Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I’ll not hear a bad word said against Katie Derham. Like many this day and age, she may lack a certain professionalism but she completely wins me over by her beauty. Had I not already found my soul mate in Judy, then Katie would be the woman for me. Or that, pretty much, was the conclusion I reached when chatting to Bill Oddie when he came over yesterday.
I was on my way back from a lazy Saturday morning jog around the neighbourhood when I met Bill at the bottom of the drive. He was wearing his favourite RSPB deerstalker and carrying a large inflatable carrot.
‘Good news,’ he said, ‘there’s a major crisis at the Beeb.’
‘An invasion of large PVC rabbits?’ I suggested with a nod towards his carrot.
‘Oh, this?’ he waved the orange inflatable in the air. ‘This is for Judy.’
‘Ah,’ I said, as though it made complete sense that Judy would want a large inflatable carrot.
‘I mentioned that I had one and she asked if could have it when I was finished with it.’
‘Stop right there, Bill,’ I said, wiping the sweat from my brow. ‘I don’t need to know any more. Tell me instead about this crisis at the BBC. Am I right to assume that they’ve discovered that the large red button on the National Lottery draw isn’t actually connected to the Random Ball Juggling machines?’
‘Not at all,’ said Bill looking a touch bewildered. ‘The natural history team have been called in for an emergency meeting. Poor old Katie Derham was due to take delivery of the star of a new reality TV show for next autumn’s schedule. Unfortunately, she’s had to drop out because she never mentioned that her house is in the middle of London and lacks a lake-sized pond.’
‘An odd thing to forget to mention,’ I replied. ‘The fact that this house has a lake-sized pond is usually the first thing out of my mouth whenever I walk into a production meeting. But tell me, Bill. Does this have anything to do with me?’
‘Only that I’ve put a good work in for you and your pond.’
‘You mean they want me for a show?’
‘Couldn’t do without you,’ he smiled. ‘Though, to be honest, Dick, you were the only port and this a pretty ferocious storm. The whole series had been thrown into doubt. Production schedules were being rewritten and if it hadn’t been for my last minute suggestion, they were going to defrost David Attenborough from his cryogenic chamber. They’ve been saving him for the day when the icecaps head south.’
All fascinating details, I’m sure you’ll agree, but to cut a short story even shorter: it turns out that Bill had been so impressed with the natural organic taste of my right areola that he had suggested that I might be the ideal man to fill Katie’s shoes. Not that I normally go in for wearing women’s shoes, you understand, but on this occasion I could and would.
After arrangements had been made, agents contacts, contracts signed, Bill and I sat down for lunch and waited for the men from the BBC arrived with the crate. It arrived shortly after one o’clock and contained not women’s shoes but my co-star.
'A beaver!' said Judy when I told her the good news.
I corrected her. 'A reality TV beaver. They've trained him to avoid looking at the cameras. We'll be keeping him in the lake, so you don't have to worry about him coming up to the house.'
In actual fact, the lake sits at the furthest corner of our enormous plot of land. It is fed by a fresh water river that flows in from the Corbett estate and drains off into our neighbour’s land. An hour after the crate arrived, I was standing on the banks of the lake as I watched Bill and Stephen Fry wade through the grey waters. Stephen had responded to my plea for help with his usual display of selfless loyalty. They had been working tirelessly to remove the large map of the UK I’d scuttled there back in the nineties.
‘I’m not sure this is a good idea,’ said Judy after a few moment's thought. She was standing at my elbow and wrapped for winter. Her pessimistic view of the whole beaver situation was, I think, a result of being reminded about the map. It never puts her in the best frame of mind. There has always been a touch of guilt about the way we left Fred up in Liverpool when we came to make out fortune beside the Thames. Judy had thought it particularly cruel of me to sink our weatherman’s favourite prop but I thought it was the kindest thing to do in the circumstances. A man like Fred Talbot would never have escaped that map and at some point he’d have done something foolish, like try to sail it around the coast. Scuttling had been an act of great kindness.
‘You’re only being negative because it’s not your career that you’re thinking about,’ I told her. ‘Come Autumn, you’ll be penning your best-selling novels. But what about me? I need to be seen on TV. This beaver could be the break I’ve been talking about. I could become the new face of BBC wildlife. Can you imagine Alan Titchmarsh with a beaver?’
‘Unfortunately I can,’ said Judy, not without menace.
‘Look here,’ I said, kicking the crate. ‘This beaver won’t bother us. I’ll come down here and feed him in the morning, say my bit to camera, and then come back and make us breakfast. You won’t even know he’s here.’
‘So you promise me that I won’t become part of this?’
‘I wouldn’t want you to,’ I said. ‘This is my beaver. Not yours.’
She crossed her arms and turned back for the house. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on. Ask Stephen and Bill if they want a drink. It must be freezing in that water.’
I shuffled down to the edge of the lake and watched a muddied Stephen Fry drag a chunk of East Anglia from the water.
‘My, my,’ he said as he dumped it on the bank. ‘What on earth are we going to do with a one tenth scale model of Lincoln Cathedral?’
‘If you don’t know, Stephen, I’m sure I don’t have the answer,’ I said. ‘Where’s Bill?’
Stephen didn’t need to reply. Bill surfaced from beneath the weeds. A waterlogged piece of knitting trailed behind him like a net as he made for the shore.
‘Isn’t that one of Fred the Weather’s old jumpers?’ asked Stephen.
‘It might be,’ I said, somewhat surprised to see it. ‘I wonder what it was doing down there…’
‘There’s so much rubbish,’ said Bill, sitting down on the bank and wringing the moisture from his beard. ‘The map’s hollow and there’s plenty of space inside. I managed to dive quite a way down and I’m sure I spotted an old gas cooker and a sleeping bag.’
Stephen pulled off one of his yellow marigolds in order to scratch his head. ‘Think back, Richard. When you dumped this map in the lake, did you check it to make sure that Fred wasn’t living in it at the time?’
‘I can’t say that I did,’ I confessed. ‘It’s not something you look for: minor celebrities living inside large floating maps. I do remember than it took a while for it to sink. I recollect saying to Judy that it was like it had a life of its own, the way it kept making muffled hammering sounds as I pushed it under with a stick.’
Stephen winced. ‘You don’t think those muffled hammering noises could have been Fred?’
‘I thought it mere buoyancy.’
Bill sucked his teeth and shook his head. ‘You should probably get on to his agent. See if anybody has seen him in the last ten years.’
That I would certainly do. Only, at that moment, there was a squeal from the crate.
‘You beaver’s hungry,’ said Bill.
‘Bless him,’ said Fry. ‘Were I a man with a large freshwater lake in my rear yard, I too might indulge myself with the purchase of the castor canadensis or North American beaver.’
‘These are European beavers,’ said Bill.
‘Ah,’ said Fry. ‘Then it is castor fiber.’
‘What’s the difference between a European and American beaver?’ I asked.
‘One is hairier,’ said Bill with an inexplicable smirk.
‘Oh dear,’ said Fry, pulling on his rubber glove. ‘Come on Bill. Let us return to our aquatic toils lest Richard asks us any more questions and you are tempted to more vulgarity.’
It was an odd note on which to end a conversation and, somewhat confused, I wandered back up to the house, thinking it best to leave them to their private jokes.
A couple of hours later, Judy woke me. She was standing at the living room door.
‘Stephen says that they’ve finished,’ she said.
‘Ah,’ I replied, sitting up in my recliner and setting aside the newspaper beneath which I had been so solidly snoozing. ‘Tell him I’ll be there in a minute.’
When I got back to the lake, I discovered that Bill had stripped out of his wet clothes and was wearing a dry one-piece undergarment in a faded colour of ruby. He resembled an old gold prospector while Stephen resembled the old prospector’s offended mule. He was looking at Bill with a disgust it is hard to describe as mild.
‘So are we ready to release the beaver?’ I asked.
‘You are a few minutes too late for that,’ said Stephen, giving Bill another funny look. ‘I have already bore witness to its hairiness. Most certainly European.’
‘Oh, ignore him,’ said Bill. ‘We’ve done no such thing. Your beaver is still in his cage.’
‘Well, there’s no time like the present,’ I said as I went over to the crate and unlatched the hatch. The beaver was bigger than I expect and he needed no encouragement. He came lumbering out like an obese rat and hit the water with barely a splash. He swam out to the middle of the lake where he turned and looked back at us.
‘The good thing about your garden is that you’ve got plenty of trees,’ said Bill, wiping a tear from his cheek.
‘Oh, Judy takes great pride in our woodland,’ I said, myself distracted by a slightly moisture about my own eyes. The beaver looked so happy as it splashed in the water. ‘No doubt our little friend will enjoy rummaging around them looking for nuts and berries.’
‘Nuts and berries?’ repeated Bill. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was looking shifty.
‘Have you thought of giving him a name?’ asked Stephen. ‘I find it preferable to name an animal to whom one is expected to grow attached.’
‘Of course I’m going to give him a name,’ I said. ‘And being a bit of a literary man, I thought I’d name him after my favourite literary beaver. Tarka. I used to love that book when I was a child. Bill doesn’t know this but it’s why I’ve been so quick to agree to make this documentary. I’m looking forward to our months together. I love to watch them lying on their backs as they float in the water…’
‘Richard,’ said Stephen, placing his arm around my shoulder, ‘I really hate to be the one to inform you of this but I believe that Tarka was a…’
‘A lovely little fellow!’ squealed Bill, rushing up to us and giving the two of us a squeeze. ‘That’s what Stephen was going to say. Tarka the Beaver was one of my favourite books too as a lad up there in Lancashire. Such a nice chap, Tarka the Beaver… Come on, Stephen. I think we better be going. Let’s leave Dick alone. He needs to get to know Tarka and Tarka the Beaver must get to know Dick...’
Stephen shrugged as Bill began to drag him towards the house. ‘I should think of another name if I were you,’ he shouted back as he went. ‘In fact, I’d ask advice from members of your blog. I don’t know…’ He wriggled free of Bill’s grip, stopped, and looked at me with a meaningful stare I couldn’t quite interpret. ‘Tarka the Beaver just doesn’t sound quite right to me…’
I waved him away and turned my attention to my newest friend, giving himself a good scrub in the middle of the lake. Beavers are clearly one of the few subjects about which Stephen knows little. I just knew that Tarka and I were going to be friends.
‘Isn’t that right, little fellow?’ I shouted to the lake.
As if in agreement, Tarka bobbed down in the water and I smiled with delight when he resurfaced, a shining piece of wood in his mouth. I turned my back on the lake and began the long walk back to the house. I would have to ask Judy about the tree that grows in our garden and produces branches that are so white that it almost resembled a thigh bone.