Captain Montgomery Ffitch (retired) finished pouring pine needles into the bee smoker and switched off the television. He’d been disheartened to hear the lockdown was due to end. Bojo and his government cronies were itching to open the country up again, lest a fatal economic downturn prove their undoing. Why this was bad news for Monty Ffitch involves a little unpacking.
Although he’d attained the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy, Ffitch had worked largely in logistics and procurement, dealing with as few people as humanly possible. He’s never been a people person, to use that nauseating phrase. Ffitch was an introvert — an only-child content to live in his imagination, who’d made few friends and, at seventy-seven, was unlikely to make any more.
In this time of “social distancing”, being an introvert was a little like having a superpower. While others tore their hair out in boredom, Ffitch walked his dogs, read, played his clarinet, tended his hives and was content.
Ffitch dropped some lit tinder into the metal canister, blowing gently until the twigs caught. The twigs and needles should smoke nicely, and the sweet fragrance, would prove soporific for the bees. He donned his overall and gloves and ventured into the warm May afternoon.
Ffitch walked through three acres of wildflowers, painstakingly nurtured. The hives stood at the bottom of the garden, by the hawthorn hedge. Beyond that lay a barn conversion that he’d heard a young couple were about to move into. Maddy, a busybody in the local fishmongers, insisted on filling him in on such gossip. His petty revenge was to call her Madeleine, which she disliked.
The hives were now three tiers high — he’d add one whenever the layer below became full, the combs’ hexagonal cells waxed-over by the worker bees. He would inspect the honeycombs and the hives’ colonies. In particular, he had to make sure the queens were in good health.
As grey-blue coils of smoke drifted up through the hives, a voice penetrated the hum of patrolling insects.
A young man was peering over the hedge. Had he climbed the ladder for that express purpose? No — the newcomer held shears and was levelling the top of the hawthorn. Ffitch could ignore him, but he wasn’t a rude person by nature, he just didn’t require the chatter upon which most people seemed to thrive.
“That’s right,” said Ffitch.
“Bit of a dumb question,” said the man, who extended a hand then retracted it. “Oops, keep forgetting!” The neighbour grinned. “I’m Frank.”
Ffitch sighed. It seemed he wasn’t going to be left in peace.
“Monty Ffitch”, he replied. “You might want to stand back.”
Frank shook his head. “I’m not afraid of bees. Wasps — that’s another thing entirely.”
Here came the cliché about bees stinging less frequently, because they generally die, whereas wasps are serial stingers.
“I’m avoiding working on my novel. I’m a crime writer. Frank Latimer?”
“I mostly read books about beekeeping and naval history.” Perhaps boring his neighbour off the ladder might work.
Frank seemed oblivious. “I’m completely blocked. I need a way a perfectionist serial killer can be caught out. The cops are searching for his secret torture den, but he’s a neat freak with an enormous IQ. He’s always one step ahead. I’m afraid I’ve painted myself into a corner.”
Ffitch wondered how long Frank would go on talking if he just went about his business, but his neighbour seemed to be awaiting some input.
“A thorny predicament. I’d better get on.”
Frank nodded, sheepishly. “Sorry, of course. I must get back indoors and wrestle with my killer. Lovely to meet you.”
“Likewise,” said Ffitch, staring at Frank’s outstretched hand. Frank slapped himself on the forehead.
“I’m such a dummy. Until next time.”
“Looking forward,” Ffitch lied.
The inspection went well. The workers were plentiful and fully engaged. One thing Ffitch admired most about bees was how compartmentalised and efficient they were. They had multiple special glands — hypopharyngeal glands produced royal jelly to feed the larval brood and enzymes to break down sugars. Another gland produced wax and, of course, bees had venom glands to repel invaders.
He hadn’t always been alone. There had been Mary, the golden-haired secretary who won his heart with amusing margin notes she scribbled on his memos. Eventually those notes contained little hearts and kisses. It had taken him far too long to take her out, but only four months of “stepping out” before he asked her to marry him. Mary had been the only person he could stand to spend more than half an hour with, and they had enjoyed fifty-one years together, before the leukemia. They’d never had children; he couldn’t and she, remarkably, accepted that.
That night, as he lay in bed reminiscing, Ffitch had a sudden brainwave.
He leapt out of bed, headed to the pantry and retrieved a jar of honey. He attached a note to the jar with an elastic band and crept out of the house.
Ffitch hoped that at 2am, during lockdown, nobody would see him sneaking around in his dressing gown. There was an upstairs light on in the renovated barn. He considered turning back, but something stopped him. This small gesture seemed important. Mary would have loved it. He quietly let himself into the Latimers’ backyard and left the honeypot on their patio.
The note contained only one word. Melissopalynology.
Melissopalynology was the analysis of the pollen content in honey. A clever scientist could identify the pollen grains and their relative distribution and perhaps even conjecture where that particular combination of flowers might be found. Say, for instance, in the meadows surrounding a killer’s secret lair.
Frank was delighted, as Ffitch had known he would be. When Ffitch took his dogs for a walk the following morning, he found something had been left for him — a thick novel entitled Shadow Boxers by Frank Latimer.
It was inscribed, simply, “To Captain Ffitch, with eternal gratitude, Frank.”
Gavin Boyter is a Scottish writer and filmmaker living in London. He has published two travel memoirs about running ludicrously long distances, Downhill from Here and Running the Orient. The latter, published in August 2020, charts his 2300 mile run from Paris to Istanbul, following the 1883 route of the Orient Express.