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Tom Bates Short Story - A Sting in the Tale!

Posted Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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A Sting in the Tale by Tom Bates

We were simple country folk. Our home was a small, lichen-encrusted limestone cottage on the edge of the moors above Darley Dale, which had been built by my great-great-grandfather, Reprobatus Bates, during the reign of King William 1V & Queen Adelaide. Locals referred to it as `t’orphanage’ - as my brother and I, who lived there by ourselves were believed to be orphans; in actual fact at the outbreak of the war, Mum ran off to Chesterfield to work as a rivetter in a munitions factory, and simply never came back.

Bernard was 21 when he inherited the cottage after dad was killed on the Somme, and I, at thirteen, very much the `baby brother’.

Life was a struggle between the wars, and Bernard laboured on neighboring farms, dry-stone walling and helping with the sheep to provide for us, and to keep me in school at Matlock.

We lived just beyond the boundaries of the park and formal gardens surrounding a large and stately mansion occupied by an extremely rich and aristocratic spinster, renowned for her great wealth, and even greater frugality. Some even said she was mean.

She was also a very keen bee-keeper, with dozens of hives amongst the heather on both Beeley Moor and Big Moor and along both the Derwent and Wye Valleys, and was justifiably famed for her `Derbyshire Heather Honey’ – which was commercially available, but only, of course, in the best shops in Bakewell.

It was the end of what had been dubiously called the `summer’ of 1934, which those with long memories (or a reference book on the weather of the 20th century) will recall, followed the seventeen-foot deep snowdrifts of the previous long, cruel and bitter winter, which had wiped out most of the nations bees.

Bernard and I were gathering apples from our two trees, which, being almost enclosed by blackberry, raspberry, gooseberry and red-currant bushes, we proudly called our `orchard’, when the old spinster from the mansion appeared at our gate.

Bernard and I looked at each other in consternation, and then both regarded the lady with something approaching awe as she calmly leant her bicycle against our garden wall, and looking down her aristocratic nose, fixed us with a piercing gaze.

Though seventy years ago, I still remember feeling distinctly humbled – and somewhat terror-stricken in her presence!

She addressed my elder brother:

“I see you have a bit of an apple tree’, she remarked in a shrill, haughty voice, `I wonder if you could afford to let me purchase some – for cash”?

Bernard swiftly doffed his cap and bowing slightly, nervously stammered,

“Oh, er…. arr, reet awa’ Ma’am”, and whilst she waited, filled a basket to the brim with the very best of the crop.

As he politely handed it over the gate to her, she glanced rather disdainfully into the basket, and remarked pointedly, “Well, I suppose they’ll do”, and opening her purse, offered Bernard a penny.

He looked long and hard at the proffered coin, and his expression of dutiful respect slowly changed to one of barely disguised contempt as he coolly met her gaze. Then bowing rather grandly, he answered, “No thank thee Ma’am, God gi’‘um, thee tek um”, and returned stiff-backed to the orchard.

He fumed for days.

“What wi’ price o’ apples‘at fuppence a’parnd, an’ ‘er ‘avin’ four parnd ‘a more in ‘er basket – an’ ‘er gee’in’ me a penny! Bloody cheek!”

But he was most upset by her reference to our orchard as `a bit of an apple tree’ – our orchard –a bit of an apple tree indeed! It was at least two bits.

He was most displeased.

In late September we were astounded to receive an invitation to a garden-party and afternoon tea at the mansion.

Bernard decided that despite his reluctance to again fall foul of the local vicar - whom he’d previously told to `bugger off’ when he’d called to ask for a donation towards the new church roof - we couldn’t afford NOT to go, and so we went.

It was a typical late summer gathering of those times; country-house manicured lawn, individual tables with parasols for the gentry, trestle-tables and wooden benches for the rest; and inevitably, the local vicar surrounded by a babble of fawning middle-aged ladies, like chicks around a mother hen.

Presently we were called to the long table, where tea was served rather over-ceremoniously by the frilly-frocked house-servants, upon whose departure, the Lady of the House rose to her feet, and tapping the rim of her champagne glass with the silver spoon she’d had in her mouth from birth, called for silence.

As the vicar gave the blessing, Bernard, with head bowed, eyed his plate.

A miniscule blob of honey had been dabbed in the centre, and there were three large slices of freshly baked bread on a side plate.

He looked slowly along the row of bowed heads and noted that all the other guests had also been served with a similarly miniscule blob of the frugal old spinsters honey.

As the vicar ended with a solemn, `Amen’, you could have heard a pin drop.

A loud cough broke the silence, and all eyes instantly flew to Bernard in approbation.

He glanced down at his plate, and despite the old spinsters withering gaze, remarked in a measured, if slightly mocking tone,

“Ah see tha’ keeps a bee, Ma’am’!



900 words Tom Bates

Christmas 2005

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