Sherlock Holmes was watering his window box when his friend Dr. Watson came round with some exciting news.

  “We’ve been invited to Professor Monsanto’s for the weekend.  He’s a keen horticulturalist.”

  “Does his wife know?” Holmes asked.

  “She approves.  Says a man should have a hobby.”

  “These modern women.”

  “He grows edible roses,” Watson continued.  “Has them for starters, main course and dessert.”

  “Whole meal flowers.  Sounds just the ticket.”

  “He just plants the bulbs and up they shoot.”

  “Self-raising flowers - even better.  Where does he live?”

  “He’s got a pile at Great Bottomly.”

   “You’ll be taking your black bag, then.”

  That evening at dinner their host expatiated on the effects of genetic modification.  By crossing a herb that induced contempt for the electorate with a nut that removed all sense of shame he’d created a concoction that made people behave like Cabinet Ministers.  Watson thought this was pure fantasy, but Holmes was beginning to think that there was nothing pure about their host.


  The following morning Watson found himself alone at breakfast.  Holmes had left a note.  It read Roses are red, violets are blue.  By the tree that’s mellow yellow I’ll look out for you.

  After breakfast Watson went out into the garden where the first thing to catch his eye was a Jersey Royal on a chaise-langue.  It was a couch potato.   And he had a strange feeling that a battered-looking vegetable was listening to him.  It was a cauliflower ear.  Then he spotted a curious-looking citrus tree and wondered aloud what it might be.

  “A lemon tree, my dear Watson,” said a familiar voice.

  “Holmes!” Watson exclaimed.  “But why the disguise?”

   “I believe,” Holmes explained, “that our host is not who he says he is and that he has an evil plan to replace politicians with mutant vegetables.”

  “Would anyone notice?”

  “Probably not.”

  “So the Prime Minister could be a giant turnip!”

   “Precisely,” Holmes agreed.

  “Or even a brassica.”

  “I doubt there’ll ever be greens in Parliament,” Holmes replied.

  Just then a figure emerged from among the beehives and, removing his protective head gear, revealed himself as none other than, “Professor Moriarty!”

   “Correct, Mr. Holmes,” the evil genius sneered.  “But fine words butter no parsnips, whatever that means.”

  “You’ll never get away with your wicked plan, whatever it is!” Watson cried.

  “On the contrary,” Moriarty replied, “I’ve already replaced half the Cabinet with runner beans.  The other half are has-beens.  Soon, the entire                   Government will be fit only for spreading on the flower beds.”

    But at that precise moment he was surrounded by a pack of Police dogs, closely followed by Inspector Lestrade.  They’d escaped from their compound and he was following a lead.

  “Arrest him!” Holmes yelled to Lestrade.

   “On what grounds, Mr. Holmes?”

  “The grounds of Great Bottomly,” said Watson.

  And so Moriarty was consigned to the compost heap of history.


  That evening as they shared a bottle of elderflower wine Watson asked Holmes what made him suspect that their host was, in fact, Professor Moriarty.

  “Well,” said Holmes, “it was partly the saucy laughter coming from the passion fruit behind the gazebo and partly the way the lilies winked at me as I passed.  But mainly it was something I found behind the garden shed,” – and here he produced a well-thumbed book - “Professor Moriarty’s Guide to   Garden Management and World Domination.”


I went to the bar for a packet of


The landlord asked me what

flavour.  “Any,”


said.  “Barbecue                                                                                                                        


“Barbecued what?”

“Barbecued barbecue, essence of


“That will do nicely,” I

said with

smile, and went back to sit with my



  It was Happy Hour at Harry’s Cocktail Bar the first time that I met Lola.  I had my nose in the Corriera della Sera, so I didn’t see Lola come in.  I was reading about how Luigi Mignoni, CEO of WineCorp, was facing charges of “impropriety”  with his much younger secretary in a cellar full of the corporation’s one hundred-year-old Chianti, not that this bothered WineCorp – men of a certain age had rushed out and bought bottles of the stuff, hoping that it would cause a little of Mignoni’s virility and sex appeal to rub off on them.  In fact, not all of the wine that was flying off the shelves was a hundred years old, and some of it wasn’t even Chianti.  Then I heard this clack clack, so I looked up from the Corriera della Sera and there was Lola.

  Lola was wearing a World War Two Russian tank driver’s helmet, aviator’s goggles, a flying jacket, and rainbow-coloured high-heel sneakers.  It was love at first sight.  Oh, and bright red lippy.

  “I’m looking for a balloonatic,” Lola said to no-one in particular.

  “Aren’t we all?” I replied.

  “You’ve come to the right place,” Harry piped-up from behind the bar.

  “Care for a drink?” Lola asked me.

  I nodded.

  “We’ll have a Teatime Special,” Lola called to Harry without asking if it was ok with me.

  As it happens it was ok with me.  Iced Earl Grey with vodka poured from a teapot into a glass with a slice of lime, the Teatime Special gave off a bewitching aroma of bergamot, citrus and alcohol – or perhaps that was Lola’s perfume.

   I was halfway down my first glass when Lola asked me if I was scared of heights.

  I told her that I was terrified.

  “You should be,” Lola replied.  “They can kill.”

  I said that I thought that it was the landing that could kill.

  “That can be dangerous, too,” Lola agreed.  “The point is it doesn’t do to get too complacent when you’re five hundred metres above the Earth and the only thing keeping you there is a bag of hot air.”

  I said that if I were five hundred metres above the Earth, complacent is the last thing that I would be.  But why would I be up there in the first place?

  “Because,” Lola answered, “it could either make you rich and famous or make you dead.”

  I told Lola that I would settle for rich and famous, but how could I make it happen?

  “Have you ever heard of Roberto Bardalini?” Lola asked.

  Of course I’d heard of Italy’s Number One Formula One racing driver.  Who hadn’t?

  “I’ve made a bet with him,” Lola continued.  “I bet him I can take ten kilos of spaghetti from Milan to Rome in a hot air balloon faster than he can do the same in his F1 car so that Marco Sparelli – you’ve heard of him?”

  Of course I’d heard of Marco Sparelli, Italy’s number one tv chef.  Who hadn’t?

  “So that Marco Sparelli,” Lola continued, “can cook it as part of a meal for a thousand people in St. Peter’s Square.”

  “You’ll lose,” I said without hesitation.

  “You’d think so,” Lola agreed, “but think about it.  How much spaghetti can you get into an F1 car?”

  I admitted it was something I’d never thought about.

  “If you fill every available nook and cranny, and there aren’t many – there’s barely room for the driver -, I reckon you could stuff about five kilos in.”

  “So he’d have to make two journeys,” I said, pleased with the speed and      accuracy of my calculation.

  “Bingo!” said Lola.  “Now finish your drink and let’s get going.”

  “What’s the hurry?” I asked.

  “The hurry,” Lola replied, “is that we’ve got to be in Rome the day after tomorrow.”


  I could tell you about the accident that we had over the Apennines or the near-miss with the light aircraft or the strange creature that we saw swimming in Lake Trasimene, but that isn’t what this story’s about.  It’s about who won the bet.  In short, it wasn’t us, which is why I’m not rich and famous as Lola said I might be.  But I’m not dead either, so I’m not complaining.


  The diners in St. Peter’s were already on to their tiramisu when we touched-down beside Bardalini’s bright red MacLaren with him standing at the side of it having a grappa with Sparelli.  Either he’d managed to cram more spaghetti into his car than Lola had anticipated or he’d broken every speed limit between Milan and Rome – twice.  Or perhaps we just hadn’t been fast enough.  We got a sympathetic round of applause, but you know what they say – in a two-horse race there’s no second place.


  That evening, sitting outside a bar in Trastevere, I was overcome with emotion, and whether it was the scent of pine on the breeze or the way the moon glinted on Lola’s goggles I don’t know, but I did something I’ve never done before or since – I proposed.  Marriage, that is.

  Lola thought about my proposal for a moment, then said, “You do know I’m a man?”

  “Of course I do,” I replied.  “That’s what attracted me to you.  We’ve got so much in common.”

  Lola.  L.O.L.A.  Lola.

First we streamlined them, but it didn’t seem to                                                          work, and so we shortened them, then lengthened                                                      them, but that had no                                                                                              effect.  We electrified the                                                                                          lines, closed stations to reduce the                                                                            stops, passed a law prohibiting                                                                                  delays, but nothing seemed to                                                                                  work.  And so we painted                                                                                        them, and that’s what did the                                                                                    trick.