Thoughts on the Culling of Bees to Maintain Colony Strength.

Farmers and stockbreeders constantly cull the weak animals from their herds and breed only from the strongest. In the wild, before man started managing wild animals, this happened naturally through ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Imagine what would be the result if cattle breeders kept all their animals alive and just ‘harvested’ the milk from the cows. Soon the herd would outgrow the available pasture and the cows would start to sicken and die. In fact, this has happened in East Africa where the Maasai tribe valued their stock by numbers rather than quality. The richest Maasai man was the one with the most animals. (The Maasai harvest blood from live cows as well as milk.) As the herds multiplied unchecked, they denuded the grass available and the tribe moved on. This can only work for a time until all the available grazing is exhausted. In addition to this, the overall quality of the herds diminished due to inbreeding, breeding by inferior animals and poor sustenance.

Conversely, Western World farmers send any inferior beasts to market before they breed, they select the best animals to breed from and ensure that the ones they keep are strong and healthy. As a result the yields of milk or meat increase and the quality of the produce improves whilst the herd stays strong and able to resist most diseases.

Why then do beekeepers practice the ‘Maasai’ method?

In my recent blog I described how bees were kept prior to the introduction of the sectional hive. I repeat this description below.

For centuries, up until the late 1800s, honey bees were kept in hives known as skeps, dome-shaped structures made from coils of straw, so tightly woven and wound that they were completely weatherproof, cool in summer and warm in winter.

Each autumn the beekeeper would select the hives that were to be harvested, probably some one-third or a half of his stock, much as a livestock farmer would select a percentage of his cattle or sheep for slaughter to provide food for winter. Both farmer and beekeeper would retain their best and strongest beasts or hives to reproduce during the following year.

All the inhabitants of the condemned hives, both queens, drones and workers, were then suffocated to death with smoke and the entire stock of honeycombs removed and the empty skeps burnt. The remaining hives, full of strong healthy bees, containing enough honey to sustain the colony through the winter, were left alone and, in May of the following year, the colony would reproduce itself by sending out a large swarm of bees, led by the old queen, to colonise a new skep provided by the beekeeper nearby. A new young queen would rebuild the old colony with the remaining workers.

After the autumn harvest, the contents of the honeycombs from the slaughtered colonies, both honey and all the immature grubs which would otherwise have hatched in the early spring, were separated out, the honey filtered and put into jars and the grubs fed to the chickens.

This seemingly cruel method was replaced by the use of the newly invented sectional hive as described below.

The lower half of this hive consists of a brood chamber, the upper part being reserved for honey storage. A metal screen separates the two sections with holes in it large enough for the worker bees to pass though and store the honey, but small enough to prevent the bigger queen from laying eggs in the honey-storage area. The perceived advantage of this system was that the colony no longer had to be murdered to recover the honey. It was and still is, a simple matter to remove the top section each year and take away the honey-filled combs, leaving the brood chambers undisturbed to hatch out the following spring.

As with many new ideas, there have been unplanned consequences. All the colonies, containing strong and weak bees, continue to breed (swarm), the overall numbers of hives in a particular area increases – often beyond the feeding capacity of the local area. Thus there would not be sufficient flowers to provide adequate nectar and pollen to sustain all the hives at a full and healthy strength. The hives themselves, being in constant use, do not get disinfected and thus parasites continue to breed unchecked.

Add to this the appalling way in which the health-giving honey is plundered and replaced by sterile sugar-syrup (the subject of my earlier blog), and the effects of pesticides and we have the perfect storm for the unfortunate bees.

· Weak and diseased colonies continue to multiply (swarm) whilst they have the strength to do so.
· All colonies are robbed of virtually all their honey (containing the health-maintaining substances we humans rate so highly for ourselves) and given sterile sugar substitutes.
· Mites and other parasites linger on in continually-used hives to keep infecting the ever weaker inhabitants.
· There is a danger that the population of bees in any area outgrows the supply of available nectar and pollen within reasonable flying distance.
· Modern, widely used insecticides must also be contributing to the decline – bees are insects after all.
· In the USA, though not so much in the UK, hives are transported all over the country, sometimes several times in a season, to either assist in pollination of fruit trees or to gather more honey from flowers such as heather. How much of this kind of disruptive treatment can any living creatures stand without suffering deterioration in health?

As I said, a perfect storm! A return to responsible culling should be considered as one part of the solution if we are to stabilise the population of these vital insects who have served humanity so well in the past.

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Being a seagull ~ Caught up in the joy of flight. ~ Was it just a dream?

English: Photograph of Portland Bill and Chesi...

English: Photograph of Portland Bill and Chesil Beach, Dorset, England, from the air. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Seagull Sequence.

[The following passage was written as part of a story that I subsequently abandoned. Yet, on finding it recently, I felt that it was worth publishing in some form or other. Now that I have taken up writing blogs on a regular basis I decided to publish it there as part of my Chesil Beach series.]

I woke shivering. My pyjamas and the sheets around my neck and arms were damp and smelt of sour sweat. Marie was sitting by the bed, reaching out to place a cold, moist flannel on my forehead. Her kindness and the coolness of the compress were good and I smiled a thank-you but whether or not she could see it in the light from the half-shaded lamp on the far side of the room I couldn’t tell. Throughout the whole period of my fever, whenever I had been conscious enough to notice, she had been there.

Soon the dream would start, except that it wouldn’t be a dream. No matter how realistic dreams seem while you’re asleep, they slip away out of your reach as soon as you wake. You may try to hold on to them but a dream is like a greased piglet. By the time you are fully awake, it is away over the fields and only its squeals come back to mock you. Even these tiny squeals fade and fall silent as you get out of bed.

The ‘dream’ that was lining me up was not like this. It was going to be another of my fevered dreams. Vivid and disturbing long after I had been thrown back into myself.

The bed started to roll in long, slow waves which I knew were the beginnings of the swell which rises in Lyme Bay when an Atlantic depression shifts the wind round Portland Bill and funnels it up-channel. A gentle, easterly breeze can rapidly develop into a Storm Force Ten from the west.

Marie’s outline wavered and I let myself slip from her care and drift upwards and away. I could briefly see her, wringing out another flannel and laying it on the forehead of the man in the bed below. I, me, whatever part of me I was then, was floating through the ceiling and being caught by the sweep of the ‘dream’ out and over the beach to where a white-bodied gull with grey wings, smart as a bridegroom, was floating on the rising waves, a stone-throw offshore. The gull paddled round to face me and spoke, ‘Borrow my body and learn’, it said, apparently in English and I, whatever I was, merged with it.

When you are using Windows on your computer and you minimise a program, pushing it into the background so that you can clear the screen for the next job? It was like that. I saw the spirit of the gull shrink and almost disappear to somewhere just between its wings and then I was that bird. The rise and fall of the waves perfectly matched the rise and fall of my bed a few moments before and I, now the gull, was being lifted up by the sea and over the wave-tops effortlessly. As I rose I could see the sweep of the beach in the dawn light then, as I sank down into a trough, only the green slopes of the waves and the pink-streaked sky were visible.

I explored being a gull. My body was not cold or wet, the preening oil from the gland near my tail made my feathers into a waterproof boat and my skin was dry and warm within it. I paddled, first with one leg, then with the other and could easily control the direction in which I moved. The waves were getting higher with the increasing force of the wind and lines of white bubbles foamed and frothed at the crests before being whipped away to fly over my head towards the beach. Through the water itself I could feel the surge and crash of the breakers on the banked pebbles and the gull in me was urging, ‘Fly, fly, fly. Fly now.’ I paddled round to face the wind, spread my wings clear of the water and felt the lift beneath them. A few hard, backward pushes with my feet and I was up, the wind glorious and wanton, holding me a man’s height above the waves. I dipped a wing-tip slightly and was sliding, sliding away through the air towards the Great Rock lying low in the distance to my left. A lift of the same wing-tip and I was round facing the wind again and rising up, up, up above the turbulence caused by the waves and higher, higher, higher until the beach was a crescent moon far below me. Though I somehow knew I was a part of a man in a gull’s body, I had left my fear on the fevered bed and being at that height was pure exhilaration. I turned and dived, then with the slightest twist of a wing tip, I was rising again as the sun showed its glory above the horizon.

Now I was drifting down towards the Great Rock with just an occasional twist or flick of a wing to keep me on course. The Rock’s shadowed western cliffs were standing square to the wind which, in a frenzy of frustration, turned violently upwards catching me and throwing me ever higher until the Great Rock was just a white-ringed patch of green and grey on the wrinkled sea below. Other gulls were up here, wheeling on the crest of the updraft, each acknowledging me with a glance and a wing-flick as they passed, each circling up and spinning down in the joy of their life and their flight.

I pulled my wings in closer to my body and fell, the Great Rock growing beneath me, before spreading them again and turning north to exchange the savage uplift for the gentler currents above the beach. I found a spot where I could balance the currents against my body-fall and hung there, looking to my right along the curve of the pebble bank. No humans were about and five dolphins were sporting off-shore, riding down the face of the waves in slithers of foam and excitement. Their pleasure was infectious and the love they had for each other and for life, reached up and enveloped me, fluffing my feathers. I was drawn from my sky-spot and drifted sideways to watch them more closely and to share their joy. I beamed a taste of my exhilaration to them and one by one they leapt in recognition of my little gift.

With my tail to the beach, I left the dolphins to their sport and drifted landwards until I sensed a smooth and steady updraft from the beach and turned to follow the contours of the pebble-banks and the ledges formed by recent storms. Each bank had its own riser and I flipped between them, moving all the time north-westwards. Below me I could hear and sense the roar of the waves on the pebbles, the suck and hiss of the undertow and the grinding and churning of the pebbles as the breakers crashed down, surged up the beach and retreated to make way for the next. And yet, above this tumult the wind was kind, the uniformity of the sculpted banks forming risers as clean and as steady as the waves tumbling on the shore were wild and raw.

I soared past the Dragon’s Teeth, great blocks of concrete on the beach which the human part of me knew were built over half a century ago to check the progress of invading tanks. My human side also recognised the car park and the single, shiny new car on the tarmac with a man polishing the windscreen with a cloth. Near to him, a woman and a girl-child were lifting a basket out of the car’s boot. The seagull ‘food-seeking’ part of me pulled me down and I circled over the humans, shrieking my hunger. The child pointed up and the woman took a bag from the basket and tossed a piece of bread into the air. I snatched it on the wing, proud of my prowess and the child jumped up and down in her excitement. More bread followed and I beamed down my thanks, the gull in me making an offering of guano to fertilise their crops. Some splattered white on the child’s shoulder and my human part heard her mother say, ‘That’s supposed to be lucky!’ and the two laughed as she wiped it away with a handkerchief. The man was not so pleased. Like the child’s coat, his car had been splashed with white and he swore harshly at me, provoking a response from the woman but we, the gull and I, were out of earshot by then.

My bond with the gull was beginning to weaken and the wing-beats taking me up the coast to home were laboured. Even though we were only just above the level of the scrubby bushes and windswept trees behind the beach, a human fear of heights was returning. Above the bungalow I let go reluctantly, slipped magically through the roof and the ceiling below and re-entered my body on the bed. Marie was asleep in the chair by the bed-side, a cushion behind her head. I lay quiet so as not to wake her, blinking my eyes and gently feeling along my arms. They were no longer wings. Had I expected them to be? In a way I was disappointed. My fever had passed and I was cool again. ‘Borrow my body and learn,’ the gull had said. What had I learned?

I was tired and, as I turned over on my side to sleep, something on my pillow pricked my face. It was a grey and white feather.

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Decline of the Honey Bee.

Over-exploitation and historical misplaced kindness are responsible for the decline of the honey bee in the Western World.

As a one-time beekeeper, lifelong nature lover and the author of a number of wild life books, I point a finger at the bee-keeping industry itself as being primarily responsible for the calamitous decline of the honey bee in North America and the U.K.

For centuries, up until the late 1800s, honey bees were kept in hives known as skeps, dome-shaped structures made from coils of straw, so tightly woven and wound that they were completely weatherproof, cool in summer and warm in winter.

Each autumn the beekeeper would select the hives that were to be harvested, probably some one-third or a half of his stock, much as a livestock farmer would select a percentage of his cattle or sheep for slaughter to provide food for winter. Both farmer and beekeeper would retain their best and strongest beasts or hives to reproduce during the following year.

All the inhabitants of the condemned hives, both queens, drones and workers, were then suffocated to death with smoke and the entire stock of honeycombs removed and the empty skeps burnt. The remaining hives, full of strong healthy bees, containing enough honey to sustain the colony through the winter, were left alone and, in May of the following year, the colony would reproduce itself by sending out a large swarm of bees, led by the old queen, to colonise a new skep provided by the beekeeper nearby. A new young queen would rebuild the old colony with the remaining workers.

After the autumn harvest, the contents of the honeycombs from the slaughtered colonies , both honey and all the immature grubs which would otherwise have hatched in the early spring, were separated out, the honey filtered and put into jars and the grubs fed to the chickens.

In the late 1800s someone, probably upset at having to brutally destroy up to half of their stock, invented the sectional hive as we know it today.

The lower half of this hive consists of a brood chamber, the upper part being reserved for honey storage. A metal screen separates the two sections with holes in it large enough for the worker bees to pass though and store the honey, but small enough to prevent the bigger queen from laying eggs in the honey-storage area. The perceived advantage of this system was that the colony no longer had to be murdered to recover the honey. It was and still is, a simple matter to remove the top section each year and take away the honey-filled combs, leaving the brood chambers undisturbed to hatch out the following spring.

Of course the bees and the grubs now needed feeding since the beekeeper had taken the honey for his own use and for sale.

When I was a boy in the 1950s and helped my father with his bees on the farm, we were (as registered beekeepers,) allowed an amount of sugar to replace the honey taken in addition to our personal rations. (Food rationing regulations were still in place then.) This refined, granulated white sugar was dissolved in water and the syrup fed to the bees through a special device inside the top of the hive.

The honey, which has been promoted for centuries as ‘health-giving’ and ‘full of natural goodness’, was sold by my mother from her stall in Abergavenny market. Everybody was happy. The customers loved the locally produced honey, my mother got income to feed her family, no bees were killed and the plants were pollinated. Everything in the garden was lovely – or was it?

This ‘kindly to bees’ system has been the norm for over a century, yet now the bees are succumbing to a range of diseases to which they appear to have little resistance as well as to the parasitic varroa mites which suck the body fluids from the bees.

If we go back to the comparison with the livestock farmer and were to invent a management system where most of the blood was drained from every sheep and cow every year to avoid having to kill them, and using that blood to provide food for humans, how healthy and disease-resistant would the stock be after a hundred years of that happening? Any livestock or plant breeder will tell you that in our modern agricultural system where natural ‘survival of the fittest’ no longer applies, the weakest must be culled and only the strongest bred from to avoid stock deterioration.

Beekeepers will tell you that they supplement the sugar solution with formulated bee-food to boost the nutritional value of the syrup but that won’t replace the essential disease-preventing content of the honey which bees have evolved over millions, if not billions, of years to keep the bees healthy and able to resist the attacks of such parasites as the varroa mite and the diseases they carry.

It is our misplaced kindness which is the cause of the decline of the vital bee population!

Can it be reversed? The only way I can see this happening is to ban the harvesting of honey in the ‘civilised world’ for at least a decade (yes, professional bee keepers would need to be compensated) whilst queens are imported from places like Africa, where traditional ‘cruel’ systems are still practiced.  Over such a period their offspring, carrying the genes of the new strong disease-resistant queens, would rebuild the colonies and have a chance to resist the problems that are now decimating our bees.

Should we then have to go back to the annual ‘slaughter of the innocents’? Perhaps during that time we may be able to find an alternative system that doesn’t do more harm than good. If we continue with the ‘non-culling’ system, we will certainly have to severely limit the percentage of the honey crop taken each year and leave the bees with enough of their own ‘health giving’ food to retain their vigour and resistance to disease.

It is not just honey supplies that are at risk if our bees die out. Many farmers and crop growers rate the bees’ pollinating service way above their value to humanity as mere providers of a tasty spread on your toast at breakfast time.

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A moving story ~ Of a Bushman’s quest to find ~ An elusive bird

The Bushman’s Tale.

A night in Africa.
Above – the stars hang bright.
Not far away a lion coughs and grunts.
A fire burns, lighting a ring of faces round about,
Making the velvet darkness darker still.

I was a guest,
My hosts a bushman family.
This desert was their home
And had been for a million years.
I sat among them and I heard this tale –

Once, long ago,
A hunter, drinking at a dawn-bright pool,
Saw the reflection of a great white bird,
But, when he raised his head,
The bird was gone.

He drank again, then rising
Followed to the north,
Leaving behind his home, his family,
The hunting grounds he knew so well –
All that was dear to him.

For years he searched in vain.
Then old and weak,
He reached a cliff impossible to climb
But he was told that, at the top,
Was this bird’s nest.

As he looked up,
A feather, white,
Came floating down
And landed in his hand.
He died there, on that rock,
Content.

And here the story ended.
A woman threw a branch upon the fire.
Sparks flying upwards, twisted towards the stars.
I turned, a question on my lips –
“This bird,” I asked. “What was it called?”

The wizened bushman who had told the tale, said,
“In our legends it has many names.
In all my dreams it is Bird of Truth.”

Click here to read more of my poems.

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A poet’s message ~ should be clear, elegant, true ~ and poetical.

POETRY
I hold very strong views on the writing of poetry. The first is that a poem should be complete in itself and need no separate introduction. I do get cross if I attend a reading and the poet spends as much time explaining about the meaning of the poem before it is read, as it takes to read the poem!

If the poet needs to do this, they have not spent enough time on the poem and are wasting your time and mental energy. To write a worthwhile poem takes skill, time and effort, which should be spent by the poet themselves so as to make your hearing or reading of the poem crisp and concise.

The second rule is that the ‘message’ of the poem should be accessible at the first reading or hearing.

There may well be deeper, less obvious, meanings hidden in the text that may develop or emerge with re-reading but the fundamental meaning should be clear at the first experience. When I started writing poetry I joined The Poetry Society, expecting that I would enjoy the poems published in their journal. Frankly they were so ‘clever, clever’ that I could not understand what they were about at all! After a year or so of wondering if I was the thick one, I gave up and cancelled my subscription.

Just to give a flavour of my work here is a selection of my poems.

A CURLEW’S CRY
Hearing a distant curlew’s bubbling cry
My heart with hiraeth* fills.
This sad, lonely sound distils
Sun and wind on Wales’ hills.

* Hiraeth  – A Welsh word meaning ‘a longing to be home’.
RHYTHMS OF THE SEA

When I was born the sunlit, sparkling sea
Patterned the ceiling, light delighting me.
And as I grew, that sea was always near,
Gulls’ cries and wave sounds ever in my ear.
Barefoot among the worm-casts on the rippled sand
I wandered free, my little body tanned
By salty breezes that the grown-ups shun,
My child’s eyes narrowed by a hazy sun
That warmed the pools bait-diggers left behind.
A seagull’s feather was a special find,
Held high, vibrating, thrumming in my hand
Then thrown aloft to spin towards the land,
Forgotten in a moment. Something new
Would catch my eye – a bright green copper screw,
Sand-polished glass, a piece of wood
Cuttlefish bones or whelks eggs, each was good
To handle, smell, abandon – half a minute’s joy –
Each common thing a treasure to this little boy.

I learned the run of currents, times of tides,
I knew the sandbar where the flatfish hides,
I’d find the oyster-catchers’ hidden nest
Amongst the flotsam. Their alarm made manifest
Through plaintive piping, tricks with broken wings
Decoying me away. But other things
Along the high tide mark would catch my eye
A driftwood dragon, seaweed crisp and dry,
(My favourite was many bubbled bladder-wrack,
Pinching each black balloon to make it crack.)
Dead guillemots, striped Brasso tins
Dried dogfish with sandpaper skins
And soggy sailors-hats blown overboard
Such riches – I’d collect a hoard
And leave them on the beach, run home for tea
Tomorrow would bring more in from the sea.

Then there were boats! Learning to row and sail.
My brother’s voice “Don’t let the painter trail”.
The skill of sculling with a single oar,
The thrill of landing on an unknown shore
Across the bay, to sleep beneath the sky,
Only a sail to keep the bedding dry.
Rising at dawn to catch an off-shore breeze
Watching for cats-paws grey on sunlit seas,
Feeling the ropes as stiff as rods, the canvas taut
Heeling with gunwale dipping, braced against a thwart
Then sudden calm, bow-wave and bubbling wake subside,
To drift in silence on the morning tide.
Alert for eddies warning ‘sunken rocks’
We’d drift along. We had no clocks,
The angle of the sun, the rate of flow,
Sounds from the land, the way the seabirds go
Told us the hour.  So were these early years to me
A life in tune with tides and subtle rhythms of the sea.

A DROP OF DOGGEREL

I interviewed a man last night
Who’d just come up from Tooting
Though blind from birth his claim to fame
Was – he loved parachuting.

I asked him how he knew the time
To brace himself for landing
He answered with a ready smile
At my not understanding.

“It’s easy, Mike,” the man replied
“I have this simple knack
I know when I am near the ground
My guide dog’s lead goes slack.”

THE CHURCH BY THE LAKE

The wind of Spring was singing in the churchyard pines,
Wavelets were sparkling, dancing in the sun.
The heavy door swung open to my push.
Inside was silence.

In this House of God,
I prowled about,
Reading the tablets on the wall,
The roll of Honour, names
Of men who left their lakeside homes
To die.
The flowers from Sunday last
Fading and drooping here, today.

Near to the door, a book invited me:
PLEASE PRAY FOR THESE…
‘A mother, very ill.’
‘A child dying of leukaemia.’
‘People of Bosnia,
Sudan, Somalia.’
A catalogue of human grief.
Not praying, I read on,
My vision blurred.
‘A son on drugs.’
A missing daughter, gone from home
To God knows where.’

I closed the book
And turned to look along the quiet nave
To where a cross gleamed gold.

The heavy door swung open to my pull.

The wind of Spring was singing in the churchyard pines,
Wavelets were sparkling, dancing in the sun.
A mallard flew a cross across the sky,
Marsh marigolds heaped mounds of treasure round my feet.
A pair of swallows, following blind instinct all the way
From Africa, swooped past.
A buzzard mocked me, mewing overhead.
Then, on the wind of Spring,
I heard God crying in a curlew’s call.

KISSING HANDS

Helen,
When first I saw
Your baby hand, born fingerless
I cried and put it to my lips
A vain attempt to ‘kiss it better’.

Later I learned to kiss each hand
To show I didn’t mind
And let you know that every part
Was just as precious as the rest.

Now, when I watch you play
Handling each problem with such joy and zest
I kiss your hand
From sheer respect

I never notice which.

<<<>>>

To read more of my poetry click here.

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A solar exclipse ~ Never to be forgotten ~ Uniting strangers

A Solar Eclipse.

All my life I had wanted to experience a total solar eclipse and, when I heard that there was to be one visible in the UK on the 11th August 1997, I determined that I would be where it was ‘total’. This was a narrow band across Cornwall and South Devon.

So, on the afternoon of the 10th I put a mattress in the back of my estate car together with a sleeping bag, some food and a camping stove and headed for South Devon. I visualised sleeping in the car somewhere near the sea and had chosen Slapton Sands. When I arrived there I felt strongly that here was not the right place for this experience so I drove back inland and further down the coast to Hallsands, a tiny village with a shingle beach. I arrived here just as it was getting dark and found the whole car-park along the shore lined with cars and camper-vans.

Everyone was there to share the eclipse and a fantastic atmosphere was apparent, all the tradition British reserve put on hold and everyone chatting to their neighbours, all excited about what would happen the next morning, but none knowing quite what to expect.

Just to the south-west was the Start Point lighthouse, flashing its warning signals throughout the night and automatically switching itself off at dawn.

The eclipse was due just about 10 a.m. and before that, groups of new-found friends gathered in anticipation, each holding a piece of smoked glass. Out to sea we counted over 100 small boats, waiting expectantly just as we were. Through the thin cloud overhead we could see the first sign as the sun appeared to change shape where the moon started to pass between it and the Earth. Gradually the moon eclipsed more of the sun until it was almost dark.

A pair of seagulls flying over, spiralled down to land on the sea and a couple who had obviously planned this in advance, ran down the beach and plunged into the calm water. It was suddenly almost completely dark and the Lighthouse started to flash its warning, whilst all around, from cliff-tops and offshore boats, cameras flashed in a 360 degree circle.

It was dark for just over a minute and then we saw the light ‘running towards us’, across the land and sea. The lighthouse switched itself off again and everybody laughed spontaneously as if we had together escaped some kind of danger.

Kettles were put on to boil and cups of tea shared in a ‘the Blitz is over’ kind of mood and then we all drifted away back to reality – but I’ll never forget that morning.

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Never be too sure ~ That you are the only one ~ Who knows the answers.

THE PRAT ON THE BEACH

The Gower Coast, South Wales.

Joyce turned on her back and looked up at the blueness of the sky, then trod water and looked back at the beach. Gerald, her brother, was walking along the tideline, his cassock black against the gleaming white of the dunes. She was cross with him, the elder brother who she had adored as a child.

When they had been much younger they had played in those dunes, hiding and leaping out at one another in showers of sand before swimming together in the clear sea. Then he had had his ‘call’ and gone all religious. Even today, after three days of sunshine and with the sea as warm as she had ever known it, he wouldn’t come in to swim with her. He had studied the horizon as she undressed behind him and put on her new bikini.

‘For God’s sake, Gerry,’ she had urged him. ‘There’s no one else about, I am your sister and surely even priests wear underpants. You can swim in those.’

But he had shaken his head. ‘I’ll wait for you. Don’t go out too far.’

She was out too far, she knew that but then she was the captain of her college swimming team and could swim for miles if she had to. Even though Gerald was her brother he was a prat, swallowing all that religious nonsense. He wouldn’t even read the Richard Dawkins’ books which had proved conclusively to her that God was unnecessary nowadays. Everything was decided by your genes, so-called spiritual matters were all in the imagination and Mankind no longer needed to invent a God for themselves.

She swam even farther out just to tease, then lay floating on her back again watching the small clouds drift across the blue dome above. With slight movements of her hands and legs she could float indefinitely.

The small white clouds were getting bigger, some had grey patches and, when she looked seawards, there were towering clouds, one of which had a top that spread out like a giant hammer. Lightning flickered and flashed silently in the dark, lower part of the cloud just above the horizon. The surface of the sea, so flat and calm a few minutes ago was rippled and a cold breeze cooled and tickled her face. Don’t panic, she told herself and turned to swim for the shore. The dunes and her brother’s tiny figure now seemed very far away.

She had hardly done a dozen strokes when the wind struck hard, the ripples turned to wavelets, which soon formed into larger waves which sometimes hid the land from sight, the wind edging the wave-tops with white foam before whipping it away in a cold and painful spray. She felt terribly alone and vulnerable, searching with her eyes along the dunes for a sight of Gerald, though hoping that he had had the sense to run up to the village and phone the coastguards.

She caught a glimpse of a figure in black clothes. It must be Gerald, still on the beach, though he appeared much shorter than he had looked before. It was at this moment that the cramps caught her, stabbing at her belly and stiffening her left leg in exquisite agony as had happened a month or so before in the college pool. Then the lifeguard had helped her out of the water. There was no lifeguard here, there never was on this little-used beach. She was going to die, to drown here with just that prat of a brother on the beach to tell their parents of her stupidity in swimming out so far. She tried to float on her back but the pain in her guts kept her doubled up and she swallowed a mouthful of water, salt, bitter and cold.

A black fin appeared on her right and another on her left. Sharks!

Now she panicked, striking out wildly towards the shore, dragging her stiff leg and trying to ignore the pain tearing at her guts. The fins were nearer now, moving into position, one close in to her side of her and she saw the grinning face of a dolphin break the surface. Not sharks, thank God!

Now there was a dolphin tight in to either side of her and she reached out an arm to hold round the smooth black rubbery fins on the dolphin’s backs. A feeling of love, care and security enveloped her as the two bore her easily through the waves towards the beach. The pains in her guts and leg were replaced by dull aches as they reached the breakers.

Gerald was there, standing in the waves up to his chest, holding out his arms to make a cradle to take her from the dolphins. He waded ashore, carrying the limp body of his sister and laid her on the sand above the high water mark in a place where a marram-topped dune cut the force of the wind. Joyce opened her eyes, looked up and saw him standing above her, his wet cassock clinging to his body and she could hear his teeth chattering over the whistle of the wind in the coarse grass. She was angry again.

‘Why didn’t you go and phone the coast-guards? I could have drowned out there!’

‘There wasn’t time. I knelt on the beach and prayed.’

‘God, you’re a prat,’ she told him. ‘If it hadn’t been for those two dolphins…’

Father Gerald crouched awkwardly and picked her up in his arms again. ‘We must get you somewhere warm.’

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