THE GARDEN ORNAMENT
‘It’s a disaster’.
Special Agent Collins stood back and surveyed the statue with dismay.
‘Whatever possessed him? It’s such an insult. Do you think it’s deliberate or just pure ignorance?’
His colleague, Agent Barnes, looked on dubiously. ‘Hard to tell, you just never know with the guy. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and believing it’s deliberate doesn’t improve things though’.
The two secret service agents had been looking forward to joining the US President’s protection team for his forthcoming visit to the United Kingdom. State dinners, parades, visits to Downing Street…. their imaginations had been running wild with the potential excitement. It had come as something of a shock to discover that they had been tasked primarily with providing protection for the President’s gift to the Queen. In itself, not such a bad assignment, except for the fact that the Queen was likely to be horrified by the gift. The statue of Zeus, symbol of male power, was not only wildly inappropriate but in this case also spectacularly crude. There was little doubt that Her Majesty would decipher the message behind the sentiment, but of course she would be too diplomatic to say anything.
As they contemplated the statue their boss, agent Hoskins, arrived. ‘So you’ve seen it then?’ he asked with more than a slight note of dejection. ‘Sure have’ replied Collins, it’s not what you would call understated’. ‘So you’ll have guessed your mission, in that case?’ Barnes turned to Hoskins with a hint of indignation. ‘Just because we’re not safeguarding the President himself it doesn’t mean we won’t do our jobs properly’ he retorted, standing to attention and laying a protective hand on the statue while trying to avoid its ample male appendage.
‘I don’t think you’ve completely understood’ said Hoskins. ‘This mustn’t reach the Queen – we’d be a laughing stock. Your job is to make sure it disappears and something more acceptable arrives in its place. You won’t have much of a window – the President will want to check it’s safely loaded onto AirForce 1 but after that he won’t know anything about it until the Queen thanks him for his gift. The thank you letters follow a standard format in order not to show any biases, so he won’t know it has been replaced, and fortunately he’s only at the Palace briefly so he won’t expect to see it.’
Barnes and Collins looked back at him, astonished. ‘So what are we supposed to do with it? And what do we replace it with? What happens if the President finds out? ‘
‘I don’t know and I don’t care. This conversation never happened. See you at the Palace.’
And with that, Hoskins was gone, leaving his stunned employees open-mouthed and speechless.
The flight was due to leave at 6pm that evening and arrive in the UK in the early hours of the following morning. It was already midday. The two agents were waiting for the President to arrive and board around 3pm; he would hold a meeting with his advisors, guests and travelling press before take-off and would then have dinner and a sleep until touchdown. Barnes and Collins had been looking forward to the trip and the luxuries of the well-equipped 747 but now their thoughts were focussed elsewhere with an edge of desperation.
Collins, the older and more experienced of the two agents by a small margin, felt the need to take some sort of control. ‘We need a plan’, he said, without any idea of what he was going to say next. ‘You don’t say’ responded Barnes sarcastically. ‘Any ideas, or shall we just offer our resignations now?’
Collins tried to get his thought processes working. ‘Let’s look at the travel plans again. Maybe there’s somewhere we can ‘leave it’ on the way from the airport’.
‘But we’ll need to swap it for something along the way – there has to be a gift for the Queen and it has to be wrapped up to look like the statue in case the President sees it being transported. ‘
‘That’s too difficult to arrange and too risky. We need to get a substitute now and get it wrapped up and loaded with Zeusy here, and then we can dump him when we get a chance.’
‘Ok, good point. We’d better get moving then. Not sure if there’s a local branch of ‘Statues-R-us but maybe I could try Amazon…’
‘Very funny’. Collins wasn’t laughing. ‘You don’t seem to be taking this seriously. Our jobs are on the line here and personally I don’t fancy choosing between the wrath of the President and that of Hoskins. Let’s get on with it’.
The owner of the Yellow Barn Gallery on McArthur Boulevard immediately detected that the two dark suited visitors were not connoisseurs. They were clearly in a hurry and their conversations were littered with phrases such as ‘too small’, ‘too heavy’ or ‘she’d probably hate it more than Zeus’. He wandered over with an offer of assistance. Collins flashed his badge discreetly and pointed to a large stone cherub eating a bunch of grapes.
‘So we need a statue about this size, but ideally in a lighter material’.
‘This isn’t a supermarket, you know’, the owner answered. ‘Our exhibits are works of art to be appreciated for their uniqueness; you don’t pick something for its size. Can I ask what exactly brings you here?’
‘Need to know basis only, and you don’t need to’ said Collins with an inward smile – he’d always wanted to say that. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pay the going rate’.
Unwilling to argue with the agents, the gallery owner agreed a price on an elegant statue depicting an angel of patience which was not only roughly the right size but would also deliver a more acceptable message to Her Majesty, according to Collins. ‘I’m not sure it’s a message the President would be familiar with’ muttered Barnes, as he picked up one end.
An hour later they were back at the airport with the angel packaged and loaded in the hold close to Zeus. Disguising the wings had proved more than a little tricky but it was unlikely the President would notice the difference unless he got very close. As he boarded the plane he checked with his agents to make sure that the gift had been loaded and Collins was able to confirm truthfully that he had personally supervised it.
As expected, the President settled down after his meeting with a Big Mac and some magazines, before retiring and quickly falling asleep. Collins made his way to the cockpit for a quick word with the pilot. Explaining his dilemma, he gave the pilot a beseeching look. ‘So what are the chances, do you reckon? Could we just open some hatches and jettison this thing? There’s plenty of water between us and the coast of Ireland.’ The pilot laughed out loud. ‘It’s not like emptying the toilet, you know! Something that size would show up on the radar and the next thing we’d have RAF bombers trailing us. If you want to be responsible for starting World War III I’m happy to join in the fun.’
‘Ok, ok, I get you’, said Collins, backing out of the cockpit and returning to his seat by Barnes. ‘Looks like it’s Plan B then’ he told him. ‘What’s Plan B?’ asked Barnes, brightening up for a minute. ‘No idea. But we’ve got 3000 miles to figure it out’.
When the plane touched down in the UK, the President freshened up his comb over and prepared himself to leave. The two agents were already aware that they were expected to travel in a hired van along with the gift and ensure it was safely handed over to Palace officials, who would pass it on to the Curator of the Royal Collection. He or she would report back to the Queen’s staff about the receipt of the gift and ensure an appropriate message of thanks was sent to the President. Barnes and Collins carefully ensured that Zeus was removed from the plane and loaded onto the van in full view of the President, but asked to driver to wait until the Presidential cavalcade had set off before quickly packing the angel in next to it.
The van driver proved more amenable to hatching a plan with the agents than the plane’s pilot. Having been let into the secret mission, he chuckled, and threw out a ray of hope. ‘I’ve got a mate who runs a garden centre on the Old Kent Road’, he said. ‘There’s a load of old junk out the front, mostly gnomes and stuff, but we could dump your lump of concrete there if you want, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind’. ‘It’s not perfect, but it’s going to have to do. Thanks.’ said Barnes, cheering up a fraction. True to his word, the driver pulled up outside what looked like a graveyard for old statues and carefully unloaded their new addition and placed him in amongst the water features. ‘Some of the passers-by are going to get a bit of a shock at the size of that sticking out and waving at them! Do them good though, all been a bit too gentrified round here’, mused the driver, clearly having more fun than he had in a while.
Meanwhile, at the Palace, the President had enjoyed a drinks reception and was carefully being monitored by his aides who had the harder job of trying to keep him under control and make sure he didn’t break protocol. When a tour of the garden was proposed, the aides ushered him outside thinking he would be less of a risk in the more informal environment. Strolling across the beautifully laid lawns, there was an awkward moment when the President pointed to a spot on a corner which he pronounced would be ‘perfect’ for his gift, but fortunately refused to say any more as he didn’t want to ‘spoil the surprise’. Almost at the same time, Barnes and Collins were carefully unloading Patience from the van and passing her into the hands of the waiting Palace staff.
The remainder of the President’s time at the Palace passed without incident, much to the relief of all the aides on both sides, and before long he was whisked away for his next engagement. Later in the day, the Queen is informed of the gift and asks for a photo in case some reference is made to it later on. ‘Another statue’ she commented with a sigh. ‘It’s quite attractive, though, this one – I wouldn’t have credited him with such good taste. Let’s try to find a good home for it with one of the charities. And send out the usual polite thank you’.
After a whirlwind of meetings and visits, the President boarded back onto the plane later in the day for a flight to Ireland. The two agents, feeling rather pleased with themselves at having pulled off what seemed like something of a miracle, settled down a few seats away and watched as he took out his phone and relaxed back into his comfy chair.
At the Royal Breakfast table the next morning, the Queen’s husband lingers over his breakfast, reading the papers and checking to see what has been said about him this time on social media. Suddenly, he looks up with surprise, as he notices a picture of Zeus on the President’s Twitter account, with the caption ‘I believe my gift to the Royal Couple was much appreciated and look forward to seeing it on my next visit’.
Looking over his shoulder, the Queen smiles. ‘Well, if we ever needed proof that he doesn’t write his own Twitter feed, we certainly have it now!’
Brian Hubbard had a problem. How was he going to stop Sheila finding out? His life wouldn’t be worth living if she discovered what he’d done. She would find out sooner or later, he knew that, but he hoped that through some clandestine surreptitiousness he could mitigate the seriousness of his misbehaviour. Last time, he’d told Sheila that he wouldn’t do it again, and he truly meant it at the time, but today he was tempted and couldn’t stop himself. He had to have it. The “it” was swathed in bubble wrap nestling in the carrier bag in his hand. Cunningly, he had turned the bag inside out so that the words “Charlie’s Garden Emporium” emblazoned on it were hidden from view; especially Sheila’s.
The problem had dogged him all the way home on the train and on the ten-minute walk from the station. No solution had presented itself and his steps slowed to a dawdle as he turned off Sycamore Drive into Laburnum Avenue. Number 47 was almost in view when the answer hit him. He’d noticed that some of his neighbours had already trundled their wheelie bins to their front gates.
“Aha! That’s what I’ll do,” Brian thought. “I’ll hide David [he’d already decided on a name] behind the bins and when I’ve taken them out tonight [it was always his job] I’ll sneak out the back door from the garage and put him in the shed.”
And that’s exactly what he did, at least as far as hiding it and putting out the bins but he didn’t get as far as the shed.
“Brian!” Sheila called from the back door. “Brian, where are you going?”
“Oh God,” thought Brian. “Quick, think of something!” while desperately trying to hide the package. He’d deliberately picked this particular time because Sheila was always glued to the TV when the repeats of “Don’t Wait Up” was on.
But, too late.
“What’s that you’ve got behind your back, Brian?”
“Er, nothing dear.” Then, realising how foolish that sounded, considering he was carrying a large “something”. “Oh, it’s just some bulbs Bob, at the office, has given me. I’m just taking them up to the shed.”
“Why didn’t you do that when you got home from work, instead of skulking around in the dark?”
“Er, well, er, I just thought I’d leave it till later. There was no rush.”
Sheila stepped towards her husband,
“Show me!” she demanded and snatched the bag from Brian’s grasp.
“No, don’t open it!” Brian cried, grabbing back the package.
“Brian Hubbard, you’re hiding something from me!” Sheila shrilled. “Give it to me, now!”
The unfortunate object was yanked back into her hands.
Brian stood by helplessly. He knew his secret was going to be discovered and he knew he could do nothing about it. He couldn’t think of anything to say that would make the situation any easier for him and he knew, from experience, that if he did say something it would probably make things worse. He simply waited for the inevitable.
The carrier bag was discarded; the bubble wrap was unrolled, like removing the bandages from a mummy and then there was David fully exposed. On his head sat a red pointy hat and he wore trousers to match; his blue jacket was strained and stretched over his vast corporation and held in place by a bright gold button. Most of his white shirt was hidden by a long grey beard; his pudgy little hands were clasped across the expanse of his stomach and his head was thrown back with mouth wide open in a fixed silent guffaw.
“He’s a laughing gnome,” Brian muttered. “I call him David. You know, after that David Bowie song “The Laughing Gnome”.
“Arrgh!” screamed Sheila, thrusting the hapless gnome back into Brian’s hands. “Get rid of it! Just get rid of the hideous thing! You promised you wouldn’t buy any more of these things!” She turned on her heels, “And you’ve made me miss my programme. I’ll deal with you later, Brian!”
The door slammed behind her.
“I’m very sorry, dear, but I just couldn’t resist him,” Brian whined into the night.
“Oh well, David, I’ll take you to meet Cedric. Maybe she’ll calm down in a day or two and let you stay, especially if I can hide you in the irises where you can’t be seen from the house.”
Brian walked up the path to the pond. It was dark, so he placed David as best he could so that he wouldn’t be visible.
“Hello Cedric,” said Brian. “I’ve brought you a friend to keep you company. His name’s David.”
Cedric carried on looking down into the water, his face a picture of concentration. His little Wellington boots dangled just above the water line, in his hands was a fishing rod from which a piece of wire hung down into the pond. He wore similar attire to David, except that his jacket was green and he was several sizes slimmer. He’d been sitting on the same flat rock for two years now and had never caught anything. To tell the truth, he was never going to as there were no fish in the pond. A few insecty things floated or scooted around on the water’s surface and in the Spring, there were tadpoles. Every year Brian wondered where the frog spawn came from. Of course, he knew where it came from, but he’d never seen any frogs in his garden. He’d always ponder on this: hundreds of tadpoles but no frogs. He knew tadpoles can be carnivorous, but surely not to that extent. Maybe it was rats or the urban foxes that snapped up the frogs as soon as they made land. It was such a pity, he thought, that there weren’t more frogs, or hedgehogs for that matter, that could gobble up all the slugs and snails that devastated his flowers and vegetables every year.
Brian sighed a deep sigh. He couldn’t stay there all night. He had to face Sheila. If he was lucky, she would just freeze him out for a day or two. He said “Goodnight”, to Cedric and David and trudged back to the house.
The next morning was very quiet. Brian and Sheila busied themselves getting their own breakfast, the only human sounds were the voices talking quietly from the radio. It was Saturday and, although Brian couldn’t escape by going to work, he was thankful to hide behind the newspaper and eat his breakfast. When finished, he was only too pleased to fold the paper, put his things on the draining board, go to the utility room, put on his gardening shoes and head out into the blessed relief of the garden’s fresh and calming air.
Sheila barely raised an eyebrow when she heard Brian shouting outside. She continued to read the paper, which she’d picked up after Brian left, when her husband crashed open the door and yelled,
“You murderer! You’ve killed David! He’s had his head knocked completely off!”
Sheila calmly folded the paper and set it aside. In a calm voice she said,
“What are you blethering about, Brian? Are you trying to tell me that that ghastly gnome thing has been damaged?”
“You know damn well it has, because you’re the one who did it. Nobody else could have!”
“Oh, so now you’re accusing me of gnomicide. Well, Brian, I must admit I am pleased to hear about its demise, but I assure you I wouldn’t stoop so low as to do that out of spite. You should know me better than that. You know that when I seek revenge it’s always served cold,” Sheila replied, adding a hint of a smile.
She picked up the paper again, her eye being caught by an article exposing further sordid details about that awful David Mellor.
“It had to be you!” Brian blurted out. “There’s no one else!”
Without looking up from the paper, Sheila responded quietly and evenly,
“Brian, if you’re so bothered about finding a culprit, why don’t you call the police?”
“I’ll do just that, my dear. Maybe you’ll confess to them.”
And that’s what he did. And this is where I came into the story.
Those of you who have read my anecdotes before will know me as Inspector, or even Chief Inspector, Hector. However, Brian and Sheila Hubbard’s case goes back to when I was still a wet-behind-the-ears constable and it was one of my first.
We, that is myself and P.C. Jock Spon, had been called to a property in Laburnum Avenue to follow up a report of vandalism. Jock was an experienced police officer and had been assigned to be my mentor. As we knocked on the front door of number 47, he said,
“Now, laddie, you take the lead on this. I’ll not say a word unless I see you getting into difficulty, but my nose tells me this is going to be one of those cases where we say we’ll do our best, but…”
A man opened the door.
“Are you Mr. Brian Hubbard?” I asked.
“Yes, I am,” the man replied. “Please come in.”
We entered and followed Mr. Hubbard into the living room.
“I am Constable Hector and this is my colleague, Constable Spon,” I began. “We understand that you reported an act of vandalism on these premises. Is that correct, sir?”
“Yes, that’s right and if you come into the garden, I can show you exactly what happened.”
“That would be very useful, sir,” I said.
As Mr. Hubbard led us through to the garden, Jock gave me an encouraging nod. In the kitchen a woman sat at the table.
“This is my wife, Sheila,” Mr. Hubbard said.
“Good morning, ma’am,” I said.
She merely nodded at us.
Mr. Hubbard led us to the end of the garden and picked up an object which he held out to us in both hands. It was, I assumed, a garden ornament of the gnome kind. It was about eighteen inches tall but it had no head. It had been decapitated. From the jaggedness of the break I deduced that it had been beheaded using some force. It hadn’t been cut or sawn off cleanly and calmly. Obviously, it was an act of violence, probably impulsive, and not one that was cold-bloodedly premeditated. My assumptions and deductions were confirmed when Mr. Hubbard stated,
“Someone’s knocked David’s head off. Deliberately and violently.”
“David?” I queried.
“Oh, sorry,” Mr. Hubbard said. “I called the gnome, David, because of the David Bowie song, “The Laughing Gnome”. If you could see his head, you’d know he was laughing.”
I caught Jock’s eye. He’d pursed his lips desperately stifling a smile.
“And do you have the head, sir?” I asked.
“No,” Mr. Hubbard replied. “That’s the odd thing; I can’t find it. Maybe it fell in the pond.”
“Perhaps so, sir,” I replied, “but it’s not particularly important, we have the rest of the object as evidence.”
Now that I knew the background to the case, I could start asking pertinent questions.
“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary last night, sir?”
“No. Nothing that I can recall,” was the reply.
“Are there any means of access to the garden, other than through the house?”
“Er, no, unless someone climbs over a neighbour’s fence. Well, I suppose someone could get in by forcing open the garage door.”
“I see. And was the garage door closed last night?”
“Yes. I closed and locked it after I put the bins out.”
Jock interjected at this point.
“It’s Saturday today, sir. Are you saying that your bins are emptied on a Saturday?”
“They’re normally collected on a Friday,” said Mr. Hubbard. “But the binmen were on strike earlier this week and they were making up for the missed collections.”
“That’s right,” I said. “My bins were collected a day late this week as well.”
Jock gave me a fleeting scowl. I don’t think I should have said that.
“Can you show us your garage, sir?” I asked.
We went into the garage and the door was locked and there was no obvious sign of tampering.
“Well, sir,” I said, “It doesn’t look as though someone broke into your garden. Perhaps we should have a word with Mrs. Hubbard? Maybe she heard something.”
“By all means,” said Mr. Hubbard and he led us back into the kitchen.
“Sheila,” he said, “these officers want to know if you can help them with their enquiries into the vandalism.”
“Fire away,” Mrs. Hubbard said.
“Ma’am, did you hear anything out of the ordinary last night?”
“Nothing at all, officer.”
“But you did get out of bed for a while,” interrupted Mr. Hubbard.
“Yes, I did, but only to go to the bathroom. You know that, Brian.”
She sounded rather condescending and I made a mental note that perhaps not all was happy in the Hubbard house, particularly as Mr. Hubbard added,
“You can say that, but can you prove that’s all you did?”
Mrs. Hubbard snapped back,
“Brian, please be quiet!” Then she addressed us, saying, “My husband thinks I broke his beloved gnome…”
“She hates them!” Mr. Hubbard broke in, vehemently.
“I think hate is too mild a word,” Mrs. Hubbard continued. “I detest them, abhor them. But I wouldn’t be so childish as to smash them.”
If I say so myself, my next line of questioning would have impressed Sherlock Holmes.
“Mrs. Hubbard,” I said, “if you were to go into the garden what would you wear on your feet?”
“That’s an odd question, constable, but if you want to know, I’d put on my old shoes.”
“Can you show them to me, please, ma’am?”
“I can’t see the relevance of this, but they’re in the utility room.”
We all trooped into the utility room and Mrs. Hubbard showed me the shoes in question. I studied them closely.
“It rained last night,” I said, “and if you’d gone out then it’s likely they’d still be wet and muddy. The soles of these shoes are completely dry and there’s no trace of mud.”
I handed the shoes to Mr. Hubbard and added, “In all probability, sir, your wife didn’t go into the garden last night and couldn’t have vandalised your gnome.”
“Wow, you are a smart one,” smiled Mrs. Hubbard.
Mr. Hubbard’s gaze swivelled from me, to his wife and then back to me. Guilt and embarrassment were written all over his face.
“Mmm, yes, a good point constable,” he stuttered. “But how do you explain the damage?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, sir. It could have fallen over, I suppose, or be knocked over by a fox or a cat. Those are the most likely explanations. We’ve had no other reports of vandalism in this area, so we can almost certainly rule that out as such behaviour tends to come in clusters. But we will take this seriously, sir. It will be logged and recorded and if there is an outbreak of vandalism in the area in the near future, we may well link your case to it.”
And that was the end of that as far as we were concerned, though I can’t say if it was for Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard. We thanked them for their time and went on our way.
Jock Spon was very complimentary about how I conducted the interviews and said he was impressed about the shoes and suggested I apply to join the CID in due course.
When the police officers and Mr. Hubbard had left the garden to go back to the house and if anyone had been around, they would have sworn that Cedric’s expression softened into a smirk. Could it be that he was pleased that David, with his incessant and irritating cackle had had his block knocked off?