by Chris Edwards-Pritchard
Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017
The garden is Safe Zone 2 so the appearance of this black cloud of bees is Somewhat Alarming, and makes your tummy turn all Antarctic almost the same as when Safe Zone 1 went away, either to Heaven or dark nowhere. The bees bunch close and move low and slow across the garden, and hum loud and clear. You watch them from the shed (Danger Zone 23 upgraded to Emergency Safe Zone A), standing Jurassic Park still and breathing only through one nostril, finger pressed over the other, palm over lips. The bees hum loud like that time you were underneath the pylons on the road out of town towards Rodborough, caught in a storm, Dad looking at you with his scaredy-face as electricity crackled inside the dome of the umbrella, you asking Dad if you’re going to D-word and Dad saying: no, we’re not going to D-word sweetie, I promise.
The bees pulse close to the conservatory and you try to Matilda mind-control them away but that doesn’t work so instead you count to ten because that’s what Steve the counsellor suggested last week as a Coping Meganism (who’s Megan?) for Somewhat Alarming situations. Steve has this beard made up of copper wires and pipe-cleaners and is actually just Dad’s friend doing him a favour because real counselling is too expensive and Mum didn’t have life insurance. Steve asks if Dad is doing okay in the new neighbourhood and you tell him that out of the two of you, you’re better friends with the neighbours: next door is Andrew, Barbara and their five dogs, and the other side is the old lady with frizzy pasta hair who sometimes walks around in a spacesuit. Steve just smiles and nods. A spacesuit huh, he says.
The cloud of bees hover over the exact spot you spilled that glass of lemonade, on the patio that you and Dad (mostly Dad) laid last weekend, which wasn’t as fun as you thought it would be; more of a stress festival. The cloud hangs in the air and then a few of the bees dive and quick as anything the rest follow, the mass deflating on the patio and puddling outwards. Yikes. You count: 1, 2, 3, 4 – but there is a thud on the roof of the shed so you bolt onto the grass and stop short of the bees, caught in Norman’s Land between possible shed-ghouls and definite killer swarm. Should have just stayed in bed (Safe Zone 7). You tip-toe toward the oil-spill of bees, hundreds huddled together close. They are still humming but more of a light snore which is actually kind of adora-yikes, one of them breaks away from the mass and comes right at you and you freak out because bees equal stings which equal Anna’s Plastic Shock (who’s Anna?) which equal the D-word.
You go up the stairs two at a time, which isn’t strictly allowed but this is an Exceptional Circusdance, which is what Doctor Khan said about prescribing Mum the wrong pills. You reach the attic room (Safe Zone 9) not a moment too soon as the entire house collapses if you don’t get up there in twenty seconds. This one time it took you twenty-seven seconds due to spider lurking on the middle landing, but you were spared by the mighty Big Guy, not God exactly, but some kind of gameshow host in a three-piece suit and booming voice, more like James Corden.
‘That you kiddo?’ says Dad.
Dad is sitting on a green bean bag in the corner of the room, laptop on his legs.
There is not much to Dad. Bit of a bean pole if we’re honest.
A bean pole sitting on a bean bag.
You tell him about the bees.
He is looking at the laptop and typing something, always typing something.
Like hands chained to the laptop.
‘Come and see,’ you say.
‘I need to finish this first sweetheart.’
‘But it’s the weekend.’
He takes off his glasses and rests them on his bottom lip, as if the glasses are a pipe, as if he is Grandpa and it makes you want to yell at him that he is not yet a Grandpa, even though thirty-two is pretty ancient and his face and hair have really gotten old since Safe Zone 1 went away.
‘How about you take a picture to show me?’ he says.
‘I’m not going out there again, I’ll D-word.’
‘You can take a picture through the window though?’
He slides his phone out of his pocket and hands it to you.
You take it and shrug.
‘Okay,’ you say.
You sit in the spare room with all the boxes from the old house and scroll through Dad’s phone. The phone is large in your hands. His passcode is Mum’s birthday and typing it in makes you feel all Antarctic again because birthdays don’t matter so much after people are gone. You tell the elephant doorstop (her name is Eloise) that your father is always working. You tutt and you huff. You go to his messages but there are only a handful of new ones from Grandma since last time you checked, and nothing from any potential New Mums like Tess Daly. When you first met with Steve the fake counsellor after eating pizza with his four kids he asked you how you felt about Dad going on dates with women that aren’t Mum and you said it was okay so long as he didn’t wear that gross Hawaiian shirt. But it’s been eight months and Dad hasn’t been on a date. Which isn’t what Mum would have wanted, is it Eloise? You begin typing out a goofy message to Grandma, when there is a knock on the door. You yell for Dad, but he doesn’t answer. Which is Typical Dad, deaf as a dodo. So you tiptoe soft down the stairs and approach the door with Mission Impossible flair, fingers interlocked into a death-ray. But there is another knock which makes you jump back and feel stupid, and then you stand up as tall as you can and pull the door open to find a woman in a grey spacesuit, the old lady with pasta hair from next door.
‘Hallo little girl,’ she says. ‘Is your Dad home?’
Her teeth are yellow but not in a scary way, just old.
‘He’s upstairs,’ you say. ‘Why?’
‘My ladies are in your garden,’ she says.
You make it up the stairs to the attic room in twenty seconds, which is far too close for comfort and James Corden is belly-laughing and saying: jheesh, close one. The sun comes in strong through the window and carves two rectangles of light on the far wall, just above Dad who is still on beanbag, still typing. You pull at his big skinny hands just like in tug-of-war and tell him about the spacewoman.
He laughs at this.
‘I haven’t got time for games today,’ he says.
‘But her ladies are in the garden.’
‘Heather,’ he says. ‘I really have to finish this.’
Which makes you feel Completely Chrisfallen (who’s Chris?)
So you stand very still.
You hold your breath.
You make your face go red.
You squeeze your everything until the tears fall out.
And sure enough Dad places the laptop on the floor and jumps up.
No, no, no, he says.
He kneels and rubs your back, strokes your hair.
Which feels like Safe Zone 1 but isn’t quite Safe Zone 1.
Then the spacewoman calls out and you stop crying.
‘Hallooo,’ she says.
Loud and clear.
‘See,’ you say. ‘See.’
Dad goes to the attic door, looks back at you with stern-face.
‘I told you not to ever open the door by yourself,’ he says.
And then thunders down the stairs. You follow, eyes stinging and slightly mopey at first but by the time you reach the bottom of the stairs you are too interested in the spacewoman, who is holding her helmet under one arm, except the helmet is boxy and mostly mesh.
‘Have you been to the moon?’ You ask.
She frowns at you, but it’s a funny frown.
She’s holding a white sheet, like the decorators.
It is folded into a neat square.
‘Sorry,’ says Dad. ‘She thinks you’re an astronaut or something.’
‘Aha,’ she says bending down to your height. ‘This is a beekeeping suit, and I think perhaps my ladies have landed in your garden?’
‘They did,’ you say. ‘I saw them.’
‘Good, take me to them before they die, poor dears.’
Dad looks at you very quick.
‘Um,’ says Dad. ‘We don’t say the D-word.’
‘No, the other one.’
You hide behind Dad’s big and boney leg whilst Dad leads spacewoman through the house and apologises for the mess. You tell her that the mess is an Exceptional Circusdance because of moving houses and Mum going away. The conservatory (Safe Zone 23) is warm, like at London Zoo where cousin Tilly fainted in the butterfly house, and then that eye-wing butterfly landed on your head which surely meant the D-word, but Dad took a photo and showed it to you and actually it was the best thing in the world. It’s you, but with an extra pair of eyes in the shape of paperthin ears. Dad jolts back upon seeing the mass of bees on the patio, and then comforts you as if you’re the one that’s jolted. He did something similar to this when Safe Zone 1 turned into Danger Zone 1, on the kitchen floor, writhing around. He kept telling you to stop crying when you had already stopped. Your hot chocolate was in the microwave going cold, and you remember thinking that you’d now have to teach Dad how to make the perfect hot chocolate; two spoons of cocoa, one of sugar, a handful of mini-marshmallows.
‘My ladies,’ says the spacewoman.
She is still holding the white sheet.
You wonder what is the meaning of the white sheet.
You wonder if she will use it to surrender to the bees.
Dad says: ‘there must be thousands out there.’
You say: ‘excuse me, what’s your name?’
‘Call me Lana,’ she says.
‘Like the tall sheep?’
‘No sweetie,’ says Dad. ‘That’s a lama.’
She smiles at you, which reminds you of Safe Zone 1 except the freckles on her face also remind you of the speckled toadstools at Grandpa’s allotment (Danger Zone 9), the ones that you are under No Circusdance allowed to touch otherwise it will be D-word for you. This one time you stormed up to the toadstools and held your finger over one of them. The D-word was bad, but the D-word possibly meant seeing Mum again, who was possibly up there with the Big Guy, or also possibly in dark nothing which wasn’t really a place at all because it was just nothing. You expected Grandpa to go red and shout at you but instead he took you to the cinema to see Spiderman.
‘It’s perfectly safe,’ says Lana.
Dad does one of his snorty tractor laughs.
‘Fine for you, you’re in a suit.’
‘Please, they are just very tired and need a new home, too tired to sting. We need a basket, or a box? Do you have something like that?’
Dad looks around the conservatory like an idiot.
‘So they are also moving home?’ you say.
‘In a way, yes. When a new queen hatches the old queen must leave and those ladies loyal to her follow.’
‘Why do you call them ladies?’
‘Because they areladies.’
‘But they have stingers?’
You run to the kitchen (Safe Zone 5) and grab the cornflakes box you were saving for the new robot to be friends with Delilah the existing robot, but this is more important. Sorry Delilah, you say. Beep-boop, she says. Which means fine, whatever. When you get back to the conservatory the door is open (yikes alive!) and Dad is on one side of the glass and Lana on the other, her kind face and big hair now protected by mesh helmet. Dad takes the box off you and steps out of the conservatory Incredibly Brave the same way he has to go outside during the winter to put out the black bins. Lana has laid out the white sheet next to the bees like a picnic blanket, and now takes the box from Dad, tears a small opening and places it down. You watch as the dark lava river slowly edges towards the box. It reminds you of the blood seeping through Mum’s bedsheets at the hospital (Danger Zone 2) right after she shouted at you, not long before the D-word.
‘You see those two on the box,’ says Lana, ‘with their butts in the air?’
‘Um,’ says Dad.
‘They are sending out signals to the other bees.’
‘They’re saying: ladies, this is safe, this is Noah’s ark.’
‘Very neat,’ says Dad.
Though he is standing as far away as is humanly possible.
Soon enough most of the bees are on the white sheet, plenty in the cornflakes box and also plenty crawling on top, which makes you Less Peterfied (who’s Peter?) than previous encounters with bees, and more reminds you of those children you saw on the ten o’clock news when you should have been in bed, children clinging onto the side of the boat, and then the Somewhat Alarming panic attack happened, right there in Safe Zone 3, and Dad let you stay up and watch a funny episode of The Big Bang Theory for a while.
‘How long have you been here now?’ asks Lana.
‘Two weeks,’ says Dad.
‘It’s a lovely neighbourhood.’
‘I know, my wife picked it out.’
Lana lifts a corner of the sheet and a few bees tumble toward the box.
‘I’m sorry to hear about what happened,’ she says.
‘Not your fault.’
‘Eleven years ago I lost my husband. Lung cancer. He was a beekeeper. It was his thing, not mine. Then all of a sudden I was left with these ladies, and I tell you I’m now so grateful because it feels like I’m with him whenever I’m with them, you know? And I think they can tell too. We never had any children, just the bees. So, at least you have this marvellous little girl, right?’
‘That I do,’ says Dad.
And they both look at you through the conservatory window.
And they both smile as if you are the funny episode of The Big Bang Theory.
The buzzing grows louder again as more bees funnel into the cardboard box, like there’s a vacuum in there sucking them in. Lana checks her watch and then takes two corners of the white sheet and folds it, box and all, up into a neat bundle, like the storks on Dumbo, which is still your favourite film even though you probably should have grown out of Dumbo by now. Maybe today is the day to grow out of Dumbo, to sleep without the night light, to eat normal pasta like Dad not alphabetti spaghetti, to say your words properly, to behave the way an eight-and-three-month year-old should behave. Lana waves goodbye to you through the window and takes the bundle of bees around the conservatory to the back gate (Danger Zone 17). Dad follows at a distance. You pick up Captain Spock and he says something hammy about things returning to normal quicker than you could ever expect. You step outside to Safe Zone 2, which is safe again. It is like a brand new day except it’s the same day. Overhead the clouds spread like ink in water. You wonder what makes them do that. You feel like kissing the patio so you bend down and get your face real close to the slabs when you spot a bee in the gap between the slabs, letting out a shallow buzz. Oh crumbs, oh no. Poor lady, left behind. All alone. Without thinking you put your finger up Super Close and Incredibly Brave to the bee and shut your eyes and count to ten and when you open your eyes the lady is on your finger, and your belly erupts with the same feeling as seeing the butterfly on your head at London Zoo. You carefully push yourself up with your legs, steadying your finger, but a car door slams shut and you tense up and then there is this pain like nothing you’ve ever felt before and something sticking out of your finger and the lady is on the floor so you stamp on her and you scream out for Mum so loud that the birds flush out from the tall tree at the bottom of the garden. It’s only later when you are in your ice-blue Frozen dressing gown talking to Steve on the phone that you remember you were screaming: I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die.
Swarm was Highly Commended in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2017, as chosen by Adam O’Riordan.