The Night Before the Competition

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The frail figure of the Great Lord Butterworth, ninety-sixth Marquess of Blackwood, holder of the Golden Trowel and second favourite candidate for this year's Guardian of the Gardens is currently staring at a cabbage in his hand with nothing short of abject horror. This, you could be forgiven for thinking, is quite an extreme reaction to take to a cabbage no matter its condition, but I have to tell you that on this occasion the Marquess' consternation is quite justified. You see, this particular cabbage, a "Summer Delight" or "Aestas Delectatio" to use its proper name, has been entered by the Marquess into the annual Castle Blackwood Best Vegetable Competition, and as anyone from Blackwood will tell you, this is a very big deal indeed. In fact, so big a deal is the Castle Blackwood Best Vegetable Competition that, if you were to ask a local whether or not it was, in fact, a big deal, they would probably look at you very suspiciously and mutter something under their breath about "Bloody foreigners."

It is the night before the great event and the Marquess is turning the cabbage, which has a large, suspiciously boot-shaped bruise in it, around and around in his hands in disbelief as he stands in the moon-drenched castle gardens. He'd had a lot riding on that cabbage. His whole campaign had been built around it. What was the point of having hourly patrols of the gardens if things like this were still allowed to happen? This was an important competition! His chances of success were now destroyed and with them his bid for power. It really was an abominable crime, he thinks to himself, as there is no one else around to whom he can complain. If you were going to have an electoral system which was intrinsically linked to one's ability to grow fruit and vegetables, then said produce belonging to the Lords of the Realm should really be afforded better protection. Otherwise the whole thing was a ruddy farce! He shudders in horror at the thought of his rival, Lord Spigot, seizing power because his dreadful cucumbers take the golden rosette that should rightfully be his. Then it dawns on him that he doesn't recall seeing the rat Spigot at dinner in the keep that evening. Outrage! Sabotage! The dastardly knave must have snuck off to destroy his, the Great Lord Butterworth's, sure-to-be-prize-winning cabbage! Who knew what other wicked deeds the monster had in store once he had seized power? The man might outlaw growing cabbages altogether! He had always been jealous that he didn't have the skill himself. Well, the Marquess was not about to let that happen! He places the "Summer Delight" reverently back onto the soil and then straightens up with a vindictive light in his eyes. He knows of some cucumbers that are not going to make it through the night!

As the Great Lord Butterworth scuttles away towards the greenhouse, high up on the castle wall overlooking the gardens Grundell, the night watchman, follows him with his keen eyes. For the watchman has been observing the gardens from his lofty station all night. He saw the shadowy figure that stamped on Lord Butterworth's cabbages, just as he is watching the Marquess attempt to pick the greenhouse lock as we speak. In fact he has closely watched all the comings and goings in the garden and has so far seen a total of twenty three acts of sabotage since his supper. He is disgusted. Grundell has stood that wall for four decades, since he took the post from his father before him. Every night during this time he has done his duty diligently, especially during competition seasons, and as a result he now holds the record among the other watchmen for most sabotage attempts thwarted; a stunning four thousand seven hundred and sixty three! However, this year Grundell has had enough. What is the point, he has finally asked himself, of stopping ten, twenty or even thirty plots when inevitably someone always finds a way through? He knows for a fact that not a single one of the so-called elected Earls of the last twenty five years has won without some kind of irregularities taking place within the walled gardens. He has seen it all, from weed killer in the water troughs, to smashed greenhouses, from deliberately released rabbits, to whole vegetable beds set alight! What a night that was! When he was younger he'd blamed himself; he was letting his old man down. What would the man have said, if he had lived to see the sacred competition befouled in this way? Grundell could picture it now, even after all these years. "Boy," the old man would have said in his gruff way, "The first Duke of Blackwood didn't cut the mad king's head off all those years ago for the fun of it! He did it to free us from tyranny and bring true democracy to this land. We owe it to him, all of us, to do our duty and weed out corruption wherever it springs up." The man had never let a single competition be spoilt in all his seventy years.

But things had been different then. Slowly it had become clear that, no matter how vigilant Grundell was, things were only getting worse. It seemed democracy had lost its sheen. The Castle Blackwood Best Vegetable Competition had been started by the first Duke because everyone had agreed that it made sense. After all, people had seen how power and wealth corrupted; you just had to look at the last king. They say the castle walls ran red when he was in power. So given that, how could a simple vote ever be free from corruption? From intimidation to ballot fixing, the list of ways to pervert the course of an election was endless. But you can't trick a vegetable. You can't bully a fruit. The best was the best and that was that. Even better the evidence was there for all to see, out on display. If ever a specimen was deemed to be the best when another clearly deserved the title, then people would know and they wouldn't be happy. And clearly, they'd all thought, any man who could nurture a prize-winning vegetable had the stuff it took to nurture a great nation! Blackwood's time of living in fear of its own leaders was over.

At least that was the theory, thinks Grundell as he strokes his stubbly chin. But people had become lax. The bad days seemed nothing but a distant memory. The old king just a bogeyman, something to scare the children with. Slowly the corruption had seeped back in and it was the people who let it happen. Of all the sabotage plots he had foiled over the years, not one of the perpetrators had been properly punished. And the ones that succeeded were not even investigated. But that was no surprise, given the people in charge were the very people who had cheated in the first place. Lackeys might not have access to gardens but that didn't stop the nobles doing their own dirty work. Slowly Grundell had watched as the democracy his father had loved so much rotted around him. Well this year they can do as they like, thinks Grundell, as he watches Lord Butterworth emerge from the greenhouse and wave a broken cucumber triumphantly in the direction of the keep. Other figures are already moving about in the shadows below. Let them play their little games he thinks. What difference will it make in the end? He is sick of the whole business. He turns his back on the gardens, well before dawn, for the first time in forty years, and with a heavy sigh begins to make his way down from the wall. There was a stew on at home, and his own vegetables to look after in the small plot behind his hut. Yes, let the Lords do as they please. He gives up.

The night passes, and after, as it is often wont to do, comes the dawn. A large rook is sitting in the branches of a magnificent black oak in the centre of the castle's pleasure gardens. The tree, a Quercus Nigrum, is of the very species that gave the Blackwood, and by extension the castle, its name and its long branches cast a dappled shade on the lawns below. Beneath, some kind of hubbub has attracted the crows attention. Grundell is there. So is the current Duke, who has a face like thunder as he hands the watchman a shiny rosette. The watchman seems bemused as he accepts his prize, but the many faces gathered around are red and angry. There seems to be much shouting and waving of fists. Giving up on trying to make sense of the scene the rook takes off from its tree and flies in a wide arc around the walled gardens. The place is a mess. Vegetables are spread all over the place in bits and pieces and the smell of decay is heavy in the air. Puzzled, it wheels off towards where it knows it can always find a cosy place to watch the morning sun. It makes for its favourite spot behind a small thatched hut in the castle grounds, and lands on the handle of a gardening fork, habitually left in the soil. Below is a small crop of carrots poking out of the soil, and although a few have been carefully removed, they are the only intact vegetables the crow has seen anywhere in the castle all morning.

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