Alex’s hands were steady as he unlocked the door to the empty house. Inside, he stood totally still, listening to the silence. The calm pricked him. Could he get used to this? After the stress, no, full-blown fear of the past weeks, could he take the empty days ahead?
“Made it,” he said aloud, very softly. It sounded strange, as if he was trying not to disturb someone. Then relief surged through him in a rush, colour of Japanese red with dazzling orange highlights.
He yelled it as loudly as he could, and heard his voice push out the solitude and fill the space. The silence came back again, but he’d shaken the shadows and broken the spell. He was there, safe, alone in an empty house at the end of a one-lane track that had brought him up into the hills, away from the city, the airport, the bars, away from his old life. Just about as far as he could go.
Alex moved about, dropping his bag in the bedroom and unpacking the groceries he’d brought into the fridge and cupboard. Now was not the time to think. Like a robot, he walked through the familiar spaces, barely noting the distinctive smell of the pine walls and floor, or the view of the moonlight on the lake that stretched away from the foot of the darkened garden. The beds were made, ready for visitors. Alex took off his trainers and lay down. He fell into the kind of sleep that’s too deep for dreams.
He woke early, way too early, dazzled by the sun reflecting straight off the water and piercing his eyelids. His head was splitting, his mouth was dry and he wanted beer. His head hurt worse when he remembered that there was no beer in the house. No wine either. He had not bought any. Deliberately left it off his grocery list in a misplaced moment of optimism that he could dry out. He pulled the pillow over his head. He wondered if there were any spirits left on the bottom shelf of the pantry.
Shit. The birds. The birds were screeching, singing, tweeting so loudly. Had they always been this loud?
Then it hit him. This was a good thing. He was in a good place. For the first time since he had walked out on his dodgy boss half a world away he felt safe. The chirping birds and glistening lake seemed suddenly sweet to him. No traffic, no ringing phone, no knock at the door. Alex felt an unfamiliar feeling of determination shakily taking hold. He would get clean. He’d get straight. He’d sort himself out. It was too much to hope that he could make his father, The Patriarch, proud, but at least he could aim to look him in the eye.
He had just one challenge for the day, and that was to let his father know that he had returned. He had to get him to see that his indefinite residence in the family holiday home was fine, a good thing, even. The old man would take it ok, he thought. Probably just be pleased to have him back in the country, and anyway, what could he do? He was there now, and possession nine-tenths of the law. Or something. He was creating facts on the ground. He burrowed deeper into the pillow.
“Later”, he thought.
It was late afternoon by the time Alex called his father. The spring sun had just gone behind the tall pines that screened the house from the road, and the lake was settled into a solid blue. He had expected the line to be broken and crackly. It was one of the things that made the place feel so remote, that you felt you were talking through a cup and down a very long wire. Instead the line was disconcertingly clear.
“You’re where?” bellowed his father, more from deafness than from anger, Alex thought.
“Well, well, yes. Well, I suppose you can stay,” said the old man. Alex had him on the hop, could hear him thinking on his feet. Then a silence. Alex knew what was coming.
“You didn’t want to stop in on your way?”
There it was. The loneliness. Alex felt his shortcomings like a stomach cramp.
“Dad,” he said, confessional, “I’m not in good shape. To be honest, I want to get myself together before I see you. That’s really the reason I’m here.”
There was silence from the other end. Alex imagined his father’s stiff hand around the earpiece, the once solid shoulders now soft and slumped. Alex had never looked for acceptance or admiration, but he didn’t want rejection either. His father, a warrior in business, laid down his arms for his ne’er do well son.
“OK,” said his father. And then, after a long time, “Are you in trouble?”
Alex felt a strong need to avoid answering the question. He cut him off.
“Thought I could do something here. Look after the place. Maybe get a couple of things going.”
Like salvation, he had a memory of a dismantled bee hive in the garage. Remembered his dad taking him to taste honey at the Easter Show as a kid.
“The real gold,” his father had told him, making a big deal out of the honeycomb. “Terrific stuff.” They had taken a wedge home in a box, elegant hexagons suspended in treacly amber. Difficult to spread on toast.
“Bees!” he blurted. “I thought I could clean up the hives and get some bees.”
Yes. That is indeed what he should do, thought Alex. His dad would love it, and he had read that honey was surprisingly lucrative. The perfect job for a man in exile. And if he ever needed to hide, he could just climb into a bee suit.
“Yes,” said his father, a long, complex yes, that carried a blend of enthusiasm and skepticism.
“That’d be marvellous,” he said. “You know I always wanted to give that another go. You do that, Alex. Do it for me.”
Alex put down the phone and forgot about the bees. A week passed in a filth of basic survival, as his body sweated out its toxins and his mind tried to trick him into breaking his decision not to drink. He had the strength for making spaghetti and not much else. He saw almost no one, and no one called. It was just what he needed. No questions, no explanations, just the slap of the water against the shore of the lake, the screeching birds and occasional whoosh of a passing car. There was another trip to the shop – a test of his resolve – and the mailman stopped by to drop off a letter from the Council.
“Bees coming tomorrow.” His father was on the phone, barking like a sergeant-major. “Got the hive in order?”
Alex put his fist in his mouth to stop himself swearing aloud. He should have known better than to think he could get away with a passing comment. The old man never forgot. He always followed up, and so darn fast. Fark.
“Tomorrow?” He heard his voice crack.
“Ah….” He couldn’t even pretend he’d be busy. Nothing to do, nowhere to hide.
“Not going to try to wriggle out of it, are you?”
“Don’t be like that, Dad. I’m not wriggling out of….”
“Not like you’re busy up there. I’d go insane if it was me, Alex. Get something to do.”
Alex felt the old irritation rising, but he knew his father was right. Alex wanted to yell: What do I know about bees, but he knew he had no choice. The best way to cut the judgement was to do what his dad wanted, and do it well. He always had to push it though, just a bit further, and add some danger. So he said: “Why don’t you come up here, Dad? When are you planning to be here next anyway? We could get the bees going together.”
That’s when his father told him. No more trips for the old man, not for a while.
“The only place I’m going is to the hospital, Alex. My turn to face down the Big C. You get those bees going, Alex. Give me something to think about. I want to taste some lakeside honey. I’m looking forward to it already.”
In the garage, the hive was half-assembled, frames propped against the rectangular boxes. Alex dusted it off, took off the lid of the top and peered inside. No clues there, just empty space.
“How hard can it be?” he thought.
A month later, things were looking surprisingly good. The hive stood by the lavender, under a stand of towering blackwattle trees. Instead of checking his phone, Alex had become addicted to checking the bees. He would watch at a safe distance to see the little insects flying out on their missions, and flying back in, legs heavy with pollen. He had set up a deck chair and sun umbrella where he could see them, carefully positioned in line with the instructions in The Good Bee, which he had borrowed from the library. Old school. He sat there hours at a time, sometimes checking out beekeeper tips on YouTube, basking in the sun and a growing sense of self-satisfaction.
He chuckled sometimes, thinking of what his old boss might say.
“Suck it!” he’d shout in imagined encounters. “Never saw this in my future, did you?”
Then would come a prickle of discomfort, and trying not to think too much about what the future might hold if he ever had to get off this deck chair, and desperately wanting a drink. Trying to think that if he didn’t have a future, he at least had a present. “I be. I bee!” He had the bees for company. Several thousand bees, in fact.
He looked forward to updating the old man on the bees’ progress. It was pretty simple, this bee stuff. Set them up and let them get to it. His kind of work. They were speaking a couple of times each week, and every time his father asked: “When will I taste that honey, Alex? Got to get me some honey, my boy.”
It wouldn’t be long now.
The old man was speaking to him from hospital at least half the time now. He was in for surgery, out for a few days, back again with an infection, then out again. Alex couldn’t keep track, but it didn’t seem too good. “It wouldn’t be long now,” could do for the bees or the old man.
He knew he should go see him, but the thought made him feel sick. He had a million excuses: nowhere to stay in town; no money; long trip; don’t want to leave the bees. But the truth, that Alex refused to acknowledge, was that he couldn’t bear to see the combination of anger and anxiety that always reflected back at him from his father’s eyes.
Alex promised he’d leave the bees with the first honey harvest. He would carry the golden vials with him in the car, straight to the hospital or home, and it would be an elixir of youth for the old man.
“Get going bees,” he urged them. “Let’s get that honey magic dripping. Dripping good.”
The bees would not be rushed, however, and his father was losing the race. Alex felt a new kind of emptiness at the thought that soon the old man might no longer be there. This emptiness sat on top of the other layers of emptiness, weighing him down.
It was the fear of that weight that finally drove him to get a job at Maggie’s Burgers, after promising himself he would never work in hospitality again. The beachside burger joint was a long way from the kind of place he had worked before however, and for eight hours, three times a week, he was busy enough in the kitchen just to go through the motions and do what needed to be done. The no-strings-attached camaraderie with his co-workers, two high school kids named Ted and Shona, gave him a lift, and Maggie herself had a hive out the back.
Maggie was a mature surfer chick with two grown children and an ex-husband somewhere else. “Sharks got him,” she told him. “I wish.”
It was Maggie who told him how to get the honey with just a bucket and sieve.
“Just have to wait til the frame on the super is full, then slice the caps off and let the good stuff flow.”
The day that Alex lifted the lid of the hive to find that several, not just one, frames were full, the wind was whipping the trees and kicking up dust and gravel in sharp, painful flurries against his legs. He had received a call from his father, whose voice was thin with pain and exhaustion. He could hardly hear what he said, but he knew it was a summons. The summons. The last chance. Alex had to get the honey and he had to get to Sydney fast.
Carefully he arranged his equipment in the shed in preparation for the delicate operation. The clean bucket and mesh he had bought from the hardware store in town. The knife, with its long, sharp blade sat on the work table ready for him. The garage looked like a kind of surgery, with instruments poised and waiting to cut and curate. All was quiet and still, but when he stepped outside the wind wrenched the door handle from his grip and spat a mess of sticks and grit into the room.
Dressed in his protective suit, Alex blew two puffs of smoke into the hive from his smoker with difficulty, lifted the top and extracted a frame. The bees that covered it drifted sleepily away, and those that remained he brushed off as gently as he could, trying to face out of the gusty wind. The hexagon-shaped cells made a patterned imprint on the sticky wax wall of the frame. Alex walked swiftly to the garage to avoid more dirt and sand being blown onto the wax, and got to work. He used the sharp blade of the knife to slice the cover off the cells, and watched the solid flow of liquid. The mesh would catch the impurities, that was the theory, and he would have his father’s honey. It smelled sweet and strong. He would call it Resurrection Honey. Resurrection for his dad, and resurrection for him.
“Dad” he said down the phone, once the honey was safely bottled. “Hang on Dad. I’m coming tomorrow. I’ve got the honey. A giant jar. I’m looking at it now. Resurrection Honey. You like the name?
It will be good to see you, Dad.”
Alex wasn’t sure the old man had understood him. Heard him, even. He was too far gone. Alex’s heart hurt, really hurt. More than a metaphor. He put the jar of honey by the door, ready to ride. He’d start early, at first light.
Alex didn’t believe in God and he didn’t believe in Fate. He just believed that Shit Happens.
He walked to the rented car cradling the precious jar in one hand, coffee in the other, still blurry with sleep. There was water on the ground from last night’s storm. The plastic chairs on the deck had blown over, and torn twigs and leaves lay untidily across every surface. Alex put his coffee and the jar down on the low wall behind him as he groped in his pocket for the keys, and put his hand on the door handle to open the car.
He glimpsed the red slash on the black back from the corner of his eye at the same time as he felt it dance out from under his fingers and across the back of his hand. A redback.
In one jerky motion he leapt back, flung his hand into the air to flick the spider off, and kicked the jar of honey with his heel. He fell back heavily, painfully landing on his hands, unable to catch the jar as it flew off the wall, the early morning light glinting off the amber liquid inside. It bounced on the hard edge of a garden bed and ricocheted off the corner of the house. It smashed. The Resurrection Honey leaked out over the jagged edges of the broken glass slowly, so slowly. It made a shiny, dirt-flecked puddle on the ground.
No amount of shouting and swearing could put that jar back to together or the honey back in the jar. So close. He had come so close to getting this right, but once again he had thrown it away. Kicked it away, this time. Kicked it and smashed it to smithereens. Alex stood over the wasted honey, only able to stand because of the adrenalin roaring round his body, the blood pulsing through his brain. His first thought was to get more honey from the hive.
He turned back towards the blackwattles, and it took him a moment to understand what he saw. It looked like an angry child’s drawing – scribbled scrawls of black and green. The tree that stood behind the hive had been ripped apart by the storm, a heavy branch torn asunder and cast on the ground. It was a tangle of leaves and wood, and streaks of red sap like coagulated blood. Where was the hive? Where was it? Of course the hive was under the branch, which had smashed through its roof and sent the bees out on their final mission.
Alex tried to pull the branch off the broken house, but he couldn’t get through without a chainsaw. No time to let the loss sink in, though. Alex needed a plan. He needed to get to the hospital. He had the thought that his father might die before he reached him.
It came to Alex then that he had a choice to make. He could choose to let his father die happy, with the taste of honey on his lips, or he could let him die disappointed. Alex knew it would haunt his dreams forever, the bruised and crushing hurt that filled his father’s eyes like tears. So that was his choice. Truth, or tranquillity?
Alex reached for his phone and dialled Maggie’s number. The rat cunning part of his brain was back in charge. It would only take a moment to go by her place. A jar of honey, 30 pieces of silver, a bargain for his soul.
“You got a spare jar of that liquid gold?” he asked.