A Little Black Book

The credit card companies had cancelled all his cards. His wife was degenerating rapidly and he couldn’t pay the carers, and the signs of dereliction showing in the house were too many to ignore. The post didn’t bring bills any more. Those had stopped coming and now it was just legal letters, angry letters from relatives and old no-longer friends, letters from the authorities and the courts. He knew he had moved up a level with these. But today there was something different, an anonymous envelope with his name and address printed on it. Neat and even, an open and alien hand beckoned yet he thought he saw something vaguely familiar in the script. It echoed.

“Owen, Owen quickly they’ve come back, they’re here and they want you to talk to them.” The cries of excitement bounced down from her room and he jumped up, hurrying with the post into the kitchen, anxiously chewing at his thumb. He dropped the interesting envelope and the rest onto the kitchen table and rushed upstairs, grabbing the leaning banister to help himself along and taking care not to trip on the threadbare sections of the carpet with their amateur darnmarks and hanging threads. Before he entered her bedroom he took a deep breath, the scents of dry rot and cat were infinitely preferable to the scent of her, his once fragrant and still much loved wife.

“Elsa, I’m here, I’m here” he said as soothingly as he could manage and went to pull back the curtains.  His wife shrieked “Nein, Owen daß mus’d nicht tun. Don’t do that, du darfst nicht.” Then “You must talk to them. They’re here” as she sat up in bed wild eyed and agitated, patting her hands on the grimy covers. He moved over to her and put his hand on her head, stroking her hair, holding her frantic gaze, looking as always for someone long gone. It wasn’t working and she wasn’t calming; nor would she ever come back. He knew that, and yet. Excitement was turning into distress and she was beginning to rant. “They’re here, you see them, they’re here, talk to them, tell them, tell them I am well, tell them I can see them and tell them, tell them to stay. Tell them to bring us our grandchildren.”

As the images she thought she saw faded, Elsa started to weep. She slumped back down into her pillows, twisting the duvet cover in her hands and muttering incoherently. She let go to push Owen’s hand away, but didn’t move when he leant to kiss her. His tears rolled slowly down to mingle with her own, soft on her flacid cheek. The episodes with the imagined children were getting worse, more frequent, more violent. But at least they were less destructive than the episodes when Elsa thought she saw old friends, old friends Elsa now classed as enemies. Or when she wanted to clean the kitchen and went into battle with a dishwashing brush and a bottle of bleach. She usually chose a random spot on the floor and scrubbed and scrubbed at it until her hands were raw and bleach burnt spotted and streaking patterns into her clothes and skin. The yearning for the children was probably the preferrable option. The yearning for their early days, before the children would have been better, but those memories seem to have been finally and irrevocably lost some weeks ago. “Liebchen, meine liebchen,” he whispered And she looked up from her tears and smiled at him, before turning away once more.

Elsa had brought him to Heidelberg 35 years ago, to try his luck working there, to see how it would be living near her parents. It wasn’t necessarily a long term thing, but it had worked. Two sons, lots of holidays, a lovely house in the suburbs, affluence and a new car every year. And then Elsa’s mother and father had died, their younger son moved to China and was still there, and the other boy got caught up in his own life, moved to Düsseldorf and forgot about his parents. Depression, denial, emotional stress and the need for Owen’s attention burning ever brighter. He resisted at first, but couldn’t take the constant raging. He gave up photography and Elsa wouldn’t come with him on his long riverside walks any more. She wasn’t interested to see the whirls and swirls of the dark and fast moving current, nor in the barges laden and low, making their way to the Rhine. She didn’t want to tell him stories any more.

He took time away from the business, hoping she’d ease up, trust him more. They travelled further and wider and more often. Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, a short visit to China when the younger son got married to lovely Feng Mian and then back to Heidelberg. In China she had panicked at the wedding and they had to take her back to the hotel. They missed the reception and took an early flight home, drinking steadily all the way. On a skiing holiday in France she got lost on a slope she’d skied since her teenage years. The ski patrol found her leaning against a tree, staring at slow falling snow. In Tokyo she followed Owen onto a metro train but refused to recognise him, slapping him away as he tried to take her arm. 

The decline had been slow and steady, a gradual erosion of Elsa. And then one Christmas she wouldn’t get out of bed because she said the children had said they would be there with her. Some weeks later she refused to see several of her translation clients on the basis that they needed more practise, though she never specified at what. Nor would she go to the little school in Neckargemünd to help children with their homework. For a while she wouldn’t even talk to Owen and instead hurled abuse in hysterical German whenever he came near. He moved out of their room, worked with the local hospital to get a diagnosis and slowly turned away from his own life, to preserve hers. He told their friends they were cutting their social circle right down, “Just so difficult to keep up with people.” “We’re focusing on our own travels now.” “Now that the children are gone, we’ve more time for each other.” Most people went with it, especially the more recent acquaintances who had never quite understood their own uneasiness around Elsa, or Owen’s tension. His business, previously thriving, went into decline and he was forced to sell it on at submarket value. 

Elsa was calm again, singing in the shadowy room, calling out to the river to take her home. This was one of her happier places. As he watched his wife losing herself, he wondered how long it would take to sell the house. And then there was this curious envelope. What new horrors would it hold for them?
Owen returned to the grubby kitchen to ignore all of the post except the one he knew wasn’t from a solicitor or a court representative.

It was a large envelope and it contained a handful of black and white prints and a little black book. There was also a copy of someone’s will, a someone Owen recognised from the list of people with whom he and Elsa would have no contact. A name and a memory. The images he recognised as photos he had taken and developed many years ago, pictures of him and a young man holding hands. Owen allowed himself a wistful smile. The little black book he did not recognise. And the will he was afraid to open. The little black book though, this was intriguing and he started to read. There were stories there, stories of his life as a young man, and a crush he had once had. There were stories of Elsa from when she first moved to London, stories of how they met, walking in Richmond Park and helping a horse rider who had taken a tumble. The pub lunch in Chiswick, the night train from Victoria and the romantic weekend in Paris, it was all there in the little black book. And at the back of the little black book was a list, with three and four letter codes, dates and numbers. And Owen’s name. And the words “For past sins” followed by XXX.

Then Owen looked at the will. It was dated a few years earlier and most of it had been redacted, including the name of the deceased. Thick black lines covered most of someone else’s end of life wishes, most but not all. There was a reference at the end to Owen Clayton and an instruction that Owen contact Thredwell, Snelling and Fastless, solicitors. How on earth did this find me? Owen whispered half under his breath, turning the will, the photos, the envelope and the little black book over and over in his hands before reaching for the phone. He didn’t have any idea what to expect, but surely he could cope with yet one more horror.

The conversation with the solicitors was almost on a par with conversations with Elsa. Owen introduced himself and there was a long pause, so long he almost hung up. Then with a brief apology, the receptionist put him through to Theresa Snelling herself. Ms Snelling’s voice was warm, but cautious. ”Yes Mr Clayton, I am very glad to hear from you. I understand you live abroad now. Would you mind answering a few questions for me, before we start. I need to be sure I am talking to the right person.” She spoke quickly, and Owen pictured an unsmiling face, a face familiar with delivering fresh shocks to the newly vulnerable.

Theresa Snelling’s voice grew slowly less busy and as Owen answered the bizarre collection of questions, fascination gradually replaced anxiety. By the time they got to “Your friend in the polo club, why was he expelled?” Owen burst out laughing, something he hadn’t done for a very long time. “Ha, ha, ha, they said it was for behaviour prejudicial to the club’s reputation, but it was because he was caught with the Chairman’s son. It was behind the bar very early on a Sunday morning. They’d been inadvertently locked in. The cleaners found them.” Memories of that wild night bounced around in Owen’s head and he knew that these questions could only have come from Robert Jenson, his long forgotten dalliance and one of his rejected friends. The man had tried very hard to make up for so many little sins over the years, but Owen resolutely ignored him. Borrowing money and never paying it back. Not showing up when he said he would. Teasing Elsa with just a tad too much sarcasm. And when they were young, leaving the pub without getting a round in. Those yearning eyes. Telling so many lies. Drinking too much and offending Elsa. Pushing her in the river and screaming at the top of his lungs that “Owen loves me you fucking cunt, so fuck off and drown in the Neckar why don’t you” was easily the worst. Elsa, then still relatively sane had taken it in stride, clambering up the bank some few meters downriver before calling to Owen to deal with “your very drunk friend” before turning back for the house and dry clothes. Looking back it was all quite funny, but their threeway friendship never really recovered. Perhaps it was always that fragile, once the dalliance had been recognised as just that and nothing more. Theresa Snelling was speaking again, asking about the little black book. “Yes I have it. It’s just a collection of reminiscences from years ago.” “Please look at the last two pages, at the list. Have you found it?” Owen looked again at the mysterious codes. “Yes I see it. What about it? It’s just random numbers.”

At the other end of the line Theresa Snelling allowed herself a small smile. “Mr Clayton, please keep that little book safe until you receive further instructions, after which you can take action. I will be sending a colleague to formally confirm your identity and deliver my letter.” Owen Clayton began to think it was all a stupid hoax and waited for Theresa Snelling to tell him that he needed to cough up €1000 or some such amount before her letter would be handed over. But she didn’t and Owen decided it was all too much, all too complicated and why were they scamming him in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t know his money was all gone.

Some days later while Owen and Elsa were sitting in the garden discussing rabbits, a car drew up and a serious-looking man in dark gloomy clothes approached their front-door. Leading Elsa by the hand, Owen came around to the front of the house and waited. With a slight bow the man introduced himself in flawless English and proceeded to explain that he represented a co-respondent firm of lawyers in Frankfurt and was here to deliver a letter, subject to proof of identity.

The legal summons and court requests piled up in the kitchen were an adequate start. Owen’s passport, birth certificate and residency documents were handy too, as were documents relating to the sale of his company. Owen was careful to keep track of everything, vaguely anxious that this hoax might in fact be a theft. He waited patiently as Elsa clutched his hand and occasionally gasped when the man glanced at her and smiled, and nodded sympathetically at Owen. He waited and waited, and eventually their visitor looked up with a smile and a nod. “Everything is in order. Quite satisfactory,” he said, stacking the documents into a neat pile and pushing them to one side. “Here we go,” thought Owen as the man pulled a letter out of his bag.

Owen waited for the line, wondering how much they would be asked to stump up for this probably worthless letter. But the letter was pushed towards him as the visitor rose and extended his right hand. He checked his watch and with a slight nod said “Thank you for your time and your assistance.” With a gesture towards the documents he added: “My job has been made so much easier. And things I hope will improve for you soon Mr Clayton”. 

Together Owen and Elsa, still clutching very tight to her husband’s hand, saw their guest out and then Elsa wanted to go and lie down. It was some time before Owen could return to the kitchen table and the mysterious letter. As promised it was from Theresa Snelling, who explained that the strange envelope he had received some days ago was prepared by his friend Robert Jenson many years ago shortly after the Claytons had moved to Heidelberg. It further explained that Robert Jenson had died some weeks previously and was now buried in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mr Jenson had been living in New York for many years, and the letter said that the property on 64th Street in the Upper East Side was to be left to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, along with all other assets. There was one exception, the assets listed in the little black book now in Owen Clayton’s possession. Theresa Snelling explained that the list is of shares Robert Jenson wanted Owen and Elsa Clayton to have. Owen looked at the strange codes with new eyes: GOOGL 100 @ $85 ’04 ’14 ’15; MSFT 100 @ $21 ’86 x 9; AAPL 100 @$22 ’80 x 5; FB 100 @$38 ’12. Shares with their purchase prices and dates, and their splits. Owen’s hands shook and the world was spinning and the letter said Robert hoped that one day they might visit him in Flushing, forgive his past misdemeanours and say sorry for having so long ignored him. 

The White Gates

They sat on the stoop watching lazy crows hopping along the furrows. Occasional seagulls floated above the flat brown, fading into the clouds. The white gates were closed. No one was coming. It was just them. Beatrice poured another glass of warm Chardonnay and lit another cigarette. “Fifteen years we’ve been coming here and for fifteen years they’ve been coming to stay. Through early marriage years, through pregnancies, through babies and little children. Fifteen years and now, now this.” Beatrice’s voice trailed off.

“Sorry, but I don’t really know what you mean.” Clarissa looked at her new friend trying to work out quite how the conversation got here. They’d been chitchatting about Beatrice’s husband, about how both he and Clarissa are workoholics. They’d just got onto the interesting bit, about how there’s no cure, and now this peculiar switchback detour. Clarissa didn’t really know Beatrice very well, although she had known her husband, Andreas, for many years. A friendship and a business partner. Perhaps there was some weird sort of confession coming on from Beatrice. Clarissa wasn’t really sure if she wanted to hear it. She liked the relationship with Andreas just as it was. She didn’t want to know any disturbing secrets. She didn’t want knowledge about either Beatrice or Andreas that they were not themselves privy to.

Sad stranger

Over the years, Clarissa and Andreas had worked together on many projects, exhibitions and the like. He had the ideas, was the investor and risk taker. Clarissa was the risk averse freelancer of choice for project management. And that’s as far as it went. There was no attraction between them, only mutual professional respect. This trip was the closest Clarissa had ever come to Andreas’ family world. And here she was in a remote village somewhere in northern Germany. They’d been working on the next stage of an educational initiative Andreas wanted to get off the ground. It had been a good week, productive. Now Andreas had taken the children back to town for their weekend clubs and to get ready for the coming school week. Beatrice had wanted a break from him and from her children, none of whom she appeared to like very much. She had suggested Clarissa stay on for the weekend and keep her company.

The invitation had seemed like a good idea. Clarissa had nothing waiting for her at home: her little girl was with her father that weekend, the house would bear another layer or two of dust, a few more cobwebs and flies. She was exhausted after a tiring week. Why not stay here in Schleswig Holstein, relax, hang out and eat her new friend’s lovely cooking. The amazing cinnamon buns were an added bonus, as was the excellent cellar. 

Clarissa was curiously drawn to this strangely unpredictable woman. On the one hand she went for the supermother gig, and yet she took her work as a museum curator very seriously, keeping both well apart. Clarissa’s parenting style could best be described as intensely loving but sporadic, and she had no interest at all in museums. Clarissa worked very hard, but didn’t necessarily work smart, so she was always stressed. She rather liked it. Unlike Clarissa Beatrice was laid back, a dutiful and dedicated mother, but not particularly in tune with her children. She had no interest in her husband’s business or its workings and when it came to any sort of work was a great believer in delegating, from signage installations to swimming clubs and piano lessons. The two women newly met, shared a mutual interest in their differences, more intuited than expressed.

“Beatrice I’m not sure I understand what you mean.” Maybe it was a language thing Clarissa wondered. Beatrice puffed out her smoke long, dragonlike. She threw back her hair, tucking it behind prominent ears, her cigarette clenched tight to suck in another dose. “I don’t know. Sorry. I am in a state of shock you see. A call. Nothing. It’s hard. I’m sorry. It’s really nothing. Call it the Chardonnay.” This last with a rueful smile. Clarissa looked out at the white gates again, still closed. She was uncertain what should happen next.

Beatrice continued. “This house, this space, it has seen so much, everything, everyone in our lives. It all comes through those white gates. I tell myself, sometimes its good, sometimes it’s bad, but whatever it is, it comes through those white gates. And I think you understand how special this place is to me, to us, to me and Andreas both. And to them too. When they come through those white gates the next time, things will have changed.”

By this time Clarissa was utterly confused and wondering if staying on with batty Beatrice was such a good idea. It was just the two of them, starting now, a Friday evening all the way to Sunday when it would be time to find a train to get Clarissa to the airport. Time that at first had stretched elastic and supple, expansive, generous, was starting to look steely hard, rigid and confining. Roll on Sunday. Clarissa slogged her remaining halfglass and went to get a fresh bottle. She put another in the freezer, figuring it wouldn’t be long before it would need opening.

“Who?” She said as she slumped back down on the stoop. “I am sorry but I don’t understand. Perhaps you want to talk about it?” It wasn’t so much that Clarissa was interested, as the fact that if they were to be alone until Sunday, it would be good to have common topic, some point of reference. Clarissa figured listening to someone else’s problems would be an ok way to spend the weekend, though it had started to feel more trap than relaxing escape. And Beatrice was clearly upset.

Beatrice looked across her glass and nodded. “Yes, you’re a stranger, you know none of these people. It shouldn’t upset you, they’re European aliens in your little English world.” Clarissa wasn’t sure she quite cared for this appraisal but smiled. “Well, I might have a secret of my own to share,” she offered raising her eyebrows and putting a confiding arm across her new friend’s shoulders. The delicate Chardonnay was tickling Clarissa’s throat in a wonderful teasing fizz. The alcohol was relaxing her and the passive smoking was really quite enjoyable.

“You see it’s my best friend. She thinks her husband is having an affair. But she can’t fault him. He’s there for her, for the children, helpful with the house, chores, cooking all that. That may be a reason to suspect, but he’s always been that way. Always.” As Beatrice spoke, brows knitted, words tumbling out between little clouds of smoke, Clarissa was suspicious. She wanted to build a picture in her mind of a mousey sort of man, not browbeaten but diligent, devoted to his family, in love with his wife. “Perhaps he’s just too good to be true? Perhaps your friend is so in love with him, that she’s afraid of losing him?” Clarissa said. “You know them well, so surely you would be able to see any signs of infidelity? Or is it you, you’re talking about? If it is I can assure you… ” Beatrice’s hands flew up to her face “Oh God, not, no it isn’t me. I’m not talking about me, no, not and I hope you don’t think… ” Clarissa stared not sure whether she was being accused, exonerated, or lied to. Silence swelled between them, aggressive, cross.

Beatrice stood up and went to fetch a candle and some cushions. Sitting on the steps was more suited to the conversation than sitting in real chairs would have been. More honest perhaps, more painful, unprecedented, a small foreign space for a small foreign conversation.

“I’m sorry. It’s just hard. It’s nothing to do with me and Andreas. We’re the same as always, both too busy, both waiting for the part of our lives when we are just us again. Neither of us would risk that. But you’re right of course, to wonder” Beatrice said. “I am sure I would see signs in this man, but I haven’t. There was something Andreas said a few weeks ago that made me wonder. But it was probably nothing. I don’t think either of us really knows what the signs of infidelity are. We’ve only ever been with each other. We live such controlled and regimented lives. There’s no room for affairs.” Clarissa laughed, “well I certainly know the signs, and I can tell you they don’t amount to dutiful and attentive. Apart from anything else, if he’s having an affair he won’t have the energy to take care of your friend.” They laughed and instinctively veered away from any discussion of sex, licit or otherwise. “It’s about opportunities and the kind of opportunities he has,” Beatrice added.

Clarissa was able to establish that the company this man worked for had him spending a lot of time on the road, especially recently. He had been away every week in the last two months, sometime just for a couple of days, sometimes over a weekend. Opportunity was certainly there. “He always comes back with presents for her and for the children. But that might be guilt?” Beatrice suggested.

Clarissa was getting tired of this dreary speculation about people she had never met, and was never likely to meet. Boring middle-aged people leading boring middle-aged lives. “Oh for heavens sake,” she said, “you’re weaving a complicated tale out of perfectly normal, conventional behaviour. And you still haven’t let me tell you a) my secret and b) the signs to look for, apart from the energy thing of course. That’s far more entertaining.” Beatrice sighed and tried to put her suspicions aside. “I’m sure you’re right. So what should I look for? And how do you know? Has this happened to you? Is that why you and your husband split up?”

Clarissa’s heart was beating just a little bit faster and she coughed awkwardly waving at the smoke. An unexpected tightness in her throat made it harder to breath. “No. Not exactly. It was more complicated than just an affair. It was about the end of love, at least I thought it was. But then when it was nearly all over, I realised that it wasn’t that either. It was just the end. No drama, just a man too tired to bother anymore. Too worn down with the whole marriage, family gig. Just the end.” Clarissa felt a long lazy teardrop run down one side of her nose. “So how do you know?” Beatrice brushed away the teardrop and waited for Clarissa to start speaking again.

Clarissa’s voice was very small in the dark. Moths and other small flying night creatures were bouncing an insistent percussion on the outside light. “Actually I don’t, I only know what it’s like to be having an affair with a married man. It’s fine for me. I don’t have anyone to keep the secret from. But for him, it’s harder. He has to lie and pretend to care for a woman he no longer loves, perhaps never really did love. It’s a guilt he says he’s hidden for years. I wonder whether he just keeps the two of us in separate compartments in his life. I guess I’m lucky because we can both travel and meet even though we live in different countries. But I do love him, sincerely, genuinely. I’ve never been with a man who is so, well, so very masculine, who makes me feel so much a woman. And the strange thing is, I don’t care at all that he lies. I guess I have no hope that it will ever be anything more than an affair.”

“Your mystery man sounds gorgeous, but so’s my friend’s husband. He’s handsome and very male, fit I think you say.” Beatrice was still speaking in that lazy slow way of hers, but the topic was shifting. Beatrice was more interested in how to spot the signs of a lie. “If the compartmentalising thing was true and how affairs could work for so long, there would be no lies, no visible signs, just mistakes.” she said. “Then it makes sense not just for him, but for his wife, except that she’s only got the one compartment, she’s not having an affair but instead she’s frantically watching his every move, looking for the signs but there won’t be any, at least not until he wants to start signalling an affair? Maybe that’s where the mistakes come in?” It was all getting a little muddled.

Clarissa smiled in the dark, remembering her man, their love, the passion, the unexpectedness of it all. They’d been at PharmaPack in Paris some nine months ago. He’d wanted extra lights in the meeting rooms on his company’s stand. She’d been in sight wearing her organiser’s badge. Andreas had waved across the aisle and he’d waved back. Clarissa thought the handsome man, his hands clutching a mass of cables was waving to her, cables and all. That’s how it started. She shook her head to push out the images. Those eyes. That voice. A smile that held her entire life in its brief moment. Clarissa shook her head harder.

“This whole thing is doing my head in,” she said. “What say we go for the third Chardonnay. It’s in the freezer so it should be perfect? And give me a drag would you, the passive thing isn’t working for me any more.” Beatrice stood up and wobbled inside, bumping in the dark into doors, walls, furniture, and finally emerging with the iced bottle and another pack of cigarettes.” She waved at the moths and sat down heavily, sloping sideways into the handrail and staring out at a glimmer of white, the outline of the white gates. Clarissa followed her gaze, sipping the cold wine. “What industry does your friend’s husband work in?” As she asked the question, she knew the answer. “Pharmaceuticals I think. It’s too cold out here now, let’s go into the warm.” Beatrice stood up, slowly moving indoors. Clarissa sat very still, wine in hand a lit cigarette burning in her fingers, watching the white gates. If she waited long enough she knew he would pass through them.

The Three Bees and the Giant Grub

The light was pushing in far too brightly thought Curly, as he turned away from the morning. Gentle murmuring sounds and tiny whistling snores told him that his brothers were still asleep. As he turned to shade his large eyes from the sunrise Curly was aware of a draft coming from the other side of the comb. They had settled down some hours before near to the uncapped honey that was still curing and where nursing bees could access it easily for the brood and hopefully for Twirly, Curly and Burly. Soft summer air dawn chilled caressed Curly’s back, his lazy wings slowly rising and falling. He sensed tension and focused fully on a strange activity that was beginning to build. His brothers were slowly waking up and the three of them, antennae rising started moving towards what appeared to be the cause of the commotion.

They crossed cautiously to the edge of the frame, forgoing breakfast in their tense urgency, for now it was clear that something was wrong on the other side. Creeping around the edge they saw a terrible sight. A large section of brood comb had fallen away and the grubs inside were now horribly unclothed, naked along an entire side. The damage to the cells was considerable and the three bees looked in horror at the exposed, gestating grubs. Their little bodies were white, translucent and barely formed. They had no bee-like shape other than the pale shadow outlines of legs folded and wings merely hinted, but all just white. Their eyes were formed and densely black. There was the merest hint of antennae shaping along their newly blacked heads. They were ghosts waiting to be born but now might never arrive. Worker bees worked at frenzied pace to salvage what they could from the avalanche of comb and Curly could hear the hissing fear at the implications of this terrible loss if the damaged nursery could not be saved.

An evil beekeeper in full harassment mode. Guard bees already on the alert.

How this had happened wasn’t clear. It seemed that somehow a section of comb in the brood box had suffered an impact and collapsed. It was clear that the priority had to be repairing the damage. The loss of hundreds of grubs would mean that too few new bees would be born in the coming weeks. This would mean fewer resources to collect nectar, pollen and propolis, and so less to feed the colony and ensure it had sufficient numbers and nourishment to survive the coming winter.

Curly could hear the urgency buzzing across the frame as the workers struggled to repair the harm. Then he noticed that the space beside the frame with the damaged cells was larger than it was last time he and his brothers had cruised this part of the hive. He now saw multiple wax hexagons on the wall of the colony, irregular and inconsistent and also in need of repair. Could it have been that the brood cells had been attached to this part of the wall? And if so, had they fallen under their own weight as the grubs grew from tiny little commas into curls of white and then to recognisable grubs? Did they get too heavy once they had filled their cells ready to complete their transformations into new bees ready to be born and take up their duties in the hive? All this Curly pondered as he looked at the broken wax on the hive wall.

Burly was ambling about watching his sisters work and wondering aloud if it would be ok to help himself to some honey from part of the unexpectedly uncapped honeycombs. Twirly was cowering behind his brother looking in horror at the devastation. He had barely recovered from the trauma of the Hornet attack and reminded both Curly and Burly that “my nerves are in absolute shreds, I simply cannot cope with any more terrifying moments”. “I think the terrifying moments have passed” Curly told him narrowing his antennae into what passed for a bee frown. He was inspecting the tears and fallen bits of honeycomb, fascinated at the translucent new life that his sisters were desperately trying to protect and salvage. 

But for an unexpected moment all efforts ceased as the bees felt a strange movement on the frame they were repairing. The movement was a sort of shift away from them, an upwards pulling and then a sharp release before they found themselves rising up through the air into the harsh bright sunlight. Worker bees, nursery bees, undertaker bees, housekeeping bees, bee assassins, the three drones, hatching and vandalised cells, all of them suddenly were in the grip of a giant beast with giant eyes staring black and vacant at their frame. It breathed a horrible carbon dioxidey scent and apart from the awful black eyes shone bright white in the harsh morning light. The bees swayed on the bottom edge of the frame, linked barb to barb in an anxious effort to keep their positions and to carry on working on the repairs to their vandalised brood cells.

Burly was uppermost of the three drones and took a few paces forwards to face the monster, before thinking better of it and burying himself in a cluster of worker bees who were desperately trying to block the light and keep the exposed grubs somehow safe. Twirly was nowhere to be seen having panicked immediately and set off randomly into the morning air emitting tiny squeals of terror. He could be heard for quite some time whining “my nerves, my nerves” and was by now about a quarter of a mile from the hive. He soon settled on a wavering beech leaf crying miniscule bee tears, and then crying some more because his weeping blocked his pheromone receptors so he had no chance at all of finding his way back, at least not immediately.

Curly was just as terrified of the monster, but in addition intrigued to know what it was. Did it have anything to do with the brood comb collapse and what could turn out to be a grub massacre? The creature tall and forbidding was now puffing acrid smoke at the frame, and Curly and his companions were forced to shift away from the dirty air. The worker bees went immediately into emergency mode, moving to fill their little bellies with honey, as a preamble to general evacuation. This was the established drill in the case of fire but the urgency of their response never seemed to include any consideration of whether there was really a fire or not. Curly had observed the giant grub, for that is what he concluded the invader to be, based on his extensive and detailed evaluation of the creature’s many beelike characteristics. He had already noticed that far from being a fire it was this horrible giant grub that was scaring the bees into departure mode. He decided to stand his ground but the smoke was too much for him, interfering with his breathing, blinding his eyes and, in the absence of his fellow bees, leaving him uncomfortably exposed. He moved back to the safety of the edge of the frame barely managing to hang on as the giant grub flipped over the frame with all the wickedness and malice of the evil badger, tales of whom had been passed on bee to bee for generations eternal.

With respect to the poor exposed grubs, the frame was now in a slightly safer position because they were out of the direct light. Throughout the trauma of this bizarre framelifting business, the bees had continued working to repair their damaged brood cells, tirelessly tickling the wax back into shape and adding new wax. No one knew if the vandalised brood would be able to recover. No one would know the full implications of the harm until there were signs that the colony’s population was falling and not showing fast enough signs of recovery.

Suddenly they were all flying once again through the warming morning light, the smoke swirling and pushing them all away from the edges of the frame. Curly and Burly made for the bottom away from the light and in search of breakfast before noticing that the same strange stretching and pulling movement was occurring on the adjacent frame. As they peered up at the sky they saw another frame grasped in the awful paws of the giant grub, its black eyes once again come close to the comb and its awful paws turning the frame this way and that. Again the smoke and again the eyes bearing down on the frame, almost as if it were counting. The frame was finally returned and Curly hurried across the gap to the next frame, only to see the process repeat itself. The giant grub was pulling each from the colony one by one, deliberately and consistently wrenching away the propolis the workers had carefully placed to insulate the hive and protect it from drafts. Curly concluded that this was truly an evil beast with a sick sense of humour, tricking them into thinking there was a fire and meanly breaking up their draft excluders.

Eventually after every frame had been pushed, lifted, twisted, peered at and replaced, all was steady and calm. The colony was once more wrapped in warmth and darkness and Curly could reassure Burly that it was all over and that they were safe again. The giant grub had gone, hopefully never to return, but where was Twirly they wondered. It was not until night was starting to fall that Twirly fell into the hive exhausted and desperate for food. He found his brothers napping contently on a fallen piece of disused comb. Some workers had picked up his scent and didn’t understand what a young drone was doing sitting on a beech leaf. They had guided him home giving him only a few minor if baffling chastisements about not leaving the hive until he was ready. And they told him that he had a duty as a drone to on no account waste time outside the hive sitting on beech leaves. He had much more important work to do when he was ready. Twirly was still wrestling with this curious advice as he stepped his careful cautious way towards his brothers. He was still grizzling a little, and with relief accepted some food from a sympathetic nanny. He fell asleep where he lay, safe between Curly and Burly snoozing contently into the night.zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

A structural edit? What? Thank you Helen Francis

I have heard that when starting out as a novelist, getting your manuscript finished is the easy bit. I always thought that a little bit silly, because you’ve sweat blood over the thing, spent months or even years on it. But I’m beginning to see there is some sense to this. For a start there’s all the additional prep, the formating and understanding the process. Then there’s the cover design and blurb to sort, both of which are easy and exciting. But then comes the structural edit. This is not nearly so easy or as exciting, and sweating blood plays no part. 

structural edit has to ensure that the plot makes sense, so if it doesn’t you’re faced with some heavy duty rewrites and rearranging. The structural edit also checks that the characters in the novel are believable and consistent, and that you haven’t overloaded them with tropes that undermine or distract the reader. As important is a check on the consistency of voice and point of view, of tense and credibility in terms of dialogue. These are all things you think you’ve addressed during your umpteenth rewrite, prior to submitting the manuscript to the publisher. But no matter how thoroughly you think you have gone through your work, you’re bound to have missed stuff. This is why editors are so vital and so lauded by their authors. They can literally help to spin gold from dross.

I’m now working on implementing the structural editor’s recommendations for The Draftsman, wrestling with the dross and trying to find the gold. In the process I’m learning a lot about writing. I’m struggling to resolve all the queries and suggestions to make The Draftsman better. Struggling, but at it.

Without seriously competent editing advice, this never could have happened.

Helen Francis did the first big edit of the Draftsman for Unbound, the publisher. She has given me a mix of mild critique and several excellent suggestions to improve the narrative. Helen has also pointed out that I use far too many pointless and distracting adjectives. Both my mother and my sister noticed this after they briefly skimmed some early chapters, but I thought I knew better. Ms Francis agrees with them. I was wrong. Now the adjectives thing is making me wonder why I thought I needed them in the first place. It might be that using too many adjectives is a way to avoid getting to the point. That’s probably because I wasn’t quite sure what that point should be or even what happened next in the story. More likely it’s a tendency to hide behind excess words because I don’t trust myself. This isn’t surprising because I trust virtually no one, so why should I trust me? There’s no habit for the trust thing.

Fixing all the points raised in the structural edit is extremely demanding and quite frankly exhausting. It’s at this stage that you understand that your book really is going to be published, and even if you might not agree with your editor’s suggestions, together you’re creating something that people will buy, a viable product. You might have to completely rethink how you present your characters. You might need to focus on how much or how little you want readers to get to know them and their role in the story, beyond helping to drive the plot. And yes, you must decide how many adjectives to use and which ones.

There is some real risk involved in this process. You need to make sure that the story doesn’t distort in the course of the rewriting and edits. This is almost harder than writing the thing in the first place, because you’re probably now working on some other work, one that’s completely different. Keeping within the bounds of the book is tough and it’s very tempting to bring in all sorts of other ideas as part of the structural editing process. You find there are lots of possible new digressions, subplots and thoughts you have in the middle of the night and think will made a massive improvement. Resist: they’re bound to go nowhere. Keep them far away from your editing process, keep them for another day, maybe as notes for a different story. Stay focused wholly on the work in hand.

And remember that you have to watch that fictional characters don’t start to change on the page. If you aren’t careful, this can happen almost without you realising it. Be disciplined and make sure to keep your face out of the narrative pie. Taking suggested edits one at a time and considering each one in the context of the paragraph, chapter and overall work, is slow and tedious work. It’s a first for me so I’m finding that process difficult. The structural editing thing is pushing me beyond what I thought were the limits of my abilities. Or perhaps I should say beyond whatever it is that feeds my sense of limits. I know I’ll get it done and in the end The Draftsman will be a much better product. Thank you Helen Francis.

(from July 2020)

Goodbye Dolly

This time last year, October 2020, our companion pony had to be put to sleep. It was a very sad day and the short piece that follows reminds me of how much love is a filter for all of our other emotions. 

Since Dolly died we have had a new and unexpectedly sparky addition to the family. The Greyhorse didn’t immediately fall in love with Birdy; he still grieved for his wheezy little Shetland. But after a few weeks this fiesty little Welsh Section B mare won his heart.

When Dolly Died

It’s only a pony but only a pony is so much more. When the vet said “she can’t go on like this” it was bad enough. When he ran through the vital signs, “heart’s racing, breathing 47 breaths a minute, and should be 22” When he sighed a heavy sigh and gave us that long look. Little Dolly staring blank at the soft autumn air. The Greyhorse standing off pulling at his hay, suddenly nodding every minute or so, squirrels bold bouncing across the ground to hide acorns almost as big as their heads. The air was so still in that moment, and there was no longer the crackle and wheeze of Dolly’s breath. Her lungs had so much scar tissue that there was no movement sufficient for a crackle or a wheeze. She stood with her hind legs stretched behind her ignoring the remains of her lunch. We’d been desperately tempting her with all sorts of yummy food, every hour something else, every morning looking in hope to see if she’d finished her last night’s food. But she didn’t and now it was time.

What a little, not-so-little, cutie.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. Two weeks before we had heard awful news of the death of an old friend. A friend whose death was expected, though not so soon. It was too soon, always too soon for those we love. And standing there in the golden light Dolly was waiting. Standing there in the golden light there was a door, a passage slowly widening, and slowly filling with immense leaden sorrow. Sorrow for those left behind, for those whose strength is falling away, for those whose life is soon ending. And through it Dolly passed, gently, easily and soon lay still, still with us but gone. All that we have lost remains somewhere, somehow.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t go to the funeral because there are limits on gatherings, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t visit the frail because we might kill them. They might kill us, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. The shepherd is waiting. Good bye Dolly.

Picture this

It’s a peculiar sensation to see first cover visuals for your first novel. They’ve got the story’s title and your name – your name – writ large. And one of them is a perfect expression of what the book’s about. It jumps at your throat, it’s gorgeous, professional and an image that you couldn’t ever think of, not in a million years. 

The sensation’s almost as good as the moment when a publisher’s email says “I’d like to see more” although only almost. That feeling shimmers and shines for a very long time, forever maybe. It’s so powerful that it’s almost impossible to answer the email. And then you can’t find the file you need and when you do you can’t open it. You can’t spell the name of the person who wants to see more of your work, or indeed your own name because you can’t spell at all. All the words have dried up and blown away under your hot frantic panting, your overexcited breath. Worse, you have totally forgotten what the story’s about and how many words it is. Because you can’t find the file again, it’s impossible to find out, and because you’ve inadvertently deleted the precious email you can’t send the requested material in any case.

……..a massive thank you to John Walsh for providing this cover endorsement!

After some minor moments your blood pressure’s so high it’s making your eyes go funny. And the banging in your veins and pulsating brain drowns out your own voice, and you can’t hear yourself saying no, no I haven’t really deleted it, it’s still in the bin, still on the mail server and still on the automatic back up. It’s data, it still exists, it does, it must, it has to. It’s got to still be there somewhere. Except you’re still panting to the point of hyperventilation, your eyes are still being weird and you can’t really see the details on the screen so it’s impossible right now to try and retrieve the email.

If you reach this point, for any important email, not just the one from a potential publisher, the best thing to do is to go to the window, open it, look down, look up, make sure to stay inside and not jump, and wait until your face starts to hurt with the cold. This only works in winter, so in summer you have to actually leave the building; try to do this calmly so as not to terrify colleagues and other members of your household. Once outside pretend to be exercising very slowly until you can be sure that your vision is not made up entirely of darting silver spears and unpredictable colour flicks. If the sun’s shining, don’t look at it. Keep your eyes down.

Once your eyes are being sort of normal and you are relatively calm, stay away from your desk for a few more minutes and think of restful things, like the majesty of snow clad mountains or sleeping puppies. If you go back to your desk too soon, there is a very real risk that the demon will roar once more and the whole scary scenario will repeat itself. You must prioritise finding the important email, reading it carefully, understanding the questions and systematically answering them like a grown-up. Panic and hysterics have no place in this process.

The cover designs are exciting and tell me that publication of the Draftsman is really happening. Tears will be in order when I see the first edits come back from Unbound. That someone has taken the time and trouble to fix my text somehow means more to me than a publisher wanting to read it. I know it’s what they’re paid to do, but still it’s all quite wonderful. Each step of the way makes a change, transforms, recreates and confirms. Not just for the book, but for me too.

Where the sun’s always setting. Or is it always rising?

Keeping the passion alive?

Whether you’re a writer or not, sometimes doing the same old same old day after day can get a little dreary, tedious even. And you find the contact problem gets harder and harder to solve. Much as you want to, you just can’t seem to keep your bottom in contact with the chair or your fingers in contact with the keyboard.

Any excuse will do: answering emails even the really uninteresting ones, checking to see if the postman’s been, having yet another cup of tea and having to go to the loo even more often. Doing the laundrey. You start to wonder if you should rearrange your knicker drawer, or straighten your speaker wires, maybe colour code the food in your freezer. In extreme cases, even the hoovering is irresistable. And the contact problem isn’t just about making contact with the chair. How often have you decided that your keyboard, screen and mouse need a thorough clean or at least a good scrape around with your fingernail or the scissors? Anything but look at the screen and keeping your fingertips in touch. But the contact problem must be brutally addressed, otherwise your chosen profession becomes a hobby. Don’t use excuses of any description, especially not that you have writer’s block. Sit down and get on with it, even if it’s just a limerick or a haikuor a comment on someone else’s bookish blog.

As you sink reluctantly into place, cracking your knuckles, fiddling with mouse and screen angle, it might help to remember that writing is like any passion. What keeps it alive is doing it over and over again because you love it, even if you might occasionally forget that you love it. Like sex it can get better every time, but not necessarily always, every time. You know from experience that there will be lows and highs, and even just middlings. But you never know which it will be so you keep at it. You hope and know that this is something you have to do, because without it you’ll turn into a neurotic and potentially violent mess. Remember that you learn from every encounter, whether it is with a lover, a favourite walk, or a book, or your work. Doing it is the point, and avoiding it will make you miserable.

This is definitely not a good way to solve the contact problem. No matter how much you love your shoes, keep them and your feet underneath the desk and get on with your work.

It’s as true for readers as well as writers. They and we want to keep on reading and writing because we are all constantly looking for connections, big or small, intense or feeble. We write to express something we don’t necessarily understand, because it takes a reader to give the work meaning. Otherwise it’s just hollow words on a page, a bunch of random shapes and glyphs. I have spent pretty much my entire career selling words and continue to do so, but not every one of those years of articles or projects has been an unmitigated thrill. Many times I still sit down and stare blank and empty at the page or screen. I watch the clock out of the corner of my eye. I see it tick away the moments as a deadline slowly rises dark and gloomy into unwelcome view.

For writers there is no other choice, but to ignore the gloom and distractions and to keep on writing. It’s the only thing to ease back into place the wayward screw that’s floating loose somewhere deep inside our heads. We keep on writing because without it, the world makes no sense. We must exercise that passion, intense, fleeting, irrational, wild or even crazy as it seems. Passion is about what we cannot rationalise. It’s about the intangible, the indescribable and momentarily knowable, about stimulation and response. Its fleeting nature keeps us coming back for more, like gin and chocolate and all those other marvellous intoxicants that lead us elsewhere from ourselves.

Social media is one such intoxicant. It’s one of the best ways to overcome the contact problem, but it is also corrosive, distractive. It eats away at time and motivation and the depth or durability of its merits are questionable. It strokes our vanity (all is vanity), encourages our voyeuristic tendencies. At its best it’s a tool for finding writers to share with or for growing our readerships. But mostly it’s time-wasting noise. For the rare few to have found a place amongst the noise, that place provides comfort, reassurance that someone hears you, is listening. They may even respond with something sensible beyond the expectation of a response in turn. That might be why whole days can go by with the contact problem solved, and not a word written other than social media monitoring and replies. Overcoming that rather different contact problem is much harder.

Where does getting your novel published actually start?

Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.

It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.

Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.

And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.

The excitement you feel when you see your first cover is matched only by the exhaustion of getting the edits right.

Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.

Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie. 

This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.