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Iranian Lettuce

Trout was a lonesome child. Through no fault of his own, a result of his father’s economy of thought when he bought a house in Grafham, the boy was destined to a childhood devoid of friends. With no other children in the village his age, Mike Trout lived out a condemned adolescence condemning wildlife to existence in a jam-jar. “For breeding,” he used to tell his mother when he brought home the pots stuffed with dragon-flies, hawk-moths and stag-beetles and a few days later, habitually mounted their cadavers on the squares of card he would later consign to drawers labelled: “SPECIMINS - KEEP OUT!”.

Trout had a death-wish for nature’s smaller creatures that some considered cruel. Was possessed of a maniacal patience that disposed him to pass whole days herding colonies of ants into matchboxes. All for five minutes’ joy with a magnifying-glass the next morning, as he turned nature against itself and focused the sun’s rays to a smouldering pinpoint on the box’s surface, delighting in the fomenting and sizzling of formic acid. School summer holidays, in Trout’s lonely mind, were for stalking the hedgerows with a butterfly-net on red-alert. Later, he would make his captives breathe the wad of cotton-wool soaked in chloroform he concealed in a bottle. Assiduously added the occasional tortoiseshell, peacock, red-admiral to his extensive collection of assorted cabbage-whites which jostled for space in his bedroom with the jars of beetles, pupae, caterpillars. He nurtured ambitions of one day owning a praying-mantis and meanwhile honed his dreams with a vivarium of stick-insects. Estimated that in the five years of keeping his twiggy arthropods, they had collectively gorged neighbour Reverend Arkwright’s hedge twice over and was happy to let the retired vicar ponder the reason why the privet grew better one side than the other.

Trout Senior turned a blind eye to his son’s dark psychology, said it was part of growing up in the country. He made a mildly profitable living from a plant hire business, more specifically a JCB, hired out daily, with himself as driver, to dig drains, foundations, septic tanks for local builders, swimming pools for the well-off, roadside ditches for the Huntingdon District Council. Was content with his lot and nourished only one ambition for his son: that he didn’t pass a lifetime getting piles, sitting in a tractor shifting levers and staring at the depth of blue clay.

Mike Trout, an authority on lepidoptera at fourteen years old, rolled his eyes round their sockets, sucked at his bulging tongue and knew he was going to get wet. He pedalled a mad dash between the traffic of the Northbound carriageway and headed for the shelter of the oak tree a hundred yards ahead. Could feel the asthma clawing at his chest and remembered he’d forgotten his inhaler. Behind him, the traffic on the Great North Road evaporated in a haze of spray as he raced for the leafless thatch of branches that would do little to stem the torrent of water already pouring from the black November sky. And the two miles home now seemed as forbidding as a cold shower after football at school. He jumped from his bike, hugged himself to the trunk and, through the drops cascading in waterfalls down the lenses of his specs, saw the world go funny.

He looked wishfully beyond the thick scrub of cotoneaster hedge beside him, to the cottage he’d always assumed abandoned. The only other habitation a rifle-shot away. Noticed smoke being forced back down the chimney, a light burning in the kitchen and conjectured he must’ve been wrong. He took stock of the wood piled against the trunk of the apple tree in the garden, the neatness of the flower-beds, the well-tilled soil. And saw how the lace curtains twitched.

The front door of the cottage opened and a crinkly woman in a pinny called out through the drops of rain now spearing the earth like javelins.

“You wanna come in for a cuppa tea, my dear! You’ll get wet standing there!”

Trout once again hurled himself under the sheets of rain, pushed his bike through the narrow gate and left it leaning against the Flemish bond brickwork of the turn-of-the-century cottage. Then pelted for the door where the stout lady stood wiping her hands on the front of her pinny and bemoaning the afternoon’s weather.

“Look at you!” she said, as Trout squeezed himself under cover and stood in the doorway dripping water onto the freshly polished lino. “You’d ought to take your parka off so as we can dry it by the Aga.”

And the apple-pie scented lady helped him off with his coat as Trout set foot in the sparsely furnished kitchen. A simple table flanked by two cottage chairs faced a blazing range, and on the opposite wall, a faucet dripped into a cracked sink. There was no fridge, no oven, no evidence of the opulent 1990s whose doorstep we were just about to breach. Only a pine-dresser of old crockery stood proudly in that kitchen, a postcard of Yarmouth adorning its mantelpiece. In the far corner, silent as the furniture itself and staring amazedly at Trout, an old man was cradled in an armchair, clinging to the arms for dear life. Trout was on the point of an about turn when the man surprised him with speech.

“You goin’ far?” “Only Grafham,” Trout replied. “You better sit here an’ dry yourself out while the rain blows over,” Jack told him, pointing to one of two cottage chairs. “There’s no use bein’ out in this.”

That was the first afternoon Trout met Jack and Peggy. Weathered a happy hour in their company while the storm blew over. He noted the way they fussed over the rich tea biscuits Peggy laid out on a plate, the way Jack got up to make the tea. Judged them a couple devoted to each other and wished his own mum and dad could be so affectionate.


That night, as the smell of rain smouldered in their cramped bedroom, Peggy lay awake, threatened by the uneven plaster in the ceiling, saw its cracks scowling down at her. Wondered if she’d done wrong to show charity to the boy and couldn’t drive away the thought of PC Barton’s visit the month before, warning them of thieves in the county, lads down from Nottingham hawking tea-towels, dishcloths, oven-gloves as recce for prospective burglaries. She turned to Jack and wrapped her big cauliflower hands round the atrophying biceps of the ex-hodge.


“The Ouse’ll be up tomorrow.”

“There was something wrong with that boy’s eyes. You think he’s all there?

“Don’t be daft, he were cold.”

“When did you last check behind the kitchen dresser?”

“It’s still there, Peggy. Go to sleep.”

And he turned out the light on Peggy’s ugly premonitions. Left her to dream of all the evil things that could befall one, old and alone in the country, and to imagine the mice running off with her porcelain dolls. She awoke the next morning to find the kitchen exactly as she’d left it, the cat curled up by the fire and the world in its nest. Picking up the broom, she swept vigorously at the lino on the kitchen floor and wished all her uncharitable thoughts to be pushed beneath the doormat. She never said another word to Jack about Trout’s eyes. Chastised herself sorely for assuming his astigmatism a sign of malevolence.


The following Spring saw Trout frequently strolling the farm tracks that led to Brampton Woods, scouring the hedgerows and verges for brimstones, small blues, orangetips and meadow-browns. He would often come across Jack, shunting by the horns a bicycle laden with firewood, gripping by the ears, a rabbit destined for the pot or studying the imminent weather from beneath the refuge of his cap’s shallow peak. The old hodge would always stop, comment on the forming cirrus, the late-blossoming hawthorn, the scent of a dog fox and Trout would nod sagely, amazed how an ex-farm labourer could know so many facts. Saw in those leaky brown eyes a lonely old man whose only solace was to wander the farm-tracks and take account of nature. Knew Jack never ventured further than the fields around his cottage, and other than the occasional wave to a passing farmhand, had precious little contact with the outside world. And knew he himself was company of sorts.

Besides, warming their backs in the April sun, Trout was happy to lay down his butterfly net and listen to Jack tell stories of the local farmland, reminiscing of the days when the work was done by cart horse. Was mesmerised by the sound of Jack’s voice, its soft Huntingdonshire vowels, its consonants like butter, its rounded musical tone. Felt at ease, knowing he didn’t have to answer back and chat, just nod his head and listen to the long lines of words. Felt a certain warmth for the man.

Their affection was mutual. Jack was proud the boy took an interest in nature, saw him as his protégé, an ally against the growing ranks of school-boys who couldn’t tell a kestrel from a cuckoo, elder from alder, a weasel from a stoat.

It was Mrs. Squire in the post office, Ellington, burst the bubble of Trout’s great illusion. He’d only gone to buy a jar of Horlicks but in the course of their conversation he mentioned old Jack up at Grange Farm Cottage, and Mrs. Squire suddenly went all cold. She gave him a squirmy look like Trout’d got involved with something evil, then leaned low over the counter to speak in a whisper. She put straight what had never occurred to young Trout.

Jack and Peggy were not husband and wife.


After Mrs. Squire told Trout the truth about Jack, a great cloud of unknowing began to form in the adolescent’s mind. Had Jack ever done it with his sister? Or was he one of those who’d never had it? Answers in either direction made Trout all strange, understood now why Mrs. Squire went squirmy.

After that, Trout didn’t go back to see Jack much more. Gave up butterflies and stick-insects and took to reading books.


Years went by, and Trout was in his last year at school. He’d turned out bright, done well in his GCSEs, and made his parents proud. Looked like he’d get to university - a Trout family first.

But one thing still burned away in Trout’s pining heart. He’d never had a girl and he didn’t want to end up at seventy being like Jack. He had the field to lie down in but no girl to take to the pastures. Saw how all his friends had got over that hurdle, but still couldn’t straddle it himself. Identified his problem as never getting on the guest-list to the parties where ‘it’ happened. Reasoned it his reputation as a swat, and resolved to roughen up his image. He wondered if he ought to take up smoking, but on account of his asthma, dismissed it as unwise. And drugs were out of the question. Cannabis, round Grafham, was rarer than adolescent females.

It was a leaflet picked up from the table of an animal rights group on Huntingdon market that presented the solution - a mail-order firm in Cornwall supplying hemp seeds to order and Trout hit upon the notion that a crop of home-grown leaves and a willingness to deal would earn him an income of party invitations. Reckoned that by dishing out the dope at parties he’d surely get a wink from a girl.

The only obstacle in Trout’s zany scheme was how he might propagate the seeds without his mother finding out. It was then that he remembered an out-of-the-way cottage and a senile gardener who would be only to happen to help him.


“Jack, I bought something for you,” Trout said, tipping the seeds from the small tobacco tin onto the surface of the table. “It’s a rare kind of Iranian lettuce. They’d do well planted out behind the potting shed. They grow five feet tall, and got big, strap-like leaves. Only, you don’t just go putting’m in salad. They’re more like herbs. You gotta hang the leaves up to dry. Wait for the winter. Add them to a soup. Good for keeping colds at bay.”

“Alright then. Only you’d better come ‘n’ ‘elp me when you thinks they’re ready for pickin’.”

“No question of that, Jack. You just make sure you give’m a good watering every morning and they’ll be up ready for harvesting by July. That’s what the instructions say.”

Deep in Trout’s scheming mind was the notion he’d creep back one night to pinch the drying herbs from Jack’s potting shed and replace them with lupin leaves from his mother’s garden. Knew the presbyopic Jack would never tell the difference.


Then three months later, and the day after Trout had helped Jack harvest his leaves, Peggy had her accident.

She’d been crossing the A1, pushing her bicycle, and hadn’t seen the car coming up behind the lorry. She’d been taken off to intensive care in Addenbrookes, but there wasn’t much hope of her coming out of the coma and Jack was beside himself. He stuck it out for two days on his own at Grange cottage, but then was up the farm asking Handley for a lift to Cambridge. In the hospital ward, Jack sat down by Peggy’s bed and never moved from her side. When the nurses kindly told him visits were finished for the day, he bluntly responded he was staying with his sister. Threatened to slash his wrists if they threw him off the ward, so the ward-matron found him a room in the hospital.


It was a burning July night two days later and Trout was sat in a pub out Needingworth way with Digger, Liam and Zoë, washing vodka and cokes, pints of Guinness and tequila-slammers down their necks. Fresh from school exams, virginal and desperate, Trout was burning with a desire to conquer women and the recklessness of knowing he wasn’t going to die just yet. Saw his hope in Zoë.

Fifteen years old, fantastic red curls and curves like an ampersand, Zoë was endowed with a talent for sex already familiar to most of the boys in the sixth form. Trout knew she’d not refuse an offer of a trip to the cornfields on a hot July night - if only he could lose their two chaperones. But Trout thought it all more complicated than it really was. Never realised that at the mention of a tumble in the hay Zoë would’ve improvised a cornfield from the back seat of his car, while Digger and Liam sat drinking in the pub. Instead, Trout saw his hope in the Persian salad drying in Jack’s shed. Knew the old man was in Addenbrokes, and thought it would be simple enough to stop by and get the weed. Take it up to Brampton Wood and smoke it. Then once he’d lost Digger and Liam in a haze of dope, the cornfield would be all for him and Zoë.

“You lot fancy a smoke? I know where there’s a decent bit of weed,” Trout suggested. And they tumbled out of the pub, all four of them ripe for adventure.

A hand-brake turn at the car-park exit spun Trout’s Fiat 127 in the direction of Grafham and the feeling of imminent catastrophe vanished in a haze of beer. He accelerated down the hill at Houghton, pushed the needle up to eighty and knew they were going to have fun. Then failed to negotiate the bend into Hartford, mounted the kerb at seventy and relinquished control of car to the intuitive genius of the beer he’d been drinking.

At Grange Farm Cottage, he pulled off the road into the entrance of the farm track that led to Brampton Woods. The moon was full, he could negotiate the track without lights, and no-one would discover them smoking up there by the copse. He stopped the engine, told the others he’d only be a minute.

“Just get the weed, man.”

Trout took his pocket knife out of the glove-box and, stumbling from the car, stalked towards the potting shed, where, the week before, on the afternoon before Peggy’s accident, he’d helped Jack hang the weed. Heard Digger running up behind him, tripping over molehills in the grass.

“Fuck, Trout! You can’t just take things out of other people’s greenhouses in the middle of the night. What if they catch us!”

Trout turned, and opening his buttock, propelled a fart in the direction of the orchard. Heard an owl call back.

“They’re both in hospital. What they going to do about it?”

Zoë had got out of the car to wretch. The sound of gurgling vomit rent the still night air and a few yards from Digger, a foul-smelling cocktail looped in a great arc towards the rows of asparagus.

“Urrrgh!” Digger cried out and went hurtling off round the other side of the cottage where Liam was now watering the fennel with a spray of urine.

Trout pushed open the door of the potting shed and stepped inside. He ran his hand along the rafters to search for the twine securing the weed to the roof, then clipped the string with his pocket-knife and brought the bundles of weed to the worktop.

Meanwhile, Zoë, upright again and listing in the direction of the hedge, had lit a cigarette to take the taste of puke from her palate. Liam tripped and swore. Having relieved his bladder of the snakebites and vodka, he was now snooping round the cottage searching for a souvenir of rustic life. He pushed opportunely at the back door and felt the wood swing inwards. Someone had forgotten to secure the latch.

Trout collected up the bundle of home-grown and was heading back to the car when he noticed the open back-door and realised they’d invited themselves inside. A sobering panic broke over him.

“You lot, I’ve got the weed,” he called out, breaching the threshold of the property, unaware that upstairs a sad and drunken man turned in his sleep, nightmares of adolescent voices breaking on the waves of his dreams.

“You wanna come ‘n’ ‘ave a jar o’ this mate.”

Trout crept through the immaculate living room and turned into the moonlit kitchen, where he saw Liam looking for money among the drawers of the dresser.

“Hey, Liam. You can’t do this. This is Jack’s house. He’d be wild if he knew we’d broken in…”

“Thought you said ‘e was in ‘ospital?”

“He is. But…”

“Then we’re alright, innit?”

“Have some o’ this…” and Digger raised a glass to Trout.

He was sitting comfortably at the kitchen table where the remains of Jack’s wake still littered the table - a half-empty demijohn of elderflower wine and a single tumbler. Digger had poured himself a glass of the hooch and now tipped it back in a single gulp. There was a spluttering, choking, as he wiped his chops.

“Fuck, that’s strong.”

Trout had the idea he’d better leave them to it. He wasn’t going to leave his fingerprints on Jack’s glasses. Or be searched by the police with Jack’s money in his pocket. He’d take Zoë up the wood on her own and let them get on with their larceny. He turned to head back into the garden, but as he wandered through the sitting-room he found Zoë now crashed out on the sofa. Said, “Bloody idiots those two. You fancy going up the wood to have a smoke?”

Zoë pulled him down on top of her. She put her tongue in his ear, began to scour his lobes with the tip of her wand and whispered that she didn’t give a damn for Eastern leaves, said she wanted his cherries instead. She grabbed hold of his trousers, began to grapple at the fly and Trout lost himself to the rush of adrenaline. Dropped his precious Farsi salad to the floor, ripped at her shirt, and tugged at her bra until it came away in his hand. The big fleshy eye of her nipple stared up at him and Trout began to suck. Zoë unbuttoned his shirt and massaged his blubbery chest with her lovely fingers while Trout let the beer do the work as he pulled off Zoë’s jeans and threw them to the floor. Poked around with his grubby finger and hoped he was doing the right thing.

Zoë knew the tumble wouldn’t last long and began to regret she hadn’t opted for the dope. She felt for Trout’s cock, found it already sticky with come but dragged it inside her and at once felt Trout’s sledge-hammer pounding rocking the boat of Jack’s sofa. Heard the floorboards knocking out their angry rhythm and wondered if the couch would hold.

Digger was drowning himself in the pleasure of Jack’s home-brewed elderflower wine, knocking it back like it was cough mixture when Liam put his hand down the back of the kitchen dresser, felt the cold touch of gun-metal and knew exactly what it was.

“Fuck, Digger, take a look at this,” he whispered as he brought the .303 Lee-Enfield out into the moonlight to aim it through the window at the crazy stars.

“Shit, man, how d’you know it ain’t loaded?” Digger felt the blood in his veins cool a few degrees. “Don’t you know all farmers keep a loaded gun in the kitchen!”

Liam grinned then put the rifle back down behind the dresser. Digger sank another glass of hooch as Liam left the kitchen and began to climb the stairs to look for jewellery.

Trout was just pulling up his trousers round the dampness of his loins when he heard Liam scream and roll down the stairs like thunder.

“Fuck man, there’s someone up there!”

Trout wrestled with the buckle of his belt and laughed out loud, certain that Liam had just been fooled by Jack’s cat Tansy. Walked to the bottom of the stairs where he met Liam’s stare, white with fear.

“Let’s get outta here!” he heard Digger slur through the darkness.

“You just set eyes on Tansy!” And began to mount the stairs. Never took accord of the heavy length of metal, Liam had just thrust in his hand. He’d never been upstairs in Jack’s house before.

At the top of the stairs, he swaggered into the first bedroom, saw Jack sitting up in bed, frozen with terror.

“Who are you?” Jack’s voice tremored.

“Jack, what the fuck are you doing here?” Trout hollowed, suddenly becoming aware of the rifle in his hands.

“My God, that’s you Trout.”

“You’re supposed to be in Addenbrokes!”

“What are you doing in here?”

“Just came to see you’re alright.”

“You wait, I’ll tell the police it was you.”

Trout went cold. If police got involved, things would get heavy. What with the weed and all that. And how would his parents take it? Suddenly felt the gun take aim at the head of the raging geriatric.

“Peggy died today. Don’t you understand boy?”

“Jack, you make a promise you aren’t going to tell the police, and I won’t pull the trigger.”

“Trout, that gun’s loaded. You pull the trigger and I’m dead.

“Make a promise…”

“I told you, Peggy died today…”

“I said make a promise…”


“… a promise!”

Jack made a lurch for the gun. Trout went nervous, backed against the wall, knocked a vase from the dresser and saw the chrysanthemums spill to the floor. Jack was out of bed now and had hold of chair which he was raising above his shoulder like he wanted to bring it crashing down on Trout’s head. But Trout was backed into a corner, couldn’t see how he was going to escape. He pulled the trigger, saw Jack’s face explode in front of his head. Heard Zoë scream downstairs. Digger and Liam rushing up behind him. Saw the whole horror of what he’d done.

“Fuck, let’s get out of here, quick.” Liam was already shoving Trout down the stairs. Urging him away, telling Zoë they had to get in the car quick, pushing Digger towards the back door.

They never saw Digger searching in his pockets for a box of matches, calmly and coldly, putting a light to the cover of the sofa before hurrying outside to the potting shed where he’d noticed the tin of lawn-mower petrol. Zoë and Liam bundling themselves into the back of the Fiat urging Trout they had to get away, shouting, “where the fuck’s Digger?!”

As he started the car, Trout could see the light a quarter of a mile away in Grange Farm and knew they’d heard the shot. Thought he could see Handley charging across the field in the moonlight, then was blinded by the glare and an enormous explosion. Digger, having hurled the tin of petrol through the window of the cottage was now pushing himself through the tiny door of the Fiat saying, “move it Trout!”

Trout spun the wheels, whipped the car round onto the farm track and in his rear-view mirror watched the awful pyre of his maniacal madness fade to a dot.


Trout never did get caught. Never even had a visit from the police. No-one had seen them and there was no other reason to suspect them. The Law had been of the same opinion as the locals. It must have been those lads down from Nottingham, surprised in the middle of the robbery who had shot Jack dead and torched the house. But no-one, not even in the Midlands ever went to court over it.

There was an irony in what unfolded later. After the cottage burnt down, and the police inspectors had crawled all over it and the insurance assessors had had their say, the Church Commission decided to demolish it. Trout Senior got the job.

Trout Senior had never known Jack. Neither had he ever known of his, and Trout Junior’s one time mutual affection.

It was a wintry morning with a hoar frost gripping the ground. Trout parked his JCB by the oak tree and took one last stroll round the charred and burnt timbers. Poked his nose in the still-standing potting shed. Saw Jack’s old tools still hanging in the racks and on the shelves, the stacks of flower-pots, the bags of seeds. There, open on the shelf was the pen-knife he’d had as a boy, engraved with his own initials, and which he once give to Trout junior as a present. Trout Senior was too frightened to draw the obvious explanation that stared him in the face. He preferred to live without knowing the truth and was happy to let time convince him that Trout junior had dropped the pocket-knife while out collecting butterflies.

And Jack, in the magpie ways of country people, had found it.

To be published in my forthcoming anthology "Ploughing Songs" available from Amazon

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