The Bees in the Chimney

It began with a curious low level hum, like distant aircraft. It soon grew into a riot of sonic chaos. Bees were everywhere, flying randomly above the garden, uncertain of where they should be going, lost amongst the branches of trees and in the long silky grass. She watches them noting the irony of all this unhinged bewilderment. Another slow tear. Newly home from the wake in the pub and trying to rest. And hearing this buzz floating over the echo of her daughter’s sobstrewn words honouring her father, thanking her mother, waving goodbye as she drove away back to her own world, her own normal. Later, on a wet pillow her mother’s hearing unfamiliar notes to some distant song and sees small bee shadows moving across the walls.

Lying there in the dusty light Penny was numb, exhausted from the last few weeks of disease and death. She was caught in a tight mangle of sorrow and loss, of admin and organisation’s dictats. Penny sniffed and watched the bees, confused and lost and bouncing crazily in the warm spring air. She got up to go downstairs and put the kettle on. Passing a mirror she saw her ravaged face and stringy old neck with the gold necklace he had given her laying still and calm against the black of her dress. Hearing the humming start to subside a little she smiled and looked out at the hovering ladies also dressed in black and gold. It occurred to Penny that she should have been anxious about so many swirling bees. But there was too little left inside to muster fear of these fellow travellers.

The noise was shifting a semitone or so and looking out of the window Penny could see that the density of bees flying about seemed to be lessening. Warm spring sunshine dappled through the surrounding trees and the air felt thick and heavy with bees and with the quick falling pressure heralding an impending storm. They seemed benign these bees, more muddled than dangerous. She went outside to sit where she and Roger used to sit and plan what they’d do with the garden, what sort of dog they’d get. And then how long the disease would give them, how long before it would kill him. And then what songs to sing at the service and where to have the wake. Shifting in her chair and dabbing at yet more tears, Penny could see that the bees appeared to be developing some sense of direction. No longer were their flight patterns random and untidy. They looked like they had somewhere to go. She sipped her tea and watched shrill blackbirds dashing home to their loved ones and wiped away another slow tear, chilling her cheek and marking a fresh stanza of sorrow.

Penny sipped her tea as she wandered to the end of the lawn, wondering where the bees were headed and how they knew where to go. It was getting chilly so she slung out her dregs and stood pondering how to start the process of whatever should happen next. Brushing teeth and an early night; emptying out the final drawers and cupboards; or deciding where Roger’s ashes should go? Perhaps they should just go here, somewhere in the garden. Or be tossed into the small stream in the woods where they had planned to walk the dog, the dog that was now a fiction. Was that too anonymous, too perfunctory? And the tears caress her sad chilled face to dry and fade with the light. The buzzing had stopped and there were no bees here at the end of the garden, turning back she wondered once again about the where and how. Gazing at the house, Penny saw at last the where. High on her roof she could see a dark clump and bees moving slowly down into the chimney.

The next morning Penny awoke early to their sound and the sight of bees bouncing past her bedroom window, dainty and elegant, floating on the wisps of morning light. Like her they were wearing the same clothes as yesterday, gold and black. But unlike Penny they were not tearstained and dishevelled, with the dregs of a bottle of red wine slowly evaporating on the bedside table. She sat up straighter and reached for her ’phone and opened the browser.

She was surprised the beekeeper was up so early and that he took her call, instead of letting it go straight to voicemail. “You’re sure you have seen the cluster” Mr Westerham was saying. “Yes. They’re in the chimney and I’m pretty sure they’re planning to stay. There are more going in than coming out.” The conversation was surreal not least because it was so very early in the morning and because Penny had nothing she had to do today. It was a welcome contrast to all the other conversations she had been having for so many weeks. This person knew nothing about Penny, Roger, nothing at all about their lives and Roger’s illness and ending. The conversation about bees was the start of a fresh reality, instead of the grinding endlessness of an excess of it. The conversation about bees was twisting her mind into an unfamiliar shape, away from sadness and loss towards the mysterious ways of honeybees.

At the other end of the telephone Max Westerham noted the woman’s tone, its matter of factness and its calm. More often people ringing him to come and deal with a swarm were worked up and did their best to hide it. He’d never met Penny Graham but Max was sure he would like her. Something in that low steady voice, the near nonchalance as she described the scene for him. As she explained about the unwanted bees setting up home in her chimney, he did not know that most of her tone was shaped by events of the previous few weeks and days. It conveyed not so much calm as exhaustion. And she’d shown some presence of mind, lighting a fire. He liked that too. “It might work” he said as he considered the likelihood of the bees swarming once again to a less hostile space. Possible? Probable? Precedented? That was always Max’s determinant for any decision. “Are you still there?” Penny said.

Momentarily confused Penny twisted a strand of honeysuckle stem, a straggler pulled from the vase on her kitchen table. She was still twisting it later as she watched him shading his eyes, watching the bees milling about at the top of the chimney. In silence they stood each waiting for the bees to take their next collective step, he intent on guaging what the bees intended, she in fascination, warm in the newness.

Since Roger’s illness and rapid decline, Penny had not engaged with anyone who was not in some way related to disease, hospice and death. Even her neighbours could talk of nothing but the measuring of Roger’s progress towards his final breath. Would it come in hours, days, weeks, surely not months they know. And roundeyed, softly sympathetic smiles and downward glances would mark the end of this day’s enquiries. Awkward and embarrassed they all turn away from the garden fence. Penny would pace her way across the grass. With measured leaden steps she walked back to Roger, bundled up in his chair, eyes shut, drooling slightly, waiting. And she waited with him.

This swarmcatcher man spoke only of the bees and of their plans, so although he too was waiting he appeared not to be. Penny twisted some more of her twig enjoying the novelty of standing there with someone who didn’t know about the illness, the death and the terrible journey she and Roger had shared to reach an end. The beekeeper was smiling up into the light as the morning sun danced shadows on the wispy smoke rising from the chimney. “Do you think you could bank up that fire a little more?” As he looked down at Penny she was aware that this man was far taller than she had for some reason expected. His head silouetted against the light meant that all Penny could see of his face was a white bright smile. “Oh yes of course. I get it. More smoke less reason to stay?” she said. “Quite” he replied his eyes returning to the chimney. As she moved away she was aware of a sense of confusion and relieved that that was the end of the conversation.

Beside the fireplace there was still a lot of wood stacked and ready for the winter fires. It had been there for several months because Roger had been too frail to enjoy the secret places lost in the slow burning embers and the smoke made him cough. Two tankloads of oil had kept Roger warm throughout the winter so the logs remained, dusty and cobwebby, also waiting for their end. Now Penny loaded up the fire with logs and dried tinder to make as much smoke as she could, glancing out of the window from time to time to see what the beekeeper was doing. Between glances he disappeared. Penny stuck to her task. She moved mechanically, focused and precise, habitual after so many slow weeks of routine dedication and patience. For a moment she stayed still, staring at the blazing colours deep in the fire. No blacks or golds, discrete and individual but a full spectrum of shades dancing momentarily and fading into another new colour. Bright and alive and ever changing.

“Are you there?” she heard a tentative voice venturing to interrupt her reverie. Jumping up she tripped on a stray log and found herself on her knees at his feet as he entered the extremely warm and smokey room. Looking up Penny saw that he held a large box which he struggled to support with one hand and a knee, as he reached down to help her up. This gymnastic effort she noted, as she kicked away the stray log. Breathless in the smoke, flushed and sweaty Penny helped him regain his balance. “They’re clustering I think so we’ll need a ladder and a large sheet if you’ve got one spare”. Bemused Penny disappeared to find a sheet while he went back outside with his box, having explained neither what it was or why he was bringing it into the house.

Their balance he appreciated. The ease and elegant outstretch of hands. It didn’t take much he mused but this was an unexpected thought coming into his mind; he was so very accustomed to women, to seduction. But this wasn’t the same. This woman who says she lives alone now, brought something freighted and unsayable to her tone when he’d asked. “We’ve … I’ve only been here a few months. Everything changes so fast, unexpectedly”. He had thought she was talking about the bees. She returned. “Here’s a king sized fitted sheet. Will that do? It’s got elasticated corners. What do you plan to do with it?” “We’ll use it to catch the bees,” he answered “We? We, did you say?”

Back outside it was clear that the smoke was working. Gradually the bees were accumulating in a new clump on the fence, protecting their queen and awaiting instructions from scout bees, already out searching for new premises. Penny had made some tea and they sat in her two garden chairs in the centre of the lawn and in the middle of the bee mayhem swirling above their heads. She took Roger’s chair and watched as Mr Westerham fiddled with the angle of the back of hers, his cup of tea placed carefully on the box at his side.

“What happens next?” “We wait until the swarm has settled into a clump and then we go in.” Penny took a sip of tea and squirmed a little in Roger’s chair. “And what does that involve?” Penny was watching as Max Westerham stood up and shook out her king sized sheet. “We gather the cluster in this box, using the sheet to catch any stray bees, especially the queen. Then we tip all the bees into the hive. We hope and pray that the queen is in the clump and that she stays in the hive. And then we wait until dusk by when all of the bees should have gone into the hive. I can wait with you or I can come back later. Or we just leave them to it.” “Mr Westerham I hope you don’t mind, but I would be happier if you stayed to keep an eye on them please, just in case something goes wrong.” He smiled over at her, eyes steady, and she looked away towards the growing clump of bees to hide the tear that came unbidden. It was the way he’d adjusted the seat back, or that he could reach for his own cup of tea. Peculiar details. And the conversation so unexpected, curiously novel.

His little lecture had begun: “You see the process is very logical and predictable to some extent. For whatever reason the bees decide to swarm. They send out scouts to find a new home for their queen and the bees that will go with her. In this case it was your chimney, and now that you’ve driven them out, they need to find somewhere else. In between them gathering for the journey and the scouts coming back with news, we must get them into the new hive. The queen will be at the heart of the cluster safe, warm and protected. The scent of her will encourage the others to come home. Then we wait for all the bees that might be out scouting or foraging to return and we can close the hive. This box is a nuc hive with frames ready for them. Then we relocate the bees to somewhere more suitable and hope that she’ll start to lay and that the colony will thrive.” He spoke with surprising ease and authority, with no gaps for interruptions or comments. Penny stared and listened, enthralled at the sound of this rich voice and its subject matter.

“How do you know so much about bees?” There followed another sonorous little speech in which he explained that it began as a hobby when he started the process of retiring from the bench. “KC, you see. I’m retired. Still a bit of a workaholic, but mostly with the bees. I’ve got just the four hives. No wife. No children. Read a lot, walk a lot and I still take on the occasional brief”. He turned, beaming, watching for a familiar reaction. It’s a terrible habit he pondered. He noted the tired face and emptied eyes, and felt ashamed. Penny saw the broad smile, heard the voice, then turned towards the bees and made a decision. “If this works, could you leave the hive with me?”

Max sat very still for a moment and then slowly zipped up his beesuit and adjusted his headgear. “Perhaps. Let’s see how it goes.” Then quite suddenly he was on his feet, shaking out the sheet and looking up at the sky. “I think we’re ready. No need for the ladder”. Penny tried to smile as she replied “I’m really not sure about this being a two man job.” But Max was already moving towards the fence where the bees were spread in an untidy sprawl. Watching this man, moving with such confidence, such self-assurance, so fit and strong, Penny could also see Roger’s short frame and loving smile, turning back to laugh. The two images were superimposed and uncertain, quivering in the late afternoon light. Her tears made diamond sparkles across a pair of curiously interwoven scenes and she stayed still. Max was watching the bees. “As you like.” And he strode bold and purposeful across the untidy grass and captured the swarm.

Within moments the sheetful of bees was being shaken down into the nuc hive. “Well, that was pretty undramatic” Penny said as she approached the beekeeper and his hive. “Now we just wait for all the bees to find their way home.” “I had no idea it would be so simple” Penny said before adding “I generally have a glass of something about this time. Would you care to join me?” Max looked over his shoulder at his crumpled companion still in her black and gold outfit and briefly wondered why she was so formally dressed. But only briefly. “A glass of something about this time would be most welcome. Thank you.” Then he added, “We can drink to fellow travellers.”


Last weekend began with sandwiches in the waiting room of the National Express bus station at Gatwick South terminal. We were supposed to have had the picnic on the bus on our way up to London. But sandwiches always call so loudly when they are packed away with a beer or two, we couldn’t resist. Then of course after some hours trundling along in the snazzy double decker bus, by the time we got to town we were both famished. One went off to check into the hotel and the other got ready for the meeting, tummy rumbling. Then in the meeting another sandwich moment. A waft of cheese and cucumber on multigrain bread floating across the room prompting untold yearning for at least a bite.

But bite was there none so the only choice was to be patient and rumbly until the meeting was over and we were in position on the terrace. Bundled up in blankets, I could finally order my own food from the National Liberal Club’s wonderful new kitchens. Another sandwich, this time a falafel and spinach burger with chips on the side. It was a joy and rapidly scoffed down. It was so obviously yummy that one of our party couldn’t resist ordering a burger of his own, this time of the carnivore class. Finally full and rumble-free I was able to relax, snuggle down in the blankets, slurp the red wine and take pleasure in what was turning out to be a lovely evening. Plenty of wine, good company and conversation.

It wasn’t long before the conversations were following a bit of a theme, namely how long the second burger was taking to arrive. And then the asides turned into queries with the wait staff, handsome young men with gorgeous smiles and deferential apologies. But no burgers. Queries were repeated inside where we retreated as it was getting too cold to sit on the terrace. Poor burger man had had no food, but he was slowly recovering from the chill and being very brave as plateful after plateful of other peoples’ dinners passed us by. The barstaff gave him a free glass of red. We asked again before concluding that the burger order had been lost in some sort of NLC kitchen black hole and was unlikely ever to appear. Burger man bore all this with good cheer, but a slightly pallid look started to come on. Blood sugars were falling and the charms of a decent red fading fast. The sandwichless situation was becoming critical. And then a burger hoed into view, steaming, tantalising, nestling beside a reassuringly large heap of chips. Burger man salivating, burger man bright eyed and expectant, only for all the excitement to collapse as the waiter passed us by and beetled off to some other far less desperate diner.

Pointing out the worrying condition of burger man to the uber waitstaffer, brought forth a promise that if said sandwich ever did arrive, there would be no charge. And by the way here is a bottle of red wine on us. Good cheer all round and a slight improvement in burger man’s condition. There was nothing for it but to wait and trust the increasingly tense assurances that the burger’s arrival was imminent. After a fully two hour delay the beef burger, shy and embarrassed on the plate, hiding in its bun and with a tub of chips alongside to keep it company, fulfilled the promise. We cheered. We took pictures. We drank the bottle of red and cheered again. It was a marvellous evening.

The next day was a sandwich free zone, but there was another food drama. Having shelled out substantial readies for a posh lunch, we had high hopes for our planned excursion to the East India Club. With an aromatic lamb curry the carnivores were all set, but the vegetarians were in for a truly dire culinary experience. Dire is perhaps a bit mean but I cannot think of a better description of a faux Thai curry made up mostly of peas in a runny gravy with no flavour. Yes there were lots of peas swimming about, but peas are peas and they are far from worthy contenders when it comes to posh lunches. The poppadoms were generously large and explosive, literally shattering in the hand. (Terrible mess on floor hastily kicked under buffet table, hoping no one noticed but of course they did.) After a quick march in four inch heels across town we made it to Victoria Coach station to catch the bus home with minutes to spare. A minute’s as good as an hour, I’ve always found. No one checked tickets amidst the trainstrike mayhem and eventually we made it back to Gatwick, the car, home and the horses who whinnied at us to hurry along and bring them their belated suppers.

And the day after that we were at a Christening followed by the classic English brown spread consisting of little brown sausages, little brown sandwich triangles, little brown muffins, brown fritters and white cake. The cake added fetching contrast to the buffet which was altogether delicious. We took home the leftover sandwiches and it took us until Tuesday to finish them. Last Friday to Tuesday began and ended with sandwiches, with a puddle of peas in the middle. It’s been exhausting.

Something more than blue

There is a man who lived near us, out in the wilds of Cumbria. Our flat over the bookshop has huge windows looking out across hillsides peppered with ragged sheep. The skies are mostly low but when they are not, a soar of blue leaps across the landscape shining brilliant, endless. All around the immense greens clamour loud under the silence of huge skies. Jessica was the first to see him, and then we both saw him many times. She saw on the hillside, random flashes of a wrong, misplaced colour, the muddied artificial blue of a jacketed figure, prone and usually at dusk. She saw it that first time, looking out through the window as she washed up, peering squint eyed through greying light. “Look, isn’t that Ken? It looks like his coat. No one has a coat that awful shade of blue.” I looked to confirm, “Yes. Certainly looks like him. Must be pissed again.” And we turned away to get on with our evening. Not long after, Ken’s slight form was on the ground vomitting and freezing. But we didn’t see that part. By the time we went to bed we hadn’t thought about it anymore. In the morning the weekday routine kicked in and we had no cause to look out of the window at the hillside lost under a blanket of heavy rain.

He used to live above the pub in the next village, with his mum and dad, then with just his dad whose mourning was endless. Ken didn’t care. The mourning got on Ken’s nerves, like the nagging to go to work, get a job, blah blah. Whatever job Ken took, they eventually fired him. Plasterer. Postman. Cellarman. Son. All gone. He took to roaming the local villages, waiting for his dole money, drinking it down, almost in one.

Sometimes people would express concern about poor Ken, traipsing along the lanes and falling down into ditches. They’d say stuff to his dad, ask what Ken was doing roaming about at all hours. Frightening the sheep, shouting at children, collapsing dead drunk. The children would stare wide-eyed at the prone figure, spittle dripping off the edge of the curb. His fingernails were black and ragged, and there were often strange wounds in livid blue and red on the ashen face. His dad would reply that it was nothing to do with him. He had a place to stay, a bed. What more did they want?

Ken came home from time to time, to sleep, to wash a little. To eat whatever was going in the fridge. His dad wasn’t much on cooking since his wife had died. But he worked as a gardener so he had plenty of potatoes and carrots and beetroot stored over winter. He’d get a bit of mince from the butcher to make mince and mash, with baked beans on the side. Ken’s dad said not much and spent his evenings playing snooker in the pub and pretending his wife was reading and waiting for him to come back home to bed. He was an old man now and his son a creature he blanked, had always blanked for his stupidity, for some past and long forgotten sin. Poor Ken was not like his two sisters, who were smart and ambitious. Poor Ken did not have their brains. As all three of them shifted into middle age, it was clear that Ken’s close set blue eyes and thin little lips would never address anything more than the pint in front of him and the unfairness of it all. He took solace in spreading spiteful rumours about his many enemies. His dad. The young man in the post-office who did not want to meet up for a drink. The unruly kids who laughed at him. Their parents. He told grand tales about a girlfriend he had in the south. About a hotel they owned together in Sevenoaks, and about their two houses in Hastings rented out to celebrities.

When they are indoors together Ken and his dad sit in adjacent armchairs staring at the television. But Ken is mostly watching his dad and his dad is studiously ignoring him and his asinine observations about the game or the news. Ken coughs from time to time and shifts in his seat to remind his dad that he is there. But for his Dad he is not. After a while in his spite he takes to hiding his dad’s cue chalk and moving his dead mother’s things. For his dad, it’s as if she is still there.

And then Ken leaves more and more and stays less and less. When he is at large in the village he launches angry tirades at the neighbours about where they’ve placed their bins and parked their cars. He does his best to have a go at the customers in the pub. But the landlady is quick with her hands and cuffs him about his small grey haired head when she catches sight of his skinny form approaching people. Those out walking see Ken in the woods. Appearing suddenly ahead of them on the path they see the bright blue jacket veer off and disappear when he sees them coming. Horse riders and cyclists tell similar stories about his uncanny arrivings and departings. Ken’s always where you least expect him. The flash of blue against the fading summer greens and the browns of autum. And the blue’s getting grubbier and less blue. Sometimes he’s spotted in Ambleside and even Kendall, miles from home, dead drunk, asleep on a bench or verge, even in the rain. His dad never bothers nor his sisters. They figure it’s up him how he lives his life. It’s up to other people if they want to pick him up from the side of the road to bring his freezing drunken body home. It’s up the them if they want to bother with a sick-soaked blue coat and discarded shoes.

And then from our flat window we saw again the blue against the green. Jessica said: “There’s Ken again. It’s bitter out.” We saw ragged crows arcing across the chilled sky, and we saw the cold stillness wrapping itself tighter and tighter around Ken’s lifeless form.

A Dangerous Moment for Antoine

Antoine clicked on his bulging in-box and let out a heavy sigh. There they were, another horde of emails he would have to answer. It was exhausting being a technical manager and his job was beginning to get to him. It just took up so much of his day. Once he had tippy-toed his way around the puddles and pavement cracks from his building to the tram stop, the ride into the office took him fully half an hour. And then once at his place of work he had to take the lift to the twentyfirst floor. The dizzying ascent made him quite weak, even when he indulged in the distraction of staring at other peoples’ shoes. All told his journey to work was about forty minutes, and then at five o’clock on the dot, he had to do it all again in reverse. In reverse! And in between 09:30 and five he had to be there at his desk answering idiots and fools, explaining the obvious. It was endless and his lunchbreak was a joke. Sitting in his favourite café he barely had enough time to recover from the quease-inducing lift ride from his office floor to the pavement, before he had to repeat it to get back to his desk in time. The tedium of it was all becoming just too much. His nerves were shot and his carefully manicured fingernails at risk of splitting. It was so much easier during Covid when he could stay in bed with Charmaine to do his work. But now very often it was hard not to weep. He needed more coffee to even think about tackling the emails.

Antoine was conveniently placed near the office coffee station. His coffee breaks were not so much breaks as a caffeine continuum. In readiness for the next shot he organised the inbox messages into alphabetical order. Then he noted how many there were yet to answer in neat Roman numerals on his notepad. Antoine then rose carefully turning his head from side to side to note who was appreciating the view, and took several mincing steps towards his salvation. He moved with slow deliberation, gently pulling his trousers up and his sweater down.

Back at his desk, Antoine steeled himself and avoided looking at the little clock on the computer screen. Instead he gave himself a shake, brushed an imaginary stray hair from his brow and reminded himself that he is a professional. Narrow shoulders squared he adjusted his mouse and keyboard into positions of perfect alignment. He forced his work into sharp focus, at the very forefront of his mind.

Momentarily distracted by nothing in particular, Antoine pursed his generous lips and sipped his slowly chilling coffee. Staring at the list of emails and the number of unopened ones, Antoine compared what was left with his list of descending Roman numerals. He was working hard and pondering whether it might be wise to go for a short walk around the office, much as his colleagues were doing. Short perambulations are a good way to clear the mind and avoid excess work stress, he considered. And he could see what other people were doing, overhear conversations that are none of his business, Zoom bomb and so on. It would take care of those few untidy minutes before the big hand stretched up to reach the very top of the clock and Antoine could fully enjoy the moment. Or should he simply stay put, finish his coffee and open the next message in the list.

Leaning forwards to avoid the noise of laughter coming from the vicinity of the coffee machine he noted that this message was from yesterday evening. It had arrived after Antoine had left for the day, at a time when his work day was done. He felt the familiar and well-honed annoyance at these people. Why can’t they just respect professional working hours and send their emails in a timely manner? Don’t they have homes and loved ones to go to. Don’t they have lives? He wasn’t entirely comfortable with this cliché but he understood that people liked to say it, so he said it too. But Antoine had no loved ones, not after that incident in the early 2000s. Ever since he had lived alone with a series of cats. The latest is Charmaine, a long haired and profoundly overweight Persian too lazy to do much more than purr and drape herself on Antoine’s lap. Besides Charmaine, Antoine did have the gym and his very many friends on social media, most of whom he knew rather too much about. He was close to people from all over the world, people who loved his precise and slightly opaque witticisms. People who recognised Antoine’s greatness, enthused endlessly and sincerely about his posts, and even told him they loved him from time to time. At least that’s what their emojis said, possibly.

Antoine sniffed, slightly irritated that his reply to this message could not be within his target response time parameters. It wasn’t his fault of course, because the email had been sent out of hours. Technically the mail was sent when it was possibly still a working day in Portugal, but that wasn’t the point. In Geneva the day was over when that message arrived, and the sender should have thought about that. It really was too poor. All this agonising over time and responses was exhausting and his cold coffee now finished, Antoine’s attention was turning to lunch.

But he’s a professional so he knuckles down and stares at the computer screen some more. His hand hovered over the mouse and as his delicate fingers clicked on send, a dreadful bang and the hiss and clang of an awful explosion enveloped him. Sudden, vicious, terrifying, an assault reverberating in his dainty ears, throwing muscles into spasm and his body into inadvertent convulsions and unfamiliar shapes. Within nanoseconds Antoine was crouched quivering in horror under his desk, seeing the castors on his swivel chair spinning in an entirely unexpected orbit.

This is what it sounds like. This is it, his terrified brain screams. This is the end of my life, I can see flashing images, I can see darkness, I can see strange and unidentifiable colours cascading before my eyes in endless strobing arrays. Shaking, Antoine crumpled and shaking has tears streaming from his tightly shut eyes, strands of snot trailing his face. One fist is clenched and rammed between his perfect teeth and the other hand holds it in place.

A few moments passed before Antoine became aware of a curious and unexpected silence rising around him. Shouldn’t there be noise he wondered, slightly loosening his vicelike hold on his fist and removing it from his drooling mouth. Shouldn’t there be alarms and screaming and sirens he wondered. Am I deaf? Am I dead? Where am 

I? Was this what happened when you die? Does it all just seem to continue, except that you’re dead? And then with relief he noted a tingling sensation as the blood returned to his hand. And then he could hear murmuring voices and screams, and they were not screams of terror, but of laughter. How could that be? If he had not survived, was he in some sort of office hell? Was hell a place where the carpets and the furniture were the same, but there was no coffee or views of the river and where people mocked you?

 “Antoine, are you alright” he heard a familiar voice, and cautiously opening his squeezed tight eyes he saw before him a shiney black shoe and an elegantly bent knee. And Antoine’s response breathless and high pitched, “Davide, is that you? Where am I?”. Davide reached under the desk and linked a sympathetic hand around his co-worker’s rigid upper arm. “It’s OK, you’re fine, let’s get you out of there.” As he stood up, unsteady and awkward, Antoine saw that on his desk was still a neat array of pens, notepad, dirty coffee cup. His keyboard and mouse, and his favourite flowery mousepad were still in perfect alignment. How can this be? As he turned away from his desk, Davide helping him to his seat, he saw that he and Davide were not alone. There were several of his colleagues, all peering at him with expressions of amusement, disbelief and inquisitive fascination.

“Davide, what happened?” Antoine said his voice broken with relief at still being alive. “Where did that awful bomb come from? Who is hurt? How many are dead?” Davide replied that there was no bomb and that no on was hurt or dead. “Are you OK now? Can we get you anything?” “A coffee would be nice, if you don’t mind” Antoine sniffed pathetically. Davide smiled an indulgent smile. “Sorry Antoine, it was the coffee machine that blew up. There is no coffee until it gets fixed.” Antoine felt the blush rising hot and sudden from his neck to his hairline. Wiping his wet face with a proffered tissue, he turned his back on the audience. Antoine ignored their sniggers and shifted in his chair to face his screen, where he saw that there were eleven new emails to answer. He sniffed a resentful sniff into his soggy tissue, before sighing and slowly reaching for his mouse.

More short stories here:

Shopping List

She stood facing the bathroom mirror, toothbrush in hand. Looking at her blocking the sink James said, jocular, friendly, avoiding any risk of confrontation, “why are you wearing your dressing gown?” Their teeth brushing and nightly routines in general were pretty relaxed. “Oh” she said nonchalant waving a vague hand, “I’m just feeling the cold a bit”. A germ in his head scowling, a silent voice venomous, “You’re always bloody cold”, but instead a momentary silence. He turns away saying kindly, “shall I put the heat up a bit … it’s already at 25”. A mannered, polite “no need, I’ll be fine” as she turned her head to the side, a wintery and glittered smile fixed on her face.  “You probably got a chill. You were quite late back”. He didn’t notice the smile set harder, the slow tensing and of the shoulders, nor their slight rising as the arms followed. Nor did he notice a sharp quick stripe, bright red, white and blue. The toothpaste tube clutched suddenly tight was quickly spewing, running headlong, a telltale path that jumped across the sink and skipped around the running water. A signature of deceit. “No, no” she said, her voice in a vice. “I’m fine”. And hurriedly splashing water and spitting noisily to keep blocking him, afraid of her blush and to quickly wash away that accusing scrawl.  Under the duvet, still in her dressing gown as James simmers, angry. Their faux warmth fast becoming a habit, the insincere becomes the normal yet still he wants to reach out. He says good-night proffering a hopeful peck on the cheek, but it barely makes it passed her rigid shoulder. He heard the deliberate and measured snore. He heard the darkness grow. In the morning James was gone early. And she still in the dressing gown lay idle and smug in bed, not thinking of James in the traffic and the early morning. She remembered yesterday, reliving snatched hours and noting that another man’s beard had left bristle marks on her inner thigh. The fingerprints on her upper arms, were sliding to pale buttered yellow as she lay remembering. Warm, unvanquished, spiteful. Such malice she felt as she lay there, revelling in her deception and James’ oafish stupidity. The ’phone jangled her back to the now. Oafish James was ringing from the car. She doesn’t answer. She knows he’s wanting to remind her, again, that he’ll collect her on the way to the airport. She knows. Her daughter is coming to Sussex on a fleeting visit from Dubai. She ponders that it would be far more entertaining if the visit wasn’t fleeting, because James cannot stand Nina. It is sport for Nina to tease her stepfather. Nina enjoys being impolite, saying outrageous things and watching as James works with eyes raised staring at the middle distance and breathing slowly, to control his temper. Her mother will look on, a slight smirk on her face, eyes hard and impenetrable. The sport had been even funnier when she was younger and when her mother was still impressed with James and defended his bluster, his bouts of petty temper, his passion. All that now gone. For all these years he had tried so hard to be an dedicated stepfather. But Nina could tell he never really meant it, and she had throughout her teens watch his efforts slowly fall into a fake habit that she could provoke at will. Heading home in the car the conversation was falling away. She marvels at how long Nina and James can drag out a conversation about immigration queues and baggage. James’s ample stomach brushes the steering wheel and it’s enough to remind him that he is hungry. “What do you say we stop off for a bite?” They mumble and hesitate, and she’s vaguely annoyed for no real reason. “Come on, it’s getting close to dinner time anyhow,” and so they agree. Yes. “We’ve no food in in any case” she says, now good natured with Nina there and the prospect of wine, momentarily happy. “I ran out of time when I was in town yesterday”, the hint of a blush started to rise and she turned away. Looking out of the window as they creep through the traffic, her eyes flickered to focus on each passing stranger in case it might be someone she knows. They eventually leave behind commuters’ traffic and stop at a pub. It’s all beams and early evening emptiness, the light showing up the dust and leftover rings on the tables. It’s one of those country places newly taken over, with an anxious publican looking for a quieter life. A shock of grey hair gelled ruthlessly flat and a small diamond in one earlobe, single, celibate and building up a local clientele, people who share his love of single malts and appreciate the patience he brings to the job. But he’s not sure if he can settle to this quieter life, so he frets and chews at the skin around his thumbnails. His staff this evening is a bored young woman waiting for better things. She’s halfway through her A levels and unaware that the better things too are waiting. They want to be found and will not be served up on demand. She hands James the menu offhand and careless, and forgets to tell them that the specials are on the board. “Looks promising”, James says almost drooling as he ambles to the bar. He’s conscious of his stepdaughter’s censorius eye. The barely concealed sneer that says “too much pie and mash, a few too many pints and pasties.” That malevolent germ creeps back. “She’s too keen on the gym for her own good”, it says. When he returns from the bar, white wine spritzers in hand, they are whispering, heads bowed. Nina is laughing, and looks away as he reaches the table. A sudden rumbling, nameless anger. 

The food arrives, they eat, they drink, they speak in lazy superficialities and clichés until they’ve run out. She says, “what should we do about food for the weekend?” Awoken and relieved, they can pretend to share a focus. “Shall we stop on the way and do a shop. We’ll pass a couple of supermarkets. I think the village shop will be shut by the time we get back.” Wine rosey, she’s beaming at them. “Excellent idea” he nearly bellows, relieved and clutching at some sort of normal, something he understands, something that involves the three of them, something that doesn’t leave him on the outside. Their list expands at speed and they consider the ordinary and the exotic of eatables from endless gushing possibilities, impossibilities, probabilities. They have excited ideas for menus that would feed ten people for a week. The list grows as they have another spritzer or two and he does his best to keep that germ caged and tells himself he isn’t just another waiter, driver, the man who’ll pay the bill, carry in the shopping. “Read it through, and let’s work out the details”. Details? So she hands him her list and says, “you read”. They get to the end. Is there anything else, he says. Yes says she. Put toothpaste on the list.

H: a love story

H. Parallel lines and a slender fragile bridge. H is for horror, H is for harmony. H is for hurt. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H is for horror. World a silent seamless chaos, mnemonic fragments, shards of faces, of friends, family, pets, idle hours, dreams and desires, silent noise. And all is elsewhere. All gone. H is for hospital. H is for horror. H. Sudden awareness of the space around you, closing in and getting smaller and sometimes shadowed, sometimes curving, a bilious incomprehensible distortion. H. H is for how. You see nothing, no sounds, no stink of surroundings. H is for haze.

You know you’re there. Surrounded. Unfamiliar wirey webs, pathways; strange routes, strange destinations. H is for hope. Slowly something comes. There are lamps glowing, flicking off-on, silent sentinels standing guard. Blue. You lie still and baffled, motionless and wondering what happened. H is not for blue. Where was all that awful noise, and why this silence, except for H again. Do you hear or remember H? And then the walls and machines and the blue distort and slide away coming back into view in different guises, miasma. H is for help.

You know your name, “of course you know your name a voice in your head whispers” but you cannot remember it. You know where you live, how you live, the picture’s vague but you must know. H is for home. You know that you love and that you are loved, but you don’t know how or why or who. H is for hate deep in there somewhere, somewhere far away. H again. H for help. H again. H is for hospital. H.

You need sleep, you need to rest your unreliable eyes, stop them feeding you with the false data and lies flying fast and frightening into your disrupted liquid mind. Your eyes droop away from the blue, your ears full of ringing and muffled humming. Something H hovers in the glittering dark behind your eyelids in the depths of a distant buzzing in your ears, getting louder. H. Is there more, can there be more? Strange shapes and a resolving rhythm of sound is coming through the dark. A shapeless swell. H is for helpless.

He holds her hand watching an empty gaze unseeing, unwavering, bright eyed, vacant, then the eyes flicker closed again. He hears the machines and sees their comforting lights. Outside greys and noisy jackdaws on the flat puddled roof. It’s warm in here so he takes off his coat and sits closer to her, knees tight against the edges of the bed blue jacket across them. He feels latent tension in her hand and then it fades. He knows she’s there though she doesn’t see or feel him. He tries again like they said. Talk to her. Let her know you are there. Keep talking to her. “Helen. Helen are you there?” “Hi.” Soft so soft. Squeeze. Softer still, “Hello honey, hello honey girl”. “Helen my honey love.” “Are you there? Please wake up. Please don’t leave me alone.” H is for her. H is for here.

Grand National windows

The trainer. “Just keep him up there, don’t push him, just let him find his pace.” Michael nodded at the trainer, certain that this horse could do more, would do more. Implacable and inscrutable. Tightly wound. Joe Black legged him up into the saddle, nodded to the owners. Holding on tight as the horse pulled forwards he lead him and his jockey once around the paddock and out onto the course.

Joe Black can see that this young fellow is going places. The horse was truly something special, but so too was that young jockey. All wire and sinew and spots and attitude. A little tall perhaps, but discipline like you rarely see. And as for that seven year old, he had scope and ambition to spare, that open easy stride, that powerful backside you could see fighting for more as Michael worked to hold him, keeping the steady canter down to the first, sitting motionless, hands low, head bowed, silks bright. The youngest horse in the race. The youngest jockey in the race. A Grand National virgin. Joe watched as they hack cantered down to the first, noting the shined streaks of aluminium as the horse’s shoes cut into the turf. Good to firm. Perfect. They turned black dirt to the sky, slivers and divots arcing high, shining bright in the sun. Angels rising up in the chilly April air. Speed and power he thought, speed and power, and a young lad who will be more than the average jockey.

The jockey. I nod at the trainer as he’s telling me how to ride this race. It’s ok but I know what I should be doing, just as I know that this big beast of a seven year old can do much more than they reckon. I’m glad I can make the weight with room to spare. Although maybe it would be better if I were a bit heavier, then the weight would be working instead of dead and useless in the weight pad. Jesus this horse has some power. Lean back a tad, keep his mind on the job, calm, don’t just hang onto him. He’s taking a steady pull, but that’s as much excitement as anything else. Every stride is surging forwards against me, my hands, my weight. Barely contained, that half a tonne of muscle, bone and attitude pounding forwards. He’s still young but this horse knows the game. “Steady lad, steady… we’ll get there soon enough” and he hears me even though it’s barely a murmur. Those sleek birch grey ears swivel back momentarily, that steady snort of steamy breath matching an even stride. I just know how his eyes are shining, the bugger. Can’t help but smile and love that perfect rhythm.

The horse. Sunshine warm on my back; the scent of crushed grass rising. I am warm, blood and heart surging faster. My skin taut and strong over my frame, my muscles pressing hard. I know why I am here. I know what they want. I know the fear and the thrill and I set my head against the pull. We are slowing and the stink of muscle and sweat are in my nostrils and I am ready.

Beyond. Suddenly in slow motion and quiet, the two of them stop in shared silence between the greens below and the blues above. They stare momentarily at the four and a half foot obstacle, suspension, stillness, a time and motion hiatus. They turn back striding lean and sleek and fluid, towards the start. They are ready.

Wasting your time again

In the chicken run three baby rats are playing. They duck and dive to hide under a log or a stone whenever a bird comes near. The bird doesn’t have to be a chicken, sparrows are just as effective. Magpies even more so. We tried hosing all the secret places in the run but we never see the baby rats or their parents fleeing from the water. They must live elsewhere. Or next door’s cat might have dealt with the parents, leaving the orphans to fend for themselves. The baby rats have worked out where the chicken food and water are, but they appear to be homeless. When the water flows through the holes and we lift the stones and logs to find the rats, they are nowhere to be seen nor any trace of a nest. They are living elsewhere, coming into the chicken run whenever they are hungry or thirsty and next door’s cat is busy doing something else. I watch the hens and wonder what they think of their boisterous visitors. The sparrows are keener to hurry them away and our lovely cockerel chases the sparrows in turn. Perhaps the cockerel wants to welcome his murine guests as part of his little tribe. Mustafa is a Peking bantam and he’s less than one foot high. He crows loud and often to remind the girls, the sparrows and the baby rats too, that he is much bigger than he appears. The baby rats are in awe of Mustapha, of his amazing colour scheme, the chaos of his long curved feathers and his fluffy ankles. He looks black but when the sun hits him his feathers shimmer iridescent green and purple. The lighter shades peep out to tease when the wind blows. His bright red wattles are beacons for his ladies, whatever the light and wind are doing. Mustapha is a gentlemen, dignified and with a quiet authority that none of his hens bother to notice. But the baby rats watch in awe as Mustapha approaches, his step heavy and ponderous, his feathered feet muddy and his stride small. They see him coming closer, they see him stop and they watch as he steps suddenly sideways and at right angles. Mustapha is on patrol and the baby rats run away to hide as a brace of sparrows skim overhead diving for the feeder. The baby rats only hide for a little while and as dusk comes on they do not appear at all. They are living elsewhere



He’s ugly, underweight, his face sagging swathes of empty bristled flesh. His eyes peer out from beneath heavy overhangs and his thick bristled brows point up and towards each other like a demon’s. He looks out through a wall of windows at the chaos of plants and shrubs that are his small garden. He wonders just how many rat families have made their homes there. When he catches them indoors in humane traps he gently releases them back into the garden. Sometimes at night he hears their awful squeals as neighbourhood cats carry out periodic culls. 

Inside Lol Godley’s bright little house is a different sort of chaos, one where colours reign supreme. Oils, acrylics, watercolours, crayons, felt-tip pens, charcoal and coloured pencils of all sorts litter most available surfaces. But not his stool, his drawing board or his single comfy chair. This is placed strategically close to the radiator, facing the television and as far from the light as possible. There’s a small table beside the chair, tangles of coloured Christmas lights and an ancient persian carpet on the floor. It is threadbare and ingrained with decades of grime, charcoal and pencil shavings. A diary. Dirty curtains block the windows in the front and side of the house and, when occasionally drawn, the glass wall at the back. In the kitchen there is a gas cooker and fridge from forever ago, cups and plates for three: one dirty, one being used and one in the sink. The one in the sink can sometimes stay there for weeks. It’s the same story in the decrepit fridge: one meal half eaten, one meal waiting and one meal yet to be made. Ingredients are limited to cheese, tomatoes, marmite, tinned beans and spaghetti hoops, tinned tomatoes, crackers and crisps. He gets his beer from the pub across the road and on Sundays treats himself to a Sunday roast there. 

For many years he has lived this tiny life, rarely leaving his house and sending his work by courier to the people who commission him to do botanical drawings. Lol Godley is known for accuracy with thorns and prickles and spines. But he is very good at flowers, leaves and stems too and has a reputation for punctilious detail, subtle colours and accuracy. He has hard-won fame amongst wealthy plant collectors and in the trade. His reputation is as an eccentric who doesn’t leave his space and for whom visitors are not welcome. He is fine with this. As long as he has some money for beer and comestibles and can by luxuries such as Easter eggs and Christmas lights, of which he has many sets some on the walls, some on the floor, he is content. His drawings and pictures are what matters; even the money that builds in his bank account is unimportant to him.

It is a far distance from when he moved into the house all those years ago with his new and extraordinarily beautiful young wife. She was already disconsolate and he was reeling from an unexpected diagnosis. They said it could be years or decades, so he didn’t tell her but worried for the future. He hadn’t noticed her sadness, but when she left he took comfort from the curious return to balance. And from the fact that he didn’t need to worry any more. Now he could just wait. He had always known she wouldn’t stay, that the little corner house with its rear wall of windows and small garden wouldn’t be enough. She was so pretty and he was so very ugly; she was so very clean and tidy and he with his flowers and colours was not, except on the page. They had met at a gallery opening, dated once or twice and he wanted her so. They married. But her fascination with his artistry and the novelty of his curious demonic appearance were short-lived. An easy divorce with no expectations, and an unexpected turn for the better as far as the drawing went. What was he thinking. Such vanity. No more.

Amidst isolation and gradual physical decline he worked and worked. Passing years, as the house and garden also declined and as his artistry distills. Then a sudden break. A gallery show and a private view. And unexpectedly people wanted his work, attracted to its lyrical turns, its precise contours. Waiting to die alone gave him intense concentration and in his hands came a stillness and calm that found its way onto the page. Pain and inconvenience, but not death. Stasis and a steady and unwavering routine. Stressless and nurturing. 

More on this story to come.


The cleft of a hill blocks a miserly sun, rising slow and lazy. Her thin smock clings chill and comfortless and yet she does not move. The cold wraps around her goosepimpled skin, blue, tightwoven. And in her clenched hand the phone is buzzing. She holds it tighter to feel its motion and moves deeper into the undergrowth. Scratches are innumerable, skin tingling with pain, blood and water. Sleepy birds an anxious rustling somewhere deeper in. She shivers and cleaves tight to the ground no longer certain that this is any fun. 

Am I scaring you yet? The message from an unknown but known sender. It’s been going on all night this game, this cat and mouse thing. Touch table tennis, dirty words and dirt all over her body, her mind satiated with shifting equilibriums. Fear. Focus. Shared imperatives to arouse and thrill, but going too far now. Is it becoming murderous or is that just more of the resonance?

She can’t get out. He knows she is there, huddled in her dirty damp dress, shivering under the shrubs. Sparrows are starting to chatter, the slope still blocks the light, but light is coming stealthy and toxic. Sparrows and light together they betray her. Dress rending a sad small cry as she creeps slowly higher and sees a crouched form. It creeps menacing slow in the paling darkness as the night gently seeps away. A rock and a break in the shrubs to her right and she reaches out and throws herself into the open. 

He sees only a screaming banshee as she jumps down from her small vantage point, unseen rock in hand. The blood seeps slowly into his eyes as he cries out but he cannot remember the safe word. She raises her hand again and brings down the rock hard so close, its mass splitting her nails and grazing his head. He looks up at her fury, mouth gaping and lap wet. Into his open maw she drops a handful of stones and damp earth. From his open hand she takes the car key and walks out into the rising sun.