The day the idea arrives I am wanting badly to escape. Home from work and too wound up to stay inside, I open the back door, step out. A nerve at the back of my eye buzzes as if the whirr of the computer screen has got inside my head. My shoulders are hunched and my neck is stiff. A thick wad of muscle has bunched itself at the top of my spine and now I knead it with my knuckles, hard.
I’m tired. And I’m still wearing my work shoes, which are not made for walking about in a frosty garden, at dusk. But this evening I need to cover some ground—to get somewhere else, not here. In the back garden of an end-terrace on a busy road leading out of Oxford’s city center you can only get so far. I count the strides, and make fifteen. Past the shed with a vine like a trailing wig and the pond silted with fallen leaves. Along the wall adjoining our neighbors’ garden, which crumbles slightly when you touch it. Near the end of the garden this wall gives out altogether and becomes high beech hedge. Here is a compost bin, and then a thicket of weeds.
I moved in recently, with my friend Becky. I’d been offered a job working for a charity in Oxford just as the last project I’d been working on in the South of England was drawing to a close. The new one was a permanent contract, and after a lot of moving around over the last few years, that felt like an opportunity; a chance to stay in one place, maybe even settle down a bit. When I called Becky and told her I was moving to the area, she suggested we get somewhere together. So then we found this place. A redbrick two-story with clothes moths in the carpets and a narrow garden at the back that’s grown overcrowded with weeds. That was a few months ago, and it hasn’t been an outright success so far. The job’s been tough, and I’ve been struggling with the workload. Wishing I had a thicker skin, and was better at managing things like office politics and fluorescent lightbulbs and those desk chairs with the seats that spin and spin. Last week, a colleague told me that both my predecessors quit when they hit overload, and it was clear from her face as she took in my rather diminutive frame that she was not expecting the story to be any different this time around.
At the far end of the garden is a wooden fence. It’s hidden behind a loping conifer and dried-up gooseberry bushes, hidden again under a mess of brambles, so you wouldn’t know it’s there or quite where the garden ends—except for a gap to one side, between a holly bush and a bird feeder, where you can see it. I squeeze through, and touch the fence. Tiptoe up, but I can’t see over it. And now for one moment, maybe two, sheltered by the holly, which also pricks my thighs, I forget where I am. Forget the house that doesn’t feel like home yet, and the hectic work schedule. This is when the idea arrives. Here is where the bees would be, I think, and then catch myself thinking it. Step back with surprise. It used to be a habit, looking for gaps like this. It’s been a while since I remembered it. But now I begin checking for prospect, wind exposure, the damp. I glance up, to where the trees won’t shadow them. There’s a warehouse roof some distance away, the sun sinking. A plop behind me, as a raindrop falls.
I learned a bit about beekeeping a few years ago when I lived in London, where I met Luke, a friend of a friend, who had hives all over the city. His beekeeping began as a hobby: he was given a small plot at the Natural History Museum in exchange for a pot of honey each year—but then it grew. Soon he was being approached by other companies who wanted to keep bees, and they were offering to pay him. By the time I moved to London and asked for an introduction he had hives at magazine and fashion houses, pubs, hotels—he was keeping the bees and training the staff until they could do it for themselves.
The first time we met, Luke was wearing a cream three-piece suit, a pink shirt and a summer boater, and he was swinging a blue IKEA bag. He exuded charm—“Helen!”
he beamed when he saw me. “How wonderful
to meet you!” We were outside Coram’s Fields, a children’s park in central London, where he kept two hives in a thin strip of undergrowth behind the café.
“So you want to see some bees?” he said, and I nodded. Underneath his hat was a head of short gray hair. He looked a bit like a mole, I thought, as I spied metal contraptions and gauze masks inside the bag. “Some people believe that bees can smell your fear,” he said, as he unlocked a gate in the iron railings and we followed a gravel path around. So as we pulled on our suits I concentrated on not being afraid, but when he lifted a hive lid and they began seething out I was terrified.
I hadn’t even realized until that day that honeybees are different from bumblebees; that there are over twenty thousand species of bee in the world, and only a small fraction of them make honey. “Apis mellifera,”
Luke announced, as though in troducing an old friend. That’s the western honeybee, and the one most extensively kept and bred.
These bees were not fuzzy and they were not soft. They were brittle and trembling and when Luke lifted the hive lid they didn’t buzz, they hummed—like a machine but more unstable, more liable to volatility. Beneath the lid the space was packed with wooden frames hanging perpendicular to the roofline, each one filled to its edges with comb covered and crawling with bees.
“Look,” Luke said as he lifted a frame out, pointing first to where the queen had laid eggs inside the cells, then to where the workers had stored pollen for feeding young larvae, and finally to where nectar was undergoing its conversion to honey. Honeybees are among the few species of bee to live together as a colony—even bumblebees, who are social in summer, reduce down to a single queen in winter. They work to produce as much honey as they can while flowers are blooming, so as to sustain themselves through the cold season.
They were crowding from the frames and from the entrance. We had unsettled them, and now they wanted to unsettle us in return. I glanced over at Luke, who was working calmly and swiftly, with an ease I hadn’t noticed before.
“They’re swarming!” I yelped.
“They’re not swarming,” he said. “Swarming is what happens when a colony splits and leaves a hive; these lot are just defending this one.”
I was hooked. By the bees, and by the beekeeping too—those precise and careful movements that were not unlike a kind of tenderness; not unlike a kind of intimacy. Soon I was beekeeping whenever I could. Luke would send a text message with an address and a time, and I’d jump on my bike and race through the streets to go and join him. It felt like slipping through a hidden side door, stepping slightly outside the flow of things and into a different version of the city. Nothing was as it first appeared when we went beekeeping. Walls had recesses, windows could be climbed through, roofs climbed onto. We followed underground tunnels and hidden passageways, entered green spaces I hadn’t guessed were there. But all of this was peripheral to the actual task of opening a hive, when we had to settle down, become very attentive to the colony and ourselves. The beekeeping suits covered us from hooded head to boot-clad ankle, and looked more like they’d been designed for protecting against nuclear radiation than opening a beehive. Inside the suit I was both cocooned and strangely conspicuous—that space behind the café at Coram’s Fields bordered a pavement, and passersby used to stop and point through the park railings as we worked. We hardly noticed them. Once the lid was off, we were absorbed. Each movement of arm, leg, hand and head was freighted—a sudden grab or drop would disturb the bees, and then we’d have to watch awhile and wait as the disturbance moved through the colony as a wave or a change in frequency or a shudder.
I could do with finding a hidden door now, I think to myself, crunching back over the frosted grass of the Oxford garden with my arms folded and my hands tucked into my armpits. Perhaps I will
get bees, I think, looking up. And by the time I’ve reached the back door of the house the idea is already taking shape in my mind, gathering and becoming solid, bedding itself in.
Yes, I think, eyeing the collection of abandoned plant pots by the doorway. We could do with a bit of pollination here. Something to inject a bit of life. My fingers are like ice blocks and I’m not sure if they’re freezing my armpits or if my armpits are thawing them.
Next day I’m at work again, pinned between a laminate desk and a wall.
The office is small. There are five workstations jigsawed in, each one a slight variation on a type. Desk, computer, chair, worker—like not-quite-conjoined cells, and you can’t see who’s inside each one except by leaning, which is a dangerous game when you’re seated on a swivel chair with wheels.
It’s late afternoon and my attention has strayed. The plant I brought in to brighten my desk has died, and I am unsure how to dispose of it. Outside in the corridor people are shuttling past, shoulders pinched, their feet thudding dully over the squashed-down carpet hair. A girl from the marketing department hurries in and dumps a pile of papers on my desk. “You asked me to print the posters but I can’t print the posters,” she says, loud enough that everyone else in the tight-packed room can hear her. She can’t print the posters because the printer is broken, and the person who normally fixes it is off with stress.
We look at the pile of papers. She shrugs at me. Then she turns on her heels and leaves.
I shift the pile to the edge of the desk and blink at my computer screen. I want out, I think, then quickly bury the thought. Because I can’t just get out
. I’ve moved houses, changed cities, to take this job—I can’t just up and leave.
The skin around my eyes is tight. Maybe the screen is too bright or my focus is too narrow or maybe the muscles are tired of bracing themselves against everything that has been pressing in. I rub my eyes, refocus. This is when the idea comes back again.
Copyright © 2020 by Helen Jukes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.