- Published: 21 July 2020
- ISBN: 9780857521996
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $37.00
Miss Benson's Beetle
An uplifting and redemptive story of a glorious female friendship against the odds
The Golden Beetle of New Caledonia, 1914
When Margery was ten, she fell in love with a beetle.
It was a bright summer’s day and all the windows of the rectory were open. She had an idea about sailing her wooden animals across the floor, two by two, but the set had belonged to her brothers once and most of them were either coloured-in or broken. Some were even missing altogether. She was wondering if in the circumstances you could pair a three-legged camel and a bird with spots when her father came out of his study.
‘Do you have a moment, old girl?’ he said. ‘There’s something I want to show you.’
So she put down the camel and the bird, and she followed him. She would have stood on her head if he’d asked.
Her father went to his desk. He sat there, nodding and smiling. She could tell he didn’t have a proper reason for calling her: he just wanted her to be with him for a while. Since her four brothers had left for war, he often called her. Or she’d find him loitering at the foot of the stairs, searching for something without seeming to know what it was. His eyes were the kindest in the world and the bald top of his head gave him a naked look, like an egg.
‘I think I have something that might interest you, old girl,’ he said. ‘Nothing much but maybe you will like it.’
At this point he would normally produce something he’d found in the garden, but instead he opened a book called Incredible Creatures. It looked important, like the Bible or an encyclopaedia, and there was a general smell of old things but that could well have been him. Margery stood at his side, trying hard not to fidget.
The first page was a painted illustration of a man. He had a normal face and normal arms but, where his legs should have been, a green mermaid tail. She was amazed. The next picture was just as strange. A squirrel like one in the garden, but this had wings. And it went on, page after page, one incredible creature after another.
‘Well, well, look,’ her father kept saying. ‘Well, now, goodness me. Look at this chap, Margery.’
‘Are they real?’
‘They might be.’
‘Are they in a zoo?’
‘Oh, no, dear heart. If these creatures live, they’ve not been found. There are people who believe they exist, but they haven’t caught them yet so they can’t prove it.’
She had no idea what he was talking about. Until that moment she’d assumed everything in the world was already found. It had never occurred to her things might happen in reverse. That you could see a picture of something in a book – that you could as good as imagine it – and then go off and look.
Her father showed her the Himalayan Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Patagonian Giant Sloth. There was the Irish Elk with antlers as big as wings. The South African Quagga, which started as a zebra until it ran out of stripes and became a horse. The Great Auk, the Lion-tailed Monkey, the Queensland Tiger. So many incredible extra creatures in the world and nobody had found a single one of them.
‘Do you think they’re real?’ she said.
Her father nodded. ‘I have begun to feel comforted,’ he said, ‘by the thought of all we do not know, which is nearly everything.’ With that upside-down piece of wisdom, he turned another page. ‘Ah!’
He pointed at a speck. A beetle.
Well, how nothing this was. How small and ordinary. She couldn’t see what it was doing in a book of incredible creatures, never mind whether it was not yet found. It was the sort of thing she would tread on and not notice.
He told her the head of a beetle was called the head, the middle was the thorax and the bottom half was the abdomen. Beetles had two pairs of wings – did she know that? One delicate set that did the actual flying, and another hardened pair to protect the first. There were more kinds of beetle on God’s Earth than any other species, and they were each unique in remarkable ways.
‘It looks a bit plain,’ she said. Margery had heard her aunts call her plain. Not her brothers, though. They were handsome as horses.
‘Ah! But look!’
He turned to the next page and her insides gave a lurch.
Here the beetle was again, magnified about twenty times. And she had been wrong. She had been so wrong, she could hardly believe her eyes. Close up, that small plain thing was not plain, not one bit. Oval in shape and gold all over, it was incandescent. Gold head, gold thorax, gold abdomen. Even its tiny legs were gold, as if Nature had taken a bit of jewellery and made an insect instead. It was infinitely more glorious than a man with a tail.
‘The Golden Beetle of New Caledonia,’ said her father. ‘Imagine how it would be to find this one, and bring it home.’
Before she could ask more, there was a ring on the outside bell and he eased himself to his feet. He closed the door gently behind him, as if it had feelings, and left her alone with the beetle. She reached out her finger to touch it.
‘All?’ she heard him say from the hall. ‘What? All?’
Until now, Margery hadn’t shared her father’s love of insects – he was often in the garden with a sweep net, but it was more the sort of thing he would have done with her brothers. Yet as her finger met the golden beetle, something happened: a spark seemed to fly out and her future opened. She went hot and cold. She would find the beetle. It was that simple. She would go to wherever New Caledonia was, and bring it home. She actually felt struck, as if the top of her head had been knocked off. Already she could see herself leading the way on a mule while an assistant carried her bags at the rear.
But when the Reverend Tobias Benson returned, he didn’t seem to remember anything about the beetle, let alone Margery. He walked slowly to the desk and rifled through papers, picking them up and putting them down, as if none of them were the things they should have been. He lifted a paperweight, then a pen, and afterwards he stowed the paperweight back where the pen had been, while the pen he seemed to have no clue about. It was possible he had completely forgotten what a pen was for. He just stared, while tears fell from his eyes like string.
‘All of them?’ he said. ‘What? All?’
He took something from the drawer and stepped through the French windows, and before she realized what had happened, he’d shot himself.
England, Early September 1950
What Are You Doing with My New Boots?
Miss Benson had begun to notice that a funny note was going around her classroom. It had started at the back and was now heading towards the middle.
The laughter had been quiet at first, but now it was all the more obvious for being stifled: one girl had hiccups and another was practically purple. But she didn’t stop her lesson. She dealt with the note the way she always dealt with them, and that was by pretending it wasn’t there. If anything, she spoke louder. The girls carried on passing the note from one to the next, and she carried on telling them how to make a cake in wartime.
In fact, the Second World War was over – it had been over for five years – but rationing wasn’t. Meat was rationed, butter was rationed; so were lard and margarine. Sugar was rationed. Tea was rationed. Cheese, coal, soap, sweets. All still rationed. The cuffs of her jacket were worn to thread and her only pair of shoes was so old they squelched in rain. If she took them to be mended, she’d have no choice but to sit there in her stockings, waiting for them to be ready, so she just kept wearing them and they kept falling apart. Streets were lined with broken buildings – rooms with whole walls gone, sometimes a light bulb left hanging or even a lavatory chain – and gardens were still turned over to useful British vegetables. Old newspapers were piled in bombsites. Men hung around on street corners in demob suits that had once belonged to someone else, while women queued for hours to get a fatty bit of bacon. You could go miles on the bus and not see a flower. Or blue sky. What she wouldn’t give for blue sky – even that seemed rationed. People kept saying this was a new beginning but every day was more of the same. Queues. Cold. Smog. Sometimes she felt she’d lived her entire life on scraps.
By now the note had reached the second row. Splutters. Titters. Much shaking of shoulders. She was explaining how to line a cake tin, when someone nudged a girl in the front row and the note was pushed into the hands of Wendy Thompson. Wendy was a sickly girl, who had the constant look of someone expecting the worst – even if you were nice to her, she still looked terrified – so it came as a shock when she opened the note and honked. That was it. The girls were off, and this time they weren’t even trying not to. If they carried on, the whole school would hear.
Margery put down her chalk. The laughter fell away, bit by bit, as they realized she was watching. It was sink or swim, she’d been told once. Don’t try to be their friend. These girls are not your friends. There was an art teacher who’d given up after a week. ‘They hum,’ she’d wept in the staff room, ‘and when I ask who is humming, they look straight at me and say, “No one is humming, Miss.” You have to be half dead to work here.’
Margery stepped down from the wooden platform. She held out her hand. ‘Give me the note, please, Wendy.’
Wendy sat with her head bowed, like a frightened rabbit. Girls on the back row exchanged a glance. Other than that, no one moved.
‘I just want to know what is so funny, Wendy. Maybe we can all enjoy the joke.’
At this point Margery had no intention of reading the note. She certainly had no intention of enjoying the joke. She was just going to open it, drop it into the bin, and after that she was going to clamber back on to the platform and finish her lesson. It was almost break time. There would be hot tea in the staff room, and a selection of biscuits.
‘The note?’ she said.
Wendy handed it over so slowly it would have been quicker to send it by post. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t, Miss,’ she said quietly.
Margery took the paper. She opened it. Silence unspooled itself like ribbon.
What she had in her hand was not the usual. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t even a few words about how dull the lesson was. It was a sketch. It was a carefully executed cartoon sketch of a lumpy old woman, and this lumpy old woman was clearly Margery. The baggy suit was hers, and there was no mistaking the shoes. They were planks on the ends of two large legs – you could even see a toe poking out. Her nose the girls had done as a potato, while her hair was a mad bird’s nest. The girls had also given her a moustache – and not a stylish moustache but a short, stubby one like Hitler’s. At the top, someone had written, The Virgin Margery!
Margery’s breathing reversed itself. There seemed not to be enough room for the mix of hurt and anger swelling inside her. She wanted to say, she actually wanted to shout, ‘How dare you? I am not this woman. I am not.’ But she couldn’t. Instead she kept very still, hoping for one irrational moment that the whole business would go away and never come back, if she just stayed where she was, doing absolutely nothing. Then someone giggled. Another coughed.
‘Who did this?’ she said. In her distress, her voice came out oddly thin. It was difficult to shape air into those exact sounds.
But she was in this now. She threatened the class with extra homework. She said they’d miss afternoon break. She even warned she’d fetch the deputy, and everyone was terrified of the woman. One of the few times she’d been seen to laugh was when Margery once shut her own skirt in the door, and got stuck. (‘I’ve never seen anything so hilarious,’ the deputy said afterwards. ‘You looked like a bear in a trap.’) None of it worked. The girls sat there, resolutely silent, eyes lowered, a bit pink in the face, as the bell went for afternoon break and outside the corridors began to swell, like a river, with feet and noise. And the fact they refused to apologize or name who was responsible – not even Wendy Thompson buckled – left Margery feeling even more alone, and even more absurd. She dropped the note into the bin but it was still there. It seemed to be part of the air itself.
‘This lesson is over,’ she said, in what she hoped was a dignified tone. Then she picked up her handbag and left.
She was barely the other side of the door when the laughter came. ‘Wendy, you champion!’ the girls roared. She made her way past the physics lab and the history department and she didn’t even know where she was going any more. She just had to breathe. Girls crowded her path, barking like gulls. All she could hear was laughter. She tried the exit to the playing field but it was locked, and she couldn’t use the main door because that was for visitors only, strictly not to be used by staff. The assembly hall? No. It was filled with girls in vests and knickers, doing a wafty sort of dance with flags. She was beginning to fear she’d be stuck there for ever. She passed the display of school trophies, bumped into a box of sports bibs, and almost went flying over a fire extinguisher. The staff room, she said to herself. I will be safe in the staff room.
Margery was a big woman. She knew that. And she’d let herself go over the years. She knew that, too. She’d been tall and thin when she was a girl, just like her brothers, and she also had their bright blue eyes. She’d even worn their hand-me-downs. It had been a source of pain – not so much the hand-me-downs, but definitely the height – and she’d learnt to stoop at an early age. But being big, actually A Big Person, had only happened when her monthlies stopped. The weight piled on, the same as her mother, causing a pain in her hip that took her by surprise sometimes and made her limp. What she hadn’t realized was that she’d become the school joke.
The staff room was too hot and smelt of gravy and old cardigans. No one said hello or smiled as she entered; they were mostly snoring. The deputy stood in the corner, a wry, spry woman in a pleated skirt, with a box of drawing pins in her hand as she checked the staff notice board. Margery couldn’t get round the feeling that everyone knew about the sketch and that they, too, were laughing – even in their sleep. She poured a cup of not quite warm tea from the urn, took what was left of the biscuits and made her way to a chair. Someone had left a pair of new lacrosse boots on the seat so she put them on the floor, and flumped down.
‘Those boots are mine,’ called the deputy, not looking over.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
As I reach for the doorbell, my phone bleeps with a text and my head instantly fills with a roll call of possibilities.