A short story by the acclaimed author Brian Aldiss OBE.
Harry Cardman was gardener to the Mainbergs of Helizburg House, a grand mansion in the midlands of England.
Luck came Cardman’s way when he featured in a BBC TV programme on gardening. He appeared only for four or five minutes by his brother’s count (his brother Ken was an accountant), but in that time said something intelligent about clematis plants.
The Mainbergs happened to be watching the programme. Realising that his gardener had some intelligence, a quality he deemed not particularly necessary in gardeners, Sir Thomas Mallory Mainberg began to walk in his gardens and so chance to talk with Harry.
Harry was circumspect. He had no wish to lose his job; suspicious by nature, he reckoned that if he appeared to be becoming too friendly with the governor, the governor might come to resent it — and to sack him.
However, things changed when Mainberg enquired what exactly Cardman was growing in the small Daphne Greenhouse. The Daphne was named after an aunt-by-marriage, now dead, who in later life had become eccentric. The greenhouse named after her had remained derelict for some years, standing behind a giant clump of pampas.
Showing the governor into the greenhouse, Cardman explained that he had taken to growing daphnes in the greenhouse. It seemed appropriate.
“Ah, yes, daphnes, Cardman. Originally a Chinese plant.”
“Yes, sir, Chinese. I have branched out, as you can see. I trust you’ll not mind when i admit to growing other plants of Chinese origin in here — Jasmines, Corydalis, lillies, primulas...”
Mainberg lent on his stick to look frowningly at his gardener. “You amaze me, Cardman. Why exactly this interest in China? Have you ever been to that extraordinary country?”
“No, sir, I have not had that good fortune. But I did spend some months working in Thailand — in the British Embassy grounds — and there I became friendly with Chinese people. I liked them greatly.”
“I know the embassy in Bangkok. Extensive grounds...”
“Indeed, sir, but unfortunately over-run by hares. The local hare. At least when I was working there.”
“Hares? Good heavens! Never knew that. Our ambassador never mentioned hares in my presence.”
“No doubt he considered hares beneath his dignity, sir.”
Mainberg gave what he considered was a curt nod and stomped out of the greenhouse. It never did to be too affable with the riff-raff he employed.
Thinning of hair, reddening of nose, and a recently worn addition of silver-frame spectacles, had given Mainberg a seedy look of late. Age having also bowed his shoulders, an unfriendly joker of a cousin had described Mainberg’s appearance as that of a ‘rain-soaked haystack’.
Moreover, age had been at another of its usual works, in failing to improve his lordship’s temper. Now, sitting with his wife, Lady Caroline, over dinner at 8 pm, he became grumpy at the approach of the sweet, a multi-coloured blancmange.
“Blancmange!”, he exclaimed in disgust. “French word – send the bloody thing back to France. You know I loathe the stuff.”
“It is one of cook’s masterpieces,” said Lady Caroline, in tones suggesting she liked the cook less than her husband liked blancmange, “Will you have some mince pie instead?”
When he consented to that proposal, she was moved to say that he seemed rather rarified this evening.”
“Rarified? Rarified?” He admitted that he was rather out of touch. Something on his mind he was unable to recall. That troubled him. Mind failing, mind going...
“I observe that you failed to brush your hair,” said Lady Caroline, haughtily.
Mainberg smote the table top. “Yes, that’s it, of course! Hare! Hare... the gardener chap, Cardigan, was waffling on about hares...”
Smiling in an awful way, he began to tell his wife a story, ignoring the mince pie, accompanied by a bowl of brandy butter which the butler had brought in.
“It was my second tour of duty in China. You weren’t accompanying me. No doubt you were back here in Tessingford, taking it easy and bearing another child...
“Anyway, I was doing my stuff in the province of Sichuan. This was the year after Chairman Mao had died – whatever year that was. I was talking in a small town when a woman came up to speak to me. She had just begun to operate a small new radio-broadcasting station and was having trouble with local authorities. Oh yes, her name was Shu Chei. I remember it now. A good-looking young woman. Hmm.
“One of Mao’s edicts had been that children of richer classes should go to live with the peasants for a while and so learn country skills and manners.
“Shu Chei and three of her friends – all of good families – were then in their last year at finishing school when they were ordered to go and muck in and learn among the peasants.
“There had been a culture in Sichuan fifteen centuries before Jesus Christ. The four young ladies found that the peasants had scarcely advanced since then. In fact, the confounded peasants were cruel and filthy. Filthy and cruel...
“These ruffians hated to be stuck with four educated young women who had superior manners and knew nothing of country matters – such as, for instance, how to castrate a goat. Essential for all right-thinking persons.
“To punish the unfortunate newcomers, they were given damn all to eat. They had to live off the gross remains of a peasant meal, or to eat grass, or the blooms or fruits of certain shrubs. They were reduced to starvation level and could hardly drag themselves about. And that formed a motivation for more persecution.
“A lesson there for all of us, Christine, old girl. Being poor is a loathsome state to be in, not at all the halcyon state the Romantics portray it as. Never vote Labour...
“Shu Chei was eventually driven to construct a little trap, fashioned with the flexible outer branches of a willow tree. They wove a cage of sticks. The girls set this contraption on a bank near where they slept. By this time the peasants had rejected them and left them alone.
“They awoke next morning at dawn. Lo and behold, what had they caught in their trap!?
“Why, a well-fed young hare, struggling to get free. Two of the girls hurriedly gathered up litter and started a fire on which they could cook the creature. Shu and the other girl dragged the hare from the cage, keeping a firm grasp of it, no matter how hard it struggled.
“They looked at the hare and saw how beautiful it was, how frightened its eyes were.
“They kissed it and petted it. And — mark this! — they apologised that they had to kill it so that they might live.
“All four of those girls wept as they strangled that hare...”
Mainberg fell silent. A tear stood in his eye.
“I’ve never forgotten all that,” he said. “Do we ever offer up an apology for all the animals and fish we kill and eat?
“Doesn’t that tell you something about Chinese culture? Isn’t it superior to ours? Those poor starving girls...”
“Yes,” said Lady Christine. “And of course you have told me that dreary tale many times before... Get on with your pudding, dear.”