The House that Creaked


Life was full of interest for Rosamunda - called Ros for short.

The friends, the sights, the smells, the never-ending games, and the snow - that wonderful, frozen cotton wool - to bounce through. Life had been filled with one enjoyable adventure after another - until the last one!

It had not been an adventure of Ros's making. She had no say in the matter. When the family moved house she would naturally go with them; with the house-proud mother who could crochet anything from evening gowns to the woolly mammoth Ros played with, and the father (not so much fun) who was very important in the city and, unfortunately, all too aware of the fact. And, of course, they would be accompanied by their children; Peter, cropped hair like the bristles of a startled hedgehog and impish grin, and Amanda, well-behaved, considerate and always ready to stop Ros chasing pigeons. Despite this, Ros still liked her.

The new, huge house was intended to meet their father's aspirations, if no anyone else's. The rest of the family had been happy in their suburban semi only a 10 minute walk to school, two minutes to their grandmother and with a nearby tube station. It would have been the closest thing to living in the countryside if it hadn't been for the other houses blocking the view. When spring came the cherry trees lining the wide avenue blossomed and collared doves tried to nest in their apple tree (Ros's incessant barking always ensured they never succeeded). Everyone went to the park wearing summer clothes, only to dash the short distance back home to put on coats when they realised how cold it was, and the powder-puff seeds of early dandelions alighted on the nearby allotments. The beans, peas, tomatoes, artichokes and cauliflowers growing there would be sold from stalls at the gates later in the year to undercut the overpriced produce in the local supermarket.

Why would Ros's family want to move from this suburban idyll, two minutes from the park and boating lake, to a huge house in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farms owned by people with guns ready to eliminate sheep worrying dogs? As soon as the removal van arrived, Ros had the foreboding that this was going to be no fun at all. She was convinced that their new neighbours would shoot first before wondering whether the innocent, fluffy mongrel passing by their fields was someone's pet. Not that Ros had ever been fluffy, more a cross between a poodle and bottlebrush.

The drive out seemed to take forever.

Ros watched dolefully from the back of the hatchback with Peter and Amanda as suburbia disappeared. They entered a maze of country lanes which wound through a patchwork of fields filled with startling yellow and the intense green of immature wheat. Ros thought she glimpsed circling buzzards, probably over a sheep carcass, but tried not to think about it.

As they entered some rusty wrought iron gates all the misgivings the reluctant family had were confirmed. How could any corner of the idyllic English countryside be so foreboding?

The house at the end of the overgrown drive was Victorian Gothic, from front porch to forbidding rear courtyard. Its hall should have been filled with mediaeval armour and mounted heads of any creatures unfortunate enough to be found by the local farmers near a field of their sheep. Peter and Amanda were not impressed. Having left all their friends behind, they were hardly consoled by their father's offhand insistence that they could still keep in contact through Facebook. This from the man whose idea of socialising was working lunches with other bankers. He could not comprehend how fraught the online world could be for the discerning young mind. Peter preferred to play football outside anyway and not on some stupid games console, let alone chat to Mike, Tyrone and Ali - who would now be in the park kicking a ball around - on a social networking site. And where in this wilderness was he liable to find enough friends to make up a five-a-side team?

Amanda had closed her Facebook account when a troll started to leave offensive messages on the get well page she had set up for a schoolfriend being treated with cancer. Some flowers and a card had been far more appreciated anyway. Apart from that, their father had moved them to the middle of somewhere which didn't even have a decent broadband signal. This didn't matter to him because he was always in the City and used his smartphone. That could always get a connection. He had isolated his own family from the world they knew for the sake of raising his profile at the bank and golf club.

Mother was even unhappier than her children, though would never admit it. She hated driving after being in an accident which had injured a friend, yet was now faced with ferrying her children backwards and forwards 10 miles to the nearest school - assuming they could get into it.

But father was the breadwinner around whom the universe turned and the bleak Victorian monstrosity that should have had gargoyles, flying buttresses and a vampire's coffin in the cellar, would be home until the children were old enough to leave or their mother had a nervous breakdown.

Ros spent her first night under the huge table in the basement kitchen which was so intimidating it was unlikely that the new lady of the house would use it to make her delicate sugarcraft flowers. This is culinary dungeon, with its ancient cooking range and smoke encrusted tiles, couldn't have been used for years. In a stately home it might have been scrubbed up to become one of the exhibits demonstrating how people in the past lived. Here, it was a portal to the lower depths from which many cooks had probably run, screaming.

As she tried to sleep, Ros imagined the tentacles of gelatinous beasts lurking in the serving hatch of the dumb waiter, waiting to snatch prey. They would certainly explain why there were no rats. Or perhaps it was really the portal to a magical dimension where spring lambs frolicked, daffodils bloomed and cherry blossom filled the air with its pink confetti. No, not very likely given the odd odour in the old house that reeked of catastrophe.

As always, Mother had accepted the decision of her husband without question. She didn't let him know that she had Googled the property as soon she had the address. It seemed to have no history and, as the house had been purchased in a private sale from an associate of her husband's, there had been no estate agent to talk to. Had it been up to her she would have at least checked its provenance with Land Registry before entering into the deal, but better sense seldom touches those with the authority to ignore it. And there would have been no point in speaking up, even for the sakes of Peter and Amanda. Their father would have only accused her of being emotional again.

Days and weeks passed, the master of the house's silver sports car leaving early in the mornings and returning late in the evenings.

Mother did as much as she could to make some of the ten rooms homely, but the ceilings were so high the spiders must have been laughing at her futile attempts to dislodge their cobwebs. The nearest school was already overflowing and unable to accept Peter and Amanda, so they tried to help Mother with dusters, brooms and cups of tea until places could be found.

Ros was allowed out into the large grounds, yet felt no inclination to dash about without squirrels to chase. Instead she spent most of the time hiding under a laurel bush, hoping that whatever phantom stalked the place would not realise she was there. Back inside the house, she silently prowled the halls and landings, listening to the floorboards creak at what must have been the footfall of a heavy ghost. The sound was worst in the master bedroom and children's rooms next to it, as though a slumbering giant was fitfully turning in her sleep. Mother and the children had also noticed it and assumed that was what old houses were supposed to do. They had too many other things on their minds to worry about it. A school for Peter and Amanda had to be found before an inspector came round to prosecute Mother for failing to educate them. And then there was the problem of how to lay father's expensive Turkish carpet in his study without cutting it to shape, and finding a power point which didn't spark whenever an appliance requiring over 1000 watts was plugged into it.

Without squirrels, rats or pigeons to chase, only Ros had the time to worry about heavy-footed phantoms clumping about above them. It was hardly surprising that the wildlife kept well clear of the place.


Another week passed, and still no neighbour called to introduce themselves, not even a farmer with a gun demanding to know what sort of dog they owned or school inspector to find out why Peter and Amanda had disappeared off the educational map.

At last the huge dining room, despite its ludicrously high, creaking ceiling, was fit to live in and be used as a temporary classroom. In an early morning attempt to instil some education into her reluctant children, Mother told them to spread out their old school books on the ancient oak dining table.  As it was impossible to get a decent Internet signal, she told them to bring the encyclopaedias and history books from the box they were still packed in. The sight of their familiar pages was oddly reassuring and Peter and Amanda began to show interest. Unfortunately Mother had no idea where to start. How much did her offspring already know about the history of the world, the life cycle of a butterfly, or Newton's law of gravity?

To confuse matters even more, there was a sudden bark from the doorway.

"Shut up Ros!" scolded Mother.

"We're trying to work," Peter joined in.

Her bark became more urgent.

"Ros!" they all shouted. "Shut up!"

At that, Ros frantically dashed about the room, running in circles until all three of them were obliged to get up and chase her out.

They had hardly entered the hall when there was an ear-splitting 'crack' from the room they had just left.

They all stopped and looked back in time to see a double bed crash through the dining room ceiling.

Mother, Peter and Amanda were rooted to the spot, unable to take in what was happening.

Ros bolted to the front door, yowling as loudly as she could.

This prompted Mother to scream, "Outside!" She dragged her bewildered children into the front courtyard as a hail of plaster and ceiling lathes continued to fall through the ceiling after the double bed.

They ran for the cover of the bushes on its far side. From there Mother, children and Ros watched the Victorian mansion cave in. The ornate chimney stacks crashed through the roof bringing everything below them down in an avalanche of tiles, timber, bricks and furniture. The children's beds hung suspended precariously on fractured floorboards before the wall they were attached to crumbled.

Then Mother remembered - she had a cake baking in the gas oven! The ancient gas main must have been fractured. Hardly had the thought crossed her mind when there was a huge 'boom!' from the kitchen and the remaining walls of the house were blown apart.

When debris stopped raining about the family, the rubble that had briefly been their home burst into flames.

Given how remote the house was, it was unlikely that the explosion had been heard by anyone else or flames spotted by a light aircraft. To make matters worse, no one had thought to snatch up a mobile phone.

Mother, Peter and Amanda were obliged to trudge three miles, numb with shock, and in their dressing gowns and slippers, along the winding lanes until they came to a cottage. The remote neighbour seldom had visitors, especially ones in dressing gowns, and was puzzled by their arrival.

Mother was still speechless at seeing her house collapse.

Ros barked, hoping he wasn't one of the dog shooting fraternity, and this prompted Amanda to blurt out what had happened.

"Oh my goodness!" exclaimed the old man. "What possessed you to move in there? That house was condemned years ago!"

After the emergency services and gas engineers had been informed, the elderly neighbour contacted the local Women's Institute who supplied clothes, meals and dog food. Then, when the family had sufficiently recovered, they arranged transport to take them to the house of Peter and Amanda's grandmother.

Near death experiences can trigger remarkable changes in a person's character, and Mother was no exception. She sent a text message to her husband, telling him in no uncertain terms that she had no intention of putting up with any more of his decisions; which were now very limited because his house hadn't been insured. This was compounded by his bank collapsing shortly after their separation.

At least Peter and Amanda were now able to live with their grandmother, and when they were back at school Ros could return to chasing squirrels.



Funny Honey


What is a weed? Just a flower that grows in the wrong place, or something more useful? Many have roots capable of stabilising sand dunes, yet undermine pavements; some have vicious spines, but hold the only water in the baking desert; others light up immaculately manicured lawns with their bright, yellow, shaggy petals before sending out clouds of gossamer seeds to colonise neighbouring gardens.

Bernice's dandelions were certainly the last culprits. Forget about dahlias, daffodils and dicentra. Plants the neighbours tried to eliminate as weeds, she regarded as meadow flowers. Her bees were not interested in the showy, double-petalled hollyhocks that sneered down on her uncultivated plot from next door's garden. Insects evolved side by side with the single petals of bindweed, buttercups and bluebells; and surely the bluebell is a greater wonder of nature than a frilly, pink petunia, whether native to Britain or Spain? Bernice's garden was a wildlife haven and, much to the chagrin of her neighbours, full of nettles, milkweed, stitchwort, knapweed, buttercups, soapwort, cow parsley, and oxeye daisies.

The other suburban gardeners resented that her pollinating insects did not appreciate their salvias, double delphiniums or hanging baskets dripping with begonias, petunias and fuchsias. When Bernice's first hive arrived they fully expected their flowers to be the first they visited. Instead, they spent their time pollinating the fragrant blossom of lime trees lining the street and the buddleia in her freely flowering wildlife haven that seeded their immaculate borders and lawns with dandelions. Eventually curiosity overcame alienation. If Bernice's parents were prepared to allow the 14-year-old nature lover to handle swarms of busy, stinging insects with such confidence, she perhaps deserved a little respect.

And Bernice talked to her bees. Every morning, as the sun rose, she would come out and address the busy troops before going to school. It was not possible to tell what this - slightly strange - teenager was saying to her hives, though one or two neighbours did think it odd that the newest swarm ignored even her wild flowers. Some wondered if these unusually large insects with a flash of flame red on their furry backsides were actually bees. Every morning, after their pep talk from Bernice, they would rise in a neatly formed, furiously buzzing swarm over the local gardens, passing over allotments, and even farmers crops, before disappearing from view. Then they would return just before sunset in exactly the same formation and circle their hive several times before going inside where their frenetic activity sounded like a factory assembly line. Surely these insects couldn't have been making something so benign as honeycombs. The other bees apparently couldn't stand this noisy activity either and left their hives in swarms, which were promptly taken over by the red-bottomed insects.

It wasn't until jars of honey began to appear that the neighbours became persuaded that they were, after all, only bees. How Bernice managed to wrest the honeycombs from the hives of her furious charges and spin it from the honeycombs was a mystery - they must have resented it. It must have been done at the dead of night when they were too exhausted to realise what was happening.

When, one late afternoon, a solemn faced Bernice delivered neatly labelled jars of honey to her immediate neighbours they were accepted gratefully, and with a degree of relief that it hadn't after all been produced by some exotic strain of insect with a venomous sting.

Then night fell and the lights went out. Only then did anyone coming downstairs for an illicit midnight snack notice that the jars of honey were filling the kitchen with a fluorescent glow.

The neighbours, of course, were far too diplomatic to mention the fact and discreetly disposed of the glowing substances down the drain.

As soon as Bernice became aware of the honey's extraordinary properties even her confidence was shaken. Not a young woman who mixed easily at school, she was unable to resist mentioning it to three friends she regularly helped with coursework because they spent more time on their mountain bikes than reading books. Despite their devil-may-care, athletic prowess with two-wheeled machines, Chanel, Denbigh and Robert had always been wary of what was going on behind Bernice's thin-rimmed spectacles. With one blink of her odd coloured eyes she could deal with problems it would have taken them days to solve. They expected her to expound some complicated explanation for the fluorescing honey that her bees had produced, only for her to shrug her shoulders at the mystery instead. If Bernice was baffled by anything, it had to be really astounding.

Now all of them were curious to know where her bees were collecting their nectar.

It would have been impossible to pursue the tightly knit swarm in a car, even if one of her parents had agreed to attempt it, but there were few places a mountain bike could not go.

So, early the next Saturday morning, Chanel, Denbigh and Robert waited on their mountain bikes in the alley at the back of Bernice's garden.

With their customary, businesslike drone, at seven o'clock sharp, the swarm ascended, circled, and then zoomed off towards the countryside. Bernice was right to assume that no car could have followed them. The pursuing mountain bikes bounced over deeply rutted tracks, through gaps in hedgerows, and across uncultivated farmland.

Bernice could not keep up on her ancient bicycle so Chanel phoned to tell her that the bees had descended into a large garden concealed at the bottom of a deep, disused quarry. Bernice pedalled furiously to the location along the lanes and tracks indicated on her smartphone.

Chanel, Denbigh and Robert were tempted to go down and investigate, but had no idea how to handle a swarm of bees that might be annoyed at having three kids on BMXs following them.

When Bernice arrived, she looked down at the large, verdant plot below. It was obvious where the swarm had found its rich source of nectar, so rich they had no need to forage anywhere else. She took out her binoculars from the bicycle's basket. The garden was bursting with foliage and flowers so dense they virtually concealed the non-descript, single-storeyed building at its centre. None of this appeared on Google Earth when Bernice checked, possibly because there was no nearby road for the camera vans to access. The mysterious plot bursting with flower-filled bushes and towering borders should have at least been detected by a surveillance satellite.

There was something very odd going on here and even Chanel, Robert and Denbigh looked apprehensive. Skateboard parks were their natural element, not Kew Gardens.

Bernice did not attempt to offer an explanation. She had the suspicion that this garden glowed in the dark, like her honey. If so, any satellite image might have identified it as a large, illuminated greenhouse.

"What do you want us to do then Bernie?"

Bernice was so engrossed in thought she was barely aware Chanel had spoken.

"Do we go down then?" Robert sounded more enthusiastic.

"It's a research place of some sort," Bernice eventually decided. "You interested in that sort of thing?"

No, none of her adventurous companions had an affinity with science on any level, especially botany, and she could tell that they would rather be testing their skills on the slopes of the ancient quarry.

"I'll go down and let you know what I find."

Chanel, Robert and Denbigh needed no second bidding and were off on their mountain bikes, bouncing over rubble and attempting somersaults into piles of sandy spoil. Bernice paused to wonder if their stunts hadn't already caused brain damage which doctors had not yet detected. Their boisterous, dangerous activity was a mystery to the beekeeper.

She switched off her smartphone to save the battery, just in case it was necessary to phone for a paramedic when one of them inevitably crashed attempting wheelies down the dangerous slopes on the other side of the quarry. It was just as well that her friends were so far away. None of them had learnt the subtle art of keeping secrets and would have been bound to blurt out that Bernice had discovered the portal to another dimension or combustible flowers.

She left her bike to descend on foot to this strange plot in the middle of nowhere and, after pushing through a thick boundary of hazel, was greeted by that familiar buzzing. The bees had recognised Bernice and formed a tightly knit swarm in greeting.

She waved self-consciously. "Hi. So this is where you end up all day."

A sudden, rasping voice came from a thicket of ceanothus. "So they are your bees, then?"

Bernice spun round to see a tiny, elderly woman in a lab coat step out to greet her.

"Is this your... garden... then?"

"Oh yes. I thought it was a very secret garden until now."

"Sorry, but I had to know where they were getting their nectar." Bernice indicated her three companions bouncing about the quarry in the far distance. "Don't worry about them. They don't understand where honey comes from - they're still getting to grips with the birds and bees."

The scientist chuckled. "My name's Batista."

"Er... Dr... Professor? "

"Professor, but you can call me Juanita."

"I'm Bernice."

There was an embarrassed silence, which the bees obligingly filled with their chainsaw buzzing.

Bernice suspected that this scientist was using her swarm to help modify plants to glow in the dark. The project was probably unregulated at best, and downright illegal at worst. The uses such a development could be put to were not immediately apparent but, by the renegade attitude of the older woman, it probably wasn't for the benefit of a supermarket chain.

Whatever the reason, the botanical achievement fascinated the beekeeper. "The plants here are luminous, aren't they?"

"Well you're a sharp one and no mistake."

"How did you manage to incorporate the gene into them?"

"I modified ostracod DNA and spliced it in at the reproduction stages. Took half a lifetime."

"It's brilliant... But why?"

Professor Batista gave an enigmatic smile. "Only ecologists and other scientists seem bothered that the planet's survival depends on plants. The rest of humanity needs reminding that they aren't a finite resource. Like your bees, once they have gone - so are we. If plants glowed like those in Avatar, loggers might hesitate before felling a tree and farmers be less likely to slash and burn away the planet's lungs. If forests no longer exist, we cease to breathe."

The idea was so extraordinary, yet plausible, Bernice could think of no immediate argument against it.

All the Professor needed was for swarms of insects to carry the pollen from her plants across the country.

"How many varieties have you altered so far?"

"Quite a few. Lime was first, but trees take a long while to grow."

"Isn't there a way to directly alter a plant without it having to set seed?"

"I don't know - Is there?"

Bernice hesitated. Her knowledge of botany came from an interest in bees.

The 14-year-old remained quiet for a moment. Professor Batista's experiment was brilliant for the sake of it. It was hardly surprising that it had taken her half a lifetime to manipulate the DNA in the pollen of so many different plants.

"I won't say anything to anyone - promise," Bernice eventually told her.

The scientist smiled. Her young visitor belonged to the generation that would have to deal with the consequences of climate change. "I'm sure you won't."

"How long before your plan starts to have an effect?" asked Bernice.

"It might be working on a modest scale, but how many people would admit to seeing the verges glow in the dark on their way home from the pub?"

"So you think it's already happening?"

"Not too noticeably, I hope. I don't want to be shut down by the protesters against modified crops before I'm ready. If they're prepared to destroy fields of food with the potential to prevent starvation, just think what they might do to this place."

"I don't know about other insects, but my bees seem too happy here to spread your pollen very far."

"They're the ideal pollinators for my present purposes. Once enough plant varieties have been treated, then I'll need hives of more adventurous bees."

The thought of fields of wheat and hedgerows glowing in the night filled Bernice with the sort of euphoria she hadn't experienced since receiving her first book on beekeeping. Though what the wildlife would think of it might be different matter. They wouldn't know whether it was night or day; as if they didn't already have enough to contend with in pesticides. That was something which apparently hadn't occurred to the Professor. Now Bernice knew her path in life. It was bizarre, exciting and had already consumed most of another person's lifetime, though explaining that to a jobseeker interviewer might not be such a good idea.

"Got any vacancies?"

"When can you start?"

"Weekends all right? Got GCEs coming up."

"Good idea. Get qualified. Never know from day to day whether I could get closed down."

Bernice watched her bees busy in the fluorescent flowers. Professor Batista needed a realist like her to help put things into perspective before she managed to illuminate the whole world, from the Siberian tundra to Brazilian rainforest.

"You know, there are quite a few ways of making your research even more useful."


"Your glowing lime trees could eliminate the use for street lights and, if only the pollen of certain species could be targeted, so many societies without access to electricity could carry on being active after sunset."

"Yes," Prof Batista admitted, "you really are a very bright kid, aren't you."