Picture this

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter is come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Bees: And then the cold came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (partial) story of the Italian vet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delete #2 New Boy

(The first in this series was published here: https://writetime.org/anthology/)

The whisper went around the classroom, every time Miss turned to the board. Fight. They’re going to get him. After school. That’s what John Carter said. Little new boy‘s gonna get it. But Mrs Vurley didn’t hear it as she turned back to her year 9s and reminded them of the homework. Pointing to the board and “… by Friday no later please.” The bell rang and Mrs Vurley watched them pile out from behind their desks, rushing towards the door. She hadn’t heard the dark whispers but she watched as the new boy slunk away from her, separate from the rest. Did she see fear? “David, David? How are you settling in?” “Yes Mrs Vurley,” he mumbled. Mrs Vurly put her pencil behind her ear and looked at the boy again, eyebrows raised. She sighed. “Hurry now, it’s hometime, you’re out of here for today.” Looking up at her he said, “Yes miss, but John Carter said …” “John Carter? What about John Carter?” Mrs Vurley didn’t have a John Carter in her class. “John Carter? I don’t think I know him. What about John Carter?” “Nothing miss” said David moving quickly to the door. Delete.

Mrs Vurley looked out of her window at the usual scene of children milling towards the school gates, the lines of cars waiting for some, parents waiting for others. A few were on foot heading home or for the bus. There was only one small knot of boys, with a couple of girls in tow, lingering by the gate. She didn’t see David out by the gates and gradually the group of boys and their groupies drifted away. 

When David came to school the next day as soon as his dad dropped him off he ran a gauntlet of teases and taunts. His dad smiled as he watched with fond memories of his own school days. He didn’t see what he was seeing as he drove away, lost in reveries of a super posh school for boys. Delete. He didn’t hear when they said “white boy, hey whitey, come on, come on tell us who’s in that picture. We got the picture innit. Who is she?” As he drove away his brain had the scene with his boy centre stage, but he wasn’t seeing it. Delete. His brain heard the voices, unhearing the words. Delete. He moved on and stopped thinking about his boy. Delete. 

The catcalling was lost in the group, and no one was brave enough to be seen specifically to call out to the new boy. “Fresh off the boat are ya? Fresh from Alabammer are ya? Black Lives Matter ya know, yeah.” Fist saluting and laughing and then mocking his accent, like he was from the deep south and not from New York City. That accent was harder to copy his dad said David had told him when it first happened. And his dad, strong and tall and believing himself a streetwise New Yorker had no idea of how alone his child was. Delete. And so David didn’t speak much at school, not after the first day when he said his name in class and they were all supposed to welcome the new boy. Instead they stared at him and laughed at the way he spoke. Afterwards a couple of them had asked him his mobile number, although he didn’t know what they meant at first. “Oh, cell you mean my cell?” And that had set them off. “Yeah, your cell Yank. Give us your cell.” And they’d all laughed. David small and living in his head, processing the new country, this city school, the scale of it, the weird sports and having to read so much, write so much, confused and uncertain and very alone.

In the staff room Mrs Vurley was reminding herself of what they were supposed to look out for so that they could submit a pupil concern email. In her day bullying was just part of the day, some children were just marked out for it. Would it be how fat or thin they were, how shabby their uniform or beaten up their shoes? Would it be how clever they were or how stupid? Would it be their accent or how clean or dirty their hair was? Would it be how small or big they were, geeky, Jew, Christian or Muslim? She knew that it was impossible to predict, but that it hung on a chance moment, a thin thread and an unpredictable hook. And it was part of school life, ugly or not. Now they had guidelines and rules which at least gave an opportunity to do something. Now at the first sign they were alert and could take steps. And guidelines meant there was no need to convince sceptical staff or heads. Guidelines meant they could do something, not nothing. But guidelines and actions could also push it out of view. Delete.

It was Mrs Vurley’s day to monitor the lunch room so she made a point of watching this new boy, freshly arrived from America with his heavy accent and fretful eyes. She saw him sitting alone as two bigger boys took their places on either side of him. But she didn’t see David leaning forwards into his tray nor did she see the two boys sit closer and closer. Both had been held back from last year. Neither was bright and both were strong and confident, popular. They had pulled their chairs in close to David and were leaning into the boy. She smiled as she saw the Kendulu boy suddenly pull away and David fall sideways under the force and weight of the kid on the other side and they were laughing. Relieved Mrs Vurley turned away to deal with a fuss about mashed potato blowing up in the queue. Delete.

But her attention was soon drawn back to the boys. David’s tray had fallen sideways with him and Kendulu was no longer laughing, but up on his feet. “Look what you done man, look what you done, your shepherd’s pie is all over me trousers. Look at the mess you made!” And his friend jumped up to join in. “Look what you done to Ken’s gear man, look what you done.” They were both towering over David, hands pointing upwards, heads turning from side to side, voices rising, looking for the audience, for response. And they were laughing and patting David on the back. It was impossible to see that the pat was just that little bit too hard, lingering just a little bit too long pushing the boy down. David tried to stand but they had blocked his chair with their feet so he was stuck between the table and his chair half up half sideways and now Ken’s leg with its smears of shepherd’s pie is in David’s hair. It was time to intervene and as Mrs Vurley hoved into view both boys stood back, moving their feet and smug as David’s chair scraped unexpectedly back and he fell onto one knee, baked beans stuck to the tears and his tormentors with their hands in mock surrender. “He’s such a laugh Miss, he spilled his food on me on purpose miss. I done nothin’” and “Yeah Miss, it was on purpose, he’s bullying us, he thinks he’s cool ’cos he’s an American miss.” 

As two other staff members started ushering the small audience back to their food, Mrs Vurley looked at the two boys. “What’s this about?” “David?” “Ken?” “Jason?” David said nothing, but shrank even smaller into himself. Kendulu repeated it was on purpose and that they were being picked on by this new boy, who thought he was so great because he came from America. “And you Jason, what do you have to say?” “It weren’t me miss.” The bell rang and Mrs Vurley gestured them away and the two boys sloped off leaving David alone. As he looked up to answer Mrs Vurley’s unheard question David saw Jason draw a long finger in a straight line across his throat, before turning it into a wave and a laugh as Mrs Vurley followed David’s gaze.

“David, how long have you been at this school?” Mrs Vurley was a little embarrassed that she hadn’t really noticed the boy. Delete. Embarrassed but unsurprised. He was an unprepossessing thing, quiet and withdrawn, keeping his head down, avoiding contact. “Five weeks Mrs Vurley.” “Five weeks” she repeated, ”and how long have you been friends with Kenulu and Jason?” David stared sullenly at his lunch tray and its unappealing mess. “They’re not my friends” he mumbled and tried to straighten his shoulders, tried to claw back some sense of dignity. “But they like to follow me and send me messages on FaceBook an’ all. So maybe. Dunno.” There followed a series of questions, questions that Mrs Vurley knew she should ask, even though in the back of her mind she knew the answers already.

Yes, there was harassment, although he was evasive as to its frequency and intensity. Yes there were incidents, like today only mostly unseen and yes there had been unflattering pictures posted online and shared with various school groups. Girls and some boys sent him flirty messages and then ridiculed his replies. They invited him to online chat sessions only to block him at the last minute or worse to hide behind fake accounts and make ugly threats, sometimes with pictures of cats with their throats cut, or birds with their wings ripped off but still alive and bleeding. They threatened to tell his dad that David was staying over with friends, but really they planned to kidnap him and sell him as a sextoy to white supremacists. Mrs Vurley rolled her eyes at this, but still. The digital world’s a dangerous place. “How many David? How many boys and girls are doing this to you?”

By this time David was crying and the lunch room was empty. Mrs Vulney was glad she had no lessons this afternoon and persisted. “Do you know what mobbing is David?” “No miss,” he sniffed. “Do you know how to block people on your social media accounts?” “My dad’s told me I should do that and I’ve tried. But Snapchat messages disappear straight away and they use fake names. I know it’s them, and I want to be their friend though. That’s why I kept my Facebook account after … ” “After what? After what David?” “Nothing” he mumbled drowning in their power. Delete.

As she hit send on her email and its attached Pupil of Concern form, Mrs Vurley hoped that her colleague’s initial call to the family would go somewhere. It didn’t. They laughed it off. Delete. But later Mrs Clayman tried to talk to her son, except that the talk was more a forced encounter. A bully’s privilege? “It’s gone.” “What do you mean gone, David? Are you being picked on or not. You have to tell me.” “It’s gone because it’s SnapChat. The messages disappear straightaway.” “Don’t lie to me David. That makes no sense. I know you’re hiding something from me.” Mrs Clayman didn’t know she needed to get him to take screen shots. Would he have done? Would she have looked? Delete. Mrs Clayman tried another line. “Well what about FaceBook? Show me what you’ve got on FaceBook.” Here David had more to say, “I know I should block them on FaceBook, but if I tell them I’ll block them they just laugh, ooh you know how to block do you. Then they send me notes in History saying sorry. So I unblock them, then it’s ok for a while and then it starts up again. And on Instagram they pretend to like my pictures, but they’re just mocking me. You can tell in the comments.” The tears were rolling down his cheeks as David continued: “And I tried setting WhatsApp so that no one can see my picture and status and Aunty Jean got upset, so I put it back.” David could see that she wasn’t hearing what he said, wasn’t seeing, was inhabiting her own old world. Delete.

Mrs Clayman was starting a block of her own. This was all too silly. They’re just boys being boys with the new kid. It will pass. He was still adjusting to the new life. The school had it in hand. “David, let’s keep this in perspective shall we? They’re just lads and you’re different and sensitive, you know that don’t you? Let’s not get all bent out of shape about kids at school. It’s just their way, the British way, you know that I am pretty sure. You’ll get used to it. It’ll be fine.” Delete.

Crokesmith & Starr

In death as it is in life.

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.

Foxes what foxes?

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.

A Little Black Book

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. 

The White Gates

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.

Sad stranger

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.

Delete

(published November 2021, in WriteTime Anthology Two http://www.writetime.org)

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.”

Very happy to have been included in this collection. And flattered.

     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.

Chapter 2: The Three Bees Under Attack

The comb was barely pressed soft and cosy to their shapes, before the boys woke to a terrific buzzing and the choking fug of bee commotion. A wild storm of pheromones clogged the air and all about them was frantic motion. A nanny bee bustled up, antennae akimbo and sticky with fresh nectar from a minor collision with an incoming worker. “Get out, get out of the way you fools” she squeaked in near panic pressing herself against the side of the hive, one leg stretched protectively in the general direction of Burly, Curly and Twirly. Sleep drenched and hazy they watched wide eyed as dozens of workers dropped their loads and martialled into tidy rows, creeping as one across the comb towards the hive’s opening. It was almost clogged with the serried rows of massed bees, all facing the same way moving in steady robotic lock step. Stretching his neck which gave a little crack as it reached maximum stretch for the first time, Burly looked slightly to one side and hissed with what he hoped was menace (it wasn’t) at the little nanny bee: “what’s going on, we were asleep. You woke us up. We’re hungry.” The little nanny bee ignored him, and pressed her outstretched leg tighter against Burly’s abdomen. Curly, peering out from behind his much bigger brother, added by way of encouragement: “why aren’t you feeding us?”. The little nanny bee paid no attention. Instead she pulled in her leg and started moving carefully towards a new row of bees creeping slowly and deliberately towards the hive’s exit. She was soon pushed back by an incoming forager: “not so fast you, you stay here with the brood and youngsters. You’re not ready for this.” The little nanny bee’s head dropped disconsolately, antennae drooping, wings still as she moved aside to let forager and guard bees go by to join the ranks. Moving away from the exit, she headed towards the stores to fill her belly and return to feed the three sleepy drones. Burly and Curly watched her go in anticipation, oblivious to the shoving and jostling as more and more bees scrambled by to form new lines.

“What’s happening?” Twirly mumbled through a half yawn as he snuggled deeper into the softened comb. He was still recovering from his birth trauma, wax still sticking to parts of his face and dozily he rubbed his massive eyes. In the near darkness he slowly focused on the mayhem that was all around. “We don’t know, but something big is definitely up” Curly hissed. “All the bees are being called up and the guards are yelling orders.” Burly stared after nanny bee, looking forward to getting something to eat, but Curly was urgent. “Now’s not the time for food. We can’t wait. Something big is going down. Follow me”. With Curly weaving a careful way through the colony and Burly and Twirly struggling to follow, the three bees started moving towards the hive wall where the traffic looked easier to navigate. It was slow going, and as they moved forwards they saw more and more ranks of bees crawling steadily on. But no nanny bees stopped to give them anything to eat. All nanny bees had been ordered to guard the brood chambers, to keep the gestating baby bees safe and to feed those grubs whose chambers were still uncapped. These were the most vulnerable and possibly hardest to protect, but they were the colony’s future. They had to survive the drama at all costs.

Hornet looking for bee meat.

As the three drones got closer to the hive entrance, they could hear the sounds of guard bees snarling instructions and a terrible humming sound that stopped them in their tracks. The guards were calling all workers to come straight to the entrance and to organise themselves into tight exit facing formations. The three youngsters could just about make out teams of bees as they lifted off no longer in tidy rows but in what looked like a state of chaos, of turmoil, random and messy. They jumped out into the air flying at alarming speeds whilst inside the hive the signal was spreading and the ranks of defenders lined up row after row after row awaiting instructions. Twirly, now suddenly wide awake and in a state of extreme agitation was turning tiny circles in a complete panic, his little legs sticking and tripping and hooking onto one another making him lose his balance. As he twisted and turned he stepped into the paths of harried bees now moving in many directions, who cursed him as they passed. “Useless drone. Get out of our way”. Most moved towards the entrance to join the guards and their rapidly assembled army, some were in search of their Queen and some to rally nurse and housekeeping bees and order them to the brood cells.

Poor Twirly was the one who understood what was happening although he didn’t get it quite right.“Attack” he squeaked, “we’re under attack, we’re going to die, even though we’ve only just been born, we’re going to die, to die” and tiny bee tears misted his oversized eyes, as he tripped over another bee, blind and consumed with unnamable terror. It was useless drama and Curly watched quietly as Burly bumped hard into Twirly’s abdomen, before whacking him resolutely across his gaping and hysterical jaws, which suddenly stopped their frantic opening and shutting. Burly had a forelimb raised for a second swipe, but with a twist of an antennae Curly stopped it. Twirly’s tears did not stop but his wild motion calmed and ceased. He sniffed and whined in a little whisper “we’re going to die, to die, we’re going to die. All of us.” And he sniffed some more. Nursing the slight bruise to his foreleg, Burly was inclined to believe him, despite the fact that he was totally unaware of what attack his brother was on about.

Burly’s thinking didn’t stretch so far as to wonder if the colony had the strength of numbers to see off whatever it was. “What is it?” muttered Curly his tiny bee brain working at top speed to process all the signals he was getting. It was no use, he would have to get away from the terror pheromones emanating from his companions and clogging his senses. As Curly moved away, he could hear Burly and Twirly offering small mewing sounds of reassurance and comfort to one another. They were following him, which did little to help Curly’s mood. For a moment he stayed still in the mayhem, masses of worker bees and newly conscripted guard bees eddying around and over him. Gradually the signals got clearer and Curly could sense a strange scent in the air. Slowly he came to understand that something was circling some short distance from the hive entrance, picking off tired workers as they returned heavily laden with nectar in their bellies and pollen in their legsacks. He understood that the something had been chased away but only to hover at a slight distance, beyond the range of the usual guards. It kept coming back. The guards had started sending emergency communications shortly before the three bees’ sleep had been disturbed. The colony had flown into action with the more experienced guards responding to signals from the hive to get more ranks of defenders into position so that they could counter attack in large numbers.

Curly processed all this data at speed, and understood that it could take much more than the usual few coordinated defence teams to kill off whatever it was. He wasn’t entirely sure what an attacker looked like or why it would be interested to invade the hive, only that the colony was in an extreme state of distress. A few moments pondering and he found himself creeping closer towards the outside, slowly moving along the wall to where the guards were coordinating their platoons’ departures.

As Curly approached the light he noticed a small hole in the hive wall. It was too small for him to pass through, but big enough to see out. Then he understood what was attacking. There were three of them, massive airborne insects magnificent in gleaming golden armour, giant eyes shining with malice, menace and malevolence, focused, coordinated. The huge yellow legs, barbed and powerful, were held in perfect symmetry from their immaculate bodies, their vicelike jaws ready. As the long black wings whirred and rattled in the air, Curly watched in fascination. The creatures dove and swirled into the clouds of oncoming bees, opening and shutting their iron hard mouths to capture bees that couldn’t move fast enough to get out of their paths. And with every thrust towards the hive entrance the defending bees, at top speed changed direction, confusing and deflecting their foes. What looked like mayhem was an aerial dance elegant and random, choreographed in precise and coordinated patterns. The bees were suffering losses, but stayed intent, agile and resilient turning suddenly and unexpectedly to pound and pound against the hornets again and again, tiny spitfires hurtling through the air to hit and sting with sudden impact the shining sides of the invaders.

At the first onslaughts of angry bees, the armour plated hornets, momentarily shimmied away before continuing forwards to meet the next swathe of bristling angry bees. Curly watched fascinated as the defending squadrons leapt into the air from the hive’s take off and landing platform. And slowly it seemed they were winning. A process of steady attrition was underway. The gold of the invaders seemed to shine less brittle bright, seemed to catch less and less of the slow setting sun, and the inclination to fight on through the defenders seemed to weaken. The noise around the hive was giving way to a softer and less frantic hum. Still close to the exit, Curly could see the guards conferring, casting their eyes over the readied ranks of foragers turned soldiers, assessing, calculating, deciding if more should be readied for potential sacrifice. And then suddenly it was all over. Inside the hive the ranks of bees were once again in apparent disarray, meandering about, deciding who should go where for nectar and sharing food with others before heading, bellies empty, back out to the flowers. Curly could see no more hornets, so he made his way carefully across the comb to find his brothers.

He found them in good spirits. Burly was happy because a passing bee had heard his plea for food and along with a few of her sisters was feeding him and Twirly. Twirly wasn’t quite happy, but his anxiety was subsiding and he was pleased to see that his little bit of honeycomb was still unrepaired and Twirly shaped. He eased himself back into his own personal nest, patting the comb beside him and signalling to Burly and Curly that it was time for a nap. They joined Twirly but Curly decided not to share what he had learned that day with his brothers. Instead he signed a tiny bee sigh and turned over zzzzzzzzzzzz.

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