Short Fiction by Judy Darley
You’re standing in the living room with your face against the wall.
“Listen,” you say, beckoning me closer. “I think there are bees in the plasterwork.” I watch your eyebrows pinch together in concentration over your smile. “I can hear them chewing to make their nests, and humming to each other.”
“Do bees even build nests that way?” I ask, straightening the magazines on the coffee table needlessly. “I thought that was what honey was for.”
“Honey’s for feeding their babies.”
“Oh. Ok, what about the wax?”
You ignore my question and move your whole body closer to the wall, as though embracing the sound.
“Come and listen. It’s amazing!” You extend an arm and I allow you to draw me in so that all I see for a moment is wallpaper, an edge of cornicing, and the pale blur of your throat. “Can you hear that?”
I listen hard and think I do hear something, though it might be the rumble of a passing truck, or the wind slipping between sheets of double glazing where the seal has begun to fail.
I wriggle free.
“When the pandemic’s over, we might need to get someone in to check it out,” I say, meaning, to chuck them out, if they’re even really there.
You wince at the mention of the p word. I pretend not to notice and start flicking through a magazine as though there’s nothing more enticing than photos of cosmetics that were beyond our reach when they were still in shops.
Later, I go upstairs and find you in the spare room, peering behind the sunny lemon-printed curtains.
“Come and see,” you whisper.
“What is it?” I ask, my breath turning shallow.
“A bat! A common pipistrelle, or perhaps a soprano pipistrelle.”
“Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, am I sure? It’s clinging on for dear life!”
“How did it get in?”
You shrug. “Maybe I left the window ajar. It has the sweetest little nose.”
I look at you carefully, searching for tell-tale tremors in your jawline or the flicker of your eyes. You appear calm, but my own chest tightens. I thread a hand through your curls. “Shouldn’t we let it out?”
You shake your head, shifting my hand with your movement. “I think we should leave it be at least until nightfall.”
“Right, sounds sensible,” I say. “And how are the bees?”
“Buzzing.” You beam and step back from me, away from the curtains. “Like this.” You make a low droning noise. I try to soften my expression into something that could be mistaken for pleasure, or at least interest.
“Have you had lunch?” I ask. “I could make you a sandwich.”
You frown. “I’m not a child. I can feed myself when I get hungry.”
“No, I’m not…” I begin, then swallow my words. I touch my palm to your cheek and twitch my lips apologetically. “I just know how absorbed you get.”
“I’m not a child,” you repeat, pushing past me.
The lemon-print fabric wafts in the breeze eking through miniscule gaps around the window. My fingers clench and straighten at my side, but I leave the room without peeking behind the curtain.
When I wake the following morning, the pillow beside me is empty. I open every door in the house one by one and call your name, softly so the neighbours don’t hear.
We’re not supposed to go out, I want to remind you. We’re supposed to stay inside, just the two of us.
Eventually you flurry in through the back door. You look ruffled but happy, your unbrushed hair like cumulus clouds.
“I shouted for you!”
“Sorry, I was at the bottom the garden.” Your grin flashes as though you can’t contain it. “A fox is nesting under the fir tree. I think it might have cubs in there. I’m going to put some tuna out for it.”
“This isn’t the time to be giving away food.”
You blink at me. “We’re not going to starve because of a tin of tuna.”
“I wasn’t saying that.” My cheeks are burning. “We’re supposed to avoid going to the supermarket unnecessarily.”
“We’re fully stocked up,” you say, “Our cupboards are full. Why are you worried?”
“I’m not!” I lie.
A while after midday, you come into the kitchen as I’m making a sandwich. Somehow your presence makes me clumsy— the tomato I’m attempting to slice bursts like an overripe internal organ. I catch my breath; mouth the juice from my forefinger. Your gaze burrows into my spine.
“I found out what it’s called.” The suddenness of your voice causes me to jump. “Remember that beetle I said looked like a stripy drop of mercury? I took a photo to show you. Remember?”
I nod, though I have no idea what you’re talking about. “Sure. What’s it called, Jeff? Or Mike?”
“Ha ha.” You don’t sound at all amused. “It’s a rosemary leaf beetle. They’ve only been seen in the UK since, like, the ’90s.”
“Cool.” I don’t know what to say, so I gesture to my sandwich. “Want half?”
You nod, and I feel relieved, like I’ve passed some test. I cut it into triangles and watch you nibble at one corner. Crumbs drop between us like pollen. Like rain.