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Chapter 1     Chapter 2    Chapter 3   Chapter 4   Chapter 5   Chapter 6   Chapter 7   Chapter 8   Chapter 9   Chapter 10    Chapter 11   Chapter 12   Chapter 13   Chapter 14

Chapter 4

It seemed that during my first few weeks in the job I was destined to be lumbered with zany women and not the least of these was Mrs Lottie Elson. in fact the entire Elson family was strange to say the least.

It happened some two weeks after the dustman story. The time had gone fairly slowly and in a very straightforward way. I had been restricted to covering the occasional meeting and typing out wedding reports and funerals and the like. It was a valuable time, however, for cementing relationships in the office.

Robin and Louise were always very friendly and helpful and Birkett and Willson were understanding about my inexperience. I had the feeling, however, that they were deliberately giving me the easy jobs until I had proved myself. It would be very difficult finding a good story. But back to the Elson story.

It all started on a Wednesday and was like something from a comedy show.

Mrs Elson phoned up and, as I was the only one in the office at the time, I naturally answered. Even after just a few weeks in the job I prided myself on the ability to recognise a good story when I heard one and this sounded like a cracker.

It appeared her house was being besieged and slowly eaten by bees that had nested in the masonry. I told her that a reporter and a photographer would hopefully call on her that morning.

I wouldn't say that it would be me because I knew Willson and Birkett might have other ideas and usually divided the best jobs amongst themselves. This morning, however, Birkett was at the dentist and Wilson was feeling ill and had generally made everyone feel so miserable that Shad Greene had told him to return home. Louise was at court and Robin was upstairs in the section housing past files. So that left me as the only person available to go. So I took the decision myself and rang Happy Harry and 15 minutes later we set off in his car. That morning he was moaning more than usual about everything and everyone. It probably had something to do with his wife's discovery of his Playboy magazines.

The drive to Slocombe Avenue took about 10 minutes. Little did we realise what a mad house we were entering.

Our first glimpse of the interior came when the door was opened by a very tall, thin woman with her hair in curlers. She looked as if she needed a good square meal. Perhaps the worry over all the bees had led her to panic and lose weight.

I am sure, however, that the number of people crammed into the small sitting-room outnumbered the bees. There must have been well over 20 sitting on chairs or the floor, or standing. On top of this the hall was full to overcrowding. We managed to squeeze all the way into the sitting room although Harry had problems with his camera.

"Now these are all the neighbours and some friends. All except that awful Mrs Broom from across the road. She just peeps out from behind her curtains. They all popped round when they heard you were coming. It's all been a terrible worry you know. We keep thinking the house is going to fall down, she said.

I soon established that the pests had been in the outside brickwork for six weeks and it was gradually crumbling away. Bricks had been eaten into and one had actually dropped on Mrs Elson's foot. Numerous pest controllers had been in to look into the problem but the bees were still there.

"They just don't seem able to get to the little blighters. All these pest men seem so useless. At this rate the house is going to fall down soon. We'll have a pile of bricks round our ears, bites on our arms and nowhere to live."

"That's right it will fall down and then the bees will move on to somewhere else in a neighbourhood. It's like one of them horror movies," added another neighbour who seemed to be enjoying a glass of beer.

"We have to come round here every day to make sure Lottie's OK," said another who had a class of sherry.

"My husband says we will have to move out but I don't want to go, so I just walk around and swat the little devils with a rolled-up copy of your newspaper. It's worth the price to use it as a weapon. I reckon you should rename it the Bee Swatters’ Gazette. My husband's the one in the hall with the double brandy. He should be back at work now but he's off sick at the moment. Doctor says it's nerves."

"Off sick with his nerves," said the neighbour who tended every so often to repeat what the previous person had said.

"We've tried everything you know. Boiling hot water, chemicals. Nothing has worked. We had the army in last year. But they didn't do anything except clean us out of whisky. The pest men say they've never seen anything like it. Well neither have we, but that doesn't exactly make things better does it? They're eating their way slowly through to the front." By now Lottie was in full verbal swing and I couldn't stop her.

Just at that moment a tall young man, smartly-dressed in a brown suit, came into the room without speaking. He walked through the open French doors, stared at the outside of the house, walked back through the room and out of the front door.

"Who was that," I asked?

"No idea love. One of the blokes from somewhere down the street I think. Comes in every day to have a look at the damage, never speaks to anyone and then goes away again. But he's welcome just as everybody else here is welcome."

"Yes we are always welcome here," said the mimic. 

"I like my neighbours, except that nosey bitch across the road. Sometimes I feel like going outside and taking my clothes off just to give her something to look at."

I grimaced at the thought and Harry yawned as if he had seen all this so many times before.

"We're having so many people round here to look, I think she thinks I've got a brothel going here. We're going to start charging admission soon. "

I smiled. By now I was totally bemused by the whole set up. At the same time I was trying to make some sense out of it all and also to take some notes down.

"I'm sorry love. I forgot you were here to look at the damage and not hear us older women gossiping."

"Not here to hear us gossip," said the mimic.

So saying Lottie led me through the crowds, through the kitchen with its jumble of unwashed pots and cups and finally we came to the pantry.

Firstly we inspected the outside of the pantry and I realised that she hadn't been exaggerating. There were about ten bricks laying on the floor and others looked ready to drop at any minute. The plaster had been eaten away and the entire structure looked ready to collapse. What was much worse was the damage was beginning to spread to the main part of the house. If that much had been achieved by the Bees in such a short time, it was difficult to imagine what damage could be done in a year. I pictured the Elsons waking up in the middle of the night to the crashing sound of the roof caving in.

"We really have tried everything. I had a woman psychic phone me up when she heard about it from one of my neighbours. The bloody woman was crackers. She wanted me to talk to the Bees. I've heard of Dr Doolittle but that was ridiculous. I was supposed to tell them that a beekeeper had died and that would make them feel upset and bring them out into the open where we could swat them one by one. Have you ever heard of anything quite so potty? Then she wanted me to sing to them before I went to bed at night. Absolutely ludicrous."

I agreed with her and began to laugh.

"Don't laugh love, I actually did it."

So saying she walked to the wall to give me a demonstration.

"For a week I spent 10 minutes a day saying 'a beekeeper has died, come on my little beauties there's nothing to fear now'. Then when that didn't work I kicked the wall and told them 10 bloody beekeepers had died. I told them there was an epidemic of beekeeper deaths. It still had no effect.

"Then I went a step further. Every night before we went to bed I sang to them. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beethoven. I even tried Brahms' Lullaby in the hope they would be lulled into a false sense of security and drop off to sleep and not wake up again. Did they hell. The next day they would be buzzing round with increased energy. They tend to like the sunny weather the most. That's when they sting. They've had a go at me a number of times."

At this moment Mr Elson appeared. A gruff man, he soon got into the swing of things and was happily talking about the Bees. He didn't seem the nervous wreck his wife had painted a picture of. Nevertheless he avoided any questions put to him and at one point when he obviously didn't want me to write down a phrase he had used he snatched my pen away.

By this time I had become accustomed to this mad house. Harry for his part was beginning to enjoy himself as somebody had given him a double whisky.

"You know what my wife's latest stupid idea is?" this question came from Mr Elson.

"She's threatening to call in a witch doctor. I suppose he'd have her doing war dances in the kitchen. Probably make it rain if she did that. Honestly this whole think is driving us potty."

By now we had walked back into the living room and taken up seats previously occupied by a very quiet couple who were just making their way to the door. The young woman wore a black and yellow striped T-shirt.

"Here Deidre, next time you come wear another top will you love. That one reminds me too much of the Bees," Mr Elson said.

At that point Mr and Mrs Elson began to talk about the bees amongst themselves. They ignored Harry, myself and the rest of the gathering, who were at last beginning to leave. By this time my mind had begun to wander towards other things and it was Mr Elson who brought me back to earth,

"Don't you agree son?"

I nodded automatically. It was about time Harry took his pictures and we got off. That was the point at which the next character arrived on the scene.

Norman Brown, builder of repute, was a family friend of the Elsons. But then wasn't everyone? He had been called in to look at the structure of the pantry. He cut a comic figure in his dungarees and bobble hat. He must have been at least 60 and was very stout with a bright red nose.

He eyed Harry and I with suspicion and stared deeply at the notebook from two very small pig like eyes. When he spoke it was in a low mumble, barely audible.

"Never seen anything like it in my life. I don't know what they can do about it. I suppose you know that folks around here have been making jokes about it. I'm a man that enjoys a joke but I don't find this at all funny."

I was finding it difficult to imagine Norman laughing at anything. He seemed like one of the world's naturally serious people.

Nevertheless Mr Elson seemed to take to him and was soon having a long and involved conversation on social and unsocial bees. There was a distinct difference of course.

One of Mr Elson's faults was getting his words mixed-up and one of his wife's faults was trying to correct him in this.

"I said to Normal the other day," he began.

"It's Norman dear."

"That's what I said."

"No you didn't dear, you said Normal."

"Well what does it matter. He knows his name doesn't he? As I was saying to Normal the other day I think we have different types of bees. I keep finding catylists."

"You mean cocoons dear."

"That's what I said."

"No it wasn't, you said catylists."

"Oh for goodness sake woman what does it matter. Normal knows what I mean don't you?"

Norman grasped the opportunity to have his say.

"I've dealt with some pretty bad cases in my time - bugs, lice, beetles, but never anything like this. I went to do a house once where the walls were bulging with lice. I have never seen a building collapse before my eyes though."

As if on cue a piece of masonry flaked off the wall and dropped onto the floor outside.

"Well there goes another bit, "said Mr Elson philosophically.

"Yep, answered Norman with a glint in his eyes."

"I suppose I should have another look at it really. Come on young reporter I'll show you what's what."

It was the first time he had spoken to me directly and I was glad to have this offer of something akin to friendship. Harry stayed in his chair looking extremely bored with the whole matter.

Once outside Norman attacked his job with relish. It was something of a hobby to him. He knew he would be getting no payment and so was intent on enjoying himself. He began to pull away bricks and chip away at pieces of concrete. He stirred up such a cloud of dust that even Harry came to see what was going on.

"He's helping to demolish the bloody thing," said Mrs Elson.

"You don't need bees around with him here," Harry said quietly to me.

"Here Norman don't knock it down completely, let the bees do that," this time it was Mr Elson who spoke and for the first time he seemed slightly concerned about it all.

Norman just grunted and pushed a ruler through one of the gaps.

"I never realised the holes were this big or that there were so many," said Norman.

"There weren't until you started," said Mr Elson.

"It's the finest I've ever  ...... bugger," said Norman as a small bee circled round him and landed on his arm and gave him a very painful sting."

"I thought bees only stung when they were angry," said Norman who was trying to suck the poison out.

"Perhaps you've annoyed them. How would you like to be sitting in an armchair, having a doze and have somebody poke a ruddy great ruler at you," inquired Mr Elson.

"Happens all the time. It's called the wife," Norman replied before turning to Harry.

"Isn't it about time you took some pictures? he said pointing his ruler threateningly at Harry who backed away as another cloud of dust erupted from a brick that Mr Elson had pushed to the floor.

"Now don't you start. We've enough problems with demolition expert Norman around without you starting," Mrs Elson said.

Norman by this time had handed me a brick and was pointing at several small holes that had been made by the bees.

"Pretty impressive this isn't it?"

I agreed because by this time I felt I had lost control of the situation and was rather at a loss about what to do. The only thing I was sure of was that it was time to go. I motioned to Harry and he obviously got the message. So after taking a number of pictures we said our goodbyes and left.

"Come back in a month. The house might have completely crumbled by then," Mrs Elson said waving frantically and at the same time sticking out her tongue to the woman from across the road who was once again peeping out from behind her curtains.

"They're all mad," said Harry on the way back to the office "I think the whole world's gone mad."

I sighed, hoping that Harry wasn't going to start trying to put the world right. Those periods could be rather tedious to say the least. Happily he soon shut up and drove back to his studio in silence, dropping me off at the office on the way. I must admit, however, that for once I agreed with Harry. The Elsons certainly did seem to be a mad lot.

I have referred to our photographer as Happy Harry but I have to admit that when it came to angling he certainly new his pike from his carp. I knew nothing about the subject but Harry would chunter on and on about how many he had reeled in, where he had caught them and what bait he had used.

So it seemed the ideal job for myself and Happy Harry when Willson sent me out to see a chap who had "painted a bloody great fish on his garage door."

Obviously this was in itself a very 1970s thing and underlined the strange nature of being a young reporter in his first job. I tended to get the silly season stories. So I set off with Harry and when we arrived it was quite an impressive sight - not the least because the guy had a double garage and the fish went across the whole width of the front. It was quite a majestic and colourful thing.

I knocked on the door and it was opened by a man wearing painting clothes.

"Hello I'm from the local paper and wonder if I could have a word about your fish painting?"

"By all means. You must work with that young Willson guy. I saw him in the pub the other day and told him about the artwork and he promised he'd send somebody over. What do you think about it?"

"Well it's certainly impressive?" I replied.

"Yep. I haven't quite finished it. In fact I was just going out to paint the words over the top."

"So what are you going to add?" I inquired.

"Well. Have you seen the film Casablanca. It's one of my favourites. I just love it. Luckily my name's Richard and everyone calls me Rick and I wanted to have something original on the front of the house. The wife wanted to call the house Cherry Cottage, but I told her that I could come up with something better. Then I had this idea. I'm a bit of an amateur artist you see. Remember in Casablanca they had Rick's Place. Well I thought I would paint a fish and call it Rick's Plaice... bloody funny in't it?"

Up to now photographer Harry had been staring at the door. Now he spoke for the first time.

"So you're planning to paint the words Rick's Plaice above the painting?"

"Yep that's right. It's a play on words if you know what I mean," replied Rick.

"Just one problem with that mate," said Harry.

"It's a bloody cod. You'll have to call it Rick's Cod ... bloody funny in't it," he said doing a pretty accurate imitation of Rick's accent.