Hope and prey

28th March 2014 at 00:00

We are halfway down our third pint of Farmers Blonde when Phil decides to expand our knowledge of the natural world. Although he retired from teaching three years ago, he is unable to kick the habit. Today's lesson finds him recounting something astonishing about aphids. Normally I would be hanging on his every word, but something even more astonishing is happening: a blonde of a different variety is smiling in my direction.

I glance around, just to check that it's me she's looking at, before cautiously smiling back. This prompts her to say something to the group of people she is standing with. They look suitably unimpressed and return to their conversation. The woman, however, continues to smile and even adds a little wave. This means one of two things: either she is enthralled by my stunning good looks, or I used to be her teacher. I suspect it's the latter and wave back.

"I can't remember the precise word, but basically it means no males are required for purposes of reproduction," Phil says. He is speaking with the authority of someone who knows a thing or two about the sexual politics of insects. "The female simply gives birth to a live replica of herself."

I feel a light tap on my shoulder. "Hello, Mr Eddison. Do you remember me?" the woman asks.

"Yes, of course I do. Now, let me think." Somewhere in my brain a tired old archivist gets to his feet and begins to sort manually through several thousand files that go back years. When he finally blows the dust off a familiar face, I realise it is not the blonde woman as a child that I'm remembering, it's her mother.

It's like looking back in time. She has the same sad eyes and the same fragile features. Her pale skin is haunted by the ghosts of old bruises. "You've forgotten my name, haven't you? It's Rebecca," she says. I laugh and tell her it was a long time ago, and that these days I have difficulty remembering my own name. When I ask how her mother is, she tells me she is at home, babysitting.

Rebecca has two children of her own now; their names are Rachel and Roxanne. Her boyfriend isn't their father but he's really good with them. He arrives on cue and tells her they are moving on to somewhere that's not an old man's pub. She tries to introduce us but he doesn't have the time. Rebecca looks faintly embarrassed as he takes her arm and steers her towards the door.

Phil pauses for dramatic effect, then says: "But the astonishing thing is that inside every female aphid there is an identical female aphid and another inside that one. Like those Russian dolls. I just wish I could remember the word.begins with P."

There is general agreement that it might help Phil's memory if he went to the bar and reproduced some more Farmers Blonde. He goes, but halfway there he stops and comes back again. "Parthenogenesis," he says, triumphantly. "That's the word. Did you know a single female aphid can be responsible for producing up to six billion descendants? It doesn't happen in reality, of course, because they are a predator's dream; mostly they get eaten alive."

Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield, England

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