It was the most beautiful late-February afternoon. The air was warm, the sky blue, the daffodil buds strained towards the sun so hard you could almost see them grow.
Lord Plott heard the bee before he saw it, a low, ominous thrum. There were few things Ulysses (Colonel, Lord U, etc, retd.) was scared of. Bees were one of them.
He looked around nervously. There it was, an enormous bumble, fat as the last joint of his thumb. Tawny abdomen hairs shone, thick as a pelt; its black legs gleamed like waxed ebony. He had to admit it was magnificent, but so was a tiger.
Shouldn’t be a bally gardener if you can’t take bees, Lord plot chided himself. He knew there was nothing wrong with bees, just his opinion of them.
There were plenty worse things in gardens – nettles, brambles, those wretched wild geraniums with roots that went down and down, digging in clay, pruning holly. It all needed to be done, the hard slog that got you something you could be proud of. Same as writing a story.
Lord Plott was a contradictory man, and not too proud to deny it. And he didn’t like giving in to fear. Not even when it screamed, and ran at you with a bayonet. ‘Gardner’s friend, the bee,’ Lord Plott would proclaim at the bar of the Green Man. ‘Fascinating creatures.’
‘Bit like a writer, the bee,’ he mused. ‘Work hard, whenever they get the chance. Most of the time nobody notices. And only a very few get to be Queens.’
The front of Lord Plott’s spring flower bed was lined with three parallel rows of crocus, yellow and purple, colours alternating, one inch apart. Behind them were the daffs, not so advanced, but equally smart. At the rear, a grudging concession to disorder, were a pair of shaggy hellebores, their purple, bell blooms hung in great clumps. They’d still be out when the daffs flowered. Purple and yellow, just like the croci. Regimental colours.
It came to Lord Plott that what he was doing to his garden was editing it. Looking all the things that could be in it, and deciding which ones he wanted to keep. Leave too much in and you got an overgrown mess, no idea of what it’s all about. Of course, if you wanted certain butterflies, you had to leave a few nettles.
And if you wanted seeds, fruit, and veg, you needed the bees.
This particular bee headed for the hellebores, each flower vibrated as it clambered inside. Lord Plott felt a sudden, intense empathy.
‘Excellent work, not unappreciated at all.’ Unsure if bees understood English, he decided to encourage it with some bee noises. ‘Bizzy-whizzy-wizz,’ he whuffed through his moustaches. ‘A-bizzy-whizz.’
‘What are you doing, dear?’ Philomena, Lady Plott said, behind him.
‘Nothing.’ Lord Plott straightened up smartly. ‘Humph. Just looking at a bee.’
Philomena came over to where he stood. ‘First one of the year, how lovely.’
‘You remember Bertie and the lavender?’
‘Oh, don’t remind me,’ Philomena said, ‘I almost had a heart attack.’
Aged five, Bertie had poddled out into the garden one summer’s morning. Ten minutes later, moved by an urge she found hard to define, Philomena put down her pen and went to see what he was up to.
She found Bertie beside the lavender bush. Bees, stunned by the lavender’s heady scent, crawled groggily among the flower heads. Bertie watched them with limpid eyes devoid of the concept of danger. One by one he gently plucked the bees off the plant with his sticky, post-breakfast fingers, inspected each one carefully, and dropped them on the lawn.
‘It’s going to rain,’ Bertie explained. ‘I’m rescuing them.’
‘S’tronary.’ Lord Plott said.
‘Children, dear. You know something’s going on when it’s too quiet.’
Much as he loved his nieces and nephews, Lord Plott lacked an early-warning radar. He did, however, know all about trouble when it got too damned quiet. ‘You’re a clever old sprocket. How’s that deadline of yours?’
‘Approaching like a kangaroo on Bolivian Marching Powder.’
Lord Plott gave a rather strained laugh. He’d hoped that particular incident had been relegated to the past. Diversionary tactics, that’s the thing. ‘Talking of deadlines, I need to get the broad-beans in.’
Philomena put her hand on his arm. Lord Plott braced himself for some pertinent, if gentle, invective. Much to his relief, Lady Plott said, ‘How do you think Bertie’s getting on with that novel?’
‘Lots to learn and all, but look at that house of his – floor to ceiling with books. He was reading before he was picking bees off the lavender. If you don’t read, you’re going to struggle to write. He’ll be fine, young chap used to sit up in bed and read the dictionary.’
Philomena kissed her husband on the nose. ‘Same as you.’
Good Lord! Lord Plott checked nobody was looking and kissed her back. Splendid.
‘It’s the same as how you can tell he’s a gardener, fascinated by it since he was a child. Even likes bees.’
Lady Plott shivered at the memory, ‘We should have kept a closer eye on him.’
‘Pups need to be left to run around and get into a few scrapes.’
Lady Plott had to agree, it was how she learned. And she’d read the dictionary too. Looking up the rude words was the beginning of a different kind of education.
‘I’ll put the kettle on, if you’ve finished humming to the bees.’
Curses, rumbled, Lord Plott thought he’d got away with that.
‘Then I thought you might like a little nap,’ Lady Plott said as she walked away. Rather jauntily, too.
A nap indeed! Spring was definitely in the air.
The bumble bee zoomed towards Lord Plott, circled his head twice and swung away through the air.
Ulysses gave it an elbow-quivering salute, ‘Carry on.’