A short story
by Gillian Clarke
Only the story knows the when and the where of it. It makes us an offer: enter the myth and it's yours. We can make our lives from the story.
Maybe the story steps into a warm September, the watershed of summer and autumn. Maybe a city, a garden, allotments by a railway line stretched out in the heat, each one a strip of ashy land marked from its neighbour by runner beans, honeysuckle or bindweed, according to the diligence of its gardener, the territory between a railway cutting and a dirt lane. On the other side of the lane is a row of back gardens. It could be anywhere.
The story settles on a strip of black soil rampant with beans and cabbages, tasselled heads of com, brussel sprouts grown blowzy for want of a sharp frost, squashes resting heavy heads on the earth. Pigeons utter a low bubbling. Bees suck the last of the nectar from sedums and late-flowering ivies. A bicycle leans against a shed.
In the air over the allotments this morning there's a smell of honey and beeswax. In the houses of the keenest gardeners freezers are stuffed with beans, sliced courgettes, rattle-boxes of raspberries. Under the stairs are jars of home-made jam and chutney. Marrows slumber in sheds. Green tomatoes ripen on window sills.
The children are back at school. Tourists have gone. Shoppers and workers have deserted the settlement for the day. Summer rain is done and it's hot, heavy, still. City, town, suburb, village. In September places come into their own again. Gourds ripen. A face looks up from a washing-up bowl and considers disappointment. Summer is over. The red bicycles have gone from the street. There are bleached circles in the grass where paddling pools sagged all summer. They are folded in sheds until spring, the smell of mould locked in. Gourds anticipate candlelit skulls. A train ticks in the cutting. A dog needs a walk.
The story sets out its stall. A swarm of bees, an apple tree, a dog. A train, a box, a tower. A decision, a betrayal, a hoard.
The woman looks up from the washing up bowl, upturns it into the sink and unpeels her pink rubber gloves. The empty gloves lie, palms up and supplicant, on the draining board. Their gesture disturbs her. She turns them over and lays them down together. Now they are praying. She squeezes a worm-cast of hand-cream into the palms of her hands and kneads them slowly. She is a woman at the pit-head kneading her grief in black and white. She's in merciless colour at the broken borders of Eastern Europe. For a moment she belongs to someone else's story.
The hand-cream smells of almond blossom. Her skin drinks it. She looks through the veil of a steamed window. A bubble settles in her hair. Outside, another floats off from the drain and makes for the ether. The dog uncurls from a blanket between the fridge and a cupboard, alerted by the sound of water, the smell of almonds. Signals. He's up and ready, wagging his tail. Dogs are cheerful. They make the best of things. That's why she likes them. She's always had a dog. There was the lurcher, the first border collie, the springer, now another border collie. His beautiful head is up, ears lifted, folded at the tips, his eyes brilliant. She counts her years in dog lives. Hearing the beat of the train, she clears steam from the window with a Jay-cloth. Not that she can see it, hidden deep in the cutting.
At the end of each lot an apple tree leans out over the embankment, laden with ripe fruit seen only by travellers in passing trains. On the inter-city a man in coach C glances up from his book, caught by a sudden thirst for scrumping, a red apple polished on a grubby tee shirt before being bitten, before kissing and temptation. Then he is swept away, out of the woman's story and into his own.
Yellow light over the railway line, the bright, sleeping squashes. For allotment read garden. For squashes read cucumbers. A long ago Sunday school story tells itself to her now. The daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. Blodeuwedd steps from the dewy grasses of the morning, heartless as the flowers she is made from. Eve polishes a Cox's orange pippin, and offers it. Those were the first stories, mixed with secrets whispered by adults behind their hands, mouthing, not in front of the child. Her mother and her mother's friend dancing to records on a radiogram with lonely Canadian airmen from the camp. Parcels of tinned pineapple, spam, chewing gum and nylons from America. Ena. That was her name, her mother's friend whose husband never came back. He was an airman. Lost. A word from fairy stories and The Sunday Mirror.
Once, when she was four, before her sister was born, her mother and Ena lolled in the garden gossiping and giggling. She listened from the sand-pit. The women mouthed secrets to each other, rolling their eyes. Then, What a lovely castle! they said aloud in sing-song voices. Her mother lay back and clasped her belly. She sent Ena a silent message, There was another one!, and glanced at the listening child. Too late. She had read but not understood the women's message, and she kept it in her heart for later. Later, when she was older and understood more, she wondered. A miscarriage! A lost, longed-for brother? Was it before the baby who would be her sister? Her own twin? She strained to remember that first place. Had she swum alone in that hot sea, or with another? Surely if you stare long enough into memory you can make yourself remember. She grieved for that other lost self, her own reflection fallen back into the waters of the mountain lake as she stepped ashore out of her element, leaving behind her sisterly shadow. In the story she chose earth, flesh and blood, in place of watery reflections. She never asked her mother, though the notion never left her.
They met at university. They were made for each other, her mother said. Made. Like Blodeuwedd for Lleu. Only instead of oak-flowers and broom and meadowsweet it was background, upbringing, expectation, sugar and spice and all things nice. Lleu, off hunting, fighting the king's war, or away at the office. He had a good job in the bank, he was well spoken, three years older, three inches taller than her. That was how it should be. Slugs and snails and puppy dogs tails. She saved herself for him as she'd saved the electric kettle and the toaster and the towel set and the hostess trolley. That's what you did then. All untouched before the wedding, safe in her mother's house.
Yellow light over the garden of cucumbers. She inhales it into the twin trees of her lungs until the furthest tips are lit. Hope is hot gold. It sweeps away a prevailing mood of disappointment. The dog breathes it, or smells it. Who knows how a dog understands the universe, or how much more we could know if they could teach us the knack?
An apple, a dog lead, a polythene bag. You never know. She walks towards the railway line, towards the strips of cultivated or neglected land, small tracts that were gardens, countryside, wilderness, Eden. A mountain track. Calling at a farm to ask for a glass of water in the hope of something better-orange squash, a fairy cake. A cliff path winding down, slippery and treacherous, to a secret beach. A kissing gate. Touch and go. Holding hands with someone. A fizz of damp skin and salty breath. Who? A bike ride with a picnic in a saddlebag, freewheeling a hot tar road. Lying in the allotments stealing strawberries, sunburnt and dizzy, his nose freckled, his arms brown in a blue tee shirt. A cool church where she presses a primrose on page 248 of the bible on the lectern. She can't for the life of her remember numbers now, not new ones, but she remembers old ones, the page of that bible, the reg. of the first family car, their first phone number.
The story chooses threes and sevens. Three caskets, three wishes. That means there'll be a third, she would say after hearing of two deaths, or dropping a cup and then tripping over the Hoover. All day she'd wait for it, the third thing. The story brings a river to cross, a monster to slay, a giant to overcome. Seven was for dwarfs, virtues, deadly sins.
Some days are numberless. A day mitching school with a friend, eating blackberries, peeing behind the nettles, her friend on the look-out. Hiding in long grass, breathless with secrets about boys and God knows what. Perhaps with the story they were about to enter. She remembers waking one day when she was about three and discovering consciousness. Me-ness. Years later she still puzzles until she is dizzy with the mystery. Who am I? Who are you? Time was another one, nearly as frightening as Who Made God. What is time? Is it a road you go along once and never again? Or is it there all at once? It makes you shiver to think about it. There is a big shed with birds, sudden wings and screaming, and two falling into hay. Sunstroke. Migraine. A swarm of bees humming louder and louder to a great crescendo of wavering but unbroken music. And joy.
She walks onto the bridge and stops to looks down, feeling a wave of vertigo. Heat pools in the cutting and rises with smells of ashy soil, nettles, valerian and cat piss. If a train comes now what will she do? She used to throw apple cores and wave to the driver. Once she longed to jump, not in despair, but because vertigo ran through her like voltage and jerked her heart. She saw the void, heard them tell her story, watched her funeral. She shouted into the cry of the train. Today she would be six, sixteen, sixty, all the ages she had been and would yet be. The story contains a train. When the train has moaned past it will leave the cutting empty of all but its echo and the stilling pool of heat.
But no train comes. She returns to the dirt track, and walks on. Her dog bounds ahead, stopping to sniff and mark each gate. He disappears, then runs back to the bend in the path where he can see her. He waits a moment, ears lifted, head on one side, returns to exchange their sign of belonging and takes off again along the sandy path past back gardens to the right, and every kind of makeshift gate and barrier to the allotments on the left. The dog enters the story.
Someone pegs out washing. A woman gathers beans in a trug. An old man tends cabbages, carrots and prize leeks. They murmur and nod. She walks on with gifts, a handful of beans and some earthy carrots in her polythene bag. She puts her apple in her pocket, and stows the loaded bag under the hedge to collect on her return.
On she goes, her hands empty, wearing the dog' s _ad like a necklace. On past strips returned to wilderness, tumble-down sheds, leaning gates, sagging fences, weedy jungles. She is heartened by the wild gardens, though the neat ones are more admirable. One puts in a word for nature, the other for the likes of her. She loves the way nature fills every cranny, how it can crack tarmac and seed the desert as soon as we've done our worst. At the end of the track, where the land runs out of habitation, is a red brick tower, then small scraped fields with rusty sheds where ponies starve. A disused, three storey tower, a garden of fruit trees and bee-hives.
A tower with a white face at a high window. A rope of yellow hair. A horseman. A railway line where two steal strawberries and peas from silent allotments, where a hermit lives on windfalls and wild honey. Where her child-days are played out over the fields, and she sucks the ends of pulled grasses, eases honeysuckle, clover and fuschia from the calyx for its one droplet of nectar. She is an anchorite in the desert. She is Branwen with her starling, banished from her estranged husband, King of Ireland. Once upon a time children knew, as stories did, the difference between the nourishing and the poisonous, blackberries from nightshade, bread-and-cheese from monkshood, a sweet grass from a laburnum pod. Once, for a dare, she sucks the flesh of the deadly yew-berry, knowing that one seed accidentally swallowed means certain death.
She and the dog have walked a long way, miles along the track. Heat rises and the railway lines swim in a dazzle of convergence that wavers like migraine. Someone is moving in the last allotment, half-hidden by bean tunnels, apple trees and the weedy edges of no-man's land. Someone is tending bees. He will greet her as she passes. He will remember the captured swarm last time she walked this far. There are four hives here, in the last allotment. Inside, she knows, each one is a cathedral, its wax vaults and draperies spun by thousands of workers. Inside each one the queen considers the swarm. To fill the larder before winter is a matter of life or death. Crucial, too, the strength and balance of its population, the interdependency of its society, the hierarchy of its court. In each hive is orderliness, beauty, a restless surge of wings. As her mother would have said, like a little palace, so clean you could eat your dinner off the floor. A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon., But a swarm in July.
That July day weeks back something had moved in the queen, who is the mind and heart of the body called swarm. Instinct surged through her. To fly, up sticks and go, to leave her palace of wax where the infant bees were raised, where she feasted on nothing but royal jelly, where, once his sperm was taken, every male was driven out and stung to death. Despite all, she would go, taking 60,000 female worker bees with her, with no sure place to rest before the dark. The swarm hummed in the apple tree. The man turned, his hand out in a gesture that said, keep back. She clipped on the dog's lead and hooked the loop over a gate post. Sit, she said, Stay. Quiet. And she entered the allotment. The dog lay, ears up, eyes on her every movement.
No word spoken. The man looked at her quickly, a question in his eyes. His eyes were like bees. She'd noticed this before. Her eyes said, I know what to do. The tree weighed its dark fruit. The hot core of bees, the loose aura of dancers. A whirling dervish. His thin hands, his arms brown below the rolled-up sleeves of a blue denim shirt. He held the box under the swarm, and she, at his glance, struck the branch a sharp blow. The swarm fell into the box. She imagined it surprised into falling, like a limpet prised from a rock too quickly to tighten its grip. The man shut the lid of the box. Leftover bees attended the branch as if they still belonged to something. They would linger lovesick and doomed about the branch where their queen left her scent, but their only need now was to grieve, and to die.
As the man carried the box away she stood still for a moment as if held by something, then felt it slip from her. He had gone, into the tower. It looked cool and dark in there. She unleashed the dog and they went their way. The last swarm was years ago. Another life, another self, inside her.
She is sixteen. A swarm hangs humming in a tree. Two hold their breath, whispering. He lays his brown hand, stained with stolen fruit, on her arm, her brown skin reddened from another day of sun. The bees hold on, a singing bell entranced by the queen-smell.
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, the old man never tired of telling them. After that, diminishing returns. There'd be an old queen at the heart of this dark humming. Boxed, moved into a hive, fed with sugar to keep it going through the winter, and no honey till next year. They don't think twice about saving the swarm. To save the bees is to save summer. The swarm is an animal. They love animals. It's their bond.
They take the key from its impression in the earth under the stone, unlock the shed, take the box from its corner. Outside the swarm hangs, accumulating more and more bees, dark, loud and growing inside an aura of workers flying in to join it. They daren't wait till they're all attached. He will hold the box firmly. She will give the branch a sharp knock. The swarm will drop into the box, the lid click home, and they will retreat without a sting, proud of their deftness, happy the swarm is safe and on its way to a new hive. The lost ones will make them sad. For days it will hurt to see the lost bees dance about the empty branch, fewer and fewer until not one is left.
It doesn't happen like that. Somewhere deep in the core of the swarm the old queen has a thought. The thought runs like mysterious electricity, a high pitched song in the wires of the swarm. Uncertain, restless, something like: not yet, not here. Bees loosen and the swarm collapses, unforms, lifts, a singing cloud. He sets the box down and they step back into the doorway. The swarm swallows the brilliance. A second before it happens he takes her arms and straightens them in front of her body, he clasps her, ropes her to him, presses her face against his blue shirt crushing her body to his body as if he has stolen her. The queen settles in her hair. The swarm is a muffled psalm because her ears, eyes, mouth, nose are pressed into the sweat and prickle of him and she cannot move. He is hot, fierce, a twin in the womb. She's done for. His heart beats in her mouth. Everything will be less than this, the terror, intimacy, rising sound, the organ's toccata and fugue. She's inside the instrument, under the drum of his heart. Locked in. Punished. Ecstatic. Even muffled, it's deafening, a low humming with a sharp wire of high notes among the basso profundo. She doesn't struggle. That's the odd thing. Fear turns docile. The fight goes out of her. Every nerve-tree wired, every branch blossoming. And both of them done for.
Once, swimming in a wild sea, a huge wave mounted and fell upon her and she knew herself drowned in crushing splinters of water, sinking through depths of shining commotion. Then she lay on the sand again, alive. The sea had let her go.
He lets her go. Thanks, she says, weeping. The queen decides on the tree after all. She is dizzy. He picks stings from her hair, then his arms. It seems like nothing after drowning. So quiet now her ears hum. They stroke each other's skin with dock leaves. They wipe tears. They kiss with swollen mouths. He saved her, like in dreams. They caught the swarm alone. It sings in its box in the shed. They lie in the cold grass as dusk draws over the allotments and the railway line. Maybe tomorrow the old man will let them help take honey from the hives. They will spin and jar the honey, licking their fingers until they are again drunk on sweetness and dizzy from standing so long over the steam of the separator box watching wax rise and the overflow of hot honey run from the spout into the steel kettle.
When the golden rope has filled another jar for sealing they will lick the droplet left after closing the tap of the drum. They will break off pieces of floating honeycomb and feed each other, crushing honeycomb between tongue and palate till the sweetness runs, laughing till the old man tells them to stop, stop. There'll still be a fragment of wax on their tongues as they walk home in the dark, dawdling by the railway line, an owl somewhere, and a tree with the moon in it. Blodeuwedd sucks honey, wondering at the owl's note of sorrow.
That was then. Now it is September by the railway line. It's another century.
Oh. It's you. I've made tea. Would you like a cup?
The interior of the tower is dark and cool. One small dark space, not a room, really, or a shed, but an anchorite's cell. It serves as a garden shed, with a sink, a stove, a bench, a small window, a spiral flight of iron stairs.
What is it? she asks. Is it yours?
Belonged to the railway, he replies. I bought it. The
planners won't let me convert it, but I like it as it is. I sort of camp out here. Don't tell! As far as they're concerned it's a garden shed. My wife has the house.
What's up those stairs?
Come and look. Bring your tea.
Up winding steps to a round room furnished with a
tattered leather arm chair, a camp bed, a card table with a blue oilcloth, a wooden chair. She steadies herself.
I'm sorry, she says. A headache from the sun.
I'll leave you here. Have a rest. I'll be working outside.
She feels tipsy. She should have seen this coming. Every sound, every movement hammers the interior of her left temple. Her body is drawn down into the cool leather of the chair. She is losing her battle with gravity. She must sit still inside her head. The story leaves her asleep in the tower. The daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers.
She wakes, hours later. For a while she doesn't even open her eyes. Something damp covers her forehead and eyes. A step on the stairs.
You're awake. How are you? It's evening. Will you get into trouble?
There's no one at home. I'm fine now. I'm so sorry.
It's OK. How do you like my poultice? You were asleep. It's good for sunstroke.
She lifts a wad of leaves, darkened now, from her forehead, and sits up straight.
Dock leaves. Come down when you want to.
She doesn't feel afraid in the stranger's tower, or shy, or embarrassed that he has seen her ill, that he placed a folded poultice of cool leaves on her forehead as she slept. Like somewhere she has been before.
A brown earthenware pot of tea, a plate of bread and butter.
That's perfect. It's what I always have after a migraine. I feel brand new now. I always do.
The honey drums are upside down on the draining board, the separator tilted over the sink. The shelves are full of jars of honey. There's a stainless steel separating pot on the stove, melting the residue of honey and wax. Later, when it's cool, the honey will be poured through the overflow pipe from under the cooled crust of wax.
It's nice here. I like towers.
I've wanted to live in one.
What's on the top floor?
Blodeuwedd lives there. She's a barn owl.
Yes. Fancy you knowing the story.
I keep her company. We're both sinners. Me, her and the bees. A bee settled on Plato's lip when he was a baby, bringing him the gift of honeyed words.
I thought that was St Ambrose.
According to Mahomet bees are souls.
God! I must go.
I'll see you home.
I'm not sure. Well, just to the railway bridge.
The moon is in a tree. The barn owl sweeps down over the allotments. A train cries into view, for a moment dowsing the track. It brings the workers home from the city to the suburb, to the village. The bee-keeper leaves her at the bridge, and watches her and her dog out of sight.
At her back gate she stops suddenly, caught by the clarity of an after-migraine moment, the ice-chian clearness the visionaries must have known. Then, for the first time for years, a sheet of searing joy. It sweeps away a prevailing mood of disappointment. It blazes. It takes her breath away. Flames lick her ribs. Sparks needle her toes. The dog observes it, or breathes it, or hears it.
Then, as she turns to the house, a moment of dread.
Where you made your summer's honey, there make your winter quarters, the cruel king said to the queen bee as he turned her away when she and her swarm, lost in a storm, called at his door begging shelter.
She tips the washing up bowl, and squeezes a curl of hand-cream into her palm, kneads her hands and considers whether disappointment, rather than loss, is the heavier burden. Today her heart is not rescued by a sheet of yellow light. It is a stone. Then someone steps into her garden from the ash-track. She swirls a clearing in the steam. He is standing outside the window, raising a jar of amber into the morning light. Honey. He mouths. The dog rushes barking to the window. She opens the back door. She does not like to assume the honey is for her, or that it is not.
He hands it to her.
Thank you for helping. I meant to give it you last night.
Oh! It's all right. Would you like?
He does not step away.
Come in. Would you like coffee?
No. No. Better not.
The dog is welcoming now, curling and licking the almost stranger.
What a lot of bees.
Not another swarm I hope.
No. Too late.
Your bees come here. They like the sedum.
Well, it's your nectar then. Yours already really.
She laughs and looks away, as if reading a script. The dog is an initial on a medieval manuscript. A train ,moans by.
Again. Any time. Help me with the bees.
Yes. I'd like that.
Tomorrow? I'm taking more honey tomorrow.
And he's gone. Thin, running on the track. The story tells itself in her head. A swarm of bees, an apple tree, a dog. A train, a box, a ruined tower. A decision, a betrayal, a gold-hoard.
Formerly published by Gomer Press in ‘Magpies’, a collection of short stories.