HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition


Sophie Hampton has given us a wonderful story - touching, sad and mysterious.

The Loneliness of Bees

Every Tuesday, Bézier goes to the épicerie to buy seven jars of cassoulet. His groceries would be cheaper at the supermarket but the jingles interfere with his concentration and the fluorescent lighting bores through his façade; he cowers against the shelves as po-faced women armed with trolleys swarm through the aisles.
The épicerie brims with stock but there are few customers. It smells of overripe melons and the chorizos that hang like bloated fingers in the half-light. Bézier wipes dust off the lids of the jars before he places them in his basket. He reaches for a bottle of cassis and a packet of sugar before he shuffles to the counter. As his shopping list today is an unusual one, he has been unable to prepare the exact money.
‘Twenty-seven sixty-five,’ says the cashier. Bézier fumbles in his wallet and drops a note and some coins; breathing heavily, he crouches to pick them up. He has forgotten how much the cashier said to pay so he empties the contents of his wallet onto the counter; the cashier takes what she needs plus, unnoticed by Bézier, a five euro note. He remembers that he has been told he should make eye contact; he lifts his head but his eyes remain drawn to the salt marks on his shoes. ‘Thank you,’ he says. His voice cracks; he hasn’t spoken since he went to the boulangerie yesterday.
To Bézier’s relief it has started to rain. He holds his umbrella low over his head and tilts it forward. When he arrives home - three hundred paces from the épicerie to the block and forty-eight steps up to his third floor apartment - he opens his balcony doors. He unfolds a chair and sits next to the hive. The whirr of the bees soothes him and his hands stop shaking. Using a knife, he cuts a plastic bottle one third from the top and turns the shorter section upside down to form a funnel into which hornets will crawl. He pours a mixture of water, sugar and cassis into the bottle before he makes a small hole in either side and feeds through a length of wire. He twists the wire together and stands on a chair to hang the trap from a hook in the roof of his balcony. The chair teeters and he almost falls. A little girl with dark hair and a grubby face has popped her head over the high fence which divides the terraces. She grins at Bézier and disappears.
Bézier suspected that he had new neighbours. The noise from the apartment next door has changed: he has heard the high-pitched voice of the child from the bedroom and the outbursts of a harassed mother from the kitchen. The TV blasts out cartoons and quiz shows during the day but is switched off at night. Bézier no longer feels the throb of a dance music bass in his living room or hears, through his bathroom wall, a jet of piss hit the toilet bowl when a man urinates.
A young English couple had lived there. When Bézier passed them in the corridor the girl would smile at him, pitifully he thought, and say bonjour and the boy, with a heavy accent, would comment on the weather: Il fait froid or Il fait chaud. As the months passed and the couple’s French improved, Bézier felt uncomfortable when he met them. If he heard the echo of bright voices in the stairwell he would duck inside his apartment.
A seagull, camouflaged against the sombre sky, screeches as it swoops over the flat roof of the block opposite. The flesh-coloured building is streaked with rust and mottled with moss and mould. After a downpour, the water in the gutter overflows and runs down the walls; it reminds Bézier of tears and smudges of mascara on his mother’s face.
He surveys the cluttered balconies: the bikes with flat tyres, the warped furniture, the washing lines laden with winter clothes. The window boxes are empty but in spring Bézier will watch with interest as shoots and leaves unfurl. He hopes that his bees will feed on the nectar of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils and, in summer, forget-me-nots, saxifrage and thyme. His early honey will be light and liquid; later in the year it will be dark and strong with a hint of spice. Bézier’s boxes are filled with lavender; on sultry nights when he cannot sleep, he crushes the blue-grey flowers between his palms and rubs the oil onto his pillow. A drop of rain trickles down Bézier’s neck and he glances at the crack in the roof of his balcony. White paint has peeled to reveal concrete shaped like the continents of a distorted world. Last year there was a perfect outline of France, l’Hexagone, but a flake drifted from the ceiling and obliterated Brittany and the Loire. Geography was Bézier’s best subject at school; he liked his atlas and the globe, the concept of a brightly-coloured world in pictures. He has not ventured outside his quartier for six years; the city centre is no more than a square on a map.

When the grandfather clock heaves its hands to seven thirty, Bézier spoons the contents of a jar of cassoulet into a pan. He lays the table: placemats, cutlery and glasses for two. As the cassoulet heats, Bézier soaks the empty jar and lid in scalding water. He serves the stew and puts the plates on the table. He eats the beans, the vegetables, the chunks of chicken and finally the garlic sausage. He wipes his plate clean with a hunk of baguette left over from lunch.
Bézier scrapes the food from the untouched plate into the bin before dropping it into the sink: bubbles disperse like foam on a beach whipped up by the wind. As he washes the dishes, Bézier pretends that his mother wasn’t hungry as, towards the end, she often wasn’t.
When he goes to bed, Bézier lies still. He imagines the little girl in the room next door and he yearns to hear her breathing or the creak of springs as she shifts in her sleep. He presses his ear against the wall but all he can hear is the hum from the hive on the balcony and the traffic in the street. He remembers the girl’s smile, the gaps in her teeth, the smear of chocolate on her chin. If he could put his hand through the wall he could touch her.

A chair scrapes across the balcony and the girl’s head appears over the fence. She grins at Bézier; she has lost another tooth. The four incisors between her canines are missing and, dressed in red, she looks like a little devil. Bézier likes her smile very much; it has no smirk, no malice, no pity.
‘I like the buzz-buzz-buzz,’ she says. Her voice is shrill.
Bézier wants her to stay and he wants her to go.
‘Do the bees sting you?’ she asks.
He shakes his head. He would like to tell her that he has never been stung; he doesn’t want her to be scared. He has a recurring nightmare in which the authorities take away his bees. The girl tells him that a tooth fell out when she bit into her baguette at breakfast; she has jam on her top lip. Bézier wonders if he will hear the tooth fairy, la petite souris, creep into her bedroom that night. He wishes that he could slip a euro under her pillow.
‘Mathilde!’ yells the harassed voice. The girl wrinkles her nose and jumps down from the chair.

Mathilde pops her head over the fence every day. She comes early, when her mother is in the shower. As soon as Bézier hears water sloshing down the drainpipe his heart lifts. One morning, when he is feeding his bees and Mathilde clambers onto her chair, he manages to greet her with a grunt.
‘I drew you a picture,’ she says. She holds out a sheet of paper. The bee has yellow ears, five legs and a pointed nose. The man is small and round.
‘Do you like it?’ she asks.
Bézier nods. He proffers his hand, afraid that she will recoil and snatch the picture but she leans closer and passes it to him.
‘Thank you,’ he says. He sounds like a frog. When she has gone he rubs his wet face.
When Bézier is eating his cassoulet that evening, he has an idea. He cannot concentrate but after he has mopped up the sauce he sits for a while and ponders. He is so excited by his plan that he does not sleep; he rehearses the four words until he can say them as quickly as a tongue twister.
The following morning, when Bézier hears water from the shower gushing down the drainpipe, he goes back inside his apartment. He repeats the four words as he picks up the jar of honey he has placed on the sideboard. He steps outside; as he had hoped, the little girl is standing on her chair.
He takes a deep breath. ‘A present,’ he says. ‘For you.’
‘Wow! I love honey.’
Bézier trembles as Mathilde takes the jar. Her hand touches his. Her skin is soft against his calloused fingers.

Bézier switches on the radio. Tous les Garçons et les Filles is playing: one two three, four five six … He waltzes around the room, shuffling circles in his socks. He catches sight of himself in the mirror: his uncoordinated limbs, his wobbling stomach. He straightens his back and stands taller. He turns up the volume and twirls faster. He feels a sensation in his chest and hears a sound; he thinks he may have laughed. He gasps for breath. One two three ...
Bézier freezes. Nobody ever knocks at his door. The postman or salesmen ring the bell at the street entrance. His reflection shrinks; his face is scarlet and strands of damp hair cling to his temples. He switches off the radio and rams his fingers into his ears; he can hear the thump of his heart. If he waits quietly they will go away. The knocking continues, angry and insistent. Bézier whimpers and his eyes flit round the room.
‘I know that you’re in there!’
Bézier recognises the harsh tone. ‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers. He grapples with the lock and opens the door. A woman glares at him; her forehead is creased and her breasts rise and fall. She brandishes the jar of honey. ‘A present for you,’ she says. Bézier feels a spray of saliva. The woman’s red lips are close to his face and he is terrified that she is going to kiss him. She holds the jar high and drops it. She turns, marches up the hallway and slams the door to her apartment. Bézier looks down: the pool of honey at his feet is studded with glass, like plates of ice in a mountain lake. His eyes sting as he watches the viscous liquid creep across the tiles.
Bézier was once kissed by a girl: a girl who wore red lipstick and tasted of aniseed. She pushed him against a wall in a bar and grazed his forehead and cheeks and nose before she forced her tongue into his mouth. As he cowered into the wall he thought that he would choke. Her friends shrieked with laughter until she pulled away and vomited on his shoes. When Bézier got home his mother scrubbed with a flannel at the lipstick on his face until his skin was raw. The next morning she made Bézier walk to the shoe shop in his bare feet.

Mathilde does not pop her head over the fence the next morning, nor the morning after, nor the morning after that. A week later, when Bézier taps his hive, the colony responds not with the usual short sharp hiss but a longer, deeper tone which comes in waves. He opens up the hive and takes out the frames. He spots queen cups at the bottom; eggs have been laid in the peanut-like husks: the bees are preparing to swarm.
Since his mother died, Bézier has clipped the queen’s wings to prevent his bees from leaving. He puts on his round hat and veil and pulls on his gloves. He takes the clippers from the case. He stands next to the hive and listens to the water sloshing down the drainpipe. He places the clippers back in their box.
The queen flies to the yew tree ten metres from the balcony taking a few dozen bees with her. Bézier watches the cluster of workers buzz round the branches; the scouts have flown off in search of a suitable location: the eaves of an attic, a hollow tree or a garden hut. With the drone in his head, Bézier can think clearly; he has much to do while he waits for a scout to return. When it does, he will watch it dance before it takes the queen and her workers to their new home.
That afternoon, a writhing mass of glossy wings and black and yellow hair tumbles from the hive. As the insects rise, they morph into thousands of dark specks which hover in the pale sky, the blur like the flicker of a monochrome film. The swarm fades into the distance, smaller and smaller, until all is white and silent.
Bézier closes his shutters.

The housebound woman on the ground floor mentions that she hasn’t seen the beekeeper leave the block for, well, as long as she can remember. Her social worker - who also has case notes on Bézier - and a policeman break into Bézier’s apartment. When the policeman opens the windows and the shutters the two of them blink in the dazzling light. Everything in the room glows: the orange walls, the parquet floor, the oak table set for two.
‘My God!’ says the policeman.
Hundreds of jars of honey, stacked floor to ceiling across an entire wall, glint in the sunlight: a swathe of gold and saffron, amber and bronze.
The child’s drawing on the mantelpiece shifts in the breeze. It floats to the floor with a sigh.

Sophie was born and grew up in London. She's had fiction broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and in publications including Southword, The London Magazine, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, The Bath Short Story Award Anthology, The View From Here, The Yellow Room and the Eastern Daily Press. She won the Sean O’Faolain International Short Story Prize in 2012 and The London Magazine Short Story Competition in 2013. Her stories have also been short listed in the Bridport, Bristol, Bath and Fish competitions. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University and has just started a fully funded PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia.