2021 Short Story Competition Winner

“Honey” by Lucy Thompson

Will Garrison had always had a taste for sweet things. Amanda, his wife of three years, had a habit of supplying them. 

During the first four heady months after they met, Will had dazzled her with gifts and dinners out and weekends away. Anyone would have thought she was mad to turn him down when he proposed. Indeed, the thought never crossed Amanda’s mind, apart from a flitting awareness of the rapid pace. But she swatted away that and any other vague sense of uncertainty like an unwelcome insect. At thirty-eight she was glad to be planning her wedding and secretly spent far more time admiring the gleaming ruby of her engagement ring than any sane person would let on.

Will wasn’t keen on children, and that was fine with Amanda too. She’d always been more of an animal person, anyway, and was happy in her job as a vet tech. Will worked for a government agency and, although he was vague about it, Amanda had no reason to doubt him given the evident fruits of his labours.

Their wedding was smaller than Amanda would have liked but Will preferred an intimate affair. They kept it to family and close friends. Although Will had never spent much time cultivating relationships with those on her side, Amanda’s nearest and dearest were all delighted for her. As Will said, his job kept him very busy. Everyone was understanding. His mother came down south for the wedding and, as he didn’t see her much, he spent a lot of the wedding weekend tending to her.

The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at a secluded resort with a beautiful white sandy beach. The food – fresh fish, glistening fruits – was wonderful. Day one Amanda drank too much champagne, so Will declined the hotel’s honeymoon offerings after that. The sun beat down and, in the middle of the day, Amanda reclined in the shade of a giant umbrella and absorbed the heat, while Will made calls and played tennis with the resident pro. Apart from that, the week was a blur of sex.

Soon after returning home, things started to feel rather different to their engagement. Over the phone, Amanda’s mother suggested it was just the adjustment to married life. “Give it time,” she said. “You’ve had a whirlwind romance. Let it settle.”

Her friend Carrie was more probing: What was wrong exactly? Amanda couldn’t put her finger on it. “He’s not there much,” she said, “and when he is, he’s… still not quite there.” But then Carrie started looking worried so Amanda shrugged it off and changed the subject. She was, after all, lucky to have found someone so handsome, and more than solvent, who ticked all the boxes. 

When they had to move for Will’s work, Amanda quit her job. Her leaving party was a tearful occasion; after ten years at the clinic it was difficult to leave. But Will pointed out she could easily find another job; her line of work was relevant anywhere. Will was the clear breadwinner so, being married, Amanda knew she had little choice.

Her spirits lifted once she saw the house Will had found. Built into a hillside, the house had soaring views over the town and valley below. Given the garden space and woodland walks on the doorstep, Amanda hoped they might be able to get a dog.

“There’s a hive on the roof,” Will said, pointing out an eco-friendly wing to one side of the house. A tall pine box perched toward the end of a flat, grassy roof. “You could learn beekeeping. I fancy home-made honey.” Amanda did like the idea. She’d never thought about beekeeping before, but the hive was already there, and now she had time on her hands. 

She bought books and a beekeeper suit, complete with safari-white hat and veil. It was a Warre hive, which needed little tending: just a new box placed beneath the structure in spring, and the top box, heavy with honeycomb, harvested in autumn. There was a viewing window to check on the bees, to make sure they had enough space. Amanda got in the habit of donning the suit just to go and sit near the hive, peering at the bustle within and listening to the hypnotic hum of the swarm. She always scanned for a glimpse of the queen but never saw her; just the seething, nonstop mass of busy workers. The worker bees were all female, she was surprised to learn. The drones were male, the product of the queen’s unfertilised eggs, and died after mating.

Not long after they moved in, Will stood in the doorframe of their ensuite bathroom and flashed a silvery packet at Amanda in bed. The foil backing glinted in the morning light. “You should stop taking these,” he said. “It might be a good idea to have a baby. Give you something to do.”

“What?” Amanda said, shocked. “We discussed…” But Will had already turned on the shower. When she went to take her pill later, the packet was gone.

Despite the lack of contraception, they didn’t conceive. After a few months of trying – the sex hadn’t dwindled between them, even if something else had – Will booked her an appointment with a fertility specialist for an MOT. Her results came back fine, though the consultant issued the typical warnings about advancing age. 

“You’re not forty yet,” said Will during dinner, forking shepherd’s pie. “We’ll give it a bit more time then look at the IVF route.”

“Maybe you should have a check too,” Amanda said lightly. Will stopped chewing.

“Why’s that?” he said coldly.

“Well, you know, it’s not just me in the equation.”

“What are you saying? That there’s something wrong with me?”

“No, honey – not wrong – just that, you know. I had a fertility check. We could check your fertility too.”

“Who do you think you are,” growled her husband, “telling me what to do?”

As he shoved away from the table and stalked off to his study, the remains of his shepherd’s pie smashed to the floor behind him. Fragments of plate poked through the mess of orange grease and lamb mince like shards of broken bone.

* * *

Amanda rarely left the house, except to visit the supermarket or go for walks in the woods. Will thought it best that she stay home to get into “nesting” mode. Also, sometimes, if she had bruises, she didn’t want to deal with being seen. Eventually, Will got rid of the second car, saying it was a waste of money. If she needed to go somewhere, he’d drive her. They had groceries delivered.

Her mother and friends from the city had yet to visit. Amanda didn’t want to worry them, so she maintained a bright tone on the phone, but after a while she felt guilty about not inviting them to stay, so the phone calls became less frequent. Her mother still called regularly but, because she tended to sound worried, Amanda didn’t always call her back.

Will was delighted with her after the first autumn’s harvest of honey. Amanda crushed the honeycomb, lump by gooey lump, through a strainer so that the liquid gold oozed into the steel tub beneath. “Fantastic,” he said, swirling his finger through the thick nectar and sucking coursing rivulets from his knuckles. “Good job,” he said, running sticky hands through her hair and kissing her hard on the cheek. A year earlier, Amanda wouldn’t have minded her hair becoming a claggy casualty of affection. Now, though, all she could think was that if he caught her hair looking less than perfect later on, she’d be blamed for it.

The bees were quiet through winter. All the colours – of the hillside falling away from the house, the trees rearing up behind, the blank sky – were muted. Amanda passed her days as if in a trance. She got used to the rhythm of silence.

Sometimes – often, in fact – Will returned home from work calm, preoccupied. He expected good dinners and she served them, not forgetting his luxurious desserts. She kept the house neat and clean. She loved the house: its sleek contemporary design, all whitewashed wood and giant windows. Amanda lost track of time running soft cloths over hard edges, smoothing sateen bedsheets, polishing glass. Now and again, almost always when she thought she must have imagined or misremembered things, Will lost his temper, and reminded her.

Life became cyclical. Amanda sank into its routines. She reminded herself that she had so much to be grateful for, so much that many other people didn’t have. She forgot about the things she used to have, which she had no more.

During winter, the days passed as if in slow-motion. Amanda withdrew into herself. Visiting the hive, she pressed her ear to its sides. She lay down beside the box-tower and closed her eyes, feeling the solidity of the grassy surface beneath and the breeze blowing over her face until she thought she could feel the world revolving.

She waited for the bees to wake.

When they did, each spring, Amanda sat cross-legged on the slope nearby and watched them bustle in and out of the entry slits, flying off to forage and returning laden with pollen and nectar for the honeycombs. They investigated her, crawling up her arms and down her legs and around her hair. After the first year she no longer wore the beekeeping suit; if she sat still, and stayed relaxed, they didn’t sting her. Their buzz enveloped her in a cloud of soothing music: a constant, vibrating hum. A yogic Om, elemental. She imagined it was the sound of the very beginning of all things.

The hum stayed with her when she left the hive. She got used to it suffusing her body: the gentle drone at the back of her mind, the warm vibration rippling down her limbs. 

“Amanda!” Will snapped at her one sultry summer evening. “Did you hear what I said?”

She jolted alert. “Sorry, darling,” she said. “What were you saying?”

Will threw a pile of dirty clothes at her. “For god’s sake, I’ve got enough on. The least you could do is listen. Dozy cow,” he muttered. “Do you need your hearing checked now too?”

Amanda flushed. She was relieved that no child had resulted from her lack of contraception. She shuddered to think how Will would handle the reality of a baby.

“What’s that?” Will snapped. Something had launched off Amanda’s back and zinged across the kitchen. Will flapped at it with a newspaper. “You’ve brought one of those blasted bees into the house.”

“Don’t kill it!” Amanda pleaded, scurrying around the island with her arms outstretched. Will smacked her away. Having paused his thrashing at the bee, it made directly for his open shirt collar. Will felt the hot poker sting drive into the tight flesh below his clavicle and howled. Swatting at his chest, he brushed off the invader and slapped at it madly as it fell to the countertop. 

“It’s already dead,” Amanda entreated. “They die after stinging.” Tentatively, once Will had ceased his frenzy, she leaned forward to peer at the reddening blotch below his collar bone. “Are you ok?”

Will’s arm came flying up like a golf club and knocked her to the floor. “Bloody hell,” he raged. “This is your fault. You can’t even manage the bloody bees.” He stormed over to the window, peering out at the hive. “Maybe there are too many of them. I should have someone come in and remove them.”

“No!” cried Amanda, scrambling up from the floor. “No,” she said, more meekly, when Will glared at her. “I’ll be more careful. They’ve never come in the house before. And you love the honey. It’s almost time to harvest. They’ve been so busy… There’ll be so much honey this year. I promise. It will be the best yet.”

Will examined the welt on his chest and glowered at her. “Don’t let them in the damn house again,” he said, swivelling to stride across the kitchen. “We better have something in the bathroom for this.”

Amanda watched him leave the room, then scanned the island and dropped to her knees to scour the floor. The bee lay on its back, tiny legs in the air. She picked it up carefully by its gossamer wing and lay the small fuzz of its carcass in her palm. Rising, she slid open the patio door and returned the tiny body to the hive.

* * *

The heat from a sweltering summer seeped into early autumn. Wildflowers flamed the hillside in streaks of red and gold. The gardener came to cut the grass, pushing a hand-mower as the lawn was an awkward shape and too slanted for a ride-on. His bare torso gleamed in the sun, plaid shirt slung round his hips. Amanda frowned at the petrol fumes from the mower, noticing the bees seemed more agitated than usual. She stepped off the grassy roof to make her way down the slope to the gardener.

“You can leave off that bit down there,” she called, waving to catch his attention above the noise. “That bit by the trees, you can leave it.” She thought it might be nice to do a little rewilding, anyway. Let the wildflowers grow closer for the bees.

The gardener killed the motor and grinned, wiping his brow. “Suits me,” he said. “Steaming today.”

“Would you like a drink?” Amanda offered without thinking. When he accepted, they walked back to the house together. He smelt of sun-warmed grass and ripe fruit.

Amanda was acutely aware of his bare flesh amid the sterile space of the kitchen. He was young and moved languidly, looking around, finally coming to lean at the edge of the island.

“Looks just as new as when it was built,” he said.

“Oh, did you do the garden before us?”

He nodded. “I used to work for the farm down there when I was a kid,” he said, gesturing out the window at the hillside, where sheep grazed in the lower fields. “They sold off bits here and there for development, coz that’s where the money is these days, innit. When the Criers bought this place I got the gardening gig through the farm.”

“The Criers?”

“Yeah, who lived here before you.”

“I never met them.”

“Couple a bit older than you, I reckon. Bloke was a piece of work. Had no idea they were even moving, actually, then suddenly it was you two here.” He took great gulps from the glass Amanda had set in front of him. She watched his Adam’s apple slide up and down in the hollow of his throat.

“You like them bees, don’t you?” he said. “Ever time I come, I see you there with that hive. Thought Mr. Crier had finished them off.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think they’d got a bit out of control. No-one was minding them like you do. He went mental out there one day when I was doing the grass. Smoked the lot. There was so much smoke I thought we’d have the fire engines roaring up the hill.” He set down his glass and dragged the back of his arm across his lips. “Guess they’d become a bit of a nuisance. Mind if I use your toilet?”

Amanda showed him the way, antsy for him to be gone. She gazed through the sliding doors at the hive while waiting for him to finish. Smoke just calmed bees down, usually. It only killed them if the smoke was too hot. Mr. Crier probably hadn’t known that.

* * *

Will came home earlier than usual that evening. 

“This is a nice surprise, darling,” Amanda said as he slung his bag onto the dining table and crossed the kitchen. “Good day?” she asked nervously, catching sight of the cold look in his eyes and the hard set of his face.

“Not as good as yours, it seems,” he said, as if the words created a bad taste in his mouth.

“What do you mean?”

He had stopped at the island to stare at her, but now moved around to come closer. Instinctively, Amanda braced. It had been a while since she’d faced one of his moods; lately, Will had been coming home late and heading straight for his study before joining her in bed. They could go days without sharing a waking moment. At least, Will assumed she was asleep. He woke her when it suited him.

“Been entertaining guests today, have you?”

Amanda felt an icy shockwave shoot from head to toe. “Hardly,” she said.

“Why are you lying?” Will snarled. “You can’t fool me. What do you think? That I don’t know what’s going on in my own house?” He advanced toward her.

Amanda started jabbering, backing away. “Darling, please. I wasn’t entertaining… It was just the gardener here. I barely talked to him. I have’t seen anyone, I promise.”

“You saw a lot more of him that you’re letting on.” He slammed his hand down upon the marble countertop. “Liar! How dare you disrespect me in my own house!”

With a sob, Amanda ran around the island, looking wildly for a way out. How could he have known? As Will chased her, she remembered in a flash of disbelief: at the top of the tall larder cupboard, a small black eye, trained upon the room. She’d thought it was for security, for intruders. Not for her.

She looked back at Will, his face suffused with rage. “How can you think?” she gasped. “I didn’t do anything. I swear…”

Will caught her by the arm and Amanda folded in on herself, mind going blank, as it tended to do. As her words evaporated, the buzzing in her mind took over. Something in Amanda receded, giving way to the insulating hum, taking her away from the kitchen and out to the hives, to the bees, to a place of warmth and honey.

A hot, agonising pain jerked her back into the room. She found herself on the floor, twisting away from Will’s fury. She cried out and reflexively swung round her leg, catching Will by surprise. He stumbled back for a moment, giving Amanda the chance to scramble away and lurch into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. Will crashed into the other side, rattling the handle and hammering on the door.

Amanda curled into a ball as far away from the door as possible. Will continued to rant and rage on the other side. Her body throbbed insistently; this had been the worst yet. Deep within her, a spark of resistance flared, but this was snuffed by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The buzzing in her head returned, muffling the sound of Will railing on the other side of the door. Eventually, the noise receded. There was just the pulse of the hum, soothing her from within.

Hours later, Amanda rose as if from a coma and made her way to the sink. She looked into the mirror and caught her breath at the dishevelled figure before her. An arrow of pain shot through one arm; she clutched it, pressing it into her body. She limped toward the door and slowly, silently unlocked it, tentatively emerging. The house was black; night had long since fallen.

Amanda hesitated, unsure what to do. The pain roared through her. There was no way she’d sleep, and no way she could stay in the house. She turned and quietly slid open the patio doors.

It was easier to see outside in the light of the moon. She lugged herself up the slope and onto the flat roof, where the hive towered. As she approached, the fizzing murmur in her brain grew louder, though it seemed, on the outside, as if the hive itself lay silent. She gently touched the weatherworn pine of its roof, sank down and pressed her sore palms to the cool wood of its side. She leaned her cheek upon the hive and closed her aching eyes. 

At first just a few bees emerged, investigating Amanda’s slumped form in the moonlight. They landed softly upon her hair and back, pattering along her cotton t-shirt and onto the bare skin of her arms. Groggily, Amanda lay down on the grassy pitch and felt herself lulled by the balmy night air, sinking into the reassuring solidity beneath her.

More bees followed in a silent stream. Methodical, synchronised, they swarmed her prone body gently, folding themselves over her like a shroud. More came: hundreds, thousands. Amanda didn’t move. Dimly, she felt a tingling warmth suffuse her; a deep, comforting heat like a heavy electric blanket. Soon she was entirely covered by the cloud of bees. They gathered, layer upon layer, until they had built up an impenetrable mound around her.

The mound started to rise.

Thousands of bees moved as one, up into the air and, carefully, back into the hive. As they siphoned themselves through the narrow slit, nothing remained behind on the ground. Soon the hive returned to stillness, and the house on the hill lay quiet once more in the moonlight.

* * *

Will woke the next morning and, noticing the time, felt an immediate surge of irritation that Amanda had not yet brought him his coffee. She’d probably spent all night sulking in the bathroom, he thought. Her behaviour was really unacceptable. At least it was the weekend and he didn’t have to worry about what she was getting up to with him out of the house.

He called for her. When she didn’t answer, he threw back the covers and marched throughout the house, banging doors. She wasn’t in the bathroom, though, nor the kitchen. The bed in the guest room was, as always, untouched.

Grumbling, he collected the weekend papers from the front door and got his own coffee. He found bread for the toaster but failed to locate anything to put on it.

“Where the hell is she,” he muttered to himself, going to the back door and opening it.

“Amanda!” he called out over the freshly mown lawn. Birds startled from the nearby trees, flapping off into the wide open air above the valley. “Amanda!” He surveyed the garden and the hillside beyond. A shot of anger iced to his core; she wouldn’t dare… Quickly he strode to the front of the house and peered through the window. But no, his car was still there in the driveway.

White rage surged over his brain, obliterating all else. He’d had it; she was really asking for it now. He stormed back into the kitchen and through the patio doors. She must be outside with those wretched bees.

“Amanda!” he screamed, rounding the end of the flat roof and approaching the hive. He stopped short.

Amanda was nowhere to be seen, but the hive was overflowing. Amber honey poured forth like lava in a thick stream on all sides, pooling upon the grass. “Jesus,” Will muttered, momentarily forgetting his fury. The honey glistened in the sunlight, a lake of deep, rich gold. Will stepped toward it and bent down to touch the shimmering surface. His fingertips drew a long, sticky strand that wavered, unbroken, like a dewy umbilical cord. “Christ,” he grunted.

Amanda had obviously neglected to harvest. Will wasn’t going to let this ambrosial bumper crop go to waste. He charged back to the house and pulled on Amanda’s beekeeping suit, jamming his trousers into wellington boots and scooping up buckets and tools. The veiled hat was irritatingly awkward and didn’t fit properly, but Will stuck it on anyway and marched back outside.

He began scraping up the pools of honey from the roof, filling one bucket and then a second around the base of the hive. A few bees came out, hovering around his helmet. He ignored them and carried on scooping cupfuls of syrupy nectar into the bucket.

He could hear the buzzing now. He adjusted his thick leather gloves and heaved at the roof of the hive, lifting it off and setting it down to the side. Instantly the buzzing grew loud, the noise of the hive released. Will peered down into the highest box, the row of frames swimming in a glut of honey. He picked up a steel honeycomb tool and grasped the first frame, tugging to lift it free.

A sharp jab caused him to drop the frame and slap at the back of his neck. “Dammit,” he swore, hopping away and tugging at the fabric behind him. As he flailed, a stream of bees launched from the hive and encircled him, streaming through the unsecured opening at the base of his helmet. Another squadron found its way to his boots and up beneath an untucked edge of trouser leg. As the stinging began, Will’s yelps turned into screams.

A third battalion emerged from the hive.

The final bees rose slowly, en masse, and advanced to hover above Will’s head. The beekeeping suit was in disarray; Will’s frenzied thrashing had twisted the helmet around so that his vision was mostly obscured, the veil bunched and torn. He fell to the ground, writhing, as red-hot poker jabs stabbed along the length of his body amid an unbearable chainsaw roar. The bees swarmed beneath the folds of Will’s clothing, attacking the soft flesh of his groin. 

His body was alight from end to end. The cacophony of enraged buzzing, though, suddenly stopped. Through his delirium Will registered the silence and the way the stinging had ceased, though the bees still moved over every inch of his body. Half-paralysed and rigid with agony, Will squinted through soaked eyes at the sliver of still-visible light, into the blur of green and blue beyond.

Around the edge of this sliver emerged the tips of two long, slender antennae, followed by the dome of an elegant amber head. The rest of her enormous, curvaceous body followed, pale wings folded neatly back, as she crept forward over the torn edge of the veil and into the cavern of the helmet. She came to rest squarely before Will’s bulging face, contemplating him with two bright, ruby-red eyes.

Despite the urge to scream, Will clamped shut his quivering mouth. He tried to roll onto his side, to raise his hands to his face, but his arms felt like flaming logs. When he shifted, a barrage of stings fired down his leg and the giant queen before him issued a sharp, angry buzz. He swallowed the urge to scream and whimpered instead.

The queen climbed the veil until she drew level with Will’s watering, bloodshot eyes. Will saw clearly, then, the long, sharp needle behind her. Slowly, the queen began to turn around.

Once again, Will scrabbled uselessly to rid himself of the helmet and opened his mouth to scream. But the queen was already in position. Aiming the silver shaft of her stinger, she drove it home, then again, and then again, until she had obtained her satisfaction.

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