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Authors: Fiona Shaw

Tell it to the Bees

BOOK: Tell it to the Bees
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Praise for Fiona Shaw

Tell it to the Bees

‘A memorable evocation of an era when homosexuality was a crime and abortion illegal'
TLS

‘Emotionally charged and compelling,
Tell it to the Bees
draws you into a rich world of secrets and passion, a child's world, and an adult's world. Fiona Shaw creates brilliant characters who stay with you long after the book is finished' Jackie Kay

The Picture She Took

‘The kind of sophisticated historical romance that matches anything by Sebastian Faulks or Penelope Fitzgerald'
Independent

‘Shaw takes the familiar and bends it ever so slightly out of shape… her brittle, spindly prose suits the nerves and tics of the protagonists well and builds the tension just so. The result is absorbing and moving in equal measure'
Time Out

‘Part historical romance, part adventure story, part nature poem and part meditation on technology in a woman's hands. … The scene is superbly imagined'
Guardian

‘Brilliant … a gripping plot and cool, clear prose makes this unputdownable'
Sainsbury's Magazine

The Sweetest Thing

‘Historical, literary fiction at its very best'
Observer

‘Fiona Shaw's research is meticulous, the period detail lovingly described; Shaw is a writer of considerable talent, and there are some passages of very fine writing'
Independent

‘Captures all the mouth-watering sweetness of desire, as well as the dusty grit it leaves on the lips' Emma Donoghue

‘Richly researched, warmly characterized and admirably humane'
Daily Mail

Tell it to the Bees

Fiona Shaw

First published in May 2009

by Tindal Street Press Ltd

217 The Custard Factory, Gibb Street,

Birmingham,
B9 4AA

www.tindalstreet.co.uk

This edition first published in April 2010

Copyright © Fiona Shaw 2009

The moral right of Fiona Shaw to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without either prior permission in writing from the publisher or a licence, permitting restricted copying.

In the United Kingdom such licences are issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London
W1P OLP

All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental

A CIP catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN
: 978 0 955647 66 6

Typeset by Country Setting, Kingsdown, Kent

Printed and bound in Great Britain by LPPS Ltd, Wellingborough, Northants

To Karen, for all

Tell it to the Bees

The town was so small, just a dent in the landscape. Charlie could have held it in his fist. He drove carefully on this side of the road, down from the hills, down from the sky, towards the puddle of trees and buildings, the green and the grey that had made his home.

He was taller of course, at least two foot taller. But the town was smaller by leagues. By acres and oceans. This he had not been expecting.

He picked the calico bag off the back seat and slung it over his shoulder. He put money in the meter and locked the car. There was something he had got to do, but not at once. First he needed to walk.

So he walked through the town, from remembered place to remembered place. His street and his house. The blue bridge, which was red now. The towpath where there was still broken glass, still dirt and tired weeds, and across the river, the factory. He stood and stared across the brown water like he used to do twenty years ago, watching for his mother, but it was too early for the hooter and the women coming out in their crowds, and the factory only purred to itself.

He walked round the park, tagging the railings as he'd done as a boy, then rubbing the dry dirt from his fingers like salt. He looked in at the ornamental beds where the same flowers grew in lozenges of purple and yellow and red.

Beyond the park, up on the hill, was the doctor's house. When he was a boy it was miles away. It was much closer now. He was there in ten minutes. But there were gates at the end of the drive and he couldn't see in. So he walked on up, alongside the garden wall, and high above were the branches of the beech tree, fresh with the year's new green. He stopped and put a hand to the wall.

‘You're putting it off,' he told himself. ‘Go now.'

It took longer to walk back again. His feet dragged and the calico bag banged awkwardly. He'd felt quite calm so far, but now his mouth was dry.

‘It's nothing,' he told himself. ‘There's nothing to lose.'

The waste ground at the top of the street had gone. He'd played there as a boy, or watched other boys play, more often. Once he'd seen a cat run howling, tin cans tied to its tail. Now, where there had been wild trees and dead armchairs, there were maisonettes in brown brick.

Charlie walked on down the street and everything went quiet. His heart beat hard. He stopped at a door. It was still green; the paint scuffed on the weatherboard. Though his pulse echoed in his ears, he felt nothing. Perhaps the house was empty. There was no sign of life in the windows.

‘Knock then, Charlie,' he said, and he took his hands from his pockets.

Perhaps it was only a minute he stood there, perhaps it was longer but finally he knocked. Nothing happened.

‘Just go,' he told himself. ‘There's nothing left here.'

He waited a moment longer.

‘Come on,' he said. The meter would be running out and he had a long drive ahead. ‘It doesn't matter.'

But as he turned to go, there was a sound from inside, a door banging. Then footsteps, dragging and slow, and somebody was turning a key in the lock.

‘Dead trouble now, Charlie,' he said.

Slowly the door opened. The air from inside smelled of dust and cabbage. The old man smelled of something else. He wore slippers on his feet and his trousers were hitched high above his belly. He looked at Charlie.

‘What do you want?' he said at last.

1

You came upon the pond quite suddenly, if you didn't know it was there. It lay in a dip of grass, like a sixpence in the palm of the hand. A ring of water that carried the sky in its eye.

This day, at this time, it was busy. Ducks cruised in the green water, courted by children and their bags of stale bread. Pigeons crowded at the children's feet, hammering their heads for crumbs, their beaks worrying, disrespectful. Squatted at the pond's lip, several girls fished with nets in the shallows, and tricycles and scooters rode the gentle curve with all the speed their small riders could muster. Three or four boys sailed their boats.

As always, there were people who took the pond in their stride, cresting the hill without that pause of pleasure. They had their sights set somewhere else and the park was the fastest route to get there. At this hour, which was between three and four o'clock in the afternoon, there were only occasional figures like this, whose working costumes rested heavy and conspicuous on their shoulders as they passed by. They carried briefcases, or important bags, and wore suits and shiny shoes and serious expressions. The women among them often found the wind tricky and some blushed as their skirts played about, or wished for a moment for the harsh limits of their old Utility clothes, which the wind couldn't toy with. So the women would walk
even faster than the men to be gone and away, safely back indoors again.

Sometimes something gave one of these brisk people pause. A broken heel, or a friend. Very occasionally one of them would stop to sit on a bench for a minute. Today a woman with a Gladstone bag and careful shoes checked her stride, though she didn't appear to have broken a heel, turned an ankle, or to know anyone. Sitting on the bench edge, bag beside her, she nodded politely to the old men with their talk of dirty carburettors, and they nodded in return. One of them thought to greet her by name and then thought better of it, finding her head already turned away.

The woman glanced about her, checked her watch and then, coming to some decision with herself, she put the bag on the ground, leaned back into the municipal curve of wood and looked at the pond.

The breeze was whippy and the boats were struggling, even with their sails trimmed right back. The woman watched. There was one especially that caught her eye. It had a white sail with the number 431 and a blue fish leaping, and it was flirting with disaster, heeled so far over that capsize seemed the only course. She looked across at the boys on the far side. She could see at once which one's boat this was.

While the others ran and danced this way and that, chipping and jeering into the wind, their voices high and slight, willing their boats across, one boy stood quite still, his body keen and tight, with eyes only for the blue fish. He must be about ten years old, one of those boys so skinny, all elbow and knee in flannel shorts and short-sleeved shirt, that you're surprised when they move at their grace.

But it was his boat that came in first, scudding sharp and fast into the pond edge and he kneeled and leaned
forward, arms wide in a cradle, lifting it clear in a single fluid movement, so that it seemed for a moment as though boy and boat were part of the same force.

Once he had it safe, the boy's concentration was broken, and he flaunted his victory in a whooping dance. Absently, the woman checked her watch again. There was time yet. For these last minutes, the boat and boy had filled the woman's sight. When she stood up, all else would muscle in and she'd be back on the path, back in her brisk walk. She glanced around. The sun had gone off the pond and children were being called to put on sweaters and cardigans. The old men stashed their pipes and nodded their leave. She searched for her boat boy and found him again, slouching slowly up the hill not so very far from her bench, boat beneath one arm.

On the hill a young woman stood waiting. She held a book in her hand, a finger still between the pages. His mother, she must be – the same tousled hair, the same way of standing, body alert. Only where he had waited for his boat, she waited for her boy.

She was smiling and he came up to her, like a foal to the mare, bucking a little as if to show his own separate spirit, but eager to be close. The mother took the boat from his unwilling arms and placed it on the grass, untied the sweater from the boy's middle and gathered it up, easing it down over his reluctant head before he ducked away, pulling his arms through the sleeves, running now towards the trees behind.

The woman with the bag watched them. It had been the boy who had caught her eye, and now it was his mother. She looked the sort who worked in the electrical factory. She probably wore her working clothes beneath her coat. The woman would bet on it. And she didn't know her own beauty. That was there in the offhand way she had with herself.

BOOK: Tell it to the Bees
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