Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer – A review

This book was originally published in 1958, but it’s a story we should all revisit. Not that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is peerless prose or a wild tale of derring-do. It is neither. Rather, this book is a glimpse of a place in time where men and women were on the edge of massive, generational change.

The approaching transition was from the cosy but fragile reality of the traditional, nuclear family to something much edgier. In this new something people divorced without stigma, lived together without being married and sat on each other’s laps in public. Women were on the verge of all the freedoms that sheer tights, short skirts and the contraceptive pill conferred. They were ready to turn away from conventional social constrictions and personal repression, towards something much more dangerous and risky. 

But in 1958 that was all yet to come. Postwar 1950s Britain was still a seriously limited world, a world where rationing hadn’t finished until 1954 and where Hitler’s ghost still cast a long and menacing shadow. People were subdued and passive, locked in the same class cage as before the war. With Naziism defeated the only war they faced was the Cold War, something too abstractly horrific to truly get their heads around. In this fifties world people clung to traditional roles, to old and dessicated habits because anything different or new was too terrifying. The thought of any kind of upheaval or change was direct trauma.

For most people, ideas that there could be alternatives to pre-war expectations, to new freedoms and roles, had an irrational power to instill fear. It was just too much to think about. Read the novels of Kingsley Amis and the poetry of Philip Larkin and amidst the brilliance you read a celebration of the ordinary and the pre-war status quo. Popular stories, novels and plays were about the quotidien, the unquestionable joys of the steady and reliable British routine. And we had a burgeoning of fantasies and escapism like The Borrowers and the Lord of the Rings presenting alternative safe presentations of struggle and triumph, to replace the horrors of war that had been on the doorstep.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting does none of this, but it does challenge the cosiness of the ordinary lives people were encouraged to live and any escapist fantasies they might have had. The decade was marked by economic growth and technological advance. Economic growth made the life of a housewife more exciting because she could shop at will for household appliances and stuff for herself and her family. Technology made life more convenient; television added scope for idle entertainment. But such advances also encouraged people, especially women, to question shifting individual expectations. They wanted to better understand what it means to have a fulfilled life and how to go about having one.

Penelope Mortimer’s Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is clearly drawn from her own life’s experience as a wife, mother and housewife, and of her own frustrated intellect. In sparse and economical prose she presents a middle-class, white family living in what would once have been described as the stockbroker belt. Ruth and Max  Whiting have three children, two pre-teen boys who go to boarding school and an older daughter in her first year at Oxford. An unplanned but approaching birth is the reason for the daughter’s parent’s marriage in the first place, although Angela doesn’t know this. Angela thinks she’s in love and then she too falls pregnant. The young man in question is a carbon copy of her father at about the same age and situation in life.

Abortion wasn’t an option for Ruth and Max, but it has become unquestionably possible for Angela and Tony, even though it’s still illegal. This odious young man has contrived a personna of male authority, hiding his selfish and sleazy character without even a smidge of awareness that he is doing so. He has no moral compass, no sympathy for his girlfriend, no question of any response other than minimising his culpability. All this is carefully hidden behind a mimicry of traditional expectations of male behaviour, bluster and the puerile affectations of youth. That he wants to live up to the responsibility for getting himself and Angela out of a dreadful situation is fine in theory. But as he acts out the part, he lacks the moral courage or even the slenderest shred of nerve to face the horror of the proposed solution. Or its cost. In this regard perhaps not much has changed since the fifties.

But Ruth has been there before and can understand what needs doing, although how to do it is a harder problem. Her daughter’s child, although it will be aborted, becomes fictionalised in Ruth’s imagination. These imaginings are proxies for Ruth’s own future, although she wants to believe that the child will never be born. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting takes its name from the nursery rhyme which plays on a tiny music box, Ruth has bought for a neighbour’s little girl. She decides to keep it and it becomes a talisman, a reference throughout the novel for Ruth’s need for something reliable and consistent. A bit like how women are these days with their mobile ’phones, the music box gives her something tangible, a reference point. It’s a reminder to keep her feet on the planet. Solving the pregnancy problem for Angela and imagining her unborn child’s fictitious life, together jolt Ruth forwards so she appears to slowly move away from her own nervous collapse. 

Nervous collapse was hidden too in the fifties, just like abortion, poverty, failure, affairs. Many of these are still hidden along with anything else that could be considered embarrassing or in need of response. But people today have far higher trust that their frailties might be accepted, their expectations realised. They have far more routes and support for resolutions and towards achieving their goals. Opportunities to express oneself through words, images, sound and any other form of narrative one might think of abound. The internet fuels a perennial explosion of ideas, expressions and opinions, reverberating endlessly, every moment of every day. Central to this inexhaustible supply of content is an obsession with self and individual identity, with the desperate need to express a unique persona and universal validity. Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a reminder that such luxuries are relatively new for most ordinary people and especially that they have been very, very hard won. We, men, women and other, have travelled a massive journey and Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting shows us a tiny bend in a very long road. That’s why we should read this book again.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 5

The doorbell rang, breaking the already fractured image of this grand funeral slowly coalescing in Brenda’s mind. It was Mimis with the bill for his boiler work and as Brenda wrenched open Audrey’s front door he smiled and said: “That door wants planing.” Brenda watched as Mimis hovered on the doorstep without saying anything further. She wasn’t quite sure what he was waiting for, until she noticed the bill in his outstretched hand. Reaching for the envelop she said “thank you. I am sorry Audrey isn’t back yet”, and stayed still watching the man and out of nowhere wondering about the poetry thing. So she asked him. “Do you really write poems?” Mimis had never felt so excited in his life, but he was also gripped by an urgent panic. “Yes. No one else knows. At least, I mean you are the only one who knows. I don’t really talk about it.” Clearing his throat and shifting backwards down the step he smiled eyes wide and headed for his van suddenly energised that someone might actually consider him a poet instead of a boiler man. “Maybe I’ll bring you something to read”, he called over his shoulder. ”We could go to the park and I can explain them.” Explain them? Brenda waved half-heartedly and called a careful “yes, that would be nice” and wondering what’s to explain in a poem. And Mimis got into his van and drove off, a waving hand flung out of the window in careless farewell. Brenda, yet another bill in hand slammed the front door hard, left the bill in the kitchen and took herself slowly down the stairs to the basement. Lying in the dark she ran through the bills once again until she fell into a half-sleep, where Mimis’ bill grew into the size of a bedsheet. The details it showed in giant letters were fuzzy and feint, and the space at the bottom of the invoice was empty.

Mimis is indeed more than a boiler man, but being a boiler man has given his adult life structure and stability, quiet, a living. Being more than that might have carried some incipient risk. Ever since he came to London as a small child his life had been dramatic, and for Mimis drama was a normal part of his childhood. His English mother had died shortly after they moved to the UK from Thessaloniki. Hippies with their little boy and an adoring Yiayia and Papou in tow, his parents and grandparents had come to London in search not of drama but of calm. The loving couple willingly left behind the chaos and violence that had been their Greek reality for the chaos and confusion of London, with a foreign language and a little boy to raise thrown in for good measure. An English bride wasn’t really what Yiayia and Papou had wanted for their son, but life over death on a protest line was definitely preferable for all of them. And without her who knows where their lives in Athens would have taken them. Nowhere safe for sure. Their love for little Dimitrios was boundless. They cared for him through all the school plays and gatherings, and through their son’s working life driving a cab whilst framing ideas for ousting the generals in charge in Greece. He would share his ideas every evening over dinner, smoking, eating, and rattling conversations in noisy Greek. Mimis had tried to follow his father’s rants but his little boy Greek could not keep up. And the shouting made him anxious so he instead would put his head in Yiayia’s lap and wait for it to stop. When Papou died and his wife swathed herself in endless black and tears, Mimis feared she would soon follow. With only his dad and grandma, it was hard for Mimis to keep any connection to Englishness despite his successful disguise. He spoke flawless English but confused, vulnerable and excessively popular with the girls at his school Mimis’ spirit was Grecian. His schoolfellows gawped at those soft shining brown curls and his matchless eyes, the perfect complexion, olives and cream, those endlessly long eyelashes, his grace and muscularity. Excessively popular, excessively sensitive, uncertain and gullible. A broken heart at 17 was enough to leave him emotionally traumatised and wary, reluctant to interact with his schoolmates. Despite his grades, uni was out and instead he trained as a fixer of boilers, became superbly skilled at superficial chat and took no interest in any sort of commitment to any strangers. Mimis cared for his ailing father, looked after their house and after Yiayia died Mimis cooked pasticio and koulourakia for his dad. He followed Yiayia’s recipes from a broken book with pages marked and stained, persistent reminders of festivals and celebrations long since forgotten. The book was his connection to a life long gone but still vibrant and he always remembered that Greek Easter, like many other magics comes in its own time.

Picture this

It was hot. The air shimmered with noise, sweat, heat, and cigarette smoke hung languid in the air. Summer Saturday. 1962. Protest march. Protest celebration. Camping. They were talking just a metre or two away, laughing, looking in the direction of the television camera, but not into it. Oozing youth, novel, fresh. The sound guy’s got his hand up high and the furry microphone is swaying just above their heads. They don’t stop their chat. They don’t bother. Music chat matters more.

It was humid. The air dripped wet and warm and all around the people were pressing in and trying to get closer to the two men. Two men who had just been on the bandstand inside the tent. The two men who might be famous. The taller of the pair was smoking and smirking, scanning the crowd. The other was just smiling guileless and happy, pleased to be playing with this great man. Young. He wasn’t tired or hot or scanning the crowd. He was just excited to be there. Excited to be playing, to be heard. Excited to be with the others supporting the movement. The movement. It was movement everywhere. Swarms of people there for the politics, there for the music. Television crews there to fill their channels. Disarmament. Ban the bomb. Peace. And there were those who came only to be entertained, to dance, to get legless, to have a tale to tell on Monday at the office. The long day and evening and night stretched ahead, sliding along an open road. Time was moving too.

It was anxious. An atmosphere crackling with energies, bouncing and absorbing sound and light. Unseen, unrecognised, unacknowledged desire simmered. Watching the two musicians a young woman with a gap in her front teeth and a mass of swept back dark hair. She was struggling trying to work out how to talk to them. She wanted to tell them how much she liked their music. Truly. She wanted to say how much she admired their trumpeting and drumming. Truly. She wanted just to say. Truly. But each time she started coming forward, trying to frame the words with her worried lips and dry tongue, she somehow got stuck. No sound came out. Truly.

It was temptation. Her hand raised to her mouth, fingers pulling softly on her lower lip, and still they two stood chatting and oblivious. At least one was oblivious. She could hear them going on about one of the numbers, a solo here, a rim shot there and what the rest of the set should look like. Who should go first. When. The signal. And no words for her even though she was so close. But a sly glance as a cigarette is puffed. She didn’t see it through the smoke and the short cough that followed. She felt her wedding ring heavy on her hand as her fingers worked some more at her lip. The shimmer of someone else’s gold mingling with the warm air’s golden shimmer and the light that shone on the two men in front of her.

It was noisy. From the tent behind her she could hear musicians tuning up again, running through random bits of scales, strumming and plinky plonking on an ancient upright. They were getting ready for the next set and the two men lifted their chins ever so slightly, aware of their own absences. She must do it now, must move forward, must take control of her nerves and somehow tell them how much she loves what they do, how much she wants to be part of it. Truly. And how much it matters that they share so much of themselves. And how her love and adulation is crushing her. Truly.

It was beginning. “What’s this bird doing? Hovering, what? Do you think she’s after a fag?” talking over her, to her, at her. And as the taller one turns to offer her a lighted cigarette she’s turning, head down, faced flushed and gone. As she hurries anxious fingers shift the gold band around and around. As she twists and twists she finds the golden band sliding off into her open palm and as sudden she turns back to the two men. She slips the ring into her handbag, reaching in one smooth movement for the cigarette. “Don’t mind if I do. Maureen.” “Tony.” And as his young colleague’s eyes grow wider, Tony takes Maureen by the arm and heads towards the tent where the sound of the music is getting more insistent. “Come on. We’re on. Let me get you a drink before we start.” He looks back over his shoulder with a leer and a wink and he drops an arm over her shoulder, a shadow in the sunshine. She stares up wide-eyed, blushing, her fingers once again on her lip. Her intentions shifting. As Tony and Maureen move away and disappear, the producer approaches the camera and the sound man lowers his boom. “That’s a wrap. I’ll show it to her later. That’ll be an interesting one eh?” he jokes. The smiling drummer looks at his shoes and wonders what the two others are talking about. He hears the scales getting louder and the banging of drums, his drums, call him back. Alarmed for his music he hurries away. He gives the woman no thought and is already immersed. But on the bandstand he sees her sip her cider and watch a trumpet player who’s mind he can hear is elsewhere.

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown. 

It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.

Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.

The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.

So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry IrvingEllen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.

Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed. 

Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here:

PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?

The Three Bees: Winter blows into Spring 

Rain pounded the walls of the hive with such ferocity that Curly feared icy water would soon penetrate his home. Winter winds had been shaking the hive for days now and the temperature had barely moved up or down. Gales forced damp and cold into every available gap and the bees had been unable to send out scouts for days. The entire colony had remained tightly clustered around the brood, rotating at Curly’s command as he tracked time and temperature to keep live bee numbers as high as possible. But something was changing.

Weeks had gone by since Curly’s momentous confrontation with the seven sisters and the aging Queen. She was legendary having twice swarmed away from her home, only to return twice to murder about-to-hatch virgin princesses in their beds. Throughout the summer the Queen had been ruthless whenever she discovered newly built Queen cells. She had stung through cell walls to kill numerous gestating princesses. And finally as summer turned to autumn she had stopped laying altogether. But as legendary as her determination to hold onto power, was her laziness. Curly had barely seen her since the nights had started to draw in.

From time to time a messenger bee came to tell Curly the numbers he had requested: new bees born, bee deaths, hours of light, hours of darkness, how quickly their food stores were diminishing, if the Queen was showing any sign of egg-laying. This last was a crucial question for Curly, for once Mother started laying it was a hint that winter may perhaps be coming to an end. He wasn’t convinced of this, nor did he entirely trust that the Queen would be right in her timing. But it gave him a sense of hope.

Curly made his calculations on the warmest wall of the hive, using a softened concoction of wax and propolis flakes and his trusty propolis stick to record the data. The graphs and charts he was particularly proud of, although on the rare days when the sun hit the hive wall with especial intensity, Curly’s figures and diagrams tended to droop a little. But they would harden back up again when the temperature reverted to superchill and it was doing this less often of late. The variability tended to bring into question some of the numbers and graphs, but overall Curly was confident that winter was beginning to wane. The charts for daylight hours and darkness were showing clearly that the light was beginning to outpace the dark. The frequency of his bee rotations was slowing down too, and the noises outside the hive were occasionally more than just howling wind and pounding rain.

He chewed on his propolis stick awhile, aware that he hadn’t eaten much lately. In fact he couldn’t quite remember when he had last eaten and the latest messenger bee to visit had not brought any supplies. Or had she? Looking at the numbers was becoming more interesting to Curly than recording them or sending his instructions for the changeovers. And Curly was aware that he couldn’t quite remember why they were so important. After all, it was just a bit of wind and cold and Mother was still somewhere in the hive, doing whatever it was she did. Curly couldn’t always remember that either.

His charts and diagrams though were a great comfort, and as he pondered what the overlapping circles meant a new messenger bee arrived. At least she might have been a new one. She stood slightly deferential with her head bowed at the entrance to Curly’s little cubby hole. The hive wall with its calculations and pictures formed one wall. Honey comb was shaped to form the rest of this small private cell, where Curly spent his days mostly asleep when he wasn’t pondering. No one ever entered, not even messengers bearing nourishment. At night when the hive was coldest, he was up on the outer edges of the cluster. He moved constantly into and out of the nest’s many layers instructing the bees. He told them when and where to move, so that they did not get chilled and risk death, and so that the brood at the heart of the nest would be kept warm. Daytimes were his to contemplate his calculations and to doze.

“What is it?” Curly called over his shoulder to his young visitor with some irritation. “It’s Mother said the little round bee, “she’s told me to fetch you and the seven sisters have told me to hurry up and bring you to her. They’re going too.” Curly leant a little against the honeycomb, taking care not to lean too hard as it was softening under the growing warmth of the sun. The wild winds had dropped to occasional squally gusts, and the rain was easing. Curly couldn’t see it, but the late winter cloudscape was losing its overhanging grey and revelling in erratic golds and pinks, sunlight shining on clouds highlighted with gleaming streaks of silver. Behind them an endless blue was getting slowly bluer. A radiant sky. A harbinger of spring. “Are you sure” said Curly somewhat dubiously. “Why? And why should I believe you?” The youngster had not anticipated any challenge, nor had she expected the imperious superiority of Curly’s tone. She shivered slightly and looked defiantly at the ends of her antennae which were drooping uncontrollably as the shivers continued and she started to doubt the wisdom of volunteering for this mission. Confused and cross she turned away. She muttered “you’re not all you’re cracked up to be Curly the Wise”, not quite under her breath.

Curly, being feted as Curly the Wise for so many weeks now and having a somewhat inflated view of his own indispensability, had heard her. But as he couldn’t remember why this messenger was here, or what she had been saying to him, he stepped out of his cell and traipsed after the little round bee “Curly the Wise did you say?” And tucking his propolis stick under a foreleg, he started speeding up to catch his visitor. She in turn looked over her shoulder slightly uncomfortable that this saviour bee might have heard her rude remark. “You are Curly the Wise aren’t you?” she ventured in a conciliatory tone and slowed her pace a little so that they could walk alongside. “I’m Lisa. They want to see you, that’s all I know.” Curly stared ahead puzzled and a little anxious, memories of drone patrols and wingless corpses floating into view. He gave his young companion a soft pat and did his best to maintain an expression that lived up to his name as they ambled along.

Together they passed carefully through the outer layers of the nest, comforted by the low level hum of the moving bees, working to create heat from their collective movement’s friction. As Curly and Lisa crept carefully through the dense network of bees, Curly began to understand that it was Mother who wanted to talk to him and that the seven sisters had agreed to let him approach. Curly the Wise had said something sometime ago to the seven sisters about wanting to know when the Queen would start laying again. Perhaps that was what this meeting was all about. He had told them that this step in the colony’s progress through the winter would mark a crucial turning point. The rota for nest warming duties could be changed, food and water rationing could slow down and there might be more chances for foragers to take preliminary excursions, weather permitting. But only when the Queen started laying again.

As they approached her, Curly sensed that whatever it was the Queen wanted to share, it was not just to do with egg-laying. She was reclining, long and lazy, her head supported by a couple of attendants who appeared to be massaging her. She bee-yawned and slowly shifted to ensure the continuation of the massage and that Curly was in full sight. “Welcome Curly the Wise. We have something to share you and I, but we need to be alone.”

This last caused a buzzing panic from the surrounding bees. Their message passed quickly to the outer layers of the nest where it came out as “whinny toblerone” a phrase that gave the outlying bees no cause for consternation or concern. But closer in the colony was tense and anxious. As they pressed tighter around Curly and Mother, the seven sisters made it very clear that alone was not an option. Reassured the bee cluster lost some of its tension and resumed its agitations. But Curly and Mother were in a very different shared space, aware of the surrounding bees, but unaware that it should matter. They were together alone and both understood that other bees, seven sisters or no, were excluded from their private intoxication. Together they turned to face the gathered bees, Curly feeling unaccountably larger and bolder, slightly dizzy and somehow very peaceful. Outside a crow landed on the roof of the hive and lifted off sharpish, as the entire colony started to buzz. The distraction was long enough for Curly to move in closer to Mother. He sat at her feet like an aged companion only slightly less frail than his friend.

“Get up Curly the Wise and come and sit beside to me” she said as the surrounding bees let out a collective gasp and as one stepped in shock away from them both. Even the courtiers and attandants moved involuntarily and unaccountably away, curiously drawn to join the rest of the congregation and away from the Queen and Curly. In this swift moment of separation Curly was annointed, priviledged, an honoured consort. He knew it could only be temporary, just as long as it took for the seven sisters to regain their composure and for the attendants to get over their strange stupor and remember their duties. As if she could read his thoughts Mother whispered “we have only limited time. I must ask you to stay with me, rest with me, and to tell them that egg-laying is commencing”. Curly turned to the massed onlookers and leaning on his propolis stick cleared his throat and waited as they as one drew in closer. He did his best to set his voice at what might be considered an authoritarian pitch. It sort of worked, but his voice was more croaky and thin than Curly remembered it being.

“Egg-laying” he said, “Egg-laying is what this is all about. And Mother wants me to stay close. Not sure why, but there is no need to panic. I can continue to give instructions at night and I will nap with her during the day.” The Queen nodded slowly at the start of this terse speech, but had dozed off before Curly had finished it. The seven sisters went immediately into action, shuffling about and telling the bees to “move along now, nothing to see here, show’s over”. Curly sat quietly for a moment or two before giving the Queen a surreptitious nudge and whispering that she might want to wake up and get a bit of a move on, to start with the egg-laying as soon as possible. It would be three or four days before the eggs turned into grubs and another three weeks or so before the grubs would be born into new young bees. According to Curly’s calculations, Mother should be laying at least six hundred eggs a day and this should be enough to get the colony’s population up to where it needed to be for its survival. As the weather improved and the days continued to lengthen Curly estimated that soon the bees would be able to stop their nest warming rotation and to start foraging.

With a lazy arm draped over Curly’s bent shoulders the Queen heaved herself up and started moving from cell to cell, dipping her slender abdomen into each one she passed and leaving behind a tiny egg, a speck like a tiny grain of rice. Over the next few hours she moved slowly, deliberately across random empty cells. With each deposit she whispered to herself, “another and another and another and soon they will all be gone”. Curly followed along but wasn’t paying much attention to Mother’s meanderings or her peculiar conversation. He became aware of a sense of alarm from the young messenger bee who had so insulted him. Lisa had stayed behind to watch out for Curly and Mother when all the other bees had returned to their various tasks. Curly pulled away from his Queen to reassure Lisa that all was well, because the Queen was laying again and that winter would soon be over. Everything would be just fine. But the young bee shook her head resolutely and told Curly in a very quiet voice, that they couldn’t survive as a colony, if all the eggs were gone.

Curly had no idea what she was talking about, egg-laying was egg-laying surely. But the young bee had been a housekeeper before getting her promotion to messenger for the seven sisters. As a housekeeper bee Lisa had paid close attention to all the nursing bee conversations about eggs and brood and what they should be fed, because she too would be a nursing bee at some stage. She didn’t want to mess it up. Her eavesdropping lead her to understand that when there were not enough eggs laid or if fewer than several hundred eggs were laid every day, the bees would take an important decision. They would have to decide if it was time to raise a new queen. In preparation they would tell the engineers to enlarge selected cells in which an egg could be fed a special diet of honey and Royal Jelly, and so that the growing grub would eventually emerge as a honey bee princess. But the new princess would be a virgin, so she would not be able to lay any eggs until she had mated. There had to be enough eggs laid, so that there would be enough bees to raise the new Queen and send her out to mate with as many drones as possible. Timing was critical. At least that is what the young messenger bee had overheard. Lisa understood what it meant and as Curly’s mind rapidly processed this new information, so did he.

Curly returned to Mother’s side repeating under his breath what Lisa had said, lest he forget. It was difficult though and by the time Curly reached the Queen he was saying it out loud. As he took a proffered foreleg, the Queen drawled “now do you get it?” and Curly stared back blank and uncomprehending. “Er, not entirely majesty, no, sort of? No not really at all.” She finished laying her final egg and turned away from the brood cells, using her heft to pull Curly along with her. “Where are we going?” he asked struggling feebly to resist before giving up. Wherever it was, they were going together.

“I’ve long watched you Curly, I always knew you were special, different, like me, and that we should have a wonderful future together. And now the time is right for us, it’s time for you and I to take a different sort of step. Now. Together.” By the time this little speech was finally completed Curly was feeling very tired. The traipsing about seemed to have gone on for hours and what with all these conversations and strange ponderings his bee brain was feeling the strain. And now he was beginning get it. He turned to Lisa still loitering along behind them. “Look, Lisa, look at the sunlight coming in. Stay here and watch us. Tell the seven sisters to remember for the next time. Tell them we’re off, we’re at the end and we’re going together.”

Lisa watched amazed as the Queen and Curly readied themselves for take off. Out and up into the chilled blue of an early spring sky the two bees flew to the nearest landing spot. For a few moments they stretched out limbs and wings sunning themselves and catching their breath. All memories of their lives in the colony, of their brothers and sisters, of honey, of eggs, of charts and propolis sticks and gentle massages, slowly faded into pallid remembrances. Lisa watched the two bees make it unsteadily to the first available branch and watched as they stretched out in the sun. She was watching still when, with infinite grace, Curly and his Queen drifted slowly to the ground forelegs linked, wings folded, eyes sightless, and all so very silent.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 4

The stack of bills and the stack of unopened letters sat side by side on the desk’s green leather inlay, tidy, prim and unassuming. Brenda looked at the piles reproachfully for the story she understood they told and the depth of her own deceit they were witnessing. She interrogated a couple of the paintings on the wall. Smug young women too thin in fantastic fabrics in dazzling shapes and shades did not reply. How should they know what Brenda should do next? What her choices are. The choices facing Brenda were meagre indeed and all of them too much for her to face apart from the nonchoice, the choice that said do nothing. Sit still and safe in someone else’s life until they come to reclaim it. And then whatever happened next would be someone else’s choice not Brenda’s. Explaining this to her static observers, Brenda felt fresh walls go ip around the reality of who she currently was and what she had done and the unreality of participating uninvited in someone else’s life.

The Filofax she had retrieved from Audrey’s handbag was on the desk where she had placed it in readiness for Audrey’s return. Opening the Filofax she learnt more about Audrey from her blood type (B) and her car number plates (one scratched out), to her passport and driving license numbers. There was also an emergency contact detail listing Fiona Bellamy’s address and phone number. Brenda read through the neatly penned entries for flights and Eurostars, for appointments and coded notes, for a death and a funeral entries for which told Brenda that the dead husband’s name was Angus. Returning to the piles on the desk Brenda observed to herself that the bills were mostly directed to Audrey and that the letters with their oddly threatening demeanour mostly had Angus’ name on them. 

The Filofax documented a diminishing number of appointments over the course of the year amidst complicated travels between England and France. There were a couple of curious references to “A away” and sometimes “A away (again?)”. As Brenda sat at the sumptuous desk in the immaculate room, watching the elegant trees beyond the windows swaying gracefully, she started to wonder if Audrey’s reality was not quite so perfect. But Brenda had no idea, no idea at all. She watched the steadying trees in the park and took a closer look at the bills matching their dates to activities in the Filofax. There was no particular reason for doing this, but Brenda was looking for symmetry, reliability, patterns that perhaps would give her solace.

One of the bills was from a funeral home, clearly for arranging Angus’ final resting place and the many trappings that went along with it. Brenda glanced at the figures in a state of mild shock. When her Aunty had died her Uncle had arranged and paid for everything. When he had died he had already organised the funeral and prepaid it. Luke and Brenda were not involved. Uncle John had left his house to a veteran’s charity, contents and all and left no trace for Brenda to mourn. All she had from her years with them was the battered old suitcase she’d left with. When Luke’s Mum had died his older brothers handled everything and although Brenda and Luke were at the service, he didn’t want to stay for the wake. In contrast, judging by the bills, Angus Saxton’s send off was nothing short of spectacular. Charges were made for arranging the service, providing a coffin, the coffin itself, celebrant, string quartet, cremation, vehicles, flowers, disbursements, doctors’ fees, more celebrant fees, and a matt teal nickel and silver urn with a black velvet lined and fully personalised oak presentation box. And the VAT. Over £12,000 in all for the coffin alone, more than Brenda had ever seen on a bill before. She pretended to write out a cheque to Hadley Cottage Funeral Services, but couldn’t bring herself to sign the empty envelop on which she had drawn a picture of a blank cheque.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 3

This second message Brenda didn’t delete and actually did read. She pondered it for a while and considered what would happen next, if she answered. But the idea of responding, of engaging at all, petrified her and the trembling started up again. Brenda thought she could feel tears starting and forcing shut her eyes she realised that the tears were more than starting. They dribbled down her shaking cheeks and into her opening mouth as the howl began to erupt, loud long and forcing her to breathe in sudden gut-wrenching sobs. Her diaphragm and abdomen were heaving painfully, driving alien sounds out of her gaping mouth in an animal roar. The awful sound skated across the kitchen’s granite surfaces and the walls reverberated in a horrible near silent echo. Brenda half collapsed into a low crouch. Slowly, agonisingly and still howling she crept wretched on hands and knees to a refuge under the kitchen table. There she stayed in tight ball until the keening started to ease and the sobs were subsiding into a series of breathy wet intakes of air that threatened to choke her. Eventually Brenda still stuttering and weeping slow and sad and afraid went out into the garden and stared into the light surrounding her. She stood on the wet grass feeling her shoeless feet getting colder and damper, hearing vaguely distant traffic sounds, random music, birds. The sounds of some other life, the sounds of a stranger’s other world, a world where Brenda had no place.

She looked again at the phone and wanted to draft a reply, but her fingers were shaking too much to even keep any sort of a grip on the device. She wanted to do the expected thing, the normal thing, the thing that she needed more than anything to be true. She wanted to text that she was ok but not at home, she wanted to text that she was taking a break, that she’s not in the neighbourhood or even in the county. She wanted to text that she was with a friend, but this was also not true. She paused. Instead of tapping out the letters of something like what Brenda thought might be considered normal and sending the message, Brenda just stayed standing very still. Her heaving chest was settling into more and smaller breathy breaths. Her face was beginning to dry a little as the tears turned slowly into a thin tight layer on her reddened face. She could feel the salt start to itch slightly. She waited for her chest to rise more steadily, noting unexpectedly that the pain in her back and ribs was not as bad as it was. She admired the dedicated and efficient way some baby sparrows were working at their shredding. They were systematically picking leaves of one of Audrey’s bushes dropping selected slivers onto the ground in a random mess. Some leaves were shredded more than others and some were tested and then left in place on their branch. It all seemed so very important, so very present.

The midmorning sun was soon warm on Brenda’s head and the Merino cardigan across her shoulders somehow helped to calm her. Brenda tapped many times with many corrections eventually to send a message of reassurance and as her hands began once more to tremble, she quickly sent it. Brenda hurried back indoors to the safety of her special chair where she sat with her arms folded round her upraised knees until the shaking finally stopped. Slowly she focused on the kitchen and the silent air’s emptiness and started to breathe more carefully and more deeply. Occasional gulps and the remnants of chilling wetness clinging to her cheeks diminished as Brenda reached to the small table by her side and gathered up the pile of bills she had come across in Audrey’s desk.

Brenda intended to open the calculator on her phone, but instead she immediately pressed to switch it off as a new torrent of notifications started flooding onto the screen. Breathing deeply and stretching her legs out to place her wet feet slap on the floor Brenda kept still, banishing the quivers and shakes, breathing her own focus, staring at the cooker clock, waiting for it to click in silence to the next number. Then going slowly from bill to bill Brenda methodically added up the amounts, focussing on the numbers, the numbers, the numbers. Not trusting her memory or her arithmetical powers, Brenda went up to Audrey’s study in search of a calculator. Sitting at the desk she was aware that the room’s muffled calm enveloped her. She was surrounded by beautiful unthreatening things, and no hidden danger lurked. Some semblance of someone else’s serenity help her. It was beginning to ease the fear that cruised her consciousness looking for prey. With immense care and focus Brenda added it all up. When she saw the total she blushed a little, marginally affected that what she had had in her head matched what was on the calculator’s little screen. “Just luck,” she said quietly and then turned her attention to the heap of official looking but unopened letters accumulating on the desk. Their contents, Brenda was certain, told a story of their own but she didn’t yet dare to open them. Instead she ordered them according to the dates on their postmarks and their geographies: British and French and a couple from America.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 2

The combination of the water multiplier on his tongue and buccal surfaces. with the transfer of chili juice from fingers to eyes was indeed almost joyful to witness for both women. Luke struggled to affect a fresh snarl but his second wave of intense, burning agony this time in his eyes, made it impossible to frame any sort of sentence, snarling or otherwise. Ignoring Luke’s distress with remarkable composure Renée said: “I hope you understand how serious this is” with an impressively austere expression and no hint of a smile. “We shall be making a report. I think it’s fair to say it’s over for you Mr Mordrake, don’t you Ann?” Ann held her face as still as possible, and could only nod her agreement. “Where is your wife Mr Mordrake? I am sure she is aware of the situation, and I am afraid she will have some questions to answer, as do you, Mr Mordrake.” This last with a slightly smug little smile, as she leaned towards his wet and still weeping face. “I told you. She’s gone. Scarpered. Disappeared” he managed to say as open mouthed he did his best to air his tongue. His eyes were inflamed, weeping and his eyelids were swelling nicely. “And when do you expect your wife back?” said Ann for whom all nursey kindnesses had drained away. “The fuck if I know”. Ann and Renée watched their patient coughing again, as he bent over the table his torso leaning on his forearms, and silently considered this new development. Where was Brenda? Had she finally had enough and left him? She wouldn’t dare. Or would she?

Renée and Ann shared a glance and both wondered how this was going to work. They could both picture Luke claiming that he’s only recently been able to stand, that the pain was under control expecting his wife to lie to back him up. But without Brenda how would that work? Who would believe him after this? And where Brenda was at present, was not actually relevant for the current situation. Ann waited patiently as Renée went through the various things that would happen next. She felt slightly sorry for the blubbering burnt lipped fool who was sticking to the first rule of lying, groaning even now that he was in pain, not just in his mouth and eyes. He was sticking fast to the principle that even if you’re found out, don’t admit the lie. But Luke Mordrake lacked the imagination to maintain the charade, so he never thought to ask for the wheelchair or if they could help him into it. A saturation of lies was rising slowly around him and he was drowning.

As Luke’s coughing subsided and he got up to hobble to his cigarettes, Renée was finishing her explanation of what happens next. “ … benefit stops straightaway because clearly you do not meet the immobility criteria and fraud officers will be visiting you. They will interview you under caution and you and your wife will have to pay back all the money you’ve claimed, possibly since the accident but definitely since you came home from hospital. There may also be penalties.” Luke sucked on his cigarette watching Renée’s thin lips give word to his greatest fear and felt himself trembling and a warmth passing its way down his leg to soak soft and tepid into his slipper. The shaking was getting worse but as Ann stepped towards him slightly anxious and asking, “are you alright Mr Mordrake” he pulled back his shoulders, scrabbled with his parts and hissed “fuck off the both of you, fuck off before you get hurt”. The two women backed a step away and Renée, still steely, said “yes, I think that’s a good idea. We’ll be in touch with your wife to let her know what’s going on.” And with that they stepped out into the morning sunshine.

“You won’t find her.” Luke shouted as they headed for the door. In his simmering head he was already planning his welcome for when Brenda came back. He knew she would. And he was certain that Brenda would come back groveling. “Bitch” he said setting a match with satisfaction to the package of chilis. As their pungent and unexpectedly asphyxiating fumes rose Luke’s coughing resumed with profound violence and as he tossed his little bonfire and cigarette into the sink he could barely spit out the word “bitch”. It came out of his tightened larynx as a wheezy whisper soft, enfeebled. Caved over once again he heard the car’s gears getting a pasting as Renée and Ann eventually pulled away. Underneath the burn in his lungs he could feel a rising panic brewing and the fear he had so long buried coming to the surface and once more he wept wet, stinking, afraid and alone.

As Renée thrust her car mostly into gear, Ann was already looking up Brenda’s mobile number. She sent a terse message, requesting that Brenda text her back because she and Renée needed a word with her about Luke. Safe in Audrey’s basement Brenda’s breath stopped when she saw there was a message and it was all she could do to stop herself from deleting it. So she did, on the basis that whatever it was they could work out how to solve it themselves, without her. Safe. Silent. But Brenda had underestimated their social services habit of concern. “What should we do? She’s not the sort to run away is she?” Ann’s question came freighted with fear. “Is she?” she repeated and Renée stopped the car and turned off the engine. “She might be in danger Ann. We don’t know what that man’s really capable of. We’ve both seen the signs, and we both know she won’t ask for help. We might even be too late already.” A sobering reality started filtering into the two women’s brains, totally overwhelming the screaming horns coming from behind. “Let’s give it a day”, Renée said absentmindedly waving on the traffic, not noticing that the light ahead of them was red. Ann nodded and read out the address of their next visit. She sent the message again to Brenda again adding a PS. R u ok. Pls let us know.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 1

Brenda always appreciated the gentle way Ann squeezed her hand and put her head slightly to one side. There was often a kind look, and sometimes anxiety in the district nurse’s grey eyes, particularly when Brenda had to push down her sleeves to cover the marks. There was no kind look in her eyes today as Ann and Renée came into the bungalow, the sound of their approach masked by the noise of the Asda man driving away. Nor was there much kindness in the eyes of her colleague from social services as they stepped over empty lager cans into the hall. Both wondered where Brenda was and why Luke was standing in the kitchen swearing as he unpacked the Asda shop. Renée Sagemill had already noted the folded wheelchair in the corner and the filth all over the kitchen. She glanced at Ann as the two took in the dirty dishes stacked in the sink and on the draining board, ready meals packaging strewn on the counter tops under half unpacked shopping. And Luke upright and leaning into the counter as he threw groceries viciously across the room. “What is this crap?” he mumbled unaware of his audience, as he flung the Asda own brand vegan veggi burgers into the growing heap of leeks and celeriac and other rejects.

The visitors coughed slightly as one and Luke turned taking in a deep breath, dank and dirty, stale. Peering through the smoke, his cigarette held tight at the base of his fingers he took another breath “What the fuck.” he muttered before pasting is most charming smile across his face: “ladies, ladies …” he pulled on his victim gallant persona, smiling smiling but, following their eyes to the wheelchair he knew the game was up. The smile fell and the winning tones melted away. “You can’t come in here without knocking, without asking. No right” he spat, taking a small hostile step towards them before theatrically falling back against the sink. “Mr Mordrake” Renée replied sweetly but with a streak of shining steel, “Mr Mordrake, we always come straight in so that you don’t have to get out of your wheelchair and to save Mrs Mordrake the trouble. Hmm?” “You know this. But I think you might perhaps, have forgotten we were coming this morning? Too excited with the shopping perhaps?” she continued, eyebrows raised, brow wrinkled and the smile still in place. “Hmm?” she said again as she cast her eye over the ugly mess already crawling with flies despite the early season. Luke stared blank and angry, confused, resistant, first at Renée and then at Ann standing slightly behind her. He raised his fist and elbow high, armpit shining bright white and hair clumped, thrust a pointed finger at her and then at Renée, “you,” he struggled, “you and you, you cows”. Found out and with no one at hand to blame he seethed in swirling defensive fury. Undone he was speechless, soundless but for spitty, hissy breaths, impotent, trapped, enraged, powerless.

Renée and Ann stood patient and waiting, Ann amazed at the strength in that forearm, Ann oddly fascinated by Luke’s long and knuckly dirty-nailed finger, and Renee curdled with anger. Anger not just at Luke, at the pretense she’s missed and at what she would have to go through to resolve it. Anger at the work, the retributions, the guilt, the consequences, but most of all anger that she’d been so complacent, so fooled. The defenses already were forming in her head. He was a tricksy one. Difficult. Protected, shielded by his wife. It wasn’t her fault. Tricksy, that’s it. And where was the wife? Where was Brenda? “Where is Mrs Mordrake?” she asked. The question should have fallen like an axe but instead it was fuel to an already flashing fire. Luke stared defiant, livid and threatening “How the fuck should I know. Gone. Gone since Sunday night.” as he tore at the package of sweet chilis, rightly thinking them a tasting treat, wrongly thinking them raspberries or something, and underestimating just how tasty they might be. Tossing a Scotch Bonnet into his grinning maw and chewing mouth open and laughing, he thrust his face towards each of them in turn, menacing, threatening. His aggressive stance, his idea that he was a lion of terror would horrify and drive them to quivering silence. 

Leaning in even closer to Renée Luke snarled, “boo you cunt”, oozing malevolence and violence as she and Ann stepped back. In this split second they stared at him in gratifying horror, but as Luke worked up to bellow “Fuck off out of it”, the angrily chewed Scotch Bonnet suddenly awoke and let rip to suddenly render Luke a crouching mess, screaming and grasping at his mouth. He had one hand clamped on the table’s edge and the other scrabbling between his throat and his tongue, arrayed with many pieces of burning bright ripe and red chili. The eyes were reddening and starting to flood. The menacing shout he had intended for Ann and Renee turned into a squeal of pain and he was coughing not bellowing, choking not screaming primordial loud, and spluttering in seering agony as the chilis worked their matchless magic. Luke’s eyes streamed and his face was turning an alarming shade of puce, as he spat and clawed away from his mouth what remained of the half chewed chili flicking it in little pieces onto the kitchen table. Flies bounced away in alarm and Ann crouched to retrieve the discarded cigarette. Renée helped Luke into a chair, hitting him with some satisfaction smartly on the back and noting that he was moving quite capably. “Get some water” she told Ann briskly. Ann, who had been raised in Jaipur until she was a teenager, was about to remind Renée that water makes the burning worse. It spreads the chili oil over a wider surface area. Bread’s the thing. A moment’s pause was enough. Nah she said to herself and she handed Luke a cup of water, smiling gently at him as he slurped and rubbed his tearing eyes. The chili remnants on his fingers added to the spectacle Ann noted with mild, ever so mild, concern.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 7

Brenda had been flattered, amazed that this gorgeous man, a man with a known reputation as a flirt in the village had shown even the slightest bit of interest in her. He had started politely, offering to drop the car to her once it was ready. “If you could give me a lift back, that would be nice”, as he flashed a smile and ran his hand through his shining black hair. It was probably the only time in his life that he would ever use the word nice in a sentence addressed to Brenda.

A couple of dates in the local pub, collecting her from work at the local council, and he knew he was almost there with this young girl. Her parents were dead and she lived with her Aunty and Uncle neither of whom ever smiled. He didn’t know if they liked him or not. It was hard to tell. Brenda never smiled either, except when she talked about the bloody civil service exam. That was the only worry for Luke, that she would go ahead and follow that path. It was a path that lead to too much power. Money for a start, she’d be earning but much as this tempted him it was easy enough to persuade her that all he wanted was to have her at home, to know that she would be there when he can home from work, to know that they would be together every evening, all weekends and that they could go on holidays together. “You know you’re the one for me, you do know that don’t you Brenda?” It had been in the Spread Eagle, his favourite pub because of its high ceilings and cheap sometimes flat beer. Brenda had remarked on the sticky carpets and Luke had nearly lost it but hid his anger with a slurp of beer and a glance at the dartboard. “Fancy a game of darts?” He had said, and although Brenda was rubbish at the game he couldn’t help but be impressed how fast she was at scoring, from the 501 start to the finishing triple 19, every shot was scored in a second. He liked that the other blokes playing were also impressed, at least at first he liked it. But then a muttered “You don’t wanna show off like that darlin’, no, you don’t do you?” And Brenda looked wide eyed back at her hero, who had won four games straight, and said “no, no of course not.” She took her time with the arithmetic that evening and always, whenever they were in the pub and she was watching Luke play darts with his mates.

From the short courtship to the sparse little wedding was a matter of weeks. They moved in with Luke’s Mum, a grey and rough handed woman who smoked even more than Luke did. She would patrol the house when they were both at work, leaving cigarette ash on their bed and in the bathroom sink. Brenda occasionally visited her Aunty and Uncle, but they were never much pleased to see her and Luke didn’t like it so she gave it up. Soon they bought the bungalow and on the day they moved in he told her “now everything changes, now it’s just you and me”. Brenda had beamed up at him from her unpacking, wordless and smiling with no idea that what he meant was anything other than romance. They’d managed sex once or twice at his Mum’s but it was all a bit hit and miss, mostly miss. Neither of them seemed competent, passion was largely absent and Brenda said sorry for getting it wrong. “It’s being here,” Luke had told her, “me Mum’s in the next room, puts me off a bit.” And he would try again before punching the pillow hard and rolling away. In the bungalow everything changed. Luke’s Mum wasn’t in the next room, he sometimes tried again, and he always punched Brenda hard before rolling away.