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Avoiding a sting in the tail

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

James wears a coat with holes, eats whatever is placed before him and has likely never held an umbrella, yet stacks his turf meticulously, piecing it together one sod at a time as if it were a five thousand part puzzle with a grand prize on completion.
After I helpfully tipped a barrow load into the corner of the shed and went back for another he tried to put me right.
“Come away out of there,” he told me. “Get it right at the back and it’ll be right at the front.”
There were better ways of spending such a rare and sunny day than stooping over the trailerload of winter fuel that had been dumped unceremoniously onto his driveway. I headed to the lake, walked through the trees and stopped beneath a small dead beech where I had a view over the water. Dozens of ducks filled the small bay. Where had they all come from? They weren’t there a week ago.
Later that afternoon we sat down for a beer in his kitchen, our respective work done. The front of his shed was neat and trim, perfectly level top to bottom and side to side.
I gestured toward it. “That’s art,” I said by way of compliment.
He was visibly chuffed. “And how were the ducks?”, he asked, his attempt at sincerity undone by an involuntary and incredulous shake of the head. He finds it odd that someone could make money by looking at things that had always been there and, as far as he was concerned, always would be.
A wasp flew in through the open window and focused its attention on the neck of James’ bottle. I sensed an opportunity to squeeze a bit of folklore. “I heard it was bad luck to have a wasp in the house.”
“It is,” he said emphatically, rolling up his copy of The Mayo News, “for the wasp, anyway”.
The insect fled to the window and tapped at the glass for the last time before falling to the sill, kicking its last, having felt the passionate weight of local politics.
“There’s a plague of them this year,” said James. “And they’re small, every one of them.”
“They might be small,” I remarked, “but I dare say they’re sharp.”
James is more interested in wildlife than he lets on, and walked down to see the ducks for himself. We stopped beneath the same dead tree and looked out over the same concentrated raft of wildfowl until he gave the tree a slap and asked if I thought he could push it over. I told him I didn’t doubt he could, that it would fall if he leaned on it, and wondered aloud why there would be so many ducks in one place. The next thing I knew, he had his back braced against the trunk, then his arms wrapped around it as he sought to wrest the rotten roots from their hold in the earth, pushing one way and pulling the other, and growling like a bear from some Russian circus. The tree eventually came loose with a creaking groan and fell to the ground with a loud thud, which sent the ducks into the reeds and out of sight.
“There now,” puffed James. “I knew I could do it.”
He stooped to examine the decayed wood where it had cracked near the top. “Look,” he said, “another wasp”.
I didn’t need to look, for I was already fending off several more of the creatures.
“And look,” he pointed, “there’s more of them, too. Where d’you think they’re coming from?”
“There’s a nest,” I said, backing away. “We should probably leave them to it.”
I turned and walked back the way we had come. A wasp flew into my hair with an angry buzz. Another attacked the sleeve of my jumper as it sought to administer a series of punishing stings. When the one in my hair was joined by a second I broke into a trot and put some distance between myself and their nest. As I slowed James overtook me at speed, his heavy footfall accompanied by the sound of an angry crowd.
We actually made it home relatively unscathed and returned in the coolness of dusk for another look. The nest was in a hole in the ground next to where the tree had fallen. A constant stream of wasps were coming and going. When they noticed us again we retreated.
“Come on,” James said, “there’s a few sods left for the fire, and more beer if you want. There’s good, even in wasps.”