This afternoon I stole an hour from work to plant up a bed I cleared and dug over on Sunday, putting in flowering plants for the bees, and enjoying the rainbows drifting in the spray as I watered the soil. I usually plug myself into a podcast but this time I didn't and that left me space for thinking, something that I often tend to try to avoid these days.
I have done Life v2.0 already. It was when I was in a marriage where I was so low that at one point I wondered whether there was a purpose in me being there any longer. Because if I wasn't, it would mean that my then husband could go off with the women I thought he wanted to be with. And then at least two of the three of us would be happy. I was in a job that made me unhappy as well, but I figured that at least I had a job, which was the one constant in my life. And then I was made redundant. That was me plunged into Life v2.0.
But I was brave enough to leave the marriage, move somewhere new completely on my own, and set up as a freelancer. And then Tim and I got together, after having known each other as friends for many years, and we had eight years of marriage. Those were some of the happiest years of my life. Life v2.1 I guess.
And then he died, and I'm left in the limbo of Life v3.0. I don't want to be here. I liked Life v2.1. I don't know whether there's ever going to be a Life v3.1. But I've decided that if I could be brave before I'm going to be brave again.
And it's not the 'Oh, you are so brave, I don't know how I would cope without [insert name here]'. It's a brave with the stitches showing and the glue not quite set. It's a broken and mended brave. It's a Kintsugi bowl repaired with gold brave, a brave that sees the beauty in the flaws. And while it's a kind of brave that doesn't always withstand a puff of wind, I'm hoping it might be the kind that will stand up to a storm.
My darling Tim.
I think you were as sad as I was when I told you that all my colonies of bees had died. You loved to go and sit near them at the end of a long day, watching them flying in and out. Smiling at the shadows that made them look like incoming planes. Relaxing as they flew on their carefully charted courses.
We would sit and drink coffee and talk and watch the patterns in the sky that their tiny bodies made, and marvel at the amazing colours of the pollen on their back legs. You never liked honey but you loved my bees, and the pleasure they gave me.
You held me when I cried at the loss of the bees. Encouraged me to keep trying. Told me that you'd read that the second year is a hard one for beginning beekeepers. And made me promise to order a new colony, which I did. And that arrives next month.
But last month I got a surprise message. Someone from the High Peak bee group had a spare colony. And so a beekeeper friend came over from Sheffield to help me clear out the boxes, and see if we could work out what had happened.
It looks like the little swarm, the one I picked up from the allotment clinging to a gooseberry bush, was just too small to survive. The next colony along was isolation starvation, where they had got through the stores close by and had just been too cold, or not brave enough, to venture further. They were all clustered around their queen, trying to save her to the last. The third colony, where the rain and the storm had got in, had plenty of stores but had just got too chilled and wet. And the fourth colony – well, I'm just not sure. We couldn't see why. It could have been varroa. Or the cold. Or an infection. Or simply bad luck. It was a tough winter, this year.
I'm going to drive over to the High Peak tomorrow to pick up the colony in the little green nuc box. Drive home to the sound of gently buzzing bees, and put them in a new spot in the garden, to see if they will get better sun there.
I'm going to clean and paint the hives on the next warm day. Ready for the two new colonies. And take down two trees to give them more sun. I'm sorry. I know you loved trees, but I promise I will replace them with native trees full of flowers for the bees.
I couldn't tell the bees that you'd gone, because I'd lost them all over the winter. But I will tell the new colonies about you.
All my love
Everyone has a comfort zone. Everyone steps outside their comfort zone sometimes. Well, I've just been so far outside of my comfort zone that I think I ended up approaching it from the other side. I've come back from one of the most demanding and exhilarating weekends of my life, a firearms for theatricals course with the incredibly patient and proficient people at Bare Arms. I am bruised and exhausted and amazed. But… the hardest thing was not being able to report it all to Tim. So my friend Carrie suggested that I write it as if I was telling him. And call it Tales for Tim.
My darling Tim
You remember that night I called Jules to see how he was, and ended up sitting on the stairs talking through a sticky plot point in his latest screenplay for an hour. And he told me about the crazy drama firearms training course he was going on. And I said it sounded fun. And he said that there was a spare place on it. And I decided that it was too scary and too expensive, and you persuaded me to go for it. You said it would be good for me, an amazing experience, and a chance to spend an entire weekend with Jules. Well. I've just come back from it. Amazed and dazed and bruised and exhausted and still giddy on adrenaline two days later.
After Thursday working in Manchester and a drive down to Dorset via every single set of roadworks in the entire UK I emerged blinking into the night, at Monkton Wyld Court, once a Victorian rectory for a country vicar and his brood of many children and now a sustainable living centre. And accommodation location for 7 actors, an am-dram actor-cum-writer, Ben, an ex-Army officer, and Al, an RAF officer. I'm not sure that the nice people who were there to volunteer in the grounds or attend a shamanic course in the village hall quite knew what had hit them.
Friday started with theory. Well actually, Friday started with the indignity of being the only person who couldn't fit into a Bare Arms boiler suit after being told that they fitted everyone, but we will park that one there. Suffice to say at that point I wanted to go home. But I didn't. I knew you would be cross with me if I did.
So – Friday started with theory. How guns work. What the parts of a gun are (leaving me with 'Naming of Parts' by Henry Reed dancing in my head). What is (and isn't) a bullet. What makes up a shell, and how it fires. And the science and engineering part of me loved it. And then the writer part took over – while the others went for a coffee, I felt the weight and coolness of the shells and noted how they warmed up in my hand. Looked at the colours of the copper bullet jacket and the brass shell case. Smelled the whiff of cordite, tasted the tang of copper on my fingers, bitter like the smell of pennies. Heard the sound the shells made as they rolled together in my hand. What would your synesthetic brain make of the sounds and the words?
Next – the Lee-Enfield. Or to give it its full name, the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle. This appeared on our desks, bigger and heavier that certainly I expected. The guns were World War I vintage, and the wood was smooth with handling, pitted with use. The shell – I keep on wanting to call it a bullet, and I know it's wrong – was large, heavy, pointed. Designed to do damage. We practiced loading and unloading, hearing the satisfying click as the bullets – no – shells pushed down from the clip into the magazine, making ready, the feeling as the bolt pulled up, back, forward, down, chambering the shell, making the gun hot, ready to fire. The reassurance of the safety catch. And all of this with dummies, but we knew that next it would be for real.
We learned how to be safe around guns. How dangerous even blank firing guns are. How to recognise the state of a gun and make it safe. Safety catch on, magazine off, shell ejected from the chamber. Three point check. And yes I know you know all of this, but let me show off a little my newly-learned skills.
Finally, we headed down into the range, a road tunnel left derelict after the building of a bypass and now made into The Tunnel shooting centre. Surreally, the road's centre markings still run down the middle of the 100 m shooting range. And then we got busy. Learning how to hold the guns. Where to tuck them into our shoulders. Aiming standing, kneeling, lying prone, always with the gun ready. Surrounded by actors from their 20s upwards, martial arts experts, dancers (both ballet and pole), lithe and fit, I felt every bit of my 50-year-old size 18 body protesting – however fit I am as a runner, my flexibility and lack of upper body strength was slowing me down. And yes – I can hear you – I just haven't lifted enough boxes of books lately.
And then we were handed shells. The target was an orange sheet with a German soldier of dubious vintage, with a pointy hat, a bayonet and a dodgy moustache. I loaded with slightly shaky hands, made the gun ready, and lay down on the floor in an approximation of the position I had been shown. Wedged the rifle into my shoulder and squinted down the sights, completely wrongly, as it turned out later. Slipped the safety catch and squeezed the trigger as gently as I could. I felt the shot deep in my gut and the recoil hard into my shoulder, enough to bruise. Heard it through the heavy ear defenders. Smelled the cordite and tasted the rusty tang of blood where I had bitten my lip. Four shots prone. Two shots kneeling, two shots standing. Ben patiently talking us through it. Shell cases falling to the ground with a metallic tinkle. And my status as a pacifist is confirmed. I missed every time. As I said to the proper actors, I'm just there to make them look good. But I have now handled and fired a gun for the first time in my life.
And there were some tears in the quiet. For feeling the odd one out. For missing the target. But most of all for not being able to call you and tell you what I had done.
Love you for always and miss you for ever
Part 2 is here
My husband Tim died suddenly and unexpectedly in February 2018 from complications linked with his type 2 diabetes. Effectively, his heart just stopped. I always said that he was the centre of my turning world; the spot of calm in my hectic life. And his death has left me floundering. I am now trying to rebuild my life without that centre, and it's hard. It's not even day by day – sometimes its hour by hour, or even minute by minute. And it's early days. The journey has barely even started, and I suspect that it won't ever actually finish.
My work as a science writer is helping. My mantra, when the world has gone odd and sideways, has always been "I'm going back to my desk to write about science; I understand that." And I have started running again. During 2017, I ran over 650 km and raised more than £1600 for Cancer Research UK. I think there were times Tim wondered who this running-obsessed alien was that had stolen his wife. But he was so proud of me.
Type 2 diabetes is more than just an inconvenience. It's a killer. It reduces your life expectancy by an average of ten years. It increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease, and cancer. It can leave you blind.
I'm late planting the bulbs this year. They should have gone in before Christmas and as I won't have time to prepare the beds until next week, I'm putting them into large pots to give them a head start, just in case the weather and the workload pushes it all back again. The bulbs are a gift from my sister, to provide early feed for my bees.
That is perhaps why I have put off the planting, as the storm last month ripped apart one hive and left two chilled into silence. Sad heaps of tiny bodies already breaking down into the soil. The bees I nurtured, gone to the Derbyshire winter, the challenge of nature, and perhaps, to my regret, the novice's mistakes.
I try not to anthropomorphise. They are livestock, neither wild animals nor pets, simply a flying flock to manage and harvest, much as people keep chickens for eggs or a pig for the winter larder. Feed and medicate. Provide housing. But in reality it does go deeper than that.
I knew the colouring of the three different colonies; could recognise them as they foraged on flowers as I walked around the village. I photographed them as they drank, balanced on moss in an old cutlery tray. I watched them fly in and out of the hive on a summer evening. I studied them when they landed on my gloved fingers, felt the warmth and breathed in deep as I opened up their dark, honey-scented hives.
And so I have mourned my bees.
The skins of the bulbs are delicate, papery. They rustle as I drop them into my hand, and scraps of pale brown drift down onto the darker compost like miniature drifts of autumn leaves. Tiny shoots of cream and pale yellowish-green poke blindly out of the tops of the bulbs, pushing towards the daylight.
I push the bulbs into compost, soft and dark, smelling of fruitcake and autumn, and the tiny shoots make me think of spring. And so I'm going to begin again.
The fourth colony still clings on. These were rescued from a gooseberry bush in the local allotments, a cluster of brown and yellow buzzing softly and clinging onto a branch. The queen a lighter shade, longer and fatter, surrounded safe in the depth of the colony, both protecting and protected. The cluster fizzing like champagne in my hands as I scooped it into its new home. And hopefully these will make it through to the spring.
A new colony arrives in May, from a breeder in the Peak District hills this time rather than the lower lands of South Yorkshire. And perhaps another swarm will make its way to the empty hives, which will still smell of last year's bee and wax and honey and summer to a queen and her scouts seeking a new home.
And the garden will be full of the scent of my late-planted bulbs.
I spoke at the Science March Manchester on Earth Day - 22 April 2017 - and here is the text of my talk.
It's amazing to see you all here. But why am I here? Protesting is new to me. I wasn't a protester at college. I wrote a few letters. I signed a few petitions. I got on with the rest of my life. But then things changed. I learned about echo chambers, and people's views on the elite, and on experts. And I started to cling tightly to science, because I understood that when I didn't understand the changing world. But I heard that we were now in post-truth world. I learned about 'alternative facts.
And so I started to feel that I should do something. I crocheted a pussy hat for the women's march in Washington. I moderated a TweetChat for #WomenInScience and met, virtually, some amazing women and scientists.
And in February, I joined a line of protesters for the first time in my life, at the LassWar protest at the Northern Powerhouse conference here in Manchester, protesting about the lack of women speakers at the conference.
So, back to the March for Science. I'm sure you all have different reasons for being here, but mine is simple. I love science, and I always have.
I feel like I have been a scientist as long as I have been alive – I've always loved finding out how things work, growing things and understanding things, taking things apart and putting them back together (sometimes even successfully!). I was really lucky – my mum was a nurse and my dad was an engineer, and they always encouraged me to learn, to find out, and to be curious. And that led me to studying biochemistry and pharmacology, and finally to becoming a science journalist.
I have written on subjects from the science of making cheese to women CEOs in biotech, and from the physics of bubbles to the danger of antimicrobial resistance and the possibility of a post-antibiotic world. I have travelled as far south as Hawaii and as far north as the Arctic Circle to hear scientists talk about the topics they love and how they are going to change the world for the better.
What I love about science is that it gives me a window on the world, from the incredibly tiny to the impossibly huge and the incredibly distant. It gives me a glimpse into my own instruction manual. And it means that I can learn something new every single day. This week I learned that mole rats can survive for over 15 minutes without oxygen, and cope by burning fructose like a plant; that physicists have created a liquid with negative mass; and that a shipworm is a five foot long bivalve. And that was just in one week…
I asked a friend of mine why she liked science and she said: "I think science really allows you to understand so much about everyday things, such as why food goes off, or doesn't; why a lorry needs a longer stopping distance than a small car; how to get curry stains out of clothes; why custard powder behaves in that weird way; what makes fireworks different colours; and how an MRI scanner works, among many other things."
One of the great things about science is that it is all about finding out. Science is about both facts and ideas. It can be about immutable truths, but it can also be about admitting that we just don't know, but that we are working hard to find out.
People might ask you "What has science ever done for us?" Healthcare is science. My mum survived multiple heart attacks and lived until she was 90 because of science. My dad had cancer, and his pain was controlled through science. I can see you all clearly because of science.
Forensic analysis is science. Genetics is science. Climate change is science. Computer programming is science. But so is farming, and cooking, and cleaning, and gardening, and hairdressing, and bird watching and car maintenance. Science is a part of everything.
And science isn't just about science. Science can be art, and it can be philosophy. It can be poetry and fiction and music. Science also teaches us how to think logically, analyse problems, find solutions and argue intelligently. And that's not just in science, but in other areas too, like politics, economics and business, and believe me, those are pretty important at the moment. It unites people around the world and allows them to work together through the common language of science.
We are here because we already know this. But we need to spread the word, and encourage everyone to take an interest, to find out and to learn. We need to influence politicians and policy makers, not from a political perspective but from a scientific perspective. We need to make sure that investment continues in science, and that it's across all sciences, not just the ones with outcomes that are perceived as practical. We need to encourage both boys and girls to study science and to stay in science, even if they don't want to have a career in science, because it will influence their outlook on the world for the better.
We need to tell people that anyone can get interested in science, however young or old, and whether they have formally studied science or not. All it takes is the curiosity to ask why and the desire to learn more about the world. There is some amazing writing and documentary on science out there. But we do also need to remind them that not everything on the internet is true.
We need to communicate that truth matters. That there are no such things as alternative facts. That the world is round, climate change is real and homeopathy isn't. That antibiotics don't work against colds, and microwave ovens don't give you cancer. Lemmings don't commit mass suicide (or explode). Red hair isn't becoming extinct. And vaccines really, really, really don't cause autism.
And finally don't let people tell you that you don't need experts. Experts keep your heart beating, your food safe, and your car's brakes working. Brian Cox is worth listening to. Stephen Hawking is worth listening to. But always remember – you are here because you are a scientist or a supporter of science, and you are worth listening to as well. In this world of fake news and alternative facts, we all need to make ourselves heard.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays