Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 5

By about midnight Brenda was tired. The adrenaline was spent, the anticipation, the buzz of what was intended to be a shortlived life of crime was fading. A sodium orange glow was spreading out towards her, beckoning her on far and far away from the darkness. She needed a bed for the night, somewhere with a car park visible from the road, so that the police would see it. Brenda pulled into a petrol station to ponder what to do next and how to do it. It didn’t take long to work out that there was a whole handbag full of possibilities sitting right beside her. But no, rummaging through a stranger’s personal items was not part of the plan. And yet, Brenda reasoned, the plan wasn’t really working as intended, so perhaps it was time to come up with another one.

First she opened the wallet in search of cash for petrol, before someone in the shop started to notice her. She needn’t have worried. The spotty young man with greasy black hair straggled around his face was absorbed in Candy Crush, amazed as he approached level fifteen for the first time ever. He kept pushing back his hair, wiping his nose on the back of his grubby hand, swiping and swiping and swiping unaware of the customer on the forecourt.

In the handbag were many cards, most of them fairly new and all with the special wavey thing. But Brenda decided that filling up wasn’t a good idea, nor was spending the cash she had found in the purse. That would be stealing she reasoned. But putting just £30’s worth of fuel in the car with a wavey card, that would be alright. A little extra petrol would be enough to get her further away. It would be additional evidence of her crime, even though topping up petrol wasn’t really proper theft. This confusing logic made Brenda’s head ache, but she decided it made some sort of sense for someone clever enough to work it out, even if it wasn’t her. She put the cash back in the purse and buried it amongst the peppermints, minus one. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was. Some minutes later Brenda had broken the young man’s Candy Crush spell and, slightly dizzy with her victory, was driving away from the petrol station. Now she need a cheap hotel where she could do the wavey thing again.

The wavey thing was just the start. Brenda’s resistance was fast fading. She searched the car’s various pockets and storage cubbyholes. In one she found a universal phone charger, but having plugged it into her mobile had immediately unplugged it. She cut short a platoon of missed calls marching in from her other life. But she needed the phone to find a hotel that charged less than £30 a night. With ruthless impatience Brenda deleted all the messages and missed call notifications. Brutal and cold, she didn’t read them. They were for someone else. A Premier Inn wanted £29 a night and has free parking at Gatwick Airport. Surely they would find her there? At two in the morning the police had probably stopped looking for stolen cars. And she could get a reasonable night’s sleep before they came for her.

Checking into the hotel Brenda made sure to take in the little suitcase, proud of its gleaming black lines and four wheels. She had to practise a little to get it going in a straight line, but once she got the hang of it she swung into the Premier Inn reception bold and brave and with only minor entanglement with the revolving door. She waved a stranger’s wavey card, and listened patiently as the lady behind the desk explained something about hard or soft pillows. Deepa Chaudhary, on work experience as part of her hotel management course, noted the worn and tired clothes and their exhausted inhabitant. Was that blood on her cheek? But Deepa was trained not to judge by appearances and the credit card had gone through and she had a suitcase. Deepa pointed to where breakfast would be served later, and called “Have a good night”. She watched as Brenda’s suitcase turned neatly but unexpectedly in front of her, almost tripping her up and heading for the bar instead of going with Brenda to the lift.

As Brenda, still in her clothes, lay down on the tightly made bed, she looked at the black suitcase trying to imagine its contents. She mumbled and drooled slightly into crisp bright white pillow slips and fell into a deep and redeeming sleep. Eventually she wrenched the sheets and duvet out from under the mattress and still in her clothes wrapped herself in a fuzzy warm cocoon, ready for rebirth.

**********

When the ambulance arrived the pain in Audrey’s ankle was a screaming aria. Her face was itchy with dried tears, random hairs stuck along her cheeks, across her eyes. The paramedics were on the edge of her consciousness, clean and tidy in smart uniforms with mysterious pockets attached to their belts. Audrey couldn’t look at them. She mumbled answers to their questions, watched listlessly as they plied their various instruments and smiled encouragingly at her. Eventually they brought in a wheeled gurney, pristine clean, swathed in white too quickly stained with Audrey’s slow drying mud and soggy clothes. As they started wheeling her away Audrey was crying again. Stephen and Margaret standing at the front door holding hands tight with Deirdre were also crying for Audrey. It was probably the exhaustion. “You’ve all the experience too” said Deirdre sadly, inspecting what she had retrieved from her nose after many minutes’ burrowing effort. The paramedics reminded them “once we get her to the Victory, she’ll be in good hands, don’t you worry,” but no one laughed except Deirdre. Audrey was spent and wheezing and tears that had nothing to do with her ankle, pounding less now under the influence of cocodamol, were falling. But these were different tears, these tears had been bound up too tight for too long and would wait no more. They slid down her face, whittling in the dirt the lines of some other story, some other score. As the ambulance doors slammed shut, Audrey let out a little sob and then a long lonely wail. She couldn’t see a paramedic turn and raise her carefully shaped eyebrows at her companion behind the wheel. “More than an ankle I’d say,” he muttered before catching her eye and turning towards the main road, blue lights flashing indigo on falling rain and the puddles’ gleam.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 4

Brenda looked up from the floor at the shining knight in black silouetted armour and understood, weeping and abject that this must stop before he kills her, before she makes of him a murderer. Beyond fear, beyond pain, beyond lies, rising whispers, screams in silence. It must be over. There is no more left in her to take it, no part of her body that has not been bruised or wounded, no internal organ that has not absorbed a resonating blow, and no part of her mind that can still step aside to watch it all keep happening. As she watches wary and waiting for the next blow he growls “need a slash, clean yourself up”. He tiny steps away and she understands. Tell someone. Tell social services, tell the neighbours, tell the police. That is the only way, the only way out. But social services won’t be here for a few days, and the neighbours won’t believe her, will be too scared to believe her, see her wounds, believe her bruises. The police then. They’ll probably ignore her. Everyone does she reasoned. But they must listen, must see. So she will get herself arrested.

She waits until she hears the splashy jangling sound of recycled lager hitting water and struggles breathless to her feet. Wincing as she sneaks out into the hallway she grabs her coat and shoves eager feet into still wet shoes. Teeth clenched, her coat pulled tight around her, she runs, mouth shut grim tight, silent. In her coat pockets she has a set of keys, a Nectar card, a handful of change, a blood stained tissue from some other day’s wounding, and a highend mobile phone provided by social services but with no charge. In terror that he might be fool enough to risk being seen and follow her, Brenda runs fast along the lane in the almost dark, remembering to avoid the puddles and curiously conscious that if she gets too wet she might spoil the car seats and carpets. She must be careful, quiet and quick, in case anyone is watching. And the car might not be there still. Panic at what might happen if it was gone drove her faster, lungs burning, legs crying out, eyes streaming, bruises pounding a drum beat’s reminder. But with all this somewhere in the back of her brain an exhilaration drives her, a new fear and a sense of power she has never before experienced. She’s laughing and weeping into the rain.

She passes no one as she hurries through the lanes, only an ambulance, lights blazing in the dark, blue accusing eyes. We see you. We see you. Do you see the pounding in Brenda’s head? Do you feel the throbbing of the bruises on her back, to her face? Do you see the blood not drying in her hair, sending soft amber streaks along her wet cheeks? No, you do not because you cannot see. No you do not because Brenda is very good at hiding such things. Look harder and you might see.

When she reaches Turzel House, Brenda can see no lights blue or otherwise in the kitchen, only a hint of light creeping out from around heavy curtains in some other room. Feeling like someone else, not even pretending, really feeling like someone else she opens the car door with a confidence that she really owns, even though as Luke’s wife Brenda has never been confident. Fearless she slings her wet coat into the back seat, knowing that it would absolutely land on the seat but not caring at all if it landed on the floor. Bold and brazen she doesn’t even look.

As soon as the door shuts, the car’s clever sensors come alive and a friendly message on the dashboard tells Brenda to press the brake together with the illuminated on button to start the car. As she does so, a powerful engine explodes quietly into hungry life, the radio muttering something murmury, barely audible about a long dead composer. Keeping an eye on the front door of the house, Brenda puts the car into reverse and turns it around with unexpected alacrity. She nurses the engine with cautious stealth rather than pushing it to roar with power anxious, not yet to draw attention to her theft. It’s too soon, still too close. Brenda breathes deep and slow, cossetted in rich deep leather, cossetted knowing that her once handsome man’s days of punching her are over. Brenda is new, a thief stealing someone else’s car. She will very soon be arrested, but for a little while she would stay in this expensive stolen car’s embrace. Her life is changing. Vague thoughts of spending the night in jail soothed the pains in her head and back. Watching the wipers adjust their speed to the rain’s intensity, she turned off the car’s lights and smiled.

Brenda pulled out of the driveway, looking left and right and left again, almost daring him to have followed her. Her defiance overcome with reason, Brenda set off in the opposite direction to home, knowing that when she went back it would be with at least two police officers, maybe even a police dog. She passed no one on the empty lanes, no walkers, no cyclists, no cars. As she reached the next village she turned on the headlights and set off in search of a larger road. Radio 3 was playing jazz now and Brenda figured that once she found a main road, she had about an hour or so before the police pulled her over and asked for her driving license. With glee she knew she had no licence to show and with glee she expected her crime would be even worse. 

She passed cars and people coming out of pubs, buses swishing and swooping in and out of the traffic, filled with faceless strangers, groaning along. Sometimes she tried to smile at them lane to lane, but was afraid her guilt would show. Instead of looking at the people and the traffic she focused only on driving and driving, waiting, listening to the radio, the news, the music, the evening play, the book at bedtime. The car carried her warm and safe and endlessly towards tomorrow. But there came no blue lights, there came no sirens and Brenda was yet further and further away in an alien beyond.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 2

When she reaches Turzel House Brenda notes with small wistful envy lights glowing in the kitchen, amber beams reaching out a welcome through the decaying afternoon. A warm embrace instead of a clout about the head beckoned. But her visit would be the same as the last time, if she tried to tell the people there. She would once again mumble tongue-tied and embarrassed, and then as she turns away be thankful that the couple are too old to hear her and their daughter too soft in the head to remember.

Brenda felt with squeezing shame her frail courage fade, and as she passes the snazzy car in the driveway knows she will not even knock on the door this time. She will shove the post through the letterbox and make her way straight back to the bungalow. But passing the car she got a brief glimpse of someone else’s life spread out across the front passenger seat. There was a gaping handbag full of stuff, most visible an unclipped wallet with many, many credit cards. There was a key fob too, and a crumpled map, Toffee Crisp wrappers, an old fashioned Filofax open showing next week’s activities, comfy flat shoes on the passenger side floor. It was all just sitting there. “Some people have no sense” Brenda muttered, tut tutting as she offloaded the post. Turning quickly away from the door she passes the car again, but this time comes closer to check that there really was all that stuff just sitting there in an unlocked car. Tut tut.

The wind battered her, speeding her along to malevolence, vice and a shrinking self. A passive, prematurely grey haired annoyance, Brenda is a long way from the clever pretty girl who passed her Civil Service exams so long ago. It was just luck, she tells herself again as she reminds herself again that she loves him. He just has a temper, is angry, impotent. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t really mean it. She shouldn’t be so clumsy and slow when he is in so much pain. He needs her, needs her love. But a whisper says she isn’t clumsy and he isn’t really in pain. And the whisper says he’s been a bit that way inclined, even before a car fell on him. He’s been a bit that way inclined, since they came back from honeymooning in Bognor. He’s been that way inclined for over twenty years now, wheelchair or not. It’s worse now that she knows he’s a fake. This is power, but power and Brenda have never met. Brenda ignores the rain and wind, and grubby birds struggling to fly straight against the weather. She tells herself again she’ll take anything she has to take for the man she loves. She’ll lie for the man she loves. Love trumps lies and shame, she says.

And so as she walks Brenda chooses a different picture. Far away from the formless huddled shape, she is no longer in grubby jeans and leaking shoes. Her worn out parka, its zip broken and velcro fuzz filled, is not torn and damp. Instead Brenda sees their wedding day. She is 26 wearing a pale blue suit and a little hat with blue feathers. The long since sold strand of pearls her mother had given her are around her neck, matching pearls in her recently pierced ears. Her new shoes are too high and tip her forwards, so she has to turn her toes out to keep her balance. She walks clumsily and clings to his beefy arm tight in a borrowed suit that smells of mothballs. She remembers him smiling, telling her it was their new beginning and things were changing. Her smile stayed beamy bright all through the service, all through the day. She never noticed the dancing menace flickering in his watchful eyes.

Luke Mordrake is tall, brawny and strong, with big powerful hands the nails permanently blacked with engine grease, even at his wedding. His hair that day was a mass of shining waves, wet and diamond dropped and bouncing in a brisk seaside wind. Roughly parted it framed a tense oval face with large brown eyes and a star dazzled smile that flashed only occasionally. His mouth holds still to a dangerous, half cruel shape. Over the years full lips have twisted steadily nasty and thin, a narrow and ugly leer.

Brenda is fond of that wedding day picture, an embellished fantasy taylored for the wild open air of a moment’s freedom. Hidden and lost in romantic yesterdays Brenda can forget that she’s his sport, entertainment when the television’s over, when his meagre quota of local old friends has sloped off full of beer and home made pizza. They shoulder relief like a hod of bricks when the visit is over, and return less often for fear of its weight.

But Brenda’s image of Luke on their wedding day is changing. Once hard and sharp edges are smudging, getting softer, the colours are less saturated, less intense. Hurts and bruises once overwritten with those edges and colours, are showing through. As Brenda walks through the blustering rain, tears seep into the colours of this turbulent afternoon. They blur the shapes of seagulls swirling high and far from home and Brenda sees ragged black crows, wiping carelessly across the wet sky. She hears the crows caw. Mournful half-hearted notes fade into clouds, their soft pencil marks washing away away in the tired drizzle. Brenda struggles against the wind. Brenda can write her image no darker. With every blow its shapes and shades are slowly fractured, indistinct, anonymous.

In a craze of splintered romantic memories, she opened the door and he was already bellowing “where the bloody hell have you been”. “Just taking the post to Turzel House, that’s all. I haven’t been more than half an hour. It’s still early for tea, but I’ll get you another tinny from the fridge”. She came into the smokey room, snooker click click clacking and whispering across the green and as she proffered the can, he rose up from the sofa, mighty and somehow amplified. Brenda took a step back, looking up at him her hand outstretched, the beer quivering in its can and drops spilling out onto the carpet. “I …” was all she managed before the impact knocked her across the room, even though she thought she’d held herself limp enough to withstand it, at least just to land on the floor. Head ringing and eyes blurring she caught her breath as on hands and knees she waited for the next blow. He wouldn’t stop she knew until she had paid for her jolly spirits, her moments of freedom. He was leaning on the wall, bracing himself and delivering a stamp to her back as she tried to get herself up. Her face, crammed hard against the mostly empty bookshelf, is a singing red and bleeding, sympathetic slow, a tender caress along her cheek mingles ruby red with tears and pain. She coughs and cries “please, no, I didn’t mean it”, not knowing what she didn’t mean. And he steps carefully around her prone form to tread hard on an outstretched hand. “Didn’t you?” and he pushes his weight down into his heel as hard as he can, hoping for a crunch or at least some more begging and tears.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 1

It’s a blessing whenever the postman brings them someone else’s letters. It’s the only time she can go out alone. Outside she can be brave, walking upright and unafraid along open lanes, redelivering a stranger’s post.

Brenda Mordrake’s world is one of fear. The fear is visceral, a clawing, grasping talon, clutching all the time deep inside, twisting every thought, every word rendering words empty, voided. Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of feeding him the wrong food, fear of forgetting to turn the on telly when his favourite programmes were due. Fear is her cage, cast iron, immutable.

His fear does not cage him: it is an enemy to be battled. He fears exposure, being named a fraud, admitting that the injuries weren’t so bad, the confession that the accident did not destroy his life. Once the pins were in and the bones renewed he mostly recovered. He isn’t as lame as he pretends. Fractures to pelvis, spine and thigh healed. But always he’s in so much pain he can’t walk, he said. Efforts to show willing and work with all the helpful people paid off because they believed him. And hidden, his surreptious exercises slowly built meagre strength in joints and bones. He can stand and walk, not fast or far, but fast and far enough to aim a powerful arm and clenched fist in Brenda’s direction. It’s Brenda’s fault because it will be her fault, if they get found out. He is afraid and fear is his enemy. He wants to hurt her more. The enemy gives him license.

In the beginning Brenda believed his fiction, believed he really couldn’t stand or walk even a little bit. She believed it until she saw him walk across the room when he thought she was out. She was parking the car after a trip to the village off licence, when a shape moved across the tar grimed window. It was only a shadow but she knew. Her heart had briefly fluttered with misplaced hope, hope that now the smacks were rarer and the kicking foregone as part of the charade, they might go back to where they started. Back to misremembered moments of briefly lived splendour.

The hope sizzled and fried in angry air as soon as she crossed the threshold, struggling with the shopping, praying he hadn’t noticed her arrive home. The slap’s force knocked her down, onions flying across the floor, milk carton spewing its contents over everything else in the bag. “You want to watch who you’re watching girl,” he’d spat before turning away and walking ramrod straight with tiny steps back to his couch and the television. She lay for a moment, crumpled on the beer tins, milk leaking slow and wet, her face throbbing against the dirty wall. She notices ants wiggling along the floor, dessicated flies, upside down cheesy bugs and hot tears soaking into dust. She struggles to her feet, faint and dizzy and brings him a McEwan’s fished from her shopping bag. Anxiously she wipes away the milk with her sleeve. She pulls the ring top and hands it over. He snarls up at her, eyes narrow, icesplintered, violent. Dirty chewed fingers grip a half-smoked Marlborough as he watches Brenda bend to pick up newspapers fallen to the floor. She keeps her face as far as possible from his other empty fist.

Delusions and caution undone, kicks, smaller and stampier, returned. Fear rose ever present between them, a black tension, no space for anything else. Permanent. Her only excursions were Brenda’s occasional postal deliveries and the elaborate shared pantomimes with the wheelchair, the crutches with their carefully padded handles, the artificial heaving of him in and out of the car at the supermarket, the pub. She breathes in his sweat, stinking stale like onions and still intoxicating and fights tears for all those lost promises. He likes to see her cry in public, adds drama and pathos to his situation, makes him a hero in his own play. Sometimes he pinches the underside of her arm to help her along. He says it’s just his way, and “I know it doesn’t really hurt, eh girl, does it?” as he pinches again, twists and watches for the tears.

But the post was another thing. He can’t risk some nosy parker coming looking for a missing gardening catalogue or water bill, so he sends her out to take it to the right house. It was a cherished freedom and she wondered if there would ever be a day when she would have the courage to ask for help, tell some stranger on a rainy doorstep she needs a friend, not even a friend, just someone, anyone who could break the crushing spell, help her break her silence.

Late on Sunday afternoon she brings him a cup of tea and a cake, standing patient until he’s woken fully from his nap and is ready to take it. She hopes the tea won’t go cold. Dismissed and sitting quietly in her scruffy chair, Brenda watches him go through yesterday’s post, looking for his next appointment letter, his betting statement. He tosses a handful of letters onto the carpet and grunts. “You’d better get these back before they miss them and come asnooping”. Brenda’s never dared question why he thought people would come to them in search of lost post. She looks at him, warily, considering the safest way to answer. He’s giving her a mock grin, as he bites into his Bakewell tart, though the grin looks like a smile. She smiles back, as she turns on the television and hands him the remote. Before she leaves Brenda empties the ashtray and brings him another beer. She takes away his empty cup and plate. Dutiful, caring, pretending she’s still in love not fear. “Shan’t be long” she trills and coat in hand heads out of the little bungalow towards the lane.

She knew she wouldn’t be long as soon as she felt the hard cold rain pelting down on her head. She knew she wouldn’t be long because the threat of his anger would drive her back, before any sort of long had a chance to take hold. She knew she wouldn’t be long because she never was, never was. She knew. The lane is slick seal grey with debris from the windy storms strewn across her path. Dead colours and icy air. Transient sticks and leaves buffeted in the wind. Rainmade bumps of stones and mud a random little landscape, fettered and passive earth and air. But there are no walls and for a few scant minutes no fear.

Chapter 2 The Funeral – Part 2

At the other end of the telephone she was sighing mostly with relief. Stephen and Margaret had meant a lot to Angus, particularly as underwriters of some of his schemes although Audrey was unaware of this, and she didn’t want his passing to go without them. She had the solution in a flash of fateful inspiration. The idea to bring the funeral to them caused some minor consternation, but overall seemed a reasonable idea. “Can you do that?” wondered Margaret, “is it legal?” Stephen asked, but for Audrey there was no question. The ashes had been in the boot since she’d collected them from the crematorium. They and she would be on their way to Great Leigh on Saturday morning. They would spend a delightful weekend together and then Audrey would return home to begin her new life, a life where she would strive to overcome the Angus shaped hole he had left for her. There were many other, different shaped holes that, unbeknownst to Audrey, were waiting for her to tumble into.

The second funeral at Great Leigh would be her final act of mourning Audrey decided. Then she would focus on what Angus had instructed when he whispered through paper dry lips: “get the cash, turn it all into cash, fast”. And then he had wheezed and coughed, his eyes swimming blue and steely alive through his tears until the steel softened and the sparkled blue turned flat and empty.

At Turzel House they all agreed it was a lovely gesture for Audrey to bring a version of the funeral to them. It was unfortunate it was so very wet, on the day of the private service. A persistent rain and ragged wind bullied them into a formless damp and aged huddle. They stood visibly shivering on the wet weed riddled gravel, unable to move for fear of intrusive crunching, turning slowly blue, their limbs approaching the tenor of marble. It was an incongruous little crew, umbrellas in icycled hands, looking sad and listening with earnest patience to Audrey as she read out the address in her best church voice. When it came to the singing (always the best part Stephen had whispered to his wife), they perked up and three of them managed a credible rendition of Jerusalem. Deidrie sang the tune from Andy Pandy, followed by brief snatches of the Sailor’s Hornpipe which she remembered she was fond of, possibly from Blue Peter.

All in all it was a suitably miserable and damp affair bringing more tears to Audrey’s worn out eyes. The rest of her weekend did likewise as Deirdre pestered her with questions about the box mistaking it for a surprise present for her, and explaining that her parents were training to run in the Tunbridge Wells marathon. “I shall be cheering from the sidelines as my knees are too bad for the hills. It’s going to be very exciting.” “But Deirdre dear, your parents are nearly one hundred years old, don’t you think it might be a bit much for them, even with the training?” Audrey said. “Oh no,” Deirdre replied, “they have the advantage of experience you see.”

Experience was the answer to most of Deirdre’s rare challenges to her parents decisions and instructions. “Why?” she might ask, and her parents would gently explain “because we have the experience my dear”. Audrey considered it but decided not to bother explain that experience was one thing, when it resulted from decades of socialising and diplomatic activities all over the world. But it wouldn’t really help with a 26 mile run through hilly Tunbridge Wells and surrounds, especially if one is in one’s midnineties. Audrey resigned herself sadly to the thought that she should let this line of conversation drop and that she should make the most of her time with her decaying Godparents and their child. She should also start thinking about what should happen to Deirdre once Angus welcomed Stephen and Margaret to his world. Angus was an equally unsuitable candidate for a marathon even in his fleeting preflab prime. The thought of the three marathoning somewhere in the far beyond brought a sad smile to Audrey’s face and tears to hover too close, so she switched off her brain and joined her friends to stare at the television. She had soon joined them in a little snooze before Deirdre landed in her lap after yet another failed pirouette. Thus progressed the evening until it was time to take the dogs for their evening walk.

The next morning it was clear the excitement of the on demand funeral had been a bit too much for them all, because everyone overslept. Even Alistair who had inadvertently spent much of the evening out in the rain, having studiously ignored calls to come in from the pretelevision stroll and wee session. Audrey had intended to make an early start back to town and woke with alarm to hear Deirdre banging an ancient tin drum in the hall outside her door, and calling them all to breakfast. Her parents had wisely removed their hearing aids the evening before, but for Audrey the wake up call crashed into a particularly harrowing dream about a cascade of tomato soup tins falling on her as she perused the canned goods in Asda. “Dear, dear, Deirdre please do stop, I’m awake. I’m getting up. Let them sleep”. Deirdre ignored her and tried for a bit of rhythm with the ladle she was wielding, going from the rim to the sides of the drum and back to the middle. It wasn’t long before she dealt herself a sharp blow across her fingers and dropped the drum and ladle, and started crying pathetically, dramatically kicking the drum until it bounced away down the stairs landing close to the kitchen in the perfect spot for someone to trip over it later.

Deidre made herself small, and whimpering and crouched on the floor of the mostly lightless hall, managing to conceal herself almost completely. Coming out of her room, wrestling ineffectually with her dressing gown and slippers determined to get themselves onto the wrong feet, Audrey stumbled over the hunched form and barely managed to catch a stray frond of artificial pot plant in an effort to rebalance. Not having much weight the fake plant flew with her into the banister before going solo to follow the drum down the stairs. The pot plant lacked the weight and bounce of the drum, so it landed lightly at the foot of the stairs on the aging Labrador. He in terror, regained youth’s long forgotten nimbleness just long enough to gurgle a yelp and scrabble a few precious inches along the floor to where the plant had landed, its plastic leaves within chewing range. Such was his age Bertie’s chewing days were long behind him. Instead he mashed his head down onto a new makeshift if slightly spikey pillow. “Sorry” Deirdre mumbled, nursing her bruised hand and then squeezing at it to see if there was blood. There wasn’t. Audrey, having regained her balance if not her poise, reached down to help Deirdre up. Thus began a fateful day.

It wasn’t until midafternoon that the morning’s dramas had settled and the usual routine of a Sunday at Turzel House reasserted itself, minus lunch. By the time Stephen and Margaret were roused and Deirdre had lovingly dressed them according to the ingrained and ancient pattern, it was noon. And by the time a complex breakfast involving reheated fish pie, baked beans and cakes was consumed and cleared away, and after Deirdre had sung her new favourite song for them, it was late in the afternoon. Her departure imminent and a familiar very hot bath fantasy shimmering at the back of her mind, Audrey was in good spirits. They were generous and kind spirits, spirits of magnanimous generosity, but the spirits were unaware that the delicious hot bath, with its scented candles, warm towels and chilled Chardonnay would be postponed for quite some time.

Chapter 2 The Funeral – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ashes in the Boot – Chapter 1 An unexpected fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter is come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three Bees: And then the cold came

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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