The Bees in the Chimney

It began with a curious low level hum, like distant aircraft. It soon grew into a riot of sonic chaos. Bees were everywhere, flying randomly above the garden, uncertain of where they should be going, lost amongst the branches of trees and in the long silky grass. She watches them noting the irony of all this unhinged bewilderment. Another slow tear. Newly home from the wake in the pub and trying to rest. And hearing this buzz floating over the echo of her daughter’s sobstrewn words honouring her father, thanking her mother, waving goodbye as she drove away back to her own world, her own normal. Later, on a wet pillow her mother’s hearing unfamiliar notes to some distant song and sees small bee shadows moving across the walls.

Lying there in the dusty light Penny was numb, exhausted from the last few weeks of disease and death. She was caught in a tight mangle of sorrow and loss, of admin and organisation’s dictats. Penny sniffed and watched the bees, confused and lost and bouncing crazily in the warm spring air. She got up to go downstairs and put the kettle on. Passing a mirror she saw her ravaged face and stringy old neck with the gold necklace he had given her laying still and calm against the black of her dress. Hearing the humming start to subside a little she smiled and looked out at the hovering ladies also dressed in black and gold. It occurred to Penny that she should have been anxious about so many swirling bees. But there was too little left inside to muster fear of these fellow travellers.

The noise was shifting a semitone or so and looking out of the window Penny could see that the density of bees flying about seemed to be lessening. Warm spring sunshine dappled through the surrounding trees and the air felt thick and heavy with bees and with the quick falling pressure heralding an impending storm. They seemed benign these bees, more muddled than dangerous. She went outside to sit where she and Roger used to sit and plan what they’d do with the garden, what sort of dog they’d get. And then how long the disease would give them, how long before it would kill him. And then what songs to sing at the service and where to have the wake. Shifting in her chair and dabbing at yet more tears, Penny could see that the bees appeared to be developing some sense of direction. No longer were their flight patterns random and untidy. They looked like they had somewhere to go. She sipped her tea and watched shrill blackbirds dashing home to their loved ones and wiped away another slow tear, chilling her cheek and marking a fresh stanza of sorrow.

Penny sipped her tea as she wandered to the end of the lawn, wondering where the bees were headed and how they knew where to go. It was getting chilly so she slung out her dregs and stood pondering how to start the process of whatever should happen next. Brushing teeth and an early night; emptying out the final drawers and cupboards; or deciding where Roger’s ashes should go? Perhaps they should just go here, somewhere in the garden. Or be tossed into the small stream in the woods where they had planned to walk the dog, the dog that was now a fiction. Was that too anonymous, too perfunctory? And the tears caress her sad chilled face to dry and fade with the light. The buzzing had stopped and there were no bees here at the end of the garden, turning back she wondered once again about the where and how. Gazing at the house, Penny saw at last the where. High on her roof she could see a dark clump and bees moving slowly down into the chimney.

The next morning Penny awoke early to their sound and the sight of bees bouncing past her bedroom window, dainty and elegant, floating on the wisps of morning light. Like her they were wearing the same clothes as yesterday, gold and black. But unlike Penny they were not tearstained and dishevelled, with the dregs of a bottle of red wine slowly evaporating on the bedside table. She sat up straighter and reached for her ’phone and opened the browser.

She was surprised the beekeeper was up so early and that he took her call, instead of letting it go straight to voicemail. “You’re sure you have seen the cluster” Mr Westerham was saying. “Yes. They’re in the chimney and I’m pretty sure they’re planning to stay. There are more going in than coming out.” The conversation was surreal not least because it was so very early in the morning and because Penny had nothing she had to do today. It was a welcome contrast to all the other conversations she had been having for so many weeks. This person knew nothing about Penny, Roger, nothing at all about their lives and Roger’s illness and ending. The conversation about bees was the start of a fresh reality, instead of the grinding endlessness of an excess of it. The conversation about bees was twisting her mind into an unfamiliar shape, away from sadness and loss towards the mysterious ways of honeybees.

At the other end of the telephone Max Westerham noted the woman’s tone, its matter of factness and its calm. More often people ringing him to come and deal with a swarm were worked up and did their best to hide it. He’d never met Penny Graham but Max was sure he would like her. Something in that low steady voice, the near nonchalance as she described the scene for him. As she explained about the unwanted bees setting up home in her chimney, he did not know that most of her tone was shaped by events of the previous few weeks and days. It conveyed not so much calm as exhaustion. And she’d shown some presence of mind, lighting a fire. He liked that too. “It might work” he said as he considered the likelihood of the bees swarming once again to a less hostile space. Possible? Probable? Precedented? That was always Max’s determinant for any decision. “Are you still there?” Penny said.

Momentarily confused Penny twisted a strand of honeysuckle stem, a straggler pulled from the vase on her kitchen table. She was still twisting it later as she watched him shading his eyes, watching the bees milling about at the top of the chimney. In silence they stood each waiting for the bees to take their next collective step, he intent on guaging what the bees intended, she in fascination, warm in the newness.

Since Roger’s illness and rapid decline, Penny had not engaged with anyone who was not in some way related to disease, hospice and death. Even her neighbours could talk of nothing but the measuring of Roger’s progress towards his final breath. Would it come in hours, days, weeks, surely not months they know. And roundeyed, softly sympathetic smiles and downward glances would mark the end of this day’s enquiries. Awkward and embarrassed they all turn away from the garden fence. Penny would pace her way across the grass. With measured leaden steps she walked back to Roger, bundled up in his chair, eyes shut, drooling slightly, waiting. And she waited with him.

This swarmcatcher man spoke only of the bees and of their plans, so although he too was waiting he appeared not to be. Penny twisted some more of her twig enjoying the novelty of standing there with someone who didn’t know about the illness, the death and the terrible journey she and Roger had shared to reach an end. The beekeeper was smiling up into the light as the morning sun danced shadows on the wispy smoke rising from the chimney. “Do you think you could bank up that fire a little more?” As he looked down at Penny she was aware that this man was far taller than she had for some reason expected. His head silouetted against the light meant that all Penny could see of his face was a white bright smile. “Oh yes of course. I get it. More smoke less reason to stay?” she said. “Quite” he replied his eyes returning to the chimney. As she moved away she was aware of a sense of confusion and relieved that that was the end of the conversation.

Beside the fireplace there was still a lot of wood stacked and ready for the winter fires. It had been there for several months because Roger had been too frail to enjoy the secret places lost in the slow burning embers and the smoke made him cough. Two tankloads of oil had kept Roger warm throughout the winter so the logs remained, dusty and cobwebby, also waiting for their end. Now Penny loaded up the fire with logs and dried tinder to make as much smoke as she could, glancing out of the window from time to time to see what the beekeeper was doing. Between glances he disappeared. Penny stuck to her task. She moved mechanically, focused and precise, habitual after so many slow weeks of routine dedication and patience. For a moment she stayed still, staring at the blazing colours deep in the fire. No blacks or golds, discrete and individual but a full spectrum of shades dancing momentarily and fading into another new colour. Bright and alive and ever changing.

“Are you there?” she heard a tentative voice venturing to interrupt her reverie. Jumping up she tripped on a stray log and found herself on her knees at his feet as he entered the extremely warm and smokey room. Looking up Penny saw that he held a large box which he struggled to support with one hand and a knee, as he reached down to help her up. This gymnastic effort she noted, as she kicked away the stray log. Breathless in the smoke, flushed and sweaty Penny helped him regain his balance. “They’re clustering I think so we’ll need a ladder and a large sheet if you’ve got one spare”. Bemused Penny disappeared to find a sheet while he went back outside with his box, having explained neither what it was or why he was bringing it into the house.

Their balance he appreciated. The ease and elegant outstretch of hands. It didn’t take much he mused but this was an unexpected thought coming into his mind; he was so very accustomed to women, to seduction. But this wasn’t the same. This woman who says she lives alone now, brought something freighted and unsayable to her tone when he’d asked. “We’ve … I’ve only been here a few months. Everything changes so fast, unexpectedly”. He had thought she was talking about the bees. She returned. “Here’s a king sized fitted sheet. Will that do? It’s got elasticated corners. What do you plan to do with it?” “We’ll use it to catch the bees,” he answered “We? We, did you say?”

Back outside it was clear that the smoke was working. Gradually the bees were accumulating in a new clump on the fence, protecting their queen and awaiting instructions from scout bees, already out searching for new premises. Penny had made some tea and they sat in her two garden chairs in the centre of the lawn and in the middle of the bee mayhem swirling above their heads. She took Roger’s chair and watched as Mr Westerham fiddled with the angle of the back of hers, his cup of tea placed carefully on the box at his side.

“What happens next?” “We wait until the swarm has settled into a clump and then we go in.” Penny took a sip of tea and squirmed a little in Roger’s chair. “And what does that involve?” Penny was watching as Max Westerham stood up and shook out her king sized sheet. “We gather the cluster in this box, using the sheet to catch any stray bees, especially the queen. Then we tip all the bees into the hive. We hope and pray that the queen is in the clump and that she stays in the hive. And then we wait until dusk by when all of the bees should have gone into the hive. I can wait with you or I can come back later. Or we just leave them to it.” “Mr Westerham I hope you don’t mind, but I would be happier if you stayed to keep an eye on them please, just in case something goes wrong.” He smiled over at her, eyes steady, and she looked away towards the growing clump of bees to hide the tear that came unbidden. It was the way he’d adjusted the seat back, or that he could reach for his own cup of tea. Peculiar details. And the conversation so unexpected, curiously novel.

His little lecture had begun: “You see the process is very logical and predictable to some extent. For whatever reason the bees decide to swarm. They send out scouts to find a new home for their queen and the bees that will go with her. In this case it was your chimney, and now that you’ve driven them out, they need to find somewhere else. In between them gathering for the journey and the scouts coming back with news, we must get them into the new hive. The queen will be at the heart of the cluster safe, warm and protected. The scent of her will encourage the others to come home. Then we wait for all the bees that might be out scouting or foraging to return and we can close the hive. This box is a nuc hive with frames ready for them. Then we relocate the bees to somewhere more suitable and hope that she’ll start to lay and that the colony will thrive.” He spoke with surprising ease and authority, with no gaps for interruptions or comments. Penny stared and listened, enthralled at the sound of this rich voice and its subject matter.

“How do you know so much about bees?” There followed another sonorous little speech in which he explained that it began as a hobby when he started the process of retiring from the bench. “KC, you see. I’m retired. Still a bit of a workaholic, but mostly with the bees. I’ve got just the four hives. No wife. No children. Read a lot, walk a lot and I still take on the occasional brief”. He turned, beaming, watching for a familiar reaction. It’s a terrible habit he pondered. He noted the tired face and emptied eyes, and felt ashamed. Penny saw the broad smile, heard the voice, then turned towards the bees and made a decision. “If this works, could you leave the hive with me?”

Max sat very still for a moment and then slowly zipped up his beesuit and adjusted his headgear. “Perhaps. Let’s see how it goes.” Then quite suddenly he was on his feet, shaking out the sheet and looking up at the sky. “I think we’re ready. No need for the ladder”. Penny tried to smile as she replied “I’m really not sure about this being a two man job.” But Max was already moving towards the fence where the bees were spread in an untidy sprawl. Watching this man, moving with such confidence, such self-assurance, so fit and strong, Penny could also see Roger’s short frame and loving smile, turning back to laugh. The two images were superimposed and uncertain, quivering in the late afternoon light. Her tears made diamond sparkles across a pair of curiously interwoven scenes and she stayed still. Max was watching the bees. “As you like.” And he strode bold and purposeful across the untidy grass and captured the swarm.

Within moments the sheetful of bees was being shaken down into the nuc hive. “Well, that was pretty undramatic” Penny said as she approached the beekeeper and his hive. “Now we just wait for all the bees to find their way home.” “I had no idea it would be so simple” Penny said before adding “I generally have a glass of something about this time. Would you care to join me?” Max looked over his shoulder at his crumpled companion still in her black and gold outfit and briefly wondered why she was so formally dressed. But only briefly. “A glass of something about this time would be most welcome. Thank you.” Then he added, “We can drink to fellow travellers.”

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