Brian Aldiss

Tralee of Young Man

In my garden, doing a flower-watch, I was fascinated to see the daisies grow. An industrious bee was moving from blossom to blossom, presumably under orders from headquarters. One understands that bees are enormously good at communication.

This it was which prompted me to catch the bee and try to educate it still further. I used great kindness. Patience was also needed. I was aware all the while that I was entering realms where no one had been before. Although the bee worked hard, strong empathy developed between us: so much so that the bee, whom I christened Bea, would eat honey from my hand.

Once Bea had mastered the alphabet, she showed she was ready to tackle the masterpieces of English literature. She suggested we start with Leo Tolstoi’s “War and Peace”. I had to inform her — I trust without too much condescension – that this novel was in fact Russian, in origin if not in translation. She so immediately went off the idea that I suspected racial prejudice, rarely found in a bee, although she claimed never to have heard of Russia.

We finally settled on an English classic. Bea would read nothing less than Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

We settled down comfortably, one lovely summer evening, with the open book. I had chosen a paperback edition with good print. With the scrupulousness that was one of my trade marks, I had placed grains of sugar between each word, by way of encouragement.

Bea settled on the first page. She began a slow crawl over the first sentence. Rather to my disappointment, she insisted on working from right to left, Hebraic fashion. I wondered what she would make of it. “…in man single a that, acknowledged…”

These words were travelled in the first hour.

In the second hour, after a rest, we got only as far as “…universally truth a…”

Bea then rested. I felt that ‘universally’ had exhausted her. I could not help wondering how she would manage with ‘possession’ in the second line.

She indicated to me that she was extremely disappointed with the literary quality of the piece. I sympathised. We spent the rest of that evening watching television, although there was little enough about apiary to hold our attention.

It is a tribute to the tenacity of Bea that, come the next evening, she was eager to start reading Jane Austen again. She set off along the page at a fair pace, this time choosing to read the second line of text, although once again — perversely, to my mind — choosing to travel from right to left. In the first half-hour we had reached “…wife a of want in be…”

Here she came to a halt. I could tell by the flutter of her wings that she was annoyed. Finally she explained: ‘bee’ was misspelled. I attempted to tell her that this word, ‘be’ with one ‘e’, had no reference to her kind, but was merely a part of the verb ‘to be’, as in Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be or not to be”.

This proved an unfortunate example to have chosen. She could not understand what Hamlet meant; her argument – perfectly logical in its way – was that either one was or was not a bee, and that there could be no confusion about the matter. Even a wasp was clearly not a bee; though she admitted that there may have been some period in past pre-history when bees and wasps shared a common ancestry. How was it, Bea asked, that this rubbish from Hamlet could be so highly prized? I found it hard to answer.

We came as near to quarrelling as we had ever done, Bea and I. However, after a while she kindly announced I was an honorary bee, albeit wingless, and she was prepared to go on with her reading of Jane Austen. So on the third day, Bea triumphantly reached “…truth a is it…” and pronounced it good.

A simple physiological fact stood in Bea’s path to full enjoyment of Jane Austen’s work. Her memory always died at sunset. It lasted only one day. It was renewed on the succeeding sunrise, completely fresh and blank. All traces of her yesterdays, of her experiences good or bad, had vanished. This discovery touched me deeply. How pleasant, I thought, to awaken every morning to an entirely new world! – No horrid memories of childhood, no memories of bills to be paid, no memories of work to be done: just a total blank, full of childlike expectation, on which a new sun shone. Even if it ruined one’s appreciation of Jane Austen.

Many explanations passed between us. Finally, Bea curled up in my ear exhausted. It became clear to me that what was needed was a short prose piece through all of which Bea could travel in one day, thus receiving it whole. A prose piece or… a poem!

So I turned to my favourite verse form, the limerick.

Bea was immediately enthusiastic about the new project.

It was on a Sunday morning when we set to work on the limerick book. I opened it at random, and flattened out the page. Almost at once, Bea began to make steady progress through the first line of the first limerick we came across, this time without grains of sugar between each word.

“…Tralee of man young a was there…”

Only then did I realise that the second line was “Who had an affair with a — “

No, no, I could not let my innocent friend read that filth! How could I ever explain its implications to the virgin Bea?

She was resting after her exertions, but was about to approach the second line, of which, from her point of view, was inevitably… – but I could not let it happen!

“Bea, my dear”, I said, “it has come time for us to part, alas!”

I let her go. She flew away with many a backward look. I waved until she disappeared into a distant flower bed. Tears stood in my eyes.

That dear little winged being remains for ever in my heart. Never again can I open a novel by Jane Austen without thinking of her. Or a book of limericks.