A question of Parsnips

“It might not make a James Bond plot, but an “epic mission” has been launched to save 250 tonnes of parsnips at a farm in Norfolk this Saturday.”

Four years ago Ian Mathie and I had a different idea.

George Grummitt had been a market gardener all his life. Although he was actually seventy-six, George had lied about his age to his employer who believed he was just approaching sixty-five. He was not looking forward to his forthcoming birthday but GenDev had an employment retiring policy and since they now owned what had been his family’s market garden for four generations, he no longer had a choice. It had grieved him when he was obliged to sell the farm on his father’s death thirty years ago, but there had been no option, the taxman was demanding payment of death duties. But at least the new owners had kept him on to manage the place and had even bought another twenty acres to add to the seventeen he already worked. They’d not been bad employers and seemed to value his experience and horticultural knowledge, even if they had asked him to grow some decidedly dodgy vegetables. He’d been skeptical about the value of genetic modification when they first took over and designated the farm as their trial ground, but he had to admit that some of their plants grew into much better crops than the old traditional varieties and he never used pesticides or other chemicals now.

Today was Thursday and Thursdays were usually when he received a visit from that nice Dr Hennek, one of the boffins who came down every week to see how the trials were going and to collect samples for his laboratory. He always made time to sit and drink strong with George and he listened to the old man’s comments and grumbles as though he was really interested. He’d even brought George a posh bottle of whisky one Christmas; Laphro…something or other it was, a funny name George couldn’t remember. “Perhaps Dr Hennek wasn’t so up in the clouds”, George thought, “even if he did produce crazy plants.”

Now, standing behind the plot of parsnips, waiting for Dr Hennek to arrive, he was worried. Whilst they had grown to a good size and the roots looked firm enough, the leaves on these plants were all hairy and looked wrong, not like parsnips at all. They hadn’t required as much water as usual to grow this large but George was suspicious of them, they didn’t feel right. He was also worried because he could hear a faint purring sound, just like a cat, but he couldn’t find a cat in the field and wondered if there was something wrong with his ears. “Old age, creeping on”, he decided.

Dr Hennek was late. He should have been here at least two hours ago. Perhaps he’d better go and find a telephone. The phone in room sixty-nine kept ringing for a while. Hennek was snoring with his clothes still on. When a bright ray of light invaded the room, Hennek rolled over and mumbled, “Who is it?”.

“I’m sorry, sir, the receptionist called you earlier on but you didn’t answer. We thought you weren’t in”, said the cleaner.

“Never mind then, what time is it?”

“It’s ten o’ clock I’ll come back later if you prefer.”

“Don’t worry, I’m running late. What day is it?”

“It’s Thursday sir.”

“George’s day. Damn, I have to go.” Hennek took his diary and rushed off. He walked along Gloucester Place to get the tube at Marble Arch. After forty-five minutes Hennek, with a splitting headache, finally reached his destination.

“Thank God, you’re here Dr Hennek, have you read the news?” asked George.

Hennek hadn’t seen the papers. He’d been staring moodily out of the window as the train crawled out to the Essex marshes where GenDev’s trial grounds were situated. Now here was George, flourishing a paper with huge banner headlines and a half page photo of a devastated building. He realized it must be the laboratory.

“I tried ringin’ when you didn’t come”, George was saying. “But your office phone just rang and rang. I didn’t unnerstan’ why nobody else answered it. Then the postman came an’ he told me ‘bout the ‘splosion an’ said there was lots of people dead.”

“Only two, I think”, Hennek said, taking the paper as he strolled beside George towards the hut where they usually drank tea. “I wasn’t there but Dr Ferguson was. You remember him? Big chap with a bald head like Kojak and a walrus moustache.”

“Yeah, I know ‘im”, George didn’t sound as though he liked Ferguson.

“Used to come down ‘ere with a flashie bird called Carrie or Karen or something. They spent a lot of time in the storage barn. Don’t know what he did though but they both looked crumpled when they came out.” He paused for a moment and then changed the subject.

“Anyway, I was lookin’ at them parsnips again this morning an’ they don’t look right. I know you said this was diff’rent and might have funny leaves, but they’re not just diff’rent, they’re weird.”

Hennek hadn’t been listening; he’d been reading the article in the paper.

“What was that, George?”

“Them parsnips”, the old man replied, handing Hennek a mug of strong builder’s tea.

“You need to ‘ave a look at them. They’re cranky, and they hum.”

At this point it was clear that his genetic modification was a disaster. Hennek had to destroy these plants, he couldn’t show the results at the International Genetics Congress. There must have been something missing in the DNA chain. He felt bewildered when he examined the whole plantation and found he was surrounded by hundreds of purring parsnips. Trying to cover his embarrassment, he just said, “George, I’m going to check the storage barn, then I’ll dissect some plants and see what we can do.”

“All right, don’t be too long, it’s going to rain this afternoon.”

Hennek nodded and went into the barn. He looked around, in a corner there was a makeshift couch. Ornithology was James Bond’s favourite hobby not Dr Ferguson’s, who was bald and fat. The “flashy bird” couldn’t be his Karen. He was appalled at the idea of the two of them having sex in there. With a feeling of revulsion he ran outside again and asked George to burn all the plants in the field.

“Doctor Henn’k, that’ll throw hundreds of pounds in the bin. I tell you what we could do…” He tailed off, a mischievous glint in his eye.

“Did you have a suggestion?”, asked Hennek.

“Well”, George seemed hesitant at first, “I thought, since the roots look okay, we might dig ‘em up an’ maybe just sell ‘em in the local market or on a stall at the gate. At least get a return on the crop.”

To be continued…