Being Queen is a lonely thing ~ why life at the top may not be as sweet as you think

(This is a post from almost a year ago that for some reason, WordPress destroyed. For those who are interested, the queen mentioned below is doing very well still and we now have four hives and a spare on a roof somewhere hoping to lure a swarm into it.)

Being Queen is a lonely thing….

 

I visited my bees today and they’re all doing well. I have currently
three colonies: one hive that is quite populous, one that is less so
and one that is tiny. The tiny one is one I created about three weeks
ago when faced with the hard choice of what to do with a couple of
queen cells that needed disposing of.

(A little bee background: bees basically consist of three kinds. Workers
and queens are female and drones are male. Drones do nothing but wait
around in the hope that a virgin queen will emerge somewhere in the
vicinity and they can mate with her: it’s a great life while the sun
shines. They get fed by workers, do no work and just buzz around all
day waiting for their chance with a queen. Incidentally, they die
straight after this. They die in the winter or the workers kill them
off. But bees exist to make more bees(the honey is just their winter
stores) and the problem from May onwards is swarms. You let your bees
swarm and you lose half your colony. We lost half of ours because
they waited till we went away on holiday and then buggered off. So
one of the things you need to do to try and avoid swarming is to
knock out queen cells. A queen cell is a long tube of beeswax, where
the workers rear a single egg by feeding it with royal jelly until
after 16 days a new que
en emerges).

We found two queen cells when we opened the hive that day. One hatched
in my hand and I accidentally dropped her; I have no idea where she
went. The other felt warm and alive in my hand and I couldn’t bring
myself to do what a seasoned bee-keeper would have done and thrown
the queen cell away.  I made a sudden instinctive decision and took
two frames of brood and nurse bees to our spare hive and gently
mashed the end of the queen cell onto a corner of it, shut the hive
up and walked away. Bees will always rear brood and eggs and they
will always minister to a queen so there was a good chance that I had
started a new colony in doing so.

I felt a little odd about it because I had simply felt that what I held
in my hand was what you might call, “a good ‘un”. I had no
evidence or logic for this: just pure feeling. However, it appears I
was right. The new queen had emerged, mated and begun laying when I
came back a week later. For  a few weeks she was the only one of our
three queens who WAS laying. Today, in my inspection, I actually
spotted her, swift as a little greyhound and the frame was filled
with eggs and brood. A real good ‘un. I am glad I obeyed that tingle
in my hand and mind that said “Let her have a chance”. I suspect
that over the next few years, she may more than pay me back.

But this evening I had been pondering over the model of the bees and it
occurred to me that being queen is terribly lonely. Bees sense when a
queen is failing and they “supersede”: that is, they rear a new
queen and quietly let the old one go. Sometimes they kill her.
Sometimes a bee keeper decides a queen is not what he wants and
replaces her. Either she’s getting too old, or she’s not laying
enough or the temperament of the colony isn’t right. Bye bye Queenie.

I could draw parallels with the book world (and they exist all right)
but I won’t labour the point, because writers create stories(honey)
and Queens lay eggs to make more bees. But what I really want you to
understand is that those who are at the pinnacle of what they are or
do are in a precarious place. They won’t be the best forever. They
won’t be at the top forever. And coming down, they may meet those
they may have climbed over to get to the top.

So, be kind and gracious as you make your journey through the world;
everyone you meet has private battles and sorrows of their own. Their
life might look sweet and honey-scented from where you are but you
don’t know what it cost them to get there, how hard they must work to
stay there and how easy it is to lose.

 

A Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the Needs of the Many

A
Tale of a Midsummer Bee ~ Balancing the Needs of the One with the
Needs of the Many

As regular readers will know, I am the proud keeper of four hives of
honey bees. I studied bee-keeping at school;  because I refused to do
needlework or cookery and wanted to do woodwork or metalwork, the school compromised and allowed me to do rural science instead. That afternoon lesson was the saviour of my third year at high school,
because I could enjoy doing something practical, and I loved working
with the bees. My husband does a lot more with the bees, being more
confident than I, but usually our weekly bee inspection is split
between the two of us. One smokes while the other inspects frames and then we swap over.

This week we did our usual routine, and this morning, on the stairs I
spotted a stowaway. One of the bees had come home with us. Now, our hives are over three miles away and clearly this was one tired and
disorientated bee. I put her in a jar with a blob of honey and left
her to feed. When I came back, she’d nearly drowned in the honey so I had to rescue her with a pen she clung to. Some hours later, she’d
cleaned all the honey off herself and was ready to go home. I put her
in my water bottle with the cap on loosely so air could get in and
she’s gone off with my husband to be dropped off at the farm on his
way somewhere else.

Now I can hear what some of you are saying. All that fuss for one bloody bee? I know. Every time we open a hive for inspection we kill a few bees no matter how careful we are; a hive at full strength has over fifty thousand bees in various stages of their bee careers, and there are casualties all the time. We even managed to kill one queen, so some of yesterday’s work was reducing the thirty or so queen cells
the bees had produced down to one good one so we didn’t end up with lots of new queens each flying off with a retinue, taking our hive
down to nothing. It hurt me to destroy those half made queens but for the sake of keeping a healthy colony thriving, it had to be done.

Bees are the ultimate social creature; theirs is an almost perfect
society. Each worker is born knowing what to do; the first thing they
do when they hatch is clean out their cell so it is ready for the
queen to lay another egg in. They go through various stages as they
live, starting out working in the nurseries first, tending to eggs
and grubs, then making wax and building cells, then finally going out
to forage for nectar and pollen. A worker bee in her days as a
forager might make a scant teaspoonful of honey. One bee makes little or no difference; it’s the sheer numbers that make them successful. A solitary honey bee is a lonely thing; she is lost without her sisters and her function. The chances are they will not even notice her missing. And yet, I grieve for every bee I accidentally kill, for
those that have stung me and will therefore die (fact: human skin is
the only skin that bees cannot withdraw their sting from. Bears and
badgers can be stung repeatedly without ill effect to the bees;
humans cause the stinger to die, ripped more or less in half)

There are approximately seven billion human beings on this planet. Seven billion individuals. It’s an astonishing figure. Imagine: that many people all with needs and wants and thoughts and feelings and dreams. Some are starving to death, others dying of diseases caused by excess. Each and every one has the same value as another, and yet, when tens of thousands die half way across the world, we cannot
comprehend it. It takes a single human interest story to engage us;
we cannot relate to thousands, or even hundreds. We can barely relate one-to-one.

The gift of that single bee I found on my stairs is to remind me that
each is precious and worth saving, and that if I make no effort at
all with one, I cannot hope to care for thousands. It might make me a
slow bee-keeper, unfocussed on harvesting the golden glory of the
bee-people’s hard labour, but I think it might make me a better human being.  

 

Follow the leader or Blindman’s Buff? ~ where are we going and who do we follow?

I took this photo in France in April. The line is a column of caterpillars from the pine processionary moth. These creatures migrate en masse to pupate, and do so in a line where each creature holds the rear end of the one in front of it. You can(with gloves, as they are quite toxic, and their hairs are a severe irritant) link them into a circle so that they literally go round and round for hours.

Leaving aside the wonder of nature, step back and think about current human behaviour. We’re no different to these little caterpillars, blindly following our leaders, naively believing they know the way. In essence, we take it on trust that the people we follow have a better idea of where we as a society need to be going.

Along the path were many such processions, some inching their way to the grass on the other side, but many were squished into mulch by bicycles and feet. Following the leader does not protect them from harm, and their soft carcasses might have been covered by irritant hairs, but wider and wilder forces were at work.

If you have driven in thick fog, you might have noticed the inclination to hang onto the tail lights of the vehicle in front of you. It’s normal human behaviour, to follow a leader.

But it might be time to pay closer attention ourselves to the road ahead.

Pearls Before Swine ~or Why You Can Lead A Horse To Water But You Can’t Make It Drink

Pearls
before Swine ~ or why you can lead a horse to water but you can’t
make it drink!

In my daily job of being a teacher of English as a foreign language, I long
for the summer when we get the hordes of invading students from all
over the world and the chance to really get my metaphorical teeth
into teaching. During much of the year I have a class for a maximum
of five mornings (often only three) and almost always those classes
consist of young teens(often only 12 or 13, maybe 14 years old) who
have come as part of their school trip. Their level of English is
often so low that I find I have serious frustrations offering them
lessons that are fun but challenging because they have insufficient
language skills to understand instructions. I recycle the same five
or six lessons more of less ad nauseam ( that is for me, anyway). By
mid May I am quite sick of it all, and of my own materials and
lessons.

The summer time is usually different, and I get a chance to do what I
really love doing and it isn’t teaching English. It’s about finding a
chink in a mind, inserting a suitable tool and levering till that
young mind pops open like an oyster being prised apart. One of the
tools is language.

I had a class last summer who I adored. I went in every day really looking
forward to working with them. Of the 15 in the class, I am still in
contact with 11, and some quite frequently. I’m not saying it wasn’t
hard work, because it was. By the age of 14 or so, most people have
begun shutting their minds so fast you can hear slamming doors every
time they blink at you. It’s something I find deeply disturbing; it’s
too easy to find your answers to life’s questions and then preserve
them in amber, to remain undisturbed for ever, or worse, to mummify
them. Those gruesome parodies of living things are brought out and
paraded around like a Day of the Dead procession whenever that
subject is brought up; some of the debates I have had with kids have
been astonishing. It’s scary when people have no inclination to
review their beliefs and opinions and are incapable of listening to
those of others.

But sometimes I find myself surprised and delighted when a student, or
even a whole class, come to a point where they examine something,
often an abstract concept or theory or belief, and a light comes into
their eyes. Aha Moments in the classroom when someone suddenly “gets”
it are breathtakingly wonderful. It’s even more so when it’s
something more profound than the third conditional. I don’t want them
to find an answer though, something they can tick off and put away; I
want them to begin their own lifelong Grail Quest for personal
truths, living evolving things that change and grow as they do. If I
see from someone’s eyes that they have begun to think anew about
something, I have a very special warm glow that makes even the shitty
days feel worthwhile, and believe me, days like that are very common.
Days when I get asked at 9.15am when is it break, or get told they’re
bored, or when students just stare at me with suspicious shut down
eyes: they make me go home and weep.

Because students (in fact anyone) who allow that subtle insertion and prising
open are relatively rare, and I am not yet an expert at understanding
who is ready and who is not. I look for the little chinks of light,
and I do and say stuff to engage interest. One of my lessons involves
heraldry. Yes, I know that sounds strange, but it’s all about
symbolism and self-hood. After exploring the topic each student has
the chance to create their own coat of arms. I send them off to leaf
through my books, my downloads of the language of symbols and to
think about who they are and how they might express this on a shield.
It’s a deceptively gentle lesson involving drawing and colouring and
thoughts deeper than they at first understand. I may do a similar one
with Medicine Shields( Native American) if I get a class I feel is
likely to enjoy it. I am always pleased with the results. While the
artwork is sometimes rather odd, the sense of engagement is always
exciting.

But there are plenty of students who would then complain they haven’t
done enough grammar. And that makes me sad. Because that means they
have reacted to the exercises by withdrawing and redefining their
expectations. Ho hum.

It’s about being ready. My duty as a teacher(not just as a TEFL teacher,
which actually I suck at, to be frank) is to gauge when someone is
ready to open up and start exploring the mysteries of life on earth,
and sometimes I get it very wrong. Sometimes people are only ready to
go and paddle in that vast ocean and they panic(justifiably) when I
in my excitement, start assembling the deep sea diving gear and start
consulting the areas of the maps that only say Here be Dragons, and
they back away, saying, “I never signed up for this!”

Jesus had a saying that often seems contemptuous to us. Pearls before swine
is a pithy aphorism and yet, harsh but true. If you expect people to
engage in something for which they are not prepared in any sense at
all, they will often turn on you and trample what you offer and on
you. If they don’t “get” it, how on earth can you help them to
“get” it?

Patience is the answer. Like with the horse in the second proverb, you can
lead someone and let them take their own time about drinking. A horse
drinks when it is thirsty, not when you want it to, for your
convenience and comfort. It’s the same with people. People will drink
from the well of wisdom when they are ready to and not before then.
Some may perish before a drop passes their lips but that is their
journey in this life. It’s not for me to force their jaws open and
pour the waters in as they splutter and spit it out.

All I can do is learn to recognise when someone thirsts and hold out a cup
brimming with water and wait for them to take it.

Easter Day ~ He is Risen and walks among us

 Some years ago while attending an event in Leicester diocese, I saw Jesus walking in the crowds. The man was the actor who plays Jesus in the mystery plays (for more about him see the Being Jesus link) and had a really ineffable quality about him that got me thinking: what if Jesus really did walk among us and we simply didn’t know. If we made the assumption that he is indeed among us, would this change how we lived our lives?

I try to do just this.  

Jesus walks among us

 

I know he’s only an actor

Playing his appointed role,

But can I be the only one

Who felt my heart lift to see

Those sandaled feet among us,

The archaic robes shabby in sunlight

And the dark curls of beard

Twitch with a smile as he passed?

Am I the only one to ask

A terrified “What if?” and wonder

If it might truly be Him

Walking among the crowds,

Still alone and set apart

Even when thousands press round?

Of course, I know full well

He’s only an actor doing

What his role demands of him,

But still my heart sings

As my mind asks, “What if?”

 

The Red Shoes ~ a dark faery tale of compulsion and addiction

 

The Red Shoes ~ a dark faery tale of compulsion and addiction

  

If you remember the Hans Christian Andersen story from childhood, you’ll remember the plot basically goes like this: orphaned child adopted by rich old lady covets ‘sinful’ red shoes and tricks her guardian into having some made for her by a shoemaker. The child finally breaks the prohibition on wearing them to church, and on speaking with a strange soldier who admires the shoes (the devil in disguise) the shoes come to life and dance her away until she begs the excutioner to frees her from them by cutting her feet off, and the shoes (complete with feet) dance away. Earlier versions have the girl dance herself to a skeleton and dance on after death.

Whichever version you know, they’re all pretty grim. The version in the Kate Bush song is possibly grimmer than either. If you watch the second video, it tells the story of a dancing diva who comes to a dowdy and quiet girl backstage and tricks her into taking the shoes from her, whereupon she is freed from the spell of the shoes and runs away leaving the girl to discover her hideous mistake.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXTRe9ttMXw this is just the song

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzkQ_jWSDHo this is the video; very disturbing but please watch, it’s powerful.

Oh she move like the Diva do
I said ‘I’d love to dance like you.’
She said ‘just take off my red shoes
Put them on and your dream’ll come true
With no words, with no song
You can dance the dream with your body on
And this curve, is your smile
And this cross, is your heart
And this line, is your path
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always thought it would be
But it’s gonna be no illusion
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always dreamt about it
But it’s gonna be really happening to ya
Really happening to ya
Really happening to ya’
Oh the minute I put them on
I knew I had done something wrong
All her gifts for the dance had gone
It’s the red shoes, they can’t stop dancing, dancing
And this curve, is your smile
And this cross, is your heart
And this line, is your path
‘Oh it’s gonna be the way you always thought it would be
But it’s gonna be no illusion
Oh it’s gonna be the way you always dreamt about it
But it’s gonna be really happening to ya’
She gotta dance, she gotta dance
And she can’t stop ’till them shoes come off
These shoes do, a kind of voodoo
They’re gonna make her dance ’till her legs fall off
Feel your hair come tumbling down
Feel your feet start kissing the ground
Feel your arms are opening out
And see your eyes are lifted to God
With no words, with no song
I’m gonna dance the dream
And make the dream come true
I’m gonna dance the dream
And make the dream come true
She gotta dance, she gotta dance
And she can’t stop ’till them shoes come off
These shoes do, a kind of voodoo
They’re gonna make her dance ’till her legs fall off
Call a doctor, call a priest
They’re gonna whip her up like a helicopter
Really happening to ya
Really happening to ya
You gotta dance….
 
 

 

 

 

This is the tale at the heart of every addiction, every compulsion, every obsession. If you have ever been in the grip of any of these, you’ll know that manic, frantic need for the substance, or idea or action or person, that drives you beyond wild. Listen to the music, hear that beat, that’s your heart. Hear that inner scream, that’s you.

In both the original faery tale and the Kate Bush version there is a trickster, a person who cons you into taking the forbidden shoes because they bleed into your dreams. They only offer you it, they cannot force it onto you. You choose to take it. “Oh the minute I put them on, I knew I had done something wrong!” It can take years to wake up to the damage of a compulsion or addiction but some part of us knows, at that very first instance. Is it any wonder that many users become dealers? We seek to rid ourselves of the Red Shoes, usually by passing them on to some other unwitting victim who buys into the same dark dreams; and yet however we give away or sell the Shoes, they’re there, stuck on our feet and no amount of pulling can get them off.

They’ve become part of us. The solution is always radical. It’s always painful, often excruciatingly so. Cut it off, cut it out of your life. The faery-tale version has the shoes dance away, gruesome but harmless because they can never be filled again by living feet. The song version leaves the ending to the imagination, and it’s likely a dark one.

Go back in time to the moment you first donned your Red Shoes. What did you think they were going to do for you? The chances are they did, but like all demonic pacts, never in the way you thought they would. The outcome twists your hopes and intentions.

Look at your Red Shoes. Are they pretty any more or do they drive you to do things you don’t like admitting? Can you take them off and throw them in the river or into the fire or does the thought of that make you shudder?

If you can’t take them off, time to find someone who can, even if they take your feet away too. Better to walk lame than dance into hell.

 

{for more analysis of the meanings of faery tales I would recommend reading Women who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. It’s a brick of a book but wonderfully written. Read more about it and her here : http://shadowwings.wordpress.com/2008/11/27/refuse-to-fall-down/

or here http://www.clarissapinkolaestes.com/

Stale, mate

 

Stale, mate

 

I’m stuck, trapped, boxed in.

Whichever way I move,

It brings me back to here,

Walled in and cornered.

I’m sick of the knife-edge tango

This dance with balance

and the relentless Dark Queen

Chasing me across the board.

I tap-dance between squares,

Trying to escape with clever moves

returning always to this state.

Breathing space, for a short while

Means I can fool myself I am free

Before the shadow of the Queen

Falls long across the field

And in a few moves, I’m locked up

Pinned down and frantic.

I concede: you win.

No rematch, please.

 

The Healing Power of Metaphorical Mud

 

The Healing Power of Metaphorical Mud

I took the train yesterday across the frozen land between my small coastal port town and our nearest big city, Norwich. Traces of snow still showed here and there like dirty cream at the sides of roads, and the trees were all coated with a fine fur of hoar frost. Standing water was grey with sheet ice, and water birds huddled in stoical groups waiting for the thaw; slow-running water was sealed with a layer of rotten ice, broken and untrustworthy for anything larger than a mouse. Rivers were flowing under filmy remains of ice, but the landscape held little comfort for humans. The immense skies for which this area is famous were layered with clouds and colours ranging from palest apricot to brilliant turquoise, but I preferred to enjoy the scenery from the warmth of the train. Stepping out into the city, I wished I had brought gloves and headed first for a hot coffee before beginning my shopping.

As I walked around the city, I reflected on how the unusually cold weather my land was enduring might seem mild to those who live through the fierce winters of Canada and parts of Europe where once winter has begun, it holds the earth hard in its grip until the spring thaw. In Britain winter bites and releases many times until spring, but the milder times are a time of terrible mess. Once the land thaws, the water imprisoned in snow and ice flows freely, often causing localised flooding, and when the floods recede, mud and filth coat everything.

Snow was once referred to as poor man’s manure, because it brings with it minerals that feed the land, and mud, however foul it smells, feeds the often impoverished farmlands. Egypt relied on its annual floods to keep the farmland fertile.

Water as an element is often equated to emotions and feelings and the state of being frozen emotionally is often one that can become a state of normality for some people. To feel nothing is sometimes a blessing but it can’t carry on for long. Like winter, it won’t last forever, and that’s when the mess comes.

Mud and tears.

After the snow: the rain.

After the rain: the flood.

After the flood: the mud.

Snow imprisons me

And I dread the thaw:

Tears, anger and the mud.

What a mess!

But the black Nile silt

Laid thick across the plain

Made Egypt once

An Empire’s breadbasket.

Let then the ice melt:

Welcome the dancing torrents

And await the healing mud.

Of course, the state of transition between emotional states is deeply disturbing. It feels as though chaos and ruin reign. Nothing feels as it ought. There is mess everywhere; we cannot control our feelings, our reactions. We become coated in mud.

But mud, whether literal or metaphorical, contains nutrients that feed the land, or the ground of our being. And a garden that is well nourished brings forth flowers and fruit in their season.

Watching your garden emerge from the dark dank seasons of mud and muck and ice is a beautiful thing. Seeds from who knows where have been washed in, too. Some may germinate and surprise you by the beauty of what they bring; some may be no more than weeds. But mud brings growth and change.

Don’t be too hasty to wash it all off. You never know what strange and wonderful things it may have brought to you.

Warning!

  The following lines came to me (partially, anyway) yesterday in church. Those of you who notice the first line(and the title) is in homage to Jenny Joseph’s wonderful poem, give yourselves a gold star. This one is for Mark,who asked for something lighter after the somewhat grim offering yesterday. I was wearing more purple than the Bishop yesterday, and it sort of sparked some thoughts. Enjoy, I’m off to Marks and Spencer’s.

Warning

 

When I am bold I shall wear purple

With red satin undies that nobody sees

but make me feel a million dollars

in an inexplicable, sensual way

I shall say what I mean when I speak

and mean what I say, whatever the cost

I shall not waver in my conviction

that I have a right to be here

I shall leave my face unpainted if I want

And not feel bound by convention or habit

To alter my appearance in the slightest

If that is not how I wish to look.

I will wear flatties even if the style gurus say “No!”

because as a work in progress,

I am a being of perpetual motion

and no one can really run in heels.

I will try new things when I find them

even if they make me sick for a week

I will not follow the herd, but

I may accompany then sometimes

For observation and learning

because, you know, sometimes,

it’s nice to be part of a group.

But sometimes, I am far from bold

and I seek to hide my colours amid the beige

and wear underwear the colour of old gum

and say nothing when I should say everything,

shudder at the thought of trying something new

and hide from those who may need me

because to be bold is also to be a target

and a soul gets tired of being hunted.

So I will start small and work towards

an everyday boldness that becomes

a solid purple beacon of light

By buying those red satin undies

for those days when I need to be bold

and daring, from the inside out.

 

 

Writer’s Block- a short story

 

Writer’s Block

The blank page was as empty as a bank account the day before pay-day, and as depressingly familiar. Like a signpost pointing an accusing finger, the page indicated another day of failure, of emptiness and despair. Oh, words had been briefly typed upon this mocking sheet, and then erased before they had time to settle there. If this had been an old-fashioned typewriter, then a forest of paper would have been in the bin by now, and with crumpled islands of discarded starts surrounding the target. That was one small mercy of the computer revolution, no waste paper any more. Instead, the untitled page opened day after day, with all words wiped from it. Surely there was a Greek myth somewhere of someone who toiled all day writing words that faded from the page as night fell. If there was, he couldn’t remember how it ended

Well, the words didn’t fade: he deleted them, despising himself and those ill-chosen words that just sat on the page like awkward teenagers, jostling each other and looking out of place and untidy and defiant. It was the defiance that got him angry and made him hit delete over and over again.

I used to be so good at this, he thought, miserably, closing the file and shutting the computer down. A glass of wine to chase down the blues, and he’d call it a night, again, sleeping fitfully and being pursued by words that fled when he turned and tried to see their shapes. Tomorrow, just to be that little bit more hopeful, was another day and it held all sorts of joys, not least of which was an appointment with a hypnotist. He sighed, drank the wine too fast to enjoy it and went to bed.

I want you to visualise your block,” said the hypnotist.

Trying to oblige, he did so.

What form does it take?”

It’s like the Berlin Wall, but a hundred or so feet high,” he said.

Visualise a door.”

He did so. It was a very handsome door too, with brass fittings and a massive bolt and lock.

It’s locked,” he said.

There was a tiny sigh from the hypnotist, and through the filters of his downcast eyelashes, he saw her glance at her watch. She’s bored with me already, he thought, and sighed himself.

Look in your pockets, you’ll find the key,” she said and he could hear the boredom and irritation.

In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a massive bunch of keys, and after rifling through them, he said,

Nope, it’s not there.”

You must try harder,” she said and he snapped open his eyes, and glared at her.

Do you not think I’m already trying as hard as I can,” he snapped.

I think you’re deliberately sabotaging yourself because you don’t really want to get through this block,” she said. “Don’t bother to make another appointment until you make your mind up to really embrace this.”

Well, that was a waste of time and money, he thought as he drove home to the empty screen awaiting him. Now I know my block is a hundred feet high and crosses a whole country, and I don’t appear to have the key. Really helpful. Not.

Before he opened that taunting file again, he checked through his emails and found one from an old friend.

I’ve sent something for your little problem; should be with you tomorrow,” she’d written.

The block had become so much a part of his life that he often felt he ought to introduce his friends to it at parties. The block had lasted longer now than many relationships and like a failing marriage that has ceased to even invite interest, let alone the kind of slightly voyeuristic attention it did at the start of the downward slope, it had become a subject to avoid among his friends. They were bored with it and with him; a writer who can’t write any more ceases to have a place in the world unless he reinvents himself, perhaps as an editor or a critic. For him that would be when mercy killing might be in order.

His friends scarcely ever mentioned his block, as though it were an embarrassing disorder the discussion of which might somehow infect them, so it intrigued him what she might be sending. At the start of it, people had been full of helpful suggestions and ideas, all of which he’d tried, with a steadily decreasing amount of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure what else might be possible; hypnosis had been his last idea.

The following afternoon, the parcel carrier van pulled up outside his house and offloaded a large and heavy box. Signing for it, he barely managed to get it inside and dumped it on the kitchen table with a resounding thud. Taped up and mysterious, it sat there, inviting him to open it. He stared at it, wine glass in hand unable to make a start on it. Somehow the prospect of another disappointment was almost too much to bear. By the second glass of wine, curiosity was getting the better of him and he began ripping away the tape and slashing at the cardboard with the vegetable knife in a frantic effort to get it open.

Peeling the flaps back, now ragged from his frenzy, he peered inside. He blinked. Amid the polystyrene chips, there sat a large rough hewn block of wood, which was tied up with a bright red satin ribbon.

What the f-?” he said, biting back the obscenity.

He emptied the box, tipping the chips out on the floor and feeling through every corner of the box. Nothing. Not even a note, nothing.

The bitch…” he breathed, awed that someone he thought he knew so well could surprise him like this with such a vicious piece of mockery. He’d really not have thought her capable of such extraordinary nastiness.

Anger boiled over, and he hefted the block in his arms and marched outside into the fading light of the garden. The wood shed was mostly full, with the arrival of a new load for the coming winter and he at first intended to just chuck the block in there but as he flung open the door, something caught the light and glinted. The big axe he used to split logs was embedded in his chopping block and the polished head gleamed with oil.

I’ll show you what I think of your block,” he said, and seized the axe, tugging it from the block and as his long-repressed fury took control of his hands and his heart and he placed his gift on the block and began to attack it with the axe.

Halfway, he stopped and sharpened the axe very carefully. It was only the coming of darkness that halted his focussed efforts. By then the block had been reduced to splinters suitable for kindling only.

Sweating and breathless he threw all the pieces he could find into the log basket and carried them back into the house. Well, tonight seemed to be getting colder; time to light the fire for the first time this autumn, then. The hearth needed sweeping before he could lay the fire, and by the time the flames had begun to warm the room, he felt only a sense of emptiness again. He’d lost a friend today, truly, because he’d obviously never really known her at all.

Sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, he gazed at the fire and felt tears streaming down his face, distorting his vision and making the flames seem softer somehow, reminding him of his grandmother’s house when he was small. She’d make him crumpets by toasting them on the fire and slathering them with butter from their own cows. He remembered her with some surprise; she’d been gone more than twenty years and he’d scarcely given her a thought in all that time. Strange, really, when she’d been the one who’d enthralled him with tales of her own childhood and of things her grandmother told her. He probably owed his whole love of stories to her.

Watching the dancing flames, he saw images in them, pictures of things long ago and far away and rather marvellous and magical, and he found himself reaching for his laptop and beginning to type, filling that blank sheet with words that danced like the flames and made patterns of surpassing wonder.

And he didn’t delete a single word.