September 6, 2013 7:18 pm

Escape to the country

Life has taught me not to put my happiness in other people’s hands

On Sunday morning into the country kitchen where I was having my breakfast there walked a vicar. He was fresh from a baptism and had appeared in the hope of coffee and cake. It had been a very big baby, apparently.

“Not a problem really,” he said. “Been doing it for 40 years.” I cut him a slice of ginger cake and poured him a cup from the coffee pot. “Your reward will be in heaven,” he beamed.

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Susie Boyt

With a man-of-the-cloth-shaped captive audience before me and heaven already on the table, I could not resist some searching questions. “When you think of heaven do you ever wonder about work?” I asked. “I mean, although I adore singing, I do love working – can’t imagine being happy without it – so for those who love our jobs, could there be a bit of gainful employment there maybe? Do you see it as all lolling on clouds and harps? What if you are the type who likes to keep busy, I mean, and are not big on loafing; would your personality change so that you didn’t miss it, or not really?”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t see why there couldn’t be work, although I suppose we wouldn’t want any strikes, industrial tribunals, disputes, nothing of that order.” He chuckled.

On the kitchen table was a blushing copy of this newspaper open on a page where I had written, “a weekend spent in the country is a weekend you can never get back,” but no one was holding it against me. The toast crumbs on my chin and my continuous humming of Hoagy Carmichael songs declared me obviously happy.

Archers-style, the day continued. We set off for the 66th annual show at the local horticultural society in the grounds of a local stately home. I even had a dress with flowers on, although the word “LONDON” runs right through me in pink capitals like a stick of rock. Our hosts had entered their bread, dahlias, marrows and marmalade.

The horticultural show came with a leaflet filled with enticing rules. It was the hints section that offered the best inspiration: all beautifully written, the instructions were terse, doubt-free, occasionally wry and ultra-correct. It was the sort of prose that would rather have been eaten by a shark than misplace a single apostrophe:

“Remember that the three most important points when selecting your exhibits are quality, uniformity and good presentation.

“Always try to arrange your entries to show off their best features.

“Take a few spares to the show in case of accidents.”

It wasn’t that hard to read it as a manual to family life.

In the competition tent I made a tour of the produce with my friends. “My mother always irons her runner beans,” we heard a woman confide with 50 per cent pride and 50 per cent guilt. We looked at the “sponge cake made by a man” entries. Did they look different from the female varieties? “Perhaps they have a different kind of moral energy,” it was suggested.

My favourite category was the “collection of four kinds of small vegetables suitable for nouvelle cuisine”. These were arranged on slate boards, to give them the air of a Dutch still life: three courgette flowers, three dwarf aubergines, three tiny beetroot, three miniature carrots. It was Miss World for vegetables. I photographed the winners. The miniature flower arrangements in containers smaller than egg cups were also delightful. Presently, a philosophical-looking woman passed us: her arrangement of annuals had been disqualified, it transpired. She had included a fuchsia!

“Well, it is really more of a tender perennial, I suppose,” people said to her sympathetically. Standards were very high. The “ugliest vegetable” category was the stuff of nightmares.

Here was an environment where the rights and wrongs of life were set out simply. You put your best foot forward and accepted the clean judgments of others. It was both extremely soothing and a little bit horrific. Life has taught me not to put my happiness in other people’s hands and yet where else is there?

I leafed through the instructions again looking for clues. For all its black and white certainty, I managed to find a small seam of contradiction that caught at some basic life dilemmas: “If possible, no bloom should be included if it is slightly past its best”; yet, a few pages earlier: “Even if your items aren’t perfect, why not exhibit them anyway?”

I wondered what the nice vicar would have to say.

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susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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