Turnips and Temptations
Chantal Schaul, 2003
I grew up in the most monstrous environment you can possibly imagine. My family was huge and appallingly working class. I had three hundred sixty-eight aunts, uncles and cousins who populated almost the entire village. They were ill, ugly, malnourished and diseased.
I was once one of them. My name, then, was Stanley Trottleturf. The youngest of seventeen stalwart brothers, my father always treated me like the worst runty weed to have sprung from my mother’s withering womb. I was the smallest of his stock and, unlike all my brothers, delicate and prone to illnesses.
In school I thrived. I learned to read and write in only three hours. But there was a severe shortage of books – only the Bible and a few annual agricultural reviews, which I re-read a million times.
One day, as I was sitting in a turnip field to hide from my father, Aaron Hartnell’s car drove past. Although I had never met Mr Hartnell in person, I knew that he was the richest turnip grower in the shire. He had won several turnip trophies and prizes over the years and amassed a fortune exploiting poorer farmers, including my own family. I deeply respected him. Having no wife or children to spend his money on, Mr Hartnell had been able to buy a large mansion and live comfortably, even after his turnip accident, which had left both his legs paralysed.
When Aaron Hartnell’s huge black car had vanished in the dusty distance, I found a tattered book lying between the wheel tracks. It turned out to be a copy of Jeeves and Wooster. I had never heard those names before, but as soon as I opened the book and my eyes feasted on the opening lines, I was hooked.
I devoured the entire novel then and there, among turnips, and I was never the same person again. I had glimpsed the world of the gentleman through the cracks of my boorish microcosm.
When I returned home that evening, I was scandalised by the uncouth behaviour of my relatives. My sixteen brothers were guffawing loudly, picking their noses, scratching their crotches, belching and farting, twiddling their boils and pustules and straightening their bushy eyebrows with fingers dipped in earwax.
They were a foul horde of abhorrent swine.
My mother, in her ragged apron, had cooked offal broth yet again. A suffocating stench emanated from her cauldron. My father and brothers merrily tucked into a platter of pig’s trotters, ripping the repulsive flesh from the bony toes with their tomb-coloured teeth.
When a chipped bowl of my mother’s revolting broth was placed in front of my nose, I retched. All I wanted was a cucumber sandwich. My father noticed my nostril-twitching nausea. He saw my disgusted glance at his dirty and callused hands that dug their grotty nails into a chunk of bread and forced its soft interior apart like a lump of butter. He shot me a malicious look.
‘You got something to bleat about?’ he thundered.
His eyes flared up in aggression. I carefully shook my head and picked up my dented spoon. He watched me as I dipped the spoon into the sickening stew, retrieved it coated in the tiniest film of offal soup, and gingerly advanced the tip of my tongue. The contact with the vile substance made me gag.
My father jumped up from his stool and towered next to me faster than I could twitch with fear. He tugged at my upper arm and hauled me up from my seat with superhuman strength. I tried to shelter my face with both hands, but his steel grip clasped my wrists and fastened them above my head. With his free hand, he whacked my cheeks for a good while. At one point I almost escaped. But he got hold of my ankle and dragged me back, kicked me a few more times and finally let go.
When he had charged down to the cellar to count turnips, I re-read Jeeves and Wooster in a niche behind the stove.
That day I resolved to escape and become a gentleman.
The book cover listed an abundance of other titles in the same series, which I was burning to read so I could gain more knowledge about the subject. My yearning grew to such intolerable proportions that I set out to find the mansion of Aaron Hartnell.
The mansion was constantly talked about by relatives and villagers. They all envied Mr Hartnell’s fortune and called him a thief and a crook, although to me he was the most admirable and wonderful man I knew to exist.
His abode was fabled to sit in the heart of the only patch of forest which hadn’t yet given way to the growing expanse of turnip fields. Not many people had seen the building. The trees that surrounded it were tall, old and opaque, and sheltered it from any intrusive looks.
I hurled myself into the foliage and didn’t care a hoot about getting lost and starving to death, or being eaten alive by a pack of wild animals. For hours, I strode through a labyrinth of gigantic tree trunks, overgrown with colourful fungi, and was amazed when I suddenly stumbled upon a clearing and beheld a house as imposing as a castle. I must have gaped at it for hours before taking another step.
A butler opened the oaken front door. My heart was galloping. I had never seen a butler before. With stagnating breath I waited in the large hall, while he took the cherished copy of Jeeves and Wooster to Mr Hartnell. I knew I could lose it forever, but it was worth the risk.
Rooted to the same spot, I heard the blotted sound of rolling rubber wheels. Mr Hartnell’s felt slippers were reclining on the footboard of the wheelchair. They were checked green and blue, and their tips moved around in a never-ending twirling motion. His toes, I later learned, were the only part of his legs that still stirred.
I looked up at the rest of Aaron Hartnell. He was skinny like a rake and had caved in like a carcass. His skin was ashen grey. Despite his overall decrepitude, he must have been a very tall man once. Though sitting down, he almost equalled his butler in height.
Even if he was hollow, pale and ailing, Mr Hartnell did not take no for an answer. I knew that when I looked at his lips. They were a gurgling oasis in a barren expanse, a parasitical bloom on a desiccated tree. The old man had life inside him yet. He bathed these plump, moist lips in spraying spittle as he spoke.
‘What ho, my boy. What is it I can do for you and where did you find this book?’
His skeletal hand rested on the Jeeves and Wooster novel.
‘On the road, after your car had passed, Sir,’ I stuttered.
‘Jolly well,’ was all he replied.
I shuffled my feet in the ensuing silence. He was waiting for more.
‘Sir, I was wondering if you had more of those books,’ I feverishly exhaled. ‘I rather enjoyed that one there.’
‘I say,’ he croaked. ‘Jarvis, fetch another batch of those.’
The butler nodded and breezed off.
‘So, my boy, you have been devouring my book, what?’
Aaron Hartnell revealed the bottom row of his fleshy teeth as he spoke. His gums were quite astounding.
I merely nodded and secretly explored his lips. The smile on his face made them stretch, like overripe plums. Jarvis swooped back into the room and handed me three copies of Jeeves and Wooster.
‘Come back for more,’ Mr Hartnell groaned, as the butler closed the massive front door behind me.
And back I went indeed, insatiable for more of those enlightening tomes. My manners improved with every line of Jeeves and Wooster that I engulfed; my insights into the structure of society grew with every visit I paid to Hartnell Manor. On the sad day when I had memorised every novel down to the last syllable and there was nothing more to read, I was only eleven years old. I felt utterly lost.
When I had returned the last novel to Mr Hartnell, we concluded a pact. It was to change my whole life.
‘Perk up, chap,’ he said. ‘There are other ways of improving yourself.’
‘There are?’ I asked, incredulous.
He sniggered. ‘Golly, yes, there are places called boarding schools, Bertie.’
Mr Hartnell and I had agreed to change my name from Stanley Trottleturf to Bertie Dilbert Philbert.
His grinning lips were taut. ‘Generally they are for rich chaps, but I will pay for you.’
I was dumbstruck. ‘You would do that, Sir?’
He nodded slowly, his lower lip bobbing moistly.
‘For a little favour in exchange, Bertie,’ he drooled.
I waited, eager to comply with whatever his request would be.
‘Boarding schools are very expensive, you know. I would therefore like you to show your gratitude and stay over at my manor every weekend to keep me company.’
‘That is all?’
‘I would also like you to sleep in my bed. It’s a very large bed. There will be plenty of space for the both of us.’
The request was peculiar but seemed entirely feasible. I nodded.
Mr Hartnell clicked his bony fingers and Jarvis surfaced instantly. He brought a contract and a pen. I signed.
The boarding school Mr Hartnell had chosen for me was the nearest one to his home. It was called Sainte Claire d’Asperge. A French nobleman, Conte Frédérick d’Asperge, was the owner. His distant relative, Jacques De Malenfour, filled the post of headmaster. Most of the boys there were of noble blood. Mr Hartnell must have paid a fortune to get me in.
I had never been so happy in my life. The lessons were enlightening; the school uniform filled me with pride; the food tasted divine. At first, the noble chaps snarled at me with contempt. But when I volunteered as a permanent bell fag, they valued and respected me.
Saturdays and Sundays were a trial. I would have preferred to stay at Sainte Claire’s, but Mr Hartnell never omitted sending his big black car to collect me. I was served tea and a cucumber sandwich and then was to rest with him in his bed. At night I had to do several things with turnips. I had to touch this, stroke that, bite here, suck there, push forth, slide back, and so on and so forth, endlessly, relentlessly, until morning finally dawned. It wiped me out completely.
On Sunday afternoons I was allowed some sleep, had tea and cakes, did some more fondling for Mr Hartnell, and was eventually driven back to school. If I complained, and I only once did, Mr Hartnell threatened to cut off my money supply. That shut me up. I swore I would never be taken away from Sainte Claire d’Asperge. I would rather have died than returned to my coarse and swinish family. Especially after having known such sophistication.
Thus the years went by, calmly and pleasantly enough. Until, one day, an unexpected occurrence threw me completely off balance.
It came in the shape of a lovely lady, Monsieur De Malenfour’s daughter Liliane. She came to live with her father because her mother had died in an abominable grapefruit accident. There had been no other relatives to look after her, and she was only sixteen. But what a lady!
Her hair was hazelnut brown and so thick and curly that it swelled up into mid-air like a tousled cloud of wood-wool. Liliane’s skin was rose and peach; her teeth were of the whitest pearl. Her brown eyes were as large as chocolate profiteroles, shaded by generous lashes the size of palm branches. Her nose was slight like an almond half. The lips, finally, oh, the lips were wonderfully curved and tight, and so unlike Mr Hartnell’s flaccid and dripping mouth.
When Liliane moved, she did so with the limbs of an angel. When she spoke it was with the voice of a goddess. Her French undertones made my skin tingle with delight. Her refined statements aroused my intellect just to the right degree. She held me captive without ever even addressing me in person.
At the end of that summer, I was charged by a senior boy to pluck a few plums in the school garden. My hand was clasped tight around a ripe plum and was ready to nip its stalk, when I saw Liliane slide into view from behind the tree trunk. She was wearing a long white embroidered dress and a floppy straw hat with a red ribbon.
She looked at me, then at the plum I was holding. I knew she wanted to taste it. I plucked it just for her and passed it over on the surface of my palm, just at the height of her firm lips. She ate it from my hand and spit the stone aside.
‘Merci,’ she said in the most harmonious of voices, blew me a kiss, and disappeared between two hedges. I stood breathless for a while, until I heard the senior boy shouting from his window.
‘Blast! I want my plums!’
The next day I found a letter tucked between the pages of my French exercise book.
‘Bertie, mon joujou, je t’aime.
Mon coeur ne bat que pour toi. Je veux t’embrasser plus que le jour a des secondes. Je t’implore, enfuissons-nous d’ici, et ne retournons jamais! Sois mon amant pour toute éternité!
J’appartiens entièrement à toi.
I was snookered. However dippy I was about this wild creature, I could not elope with her and nip my formative years in the bud. And yet I was badly pining for her. By Jove, I thought, deflower her and be done with it, before the last ounce of your reason caves in and withers away.
The following morning, I found Liliane in the orchard. She was collecting fallen apples in a basket lined with fine crocheted cloth. The basket was already brimming over with fruit, but when she saw me she dropped the entire load.
I took her hands and looked into her eyes with determination. She mouthed a ‘oui’ in agreement, and threw her head back, tossing her heap of curls in the wind. In a matter of seconds we dissolved and sank down on our knees, mouth on mouth. Before long, she rolled up and down atop a cluster of bobbing apples. I never even had the time to apologise for her bruises. She left immediately.
When the headmaster summoned me to his office, I expected nothing less than expulsion from Sainte Claire d’Asperge. And I was right, albeit for the wrong reasons.
‘Mr Aaron Hartnell has passed away,’ Monsieur De Malenfour said.
My heart jumped.
‘Your deceitful scheme has come to light,’ he added in a stern voice.
‘Don’t play innocent, boy,’ he roared. ‘You have been cheating Mr Hartnell out of his fortune for years. His butler Jarvis revealed it all.’
‘What did he reveal?’
‘Hold your tongue, scoundrel,’ Monsieur De Malenfour bellowed. You are off to borstal for your disgraceful act of thievery!’
And that was that. I have, to this day, not found out what Jarvis accused me of, and why. Only weeks after I had left, the school burnt down. The fire plunged most of the boys into a premature, charcoaled death. Without anywhere to live or work, the De Malenfours returned to France.
I often wondered whether I had impregnated Liliane. But I never heard from her again.
I kept the upper lip stiff and got on with my gentleman’s life, even in borstal.