Wasp City (day one)

Sunday 16th April 2011

This morning I first noticed her paper globe nest. I guess I was looking down at my burgeoning plants and failed to register that, instead of scouting for a place, as I had assumed on seeing her from time to time, this queen wasp had chosen my polytunnel for her building site.

The Polytunnel

I was thrilled and delighted to see her beautiful paper globe taking shape hanging from the central timber support about three quarters of the way along. Resisting the urge to duck every time she comes and goes, I also have a tinge of fear when she’s so close. I needn’t worry, though: it’s as if I am little more than something to fly around. She is totally focussed on her life’s work. Short of actually interfering with her, I am certain she is not bothered about my presence at all.

It’s difficult to tell how long she’s been making the nest. The recent warm weather has meant that the tunnel didn’t need to be closed up, even at night; so the queen wasp has been able to go in and out without hindrance for about a week. Before that, the polytunnel was opened most days and closed at night for about a fortnight. One thing is clear though – it is being built at a fast rate. When I first saw it this mid morning, it was a single sphere of translucent paper with what appeared to be a short veil above it. At the end of today, she has built the most part of a new sphere around the first one. It hangs downwards from the middle timber support and has a circular opening at the bottom that is a little more across than the diameter of her body. This hole leads into the central space that houses the hexagonal cells where her offspring are growing. There appear to be seven cells, though its a bit difficult to see inside.

The first picture of the nest. It's about 50mm across and the second shell is half made

The queen comes and goes every ten to fifteen minutes during the warm part of the day; immediately on arrival she spends a couple of minutes in the core space, apparently tending the cells. She may be feeding them, though it’s not possible to see what she’s doing. Then out she comes and gets busy building. Having done a quick check around, she chooses the place to start and works backwards anticlockwise, feeling all the while the inner globe with her middle right leg. At the same time, her middle left leg constantly feels the outside of the sphere she’s making. It seems that this is the way she keeps the structure in perfect shape. What she uses for building is a wet, quick-drying fibre that looks exactly like home made paper, which she regurgitates and moulds with her jaws. When she goes out, one of the things she does is scrape wood fibres from a board somewhere, mash it together and bring it home ready for construction work.

The queen wasp busy making the second layer

It’s now 5.30 and she seems to have come home for the last time and is inside the inner cell space for the night. Let’s see how much she does tomorrow.



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The Boy with a Sword

As usual, Brian went to bed without clothes. He was fourteen and thought that perverse behaviour was hip. Being naked in bed was risky without being too reprehensible and, besides, he liked the sensuousness of the sheets against his skin and the budding thoughts of sex they brought.

His parents went out to the pub that night, just as they did three of four times a week. Most times it was to the Dolphin, which was a quick stroll over the ancient stone bridge. Occasionally, they kept this side of the river and walked the lanes to the Oliver Cromwell. Being under age, he didn’t really know what they got up to, but they talked of games of brag, and he could tell they spent a lot of money on booze, because his mum slurred her words and dad got angry, whenever they woke him coming back at midnight. Mostly, they were quiet and he didn’t waken, though not infrequently and mostly at weekends, they were louder and he resented them banging their way through the end of his room. The building was old and narrow with rooms you had to go through to get to the next one. His bedroom had a wardrobe across the end of the room partially blocking the thoroughfare. This didn’t help much to deaden the parents’ movements through his sleeping space. When they were drunk late at night and he was woken up, he’d pull the bedclothes over his head and curse and thump the pillow, frustrated.

This night, they went out at nine o’clock and soon after, Brian took to his bed in the nude, as was normal for him, in that narrow room with that wardrobe for a half wall. Lights off and trying for sleep, there was very little noise in the town. Cars were few, it was too early in the week for revellers and the only sounds came from either the old house creaking as it moved perpetually from warm to cool, wet to dry, and his own body breathing and beating as he dozed off.

His first thought was that he’d been dreaming the light sounds from below. Now awake and keeping perfectly still, every pore alert, hands at his sides, he listened intently. There was nothing; he must have dreamed it. “Go back to sleep”, Brian told himself, still a bit nervous. Then a shock ran through his tense body as a slight bang came from downstairs. Somebody’s in the shop. Must be a burglar after that day’s takings.

His dad was fiercely proud of his grocer’s shop on the ground floor. It had been opened two years before and was the vanguard of a changing world. The first self-service shop in the whole of East Anglia, it was a revolution in food selling. Opened on a shoe string and credit from the wholesaler, it was by now well established. Soon, there would be no more selling cans and bottles, cartons and packets from behind a counter; all grocers’ shops will be self-service. In a few years’ time the first supermarket will open and there will be cars for everyone to get to it. Meanwhile, this massive change was beginning in a small way in the shop below Brian’s bedroom.

There were more little sounds from below, every one increasing his heart rate. He was alone in this otherwise deserted building. Nobody could help. It had to be a thief down there rummaging about, searching for the money, knocking things in the dark and maybe thinking there was nobody around. Had to be. He ought to be afraid, but the adrenaline made his light shudders more exciting than fearsome. What to do? Do nothing and risk being murdered in his bed? Better to be brave and take the sword down to the burglar. Confront him, make him drop the money and run.

Six months before, he’d been in the little junk shop on the Quayside, just idly looking, when he saw the slightly curved blade in its plain metal scabbard. He couldn’t keep his hands off it. The yearn for it was intense; he had to have it. The tall, sparse, elderly man watching Brian carefully, said it was from the Napoleonic War and it was a bayonet, not a real sword. It seemed real to the boy. It was more than two feet long, had a groove along both sides for the blood, a coiled metal handle with a hand guard and a kind of loop that was for the muzzle of the musket to fit over. There was letttering down the blade in French and it was heavy in his hand. It was a wicked killing tool, but he didn’t think that at the time. Only later, when he got past twenty five and had those visions, did he look back and see it in his mind’s eye for what it actually was. Now though, he could taste the need in him to own it. The shop man said he’d keep it for him for a week. It took six days to raise the two pounds ten, working for his dad packing the shelves, scrounging money from mum and robbing the metal black man of his savings – the one with the hand that posted coins into its mouth.

It now rested in its scabbard, point down, in the angle between the wardrobe and the wall, ready for anything. Unlike the sword, Brian was not ready. Pulled by the thoughts of heroic action and pushed under the bedclothes by fear, he did nothing for a few minutes. There were no more sounds from below and told himself he had been imagining things. Most probably it was one of the cats knocking boxes over. Reassured by his own story, he was calmer; but he couldn’t stop the conviction that he’d better just go down and check.

Slipping out of bed and creeping as light footed as possible, regretting each tiny creak, he went to his precious sword and it gave a slight metallic sigh as it slid out of the scabbard. He’d used metal polish on the blade and it gleamed in the low light coming from his battery lamp by the bed. Still naked and holding the weapon in both hands in front of him, he padded nearly silently round the wardrobe, across the room behind it and through the open door to the next room. It was a box room the same length as his own and like it, a thoroughfare. It led to the stairs.

The sword made him brave and foolhardy. Going down those stairs with no clothes on in the dark to challenge a probably desperate robber was stupid, even though he was carrying a lethal weapon. He was tall for his age and slim. If it hadn’t been for the asthma, he would have been athletic. Moving silently was easy for him. Going to judo every week, led by Mr. Smith the fish shop man, helped his balance and poise. He hoped he wouldn’t have to use the sword, because he’d only the vaguest idea how. Other than point it at someone and hope they’d be intimidated, he had no skill with the thing.

The staircase turned round ninety degrees at the top with four ‘winders’, then there were nine steps to the bottom. He couldn’t see any thing in that back end of the shop, because a tall shelf unit full of packets of cereals backed onto the stairs. This was the end of the customer part of the shop and the other side of the shelf unit was where the glass fronted provisions refrigerators ran at right angles. During the day, his dad and his chain smoking assistant Arthur served the bacon, ham and cheese from behind the fridges. At this end was the huge red hand cranked bacon slicer with its great circular blade and spiked clamp, both of which could produce fearful wounds if you weren’t paying enough attention. Then there was the cheese board, split down the middle for the cutting wire. At the far end was the electric ham slicer, whose razor sharp blade would in a later year neatly remove the top of Brian’s thumb.

There was still no sound of movement in the darkened shop as Brian reached the concrete floor. The only light bled from the street lamps all the way through the shop, producing big areas of shadow. It was even darker in the back half of the shop, the part where the hams were cooked, the cheeses stores and the big walk-in fridge sat noisily preserving the sides of bacon, gammons and boxes of lard. It was too dark and sinister there, so he decided to go in the shop first.

All the fridges were suddenly running noisily at once as he carefully rounded the end of the unit to face into the shop. It must have been cold, but he didn’t feel it. He could see into most of the space from there including two black corners, one on his right half way down the shop and the other in the passage his father had laboriously cut through five feet of the massive wall dividing the building. This made a circular way round for the customers. He looked until his eyes became dry with staring and he had to blink. There didn’t seem to be anyone there, so the boy moved out into the open, sounds covered by the continuing rattle from the fridges, sword ready and shining from the street lamps.

Just as he was turning to go back the way he came, a massive figure stepped out of the deepest shadow on his right and shone a torch straight in his eyes. “Ok boy, give me the sword”, rumbled the huge black clad man in a broad Welsh accent. From suddenly being witless with fright, Brian was altogether relieved, realising that the bass voice issued from beneath a pointed black helmet. A copper! He was really shaking now as he handed his weapon handle first to the policeman. He almost collapsed, but hung on to the edge of the fridge.

Bloody hell!”, Police Constable ‘Taffy’ Davies exploded. “I thought you were a burglar and was going to stick me with this thing”. Brian’s voice refused to work properly. The tremors had affected his throat badly, but he managed a high pitched tremolo: “I thought you were a burglar too”, he warbled.

Extract from the notebook of PC 358 Dafydd Davies:

May 12th 1961

1000pm begin duty

1005pm shift briefing Sgt. Harrison

1020pm commence foot patrol

1025pm Bridge St. south side check shop doors

1030pm find No. 21 shop door unlocked, enter front of premises and check ground floor

1037pm hear noises from above, take position of observation

1042pm clear sounds of movement down stairs, make ready

1047pm confront naked boy, confiscate sword

1050pm ascertain identity of boy as son of shop owners

1055pm telephone station, request colleague find and inform parents of situation

1108pm parents arrive from Oliver Cromwell pub

1115pm resume foot patrol


This incident lasted forty five minutes, but was notorious for years. Taffy Davies was fond of recounting the story, saying to his audience how funny it was. What he didn’t tell them was how terrified he was at seeing that gleaming weapon come at him in the semi dark of that shop interior and how bizarre it was to see a slight, trembling naked boy shaking a sword in his direction.

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