It was hot and stuffy and Burly was squashing Curly uncomfortably into the side of the honeycomb frame. Soft spring light washed gently over Curly’s enormous eyes and Twirly was twitching slowly, coming out of sleep. He was anxious that Curly would be cross at the fidgety disturbance and at the squashing, but Curly’s mind was elsewhere. He shoved as best he could at his other brother and Burly snored softly, slightly shifting his large body to get away from the fidgeting and the pushing.
Curly wasn’t particularly cross, but as the growing sunlight spread warmth and morning throughout the hive, he had a curious sense of something changing. The girls were everywhere awake and all their senses were probing the air, trying to understand what it was that was different today. It was more than the sense of spring and the rising heat, it was more than the newly ambered light drifting up through the grid that formed the base of the hive. On this very particular morning there was none of the early morning muttering about inadequately sealed gaps, none of the urgent movement towards the sharded light piercing through unsealed spaces. No brow-furrowed bee engineers were assessing how much propoliswould be needed to seal the breaches, or where the bees should source it, who should do the work nor even how long it would take. Instead there was just this curious electric energy and a charged, murmuring anxiety spreading from frame to frame throughout the hive.
Listening absent mindedly to Burly’s snoring rhythm, Curly pondered awhile. The honey stores were proceeding nicely he had observed. Curly had learned from his many sisters that their primary function, and the function that killed them in the end, was foraging to bring back the raw materials for the colony’s survival. They had clearly been busy and the colony was thriving, crowded even. He had noted yesterday that Mother had been extremely lively with her egg laying and that her fastidious retinue were especially busy keeping her fed and watered. They had been cleaning her more urgently as she moved from cell to cell, each time leaving behind a tiny egg that would soon grow into a grub and eventually into a new bee. She had even laid eggs in several overly large cells, cells which Curly thought were mistakes made by younger bees not used to drawing out comb for honey stores and raising brood.
Curly had also noticed that her retinue seemed bigger lately and that periodically a group of them stopped and surrounded Mother. They were moving her limbs up and down, side to side. They stretched out her wings and bent her joints for minutes at a time. They had also forgotten to feed her as regularly and when they did feed her, it was much less than usual. It was as if she were on a diet. It was as if she were being forced to exercise. Curly pondered this strange possibility awhile. Shoving Burly awake and telling Twirly to keep close because something was up, Curly headed off to where he had last seen the colony’s Queen. “What’s happening” piped Twirly, his eyes gleaming and his wonky frame moving awkwardly to keep up with his brother. He looked over his shoulder to check that Burly was coming too. Yawning and trying his best to get his antennae up and alert, Burly mumbled something about breakfast. There would be no breakfast yet. The whole hive was in a buzzing uproar, with many bees moving fast and apparently at random across the frames and with no clear goal. To Burly it looked like chaos and he wondered fleetingly if the hornets were back. But this wasn’t like the hornet attack. There was no organisation, no sense that anyone had any idea where they were going or why, just high energy agitation. He pushed a leg around his little brother, shielding him from the seething crowd, helping him along as Curly shoved his way through.
Curly was taken aback to see Mother moving with considerable purpose towards the hive’s entrance. She never moved that fast and her wings were twitching, her limbs flexing. All around and behind her a turmoil of bees was gathering itself into a tangled group, anxious to keep as close to the Queen as possible. And all the time the noise, the rising drone of thousands and thousands of wings limbering up for sudden action. As one, Curly watched them surge towards the exit, a turbulent mass of black and yellow, wings glittering, eyes gleaming, antennae outstretched. Like lava they passed out of the hive flying fast, straight and bouncing high into the bright morning light. The day was fully broken, leaving amber streaked mists hovering in the air. It embraced the rising cloud of bees, darting randomly back and forth rising higher and higher into the light. All tried to keep within range of their Queen as she spanned the golden air in random aimless arcs. They knew they had to protect and follow her but had no idea where it was she was going, only that they must come too. What was left of the colony, like the three drones, saw the chaos but continued with their daily tasks. They gave no thought as to why they should join the departing bees or why they were all making such a fuss. Afterall there was still nectar to collect, honeycombs to build, brood to feed. They understood that this last task was imperative and that a raising a new queen was vital for the survival of their colony. They knew that Mother would not return.
Scout bees were dispatched from the mess of high flying bees and Curly heard that one scout had said something about a tree hollow some distance to the south. Another worker bee returning to the colony from an early morning excursion, said they needed to get those new queens going. One of the younger nursery bees was crying because she couldn’t remember the precise combination of honey and royal jelly she should be giving the grubs in the giant cells. It was all a muddle and as half the colony hovered high in the shimmering light, Curly wondered what would become of them all without their Mother. Burly didn’t much care because he was hungry, but once Curly explained that without Mother there could be no more egg laying and no more new bees to feed them and tell them stories, Burly’s antennae drooped. He put a forlorn arm around Twirly who had started snivelling to himself. As Burly hugged him closer Twirly once again muttered ominously about their imminent death.
A short while later a forager returned with the news that the queen and her entourage had settled high amongst the cooling air of a nearby oak tree and that several of her scouts had found possible new homes. They were apparently adiscussing their relative merits while the Queen remained at the heart of the settled cluster. The forager explained that there would be no food until the scouts agreed on a new home and the bees were able to navigate their ways back to it. “But why did she leave?” Curly asked. “Why did they desert us?” The worker bee did not know, but she had heard stories. “What stories?” Burly wanted to know. “I’m not sure, just stories, stories about how Mothers always want to leave home eventually”, the forager replied. “Maybe she just wanted more space. Maybe she’d had enough of all the egg-laying and being fed, all the grooming and all the fuss.”
Burly was tucking into breakfast but managed to remind Curly that “we don’t need to worry … the girls will have it under control, you know that, you know they always do, whatever it is. It’ll be fine.” And Curly, sighing, had to agree. After all there was plenty of food and far fewer bees to eat it now. The hive wasn’t so stuffy and hot and they didn’t need to push through the crowds to get around. The sun was shining and winter was a part of some remote story he had heard once when passing the Queen, as she told her latest retinue a bedtime story. Whatever winter was, Curly decided they didn’t need to worry. Far better to enjoy a late breakfast and then a peaceful midmorning nap with his brothers, somewhere out of the way and quiet.zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
The world is awash with writers, fitness trainers, dog walkers, chefs and book bloggers. And around each of them is a web of service providers, sales channels and even sometimes paying customers. Yet very few of us have been able to give up the day job. As a début author (The Draftsman) I am totally drowned in an ocean of other writers and overwhelmed by the expectations of what one must do to stand out and build a following in the wild, wild world of XXX where XXX means whatever you want. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the work, the actual book, but everything to do with how skilled you are at managing the online channels, from Amazon to Wattpad (don’t ask), and how good you are at name dropping. And I am absolutely crap at all of it. I don’t want a relationship with algorithms or the XXX anons.
This is ironic, given that I have spent my career writing about technology, and that technology is what’s making all this possible. From word processors like Apple’s MacWrite and Microsoft Word, through to layout tools and the container for print ready pages that is PDF, I’ve been mostly on top of it. Looking back over the years I am pleased to see so many of the amazing innovations we’ve covered, now in the hands of so many creative people. These media production technologies are cheap, readily available and make it possible for anyone to produce a book, newsletter or whatever. And that has driven author incomes down.
It’s been the same story in the music industry as technology made production processes cheaper and accessible to more people. This is all quite wonderful because it lowers the bar to entry, so that more ideas can be shared in many different creative ways. Technology is central to The Draftsman, and how clever inventions make a difference to inventors, users and the planet.
Technology is central to everything, so it’s fair to say that the publishing industry’s raw material, imagination and passion, is completely entangled with it. Today writers must develop an online following in order to be noticed. The online following comforts publishers who might be reluctant to take risks with new ideas and points of view. A following suggests a swathe of keen buyers and so informs budgets, project planning and print run lengths. Technology creates opportunity for so many expressive formats and allows publishers to identify and target potential readers for a given work. But there is way too much noise in the online world and much of it is self-serving and rather ugly.
In The Draftsman, set in 2006, two years after FaceBook launched, there is no social media apart from a passing reference to emails and the speed of internet connections. And there is a bit of foresight too, when Martin Cox ponders the rate at which many forms of printed content will migrate online, to decimate the printing industry and create opportunities for new business models. Even in 2006 when FaceBook was only two years old, it was clear that internet technologies were reaching not just into industrial applications, but also becoming central to daily living. By 2012 when FaceBook went public the platform had 845 million users and social media was a habit.
And yet I didn’t want Martin Cox to be an online junkie. He’s obsessive and dark, and what he would do with an online existence would be as obsessive, as dark. I didn’t want to write about how dark, given his personality and history, and his various confusions. But perhaps I should have done because that would have required more research into the whole social media eco-system and the paths through it. It might have made me a more adept manipulator of the channels and algorithms and it might have made me more popular, in a bitsy sort of way. (That’s binary digitsy, not little particles.) And the darkness in The Draftsman might have found an audience. Then I would have lots of followers and publishers might have been swooning at my feet. But then again, the lack of swooners might just be that I don’t write as well as I think I do. Read The Draftsman and decide for yourself. Ever yours, XXX.
Kevin Crokesmith and his assistant, stood patiently in the reception area. The Crematorium people slid about with subdued faces in a monotony of black. “Well, Wendy are we early or are the girls late. She’ll be arriving soon.” His face was a slightly pinker version of the grey of his shirt and his too-wide black tie made him look like a lollypop. Wendy Boilings gave him a nod as she watched the Crokesmith girls tumble through the door, the taller one breathless the rounder one even more so. “The hearse is just coming.” Together the two daughters and their father traipsed after Wendy Boilings and the celebrant into the chapel. With its socially distanced chairs and a one way system taped tastefully to the floor it was a space of solace. They were the only people in the room. Outside the skies were dismal and sad but behind the floor to ceiling windows, all was light. The Crokesmith girls Fellander (Felly) and Muriel (Muriel only answers to Muriel) with heads bowed and expressions dutiful, followed their dad and Wendy to the front row. The celebrant took her place at the podium and set her face to a blend of sorrowful yearning and hopeful energy. The effect was barely undermined by her random glances outside, looking to see if the next one was coming in yet. She was slightly distracted by the front row disagreement about who sat where. Felly and Muriel Crokesmith wanted to sit next to their dad, but so did Wendy Boiler and an undignified squabble was underway, along the lines of “you never liked her anyway” and “she’s our mum, not yours.”
As they droned through All Things Bright & Beautiful, Wendy wept snorty wet tears and the girls pulled sad faces and fiddled with their hair (Felly) and fingernails (Muriel). It was true, they never did like their mum and the Covid-19 diagnosis had lead not to sorrow, but to hope that an odious individual would soon be carried off. It didn’t take long, and even the hospital staff felt guilty relief when their time with Mrs Crokesmith was done. Mr Crokesmith felt much the same way. Only Wendy was sad, sad for the loss of her best and only lifelong friend, sad that without Mrs Crokesmith’s protection she faced the prospect of losing her job, sad for the bills she would have to pay, once access to the business financials was over. BetFred would be particularly tricky.
These thoughts seeped through Wendy Boiling’s small brain, fuelling her tears and sobs, making it impossible to hear the short reading. Something about a house, which was apt given that Crokesmith & Starr were estate agents. They’d left the choice to the celebrant, as no one had any idea what would be best. Felly had suggested something from Ann Rice on vampires or Dean Koontz on murder, but in the end they left it to the celebrant to decide.
The soaring wail of My Way marked the beginning of the end and Mr Crokesmith fancied he could hear the fires starting up. But it was just the wind, tinged with wishful thinking. It had only taken fifteen minutes. Not long Crokesmith mused to despatch a lifelong bully and tyrant, a woman who never smiled and refused all physical contact once she turned thirty. Odd that she got the virus, he thought to himself, and then remembered how it was the girls’ fault. “Those little bitches” she had said when they’d dropped off a batch of shopping without gloves or masks. She’d always looked for excuses like that. He wondered at how well she’d weaseled her way into his heart after the first Mrs Crokesmith had, as it were, croaked. It didn’t take long for him to understand that the second Mrs Crokesmith was more interested in Crokesmith & Starr than in Mr Crokesmith and his spoilt little brats. He’d spent over two decades keeping himself between his girls and his unloved second wife. Under her incompetent stewardship the fourteen branches of Crokesmith & Starr had slowly dwindled to one, and Mrs Crokesmith’s dreams of a Riviera lifestyle had dwindled with them. Mr Crokesmith smiled to himself as he embraced the thought that the dwindling days were over.
The celebrant was ushering them towards the car park, looking at her watch, wondering if there was time for a sneaky fag. But it’s raining and windy, then “Join us for the wake?” she heard, as Mr Crokesmith beamed at her, oddly joyful and almost flirty she fancied. “Wake?” “Yes, wake. We’ve a picnic in the car. Hoped to be able to sit on the grass, but that’s not going to work. Heh, heh, heh.” “Right.” A free lunch of something that wasn’t leftover chips was welcomed, so of course the celebrant said “thanks, don’t mind if I do” and ambled along with the little group to a no longer new Landrover.
The picnic, egg sandwiches tightly wrapped in cling film, scotch eggs, mini pork pies and crisps was a brown but generous affair, and competition was tight. Wendy Boiler was soon in the lead, closely followed by the celebrant. Packaging rage caused a major disruption to both front runners as an exploding crisp packet sent its contents unexpectedly into flight on the rising breeze. Seagulls swooped, neatly stealing Wendy Boiler’s third pork pie to put the greedy celebrant narrowly in the lead. The girls gave up wrestling with the cling film and smoked instead, despite the wind. Mr Crokesmith sucked eggy mush through a small hole he’d managed to wrench in the plastic wrap. Eventually giving up, he went for a scotch egg which he chewed on pensively. Much of the scotch egg ended up on his black tie, the ground or in the beaks of seagulls. Mr Crokesmith didn’t notice. He was wondering how to tell his girls that it was over, all of it. That Crokesmith & Starr no longer held charm for him, that he yearned for a new life, that he wanted to be happy. The lack of interest in the business had been clear to Felly and Muriel for some time now, but of the rest they were unaware. Could Mr Crokesmith now finally tell them about Desmond and their plans for a cruise to Rekjavik and the Artic circle? Their plans to move to Wales to start an organic wool business? Their ambitions for spinning workshops and tastefully designed knits to sell online at Desmonddesimode.com?
The celebrant was cramming in another pork pie, “thansawffly, mush get bah” she said, choking and exploding pastry as she turned to return to her podium. What remained of the picnic mess after the seagulls were done blew into the threadbare bushes, purpose made litter traps. In the car driving back to the office to drop off Wendy Boilings, Mr Crokesmith explained that they would all be going back to the office for an important meeting. Wendy Boilings still working on the last pork pie, much of which was sticking hard to the roof of her mouth could say nothing, but wished she had some water.
Within two weeks Wendy Boilings was in awkward discussions with BetFred and other creditors. Mr Crokesmith and Desmond were enjoying complimentary champagne and chocolates, and exploring the walk-in dressing room of their suite on the Prince of the Bahamas. They were sure it had ice breaking equipment. Against expectation, his daughters had jumped at the chance to take over Mr Crokesmith’s business, and also to move back home, live for free and use the company car. Both girls had been furloughed and then made redundant thanks to the pandemic and their respective incompetencies. Felly was convinced that her training as an actuary, which had been underway for the last four years generously subsidised in secret by her dad, would be useful in selling houses. She was further convinced that her degree in media studies specialised in 19th century film would come in handy too. Muriel was the more likely estate agent. At her father’s suggestion, she had methodically plodded her way to becoming a Chartered Surveyor. The fact that she had no personality at all was surely no impediment to returning Crokesmith & Starr to its former glory.
The sisters’ first act was to upgrade to the estate agency’s website with the catchline “Estate Agents to the Stars”. “We can’t say that” Muriel had said, “what stars? There are no stars.” “And who was ‘& Starr’ in any case?” Blank looks. Then with a long sigh Felly reminded her dull sister about their dad’s friend. “That second cousin of Rick Astley, he bought a bungalow in Cleethorpes once.” There followed a minor dispute as to whether Cleethorpes could still be considered part of the Essex catchment area. True there had been a sale to Rick Astley’s second cousin, but that was because Mr Crokesmith had been an intimate friend of one of the executors whom he had met at a speed dating event in Putney. Mr Crokesmith had put the cousin who had inherited the bungalow in touch with a local solicitor for the conveyancing. But highlighting star connections was just one little part of the company’s new and enhanced social media presence. FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram were now awash with property details and teasing slogans, “a new life in Essex” “Essex and the Fringe” “Reach for the Crokesmith & Starr experience”. “Don’t forget, you’re an Essex star”.
Oddly enough their efforts did spark some interest, mainly from Londoners wanting to move out to the country. Since the beginning of the first lockdown, the Clarphams had been working from home and wrestling with home schooling for three children within the narrow confines of a terraced house in Cricklewood. Now it was shown that both coding and support analysis could be done from home at least for three days a week, Surrey sounded idyllic. Sussex too. Except that they couldn’t afford either. Essex might be a better option. And when they watched the video tour of Belchamp House, they simply had to agree with Felly Crokesmith who had said it was “an absolute star property”.
On the afternoon the Clarphams were due to view Belchamp House, Felly, tall and skinny was folded into her dad’s office chair, unaware that its swivelly wheels functioned only occasionally. Felly pushed herself forwards, going for an authoritative lean over the desk and unexpectedly shot sideways into the bin. Muriel watched as her sister hefted the chair back into position to take her seat, but this time she had the chair close enough for the lean. Felly was pulling at a strand of fair wispy hair, and eying up her short round sister with what was meant to be a serious stare. “Why are you looking at me like that?” Muriel drawled. “Is it the Toffee Crisp, because if it is you’re not getting any.” Muriel threw back her shiney dark hair because she knows how much Felly envies it, and wiped Toffee Crisp crumbs from her slight moustache as the remnants of her snack disappeared into her satchel mouth. She stood up to put the bin, still swaying on its side on the floor, to rights. Muriel appears to have no hips and her legs naturally splay. Felly thought for the umpteenth time that her sister really should have a third leg to avoid toppling over.
“Here’s the thing,” Felly said, “these people want to see Belchamp House. You know more about this stuff than me, so you should show them round.” Muriel looked across the desk, “We’ll both go. Nothing else to do here. We can practise this stuff together. We’re selling country living, and we’re both country dwellers so let’s go.”
“We’ll make a day of it. Pub lunch, walk in the woods, maybe feed the ducks.” Sunita Clarpham was loading her handbag: iPad, iPhone, old iPod in case of need, hairbrush, masks, hand disinfectant, another pack of tissues all crammed in on top of the many strata of stuff that had accumulated since she last changed handbags in 2018. John Clarpham was busy with a calculator working out how many square metres the house had. “Works out at £3108 per sqaure foot inside and the outside’s for free.” “Yes dear” she said, and wiped yoghurt from screaming little Terrino’s head. “Darling it’s not nice. You know it’s not nice.” Her daughter Bromilia, scowled and gave Terrino a surreptitious pinch. His howls were perfect cover for the sneering reply to her mother that Terrino looked “better with pineapple yoghurt in his stupid hair.” “Yes dear” her mother said, relieved that her extensive customer service training was paying off now that Bromilia was hitting those difficult years. Actually all of Bromilia’s years had been difficult, only now there was a recognised label for it. Teenagers are meant to be difficult. She had training for teenagers. Her smallest child was engrossed in his phone and didn’t notice his mother’s request to “come along, into the car with us”, nor his father’s repeat. Eventually Dervil looked up and said. “No pub lunch. Pubs closed remember.” And then continued to press and tap. “He’s right love, we’ll have to order it as takeaway to eat in the car. Or we could find a park or a verge with picnic tables.” Picnic tables in the countryside, of course, masses of those.
This was what Felly and Muriel told their new clients outside Belchamp House, once they were all chatting about the journey and the rest of the Clarphams’ plans for their little excursion. The family had clambered out of their too-small car bathed in a slightly steamy blend of scents ranging from restrained motion sickness, sweat and stale cheesy wotsits, to hand gel and ancient car air freshener. Felly and Muriel had never seen picnic benches on the grass verges of the Essex lanes, so it wasn’t really a lie. Just because they hadn’t seen them, didn’t mean they didn’t exist.
Picnic location ideas confirmed, the sisters waited expectantly for what should happen next. Neither had the remotest idea, so Mr Clarpham weighed in, “We’ve seen the video”. Felly smiled and Muriel smiled. “Yes” they managed and Felly unable to hold it in any longer joked “of course it’s not really my best work”. Mr Clarpham was talking so he didn’t wonder about best or worst work” “ …understand we can’t go inside… social distancing … putting us all at risk … the children will love exploring the garden…no toilet options” And Sunita was nodding watching a brace of squirrels running along one of a great many power lines running to the property. She was smiling quietly to herself and holding slightly too tightly to Terrino and Dervil’s hands. Whatever her husband was saying was surely important, but she didn’t really need to listen.
What Mr Clarpham said next Felly or Muriel didn’t hear either, bored as they were already with their clients, despite being keen to nose around someone else’s garden, greenhouse and shed. They smiled politely through his little monologue and were just glazing over when a voice cut through their reveries. “There’s the owner, welcoming us. Look see there’s a woman waving from the window”. Sunita spoke across her husband, not on purpose but because she was so used to his droning little speeches that she didn’t notice them anymore “She’s certainly waving very hard, isn’t she?”
This last from Felly to Bromilia in a pointless attempt to engage the girl. Bromilia was looking at what the woman in the house was pointing to and waving for. “Dad, the car’s rolling away. Dad?” But Dad was now onto the bit about mortgagable values, and getting Brexit sorted and had no ear for much else. “Dad? Mum?” Bromilia tried again and then resorted to giving Dervil a sudden smack about the head. “Do something you twat, tell them the car’s rolling away!” Dervil jumped into action and in a squealing tone that just about cut through the interest rate and return on equity paras saw John Clarpham turn in time to see his car complete a short sojourn across the lane and come to rest in a loose but prickly hawthorne hedge. It engulfed the car up to the front doors of the vehicle. Still mumbling about surveyors and water rates he turned away in deflated disbelief saying “no harm done”. He decided it wasn’t happening and instead herded his family towards the window to say hello to the seller of Belchamp House. She looked out of the window a little longer, shook her head and retreated.
He steered his little flock away from the house with a cheery “Let’s get touring shall we” and headed off towards the garden. As they walked, he glanced in his wife’s direction with a cannily raised eyebrow and bombarded Felly and Muriel with questions. They nodded and smiled and Mrs Clarpham also nodded and smiled, baffled. What’s with his eye? Felly was still trying to process the car and how they would get it out of the hedge, Muriel had in mind a takeaway kebab. As they passed around the house to the back garden, the house’s owner was back in the windows following along, smiling. From time to time she opened a window and called out encouragingly “That statue of Donny Osmond by the pond, we brought that back from Las Vegas with us”. “The hen house is perfectly secure.” “That might look like canker on the apple tree, but its just a benign growth.” “The tiles on the garage are perfectly safe.” “Watch out for the pond.”
Dervil was the first to notice with delight a basket ball hoop, unaware that it shouldn’t be hanging at quite such an angle. It was set in a tree. A number of lost balls caught in the branches looked like they’d been there a long time. They were thrilled to find a greenhouse, not noticing that so many of its windows were smashed and it had no door. They didn’t wonder why the bird table was set with rat traps. The rat traps jolted Felly into action and she said conversationally “to scare off the squirrels”, but her clients thought they must have missed the first part of the sentence. Before long Terrino had disappeared and Bromilia had lost her shoe in the pond. “It’s not my fault that it’s muddy.” Dervlin’s shove as she peered over the pond had served only to make his sister step forwards rather than fall, leaving a shoe behind when she regained her balance. But the immediate problem was Terrino who they all noticed was now missing.
“Felly and I can look up towards the stream, at the top of the garden.” Muriel was surprised at herself, but with a kebab in mind wanted this afternoon closed. She didn’t notice the ashen pall spread across Sunita’s face, or the fluttering hand as it rushed to her mouth. They headed off leaving the Clarpham’s to devise a search strategy and calm Mrs Clarpham. As they struck out across the unsheltered lawn they could hear a plaintiff whimpering. Terrino was stuck in a small plum tree into which he had climbed from the table beneath it. He had never been so high in his life and now he was stuck a giddying two metres off the ground, terrified to come down. Felly and Muriel simultaneously yelled: “found him” as loudly as possible and were gratified to see Sunita and John come scurrying up to lift their poor little boy down to safety. ”Something to get the hang of, tree climbing,” said Felly. “Something that takes practise” said Muriel. They nodded encouragingly at Terrino who buried his face in his mother’s sari and let the sobs shake him. “This country life, it might be good for us” she said breathing deeply in relief, stroking his hair and vowing to cut down all the trees.
She didn’t notice a rising breeze pushing through the broken fence marking the edge of the garden. They agreed with Felly that the weedy flower beds, and dense thickets of brambles were wonderful opportunities to “personalise the outside space”. Yes, the brambles would be so wonderful for autumn blackberries. No one questioned that this very new build was close to a stream running slightly above and behind the house. They didn’t ask why there were white lines on the edges of the potholed lane which ran parallel to a main road that passed the railway station a couple of miles away. Felly’s bright “trains to London twice an hour and only some ten minutes from here” distracted them and they never questioned the clear badger and fox trails to the hen house. Muriel had clinched it with “your own eggs, every day”. Crokesmith & Starr were back in the game.
The credit card companies had cancelled all his cards. His wife was degenerating rapidly and he couldn’t pay the carers, and the signs of dereliction showing in the house were too many to ignore. The post didn’t bring bills any more. Those had stopped coming and now it was just legal letters, angry letters from relatives and old no-longer friends, letters from the authorities and the courts. He knew he had moved up a level with these. But today there was something different, an anonymous envelope with his name and address printed on it. Neat and even, an open and alien hand beckoned yet he thought he saw something vaguely familiar in the script. It echoed.
“Owen, Owen quickly they’ve come back, they’re here and they want you to talk to them.” The cries of excitement bounced down from her room and he jumped up, hurrying with the post into the kitchen, anxiously chewing at his thumb. He dropped the interesting envelope and the rest onto the kitchen table and rushed upstairs, grabbing the leaning banister to help himself along and taking care not to trip on the threadbare sections of the carpet with their amateur darnmarks and hanging threads. Before he entered her bedroom he took a deep breath, the scents of dry rot and cat were infinitely preferable to the scent of her, his once fragrant and still much loved wife.
“Elsa, I’m here, I’m here” he said as soothingly as he could manage and went to pull back the curtains. His wife shrieked “Nein, Owen daß mus’d nicht tun. Don’t do that, du darfst nicht.” Then “You must talk to them. They’re here” as she sat up in bed wild eyed and agitated, patting her hands on the grimy covers. He moved over to her and put his hand on her head, stroking her hair, holding her frantic gaze, looking as always for someone long gone. It wasn’t working and she wasn’t calming; nor would she ever come back. He knew that, and yet. Excitement was turning into distress and she was beginning to rant. “They’re here, you see them, they’re here, talk to them, tell them, tell them I am well, tell them I can see them and tell them, tell them to stay. Tell them to bring us our grandchildren.”
As the images she thought she saw faded, Elsa started to weep. She slumped back down into her pillows, twisting the duvet cover in her hands and muttering incoherently. She let go to push Owen’s hand away, but didn’t move when he leant to kiss her. His tears rolled slowly down to mingle with her own, soft on her flacid cheek. The episodes with the imagined children were getting worse, more frequent, more violent. But at least they were less destructive than the episodes when Elsa thought she saw old friends, old friends Elsa now classed as enemies. Or when she wanted to clean the kitchen and went into battle with a dishwashing brush and a bottle of bleach. She usually chose a random spot on the floor and scrubbed and scrubbed at it until her hands were raw and bleach burnt spotted and streaking patterns into her clothes and skin. The yearning for the children was probably the preferrable option. The yearning for their early days, before the children would have been better, but those memories seem to have been finally and irrevocably lost some weeks ago. “Liebchen, meine liebchen,” he whispered And she looked up from her tears and smiled at him, before turning away once more.
Elsa had brought him to Heidelberg 35 years ago, to try his luck working there, to see how it would be living near her parents. It wasn’t necessarily a long term thing, but it had worked. Two sons, lots of holidays, a lovely house in the suburbs, affluence and a new car every year. And then Elsa’s mother and father had died, their younger son moved to China and was still there, and the other boy got caught up in his own life, moved to Düsseldorf and forgot about his parents. Depression, denial, emotional stress and the need for Owen’s attention burning ever brighter. He resisted at first, but couldn’t take the constant raging. He gave up photography and Elsa wouldn’t come with him on his long riverside walks any more. She wasn’t interested to see the whirls and swirls of the dark and fast moving current, nor in the barges laden and low, making their way to the Rhine. She didn’t want to tell him stories any more.
He took time away from the business, hoping she’d ease up, trust him more. They travelled further and wider and more often. Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, a short visit to China when the younger son got married to lovely Feng Mian and then back to Heidelberg. In China she had panicked at the wedding and they had to take her back to the hotel. They missed the reception and took an early flight home, drinking steadily all the way. On a skiing holiday in France she got lost on a slope she’d skied since her teenage years. The ski patrol found her leaning against a tree, staring at slow falling snow. In Tokyo she followed Owen onto a metro train but refused to recognise him, slapping him away as he tried to take her arm.
The decline had been slow and steady, a gradual erosion of Elsa. And then one Christmas she wouldn’t get out of bed because she said the children had said they would be there with her. Some weeks later she refused to see several of her translation clients on the basis that they needed more practise, though she never specified at what. Nor would she go to the little school in Neckargemünd to help children with their homework. For a while she wouldn’t even talk to Owen and instead hurled abuse in hysterical German whenever he came near. He moved out of their room, worked with the local hospital to get a diagnosis and slowly turned away from his own life, to preserve hers. He told their friends they were cutting their social circle right down, “Just so difficult to keep up with people.” “We’re focusing on our own travels now.” “Now that the children are gone, we’ve more time for each other.” Most people went with it, especially the more recent acquaintances who had never quite understood their own uneasiness around Elsa, or Owen’s tension. His business, previously thriving, went into decline and he was forced to sell it on at submarket value.
Elsa was calm again, singing in the shadowy room, calling out to the river to take her home. This was one of her happier places. As he watched his wife losing herself, he wondered how long it would take to sell the house. And then there was this curious envelope. What new horrors would it hold for them? Owen returned to the grubby kitchen to ignore all of the post except the one he knew wasn’t from a solicitor or a court representative.
It was a large envelope and it contained a handful of black and white prints and a little black book. There was also a copy of someone’s will, a someone Owen recognised from the list of people with whom he and Elsa would have no contact. A name and a memory. The images he recognised as photos he had taken and developed many years ago, pictures of him and a young man holding hands. Owen allowed himself a wistful smile. The little black book he did not recognise. And the will he was afraid to open. The little black book though, this was intriguing and he started to read. There were stories there, stories of his life as a young man, and a crush he had once had. There were stories of Elsa from when she first moved to London, stories of how they met, walking in Richmond Park and helping a horse rider who had taken a tumble. The pub lunch in Chiswick, the night train from Victoria and the romantic weekend in Paris, it was all there in the little black book. And at the back of the little black book was a list, with three and four letter codes, dates and numbers. And Owen’s name. And the words “For past sins” followed by XXX.
Then Owen looked at the will. It was dated a few years earlier and most of it had been redacted, including the name of the deceased. Thick black lines covered most of someone else’s end of life wishes, most but not all. There was a reference at the end to Owen Clayton and an instruction that Owen contact Thredwell, Snelling and Fastless, solicitors. How on earth did this find me? Owen whispered half under his breath, turning the will, the photos, the envelope and the little black book over and over in his hands before reaching for the phone. He didn’t have any idea what to expect, but surely he could cope with yet one more horror.
The conversation with the solicitors was almost on a par with conversations with Elsa. Owen introduced himself and there was a long pause, so long he almost hung up. Then with a brief apology, the receptionist put him through to Theresa Snelling herself. Ms Snelling’s voice was warm, but cautious. ”Yes Mr Clayton, I am very glad to hear from you. I understand you live abroad now. Would you mind answering a few questions for me, before we start. I need to be sure I am talking to the right person.” She spoke quickly, and Owen pictured an unsmiling face, a face familiar with delivering fresh shocks to the newly vulnerable.
Theresa Snelling’s voice grew slowly less busy and as Owen answered the bizarre collection of questions, fascination gradually replaced anxiety. By the time they got to “Your friend in the polo club, why was he expelled?” Owen burst out laughing, something he hadn’t done for a very long time. “Ha, ha, ha, they said it was for behaviour prejudicial to the club’s reputation, but it was because he was caught with the Chairman’s son. It was behind the bar very early on a Sunday morning. They’d been inadvertently locked in. The cleaners found them.” Memories of that wild night bounced around in Owen’s head and he knew that these questions could only have come from Robert Jenson, his long forgotten dalliance and one of his rejected friends. The man had tried very hard to make up for so many little sins over the years, but Owen resolutely ignored him. Borrowing money and never paying it back. Not showing up when he said he would. Teasing Elsa with just a tad too much sarcasm. And when they were young, leaving the pub without getting a round in. Those yearning eyes. Telling so many lies. Drinking too much and offending Elsa. Pushing her in the river and screaming at the top of his lungs that “Owen loves me you fucking cunt, so fuck off and drown in the Neckar why don’t you” was easily the worst. Elsa, then still relatively sane had taken it in stride, clambering up the bank some few meters downriver before calling to Owen to deal with “your very drunk friend” before turning back for the house and dry clothes. Looking back it was all quite funny, but their threeway friendship never really recovered. Perhaps it was always that fragile, once the dalliance had been recognised as just that and nothing more. Theresa Snelling was speaking again, asking about the little black book. “Yes I have it. It’s just a collection of reminiscences from years ago.” “Please look at the last two pages, at the list. Have you found it?” Owen looked again at the mysterious codes. “Yes I see it. What about it? It’s just random numbers.”
At the other end of the line Theresa Snelling allowed herself a small smile. “Mr Clayton, please keep that little book safe until you receive further instructions, after which you can take action. I will be sending a colleague to formally confirm your identity and deliver my letter.” Owen Clayton began to think it was all a stupid hoax and waited for Theresa Snelling to tell him that he needed to cough up €1000 or some such amount before her letter would be handed over. But she didn’t and Owen decided it was all too much, all too complicated and why were they scamming him in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t know his money was all gone.
Some days later while Owen and Elsa were sitting in the garden discussing rabbits, a car drew up and a serious-looking man in dark gloomy clothes approached their front-door. Leading Elsa by the hand, Owen came around to the front of the house and waited. With a slight bow the man introduced himself in flawless English and proceeded to explain that he represented a co-respondent firm of lawyers in Frankfurt and was here to deliver a letter, subject to proof of identity.
The legal summons and court requests piled up in the kitchen were an adequate start. Owen’s passport, birth certificate and residency documents were handy too, as were documents relating to the sale of his company. Owen was careful to keep track of everything, vaguely anxious that this hoax might in fact be a theft. He waited patiently as Elsa clutched his hand and occasionally gasped when the man glanced at her and smiled, and nodded sympathetically at Owen. He waited and waited, and eventually their visitor looked up with a smile and a nod. “Everything is in order. Quite satisfactory,” he said, stacking the documents into a neat pile and pushing them to one side. “Here we go,” thought Owen as the man pulled a letter out of his bag.
Owen waited for the line, wondering how much they would be asked to stump up for this probably worthless letter. But the letter was pushed towards him as the visitor rose and extended his right hand. He checked his watch and with a slight nod said “Thank you for your time and your assistance.” With a gesture towards the documents he added: “My job has been made so much easier. And things I hope will improve for you soon Mr Clayton”.
Together Owen and Elsa, still clutching very tight to her husband’s hand, saw their guest out and then Elsa wanted to go and lie down. It was some time before Owen could return to the kitchen table and the mysterious letter. As promised it was from Theresa Snelling, who explained that the strange envelope he had received some days ago was prepared by his friend Robert Jenson many years ago shortly after the Claytons had moved to Heidelberg. It further explained that Robert Jenson had died some weeks previously and was now buried in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mr Jenson had been living in New York for many years, and the letter said that the property on 64th Street in the Upper East Side was to be left to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, along with all other assets. There was one exception, the assets listed in the little black book now in Owen Clayton’s possession. Theresa Snelling explained that the list is of shares Robert Jenson wanted Owen and Elsa Clayton to have. Owen looked at the strange codes with new eyes: GOOGL 100 @ $85 ’04 ’14 ’15; MSFT 100 @ $21 ’86 x 9; AAPL 100 @$22 ’80 x 5; FB 100 @$38 ’12. Shares with their purchase prices and dates, and their splits. Owen’s hands shook and the world was spinning and the letter said Robert hoped that one day they might visit him in Flushing, forgive his past misdemeanours and say sorry for having so long ignored him.
I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.
The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.
The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.
It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules.
Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree?
We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.
It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.
Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.
You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical ThePicture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of BeingEarnest our own hypocrisies are played out.
You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.
– A Woman of Even Less Importance.
PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite Crawl like a snake across his perfect name, Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”
They sat on the stoop watching lazy crows hopping along the furrows. Occasional seagulls floated above the flat brown, fading into the clouds. The white gates were closed. No one was coming. It was just them. Beatrice poured another glass of warm Chardonnay and lit another cigarette. “Fifteen years we’ve been coming here and for fifteen years they’ve been coming to stay. Through early marriage years, through pregnancies, through babies and little children. Fifteen years and now, now this.” Beatrice’s voice trailed off.
“Sorry, but I don’t really know what you mean.” Clarissa looked at her new friend trying to work out quite how the conversation got here. They’d been chitchatting about Beatrice’s husband, about how both he and Clarissa are workoholics. They’d just got onto the interesting bit, about how there’s no cure, and now this peculiar switchback detour. Clarissa didn’t really know Beatrice very well, although she had known her husband, Andreas, for many years. A friendship and a business partner. Perhaps there was some weird sort of confession coming on from Beatrice. Clarissa wasn’t really sure if she wanted to hear it. She liked the relationship with Andreas just as it was. She didn’t want to know any disturbing secrets. She didn’t want knowledge about either Beatrice or Andreas that they were not themselves privy to.
Over the years, Clarissa and Andreas had worked together on many projects, exhibitions and the like. He had the ideas, was the investor and risk taker. Clarissa was the risk averse freelancer of choice for project management. And that’s as far as it went. There was no attraction between them, only mutual professional respect. This trip was the closest Clarissa had ever come to Andreas’ family world. And here she was in a remote village somewhere in northern Germany. They’d been working on the next stage of an educational initiative Andreas wanted to get off the ground. It had been a good week, productive. Now Andreas had taken the children back to town for their weekend clubs and to get ready for the coming school week. Beatrice had wanted a break from him and from her children, none of whom she appeared to like very much. She had suggested Clarissa stay on for the weekend and keep her company.
The invitation had seemed like a good idea. Clarissa had nothing waiting for her at home: her little girl was with her father that weekend, the house would bear another layer or two of dust, a few more cobwebs and flies. She was exhausted after a tiring week. Why not stay here in Schleswig Holstein, relax, hang out and eat her new friend’s lovely cooking. The amazing cinnamon buns were an added bonus, as was the excellent cellar.
Clarissa was curiously drawn to this strangely unpredictable woman. On the one hand she went for the supermother gig, and yet she took her work as a museum curator very seriously, keeping both well apart. Clarissa’s parenting style could best be described as intensely loving but sporadic, and she had no interest at all in museums. Clarissa worked very hard, but didn’t necessarily work smart, so she was always stressed. She rather liked it. Unlike Clarissa Beatrice was laid back, a dutiful and dedicated mother, but not particularly in tune with her children. She had no interest in her husband’s business or its workings and when it came to any sort of work was a great believer in delegating, from signage installations to swimming clubs and piano lessons. The two women newly met, shared a mutual interest in their differences, more intuited than expressed.
“Beatrice I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” Maybe it was a language thing Clarissa wondered. Beatrice puffed out her smoke long, dragonlike. She threw back her hair, tucking it behind prominent ears, her cigarette clenched tight to suck in another dose. “I don’t know. Sorry. I am in a state of shock you see. A call. Nothing. It’s hard. I’m sorry. It’s really nothing. Call it the Chardonnay.” This last with a rueful smile. Clarissa looked out at the white gates again, still closed. She was uncertain what should happen next.
Beatrice continued. “This house, this space, it has seen so much, everything, everyone in our lives. It all comes through those white gates. I tell myself, sometimes its good, sometimes it’s bad, but whatever it is, it comes through those white gates. And I think you understand how special this place is to me, to us, to me and Andreas both. And to them too. When they come through those white gates the next time, things will have changed.”
By this time Clarissa was utterly confused and wondering if staying on with batty Beatrice was such a good idea. It was just the two of them, starting now, a Friday evening all the way to Sunday when it would be time to find a train to get Clarissa to the airport. Time that at first had stretched elastic and supple, expansive, generous, was starting to look steely hard, rigid and confining. Roll on Sunday. Clarissa slogged her remaining halfglass and went to get a fresh bottle. She put another in the freezer, figuring it wouldn’t be long before it would need opening.
“Who?” She said as she slumped back down on the stoop. “I am sorry but I don’t understand. Perhaps you want to talk about it?” It wasn’t so much that Clarissa was interested, as the fact that if they were to be alone until Sunday, it would be good to have common topic, some point of reference. Clarissa figured listening to someone else’s problems would be an ok way to spend the weekend, though it had started to feel more trap than relaxing escape. And Beatrice was clearly upset.
Beatrice looked across her glass and nodded. “Yes, you’re a stranger, you know none of these people. It shouldn’t upset you, they’re European aliens in your little English world.” Clarissa wasn’t sure she quite cared for this appraisal but smiled. “Well, I might have a secret of my own to share,” she offered raising her eyebrows and putting a confiding arm across her new friend’s shoulders. The delicate Chardonnay was tickling Clarissa’s throat in a wonderful teasing fizz. The alcohol was relaxing her and the passive smoking was really quite enjoyable.
“You see it’s my best friend. She thinks her husband is having an affair. But she can’t fault him. He’s there for her, for the children, helpful with the house, chores, cooking all that. That may be a reason to suspect, but he’s always been that way. Always.” As Beatrice spoke, brows knitted, words tumbling out between little clouds of smoke, Clarissa was suspicious. She wanted to build a picture in her mind of a mousey sort of man, not browbeaten but diligent, devoted to his family, in love with his wife. “Perhaps he’s just too good to be true? Perhaps your friend is so in love with him, that she’s afraid of losing him?” Clarissa said. “You know them well, so surely you would be able to see any signs of infidelity? Or is it you, you’re talking about? If it is I can assure you… ” Beatrice’s hands flew up to her face “Oh God, not, no it isn’t me. I’m not talking about me, no, not and I hope you don’t think… ” Clarissa stared not sure whether she was being accused, exonerated, or lied to. Silence swelled between them, aggressive, cross.
Beatrice stood up and went to fetch a candle and some cushions. Sitting on the steps was more suited to the conversation than sitting in real chairs would have been. More honest perhaps, more painful, unprecedented, a small foreign space for a small foreign conversation.
“I’m sorry. It’s just hard. It’s nothing to do with me and Andreas. We’re the same as always, both too busy, both waiting for the part of our lives when we are just us again. Neither of us would risk that. But you’re right of course, to wonder” Beatrice said. “I am sure I would see signs in this man, but I haven’t. There was something Andreas said a few weeks ago that made me wonder. But it was probably nothing. I don’t think either of us really knows what the signs of infidelity are. We’ve only ever been with each other. We live such controlled and regimented lives. There’s no room for affairs.” Clarissa laughed, “well I certainly know the signs, and I can tell you they don’t amount to dutiful and attentive. Apart from anything else, if he’s having an affair he won’t have the energy to take care of your friend.” They laughed and instinctively veered away from any discussion of sex, licit or otherwise. “It’s about opportunities and the kind of opportunities he has,” Beatrice added.
Clarissa was able to establish that the company this man worked for had him spending a lot of time on the road, especially recently. He had been away every week in the last two months, sometime just for a couple of days, sometimes over a weekend. Opportunity was certainly there. “He always comes back with presents for her and for the children. But that might be guilt?” Beatrice suggested.
Clarissa was getting tired of this dreary speculation about people she had never met, and was never likely to meet. Boring middle-aged people leading boring middle-aged lives. “Oh for heavens sake,” she said, “you’re weaving a complicated tale out of perfectly normal, conventional behaviour. And you still haven’t let me tell you a) my secret and b) the signs to look for, apart from the energy thing of course. That’s far more entertaining.” Beatrice sighed and tried to put her suspicions aside. “I’m sure you’re right. So what should I look for? And how do you know? Has this happened to you? Is that why you and your husband split up?”
Clarissa’s heart was beating just a little bit faster and she coughed awkwardly waving at the smoke. An unexpected tightness in her throat made it harder to breath. “No. Not exactly. It was more complicated than just an affair. It was about the end of love, at least I thought it was. But then when it was nearly all over, I realised that it wasn’t that either. It was just the end. No drama, just a man too tired to bother anymore. Too worn down with the whole marriage, family gig. Just the end.” Clarissa felt a long lazy teardrop run down one side of her nose. “So how do you know?” Beatrice brushed away the teardrop and waited for Clarissa to start speaking again.
Clarissa’s voice was very small in the dark. Moths and other small flying night creatures were bouncing an insistent percussion on the outside light. “Actually I don’t, I only know what it’s like to be having an affair with a married man. It’s fine for me. I don’t have anyone to keep the secret from. But for him, it’s harder. He has to lie and pretend to care for a woman he no longer loves, perhaps never really did love. It’s a guilt he says he’s hidden for years. I wonder whether he just keeps the two of us in separate compartments in his life. I guess I’m lucky because we can both travel and meet even though we live in different countries. But I do love him, sincerely, genuinely. I’ve never been with a man who is so, well, so very masculine, who makes me feel so much a woman. And the strange thing is, I don’t care at all that he lies. I guess I have no hope that it will ever be anything more than an affair.”
“Your mystery man sounds gorgeous, but so’s my friend’s husband. He’s handsome and very male, fit I think you say.” Beatrice was still speaking in that lazy slow way of hers, but the topic was shifting. Beatrice was more interested in how to spot the signs of a lie. “If the compartmentalising thing was true and how affairs could work for so long, there would be no lies, no visible signs, just mistakes.” she said. “Then it makes sense not just for him, but for his wife, except that she’s only got the one compartment, she’s not having an affair but instead she’s frantically watching his every move, looking for the signs but there won’t be any, at least not until he wants to start signalling an affair? Maybe that’s where the mistakes come in?” It was all getting a little muddled.
Clarissa smiled in the dark, remembering her man, their love, the passion, the unexpectedness of it all. They’d been at PharmaPack in Paris some nine months ago. He’d wanted extra lights in the meeting rooms on his company’s stand. She’d been in sight wearing her organiser’s badge. Andreas had waved across the aisle and he’d waved back. Clarissa thought the handsome man, his hands clutching a mass of cables was waving to her, cables and all. That’s how it started. She shook her head to push out the images. Those eyes. That voice. A smile that held her entire life in its brief moment. Clarissa shook her head harder.
“This whole thing is doing my head in,” she said. “What say we go for the third Chardonnay. It’s in the freezer so it should be perfect? And give me a drag would you, the passive thing isn’t working for me any more.” Beatrice stood up and wobbled inside, bumping in the dark into doors, walls, furniture, and finally emerging with the iced bottle and another pack of cigarettes.” She waved at the moths and sat down heavily, sloping sideways into the handrail and staring out at a glimmer of white, the outline of the white gates. Clarissa followed her gaze, sipping the cold wine. “What industry does your friend’s husband work in?” As she asked the question, she knew the answer. “Pharmaceuticals I think. It’s too cold out here now, let’s go into the warm.” Beatrice stood up, slowly moving indoors. Clarissa sat very still, wine in hand a lit cigarette burning in her fingers, watching the white gates. If she waited long enough she knew he would pass through them.
The hive was stuffy and busy. When Burly squeezed himself into wakefulness he was beset with a curious sense of annoyance. Little snuffling sounds told him that his brothers Curly and Twirly were still asleep, but why this sense of irritability? Food? Maybe a sip or two of some uncapped honey would sort out his temper. He meandered his way, lazy and slow, watching as his many sisters moved rapidly across the comb, nimble and focused to disgorge their nectar and unload collections of pollen and propolis they had already collected. By carefully controlling its water content, they would turn the nectar into honey. Burly knew that, still unaccountably cross as he muscled his rough way past his sisters to sip. Being nearly six weeks old, he now understood how it was that the different parts of the hive could have honey that tasted different. The knowledge didn’t sweeten his mood.
When he was newly born, he remembered being told the colony’s honey tasted vaguely of daffodils and crocuses. That’s what the nursing bee who had made him and his brothers her special project, had said. He remembered it tasted of chilly mornings and sunlight slowly seeping, soft and lazy into the hive. His favourite nanny also told him: “we gathered this in the Spring, early in the season when it was really a bit too cold and windy to go out. Stores were running low so we needed to take a bit of a risk. Not much was out except a few daffodils and crocuses, and the occasional primrose. But we can’t reach primrose nectar because our tongues aren’t long enough. We leave the primroses to the hairy footed flower bee: their tongues are way longer than ours.” Burly hadn’t entirely followed her but he got the bit about daffodils and crocuses being risky.
Burly remembered the conversation and pondered the fate of his nurse. She had of course died from overwork, like so many of her sisters. Curly had told him that she would, so she must have. Curly was always right. Curly told him he had been watching the nursing bees and all the others. He told Burly and Twirly that they shouldn’t expect to see too much of their nurses any more. Curly told them the nurses were moving on to other duties in the hive. Depending on how old they were the girls would be nurses, cleaners, undertakers, workers, assassins, chemists, guards, scouts and advisers. They might also be builders, engineers and royal attendants looking after Mother.
Curly observed all this as he and Twirly moved together about the hive, vaguely following Burly who always seemed to know where all the tastiest honey was stored. Curly had to go slowly with Twirly whose nerves and weaker legs made it impossible for him to cope with the colony’s chaos on his own. Their favourite flavour so far was the honey made from lupin nectar, but that was already nearly fully capped. They were looking forward to making do with rose, which was just coming onstream when they came across Burly sulking, his belly full, his antennae being cleaned by a diligent sister. “And don’t ask me what the matter is” he snarled at his brothers. It’s the weather I think, I don’t know, I’m restless and feeling stifled in here, it’s so hot and clammy and sticky. I need to get out.”
Twirly stared at him in horror, the signals reaching his brain from his enormous eyes a tangled mass of confusing terror, his antennae almost rigid with terror. “No…” he croaked, shaking and running a foreleg across his back to check that his wings were still in place. “No, you cannot even be thinking such a dreadful thing, it’s madness, utter madness, we belong here, we’ve got important work to do, they told us, the sisters told us, important work. Important work!” he kept on repeating the phrase in a low mumble, his mandibles working, big eyes glancing to and fro between Curly and Burly, looking for reassurance.
But it was no good. They were ignoring him. Again. He was alone in his festering fear. Again. And they were still ignoring him. Twirly steadied himself chewing on a bit of old wax he liked to keep handy in his leg hairs. He told himself over and over that he was alright, it was just a little shock, I’m alright, I’m alright. and then tired of being ignored, Twirly drew closer to hear what Curly and Burly were saying. He eavesdropped news that put him back into a state of terror: “… we have to go out because we’ve got work to do on the outside”. Burly was nodding slowly as Curly said this in patient and gentle tones. As he heard it, Burly’s mood started to soften only to harden once more when Curly answered his next question. “I don’t know. That’s the thing with this. I really don’t know what the work is, or how we do it. No one will tell me and none of the other drones know either.” Curly bit at his hard edged lip and pulled on his antennae, his brain running in overdrive as he pondered the question. But Curly’s limited answer was enough for Burly. Burly shoved past his brothers, energised “I’ll go and find out for myself” he snarled over his shoulder and disappeared into the throng.
Curly and Twirly didn’t see him again that afternoon, but as twilight was settling they saw him arrive home wobbling and unbalanced, exhausted and dazed as he collapsed onto the landing board. “I did it” he said, “I went out into the light and flew and flew and flew until it seemed I was on the other side of the world.” Curly rubbed at the bee’s grubby head and dew dropped eyes anxious concern twittering in his antennae. “What happened?” he said with some urgency, “what was it? What was the work out in the light?” “That’s the thing” Burly replied in an uncharacteristically small voice. “I don’t know. I still don’t know what it is or how to do it. And I’ve been flying all day.” His voice was weak and thin and tears were creeping into his sleepy eyes. “All I know is that I had to keep flying on and on, until I knew I just had to come back again, but it took a long time because it was so very far.” His voice was almost inaudible and his eyes were dimming. Curly and Twirly looked askance at one another. They looked at Burly. “Tomorrow I’ll have another go” he whispered and fell asleep slumped where he stood. zzzzzzzzzzz
Meredith March studies the wreck peering at her from the mirror and adds a touch more mascara to already overly mascara-ed eyes. She is always heavily made up, having never fully recovered from her Dusty Springfield circa ’69 phase.
She’s sitting at a mock rococo dressing table wrestling with curling tongs. The dressing table has three mirrors so there’s no escape. The curling tong cable has folded back on itself in many places and refuses to straighten. Not in its nature. When Meredith tries to grab a lock of hair with the tongs, the tightly wound cable kinks, stiff and unyielding, knocking over bottles and assorted lipsticks. Stuff rolls to the edge of the dressing table. Meredith tries to stop things falling to the floor, but the tongs burn her cheek and tear her hair. Weak tears streak black under her eyes. Three sad faces remind her that she is tired and forgotten and life’s pretense is overwhelming.
The dressing table vibrates. There’s a message on her phone. “On way,“ it says. “Flight on time.”
Delete, she says. Delete and back to the primping which needs more care to be convincing. Delete says Meredith aloud at her three reflections, carefully unwinding her hair from the too-hot tongs. Delete she says again, dabbing cold cream on the red burn mark.
Delete. But then what?
What would she do instead, how would she persuade herself to do anything, go anywhere, see anyone if not for the stranger buckling up and peering out of the window at an airport monotony. He’s her main topic of conversation, with her friends, with the children … but with them less often, they know how she feels about their dad. They understand.
She knows it isn’t love with him, never was really. They don’t know that. It’s not lust any more, and they couldn’t even go there. It faded in about year three. “When I was seven,“ she ponders, struggling into a loud floral print dress he bought her for Christmas.
Seven in dog years is 49. Too old to still be living in different countries. Too old to be waiting for him to get a London posting. Too long to be so old, so static, so floral, so tired. Too long for this same routine.
It wasn’t so bad when the children were young. It wasn’t so bad when the money was anovelty, and the holidays too. New cars. Shopping with the girls. Inane gossip. Housey housey fixy upping. Following the lines. All of it too old. And now: Delete.
Downstairs, Meredith checks her black outfit in the hall mirror, florals now under the wheels of a dark revision. She searches for her car keys, checks the time, puts down food for the cat who’s asleep on a sunny window ledge. He ignores her wistful stroke of his head.
Meredith takes frozen pastries out of the freezer. He likes those Danish cinnamon whirls.
She puts on her coat, picks up her bag and … Delete. Puts the bag down again and runs upstairs. Breathless, she finds her passport and retrieves her stash of €784 in old holiday money. Waters a plant. Glances around the kitchen.
The journey to the airport is about as long as the flight from Madrid, give or take. There’s no need to hurry. She ponders his appearance in arrivals. He’ll be underdressed for the murky Manchester skies. He’ll shiver as they leave the terminal. He’ll say: “Ooh, so much colder than Madrid. I’ll need to pick up a coat.” He’s coming back to his home town, but he likes to remind her of his difference, it will give them something to do, something to fill the space between them. Meredith hears the reruns of those filler conversations as she starts the car and switches off the radio. Delete. No distractions now.
The phone tracker app shows flight BA0461 casting its line across the sky. The M6 is slow as ever and Meredith March has time between stops to scan her phone, check flights, book parking in the short-term carpark. £20 should be enough. Sitting in the traffic, silent, another message on the phone. She texts back: “Yes, I know I booked parking.“ Delete.
It’s Friday night. They can go and get him a coat tomorrow, hit the shopping mall masked and hand-sanitised and count the empty stores. He’ll want a pub lunch. She’ll explain that they can’t. He’ll tell her this commute will only be for another few months. And then he’ll change the subject.
She turns on the radio: “A shooting in Tampa, Florida … ” Delete. Tampa, Florida. We were there once. Flew in direct and spent two weeks arguing about alligators and sun cream with the children. Tampa. Delete.
Pulling into the short-term car park, watching the barrier bounce satisfyingly up, Meredith March smiles, parks and switches off the engine. She leaves the key on the rear passenger side tyre and turns away. She is early. There is time to kill. Kill or be killed. Delete.
When Mr March in his too-thin coat comes out of arrivals, his expensive four-wheeled carry-on in tow, Meredith is watching out of sight. She notes his handsome profile and the way his look slides across the people waiting, as he seeks her out. She’s not quite ready to turn away.
She sees him frown, sees him tap at his phone and wonders why her phone isn’t ringing. As Mr March stands legs astride his case, Meredith March heads quickly for Security before anything can happen to divert her. Amidst hoards of people she is reminded to social distance and to keep moving.
The bored security man in a purple turban is repeating his lines as he scans the queues, checking, always checking. “Laptops, tablets, shoes off, coats off, number four please, and madam to number two. Take off your jacket please”.
Bang bang with the boxes, through the screener, then shoes on, coat on, tablet retrieved. Phone buzzing.
A host of duty free shops on the other side, a host of strangers, a host of new worlds. It’s credit-card heaven in the Kurt Geiger shop with an excessively-made-up young woman, also channelling her inner Dusty. “Lovely make-up,” Meredith can’t help but say and the lovely young girl beams and pats her beehive. She hands over three bags with three new pairs of shoes and one with Meredith’s discards. “I’ll keep these on and you can keep the old ones,” smiles Meredith, handing back the bag.
Next stop is an expensive Tumi expandable carry-on for the shoes and now the Hugo Boss Japanese stretch crepe jacket and matching trousers. The Hermés scarf. The Cartier watch. And the lingerie. And the many hundreds of pounds worth of Sisley make-up.
Another glamourous young woman is massaging her face and holding sample skin tones, head on one side quizzical, eyebrows tight, unfeasibly long fingernails flickering under artificial light. “You have wonderful skin, you know. Shall we try something a little different?”
“Yes, please,” says Meredith. There’s a message from him. “In arrivals.” Delete.
She hands over the credit card and glimpses something a lot different in the mirror. She packs the new beauty regime in the new carry-on and heads for the cashpoint, teetering on her new heels. She withdraws maximum cash from all of his credit cards and has to sit down to stop from feeling dizzy. Picks up her phone again. “Waiting.“ Delete. “Are you held up?”Delete.
Meredith March steps away and checks her gate number, 46. Meredith March heads for the lounge. Sipping cava and picking at cheese she goes online and posts a picture on Facebook of her new suitcase and stilettoed feet with the message: “At airport still waiting for John.“ She crafts a text message to their son: “When you get this, tell him the keys are on the tyre. Level 2 K32. ”
The phone is buzzing again but it’s time for gate 46. Deep breath. Stand tall in those high heels. Tits and teeth. But that buzz. “Where are you?” Delete. As she wheels along in the high new shoes, behind her mask Meredith is gone. Delete.
The light was pushing in far too brightly thought Curly, as he turned away from the morning. Gentle murmuring sounds and tiny whistling snores told him that his brothers were still asleep. As he turned to shade his large eyes from the sunrise Curly was aware of a draft coming from the other side of the comb. They had settled down some hours before near to the uncapped honey that was still curing and where nursing bees could access it easily for the brood and hopefully for Twirly, Curly and Burly. Soft summer air dawn chilled caressed Curly’s back, his lazy wings slowly rising and falling. He sensed tension and focused fully on a strange activity that was beginning to build. His brothers were slowly waking up and the three of them, antennae rising started moving towards what appeared to be the cause of the commotion.
They crossed cautiously to the edge of the frame, forgoing breakfast in their tense urgency, for now it was clear that something was wrong on the other side. Creeping around the edge they saw a terrible sight. A large section of brood comb had fallen away and the grubs inside were now horribly unclothed, naked along an entire side. The damage to the cells was considerable and the three bees looked in horror at the exposed, gestating grubs. Their little bodies were white, translucent and barely formed. They had no bee-like shape other than the pale shadow outlines of legs folded and wings merely hinted, but all just white. Their eyes were formed and densely black. There was the merest hint of antennae shaping along their newly blacked heads. They were ghosts waiting to be born but now might never arrive. Worker bees worked at frenzied pace to salvage what they could from the avalanche of comb and Curly could hear the hissing fear at the implications of this terrible loss if the damaged nursery could not be saved.
How this had happened wasn’t clear. It seemed that somehow a section of comb in the brood box had suffered an impact and collapsed. It was clear that the priority had to be repairing the damage. The loss of hundreds of grubs would mean that too few new bees would be born in the coming weeks. This would mean fewer resources to collect nectar, pollen and propolis, and so less to feed the colony and ensure it had sufficient numbers and nourishment to survive the coming winter.
Curly could hear the urgency buzzing across the frame as the workers struggled to repair the harm. Then he noticed that the space beside the frame with the damaged cells was larger than it was last time he and his brothers had cruised this part of the hive. He now saw multiple wax hexagons on the wall of the colony, irregular and inconsistent and also in need of repair. Could it have been that the brood cells had been attached to this part of the wall? And if so, had they fallen under their own weight as the grubs grew from tiny little commas into curls of white and then to recognisable grubs? Did they get too heavy once they had filled their cells ready to complete their transformations into new bees ready to be born and take up their duties in the hive? All this Curly pondered as he looked at the broken wax on the hive wall.
Burly was ambling about watching his sisters work and wondering aloud if it would be ok to help himself to some honey from part of the unexpectedly uncapped honeycombs. Twirly was cowering behind his brother looking in horror at the devastation. He had barely recovered from the trauma of the Hornet attack and reminded both Curly and Burly that “my nerves are in absolute shreds, I simply cannot cope with any more terrifying moments”. “I think the terrifying moments have passed” Curly told him narrowing his antennae into what passed for a bee frown. He was inspecting the tears and fallen bits of honeycomb, fascinated at the translucent new life that his sisters were desperately trying to protect and salvage.
But for an unexpected moment all efforts ceased as the bees felt a strange movement on the frame they were repairing. The movement was a sort of shift away from them, an upwards pulling and then a sharp release before they found themselves rising up through the air into the harsh bright sunlight. Worker bees, nursery bees, undertaker bees, housekeeping bees, bee assassins, the three drones, hatching and vandalised cells, all of them suddenly were in the grip of a giant beast with giant eyes staring black and vacant at their frame. It breathed a horrible carbon dioxidey scent and apart from the awful black eyes shone bright white in the harsh morning light. The bees swayed on the bottom edge of the frame, linked barb to barb in an anxious effort to keep their positions and to carry on working on the repairs to their vandalised brood cells.
Burly was uppermost of the three drones and took a few paces forwards to face the monster, before thinking better of it and burying himself in a cluster of worker bees who were desperately trying to block the light and keep the exposed grubs somehow safe. Twirly was nowhere to be seen having panicked immediately and set off randomly into the morning air emitting tiny squeals of terror. He could be heard for quite some time whining “my nerves, my nerves” and was by now about a quarter of a mile from the hive. He soon settled on a wavering beech leaf crying miniscule bee tears, and then crying some more because his weeping blocked his pheromone receptors so he had no chance at all of finding his way back, at least not immediately.
Curly was just as terrified of the monster, but in addition intrigued to know what it was. Did it have anything to do with the brood comb collapse and what could turn out to be a grub massacre? The creature tall and forbidding was now puffing acrid smoke at the frame, and Curly and his companions were forced to shift away from the dirty air. The worker bees went immediately into emergency mode, moving to fill their little bellies with honey, as a preamble to general evacuation. This was the established drill in the case of fire but the urgency of their response never seemed to include any consideration of whether there was really a fire or not. Curly had observed the giant grub, for that is what he concluded the invader to be, based on his extensive and detailed evaluation of the creature’s many beelike characteristics. He had already noticed that far from being a fire it was this horrible giant grub that was scaring the bees into departure mode. He decided to stand his ground but the smoke was too much for him, interfering with his breathing, blinding his eyes and, in the absence of his fellow bees, leaving him uncomfortably exposed. He moved back to the safety of the edge of the frame barely managing to hang on as the giant grub flipped over the frame with all the wickedness and malice of the evil badger, tales of whom had been passed on bee to bee for generations eternal.
With respect to the poor exposed grubs, the frame was now in a slightly safer position because they were out of the direct light. Throughout the trauma of this bizarre framelifting business, the bees had continued working to repair their damaged brood cells, tirelessly tickling the wax back into shape and adding new wax. No one knew if the vandalised brood would be able to recover. No one would know the full implications of the harm until there were signs that the colony’s population was falling and not showing fast enough signs of recovery.
Suddenly they were all flying once again through the warming morning light, the smoke swirling and pushing them all away from the edges of the frame. Curly and Burly made for the bottom away from the light and in search of breakfast before noticing that the same strange stretching and pulling movement was occurring on the adjacent frame. As they peered up at the sky they saw another frame grasped in the awful paws of the giant grub, its black eyes once again come close to the comb and its awful paws turning the frame this way and that. Again the smoke and again the eyes bearing down on the frame, almost as if it were counting. The frame was finally returned and Curly hurried across the gap to the next frame, only to see the process repeat itself. The giant grub was pulling each from the colony one by one, deliberately and consistently wrenching away the propolis the workers had carefully placed to insulate the hive and protect it from drafts. Curly concluded that this was truly an evil beast with a sick sense of humour, tricking them into thinking there was a fire and meanly breaking up their draft excluders.
Eventually after every frame had been pushed, lifted, twisted, peered at and replaced, all was steady and calm. The colony was once more wrapped in warmth and darkness and Curly could reassure Burly that it was all over and that they were safe again. The giant grub had gone, hopefully never to return, but where was Twirly they wondered. It was not until night was starting to fall that Twirly fell into the hive exhausted and desperate for food. He found his brothers napping contently on a fallen piece of disused comb. Some workers had picked up his scent and didn’t understand what a young drone was doing sitting on a beech leaf. They had guided him home giving him only a few minor if baffling chastisements about not leaving the hive until he was ready. And they told him that he had a duty as a drone to on no account waste time outside the hive sitting on beech leaves. He had much more important work to do when he was ready. Twirly was still wrestling with this curious advice as he stepped his careful cautious way towards his brothers. He was still grizzling a little, and with relief accepted some food from a sympathetic nanny. He fell asleep where he lay, safe between Curly and Burly snoozing contently into the night.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
As a very small person (VSP) I have lived my life looking up to my peers, willingly or not. Throughout childhood I expected that would end when I grew up, but I hit 4’11” and there I stayed. A life of shortness was all that I could look forward, or up, to and so far it hasn’t been all that great. Handrails are always too high, stair steps too tall. Mayonnaise jars are just that little too fat to hold safely and I have to jump to reach the car boot to shut it.
Understandably the giants in primary and high schools, and the grown-ups everywhere else tend not to notice short people. Why would they? We’re below normal human sightlines, our voices are just a bit too squeaky and far down to be heard. And we’re just so easy to trip over and step on. Elbow bumps have a whole other meaning for VSPs. Standing sociably in a group, stray elbows can send your cup of tea or glass of wine flying, or intrude unexpectedly into your plate of food. Breadroll mayhem. Let’s face it, small people are in constant battle with a world designed by and for nonVSPs.
We face prejudice in so many ways. Grown-up clothes and shoes are invariably too big, even in their smallest iterations. That shop assistant sneer when they tell you, “we’ve nothing that small”. We face perpetual, organised and deliberate discrimination, with constant daily reminders of our shortness. Mirrors in public loos and restaurants are invariably too high. VSPs must jump to see more than the tops of their heads. The same’s true for peep holes in apartment and hotel room doors. We need a chair to use them, or once again must jump. Discrimination in shops is common because we’re below most people’s sightline and justifiably ignored. The counters in chip shops and bakeries and the like are always too high to see, or be seen, over.
Antagonism takes many forms, intended or not. Like the time I gave a speech standing in high heels on a box behind a podium. A delegate congratulating me, afterwards suggested that next time I ask the organisers for a box to stand on. When I pointed to the box already in place the redness of face was priceless. And like when people you’re meeting for the first time tell you they hadn’t realised you were so short. Or when you’re assigned a gym locker the key to which you cannot reach. And airline seats that bury VSPs making them invisible to cabin crews. We have to stand up to reach the air, light and call buttons and cannot reach the overhead bins without standing on the seats. We have to stand on the lower shelves in supermarkets to reach stuff and shower heads are always too far up to adjust. Cameras and smartphones are mostly too big to hold in one hand. Glasses too. Order a gin and tonic and watch the normals grasp the bowl, all elegant and suave. The VSP has to hold the stem and be so very careful when tipping the glass to sip, or otherwise hold it with two hands. Elegant and suave no. Add cups and mugs to this list, along with powertools, round doorhandles, fuel pumps, wing mirrors that block our view of the road, pump action shampoos and soaps, kitchen counter tops and most gym equipment. Getting onto and off of chair lifts and ski tows is always a challenge, although it’s privilege to have the opportunity. Reaching the slots at toll booths and car parks invariably requires getting out of the car, inviting invective and antagonism from the queue behind. Be patient we’re doing our best with limited capacities!
Like everyone, VSPs possess different behavioural traits. This makes them uniquely special and endearing. Observe how they duck away suddenly from the spit storms typical at parties and receptions. Watch them wrestle with supermarket trolleys because they lack steering leverage. See them clamber awkwardly onto a bar stool struggling once up to turn to face forwards without falling off. A simple lift of a hip is not an option for VSPs. We invariably sit too far forwards on our chairs. It’s a behaviour not due to anxiety or eagerness to join in. Most chairs are too high for a VSP’s feet to reach the ground and the seat too deep for them to sit on without their legs sticking out. Their arms are too short to reach the table. We do look quite adorable though as we struggle.
Despite the odds, VSPs can lay claim to a few significant social, political and cultural achievements. Haile Selassie former emperor of Ethiopia was only 5’1″, Gandhi was 5’4″ and Judy Garland a mere 4’11”. Danny de Vito’s only 4’10” and Genghis Khan tipped in at 5’1″. Anne Boleyn was 5’3″, quite tall for the time but she died some eight inches shorter by when being a VSP didn’t much matter.
VSPs are daily subject to microagressions. We are told how dinky we are and told that our little wrists are just so teensy. We know. We’re the butt of jokes about being able to reach the bar, or hang up our coats. Look at those tiny shoes, and your hands are so small they say. “You look so tiny in that mask”. It’s all very jolly so we’d never say back “and you look so fat in yours”.
But sadly we are complicit in all this because we generally ignore insensitive, substandard treatment taking it as the norm. We don’t want to make a fuss and you probably wouldn’t take us seriously in any case. VSPs don’t expect much to change, despite our enhanced health risk in the days of Covid-19. You see, we’re closer to the ground, where all the virus loaded mist drifts as it falls. We’re unavoidably caught in the the snot and droplet line’s trajectory, masks or no.
Despite aspiration and idealised values for all of us, small people accept there can be no equality. We can’t magic height except by wearing high heeled shoes. This is always an option, but not universally feasible. Equality is always undermined by something. High heels must not be worn on airplane escape slides for instance, and they don’t work with skis. On city pavements they invariably get stuck in the cracks unexpectedly pitching their wearer headfirst towards the ground.
And yet much as we want to fit in and be like everyone else, we still want to be different, to be recognised as unique. At the very least it’s a conversation starter. Like everyone else we want an acknowledged identity that lets us participate in socio-economic, political and cultural hierarchies on our own terms. We want our difference celebrated, simultaneously both acknowledged and ignored. So let’s not forget to remember each other, to remember that we are all survivors, that we are all of us damaged, disadvantaged and incomplete. And all of us need each other’s kindness, patience. Spare the opprobrium. And spare a thought for the struggle to strap skis onto high heels, for the scrambling onto bar stools, the random elbows in the eye and getting trod on without thought. Spare a thought for all of us, everywhere. And let’s try hard to make it a kind one.
(In case there is any misunderstanding amongst readers, this is satire.)