An extract from The Ashes in the Boot Chapter 5

It was while Brenda and Audrey were busy navel gazing and some two days after Brenda had established herself in Audrey’s basement guestroom. At the bungalow in Great Leigh a waning Ford Fiesta is parking wonky on the lane near the drive. The car belongs to Luke and Brenda’s neighbours and it cannot be seen behind a large delivery van with Asda painted in bright and cheery green on its side. As they get out of the car, the occupants of the Ford Fiesta also cannot be seen. Renée Sagemill and Ann Apio have lived in Great Leigh for about as long as Luke and Brenda and for most of that time have observed from a distance a miserable couple living a miserable life. Private miseries keep Ann and Renée tightly squeezed within the confines of their own often silent routines. They know little about Brenda and Luke, except that she’s the carer and he is wheelchair-bound.

But lately, following a series of dreadful losses (the dog, the ancient stagleaf fern, a  final parent or two) Ann and Renée’s constraints have eased a little. They need no longer suffer that fraught blend of guilt and defiance that was their only counter to the sniping and nastiness of their remaining parents. That the remaining parents remained no longer afforded Ann and Renée a previously unfamiliar and unexpected freedom. They were still moving out of the fog to appreciate what that freedom should mean to them, as individuals and as a couple. But less caught up in their own anxieties, they had started to notice the shouts and crying. Ugly sounds and energies seeped from their neighbours’ ill-fitting windows and doors. They had started to notice that Brenda was shakey and dishevelled when she helped her husband from his wheelchair into the car. They had observed that as she tried to lift his legs, she would sometimes crouch over unexpectedly and utter a small cry. And they had noticed that in the last few days, Brenda was nowhere to be seen.

“Shall we then? Shall we just go and check? What’s a good excuse? I know it’s nosey and none of our business, but we haven’t seen her in days.” Renée looked at Ann with a hard eye. She’s always so nosey, so concerned about other peoples’ stuff. “Look, if you want to barge in on complete strangers, go ahead. But I’m not coming with you. I’ll just wait here.” And Renée folded her arms and turned her head away to stare elsewhere. As Ann clambered out of the car and set off with rapid little steps towards the bungalow, her mind was winding itself too tight and her breathing was starting to stop. What would she say? Should she start with an apology for intruding? Or should she just pretend to be popping in to say hello. How lame is that. Back in the car Renée sighs and leans over to the back of the car to retrieve one of the staghorn ferns. They had bought them in a two for one: a back up if one died, which it wouldn’t. No more dying they had agreed. “Ann” she hisses striding low and fast. “Ann, I’m coming too. We can give them this.”

The couple and their fern round the van to see Luke standing almost upright on the threshold. He’s leaning against the doorframe to pick up bags of groceries. The women look at each other, small frowns and downturned mouths. A light breeze lifts the fern’s antler shaped leaves, a green stag testing the air. As the Asda van pulls away, Ann and Renée as one move closer into the tall leylandii hedge to see what happens next. It’s a first to see Luke Mordrake fully upright and unexpectedly tall. They watch as he moves back and forth carrying many shopping bags into his house. He didn’t move with any particular nimbleness or grace, but he was erect and mobile. The wheelchair was nowhere in sight. The two women again exchanged glances and continued to spy unseen until all the shopping bags had been removed.


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.

Sixteen Rothmans

His car parked careless and crooked. He notices he’s left it on double yellow lines as he gets out and hurries into the newsagents. A dingy dusk is slowly coming on. Autumn’s stealth reaching out. Summer’s languid sprawl stifled. As he shuts the shop door behind him, the radio is playing Bye Bye Baby, a thin print baffled sound. The racks of magazines and newspapers are silent, unperused witnesses. At the counter he says “twenty Rothmans” fingering the change in his rough and calloused hand and finding a fifty pence piece. Slaps it down “there you go”. And she doesn’t flinch at the sharp bang but instead slides her eyes over him, bold and blatant. There’s a moment of sullen stillness, before she slowly turns her back.

When she reaches for the cigarettes high on the shelf behind her, he notices how her shirt rises, just above the top of her jeans. An edge of flesh. He can see painted nails only slightly chipped, imagines soft smelling hair, moist open mouths. A fascination that should have been momentary persists. The Bay City Rollers are singing “she’s got me but I’m not free”. As the chorus cuts in, she hands over the few pence of change. There’s the glimmer of a smirk as if she’s made some decision. He tries and fails to stare down her brittle stonebound eyes. He sees some decision that could be in his favour, or perhaps not. By the time he’s pocketed the change, she’s pasted on a real smile, doing her best against the odds to be winsome. “You’re not from around here are you?” “No” he says scooping up his cigarettes. “Thanks”. And he  hurries back to the double yellow lines. As he leaves the shop, he notices the sign with its hours dangling and bouncing on the moving door, opening and closing, opening and closing. Six o’clock he thinks. Not so far away. Unbidden the thought. “Maybe I’ll pop back.” And he glances over his shoulder, lazy hand raised.

The hotel is only a short distance up the slowly clogging road. He has a map and directions, and the journey was simple enough. He’s already followed most of it, not counting the unscheduled stop for smokes. Frowning out from tall and dreary undergrowth the downtrodden hotel is hard to see from the road. But he sees the tired sign and pulls in. He gets his tatty bag from the backseat, and picks up the cigarettes from the front. In reception he opens the pack and deep delicious that first long lungful. He signs his name and takes the key on its heavy fob. He turns towards the musty stairwell and takes the stairs two at a time in a lanky, uneven stride. The cigarette’s in a corner of his mouth and thoughts of her are in his jeans. The room is small, colourless, and growing greyer with night now fully formed. Bed. Wardrobe. Chest of drawers with a rusting Teasmaid and ancient biscuits plastic wrapped and dusty. He throws his bag down on the single bed and looks at his watch. It’s nearly twenty to six.

Stubbing out the cigarette in the ashtray on the bedside table he looks again. Still twenty to six. He lies down watching grey spirals rise slowly towards the ceiling, fading to tar. What next between now in this gloomy room full of unspecified browns and his job interview in the morning. As if he didn’t know. Hours and hours in the room’s soulsapping shadows, or at the hotel’s little bar also washed with unspecified browns, peppered with unspecified men like him. On the road looking for something else. Something else maybe at six o’clock. Another cigarette. He’d run out as he had passed the racecourse on the A19 into York. He knew he should cut down as he crawled in traffic through Fulford and had even pondered using this trip as an excuse to give up; a sort of marker between where he’s been and where he’s going. Who he was and who he thinks he should be. From the dismal to the thrill of the unknown. All he had to do was get through the traffic and turn right into Heslington Lane to Egbert’s Hotel. Get to his interview in the morning and his life would change. No more fags, no more birds. No more picking winners that didn’t win. Tomorrow they’d love him. Tomorrow he’ll be the winner. The one. Bye Bye Baby. Then he’d seen the corner shop, a beacon in the drear. With singular determination and no will power at all, he had lurched the car onto the yellow lines and gone inside for Rothmans.

Mika had watched him with narrowing eyes. Thin, wirey, old. He’s really old she said to herself, proper wrinkly. Might make a change. They say at school that older men are better at it, slower. She’s not sure what slower or better might mean, but the wrinkles would be a first. From his sharp blue eyes to his neck, the visible lines mapped a life and told old stories. She didn’t care much about what he had to say, but what would the rest look like? She pondered this as the lights were coming on out in the street and the traffic was thickening and slowing. She called up the stairs “I’m going now. Don’t forget to lock up.” A grunt and a foot on the stair and Mika flipped the lightswitch and stepped out into the faceless evening. She had homework she was supposed to do. She had promised to do it, but it was boring. And there was no one at home until her Mum got back from the dogtrack later. Should she linger? It’s cold and starting to rain. Was he likely to come back? Would she dare if he did?

At school next morning all the talk was of the corpse found in Egberts Hotel, stretched out, bound to the bed and strangled. Sixteen Rothmans in a pack on the bedside table and an empty ashtray the only clue.

Wasting your time

Watching our hens is one of my favourite time-wasters. I call it thinking about stuff, but really it’s just mindless voyeurism. Seeing them peck and scratch about takes the mind into another realm, a much simpler one where the range of decisions to be made is limited. It’s like watching television where you are basically watching other people work, so it’s restful.

Today my favourite hen to ponder is Dahlia Lamé, so named because of her long neck and heavy fringe which makes her look like a llama. She is golden, silky and might be related to the Dalai Lama (not really). In the world of Dahlia Lamé, food is the top priority. She’s usually first out of the chicken coop in the morning, as long as she manages to elbow (do chickens have elbows)? her way past Marlena, who’s about twice her size and black with copper overtones. Dahlia Lamé makes straight for the feeder and pecks aggressively and noisily at the food for much longer than the other hens or our feisty little Peking Bantam cockerel. That might be because the cockerel usually has sex on his mind first thing in the morning. But he struggles to get out of bed, is sleepy and prone to laziness and as he is too small to reach Marlena, he soon gives up. He’s usually distracted by Dahlia Lamé’s urgent peck, peck, pecking so he joins her for breakfast. The cockerel is called Mustapha and his plumage looks at first glance to be black, but it is far from black. It ranges from iridescent greens and purples to white when the wind blows up beneath his underskirts. Mustapha’s really quite a magnificent little fellow.

The rest of the girls are distracted by the corn we throw out for them every morning, so Dahlia Lamé has no competition at the feeder and can eat and eat. Mustapha is a gentleman, so whilst he joins Dahlia Lamé, he does not crowd her. She eats consistently but never seems to get any bigger, unlike her sister Lavender who’s the bravest chicken I have ever met. Plump, pale purple and very round this little bantam hen waits every morning until all the other chickens are out of the coop. She sits patiently on the perch a metre or so up from the floor of the henhouse. She waits for the perfect moment. She checks wind speed and direction, she checks possible destination points and has an eye out for any obstructions. She seems to wait for confirmation that all preflight checks are complete and satisfactory. When she has it, plus a comforting little tickle under her little chicken chin she’s suddenly and noisily aloft. Lavender mostly lands with a bump about three metres from her perch, following a relentlessly downwards trajectory. Lavender gives herself a little huffle before scampering on her feathery feet to some distant corner of the enclosure. She remembers breakfast and then scampers back to the others. By tomorrow her failure is forgotten.

Why am I telling you this? It’s because today I have to waste time, abuse it and slap it about a bit. I have to let time dissipate, melting and dribbling away, gone forever. I don’t know why, but some days are like that, some days need that. And if you are reading this, you probably understand and I am not alone after all.

…so here is me trying to write romantic fiction

The wind drove lonely clouds across a lowering sky and an icy rain was falling. Esmerelda pulled her shawl tight around her and hunched her shoulders. She leant into the wind, against the cold. She knew that somewhere in this desolate landscape she’d find the house. She knew that somewhere in the house, she’d find him. Would they let her see him? Would they know why she was there? Would he?

Ten years ago she could remember the way across the moors to the house. But that last time was in a summer of love and sunshine and so much had happened since. And there was so much more that was coming that Esmerelda daren’t take the chance of losing her way. She had to see him, she had to tell him about Elly before it was too late. She couldn’t risk getting lost, so she stuck to the road. Eyes down, one foot in front of the other, relentless and dogged along the sodden track.

The rain was coming down more heavily and it was getting dark. Off in the distance she could see the lights from the Hall. She trudged on determined, cold and so very alone as the dusk deepened and the wind picked up. To comfort herself Esmerelda took refuge in memories dragged up from the depths of her being, from somewhere deep amongst the shards of her broken heart. Simon had loved her, this she knew. Simon was coming for her this she knew too. Until things changed.

The certainty ended when she encountered a wayward hussar on the run from his regiment. He had told Esmerelda a different story when he had begged shelter. In a cavernous kitchen deep in the bowels of a big house, Esmerelda was getting food ready for the family. They were due to return to Harehurst Hall within hours and the whole house was in an uproar of preparations. She was humming softly and for a few brief moments, she was blissfully alone in the kitchen stirring a steaming pot of casserole. The hussar must have been waiting for his moment, the moment when Esmerelda was by herself. Drifting in and out of consciousness he had staggered in towards the warm, falling across the scullery threshold exhausted and hungry. An unexpected and filthy mess had fainted on Esmerelda’s immaculate floor. 

Esmerelda gave a small scream of surprise, dropping her spoon into the depths of the stew. Hot gravy was splashing on her apron and burning her hands. At the sound of her cry the hussar roused himself and looked up, peering at her through tangled wet hair, his blue eyes bleary and bloodshot. He was wild with unspoken fear and looked about the kitchen in terror, lest someone else come into the room. But the rest of the staff were busying themselves elsewhere, anxious to be ready for the telltale sounds of hooves and wheels on gravel as the family finally arrived home. Esmerelda could see that this pathetic wretch could do her no harm. She could see that the poor man needed food, warmth and shelter. He was doing his best to whisper something and she thought she heard in his garbled mumbling something about Simon. She drew a sharp breath and hurried to shut the main kitchen door, locking it sharply. 

… to be continued (or not). 

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

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

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

Picture this

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Bees: Winter blows into Spring 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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