The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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Short Story Competition 2020

Caroline Slater

3rd Prize – Caroline Slater with:

Where the Bee Swarms

She waits for the jerk but they are already in motion. The bus is full: they are lucky to have found a seat. She reaches out to hold Oscar’s hand. He amber-coloured eyes seem to be fixed somewhere towards infinity. She gives his unresponsive fingers a squeeze. This is the best way. That is what they have told her.

Kay was woken as the grey light of dawn filtered through the blinds. The strands of a dream tugged her back. Eyes closed, she tried to stay with it: the sugary smell of honey, a billion bees dancing around her. But the day claimed her. A sharp stab of panic as she remembered. It was today. She opened her eyes to the cramped room, only just large enough for the bed and a pine chair piled high with their discarded clothes. Oscar was still asleep. She watched the regular rise and fall of his chest and felt her panic subside as her breath slowed to match his.

She slipped from the bed, edged along the wall and into the bathroom. The shower, barely warm, a grudging trickle. She had only just rubbed the soap from her hair when the water failed altogether. More new restrictions. Oscar opened his eyes as she was drying herself. It was strange, the effect the tablets had had. Mute and unfocused, his dark brown eyes now glowed a tawny amber colour. It must be the minerals. Kay reached for a shirt from the narrow shelf above the bed as his fingers trembled vaguely on top of the patchwork quilt.

The bus passes through a green light. There are no cars on the road, just bicycles. As the bus turns sharply, the force pulls Oscar off balance and he sinks against the window. A look of distress flickers briefly in his eyes. She draws him back towards her, feeling ashamed. Ashamed of feeling ashamed. She should have made him wear a hat. The other passengers don’t appear to notice. Perhaps they are just being polite, or maybe nobody recognises him anymore. The irony is not lost on Kay. Oscar is about to becoming a victim of his own rhetoric.

They met forty years ago at the beginning of the revolution. At the university, he had preached from the platform, so certain, so sure of the rightness of his cause. His fiery speeches fuelled a blaze. Sheer energy. So many of them rose up at his command. The tide carried her along, his zeal reflected in the shine of her eyes. Love possessed them. Love for humankind, love for one another, love for the cause. Together, they were going to save the planet.

She had to help him into his clothes. His strange amber-coloured eyes stayed fixed on her face as she pushed an arm into one sleeve then the other. Did he want breakfast? She couldn’t tell from his face. They said a normal routine was best. He perched on a stool in their small kitchenette. She poured flakes of what looked like cardboard into his bowl. Moistened with water from the ration, he chewed the tasteless grey mush in silence, a spoonful at a time.

Kay’s mobile rang just minutes before they were due to leave. She pressed the green button, ready to make excuses, but before she could speak, a familiar voice blossomed in her ear.

“Ma?” the voice said. “It’s me, Mike. Thought I’d call to wish you luck. Or whatever.”

“So good of you,” Kay said, feeling a tightness in her throat. “It’s so hard.”

“Got to be done,” Mike said.

“I know that, of course I do. But....” Kay’s voice cracked. “It’s hard.”

“Courage, Ma,” Mike said, a slight edge in his voice. “If you can’t set an example, then who?”

“I know.”

“I’ll come and see you, maybe later.”

Kay put her phone back in her pocket. She tried to remember the last time they’d seen Mike. An impulse made her turn to Oscar, searching his face for cues, but she found only blankness. She had managed to keep it together until then, but suddenly she felt a rush of affection, a sense of impending loss. She reached out and ran her fingers across the rough growth on Oscar’s cheek, smoothed his thin grey hair behind his ear. She helped him on with his coat and they walked together towards the bus-stop.

The bus glides to a halt. They alight in a shadowy street with office buildings rising tall on both sides, capped with yellow-tinged grey clouds. There is a parade of shops, only a few of which appear to be open. Kay was here only a week ago for the tablets and the briefing. But some quality of the air has changed in that time. Hope turned to sulphur. From the surly sky, a light smattering of chocolate-coloured dust settles on their shoulders.

There had been a time when streets were full of colour: shops windows full of things that nobody needed but everyone craved. One winter, Kay’s mother had taken her to sit on the knee of a man dressed in red. The little horse with the soft pink tail stayed on her windowsill until she left for university. It must have gone with all her other things. Oscar said they must set an example: possessions equated theft under the new order. But he had allowed her the patchwork quilt – at least it had a practical purpose. In their narrow bed, she would trace her fingers across the small pieces of fabric stitched neatly together. Patches cut from old dresses, the bright colours fading over the years.

They had been little more than children, but they had grown up fast. He had been the voice of dissent but the revolution propelled Oscar into government. What had started out as protest ended in a new republic.

They had promised change. But the world was changing faster than any of them could comprehend. Though the revolutionaries had known that things were bad, they had no idea just how bad. They thought they could fix it. While they tackled the bigger issues – pollution, climate change, overpopulation – all the time, another threat was unfolding in the earth beneath their feet, in the air around them. ‘Insect Armageddon’ was what the papers called it. Without insects, they said, there cannot be life.

Kay leads Oscar to a tall building with mirrored windows. The glass doors open with a hiss. The man behind the desk directs them to a waiting area where she finds two seats. As they sit, amber eyes stare blankly from all around. She looks away and checks the time. She hopes this won’t take long, then feels guilty for thinking so. She rubs her palms together and looks critically at her stiff wrinkled fingers. It is hard; the younger ones have so much more energy. But she has the experience, they appreciate that. Oscar’s name is being called and several of the older people in the room stare. Kay tries to ignore them.

Hard to believe there could ever have been enough bees. The Biological Preservation Facility has the last few live specimens on display. Kay remembers their tour. Could these tiny, creeping things have ever swarmed in enough numbers to pollinate the entirety of the flora? Kay liked the exhibit where they pumped out sweet scents they called ‘honey’ and ‘beeswax’. Not the real thing, of course, but it gave her hope. She found herself dreaming about bees, imagined herself as one of a swarm. Rumour has it that China are programming tiny flying drones. They’re to be manufactured in their millions. But there are always rumours. Nothing changes; things only get harder.

A white coat is waiting at the door of room thirty-seven. He checks something on his clipboard and escorts them inside. He hands Kay a pen and points to where she should sign. And then it is done. Afterwards, she remembers the look in Oscar’s amber eyes. Fleetingly, she could see a glimpse of the real Oscar: the intelligence, the passion. Blink, then gone. The white coat takes Oscar through another door for the harvesting. Alone, Kay stands quietly for a second and looks around at the four white walls. They are blank.

Revolution was simple compared to the complexity of governing. Swept to power in an outpouring of fervour, the Committee of Public Security were faced with a hundred decisions. At its head, Oscar struggled with new responsibilities. They had overthrown an autocratic government – called them complacent dictators. But the committee needed to be yet more dictatorial to force through the ‘will of the people’. The planet was running out of resources, they argued. No time for sentiment: there were mouths to feed. Recycling and reuse were no longer nice-to-have, they were an imperative. Then Oscar argued against the weak, the ill, the elderly. Priority must be given to the net contributors to society. State pensions and disability allowances were phased out. And then the endings began.

Out in the corridor, Kay feels light-headed. She is surprised to find Mike there, waiting for her. He takes her arm, leads her back to the waiting room. They sit for a while. He hands her a cup of water and a small pill.

“Take this, Ma,” he said. “It’ll help you feel better. You did well. Dad would have been proud.”

Kay takes the pill and gradually her breathing calms, her dizziness dissipates. She feels a sense of calm detachment.

“I need to get to work,” she stands and puts her arms out to Mike. “I’m so grateful you came.”

“Got to look after you,” he says turning awkwardly to avoid the hug. “I’ll come and stay for a few days. Make sure you are OK.”

Kay’s eyes glisten. “I would like that,” she says.

When she leaves the building, the sky looks threatening above. The bus looms out of a fine mist and stops at her raised hand. She takes a window seat. Her eyes flicker with the movement in the streets but her thoughts are a jumble. The apartment will feel so empty without Oscar. But Mike will be coming to stay. He’s been a rock. Perhaps she can dig out that recipe for carrot cake. It used to be his favourite. She thinks the Vee-Gee might have some carrots; it’s on her way home. She can call in after work.

It is a ten-minute walk from the bus stop. She breaks into a jog: can’t afford to be late. The others have already changed. Quickly, Kay takes off her damp coat and puts it in her locker. She pulls on a protective suit and picks up her box. She follows the others through the door into polytunnel BRSC-1a and takes up her position. At the supervisor’s direction, Kay steps forward with her team. She selects a paintbrush from her box and bends to the task. Today, the plants are low to the ground, the flowers seem to bend away from her. After just a few minutes, she feels exhausted. Five hours to the end of the shift, she must keep going. Around her, there are hundreds, bending and dabbing, bending and dabbing.

Kay’s shift ends and she struggles to her feet. She sees that she hasn’t made as much progress as the others. They’ll understand – it has been a difficult day for her. She will do better tomorrow. Kay walks through the busy streets towards the apartment. The streetlights are glowing and a thin mizzle is falling, creating haloes. She pulls her coat round her and shivers slightly. The day that she had been dreading is nearly over. And Mike’s visit fills her with anticipation. At the Vee-Gee, she sees what she needs through the window. As she pushes open the door, the shop’s lights catch in her eyes. And in their glow her eyes take on the hint of a tawny amber colour.

About the Author

Caroline Slater is in the final stages of a two-year Undergraduate Diploma course in Creative Writing with the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education where she has received great tuition from published authors and poets and been fortunate to share her journey with a group of talented writers. In the two years of the course, she has studied life writing, poetry, drama, short fiction and long fiction and has thrown herself with enthusiasm into all the writing assignments.

The inspiration for this story was from watching news reports about Extinction Rebellion protestors in London. Caroline thought, ‘what if this type of protest movement actually came to power?’ One of Caroline’s favourite poets is Carol Ann Duffy, who published a collection ‘The Bees’ more than ten years ago and has actively encouraged other poets to explore eco-related themes. Her poem ‘The Human Bee’ gave Caroline the idea for the protagonist, Kay, one of ‘hundreds’ who have to pollinate flowers manually as the bee population declines.

Caroline has been writing short stories for a Creative Writing group for several years and has started writing a full-length crime fiction novel.


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