Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Brian and the Bugger Gnomes - Peter Matthews

Brian is a Yorkshireman and a keen gardener. In the north, people of a certain age take to gardening with an ease not so readily found in the south. It’s a hobby. There’s little else to do.

On a cool October evening, Brian set about to finally try and reap the rhubarb harvest filling allotment, one of three his wife, Caroline, had purchased for him upon his fiftieth birthday. It was half four and the sky had lost its daylight lustre, now taking on a rich ochre built from pinks and purples that hurt his eyes. The task was taking longer than expected but he had promised his wife a fine rhubarb crumble supper before the day was out and knew better than to let her down. Caroline was not one to suffer disappointment easily. This, coupled with his awareness that, as afternoon succumbed to evening, she had almost certainly already prepared a crumble topping, made him continue through his fatigue.

Brian bent low and tugged on yet another green stalk, his filth dregged nails digging into the vegetable’s flesh as he struggled to gain purchase. His lumbago and orthopaedic left shoe did not make for an easy reap, it hurt to lower himself but he had to for a better grip. A sharp pain ripped through his sides. He immediately straightened but acted too fast out of shock and so winded himself.

“Bloody Nora! I’m too old for this. It’s too…too bleedin’ hard.”

Brian looked to his basket, three hours of toil and he had barely collected enough rhubarb for a single bowl of crumble, and Caroline often required a second helping.

“Oh but Oh. Oh what I’d give for a helping hand to get me rhubarb in before the day is out…”

A rumble.

What was that?

From the blackberry bush at the foot of his allotment. Another rustle followed, this time coupled by a faint, high pitched giggle. Brian looked up, his grey brow more knitted than his jumper. What was that? Wind? Was it the wind? It was indeed a possibility; but the position of his allotment, cornered betwixt hedging and stonewall made this unlikely. Plus, as he noted with a quickly sucked forefinger, there was barely even a breeze.

A further giggle. This was louder than the last and did not peter out in the same manner as its predecessor; instead it swelled to the merry sound of a rich jovial guffaw and a swift clearing of gob at the back of the throat. Brian turned to face the other allotments, but there was no one. All the other gardeners had long since left. He was indeed alone. This realisation brought a chill to the back of his neck and the hot air from his nostrils steamed the bottoms of his milk-bottle glasses as fear deepened his exhalations.

Then a voice.

“Allo Brian! Been ‘avin t’trouble wit’ the pullin’ o’ your rhubarb I see?”

“Aye, I am a bit as it happens. Who? Who might you be?”

“Be not afraid ol’ shaver”, the high voice implored without losing an ounce of its merriment, “I mean ye no harm. I offer only solutions. Brace y’self and if I may, I shall present meself. Are ye braced?”

Brian checked his braces, they were satisfactorily taught.

“Aye voice, I t’am braced and braced well. Now voice, advance , slowly mind, and let yourself be known”

The brambles thrashed wildly as something struggled to emerge from between the coiled mash of berries and thorns. Brian took a step back, anxious of the potential threat that may materialize from the foot of his garden patch. The bush fiercely shook again causing resting birds on its top to take flight and green leaves to cut loose from its branches and fall to the soil beneath. And then, silence.

“Here I be Brain! Ho ho! You’ve never seen the likes of me before I should say!”

Brian grabbed his shovel, pointing his blade in the direction of the voice, “I have yet to see the likes of you now sir! Show yourself I say!”

“Lower your gaze Brian McKaye! Lower….there we are! Ohoy there, ho ho!”

And there he was, a little man in a little hat leaning casually against the edge of Brian’s wellington boot, his long white beard tucked into his green rubber overalls. Between his teeth he clamped a long clay pipe, something he then dutifully removed to introduce himself.

“I am Merry Ben, King of the Bugger Gnomes. We travel from allotment to allotment looking to aid t’gardeners who are having t’ trouble pulling out their root vegetables.”. Merry Ben returned the pipe to his mouth and began a triumphant jig around Ben’s foot, skipping his booted feet and swinging his elbows back and forth.

“The Bugger Gnomes?”

“Yeah, don’t worry so much about that.” The little man gave a quick puff on his clay pipe, “Anyway Brian, I see that your back is one of aches and knots. Poor chap. With a little help from meself and the Bugger Gnome gardenfolk, we can have the remainder of your rhubarb up in a jiffy! And you and t’good wife shall have a fine crumble before the evening is out. What do ye say?”

What do I say? What can I say? Ta Merry Ben! Thank you!

“Splendid.” Merry Ben tipped the cinder out from his pipe and placed it in the front pouch of his overalls. He reached upwards into his tall gnome hat and pulled out a tiny quill and parchment. “Before we do out. Sign here, here and here, just next to the little crosses. That’s it, ta.”

“I can’t read it.”

“No, err, you wouldn’t. It’s in Gnomish. It’s nothing really, just the usual Health and Safety stuff y’know, oh and a bit for HR thrown in there ‘n all. Making sure you’ll allow black, disabled gypsy Gnomes tend your garden without ‘hindrance, prejudice or intolerance’, that sort of thing.”

Well, Brian was a Yorkshireman and had never even heard of such things as prejudice and intolerance. Were they a kind of black pudding? He thought, Aye, was that new type, the one with not such much fat in it? Wasn’t that an intolerance pudding?

“As a Yorkshireman I have never heard of such things as prejudice and intolerance” he told Merry Ben, “But they do sound like pretty awful things.” and so he signed as required and returned the quill and parchment to the little man. The gnome gave a little smile, pursed his white whiskered lips and whistled a mighty whistle. It started as a deep guttural utterance and, as his little chest contracted through loss of air, it gradually raised in pitch to a sharp piercing squeak, heightening until Brian could no longer hear it.

Once again the bush art the foot of Brian’s allotment began to shudder. One by one similarly attired gnomes emerged marching from beneath the brambles, each with a tiny gnome shovel in his hand. This continued until there were at least eighteen Bugger gnomes lined up and marching on the spot before of Brain. Merry Ben stood at the head group, he addressed his gnome army.

“Bugger Gnomes...Garden!”

Then something strange happened. The Bugger gnomes bookending the line each pulled a small penny whistle from their caps and began to strike up a tune. This appeared to be a cue for those carrying tools to set about work, singing in unison.

“We are the Bugger Gnomes,
The Bugger Gnomes we,
And we shall pull your rhubarb with a one, two, three.

With a highly-lighly-lighly,
A highly-frayo-loo,
Pull hard Bugger Gnomes,
We’ve a job to do.”

Brian watched in amazement as the Bugger Gnomes went about gardening. They threw little grappling hooks to scale the mighty rhubarb stalks, dug deep trenches around each plant and hacked at its trunks with tiny scythes. One by one each rhubarb stick was chopped and dragged to Brian’s wicker basket as he looked on with glee. (in rapture?)
“At this rate we’ll have enough rhubarb for a rhubarb crumble supper with seconds to spare for both Caroline and meself!” Brian exclaimed as he rested on a nearby pumpkin and taking a long and hearty swig from the ginger beer in his thermos.

Within minutes the job had been done. “Thank you Bugger Gnomes!” Brian said as he shook each one by the hand, “How can I ever repay you? Hang about! I know. Here, take a stick of rhubarb with you lads. For your long journey. It’s the least I can do. By ‘eck, I’ve got enough, here take two. Fair thee well strange gnome folk, may your journey bring you every good fortune.” Brian happily passed Merry Ben two sticks of rhubarb, “You might want to put a couple of spoonfuls of sugar on that, it can be quite tart.” He picked up his basket and began to make his way home.

“Not so fast! Ho Ho!”


“We don’t want your rhubarb Brian. Though tis a very fine offer. If you’ll just give us our payment, we’ll be on our way....Ho ho!”


“Aye. Payment. You signed the agreement?”

Merry Ben reached back into his hat and produced the parchment signed earlier and passed it up to Brian. He read it once more.

“Gnome, gnomie gnomie gnome? Gnomie, gnomie gnomie gnome?”

“Not that, that’s Gnomish. The small print.”

“Once the agreed task has been performed to completion by the Bugger Gnomes a one-off payment is expected upon the demand of the Bugger Gnomes King. The payment of course being in the form of....”


“No. No! I would never, never...”

“Ho Ho! But you did! Why do you think we’re called Bugger Gnomes? A ‘mis-gnomer’? Ho Ho! Now pay up.”

Brian tried to make a run for it with his heavy wicker basket, but his lumbago, orthopaedic left shoe and the weight of his rhubarb slowed him down. He lost his balance and fell head first deep into the mud. After a struggle he managed to look up. Everything had gone dark, his thick glasses were caked solid in earth. He felt a sharp tug around both his welly boots, so strong that it forced both his legs to snap painfully together. The Bugger Gnomes had taken their opportunity. His legs were new bound together with the grappling strings the gnomes had used to climb the rhubarb plants. Merry Ben jumped from the garden, ran swiftly up Brian’s back and used him as a platform to bark orders to his men below.

“Bugger Gnomes Ho! Onward home!”

The little men were working hard now, dragging Brian back into the bramble bush from where they had emerged. He tried to stop them but their shear strength in numbers was proving too much, he looked desperately for something to grab onto, something that would help him resist their pull but there was nothing. The wily Bugger Gnomes had plucked every last rhubarb stalk, the field was bare and all Brian could do was flail his arms in vain, clawing for support. The gnome flautists struck up their tune once more.

We are the Bugger Gnomes,
And as Bugger Gnomes we’re fair,
We’re gonna take our payment,
In our Bugger Gnome bramble lair.

With a Bugger-rugger-ding-dong,
And after we’re done,
You won’t sit down for a month to come.

Brian cried out in despair as he felt the prickle of bramble thorns through the corduroy trousers at the top of his wellington boots, the gnomes had already reached the blackberry bush! He struggled to kick out but his feet were too tightly bound. There was no escape. He was to be buggered. There was a long tug on Brian’s hair. It was Merry Ben.

“Bugger Gnomes halt!”

The Bugger Gnomes stopped immediately in their tracks.

Brian heaved a sigh of relief through his mud-caked nostrils. A reprieve! He wouldn’t be buggered by Bugger gnomes after all! Of course! Why would they bugger him? He was too old for that! Why would they want him, with his lumbago and hairy old arse? They’d come to their senses, and just in time too.

“Bring the rhubarb sticks along lads. We may need them....Ho Ho! Onwards once more! Bagsy me first go.”

With another tug on Brian’s hair the gnomes proceeded to drag him further into the bush at the foot of the allotment. They continued with their song.

We are the Bugger Gnomes,
Singing our Bugger Gnomadic verse,
We’re gently and polite so please don’t fight,
Struggling will only make it worse.

With a pull-down-of-your-corduroys
And swift one-two-one-two
We’ll make sure your rhubarb gets back to you!


Back at home the clock on the drawing room mantle struck eleven. Afternoon had passed to evening had passed to night and Caroline had not heard from her husband for several hours. Where was he? He only needed to collect a few stalks of rhubarb for Pete’s sake! She paced the room chewing her bottom lip. She’d tried to distract herself; she’d made a crumble, had a shower and put on her favourite pyjamas. But there was no getting away from it. She was hungry! It’d been over six hours since she’d eaten and now Brian’s prolonged absence was causing hunger pains.

Then a ringing. The door!

Caroline ran to the porch. There stood her husband; bloody, badly scratched by brambles and weeping in the moonlight. His trousers were round his ankles. He let out a soft whimper.

“Bugger Gnomes.”



“What? You’ve been gone hours. Brian you look a mess. What a state. You only went out for rhubarb. Get your trollies back up. I can only hope that Mrs. Raven at no. 42 didn’t see you, it’ll be all round the estate by next week.”

Brian looked at her. Too weak to move. Too pained to answer.

“What happened to you? Brian....Where’s my rhubarb?”

Brian collapsed head first into the house, trousers still down by his ankles. With a stick of rhubarb up his jacksey he had answered both her questions in one.

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