Barkus tried to pay attention, as both Annie and Albert talked and he distractedly wondered why they were coming to him instead of directly to Sheryl as it seemed that Albert saw that his farm was in trouble and wanted advice on, essentially, a re-haul. He said this in a pause and Albert flapped his hand dismissively and Annie's face turned deadpan.
'Sheryl Monroe might have some fancy books but I want someone who's been tried and tested. I think that fella's you Mr. Barkus,' Albert said brusquely while Annie sipped her coffee, her expression slanted away from Albert. Barkus made a mental note on this, then went back to trying to keep track of Albert's rambling narratives. A song from the cafe speakers caught his ear and memories crept up behind him. Of his father playing the old piano to records, he and his bothers and sister dancing behind the stool, his mother smiling while her hands were busy churning out jams, jellies, relishes and pickles. Those days that felt like they'd go on forever and then, suddenly, did not.
''What do you think Barkus?' Barkus snapped back to current events and looked up to see Annie and Albert looking questioningly at him. He rewound the conversation and grabbed a phrase from nowhere.
'Lady Ashford Pickles actually.'
'What?' The red faced man got redder. 'I'm looking to keep a livelihood going here and all he can think about is his stomach.'
'Well your business is growing food Albert,' Annie reminded him with a smile. It had an almost magical effect as Albert first appeared to try bluster then grinned himself.
'I suppose I can understand that problem,' he admitted, slapping his generous belly. 'But I got to deal with a financial problem Annie and I want a solution.'
'My parents ran a farm,' Barkus said quietly. 'And Dad always got a ribbing when he compared the figures from his and Mom's sides of the family business.' He smiled freely, and Annie thought she got a clearer glimpse of the real John Barkus. 'He ran the livestock and the fields you see, and Mama had the dairy, the garden and the value-addeds.'
'Value-addeds?' Annie asked.
'You know, things like pickles, chutneys, socks. Stuff that isn't just 'pick it, weigh it, charge it' items. When the final reckoning came round each year, Mama had almost as much profit as dad despite the fact that he had 10 times as much acreage as her. The secret she said, was to find what people really wanted to enjoy and make it available to them.' Albert was watching him carefully and Annie had an eyebrow raised. 'For example, she found out by accident that all our neighbours really wanted a type of pickle called 'Lady Ashford Pickles'. Thing is it needs yellow pickling cucumbers, no green at all and there were none to be had anywhere at the kind of price where you didn't have to wait for a special occasion to pop a jar. So Mama immediately contacted someone 2 days drive away that had yellow cukes and went and swapped seeds with her. The following year, three-quarters of our cukes were yellow and Mama made them all into Lady Ashford pickles and inside 2 weeks Mama was driving a rented truck to pick up as many yellow cukes as she could lay her hands on. Everyone in our town wanted 10 jars of Lady Ashfords and she was the only one around. She doubled her profits that year. Of course the next year other farmers had caught on and there were competitors but because Mama kept the Lady Ashfords almost the same price as the normal ones and because she simply made the best, no matter how many she made, she was always sold out.' Barkus laughed. 'I think we were the only kids in town who didn't have Lady Ashford pickles twice a week cos Mama kept selling them all!' Albert was clearly mulling this over, but was smiling.
'So is that still the case?' he asked as Barkus smiled at the past. 'Is she still selling out every year?' Albert and Annie watched as Barkus' face swiftly folded into neutrality, but they still saw the brief flash of grief.
'No,' he said softly. 'There are no more of Mama's Lady Ashford pickles.' He cleared his throat and picked up his coffee cup. 'Excuse me, I'm just going to get a refill.'
As he walked up the cafe, Albert and Annie shared a look. Albert sighed;
'Well I guess he does have a point,' he admitted. 'So how on earth am I going to find out all this?'
'Get one of the teenagers on it?' Annie offered with a wry grin. Albert started to snort, but then a thoughtful look appeared in his eye.
'Huh,' was all he would say.