Chapter 2 The Funeral – Part 1

While Audrey was still intact and dragging the ancient Labrador along through greasy grass, her handbag was laying open on the seat of her car. It contained her Filofax, wallet, housekeys, some long forgotten peppermints right at the bottom, a notebook and pen, hairbrush, emergency make-up, lip gloss and miscellaneous bills that she had been carrying around with her for some days, unopened. There was also a pair of expensive sunglasses, newly bought with yet another credit card and a forgotten bottle of perfume which was almost gone and its recipe out of print. Her mobile phone was in her pocket, the battery on red. She was all set to return home and would just give the dogs a little stroll to save her friends the trouble of coming out into the dreary damp afternoon. She walked briskly but unhurried, cosy in the thought of her warm house in London where there were no dark corners, cobwebs, dead flies or putrefying mice under the bed. The windows didn’t breathe cold air throughout the night and there were no dead viney stems tapping at them and scaring her with thoughts of Cathy and Heathcliffe.

The car’s keyfob, where it had been carelessly tossed, was beside her handbag. Her small weekender bag was in the boot along with Angus’s ashes in their box. The thought of this proximity, this closeness to him made her smile as she walked. Something curiously abstract about the touching of her bag and his box comforted her. Angus had been a large man, tall, amply padded, jowly and with enormous hairy ears and enormous hairy hands and a heart far to big for its own good. The combination made for a lot of ashes, so the box was rather heavier than one might expect. She was ready to go back to town. The last minute offer to take the dogs for a walk had been spontaneous and she expected her helpful gesture to take fifteen minutes max. She should be home in time for Country File which she wouldn’t watch having had quite enough of rural idylls and their exhausting joys.

Audrey had arrived in Great Leigh the day before, so that Margaret and Stephen could pay their last respects to Angus. Rather than carry the heavy box into Margaret and Stephen’s house, Audrey had invited them and their daughter out onto the driveway. There she had conducted a little service, coming close but not too close, to a parody of the ceremony Margaret and Stephen had been unable to attend, due to a combination of various confusions and lack of stamina.

On what should have been the day of the official funeral at Roehampton Crematorium there had been an unfortunate complication stemming from Deirdre’s inability to drive the car to the motorway or even in its general direction. She had decided that her parents couldn’t possibly know the way to London, despite their protestations to the contrary. Stephen and Margaret sat huddled together in the back seat, clinging to their seatbelts as they swayed from side to side around roundabouts and unexpected corners. Feeling slightly sick it was easier to just smile and nod, supressing occasional screams as Deirdre narrowly missed yet another wobbly cyclist. Deidre’s confusion combined with impressive determination not to follow the advice of her terrified navigators lead to four complicated trips to Sainsbury’s, instead of the relatively uncircuitous journey to the motorway. The trips to Sainsbury’s were followed with absolute confidence by another slightly more direct and traffic clogged journey, ending up at the post office. Added to this were the difficulties of parking which Deirdre insisted on at each unintended destination, for reasons of safety and so that she could double check that they hadn’t somehow arrived at Roehampton Crematorium after all. There were also multiple discussions about getting out of the car: who should get out, who should stay in, why should anyone get out at all as we aren’t there yet, and so on. The process was very slow and involved numerous repeated and generally inaccurate manouevres. Two more tries to find the M25 eventually brought them to the local dump, where they had to finally admit defeat. Altogether their excursion had taken several hours. 

Relaunching the journey from the dump to Roehampton had required slow and painful deliberations mostly in their heads as conversation and discussion had proved useless so far. Stephen and Margaret didn’t want to be discouraging but the day’s driving had so sapped their meagre strength, that they finally insisted Deirdre drive them home following their instructions whatever they were, “You are being very naughty Deidre and now it must stop.” Margaret had said, her tone firm and unexpectedly loud. Tears welling, Deirdre hunched silent behind the wheel, waiting for instructions, picking at threadbare patches of once fluffy steering wheel cover. Stephen and Margaret waited for her to forget about feeling sad. It was a short pause and forgetting the crisscross patterns, with tears dried Deirdre started the engine, with a flourish. “Where to my lords and ladies” she demanded joyfully revving the engine and, switching on the indicator and wipers with another flourish.

Her parents peered cautiously at one another, and as Stephen waved an imperious hand to indicate forward, everyone understood that today was not the day to tackle the Roehampton journey. Since the dump was quite close and still within some part of Deirdre’s frayed memory, they could shout out “left here” or “right” with the occasional “no, you’ve missed the turning” thrown in for good measure. The homeward journey proved as exciting as the outbound one: circuitous with frequent reversings and overlooked traffic lights. Unexpected but exciting diversions took them the wrong way down one way streets. Stephen and Margaret held on tight to one another staring hard at the road, shouting halfhearted directions. They were tired and with the question of Roehampton resolved, didn’t really mind if they spent the rest of the day touring around Great Leigh and its environs. It was good practise for Deirdre, Margaret mused, even though Deirdre passed her driving test some fifty years ago. It never hurts to have a little bit more practise she reasoned and wondered if Deirdre might be in need of new glasses.

Their efforts to get to the funeral had in fact been somewhat previous, by a whole day. Stephen had discovered this when they arrived at the dump somewhere on the outskirts of Great Leigh. He had looked at the invitation card to check how horribly late they would be and was quite relieved that they would not be late at all. Not keen to tackle the challenge again, he kept the information to himself. He couldn’t face the possibility of another mystery tour, preceded by another horribly early breakfast, getting rigged out once again in deathly premonitiony black. He suggested they send a telegram instead to apologise for their absence. But no one could quite remember how that worked, so in the end Stephen decided it was best to just not show up. He was confident that Audrey would ring them after the funeral, and so she did the next day in a state of considerable anxiety. Deirdre had told her with absolute certainty that they were being driven to the funeral in a yellow taxi, “not a submarine, a taxi” she had said. But this had no basis in fact. Stephen explained the confusion, and Margaret nodded at the telephone in agreement. “The thing is, it’s been so long since we’ve been to town, that Margaret and I weren’t much use direction-wise you see”. It wasn’t much of an excuse but Audrey got it.

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – final part

Through her sobs and tears Audrey looked around the kitchen for sympathy and was mildly surprised to hear both Godparents tut tut tutting. “We never go down to the summerhouse that way” said Deirdre’s mother shaking her head reproachfully and raising her sparse little eyebrows at her naughty Godchild. “No” agreed her husband. “Not since the stairs collapsed in 1979. It’s just not safe”. The swelling in Audrey’s ankle was by now pushing hard against the confines of her expensive, once immaculate leather boot and no amount of biscuits, chocolate or otherwise, consoled her. Anger exhausted, Audrey was past the point of caring and tears crept unnoticed and cold along her jaw to drip from her chin, tracing a narrow channel through the thin layer of dried mud covering most of Audrey’s face. She watched them sagely nod at one another as the tea went cold. Deirdre looked suitably sad and sneaked the dog biscuits under the table to Alistair. With his scabby head in Audrey’s lap, the Lab dribbled warm drool onto Audrey’s muddy camel hair car coat and cold wet trousers. Audrey dabbed ineffectually at her dirty face and Stephen and Margaret dozed off over their tea. Deirdre looked on, an expression of gentle kindness in her eyes as she picked at her cardigan. Gentle sniffing and choral snoring from the aged parents and the dogs’, masked the first hints of the ambulance’s arrival onto the crunchy gravel.

The sudden thumping on the front door rallied all of them with a jolt. “Come in, come in” called Deidre, excited and impressed with the miltary panache of the paramedics’ green and yellow outfits. She stared big eyed as they took Audrey’s blood pressure and temperature, as they checked her eyes and asked her lots of questions about what happened and what day it was and who is the prime minister. Deirdre was very impressed with Audrey’s knowledge. After a brisk and thorough assessment they told Audrey she would spend the night in hospital. “Handbag” the lady paramedic called to Audrey and Deirdre promptly handed over her bag. She was pleased to have been helpful to the nice lady with the thick lensed glasses and the dark hair pulled back so tight it might be giving her a headache. Deidre watched as the nice lady and her man-friend eased Audrey onto the special bed. They wheeled her out into the rainy darkness and the waiting ambulance, its blue lights slowly turning and making sapphires of the raindrops as they fell. Fascinated Deidre watched. The special bed suddenly lost its legs and slid rapidly inside the vehicle. Her hands flew to her mouth as she gasped and then she remembered to wave and shout “goodbye, goodbye lovely ambulance lady, goodbye lovely ambulance man” of Audrey, she had no memory.

Soon after the ambulance had left, Deidre, Stephen and Margaret settled down to some more tea but with toast and cheese this time, plus cakes and jam tarts from the village shop. Then they shuffled their way together to their cosy sitting room to watch television. Sprawled in a lazy row along a collapsed sofa and swaddled in woolly blankets they soon forgot the afternoon’s excitement. No one noticed that Audrey’s car was no longer parked in the drive, until Stephen was shutting his bedroom window. He lay in bed wondering about it for a few short minutes before concluding that Audrey’s ankle must have been alright after all, and that she had picked up the car without disturbing them. “Such a kind and considerate woman,” he mumbled and wheezed, his breaths in time for a moment with the click and snizzle of the Labrador’s rhythmic snores.

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 3

… of biscuits, so Alistair was shooting gleefully between the three and his one true love, thrilled at the exciting shift the mud sliding game was taking.

A crisp and efficient voice said “What service please?” “What service please?” Deirdre repeated in her sing song imitation, before Audrey bellowed out “ambulance, ambulance, tell them to send a bloody ambulance” so Deirdre did, “ambulance, ambulance, tell them to send a bloody ambulance”, while she picked at the little bobbles of wool on her ancient purple cardigan. It was her favourite and she knew vaguely that she had knitted it herself, but that was long ago, at school perhaps, or when she worked in the school after Peter died. She couldn’t remember who Peter was though, nor why he had died. Or indeed if he had died. She sighed and just knew she had once liked knitting. Now it was too confusing for her, more knotting than knitting. As she alternated the bobble picking with fondling Alistairs soft little ears, she mimicked the questions coming down the phone, “are you breathing?” “Yes” Audrey bellowed; “are you conscious”; “Yes” Audrey bellowed; “are you in pain” “yes I’m in bloody pain” Audrey bellowed, this last even louder and making her companions jump, including the dogs. Deirdre forgot to listen to the instructions from the ambulance lady watching instead as the little entourage made their hot and grubby way into the kitchen.

Deirdre was still watching and not listening as her parents, the Labrador, Audrey and the walking frame fell foul of the bricks edging the ancient and slightly undulating kitchen floor. A brick floor was a substantial advance in flooring technology in the 1850s, but no one had fully thought through how the floor would fare over the decades. Neither floor nor bricks were even any more and to the floor’s many undulations had recently been added some very deceptive gaps. One such soon claimed a leg of the walker bringing little injured huddle crashing down.

As they went over Audrey let out a loud and agonised cry, that made the lady on the other end of the phone flinch in sympathy. Audrey’s agonised squeal as she flattened the walker brought additional flinching and new urgency to the call. The walker was a buckled mess beneath Audrey now severely bruised and draped painfully over its contorted tangle. Alistair absolutely adored this new chapter and used the human heap as a special training exercise for his future as an SAS rescue dog. Every sorti brought forth new squeaks and groans that added to Alistair’s excitement. Every paw found purchase on soft and bulging and tender flesh. With every jump Audrey squeaked again. It was terrific terrier fun.

At the other end of the telephone, the 999 lady could hear the series of alarming sobs and squeaks. At the sound of the fall she wisely confirmed that “an ambulance is on its way” before Deirdre dropped the telephone and scurried over to the heap to disentangle her frail and crumpled parents from the pile. “Give me the telephone” Audrey sobbed through her agony, wincing in intense pain as she extracted her injured leg from the grimy heap of mangled walker, aged Godparents and dog leads and decrepit Labrador. As she grabbed the phone, Audrey managed a surreptitious swipe at Alistair persuading him to give up his game and wait behind his beloved instead.

Both the lead with a dog attached and the lead without a dog attached had contrived in the way of ropes and wires to become completely entangled with as many ankles, wrists, leads and bits of walker as possible. The drooling Labrador had no choice but to sit as close as he could to his parents, gagging slightly and panting. Unable to move at all, but feeling quite warm, what with all the bodies around them Stephen and Margaret started smiling and then slowly giggling at each other. They were not at all concerned with getting up again. Their bodies hadn’t been so unexpectedly and toasty warmly close in years. The memories of where this might lead was intoxicating, for all its unlikelihood.

Pulling herself with extreme care from the wreckage and leaning against a vegetable rack full of sprouting potatoes and black bananas, Audrey rapidly explained to the ambulance lady that she now might also have a mild concussion and a damaged back as well as a suspected broken ankle and a twisted wrist. The ambulance lady said “I repeat, an ambulance is on its way.” And so it was.

Deirdre managed to get the three of them fully upright and into chairs. She had taken the almost dry kettle off the hob and refilled it and while she waited for it to boil she told them many times, “a cup of tea, that’s what you need, a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit”. She repeated the phrase, one of her favourites because of the biscuit part, until the kettle boiled and she had made the tea, put the teapot on the table along with cups, milk and biscuits. Deirdre was unaware that the chocolate digestives were rapidly disintegrating in the dog’s water bowl. Audrey sat damp and dirty staring blankly at the tea and dog biscuits, much deflated. She tried to explain the unscheduled slip that had led to the lethal glissade on the muddy slope.

“I fell. I fell trying to get back up your bloody bank. Alistair was charging forwards but this bloody lump of a Lab couldn’t get the momentum going to get up the slope. I tried to pull him, then Alistair came back down to help, and I slipped trying to turn and over I went, pulled in two directions and then none, no balance and the mud like black ice.” She sniffed her self-pity. They vaguely got it. Later when all this was over and far away, Audrey explained more calmly that she had almost made it to the top of the bank separating the house and the drive from the lower lawns and the river. As she was about to take her final step onto level ground, the Lab had stopped and her downhill foot slipped forcing her forwards, almost losing her balance. Turning slightly to get upright her slipping foot had slipped further, forcing her backwards and into an unexpected pirouette, that didn’t include much of her right foot. The foot responded with the sound of crunching, hammered honeycomb toffee and Audrey went over. On hands and knees and with the dogs unintended help she eventually managed to drag herself back to the top where she called and called. No one, not even the person disappearing out towards the lane, had heard her.

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 2

In between watching Deirdre and Walter strut up and down, as long as they can stay awake Stephen and Margaret spot the gifted and lythe from the fat and clumsy. Like Deirdre’s dancing it’s a bit hit and miss. They usually doze off once the music starts, and resurface snorting and snuffling when the applause kicks in. Then they drift for a while lost in bygone days when, young, gorgeous and agile, they too skimmed endless floors in endless ballrooms all around the world. That tall willowy woman with a tight blonde chignon. Those sumptuous yards of flowing silks, bias cut and eddying in shwooshing waves with every flawless turn. Her partner, slightly taller and angular, spare and pale, has gleaming auburn hair and golden lashed green eyes set high and wide in a long oval face. Time has seen them both crumpled and very small, skin creped, bones eroded and joints calcifying. They are wrinkled and withered and still deep in love.

Stephen and Margaret never notice these creaky impediments as between naps they move in their chairs ever so slightly, in time to the music. They sympathise when Deirdre’s pirouettes stop with a stumble as soon as one foot leaves the floor. They duck when her rampant arms reach full extension. They make sure to keep their feet tucked in. And they are content to let the television give back their shared beauty and the joy. “We’re still here old girl” he says, and she nods lovingly back at shabby remnants and vague hints of glittered copper in his hair, roguish green eyes, freckled cheeks. Once plump lips curl still in a smile that melts her. She tingles and grows warm. She sometimes blushes at the memory of what those lips could do. She falls reckless every time, before turning back to hide in the dancing on the screen, eyes blurred and cheeks burning.

But that was on Saturday and today was an eventful Sunday about to get even more eventful. The three stood peering at the small collection of letters and printed catalogues that had appeared, suddenly it seemed, on their door mat. Deirdre leant to scoop them up, using her Father’s walking frame as an aid and nearly bringing him with her as she bent down. Her Mother’s gnarled and twisted hands reached out ineffectually and hopelessly to catch her Stephen as he teetered. Having long since lost all elasticity or capacity for extension her hands stretched barely a few inches, more in prayer than salvation. Leaning over the frame Stephen caught his breath, and put a hand on her arm. “There there old girl, I’m not done for yet” he wheezed, still out of breath from the earlier bellowing. 

Deirdre, oblivious and still crouched, had her ear to a whistly crack in the door. She waved the letters at them, a frantic request for silence. “Shush will you shush, there’s someone out there” she hissed. “Of course there’s someone out there dear, it will be the dogs coming back with Audrey,” said her mother patiently. “Audrey?” the younger woman replied. “Yes dear, Audrey, you remember our friend, our friend who has been here all weekend with us, our friend who brought you the lovely present from Angus, who has died. You remember the pearls? The pearls Audrey gave you because Angus wanted you to have his Mother’s pearls? And you remember that we stood on the driveway and said goodbye to his ashes, in the box in the boot of her car?” Deirdre’s hand reached to her neck and stroked the triple string of pearls, warm and soft against the draping folds of her neck, but she couldn’t remember Angus or looking into the boot of a car. “There, there it is again, can’t you hear it?” she said instead. Her parents looked from one to the other, sad but resigned. Another little brick had fallen. Deirdre’s mother pushed her cold hands into her pockets and looked out at the gloom expecting to see her dogs and her friend coming back from their last minute walk. “What on earth? What on earth is that? There’s someone on the ground over there, quickly Deirdre, turn on the outside light”. Deirdre did and the three of them moved slowly out into the porch and the pool of light, slightly afraid of what they might find. Behind them the ancient house, blank eyed, sighed and sifted into black.

Peering through the dark they watch enthralled as their two extremely dirty dogs come slowly into focus, wide mouthed with scarlet lolling tongues beating time with their panting. The dogs are just slightly ahead of Audrey who is covered in mud and bits of moss and stick and appears to be crawling on her elbows over the edge of the bank. She too is panting heavily, her mouth opened wide, her teeth bared, her tongue’s pulse possibly beating time along with the dogs’. Random dirty patterns decorate the soft amber of Audrey’s new and as yet unpaid for coat. Her tangled hair, interspersed with globs of dirt and bits of grass, falls over her face and blocks her view. She struggles noisily to get over the top of the bank and as a recognisable amount of filthy wet Audrey appears, her little audience lets out a collective gasp.

Audrey’s face was tear streaked, grubby and red. She was gasping open mouthed at the air and moving with extreme care, clutching the dogs leads for some sort of balance and cursing the terrier for his enthusiasm. “Get an ambulance” she panted as she hooked her elbows further onto the drive and the relative stability of the gravel. The dogs heaved her along a few centimeters closer to the pool of light, desperate to reach their own place of safety. “Get me an ambulance immediately I think I’ve broken my ankle,” she whimpered weak and desperate. Then the tears came back despite her efforts to hold them in and she grisled pathetically in a tiny incoherent voice that she’d fallen down “this damn bank” trying to get back up it.

Audrey is struggling to pull herself together, mustering all her strength. She calls through clenched teeth, “Quickly! Deirdre, dial 999 on the telephone. Now!” Audrey, her hands still tightly wrapped in dog leads, was now heaving herself onto her knees, leaning on the ancient Lab whose bulk and general immobility could support her a little. Together they inch towards Deidre and her parents. Audrey, her fine woolen trousers sodden and cold, her coat a complete mess is sniveling, the Labrador’s lead wound tight around her hand. The terrier she lets go and it gleefully follows Deirdre into the house. Deirdre is his one and only real true love. Deidre knows where the biscuits live and the biscuits were calling him.As she headed for the kitchen Deirdre was repeating in a singsong voice nine nine nine, nine nine nine, nine nine nine, and as she listened to the ring of a distant phone, was trying hard to remember what should happen next. She knew it was important so she knitted her brow in concentration and stared at the filthy carpet and hummed to herself. As she waited, Deirdre saw Alistair dive back and forth between her and her parents and their burden. They had managed to lodge Audrey’s soft frame between them and, using the walker as support were moving very, very slowly out of the dark and inching towards the house. This novelty eclipsed all thoughts 

The Ashes in the Boot – Chapter 1 An unexpected fall

“Shall I, shall I just for a moment go for you? Then you’ve no need to go out until later. It’s so wet.” Smiling benignly a tall well-built woman in her late fifties deftly clips leads onto an ancient drooling and slightly scabby Labrador and an excitable terrier bouncing up and down making the task somewhat of a challenge. He was leaving footprints and tiny scratches on her highly polished boots and making excitable little squeaking sounds. The woman, in an expensive coat that she hadn’t yet worked out how to pay for, soon pushed off into the dreary afternoon and became invisible. Grubby daffodils struggled to remain upright in the soggy ground and it was raining. Holding tight to the leads, Audrey looked at the flowers with some sympathy. She headed for the dilapidated summerhouse on the lower lawn and said to the dogs “once around and back will do you, won’t it boys”.

An hour or so later and two very, very old people are peering out of their gloomy hall window, anxious for their friend and for their precious puppies. “But where are they?” said one to the other, eye to watery, red rimmed eye. And then in unison they bellowed with surprising vigour, “Deirdre, go out and look for Audrey”. The marginally older of the two immediately thought the better of it and added just as loud, “No, no don’t go Deirdre. No need we’ll just wait until Audrey comes back”. “She’ll get lost again” he hissed a breathless breath at his wife. She smiled back nodding and marvelling as always at her dashing husband’s immense wisdom. She hadn’t really heard what he said, but noted fondly the remnants of Marmite toast crumbs settled comfortably in his stubble, and the way he clutched just slightly too tightly at her hand. Deirdre already in wellies, uncomfortably on the wrong feet, ambled up and looked on mildly confused and wondering what should happen next. Sharp eared she had heard her father and almost remembered getting lost once before. She wasn’t sure that she had liked it and seemed to remember buses being involved. “Right” she said making her own slightly relieved decision to remain. She used her wobbling parents in turn to steady herself as she struggled to pull off the wellies, which as well as being on the wrong feet were rather too tight.

Darkness was reaching in to softly remind them that the day was nearing it’s close. The three of them, the slightly worried parents and the 74 year old child, stayed at the window watching for Audrey to appear from the rising gloom. When the draft from the cracks in their ancient front door got a little too much, they edged away to move back to the toasty kitchen where the kettle had been whistling for quite some time. “There she is!” said Deirdre as they turned away from the grimy window. “Oh no it isn’t her” as she watched a woman she didn’t recognise walking away from the house. By the time her parents looked out of the window the woman, a neighbour who occasionally popped by for no particularly reason, had gone. The neighbour had a strange way of starting her sentences, getting flustered and then leaving midsentence. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if… ” And then she would turn away. It had happened several times of late.

“They’ve left some letters. Postman!” said Deirdre triumphant. It was a Sunday afternoon, but no one challenged her. Her parents couldn’t be sure that the letters weren’t leftover from yesterday. In Turzel House where simply getting a bite of lunch was an achievement, knowing if the post on the mat was today’s or some other day’s didn’t really matter. What did matter was if it was a Saturday but today was not Saturday, because Saturday had been yesterday.

Saturday was the most important day of the week for Turzel House because that was when the dancing was on the television. Saturday was when Deirdre could practise her Paso doble with online support, as Deidre regularly explained to her parents. That the television wasn’t really an online channel and that only one of the dances, if any, was likely to be a Paso doble didn’t really matter. It all depended on which bit of the boxset made it into the DVD player. Sometimes it was the same DVD for several months. For Stephen and Margaret the pleasure and the pride were always the same and for Deirdre as long as it was Saturday when she danced, not much else mattered.

Once she was in costume and had finished her warming up plies and tendus, Deirdre would declare with unquestionable authority, “I’m nearly ready to overload a video onto the InstaApp” and her parents impressed would nod, oblivious to what she was on about. The interweb completely baffles them but their clever and determined daughter had nailed it they were sure. At least she might have. Deirdre’s Paso doble improved week to week, they were certain. Watching her in the shining purple polyester dress she’d found in a jumble sale in 1972, prancing with feathers and ribbons tangled around her plump neck, they feel immense pride, mostly. Watching Deidre hop and wheel is as enjoyable to Stephen and Margaret as watching the dancers on television. They love the swirl of lavish sequined costumes, wild with colour and high heels skimming dangerously close to hems and ankles, yet rarely do the dancers misstep. Deirdre parades up and down, swirls her best, her heavy frame with arms outstretched follows an invisible partner. He’s a mysterious, raven haired and steely eyed Argentinian called Walter.

Winter is come

The sisters were waiting. And Curly was keeping his head as still as he could, standing as straight as he could, eyes fixed and antennae up ,and listening as hard as he could. He tried not to tremble and tried to imagine he was his brother Burly, lost somewhere in a summer’s haze. A single whisper was passing around the colony as the bees drew in closer. They were waiting, waiting and alert keen to hear Curly’s plan for their survival.

With Burly in his mind’s eye, Curly stood up even straighter, moved his head from one side to the other and started to outline his plan. He began with a grateful acknowledgement of the priviledge he had been given, honour, blah blah until he became aware of a cacaphony of blah blah blahing. He stopped ostensibly to clear his throat. “Just get to the point would you?” and his friendly messenger bee raised her head as her six sisters nodded in agreement and mutterings about drones wittering on, better off without them, better off alone, are we sure we want to do this? This last an alarming suggestion that brought Curly straight to his plan.

Few sights are as distressing to a beekeeper as that of a dead colony at the end of winter. Image courtesy of The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Crown Copyright

“Right. Our objective is survival. We must keep Mother and the nest warm, but not as warm as summer as there isn’t so much brood to care for. We need the nest ready for when Mother feels it’s right to start laying again. I can’t tell you when that is, but she will know. All I can tell you is that we must be ready.” This last Curly said with some urgency, as it had only just occured to him that indeed if the darkness and cold continue to grow, the colony will soon be dangerously low on everything: food, water, brood and bees. Any mistake, any miscalculation will mean the end. He noted with some satisfaction that all around the bees were watching and murmuring agreement with his explanation of the objective. Recognition and agreement of the objective was the first step. 

“The plan I have devised is one you can follow every time the dark and cold come. We know from Mother that this thing called winter comes every year and that every year it is different, but eventually spring comes and the sun starts shining once again and we can stay warm. Now it’s getting colder so we need to cluster around the nest so that Mother survives and will start laying again in the spring. We’ll only have a few days between her laying and the birth of new bees who can help nurse the eggs and grubs as they come along. They’ll also help us with the warmth, but in the meantime we need to cluster, we must cluster.” “We know that you fool of a drone” came an angry voice from somewhere out on the edge. “We know that, yes,” Curly hesitated and tweetled his antennae anxiously before adding “but it doesn’t always work does it? We don’t always survive the night and we know that we lose sisters when it gets really cold and the grey light turns black quicker and lasts longer. We know only this much.” A general bee-harumphing rippled through the assembled bees and a small voice, that of a bee only recently born could be heard to whisper “I don’t want to die before I’ve lived”.

Curly’s plan was bouncing around his head and he was struggling to control the conversation. Too fast and they wouldn’t believe him, too slow and they would think he was making it up as he went along. He remembered Burly and his habit of stroking his antennae and mandibles, and followed the model as best he could, while the hubbub lessened and the young sister was comforted by some of her siblings. Curly heard with some concern, “at least you’re not a drone, at least you know we’ll take care of you”. Judging the time to be right Curly started to outline his plan. He knew he had to be completely clear, leave no possibility of misunderstanding or doubt, and to make sure that there was just enough concern about the plan to ensure that the Seven Sisters would not trust themselves to pull it off without Curly.

“We cluster like we always do, but we don’t just clump up around the nest. We do follow the principles of clumping, keeping Mother and the brood safe and warm in the middle.” “What’s he talking about? Swarming? We only swarm when the weather’s hot and the hive is too full and when Mother gets the hint that it’s time for new blood?” Curly did his best to nod in wise agreement, slow and careful and continued with his plan. “We use scouts to check how cold people are getting on the outside of the clump, they can crawl into the centre and as they go tell the sisters to prepare to move back from where they are, and out towards the periphery. The scouts will need to move slowly to conserve energy, but their movement will generate heat. It might balance out.” At this point 30,000 bee brains were whirring at the idea that they would rotate in layers from the centre of the nest out to the external layers of clustered bees. It was a lot to take in, but Curly had his senses closely tuned to those of the Seven Sisters who were not communicating. He took this as a good sign, a sign that each of the seven was thinking hard and that none had made any judgement about his plan, at least not yet.

“With every rotation we minimise the loss of bees on the outside to the cold. You all know what happens to us when the temperature drops to 9º. We stop moving and we gradually atrophy and die. We drop to the floor and wait to for the end. I know because I’ve seen it, I know because it’s what happens if a bee isn’t lucky enough that the sun comes to warm her up again before she has to die.”

Curly then explained how he had survived following the drone massacre some weeks earlier. He explained how he had hidden during the day in a tiny space pulled together from disused and empty comb. He explained how he had been lucky that the small corner of the hive where he had been lodged happened to be the part of the hive where the sun hit first, so the cold did not last as long. He told them how he moved about the hive at night, only sipping uncapped honey and only where there were sleeping bees. And this is how he found out about them dying in the cold. “I saw with my own eyes how once chilled a bee has no chance of survival without help.” Survival, he explained can only happen if the colony follows the plan.

Curly could sense that the Seven Sisters were communicating, not visibly or with much intensity but there was something going on and he could see the old drone patrol getting into position. He noted there were some new members in the group, replacing those who had died off since their prevention convention. Curly pulled himself up to be as tall as he could manage, and did his best to adopt an air of nonchalant authority. If he had had fingernails he would have been studying them as he waited for some response. None being forthcoming he asked in as casual a tone as he could muster, “any questions? Or are you all happy with the plan? It means you can live longer than usual in the cold and dark, and it means Mother and the babies will survive too.” At this Curly noticed the Seven Sisters and drone patrol rearranging themselves one on either side of him, to form a sort of channel or corridor. Curly soon realised that this was in fact an aisle and that Mother, her retinue in train, was slowly coming towards him. He looked anxiously from side to side at the drone patrol standing to attention and at the Seven Sisters as they bowed in reverence to the Queen. Their reverence was more for the benefit of the colony than in deference to her Majesty and as a one they were sighing with some annoyance at this unprecedented overstep of the usual boundaries. What was she doing interfering in the business of the colony? The Queen’s only function is to mate and lay eggs and her involvement in big decisions is nil. Curly bowed as low as he could manage without tipping over and said “Your Majesty” in a grovelling tone as he did so. He could see the Seven Sisters antennae working furiously and understood that this was not so bad.

“Your Majesty has arrived just in time to hear our decision and the plan of this remnant drone to help us survive the winter.” The Queen looked up absent mindedly. Her intention had never been to get involved with whatever it was that was going on, here so close to the middle of her nest. She was confused and leant her head on one side with a view to taking a nap instead. One of her retinue tidied the drooping antennae and positioned the Queen close to some empty honeycomb cells so that she could doze more comfortably. To the surrounding bees this all looked suitably majestic and grand, but mainly because a Queen bee is so much larger than all the other bees, and so elegantly put together with a long pointed torso and huge hairy eyes. She is also constantly fed and groomed so her appearance has none of the scant lankiness of the other girls. A gentle snoring soon proceeded and the ranks of the drone patrol and the Seven Sisters closed around Curly, slightly irritated at the distraction of the Queen’s random and unintentional visit.

A spokesperson for the Seven Sisters came forward and the drone patrol ensured she had space and the attention of the whole colony, apart from that of the Queen who was now deep asleep. “Well thank you drone for this illuminating plan. If it works, your idea will help us we are certain. We are not certain of how much it will help us, or if we can train scouts in time or if we can organise them properly. But that is another matter, another task for you, another task that you must undertake straightaway. We’ll follow your plan and we will let you stay to see it is properly done. The drone patrol is dismissed and you are now an honorary guest in our home. If this works and we are most of us still when the winter ends, you will indeed be called Curly the Wise.” 

Curly stared back at his sister and nodded slowly, his antennae alert to any signs of disagreement or dissent within the ranks of bees surrounding him. There were none and Curly was gradually aware that the bees were gradually moving back to their various tasks. Outside the wind had dropped and foragers were setting off to gather the last of the autumn’s nectar from late flowering ivy creeping up and around the trees surrounding the hive. Curly watched as bees capped honey and fed the few grubs that were expected to add to the colony’s numbers over the coming weeks. He moved away to his little corner and started working the numbers. How many bees in each layer, how often the rotations would have to happen, how cold it would get, how many babies would be born, how he himself would survive, and for how much longer. At least he had had this one more day he smiled to himself and slowly drifted off to sleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. 

The Three Bees: And then the cold came

When he woke up Curly was extremely cold, much colder than he had ever been before. Alone and almost immobile he was afraid. But he could feel the rising sun warming the walls and roof of the hive and slowly he found he could move a little bit, then more as his body temperature rose above 9º. Curly had spent the night quietly creeping as close as he dared towards the middle of the hive. He had moved cautiously amongst the almost sleeping bees, gleaning meagre warmth as he went. The scent of propolis was calming and he could take sips of honey from uncapped cells as he moved cautiously amongst dozing workers. They noticed his slow comings and goings not at all. Back in his hiding place and as the sun rose higher, Curly watched the worker bees heading for the exit. He noticed that fewer than usual were going out to forage and wondered what was happening in his home.

Bees can only survive the winter if they can keep the hive’s temperature at around 32-34º Centigrade. This they can only do if there are enough bees. Weak colonies rarely survive the winter.

Curly chewed on a sliver of propolis that he’d found on the floor during one of his nocturnal rambles. Sticky with honey it must’ve been broken off from somewhere when they were murdering the drones. “Wondering is what you do best,” he whispered to himself. “…it’s your strength, your power. It’s the only thing no other bee in this colony can do the way you do.” Then as an afterthought he said aloud ”and it’s what you must do now.” Curly thought the propolis might be useful for defence if the workers found him, so he tucked it under a forelimb. It was somehow comforting. “Foolish boy” he said resuming his conversation with himself. “I’d have no chance. Propolis stick or not. I must understand what is going on and why everything seems to be slowing down.” Curly got himself in tight behind the broken and overhanging comb that had been his camp for the night to think it all through. He noted the facts: drones evicted from the hive, drones with their wings snipped off, drones going out and not coming home again. What could it mean, why were they not staying in the hive, especially now it was getting cold. Then he understood. They were being discarded. Curly didn’t understand why, but he did understand that drones still around once summer was over were somehow surplus to requirements.

Curly was hungry again, but didn’t dare move. He sucked on the no longer sticky propolis, wondering why he felt so hungry when surely sleepy would have been more likely. Food. Food was obsessing him and his supply was strictly limited to the oversucked piece of old propolis. It’s flavour reminded Curly of his younger days as a newly hatched drone, days when the sun warmed the hive all day long and darkness came only once he and his brothers were safe and asleep. Darkness and food, the one too much of and the other too little of, and the traffic in the hive getting thinner and the drone population collapsed to nothing, soon only to him and only then if he could stay hidden. Curly could hear them, still shoving out drones. Soon he sensed a new instruction to a platoon of workers. They were moving to the warmest part of the hive, in the middle where Mother and most of the brood were. They were charged with routing out any remaining drones still hiding in the hive. “Their surplus to requirements, get them out.”

Numbers were not Curly’s strong suit, he was after all just a bee and a male bee at that. But he did understand the workings of his home, and that everything had purpose and function, and that everything contributed to the well-being of the colony. The purpose of drones was to do something on the outside, something that only the best of drones could do. For the rest of them, they had no further role in the hive so they were dispensable. It was just a matter of time before the drone patrol found him, or he became immobilised and died as the temperature fell. He had managed to keep moving by stealth in the night, but that was never going to work long term. He was already exhausted. Curly understood that there were two options: die of starvation and cold, cowering in a secret corner of the hive, or let the drone patrol find and mutilate him before tossing him from the hive. 

But there must be some other possibility, he thought to himself. That possibility could lie in some sort of negotiation. “I’ll talk to them” he said shivering as the chill sunk into his joints, slowing his blood, softening his senses. But who should he talk to? Who is in charge of the drone patrol and why? Who decides that the drones must go? Curly crept out from his sticky shelter and started cleaning off the honey, not just because he was hungry and it was so very tasty. He wanted to look his best, his most impressive, big, strong, smart. His antennae were droopy though and he was overwhelmed with apathy, a laziness in his body that his sleepy mind struggled to overcome. As he moved he felt warmer, but he could only move slowly through the crowds of workers. He did his best to move as he and his brothers used to move: with confidence and self-assurance, fearless. Only the drone patrols knew that they were to catch drones, so the rest of the bees kept busy with their various tasks. The reasoning was sound and Curly soon found himself in the midst of a mass of workers, struggling to get to a group of hungry grubs. Curly passed over numerous cells wherein he could see tiny specks, eggs, eggs that had only recently been laid soon to be nurtured into grubs and hatch as fully formed bees.

Then he had it. “Mother” he said aloud and twittered his antennae in response to the added buzz of a few hundred workers, turning their antennae towards him. It took no more than a few seconds for a bossy worker bee to signal to Mother, although what the signal meant baffled Curly because Mother did not appear. Instead a group of seven, slightly rough looking bees approached him. Curly knew that as soon as the seven sisters recognised him as a drone, he would have to talk fast. He sensed that the drone patrol was already coming for him, and quickly. Best to start the conversation immediately before the seven or the patrol reached him. “You need me” he said, watching the movement of their antennaee, trying to divine what they were thinking. The movements were subtle, invisible almost. Slightly louder and with more patience he called to them “Mother needs me. You all need me, because I am bigger than you but don’t need so much food”. Curly had no idea where that had come from, nor did he really understand what he was saying. The seven sisters had Curly in a tight ring, antennae now straight up and forward, faces expressionless, forelimbs interlinked. They did not speak, they just held him there, penned and waiting for the drone patrol to arrive. Curly could see Mother coming slowly closer, her entourage fussing, cleaning, feeding, grooming her as the small group approached the seven sisters. Curly heard a lazy drawl “what is it, what do you want now, isn’t it enough that these cells are all full of my lovely eggs, of lovely grubs. What else do you want?” “Take her away” Curly heard a nearby voice growl. It came from the ring of bees around him, but none of them appeared to have spoken. “Now” a hiss came from another direction, as Mother drifted off to sleep a hindleg dipped into an empty cell. The group of courtiers, gave her a little shove and then a couple of kicks to get the massive bee moving on, as instructed. Curly was speaking fast, desperate to convince the seven to call off the patrol. “I can help with the cold. I can help keep her warm, and the brood. I can. I can keep her laying. You need me. I can help the colony survive. It’s getting colder, you know this. You need me.”

Curly felt his voice rising and struggled to keep it below the pitch of a squeak, tried to pretend he was Burly, big, strong and handsome. He watched and the seven sisters remained still, implacable. Curly had the sense that some other communication, something beyond the pheromone transmissions, beyond clicking mandibles or antennae was going on. It was just a thickening of the air, a pause in breathing perhaps, but then Curly understood that he should continue. He squared his little shoulders and held his antennae steady, still. He said “I can help keep you warm, Mother, the brood, the brood, I can help the brood.” Mother’s entourage were still pulling her leg from the honey cell, and as it dribbled out Curly heard her sigh as she slowly turned to face him, head lolling, her attendants frantically cleaning the honey from her wayward leg.

Ever since Curly, Burly and Twirly had been born all those weeks ago, Curly had noticed that the most important things in his colony were keeping Mother laying, and raising her brood which involved constant attention, recipe finessing and work. It was the brood that grew into worker bees or drones, depending on the diet the nursing bees fed them. It was the brood that would matter most if the hive continued to get colder and darker as the days progressed. Now he was hearing or sensing that what mattered most in what Curly had said was the word “brood”. He continued without really knowing what he was talking about, repeating and repeating that “I can help keep the brood warm, keep them safe. I am a drone that can do more than any other drone, a drone to help the brood.” As he said this the drone patrol arrived and immediately halted some few honeycomb cells away from Curly’s circle of seven sisters. He could sense some hesitation, some sudden reluctance to get closer to the circle. And then the seven moved away and the drone patrol surrounded Curly. His heart was pumping and he instinctively tucked in his wings as tight as they would go as the circle drew tighter, and then inexplicably the bees turned their backs on him. As one, they turned to face away, drawing up their antennae and tightening the ring around Curly. They locked arms.

Curly’s first instinct was to panic and reach for his propolis stick, but then he reasoned, “why are they facing away from me, blocking me in yes, but attacking me, no. And my stick is stuck to my abdomen. And they are locked, so I cannot get away, but I am also protected.” As he mulled over what this meant for his future health and well-being, Curly saw the seven sisters unbundle from their huddle and move in his direction. The platoon ring opened to form a horseshoe and the sisters approached. They bowed their antennae in polite greeting and Curly understood that he had to explain what he meant by keeping safe the brood. The platoon had turned around again and were facing towards him, their eyes brimming with unspoken menace. “You need bees to keep the hive warm. You need the brood at the heart of the nest and insulation against the cold. You need to know when it’s too cold at the outer layer, so you can move bees in and get new ones at the edge and you need to do that before they are immobilised with the cold.” “The cold? What’s the cold got to do with it. We keep them warm until the next group of bees comes to keep the brood warm.”

Up to this point Curly had been guessing that the only way the brood could survive the cold is if the bees somehow block the cold air so that it didn’t reach the brood. But his night in his chilly corner had taught him that at a certain point, lethargy and tiredness threaten to take over. Many times when he had tried to move he had found it almost impossible, despite his every effort. Eventually he had worked out that there was a certain point of coldness at which his body became immobile. The bees were waiting. “You see,” said Curly with increasing confidence, “The bees in the outer layer, might not always be able to move inwards, they might leave it too late, forget, or doze off. When that happens they die and you lose bees that might otherwise help keep the brood warm. I know when they should move. I can tell them, warn them that it’s time to go in closer to the heart of the nest to recover from the cold.” The seven sisters were silent, antennae still eyes searching to see some trick or secret, but there was none. There was just a clever drone, explaining something that they previously had never understood: why did so many of their sisters die when the cold came, even if they were chatting energetically shortly before they fell to the floor of the hive, alive but silent and immobile. They were always dead soon after. Curly stood up a little prouder, a little more himself and added “All I ask is to be allowed to help save the brood, if the cold and the darkness get worse.” He looked at each of the seven earnestly before adding: “All I need is enough food to survive and a place to stay, but not outside.” “Then I can manage the changeovers so that you get the best possible protection as a colony, as guardians of Mother and the brood, when the cold comes.”

The seven sisters turned their heads and formed a tight circle. Antennae were bristling, hind legs scratching backs and wings lifting and falling as they considered Curly’s proposal. They understood that they had little to lose. There were plenty of stores and the Giant Grub had put a lump of sugar paste at the top of the hive, just under the roof. Food wasn’t a problem. The concern was the efficiency of what Curly was proposing. “Wise one, we understand” Curly heard and awash with a new sensation he understood too, as did the drone patrol and all the workers in the hive. Mother even understood. Curly the Wise One could keep his wings and stay. In the muddle of bees he found himself alone. No drone patrol, no council of seven sisters, just the normal business of the hive. He found an uncapped honey cell and feasted until he could eat no more. Then Curly found a quiet corner underneath a well-stocked frame of honeycomb and fell deep asleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The (partial) story of the Italian vet

Did it begin with an egg and spoon race, that hate? Or was it bean bags on the head? Or both perhaps? Or neither. A sports day at the end of the summer term, when the weather was golden soft and not too hot and the day all summer light and trivial chat. The cries of small children mostly excited, some tearful. Little sweaty hands clutching prizes, eyes bright. Now the mums and dads were on.

Bean bags. Ian Caithness was the man who would win the dad’s race. Knife-edge keen. Polluted with ambition, always ready to keep on proving more. More wins, more competition, more of whatever that fuel was that made him. Always and only more, ruthless ambition. His was the tallest building, the most tenants, the biggest of risks, that wealth. That vanity. His power consumed him. Almost, but for her.

And she. She hated him. She hated his greed, his lust, his limitless ego and his killing charm, the feel of his skin damp and warm. Her hate was power and it too was all-consuming. She hated her own ambition, that she believed beauty was enough to midwife her happiness. But who wants to be happy, if they’re rich. She says this a lot. Money matters more. Beauty had taken her far, all the way to this beanbag on the top of a loathesome man’s head. Did it matter?

She told herself daily that Veronica Caithness was born to enthrall, seduce, tempt and please, that she was made to sustain, to be decorative, a woman entitled. She achieved all of that. Beauty and its rewards were enough. She had six children, three miscarriages and one abortion behind her. She had an uncanny ability to ignore reality and forgot too often that sex generally leads to babies. After the last child, Ian had gone for the snip, the ultimate control. But whose?

She watched her husband with his teeth clenched, his fists and elbows tense, as he ran spiderlike up the stretch of lawn, careful not to go too far off horizontal, with that ridiculous bean bag on his head. He won, of course, with a glint in his eye carefully overshadowed by the selfdeprecating charm of an engaging and apparently gentle smile. He won of course.

From inner city redevelopment projects and commercial property to bean bags at the children’s sports day. He won and she simmered. That is until the day after sports day when everything changed, the day the weatherman said rain was coming. 

In the midst of squabbling and toast and cereals, of finding shoes and piano music, of swimming kit and the constant sound of his voice on the phone, she heard his aside to warn her. The garden was littered with the sort of stuff that shouldn’t be out in the rain. She knew it wasn’t the stuff that mattered, it was the instruction, the bossing, the deliberate reminder that she was incapable of managing herself or her family. The diminishing. The children had been building camps, settlements of small carpets and cushions, a muddle of blankets and pillows on the lawn. “Get that stuff in before it starts to rain.” Kissing random heads and reaching for his bag he had shouted to her as he left: “the flight won’t get in until after midnight, so I’ll ring you in the morning from Barcelona”. As if she cared about his day or where he would go that evening. And the door banged shut and final as she shivvied the children to get them into shoes and out of the house and into the car. The journey to school as always noisy and fretful, a host of misrememberings and the forgotten remnants of yesterday. Part of the familiar noise of her day. She could usually shut it off. “Dad won” she heard amidst the babble, and she scowled. Another day like this day the same, the same. But this day was not to be the same.

When she had left the four youngest children at school, a sort of silence embraced her. The car smooth and softly purring and the road a gentle tease to tempt her elsewhere. The unspoken beckoning of possibilities reached closer. But there was the rain coming and yesterday’s cushions to collect, so dismissing the demons of temptation she simply went home. And then straight outside to gather up yesterday’s camps under an overcast sky, chill and detached, despising her obedience, her lazy compliance.

And when the vet came to the door she didn’t hear. Nor did she notice when he came around the side of the house and into the garden. When he spoke she thought it was a voice from somewhere inside her head, and a voice she had heard sometimes before. The reality of it was quite a shock. The unexpected moment held her fixed and entranced as she looked down at the short and rather ugly man standing before her. He said in tones unEnglish: “is this your dog? I found it by the road. It’s hurt, but not very badly.” She stared down at him and at Lolla dazed and panting and whose paw was bleeding bright and shiney red against the grass. Confused thank yous and dropped cushions as she knelt beside the dog to look at the wound. The wound she barely saw as a strange sensation, an awareness that through this man’s ugliness she could feel of something more, something that called her. She frowned as she became aware of his scent, unfamiliar and intriguing. She felt her breath start to seize up. A peculiar warmth tingled at the back of her neck.

The very ugly little man knelt beside her inadvertently touching her, knee to knee. He reached out to gently probe the edges of the wound on the dog’s pad, in case there was a splinter or shard. “It looks like she’s caught it on a nail or something, maybe trying to get back into the garden. It’s not deep, just a cut.” Their knees and her sudden realisation of touch as Lolla struggled to get up but was held fast. Veronica stood up suddenly, feeling slightly anxious and shaking back her hair. Sandalwood floating. Clearing her throat she said again an unsteady thank you. Then she tried to say “I’ll take it from here,” but instead heard some other voice trying hard not to be flirty, “I’m Veronica and this is Lolla. Thanks so much for bringing her in. I’ll ring the vet’s. Can I get you a cup of tea or coffee perhaps?” The words all came out in a rush and hanging in the air sounded so banal. She blushed and let her hair drop over her face. It got worse when he said, “no thanks, but if you’ve some gauze and tape I can dress this wound for you. I’m a vet. I’m from Italy, here on a driving holiday to see your lovely country. I have time.” Those words and she caught her breath hearing her heart pounding as her blood pressure rose. That strange warmth at the back of her neck was spreading. She put her hand under her hair and flicked it up, forgetting the power of the gesture. More sandalwood wafting. But the vet did not seem to notice, instead gently cradling the dog in his arms and smiling up at her. Eye to eye. And she wondered how ridiculous this all was, and then unbidden an image of how far it might go.

Behind them an empty house called, above them a frowning sky filled its face with greys and chrome-edged clouds; billowing winds pushed curious whispers across the garden. Leaves danced and birds headed for cover from the approaching storm. The Italian vet’s accent was mellow and soft and kind. His small sharp eyes peered out from under a heavy brow and his facial hair reached almost to his eye sockets. He was slightly balding. His ears were large and also hairy, but his hands were unexpectedly smooth, with short fat fingers and thick wrists. He wore no rings. He in turn saw the honied slender hands with their long fingers and the large white gold and diamond cluster. He noted the slightly tatty ethic skirt and the bangles, the curve of her shoulder. And he wondered. Laden with cushions she bustled into the kitchen, dog and vet in tow, hearing herself squeak out an awkward “Are you really? How convenient”. She dropped the cushions then pulled on a drawer to find gauze and tape, as he sat gently down beside the dog, one hand holding her still and the other reaching up to Veronica. 

And so it began. An ordinary encounter, small talk and storm clouds, an empty space in two peoples’ days. Then no more chit chat. There were a couple of return visits to check the wounds. No more than a brief affair that after those first tingling moments under a passionate sky, meant nothing to her or to him. He went on his way, far away. She enjoyed the memory of her deceit. The thrill had been in it’s unexpectedness, the suddenness, the shallow shared secrecy. No one ever knew. It was not sordid or sleazy, just the casual release two strangers shared.

It only became sleazy and sordid some four months later in a hotel room, with Ian and Veronica on holiday. Quite gracelessly she told Ian she needed an abortion. She had watched him with the eyes of a cobra before it strikes, wide, focused, cold. As she uttered the words she watched his glinting eye, and saw his mammoth ego, his everything start to splinter into lethal sharp shards. She could almost hear the cracks. And she waited, silent. Then senseless and impotent his mouth formed, the word “how” and from a long way away he heard her say “I fucked the vet”. A love he never really understood but recognised as his only weakness was slowly cracking like ice under too much weight, its chill rendering his every sense numb. He was a blank, a man humiliated, a man who didn’t even know there had been a vet to fuck. His world spun out, she fell from his heaven to demolish the flawless perfection of his love for her. This man whom she had grown so to hate, she destroyed utterly with one small and trivial act, so meaningless and pointless, so tiny and so deadly. Yet so vicious and terrible, its destruction irretrievable. The ultimate power.

The Three Bees: A Brutal Truth

“Still no sign of him?” whispered Twirly to Curly who was struggling to come awake after his long night’s vigil and final collapse into sleep. It was chilly so the two hungry drones huddled together, waiting for the temperature to rise as the sun broke through clouds scudding high in the sky in a rising wind. Curly watched carefully as a couple of his sisters worked away blocking a random gap between their set of honeycomb frames and the edges of one above. The three bees had never been into that one because the absent Burly, and Curly and Twirly were all too big to get through the grill between the two sections. Nor was Mother small enough to get upstairs, only the worker bees could squeeze in. Curly watched as more and more bees went up, their honey stomachs full of nectar. They never stopped to feed the drones who were left to their own devices these days. Curly listened to his little brother twittering on about Burly and about how Twirly didn’t much want to go in search of breakfast without him. “I can’t manage to push through the crowds, what with my dodgy legs. I need Burly to shove everyone out of the way and hold me in position to slurp at the honey you see.” Twirly continued in this conversational vein, encouraged by Curly’s wise nodding and occasional straightening of his antennae to express interest.

Once the mating season is done, drone honeybees are surplus to requirements and get ejected from the colony.

But Curly’s mind was elsewhere. He had a sense of change in the hive, not least because the wind was blowing stronger and the propolis work seemed to be accelerating. More and more of his sisters were working on the gaps in the hive walls, sticking frames hard into place, gluing up the layers, bridging frames with honeycomb and fixing the end frames to the hive walls. Curly was becoming anxious. This was not just about blocking drafts, this was about more than the weather.

He linked a foreleg into one of Twirly’s feeble limbs and moved along the edge of the hive to where a handful of drones were gathered sipping at breakfast and trying to keep out of the way of the worker bees. They chatted amongst themselves between sips as their sisters crawled over them. They were nursing bees moving to and fro between brood cells, pollen stores and honey stores to feed the grubs. After many weeks of observation, Curly understood the nursing bees were preparing to seal the grubs into their cells, so that they could grow into baby bees in the coming days. This was normally a restful process to watch. But it seemed to Curly that the hive’s mood was becoming increasingly impatient. And something else was odd, these brood cells were uniform in size, all quite small with no larger cells for drones or giant queen cells for new princesses. Odd.

Curly remembered the day when he and his closest brothers were born. Along with countless other drone honeybees they had chewed their ways out of the oversized cells. Burly had shoved his way out of his cell, rather than chew his way out. The wax wasn’t very tasty Curly had agreed and yes it did make quite a mess of one’s jaws and hair. Curly had to admit that once Burly had squeezed his way out he was a magnificent specimen. When Twirly was being born though something had gone wrong, a fall of comb it might have been. Curly couldn’t remember, but it had meant that Twirly’s little legs and wings had been damaged, and reshaped they were not very strong. Since then Twirly had depended on Burly for muscle and Curly for guidance. Twirly’s nerves were extremely fragile. Daily existence was drama enough for him. When Burly set off out into the light the first time, Twirly had gabbled and squeaked for the whole day until Burly returned along with a gaggle of other dazed drones. When Burly had set off the second time Twirly had been less worried. Curly knew he believed that Burly would return. Maybe he would, but listening to other drones running through the names of the missing, Curly was unconvinced. 

Twirly was still going on about how important Burly was and how much he missed him when Curly noticed a small group of bees heading towards them. He instinctively steered Twirly away and under an outcrop of comb. “Shut up would you. Would you just shut up” Curly hisssed giving his brother a firm push. “Ow” said Twirly. “What are you doing, we haven’t had enough breakfast and we could have asked those lads if they’ve seen Burly anywhere.” Rubbing at his bruised thorax Twirly moved towards Curly who was peering out and who immediately shoved Twirly back. Curly was staring in horror at a group of bee vandals attacking one of the drones. Twirly and Curly had just now been chatting with him and now the drone was surrounded by a group of aggressive and violent worker bees. The drone was crying out in terror “let me go, let me go”, but his sisters muffled his sound as they held him down. Curly watched as two bees positioned themselves on either side of the drone and each ripped at a wing with jaw and claw. They soon finished their gruesome task and turned the wingless drone over to a couple of other workers who led him away from the group. In soothing tones they were saying “there, there. It’s all over now. No need to fret. You’re alright. It’s done. Don’t think any more about it. It’s finished, there there.”

Curly watched as they gently edged the wingless and traumatised drone away. Curly wanted to assume they were heading for another part of the hive, perhaps somewhere new wings could be fitted. But he couldn’t reconcile the ruthless attack, with the gentle words and the care some of those very same bees had shown to them all just a few weeks ago. In his heart of hearts, and more importantly in his brain, Curly knew the two could not be reconciled. Twirly was cross, fidgeting to get past his brother. With a clumsy shove Curly pushed him further back and watched in horror as another drone underwent the same procedure. By this time the rest of the diminishing group of drones was panicking, struggling to get away to somewhere else in the hive. But they were blocked by a second group of bees who had appeared unseen to keep the drones in place.

Curly overheard one of the reinforcements say something about needing to finish this work and get back to the nest to keep Mother and the brood warm enough. “We’re wasting too much energy on these guys. We should have taken care of it weeks ago when they first started coming back.” Curly heard an older worker answer: “They’re only good for one thing, except this lot obviously” and the air buzzed with high pitched bee tittering, and rude gestures. “I’ve seen it a few times coming back from foraging. The virgin princesses and the drones. One by one she takes them. She lets them hold her then they explode. It’s not a pretty sight” another added, “but at least they die happy hugging a queen.” And the others bee-giggled again. “Not this lot though,” said the first to more giggles. “This lot couldn’t make it, couldn’t handle it. And if they think they can stay here for the winter, they’ve another think coming.” The duty bees continued to joke, watching the wing removers and the housekeeper bees remove the amputated wings. The number of drones was falling.

“Stay here and don’t move” Curly hissed at Twirly as he started to work his way around his brother and up the honeycomb frame. Curly wanted to see where the wingless drones were being taken. “Where are you going? Don’t leave me, don’t leave me Curly I can’t manage. I can’t be by myself.” Twirly was whimpering. “I need you to be very quiet now, Twirly” Curly said. “I need you to trust me and stay here and be very, very quiet. Don’t move. On no account do you move. You stay here.” He left Twirly muttering to himself about how cold it was getting on his own and it was worse because he hadn’t had enough breakfast, and how was he expected to cope with so much excitement and so little comfort, so little food all alone. Curly had reached the top of the frame before Twirly finally stopped whining. What Curly saw turned his cold insect blood even colder. He watched a steady parade of wingless drones being taken one by one to the hive entrance. Once there guard bees roughly shoved them out onto the landing board. Curly couldn’t see what was happening but his every sense was quivering, alert to an awful terror, a sensation of horror seeping into every pore, a sensation of treachery, of betrayal. Curly shook with fear, wings quivering and antennae trembling in the morning chill. Despite the light getting stronger the hive wasn’t really getting much warmer. Curly decided to risk getting closer to the entrance to see for himself what was happening on the landing board.

Twirly hadn’t paid much attention to his brother’s instructions, being too preoccupied with his own tummy and nervy anxieties. He almost certainly didn’t catch the urgency in Curly’s voice or its intensity and Twirly was getting bored on his own. He sighed and peeped out from his honeycomb screen and saw the group of drones. A little confused because he was sure there had been more of them before he saw them chatting with a group of foragers, one of whom looked familiar. They were probably giving the drones some breakfast he thought to himself, an envious little twinge echoing in his tummy. With a sigh Twirly decided that given the short distance between him and his new friends he should rejoin them. Creeping carefully amongst worker bees too distracted to notice him, Twirly ventured a little wave with one of his feeble forelegs. The drones watched in silent, fearful horror as Twirly made his way towards them. The assassin assistants parted to usher Twirly into the group.

The new friend drones were a sorry looking bunch and Twirly, used to being the sorriest looking of all felt a curious sense of confidence. He didn’t notice their silence or their fear, so he waved again, and let his antennae stand up straight for once. He thought he could sense excitement and enthusiasm for having another drone join their group, even if Twirly wasn’t a top notch specimen. And he looked forward to a bit more breakfast.

By the time Curly was in position to see what was happening on the landing board, it was too late. Twirly, the weakest and most vulnerable of the group was inevitably next in line for wing trashing. It didn’t much hurt so Twirly decided this whole business was about refurbishment of the drones who couldn’t fly very well. Maybe he could get some new legs too. Curly’s heart almost stopped as he saw his foolish brother escorted to the hive entrance. Twirly’s companions handed him to the guards for transfer to other bees, standing at the edge of the landing board. With a sudden push one of them tipped Twirly over the edge. They watched him fall flightless and silent into the grass far below. There was no sound, no one could see Twirly’s weedy legs thrashing, or the tears flooding into sightlessness his enormous eyes. Down on the ground it was too cold for Twirly to make any sound or even to move to some unknown place of safety. Twirly felt cold and colder seeping slowly and his body slowly atrophy. He felt his heart slow and his breathing become a series of tiny gasps. As he looked around at the other dying drones he understood that there would be no new wings, no mended limbs, no more breakfast. He understood that there would be no more anything, no hope, nothing, only nothing and his vacant eyes saw greens and the blues of a windswept sky fade softly away.

Tears flooded Curly’s eyes and face, his frantic antennae were bending and flexing in terror. He hurried to hide in the farthest corner of the colony he could find. Desperate and afraid, for the first time in his bee life Curly was confused and panicked. Close to the hive wall he found a bit of broken honeycomb and chewed through the wax to the honey for more nourishment. He pushed at the sticky mess until it was wedged into a forgotten corner. There he hid exhausted, quivering fearfully, desperate to stay alert and alive. He monitored every single tremor his antennae could pick up, but he could make no sense of anything. Distraught and alone he remained hidden for the rest of the day. He tried to clean himself up and to pick up more signals. He heard the foragers returning and orders being given for the next day’s work. Propolis making. Gap sealing. Brood feeding. Foraging. Fragments of sentences, pieces of data he struggled to process. He picked up nothing about drones. “If I survive the night, I’ll think about it in the morning” he whispered but no one was there to hear zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The Draftsman’s playlist: music and a novel

I was reading somewhere that authors like to have a particular playlist running in the background while they are working. I cannot imagine anything more annoying or likely to mess up what I am trying to write. But perhaps it depends on the type of music you like and if you like super samey bland stuff, it probably doesn’t interrupt what you are doing. But if you like music that’s in your face and challenging, it’s likely to get you twitching and fidgeting and that’s not good for the typing or the lexical accuracy.

Musicians are for the most part poets too, so words set to music from the likes of Stormzy or Springsteen are going to knock out any other words in one’s head. Like many people for whom music is an intrinsic and constant part of their lives, I do like to see musical references in a novel. There are quite a few in The Draftsman. It wasn’t part of the plan, they just snuck in.

The playlist for book, in no particular order runs as follows:

         Billie Holiday – Isn’t it a lovely day;

         Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree

         Glenn Miller;

         Lonnie Donnegan – The Party’s Over;

         Richard Thompson;

         Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright;

         Gerschwin – Rhapsody in Blue;

         Louis Armstrong – West End Blues;

         Ma Rainey – Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues;

         My Chemical Romance;

         Queen –  Bohemian Rhapsody

         Meatloaf – Bat Out of HellTwo Out of Three Ain’t Bad

         Chopin – Nocturnes

This is the point in the blog where I should explain in very erudite language the reasons for having musical references in a novel. They are as follows (according to me, that is):

         Music in a novel makes it more interesting

         Musical references can be used as a narrative device

         Music is a means of shifting the plot

         Song lyrics can remind people of some shared experience

         It’s random, based on what was playing during the writing

         All of the above

         None of the above

These reasons are all subjective and completely depend on the work you’re writing, the target reader and the selection of references. So it’s all rubbish and none of the above is a hard and fast rule.

But perhaps an explanation of the choices I made for The Draftsman is worth exploring, so here goes. For me there is no musician to compare with Billie Holiday. The breadth of her work and interpretations are still astounding and utterly unmatched. Billie was a warrior and she rarely backed down. A fighter who was alone and under attack, deceived and abused for pretty much her entire life. And yet the work she produced is sublime, beautiful, resonant, tender and joyful. It endures and stays ahead of her and all times. I even heard Billie singing in Tesco’s over Christmas. I was in the bath and shampoo aisle, and she wafted down “I’ve got my love to keep me warm”. Said it all really.

The Andrews Sisters are a different part of the soundtrack to my life. My sister Candy and I used to mime along to the Andrews Sisters, although the details have faded with lack of use. I just know that whenever I hear the Andrews Sisters I can’t help but think of Candy and her gifted mimes, right down to the accents. Glenn Miller is of a piece with the Andrews Sisters in many ways, but mostly I love his work because it takes a catchy tune and breaks all the rules with complicated yet accessible arrangements. Defiant and up and positive. I don’t know if he and Billie ever played together though they had lots of colleagues in common. 

My dad Colin Bowden 29:II:1932 – 01:VIII:2021 Thank you for all that wonderful noise.

Lonnie Donnegan was once, a very long time ago, a part of my life and has echoed over the years for diverse reasons. The song referenced in The Draftsman, played at the protagonist’s father’s funeral, is not one that Donnegan was very famous for. But my dad once told me what it was about and, since it is about the end of an affair, I find it deeply poignant and tender. And I don’t know whether Uncle Tony had lots of affairs (probably) but if he did, the song adds another dimension to the man. It also reminds me that my own affair with a married man might have ended very differently, and not in our very happy marriage.

I could not overlook Richard Thompson in this book, not least because he’s up there with the poets, and also writes clever tunes and snazzy arrangements. Although we are both English, it took an American, my first husband Todd, to get me to listen Mr Thompson’s music. There were lots of girls at school keen on Fairport Convention et al but I became too obsessed with Elton JohnBillie Holiday and Gerschwin to notice much else. 

And Elton John’s was the first non-Jazz gig I ever went to. I was newly arrived back in London following a few silent years at a school in Brooklyn, and Jacqui Smith asked me if I would like to go to see Elton John play at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. I was 14, intensely lonely and still wallowing in the ugly facts of the previous five years. And I had no idea who Elton John was. I said yes straightaway and loved every moment of the gig. I even got to see Marc Bolan who came on at the end. I only noticed because Jacqui screamed so very loud and dragged me to the stage. I’d never heard of Marc Bolan either, and he just looked like all the others on the stage. Maybe bigger hair. Now the memory brings back the colours and the noise, the stink of sweaty men and an audience who knew the words to all the songs. In Croydon.

If you can do the dots, you’ll love the sound of this in your head.

At that time I was still more interested in jazz but was trying to be more grown up, to pull forwards. I don’t know where I first heard Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but I fell in love with it and still it’s one of my favourite things to listen to. It brought me closer to Alison Taylor at school. Alison was a classical violin and piano player extraordinaire, bent on defying her parents ambitions for her by embracing jazz. Gerschwin was as close as it got. Gerschwin and then my dad because her boyfriend Billy liked him. Billy was aware of my dad before he was aware of me which Alison thought dusted my dad with glitter. I rather liked that. Nowadays I rarely listen to Gerschwin because Alison always jumps up to sing along with me. Ba ba ba baa ba baba baaa baaa. She died some years ago, but I still can hear her. All of us who knew and loved her can still hear her.

No one with an interest in jazz can overlook Louis Armstrong, a man whose presence in my life has recently become much more vivid. You won’t hear a more inventive bit of horn playing anywhere than Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues. Our friend Winfried in Berlin, one of my dad’s oldest and most loyal fans has a Louis archive from 1963. He’s bequeathed it to the Louis Armstrong museum in Queens and it’s fantastic to browse. Winfried calls him St Louis Armstark.

I don’t know what made me reference Ma Rainey and Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues but I think it was probably the fact that her real name is Gertrude Pridgett and I have always loved that. She also sings in a moany sort of way that has echoes in the vocals of Bessie Smith and of course the sainted Billie.

When it comes to My Chemical Romance this is not a band I have ever much listened to. I think the reference weaselled its way into The Draftsman because my daughter Hannah was a big fan. I remember collecting her and a friend, Christian, I think he was called, from a gig in Brighton. They had explained to me that I wouldn’t need to park, always a struggle in Brighton, and that I would be able to find them because they dressed so distinctly. “We’ll stand out, so you’ll find us”. I think they were about 15. I got to the venue and tried to spot them, superbly camouflaged amongst hundreds of other teenagers in black jeans, white shirts, all black eyed and scowling. Hannah’s white blonde hair was fortunately unique amongst the throng.

Don’t you just love Meatloaf? He’s so loud and tender, in your face with his gentleness and the whole of the Bat Out of Hell album is unrelenting brilliance. It’s Meatloaf’s first album and I have never understood how work that is so melodic and poetic could be called Heavy Metal. Its honesty and poesy are probably why it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. 

And what book would be complete without a reference to Queen? I had a very wealthy boyfriend who was ten years older than me when Bohemian Rhapsody came out. Another nine minutes plus long song. He gave me the album for Christmas and I wasn’t particularly thrilled (Elton still ruling). But I still have the album and as Elton faded into blah blah, Queen just kept on getting better and better and I was hooked. No so on the boyfriend, despite the Rolls Royce and the Jensen Healy. They couldn’t begin to make up for a total absence of personality.

Towards the end of the novel when The Draftsman is hiding up in the woods from friends and family, he hears music drifting up to his secret place. I don’t know why it had to be a Chopin Nocturne: they were all down there at a barbeque and you really would have thought something a little more upbeat would have been playing. Except as the draftsman’s torn and twisted psyche was fighting to right itself, Chopin would have been high on his agenda as he put together the party’s playlist. 

Martin Cox’s musical interests are actually a lot denser than I realised in writing the book. Just another part of the man that I only started to understand as the book went on. He’s stayed hidden for most of his life, so I suppose I should be glad that he clambered into my head to share himself on the page, even if only a little bit.