On the third morning, when I pulled the sheet over him, a dead bee fell out of the bedclothes and dropped beside his shoulder. The bee was quite definitely dead, its curled wings and legs repeating the shape of his sleeping body.
When you are first in love you are anxious for omens. But this one I decided to disregard. I flicked it out the window.
The season was summer, and no rain had fallen for weeks. I had said that this would be the first summer of my freedom, and nothing was going to spoil it.
I had come back to Sydney in winter. My marriage over, at thirty I was falling back on the kindness of friends. I spent the winter curled in the old couches of old friends’ houses and suffered from rising damp. I felt cold inside. I was living on my capital and waiting for summer.
I finally went out in September.
While my friends went out to work, I walked the streets. I sat in cafés. I read thrillers. I went to matinées. There was nothing else to do. I became a tourist.
One day at the end of September I took a room in Bondi. It looked over the milky sea from the second floor of a hotel in Campbell Parade. The room was ridiculously small, and the single bed looked doubtful under its flamboyant synthetic blanket. As I knelt on it to look out the window, it sagged gently. My elbows had to steady me on the window sill. From the north the windows of the houses on the point winked at me.
‘I’ll take it.’
The hotel had as many rooms as the old building could stand. In summer, I was told, they rented the roof. It was full of European tourists who had run out of puff. They would stay a while in the hotel, glad to avoid the enthusiasm of the backpackers’ hotels and the imperative to move on. Those who found they could not leave moved to the back of the hotel, where the rooms were cheap because they had their backs to the sea.
There was a mirror above the basin in my room. I found that I could lie on my bed and see the view reflected. I could watch the waves rolling in on that mirror for hours. I was the Lady of Shalott, waiting for Lancelot to surf into view.
I met him in front of the television.
The TV room was at the top of the first flight of stairs, so everyone in the hotel had to pass its door. He stared out of this room one evening and watched me go past.
I came in. He blinked at me from his chair.
‘There’s nothing on.’ He waved at the television screen. Outside, the sun was almost set.
‘It’s a bad time,’ I said.
‘When would you say was a good time?’
‘Good programmes tend to be on around 8.30, on the ABC, you know.’
I felt foolish. He was still watching me, blinking.
‘But at 8.30, surely, you must go out?’ His English was precise, but his accent was unplaceable. I thought he meant to sound American.
‘Yes, well, sometimes.’
‘Would you like to have a drink?’
‘Oh, yes, thank you.’
‘So would I,’ he said wearily.
I took him to my room. What else could I do? There I had stashed a bottle of vodka.
‘Stolichnaya.’ He approved.
‘Yes.’ He smiled into the bottom of his glass.
He sat down on my bed and looked up. ‘Don’t you ever sit down?’
‘You have holes in your ears.’
‘Yes, for earrings, you know.’ I was speaking slowly now, as if to a child.
‘Why aren’t you wearing any?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Would you like me to put them in for you?’
‘Um, yes, yes.’ I raked the objects on the bedside table. I picked up a small pair and handed them to him.
‘Sit down and face me.’
I sat and faced him, noticing how blue his eyes were, bluer than they had looked in the television room.
‘Sit straight.’ He narrowed his eyes to insert the tiny earring, like threading a needle.
It slipped in.
‘The hard part is attaching the back piece,’ he said. ‘What is this piece called that goes over the earring at the back? The post?’
I didn’t dream of correcting him. ‘Yes,’ I said.
I don’t know how many times we had made love before the third morning, when I found the bee. I felt dizzy when I got out of bed that morning. It was so hot that I was wet with sweat. I looked down at him. He was asleep. His body glistened. I kneeled and took a long, salty lick from his thigh. My head spun.
I stumbled up and drew the sheet up to cover him. I looked at myself in the mirror and saw that I was pale. I looked at him and saw the dead bee by his shoulder. I picked it up and threw it out the window.
I was kissing him very hard; he was inside me. I was wrapping myself around him, tightening my arms and my legs. It hurt. I liked it.
‘Doucement,’ he murmured. ‘Doucement.’
By the pillow was another dead bee.
I found the third bee tangled in the blanket at the end of the bed. I studied it. It was very dead, curled up and brittle. Its sting was still in place. I placed the bee on the bedside table.
I was making my bed. I was going out. I had agreed to meet a friend in a café just below the hotel. It was the first time the blanket had been on the bed in a week. I closed the door.
In the Gelato Bar my friend was already drinking caffe latte. ‘Good.’ She kissed me. ‘Let’s have cake.’
‘So, have you heard from Phillip?’ my friend asked.
Phillip was my husband. My mouth was full of poppyseed strudel. I chewed hugely. I hadn’t thought of him for days.
‘No, but then I haven’t contacted him either.’
She looked at me sceptically over her éclair, no doubt remembering the phone bill when I had stayed with her.
‘No, really. I’ve really nothing to say to him.’
‘Have you started thinking about what you might do?’
‘I mean for work and so on.’
Again I chewed.
‘My brother-in-law might have some work for you, if you felt like doing a bit of research or something.’
The mouthful couldn’t last.
‘No, really. I need this break and it’s such lovely weather for a convalescence.’
‘Isn’t it great?’ She fastened on this safe subject with satisfaction.
‘You’re so lucky living here. Do you swim every day?’
‘Oh, of course,’ I lied.
My friend looked approving.
‘Have you noticed’, I asked, ‘how may dead bees there are around?’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘You have?’ I felt relieved.
‘Yes, apparently there’s a kind of flower drought on, with all this dry weather. The bees have to fly miles looking for flowers, and some just die of exhaustion along the way.’
In my bedroom? I thought.
‘Do you remember Verity?’ she asked.
‘In this kind of weather she used to put out saucers of sugar and water for the bees.’ My friend smiled.
‘And what happened?’
‘The silly things just drowned in it.’
He lay on my bed, fiddling with the dead bee.
‘I thought bees couldn’t die unless they had stung someone.’ He tested the sting against his finger. ‘But I suppose sometimes they just die of old age, like this one.’
He rolled the bee round in his palm.
‘Apparently,’ I said, ‘sometimes they just die of exhaustion.’
He dropped the bee back on the table. ‘Exhaustion,’ he repeated, and smiled.
I went to seek him out. I had never been to his room but I knew the number. I found the room; it was on the top floor with its back to the sea. I knocked. It sounded so hollow that I knew there was no-one there.
I turned the handle and went in.
There was a blanket the same as mine on the bed. It was neatly made. There was a basin and a mirror and a table. There was nothing else. If I lay on the bed I could see the view reflected in the mirror. I could see a block of flats stepped like a ziggurat, on its wall a fire escape that stopped halfway down.
He was gone.
I put my head out the window. I couldn’t even smell the sea from there.
I went back to my room and lay on the bed. The reflection in my mirror was clouded. There was rain on the window.
I sat up and opened the window, resting my elbows on the sill. The houses on the northern point were covered with a mist of rain. In their gardens the flowers would be opening up.