It was after the war had ended. A time of black cars with mechanical indicators like tiny orange wings that popped out, or sometimes failed to, at the turn of a corner; a time of belisha-beacons and zebra crossings and war memorials with the names of my great uncles inscribed on them. And a time for visiting the graveyard.
I went there often with Nan, not only to visit the slaughtered uncles but to have a word with Sarah, her long-lost mother. Up against the church wall there was a little shed. It contained little trowels and forks, and a collection of vases and jam-jars in case you were in need. Next to it was a standpipe, ending in a tap, for watering.
One afternoon, we were surprised at the tap by the vicar. His name was the Reverend Silas something and he had a very large pointy nose. A black gown flapped out behind him like wings, which somehow went with the nose. He came out of nowhere and swept by the pair of us as if we were invisible. I flattened myself against the flint wall. Nan all but curtsied.
They say that a very few individuals are obnoxious to bees. It might be their bodily odour, an alcohol taint on their breath, their leather or wool clothing, their clumsiness, the loudness of their approach, their fear, their aggression, their anger. Whatever it is, the bees smell it and take umbridge. Looking back it seems not at all surprising that the Reverend Silas should have been one of these.
All of my stories came from Nan, and in due course she told me the story of Reverend Silas and the bees.
Well, as you know my dear, when a beekeeper dies it is most important to invite the bees to his funeral. I didn’t know, but I loved that she thus connected me to the rural past I longed for but hadn’t had. There should be cakes and wine.
For the bees? Do they eat and drink them?
It’s the gesture that counts, my dear. They require our respect.
How do they know when their beekeeper has died?
Someone will go and tell them.
Do they speak English?
They speak another language.
But then – how? I was at the stage of asking too many questions.
Anyway, old Silas – she wasn’t scared to call him that now he was no longer with us – was asked by the daughter to invite the bees to the funeral, at the same time as he made the announcement. She even gave him the words he ought to say. It made him hopping mad – as if people didn’t laugh at him enough already, what with his nose. And he happened to have been stung by bees a lot of times in the past. He was one of those ones – you know.
I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to interrupt again.
So the bees were not invited. The daughter went up to the hives and tried to explain. She told them how her father loved them, and it was just the vicar being the vicar, like. Begged them not to take offence.
But they did?
Well, it’s a bit of a coincidence otherwise.
So they had the funeral and his nearest and dearest turned up along with half the village, all in their Sunday Best. So many hats – like a flower-patch it was. That in itself was a worry.
You were there?
Of course I was. As I said, half the village –
All seemed to go well, in spite of the nervous glances. There was a few bees inside the church, like – perched on ledges, crawling about in the corners – but not more than you might expect on a summer’s day; got in through the holes in the stained-glass, probably. During the war, of course –
Nan, what happened to the vicar?
Well as I say there was a bit of buzzing. Not angry-sounding, like; just talking amongst theirselves, as you might say. The church service finished and out we all traipsed into the graveyard, following the coffin. The grave was already dug and the gravedigger was leaning on his spade, ready.
They lowered it in, all solemn, and the vicar started on with his usual stuff, Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes, droning through that pointy nose, and then the bees came, like, trillions of them. A lot, anyway, in a swarm.
Everybody scattered, hats and all. Gravedigger leapt for the hedge. Only the Reverend Silas didn’t move. Maybe he was petrified with fear, or too proud to. He stood his ground, and the bees settled on every single part of him. He was a swarm in himself, my dear. They stung him and stung him and stung him. Swelled up like a balloon, he did.
Did he pop?
No, he didn’t exactly pop, he just fell down dead. And serves him jolly well right, my dear; you must always invite the bees.