My grandfather had trained wasps.
Yes. It used to be traditional among ex-miners to have a shed out on
the allotment to keep their wasps in. They used to breed them and race
them - you have seen the great swarms of homing wasps on the big race
days haven't you?
My grandfather, of course, was not satisfied with just breeding and
racing the wasps - even the almost legendary 'Speckled-Blue Vicious
Bugger' that old Stan 'Stained-vest' Megglethorpe was rumoured to have
bred back at the turn of the century.
My granddad wanted a wasp that could: 'do something, instead of sitting
around looking pretty like those poofy bloody show-wasps, or just
bloody racing.' He wanted a wasp that could help him with his beer; a
task that kept him so occupied that sometimes he did not emerge from
his cellar for several days. It was only from the muffled sound of his
singing that prevented us from fearing the worst during those lost
So, after many seasons of heart-breaking failure, he - at last -
managed to breed a wasp that could carry a hop back from a field. Only
one at a time, but he planned whole swarms that would leave the shed
first thing in the morning - and using that wondrous homing ability
that wasps have which enables them to locate a jam-encrusted child from
the whole crowd on a beach - to seek out a hop field and then to strip
whole rows of the plants before returning back to the allotment shed as
On the morning when he felt that his first 'hop-fetching' wasp (My
grandfather had an uncanny knack for picking the apt and memorably
descriptive phrase. For instance: the shed was known, wittily, as 'the
shed' and the allotment as 'my allotment'. Many was the time he would
leave us laughing and smiling as he said, with a straight-face, that he
was 'going down the bloody cellar to get pissed'. Not, I think it is
safe to say, since Oscar Wilde have these islands produced such a
naturally witty man.) Anyway, it was a tense time as he and I stood
watching the wasp fly off into the early morning sunlight, watching
until it was less than a speck in the distance - even my grandfather
with his keen wasp-racing eye, lost sight of it after what could easily
have been a dozen yards.
Needless to say, that seemed to be the longest day of my life.
Countless cups of tea were consumed by both of us as we waited - at one
point I was even sent out to buy another bag of sugar. Even with the
retelling of all of my grandfather's favourite stories about how the
world had been such a far better place when he was young, about how
good it had been during the war and how ungrateful the younger
generations were these days, time seemed to crawl slowly and cautiously
much like, in fact, the way my grandfather himself would crawl from the
cellar a few days after 'just popping down to check on the beer.'
Eventually evening came and the sun began its long slow descent towards
the summer's horizon. My grandfather paced backwards and forwards along
the full row of his prize-winning cabbages, pausing at each end to scan
the sky with his sharp wasp-racers eye and listening intently for the
tell-tale buzz. I stood on the step of the shed, glancing back every
now and then to see if the kettle was boiling, as we waited... and
"The bugger's coming back, get the tea on," my grandfather said. I
still could not see or hear anything, but I trusted his word. A few
moments later I was testing to see whether the tea had stood for long
enough, by seeing if the spoon would remain upright in it, when I heard
the buzz, faint and distant.
Something was wrong! The buzz was not right! It sounded more like a
teenager on a moped than the proud full-bodied roar of a thoroughbred
racing wasp in its prime. I raced outside to the landing window, where
- it seemed - all the other wasps had gathered too.
My grandfather was there too. "Bloody fly-spray! I knew it," he said as
he gazed off several feet into the setting sun. I could see it too as
it flew erratically towards the shed window.
"He's not going to make it!"
Before grandfather had even finished speaking, I was racing down the
row of cabbages towards where I had seen the speck tumble from the sky.
When grandfather arrived, I was easing it off the cabbage leaf where it
"Bastard!" I screamed as the wasp managed to summon the strength, from
somewhere, for a final sting. I dropped the wasp and to my surprise
granddad stepped forward and brought down his heavy miner's boot on the
still trembling form.
"Why?" I said. "He was dying, he didn't know what he was doing. It was
a reflex, nothing more." I stared up, through my tears, into my
grandfather's hard and uncompromising stare.
"Once they go that way, there is no bringing them back, no saving
them," he said. "Once they get the taste of stinging human flesh then
that is the way they'll allus be." He turned away and trudged heavily
back up the row of cabbages to the shed and a consoling cup of
The ruins of his dream lay squashed and shattered at my feet. I looked
down, and there, half-hidden by the deepening shadow of the cabbage
leaf, was a single hop. Smiling and laughing I picked it up and ran to