It’s Sunday morning, frost frames the windows, and only Dad and I are awake. This is my favourite time of the day; the house feels the right size. Mum’s at work and it’ll be hours before my siblings shuffle up the corridor rubbing sleep from their eyes.
Dad paces around, keen to yank the cord on the lawn mower and let the grass fly.
‘What do you reckon?’ He asks.
‘Bit early, eh?’ I say. The clock ticks over to seven.
‘Yeah, I suppose so. Rightio, I reckon I’ll start building another bee hive.’
As soon as the hammering starts, I turn up the TV and sink deeper into the sofa. I hate bees.
‘Rightio, shall I put Mum on?’ Dad asks.
The silence stings. He’s already passed the phone on.
Then again, neither of us has anything else to say. I’ve already parsed Melbourne’s weather forecast with unnecessary detail. He’s done his bit of teasing me about the heat that’s still simmering over Sydney. Since I moved interstate, our conversations have become more frequent. Though, they eddy between stilted and earnest. It’s starting to become excruciating.
Dad’s favourite titbit of advice is—no one likes a bragger. He only talks at length about topics that don’t involve himself. He’ll happily delve into the technical details of scaffolding or cement rendering. I don’t have the acting chops to feign interest in building techniques.
I try to think of topics to jostle us out of our habitual script. My heart drops when I realise the obvious, and perhaps only topic we could talk about—beekeeping.
Dad can see invisible things. He can spot things that through endless iterations of evolution have been cloaked from prying eyes.
For most of my childhood he was invisible. There would be signs of his presence: he’d lay his work clothes in front of the radiator each night—socks draped over the lip of his steel cap boots, khaki trousers slung over the back of a kitchen chair, his high-vis vest neatly folded—all gone by the time I’d wake up.
In the evenings, after laying out his clothes, he’d gently close his bedroom door by 8:30. Sunday was his day off. He spent most of them with his bees.
Beekeeping is a slow fussy business as the work is stretched over the full cycle of seasons. Dad would take their finicky nature as a point of pride, planting the garden around their discerning tastes.
‘They’ll have nothing but the best!’ He said after ordering lavender from France.
Our backyard thrummed with the wingbeat of thousands of bees. There were three hives tucked between the orange trees. After he dismantled the sandpit the neighbourhood cats had started using as a litterbox, he managed to squeeze in another three hives. I’d stand by the backdoor shivering, goose bumps emerging as my skin attempts to toughen itself up like animal hide. It was safer to stay inside.
The last time I got stung my foot tripled in size. I couldn’t fit it into a shoe for a week. Even now, twenty years on, whenever I hear a bee, the fear is almost rhythmic. A whole-body shiver builds until it is almost spasmodic in intensity.
I try to temper my fear with rationality—talking about bees isn’t the same as beekeeping. Maybe it could help me get over my fear? I have my doubts. Still, anything is better than talking about Melbourne’s cold snap while Sydney’s mostly sunny weather continues unabated.
I start reading about bees, cramming facts, ready to pepper them into our next chat. I learn that Australian bees, unlike everything else in Australia, are small, docile and comely. They harmlessly drift on the breeze. You can herd them with the lazy wave of a hand. Dad keeps European bees as they produce more honey. They also thicken the air with their buzz; they demand to have their presence acknowledged.
Perhaps this is why they have the ‘telling of the bees’ in Europe. Traditionally, beekeepers would pass on the news of their household to their hives, announcing the name of a newborn, leaving a slice of wedding cake or a black shroud of mourning.
At first, I laugh at the idea. I can imagine Dad gossiping with his bees. Maybe he’d tell them about us four kids when we started and finished uni. Or maybe he’s celebrated his footy team’s Grand Final win with them.
Then my thoughts tangle. I feel an aching sadness for all our swift, empty conversations.
The book cover is bright yellow and a bee, bumbling and cartoonish, flies in the centre. I buy it even though after flicking through I’m certain he already knows everything in it. I walk home hugging it to my chest; its corners catch my ribs. I need something to help fill the stark silence that has crept into the last few phone calls I’ve had with Dad.
Mum told me that one of his workmates was killed on the job recently. She says he’s more quiet than usual. He’s been sleeping a lot. He’s talking about cutting back his work hours to just five days a week.
I worry about him. I don’t know how to talk to him about it. Instead, we chat about the cyclone bouncing along the Eastern seaboard.
A few months later, I fly up to Sydney and stay for a fortnight. It has been about four months since Dad’s workmate’s funeral. The weather is sultry. It will drive the bees wild: kamikaze. They’ll swarm anyone who they think is a threat to their Queen. It is a deliberate suicide mission, as once a bee impales an enemy with its stinger they cannot pull it free again. They silently fall to the ground, their guts wrenched from them and left dangling from their stinger. They seem to trust Dad. They are used to his kind and tentative manner, but I am a stranger to them. I tremble, imagining the hot pain of a barb being deeply rooted into my flesh. I don’t want to wear the wrath of the bees. I also don’t want them to die. I’m surprised with how much I’ve started to care about them.
‘Are are you going to check on the bees today?’ I ask Dad. I desperately want to sound interested.
‘Nah, they should be alright. Do you want to go for a walk instead?’
I don’t bother to hide my relief.
Dad and I don broad-brimmed hats and walk around the lake.
This becomes our routine. Each morning we have a cuppa and set off before the heat of the day.
I stop trying to shoehorn in facts I’d spent weeks memorising. Dad takes long purposeful strides. I need to work hard to keep up.
I try to see the bush like Dad does, copying his wide-eyed attentiveness to our surrounds. It is during these walks that I realise that there is a sense of sociability that infuses the bush, the volley of caws and whistles from bough to bough. I relax into the walks. I start to take the time to be more curious about him, watching him pick his way through the scrubland, rather than cluttering the air with contrived chatter.
Dad stops. He’s looking at something. He stands patiently and allows my untrained eyes to follow the length of his outstretched arm; all I can see is the straggle of scrubland. The murk of browns and greens is disorientating. He waits as I retrace the projection of his pointed fingertip. My eyes skitter left to right. Nothing. Finally, I see it. Right there, a small bee busily working in the cup of a flower. It looks tiny, almost fragile, in the thick of trees. My fear starts to shrink.
We share a smile. Then he asks if I’ve heard about the funeral. I listen as he describes his mate, pointing out how similar they were. He loses his deep-bellied boom and his voice slides up to a high-pitched quaver.
They had worked side-by-side for years, their lives seeming to unfold in parallel. They both arrived in Australia with nothing, Dad from Ireland and his mate from New Zealand. They met as labourers on a construction job and both eventually qualified as crane drivers. They’d talk about footy and all the things they’d do once they retired.
‘I couldn’t get out of bed for a few days,’ Dad says. ‘I was—’. His voice is fragile and his sentence splinters off unfinished.
I don’t talk. I can’t. Wordlessly we reach for a hug. We separate, suddenly shy.
I focus on the surrounding trees.
We watch the bees work.
‘Brilliant creatures, aren’t they?’ Dad says.
‘Yeah, yeah they are.’
Fiona Murphy is a Melbourne based writer. Her work has appeared in Kill Your Darlings, The Age, FasterLouder, amongst others. She is a writer-in-residence for Feminartsy and a 2017 Write-ability fellow. She is currently writing a collection of essays about her experience with disability. Fiona co-hosts the book club podcast Literary Cannon Ball.