top of page

Telling the Bees

Helen Morris

Grandpa forgot to tell the bees.  And that is why things went wrong.


I know why he forgot.  It’s because saying words about Billy really hurts the grownups. I mean really, really hurts. Worse than a Chinese burn from Gavin Knight.  Their mouths get twisted and squashed when they try to say words about Billy.  Like my wrung out flannel when I’ve washed my face.  All that comes out is crying.  From their eyes and their mouths.  I’ve watched them.  When they didn’t see me.  I stood behind the door.  When they thought I was outside playing.  And I watched them through the bit you have to keep your fingers away from.  Or they might get trapped. I saw a slice of them through that crack.


I saw mam crying like she was sicking up a hurt.  Her face was screwed tight, and red and white all at once.  And she made a noise out of her mouth like a tree falling.  And she looked like her face was stretched and melting.  Then I had to stop looking because I felt my heart was beating like I was afraid and running.  But I was only afraid and running in my head.


Sometimes I forget that Billy is dead.  I see a dandelion clock or a face in the bark of a tree.  A red bucket in the sandpit with its yellow handle.  And that fills all my head and there is no room in it to be sad about Billy.  It’s warm in my head then.  And yellow.  Like a sunflower.  But then I’ll turn and look for him.  To show him too.  Because we share things.  Which is good.  I am a big sister so I do these things.  Showing.  And sharing.  And I turn.  And I start to make his name with my mouth.  To call him.  I open my mouth.  But there is no name to say. There is no Billy to call.


He’s not there.  Because he’s dead.  And then I know he’ll never be there.  Because he’s dead and burned.  Then it’s like I step suddenly in a puddle that I didn’t see, but not with wellies on.  And I look down and see my own wet feet and I am a bit surprised and then there is no room for anything but Billy in my head.  And everything is grey and stiff in my head.  And I remember too that I am not a big sister anymore. And I am not sure what to do.  Because I don’t know what the rules are for being a once upon a time but no more big sister.  And no one has told me how I am supposed to be.


I was cross with him.  Because he wouldn’t play with me.  We have to stay in our room until it is seven o’ clock.  And then we can go in and wake mam.  Because it’s weekends and so there is no school.  I can tell the time really well.  And I am oldest so I am in charge of that.  Most times Billy wakes me up.  And I look at the clock on the window sill.  And then I tell him, “Not yet Billy.  Not seven yet.  Let’s play quiet.”  And we play with the toys.  And it’s light in the room and it smells of sleep and me and him.


But this day I woke up first.  Because Billy wasn’t waking up this time.  But I didn’t know that then.  So I woke up and he was still asleep.  Except he wasn’t.  So I lay in bed for a bit and watched the sun sliding through the curtains and making waves on the ceiling.  And I saw faces in the curtains.  Although it’s just patterns.  Not pictures with real faces on them like Grace’s curtains. But if you look long and quiet you can see faces.


And then I got up.  And I went to Billy’s bed.  And he was asleep.  Except he was dead.  But it looked like he was asleep.  His eyes were shut.  And he was lying there.  So I said “Billy, Billy”.  Not too loud because it was quarter to seven only.  Because the big hand was on the nine.  See.  But he didn’t move.  So I went “Billy, Billy” again.  And I poked him a bit.  But in a soft way because I didn’t want him waking up and yelling.  Because it was still a quarter to go.


But he didn’t move again.  So I got the box of plastic animals out from under the bed and I played with those. He’s chewed some of the legs on the cows.  So they don’t stand up any more.  And the big horse has no tail.  And the chicken is a bit squashed.  Also the chicken is as big as the sheep.  Which is wrong.  Because chickens are smaller than sheep.  And then it was seven o’ clock.  And I went in to tell mam that Billy wouldn’t play with me.  And she was lying like a mound of snow in the bed and she told me to find something we both wanted to play with.  But I said it wasn’t that.  It was he was asleep.  And she laughed and said maybe at last he would stop waking up too early.


But eventually she came in to wake him up.  And that was when everything stopped.  And I saw mam standing, not moving.  Holding Billy.  But Billy was like my big raggy doll.  Flopped back over her arms.  Not moving.  His wee arm was swinging a bit and I couldn’t stop looking at it.  And mam was screaming.  And I couldn’t move.


And then everything went really fast.  And everyone was shouting.  And running.  And there were hundreds of people.  Running in and out of the house.  But I didn’t know them.  Strangers.  Running.  In the house.  And I stood by the big curtains.  And I didn’t move.  And it was like I was invisible. 


And then everything stopped again.  And suddenly there was just me and Mrs Jane from next door.  She was in her nightie.  And she was breathing with her mouth open.  And she called me sweet pea.  And then she sat down very suddenly.  On the chair with the faded roses on it and the fraying bit that I picked last week and mam shouted at me.  And it was just us.  Her nightie had pink flowers on it with tiny green leaves.  And then she got up.  And she made me toast with honey.  Honey from the bees.  Grandpa’s bees.  So I came away from standing by the big curtains and I sat down to eat the honey on toast.  And the toast noise crunched in my head.  And I looked at her face and it was moving.  And she said things to me.  But it was like when I go under water at the swimming pool and I come up and I’ve water in my ears.  And I can see people’s mouths moving and I know they are talking.  But I can’t hear what they are saying.


And then mam and da were back but without Billy.  And da came and we sat on the sofa and he told me Billy was dead.  And he’d died in his sleep.  And I asked when Billy was coming back.  I knew he wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop the words like I’d dropped something and it was already falling and I couldn’t stop it.  Like dropping a spoon on the tiled floor.  Billy’s name clattered like a dropped spoon.  And da just put his hands over his face and his body shook like he was laughing.  But he wasn’t laughing.


Then grandpa and nan came and they put me in my frog pyjamas and said go to sleep.  And I was scared because it was sleep that had killed Billy.  And I felt my face stretch and I felt my mouth turn down and I knew I was going to scream.  And nan took me and made me drink water.  From the blue plastic cup with the muppets on it.  And I told her I was scared of dying of sleep like Billy.  And she told me it wasn’t sleep that made Billy dead.  It was a wrong heart that no one knew about.  A secret.  Hidden.  And that I shouldn’t be scared of sleep.  But even though she said that, I wouldn’t sleep in our room.  And I wondered if my heart had a secret like Billy’s.  Like we both had brown eyes.  And then it was morning.  And then there were days when I didn’t have to go to school.  And then I did go to school.  And my friends said they were sorry about Billy.  And Amy, Amy is my best friend, had made me a special bracelet.  And it was like something special had happened too.  And I quite liked that.  But I didn’t like it that the special thing was Billy dying.


Billy is five.  I’m seven.  He should have died after me because I’m older.  That is how it works.  Grandpa should die first.  Then nan.  Then da.  Then mam.  Then Uncles.  And aunts.  Then the older cousins.  Then me.  Then Billy.


But it went wrong.  His secret wrong heart made it go wrong.


Every morning I have honey on toast for breakfast.  Honey is gold coloured and it glitters and sparkles.  It moves like the thoughts in your own head. Gold is my favourite colour.  Billy’s favourite colour is gold too.


Grandpa and I have been looking after the bees together for a whole year now.  Bees are my favourite animal.  They are insects.  Grandpa told me,   the first day,  “bees know things”.  As he showed me the hive.  And I stood right on tip toe and he lifted the lid.  And I looked in and felt the warmth of the bees on my face.  And the noise in my ears.  Bees are never still.


He told me, that first day, then, that when someone in the family dies you have to tell the bees.  Otherwise the bees become restless. They need to be told.  You have to tell the bees.


Then another day came and I was sat in Mrs Jane next doors’ garden when I heard it.  It was a day when the grown ups had all gone together.  Mrs Jane was looking after me and I was having a drink of squash in a green plastic cup that was just green with no pictures and two ginger biscuits in her garden.  I heard it.  I felt it too.  It was in the whole of the air.  I almost felt like it was inside me.  It was a big buzzing.  And I knew it was the bees.  The bees were swarming.  This is the proper word for when they leave their hive and look for another.  Grandpa told me.  But we hadn’t told them about Billy and now they were restless.


They came across the garden like a giant’s fist from a story.  Bundling and rolling.  Like me and Billy when we play fight.  I stood up and, I didn’t mean to, but I tipped my squash over on the grass with my foot.


I knew the bees were going.  I wanted them to stay.  So I ran and then I stopped because you cannot chase bees when they are flying.  And I clenched my eyes tight and my fists tight and I shouted as loudly as I could.  “Bees.  Bees.  Billy is dead.  Billy is dead.  We didn’t tell you before.  We forgot.  Bees.  Please stay”.  And I was shouting and crying and I didn’t know if the bees would hear.  And then I stopped shouting because my voice stopped halfway.  And it stopped because I was crying.  I was crying because Billy was dead and we hadn’t told the bees.  And Mrs Jane from next door ran into the garden and hugged me.  And she was warm and smelled of cushions and I knew when my nose ran on her clothes it didn’t matter.  And I cried for ages and ages.  And then I ran out of crying. 


And when I stopped crying and I looked up I saw the bees had not gone.  They were hanging in Mrs Jane’s apple tree.  Like a big soft balloon.  But made of bees.  And I knew the bees had heard me.  And I knew they knew about Billy.  And then I cried a bit more.


And then grandpa came.  And he put on his special bee keepers clothes.  Which is a big hat with a fence over his face and long gloves and a big long coat.  And this is to stop the bees stinging him.  And the bees were still in Mrs Jane’s apple tree.  On a branch.  And the branch was bending because the bees were so heavy.  And they were buzzing louder than ever.  And Grandpa could reach them because the branch wasn’t high.  And he had a big cardboard box.  Like the one Billy made his robot head out of.  And he shook the bees and they dropped into the box.  I had to watch through Mrs Jane’s window.  So I was not stung.  And Grandpa said that if the Queen was in the box then all the other bees would go in the box too.  Because the bees follow the Queen.  And then Grandpa put them in a new hive.  And then he came in.


Then Grandpa asked me to come to the new hive with him.  And he took my hand.  And we stood by the new hive.  And Grandpa was breathing loudly.  And then he said something and I think it was like this “Bees.  I am sorry I didn’t tell you this before.  But Billy died last week and his funnel was today.  He was five years old.  And we have lost a grandson and a son and a brother.”


And then grandpa squeezed my hand really tight, like he wanted to feel it in his own hand forever.


And then we went back to our house. And there were tea cakes for tea.  And I waited for mam to tell Billy off for eating his by sucking it.  But there was no Billy.


Now I am eight.  But Billy is still five.  He won’t get any older than five.  I used to be two years older than him.  And now it’s three.  When I am ten and in double numbers, he will be half.


This morning I found a bee stuck inside the window.  It was crawling on the window sill.  I got a glass out of the cupboard and a bit of paper from the side in the kitchen.  I carefully put the glass over the bee.  And I slid the paper under.  Like a trap door.  And I carried the bee out. When I got outside I took the paper away and held the glass up.  Up to the wind.  Up to the sky.  The bee sat there for a bit.  “Go on bee”, I said.  “Go on”.  And then it did.  And I watched it fly off.


And then I looked down at the bit of paper and I saw it had a picture of a bee on it.  And the bit of paper was a card from someone saying sorry about Billy dying.  “We saved a bee Billy”, I said.  “We saved a bee”.  And I put the bee card about Billy in my pocket where it was safe. Safe like the bee.

 Helen Morris lives and works in Essex.  She has recently started writing stories.  'I thought I had time' appears in 'Solstice Shorts: sixteen short stories about time'.  'Telling the bees' was shortlisted for The 2014 Bedford Writing prize and appears in that anthology. She is on twitter @mortaltaste.

'This story is for Sarah, Nicky and Kerry, Niall and Josh'. 

bottom of page