Poking Wasps with Sticks

Douglas Bruton



It was the longest summer and the hottest. That’s what my mam said, sweaty in her dress and her legs bare so you could see the tracks of her blood like spreading blue plant-roots under her white skin. Too hot, is what she said. No air moving and all the windows in the house wide, in all the houses of our street, and bees on the wrong side of the glass sometimes and helped back to flowers on the end of rolled-up newspapers.

It was so hot you could see the air moving, turning the world to weird water and rippling, it looked like. That’s what we thought, Julia and me, and Julia’s sister Anna. We thought the whole world might melt, solid into liquid, like ice when we dropped it onto the path, and soon water and soon not even a wet mark where it was.

It was the summer we had a jam jar on the windowsill out back, half filled with sugared water and the glee of watching wasps drowning, and Anna daring to poke them down with sticks. And the uncoiled garden hose was fixed to the garden tap so we could cool off when it got too much. Just so as we didn’t leave the tap on, or wet the sheets my mam had out on the line. Sheets on every line as far as you could see, and shirts with no breeze to lift them and still dry before lunch, and skirts and shorts and even towels. We laid a blanket on the grass and Julia so close I could feel her skin against mine, and looking like a film star in my mam’s sunglasses, and both of us humming along to tinny music from the portable transistor radio we had borrowed from the kitchen.

The ice cream van came round more and more, though it had sold out of orange ice-lollies and the coke was warm. The sound of the chimes it hung in the air was different, breathless somehow, as if it too was finding it just too hot. Colin was the ice-cream man’s name. He told us we could call him Colin, if we liked. He was dressed in new-white, the smears of strawberry syrup on his apron. He was always winking and smiling and licking his lips, his face red, like he had been running hard, and the change he gave us was always sticky.

And that summer our next door neighbour, Mrs Tams with the lazy eye, lost Deeta, her cat, and stuck up leaflets in the street offering a reward. We watched her, hair like smoke and still wearing her coat, carrying a roll of tape and a handful of home-made posters that she was sticking to lampposts and pinning to fences. Julia tore one down and read it out to us. Then we all went looking, under hedges and up trees, calling calling and no cat-answer.

We played football in the road some days, standing back when cars came, holding the ball tight, holding it still, and then shrieking again when they were passed. Mr Low came to the end of his garden and shook his fist at us, and that was a game too, and we shrieked some more, so long as our parents weren’t watching. He warned us against the ball going near his plants and we promised that it wouldn’t. He stood at his gate watching us, keeping us at our word, so we sat down and drew on the pavement with bits of chalk that Ben had in his pocket.

Mr Low kept your ball if he found it in his garden. That was a fact. Said he’d already put a knife through it if you asked for it back. And serves you right, he told us. We were warned. He must have had a whole collection of knifed balls, but it didn’t stop us playing. Once he said he’d call the police if it happened again, and once he did and a man who was as tall as a door came and spoke to us, pretending like he was a friend and saying how we shouldn’t go upsetting a man like Mr Low. Ben said Mr Low was just a grumpy old bugger. The policeman shook his head, like a disappointed parent. Shook his head, that was all. We told him about the footballs Mr Low had kept, and the policeman said he would see what he could do, but he didn’t do anything.

Julia and Anna slept over some nights, on mattresses moved from the loft to the floor of my bedroom so that there was nowhere to walk, just bed. We were allowed to talk if we kept to whispers, and if it got to anything more my mam shouted up the stairs for us to get to sleep. Anna did sleep, and when she slept Julia climbed in beside me and we talked so quiet my mam never knew, curled face to face and all the covers thrown back, just sheets, and not cold.

Julia said we should find Mrs Tam’s old cat, and with the reward we could buy bottles of coke and tubs of ice cream and put the two together, ice cream floating in coke in tall glasses with straws. Julia wondered if Colin’s kisses were sticky as his fingers. I said she would have to find that out for herself, because I wasn’t for kissing him. We talked about the policeman and Mr Low. I thought we should sneak into Mr Low’s garden and pick off the heads of all his flowers, all of them, so there was nothing sunny growing there. Julia dared me, but I was too much a coward; it was just a thought.

Sometimes, when the ball did go into Mr Low’s garden, if you were quick, you could leap the fence, get the ball and leap back again before he knew. But you had to be quick. Sometimes, you had an idea where the ball had rolled and Mr Low didn’t, was standing at his gate sending scowls bouncing across the empty road for us all to catch and none of us daring to look where the ball was. Other times he picked up the ball and took it down the side of his house and out to his shed somewhere in the back.

‘I bet he has a hundred balls in that shed,’ said Julia.

‘Two hundred.’

‘Or maybe a thousand.’

‘And a knife,’ I said.

‘No,’ said Julia, ‘that’s just what he wants you to think. I bet he just keeps them, filling up the space in his shed.’

And there was a plan hatching.


It was the summer milk turned in a day if it was left standing, and the summer of flies. Everywhere. We could not leave the butter out of the fridge, or half-eaten sandwiches on the plate. The flies were there in numbers. One morning, I counted seven at the kitchen window, lying on their backs with their bent-pin legs in the air. They were gone after I pointed this out to my mam. But then there was another one the next morning, and two lazy-circling the room, maybe three. Julia said they walked over your face when you slept and sooked up the spit at the corners of your mouth. I thought that was disgusting.

Then came a day when Mr Low, dressed in a suit and dark tie, climbed into a taxi outside his house and was seen leaving the street. Ben checked his watch and chalked the time on the pavement. Not for any reason, just because he had the watch and the chalk. Julia reminded me of what we had talked about. I shook my head and said we shouldn’t, but Julia pleaded with me and I think I loved her then and could not say her no.

Ben said he would keep watch and we agreed a series of bird calls for all eventualities. Then Julia opened his gate and we crept in, careful as thieves, our backs bent to make us smaller and our shoes making little noise as if we might be heard by Mr Low in his far-away-taxi. I broke off the head of a tall Michaelmas daisy. We had some in our garden, but not so many and not so high. Ours had all fallen over, and Mr Low had staked his up.

Julia took my hand and we slipped out of sight down the side of the house. There was a second gate to unlatch and then we were in his back garden, screened from view on all sides by a high wooden fence.

The shed had a window, dust and cobwebs like old cloth stopping you from quite seeing in. I noticed there were dead flies on the narrow sill on the other side of the glass, more than in our kitchen, and some of them shiny green and blue like the colours on the skin of spilled oil. I thought the shed would be locked, hoped it would be, but the handle turned easily in Julia’s hand.

The air was warm inside, and dry, like your breath was being sucked out from you. The light was dim and yellow. About fifteen footballs were nailed to the wall, ghosts of footballs really, none of them saved, and only one or two I recognised. I wanted to leave then but Julia pulled me inside, dragged the door shut behind us. We stood without moving, Julia’s hand in mine, her sweat mixing with my sweat. We held our shared breaths, listening. As our eyes adjusted to the light I could hear a noise, like the bristling hum of electricity. I thought of bees and then wasps.

Julia saw what it was before me. I heard her snatch for breath and then swear.

‘Bastard,’ she said.

And then I saw. On a low wooden bench, covered in flies, nailed to a board, its spilled blood black like treacle, its legs spread out so that it was flat against wood, its mouth a pink gash in its face and its cat-eyes shut as though it was waiting to hit ground after a fall. Around its neck was a blue collar that I recognised, and a brass disc with its name engraved into the metal: Deeta.

‘Bastard,’ said Julia again.

I felt sick and a little dizzy, like I might faint.

Julia kicked over the bench and a bottle broke and flies thickened the air, a slow blue-black confusion. Then we were running, running, and not looking back, not until we stood breathless outside my mam’s house, my side hurting and Julia unable to speak, and Ben following after us asking to know.

We wanted to tell the police, my mam, Mrs Tams. But then the difficulty of explaining how we knew.

‘Bastard,’ said Julia, ‘he’s a fucking bastard.’

 I said Julia should shush, but my mam had already heard. She called me in and asked what was wrong. I told her Julia was just cross.

‘I don’t care what she’s cross about, there’s no need for swearing like that.’


It was the hottest summer, so hot that the tar on the roads softened and stuck to Anna’s white shoes. And Julia said she kissed Colin the ice cream man and he tasted of vanilla. And Mrs Tams with the lazy eye walked the street calling for Deeta, and put up more and more posters, and Julia and I quietly tore them down and dropped them into Mr Low’s Garden, like they were blown there. And I took to swatting flies with a cloth and pinch-picking them up by their broken wings and dropping them in the bin out back. And I poked the drowning wasps with a stick, once, like Anna did, shrieking with the excitement of my own daring. And the summer went on and on and on.

©2008 Douglas Bruton

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