, let alone got his pint. He'd fallen asleep, that was it. He'd succumbed to jet lag and the backlash from Professor Pfylltrydd's learned discourse. Or maybe he'd hypnotized himself staring at those shiny pump handles.
No matter. Tim and Dan would come along and rouse him as soon as they'd finished whatever was taking them so long back there. In the meantime, he might as well relax and enjoy his nap.
It felt strange to know he was asleep, yet not feel the least bit sleepy. But then one usually didn't, in a dream. One didn't always have such powerful tactile sensations, either. Peter slapped at a gnat that was lunching on his cheekbone, and made blasphemous utterance as he banged his toe on one of those mammoth tree roots.
It was odd that his toe hurt from the banging, come to think of it. He'd put on his heavy work boots when they'd got into the Fiat. Peter looked down at his feet and saw he was wearing primitive buskins made of roughly shaped leather drawn up over his feet like the dough around an apple in a dumpling. Thongs were laced across the tops and around his ankles to keep them on.
Well, such things happened in dreams. He ought to be grateful he was having this relatively innocuous excursion around the fringes of the subconscious instead of the recurring nightmare in which he'd find himself lecturing to a crowded classroom, stark naked except for a giant hogweed stuck Hawaiian-style behind his right ear. Or was it the left ear? One side meant, "Come to me, beloved," the other meant, "Sorry, my wife won't let me," but he couldn't remember which was which.
That came from his having been driving on the wrong side of the road all afternoon, he supposed. It wouldn't have mattered in this particular dream, anyway. He'd been more concerned about such niceties back in the pre-Helen period when he'd got more deeply involved with a biologist from Amherst than he'd meant to. Christabel, her name was.
How in Sam Hill had Christabel snuck into his dream, anyhow? Drat it, the Randy Shandy of yore was a respectably married man now. Peter wished Helen would manifest herself instead. He liked dreaming about Helen. He couldn't think of much about Helen that he didn't like, except that he was here and she was—where? In some quaint olde worlde teashop by now, scoffing up scones with Iduna, while he was being led up the forest path by an overexcited id. Why the flaming perdition didn't Tim and Dan come along and wake him up?
Maybe they'd decided he needed his rest, and left him to slumber among the beer pumps while they quaffed their restoratives. No, they wouldn't have allowed him to remain draped over the bar for some wandering professor to see and to deride. They'd have dragged him over and laid him down on one those oaken benches so picturesquely hollowed by so many generations of bucolic buttocks.
His wisest course might therefore be to select a likely root and lie down upon it, perhaps conjuring up a few robins to cover him with leaves for added comfort. Then he could dream himself to sleep so that he could wake up on all levels of consciousness at once, and get the show back on the road.
Why couldn't he have simply dreamed himself out into that fine stand of hogweed? He could have got in a spot of preliminary investigation and saved himself some time. Peter could see no hogweed around here, wherever here might be. Too shady, no doubt. It was going to be a howling shame to cut down such noble trees as these. They'd have to go sometime, though, so the land could be cleared for farming. He hoped he'd wake up before that happened.
Excerpted from The Curse of the Giant Hogweed by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1985 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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