The Aspidistra and the Mock Turtle Soup

The letter that came in the post was intriguing. The envelope was pale green and was addressed in the most beautiful handwriting. Inside was an invitation to dinner with Robert de Morgan on a date two weeks hence at ‘Rogues Manor’. We had only just bought the farm in the Eastern Mountains of Rhodesia and had no clue as to who Robert de Morgan Esq. was. We made enquiries from our new neighbours and learnt that Robert de Morgan was a sort of remittance man. He had disgraced his well-known and wealthy English family by openly flaunting his homosexuality at a time when that type of behaviour was not acceptable. He was banished to Rhodesia with a generous allowance so long as he kept away from his country of birth.

My reaction, as a full blooded, rugby playing male, to the invitation, was to resign it to the waste-paper basket. My wife though, was more liberal and convinced me that it ‘would at least be interesting’ to meet Robert and share a meal with him. We politely replied indicating our pleasure at the chance to visit him at Rogues Manor. Further enquiries elicited the information that when dining with Robert de Morgan, one was expected to dress for the occasion. I no longer owned a dinner suit but appeased my wife by wearing my old but still moth hole free wedding suit. I made a concession to myself by wearing a rugby club tie.

A man in khaki uniform opened the wrought iron gates that marked the outer perimeter of Rogues Manor. We drove up a long tree-lined drive to a striking large house built of hand-hewn stone with a Broseley tile roof. A tall grey-haired man greeted my wife and I at the top of the varandah steps and guided us into a lounge that looked more like a museum than a sitting room. The walls were covered with paintings and obvious family photographs including some old sepia tints that had faded badly in the harsh African light. One wall was covered with weapons from cavalry swords to a clay more and a Gurkha Kukri. Once we were seated a tall figure in a white robe, a khanzu, and fez suddenly appeared next to Robert. Robert told us that the man next to him was Jamu, who was a Swahili from Kenya and had worked for him for over thirty years. Jamu took our drink orders. My wife ordered a Pimms No. 1 and I ordered a Castle Lager to continue my qualification as a man’s man. Robert ordered a Martini. To be honest, I found that after the third beer I was talking happily to our new friend.

Robert de Morgan was obviously a well-educated and kind man and lonely, I suspected. By the time we went to the dining room for our dinner I had happily accepted Robert’s offer to cut as much timber in his wattle tree plantation as I wanted. Jamu, who now wore white gloves, brought in a large soup tureen which he placed on a fine oak sideboard and proceeded to serve each of us in turn. My wife and I were both just about to take a spoonful of the soup when Robert told us that we should enjoy the mock turtle soup as it was from Fortnum and Mason’s in London which he had bought just before the last war. He told us that the tins were a bit rusty, but the soup looked fine.

My wife gave me a distressed look across the dining table. I had to think quickly. I noticed a small gecko hanging onto a wall in the corner of the dining room. I quickly explained that my poor wife was terrified of geckos. Robert rang the little silver bell in front of him. Jamu appeared and was instructed to chase the gecko with a feather duster. While Jamu went to get a feather duster I scanned the dining room. Behind me, in a lovely Chinese jardinière, was a good-looking aspidistra plant. Jamu returned to the dining room with a long-handled feather duster and proceeded to antagonize the poor little gecko. With attention focused on the small reptile and his efforts to evade Jamu, I poured the contents of my soup bowl into the jardinière and then followed my portion of soup with my wife’s! It wasn’t long before normality returned to the dining room. The gecko had headed out of the dining room window and on to the varandah. My wife and I both put our soup spoons down almost simultaneously and expressed our thanks for the culinary delight. The roast leg of lamb that followed was excellent as were the crepes suzettes which Robert informed us were one of Jamu’s specialties.

Over the next few years, we saw quite a lot of Robert. He came to tea with us on our farm. He loved my wife’s scones with jam and cream. He opened the window into his past by telling us how much he had loved scones as a child growing up in Devon. We also had dinner at Rogue’s Manor quite often. I no longer flaunted a rugby club tie but wore a more neutral cravat. The food was always good, and we never had mock turtle soup again! Jamu was always there in the background. I sometimes felt that he was secretly laughing at me. I took up Robert’s offer of free timber and cut hundreds of wattle poles in his plantation, poles that I used for fences and building drying racks for our coffee crop.

Robert passed away about four years after we first met. There were hundreds of people at his funeral. The church was full to overflowing. I found it strange that a man so different to us rough Rhodesian farmers was accepted, warts and all, by us but not by his own kith and kin. Jamu was at the service. He looked older and leaner and uncomfortable in a flannel suit. I shook his hand outside the church. I could see pain in his black, age furrowed face. It was common knowledge in the district that Robert had left everything to Jamu and three weeks after the funeral there was a dispersal sale at Rogue’s Manor. I bought the Gurkha kukri for a fair price and my wife bought Robert’s Prince Albert tea set. Near the end of the sale when most buyers had left, I saw the aspidistra standing alone on a table, unsold. The poor plant had saved us in the past and deserved a good home, so I bought it.

I carried the aspidistra to place it in the back of the pick-up. When I reached the vehicle, I noticed that Jamu had come up behind us. He had a smile on his face when he said in perfect English, “You needn’t have thrown the soup on the plant. I knew the soup from Fortnum and Mason’s was dangerous and, without Robert knowing, I substituted some other soup.” From the way he referred to Robert, my wife and I both realized that Jamu had been more than a servant to Robert. Back home we placed the aspidistra in a suitable place in the lounge and both stood there looking at it and laughing. Every year from then on, on the anniversary of Robert’s death, we poured a tin of vegetable soup into the aspidistra’s jardiniere. It thrived but I did question whether what we were doing was botanical cannibalism!