The Beekeeper of Bromley

“Poor creatures,” he sighed, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. “I do wish we could do something for them, Penelope.”

Penelope grunted. Charles cast a glance over his shoulder and saw she was on her usual perch, vulture-beak stuffed into a book. It really did spoil the aesthetics of the library shelves when books were removed.

He turned back to the window. Rain was spattering the outside of the glass, droplets running across his view of south London. Why the government had seen fit to build all those tenement blocks in view of his house he could not fathom, but the Prime Minister would certainly be hearing about it.

He recovered his train of thought. “But Penny, the poor little Bees live like animals. There must be something we can do.”

“Don’t call me Penny,” she said.

“I don’t know, perhaps we could bring a few here—”

“Ha!” she squawked. “Haha! Charles, you do have the most singular ideas. Perhaps you could start an apiary.”

“Now, Penny, they may live like animals but calling them apes is a bit strong.”

She squawked again. He saw her shake her head and turn back to her book.

Charles returned to his window-gazing, worrying his bow tie now between thumb and forefinger. Here I am trying to make a little difference to those less fortune, and all she can do is sit there and make that carrion-bird laugh of hers.

His eyes alighted on the front garden, where the sickly grass fought for sunlight against strangling weeds. A plastic bag had blown through the iron gates and attached itself like a wind sock to the spines of a solitary rose bush. There were no roses.

“It is such a shame that the garden never blooms,” he said.

“Yes, Charles, why is that?” she said. “It’s getting plenty of water, I don’t see what the plants have to complain about.”

“Not enough Bees,” he said quietly. “Not enough Bees.”

* * *

Dear reader, you must be confused. I am sorry, but in the interests of the narrative we started with a vignette, a little scene-setter. I will do my best to elucidate the situation for you.

We, the downtrodden, the sorry, soggy masses who have given everything so that our masters may remain supplied with gilt and caviar, we are the Billionaires — or the Bees, if you like your nomenclature concise. My mother told me that billionaires used to be rich men — mostly men, yes — highly regarded, pillars of society. Successful. I didn’t believe her at first, but I found a book in the library called How to make a million overnight, and it corroborated her story.

A million! Overnight! Dear reader, I can make a million by picking a coin off the street.

It was the financial crisis, you see, that did for us. Or crises, rather. The billionaires — the original ones, I mean, the men in the suits — they buggered it all up.

The first crisis wasn’t so bad, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. But then there was the Godawful Crash of 2016, and following hot on its heels was the Ghastly Banking Conflagration of 2018, and then, as if things weren’t messed up enough already, there was the Almightily Awful Inflation of 2021-2030, which really did for us.

It was around that time that the robots started taking over. Ha — no, not that kind of taking over; there was no termination or extermination, and the elephants are all fine. They took our jobs. Hell, I met a robot once that could debate philosophy — try getting your average Bee to discuss the meaning of life and you’ll see why we’re mostly unemployed.

Anyway, the short of it is a billion ain’t worth squat these days. We’re all billionaires, excepting the squillionaires who shut themselves in their mansions.

I’m getting the point, I swear.

I live — or perhaps it would be fairer to say, lived — in Bromley, in south London. The tower blocks of Bromley rise towards the sky like trees straining towards the light, and Bees scurry in the streets below, trying to get to where they need to be without being noticed.

The aforementioned squillionaires also live nearby. London has always been a patchwork of rich and poor, and the deep cut of social cleavages hasn’t changed that. Every now and then you’ll find a gated oasis in the desert of high-rise concrete, where heated swimming pools and even the odd patch of grass mark out the haves from the have-nots.

There is an exception though, a little known and less cared about space that is neither crumbling tenement nor gilded mansion.

It’s a library.

The library, or The Library, as I like to think of it, is housed in an old stone church with a caved-in roof. Over the years as the tower blocks grew around it the church somehow endured, to the point where some crazy town-planner actually built a stack of apartments in a sort of arch over the top, to avoid bulldozing the place. The church’s roof has never been repaired because the apartments that loom over it form a kind of concrete cave, shielding it from the elements.

Between the church’s chilly walls, a temple of faith has been transformed into a temple of knowledge. A few of the pews still remain, dark and polished by countless pairs of devout buttocks, but most have been replaced with bookshelves. The grey light of Outside is filtered into kaleidoscopic hues as it slants through the stained glass windows, and up the front the issues desk has been plonked irreverently where the altar used to sit.

The Library is rarely full, by which I mean always empty. Who reads paper books these days? You have to go through the — ugh — palaver, not to mention mortal peril, of lifting and turning those nasty blade-like pages, plus having to haul the great bookish bricks around with you the whole time. Even the Bees can read electronic books if the mood takes them, not that it often does.

Some of us, though, like paper.

Now, the Library has always been a sanctuary, but back in the days of yore, two years ago, it was also a training field for yours truly and Marcus and Daisy. We called ourselves, not without reason, the Intelligentsia.

Alone in our fortress but for Morgan, the swivel-eyed librarian, we read the paper books, storming through great piles of the things: books on politics and history and economics; novels about strange creatures and the struggles of underdogs and the Power of Love (blurgh). We pored over atlases and peered at dog-eared collections of photos showing what life was like Before It All Went Tits Up.

Even then we had some sense that we were preparing. We sharpened our weapons and practised our drills. We bowled ideas at one another and swatted them aside like cricketers. We play-fought like lion cubs, keeping our claws sheathed but knowing with an almost animal instinct that it would not be long before the games became serious and real.

* * *

I’m running out of paper, so let me tell you about the man and his bees.

I was sixteen when the Beekeeper began to walk the streets of Bromley. No one we met actually seemed to have seen him first-hand, but everyone knew a friend of a friend who definitely had. People told of a man in a purple velvet waistcoat; gold watch chain; top hat; cane. Some said the cane was a sword stick. Some said he had a wooden leg. Some said the ostrich feather thrust through the band of his hat had a razor-sharp quill that was dipped in a poison so virulent that the merest prick would make you shrivel up and your eyes pop out.

Probably not true, that last one. But all Marcus and Daisy and me knew for sure was that people were going missing.

Kids stopped turning up at school. Some that did turn up were missing a parent, or an aunt or an uncle. The youngest victim I heard of was a five-year-old girl. The oldest, a man in his fifties.

They said the Beekeeper lured you in with whatever you wanted most. For hungry kids, chocolate or sweets did the trick; for hungry adults, work. The lonely were promised company. The sick, health. The frightened, safety. Could you have resisted him, dear reader?

Rescuer, I heard people call him, wide-eyed like startled deer.

The stories went on for a number of months, and all the while fear and suspicion gripped us by the throat. Eventually new rumours began to circulate. People whispered that in a part of town flowers had started to bloom in the tenement block desert. For a while we dismissed the rumours as daft — who’s ever seen a flower in London? — but eventually the sheer weight of suggestion prodded us into action.

Marcus, Daisy and me organised an Expedition. We packed some lunch and set off down the dark paths that run between the tenements.

Sure enough, there were flowers. We had only walked for an hour or so when we found a small cluster of shoots that had pushed their heads through the tarmac. We quickly found more — and more. Colours erupted from the pavement. As we homed in on the source, creepers crawled over the ground and saplings raced each other upwards towards the light. The foliage reached waist height, then head height.

Pushing deeper, we saw that the prodigious growth centred on a mansion guarded by spiky gates and a high wall. The gates were wound around with green ropes of climbing ivy, and flowers overflowed across the tops of the walls in great pillowy tangles.

We crept to the gates and peered through. Marcus let out a little gasp.

The grounds had been manicured to within an inch of their lives, borders trimmed surgically and pale gravel paths laid in intricate geometric shapes between regimented rose beds. Trees stood to attention, marked out by the razor sharp edges of ankle-height box hedges. The lawn was the length of a soldier’s buzz-cut. There was not a stray leaf, not a dropped blossom or errant twig.

And everywhere, everywhere, Bees bent their backs, snipping and trimming and smoothing and laying. An army of them. Hundreds.

Near where our faces peered through the railings we watched a sallow, gaunt man in his early thirties measuring the gaps between seedlings with a tape measure, making a slight clucking sound with his tongue as he worked.

Psst!” I said. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of there!”

He gave me a look of faint embarrassment and moved away, turning his back.

At that moment, Daisy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. “It’s him.

It was him. He moved among the Bees, cane and potentially lethal ostrich feather unmistakable even at this distance. He patted heads, handed sweets to the children, and everywhere he went faces turned to him with bovine expressions of wonder.

“What is wrong with them?” I muttered.

“We have to do something,” said Marcus.

I nodded. Turning away from the gate I examined our equipment: four peanut butter sandwiches, a flask of tea, a book entitled SAS Survival Guide, and a notebook, which I had labelled ‘CLUES’ in black marker pen.

“I’ve had an idea,” I said.

I tore a page from the notebook, wrote a few lines, and signed my name. “Sign it.”

Marcus and Daisy read what I had written then scrawled their names at the bottom. I folded the paper into an aeroplane, stood up and said:

“Oi!”

I hurled the plane, and ran.

As I turned I caught his gaze, and for a split second I glimpsed eyes that were as blue and cold and empty as those in the head of a doll.

 * * *
  
Two days passed before we heard the unhurried tap…tap…tap of a cane on flagstones and knew the Beekeeper of Bromley had arrived at the Library.

As he came down the aisle I put down my book, stood and advanced to meet him, flanked on either side by Marcus and Daisy.

When we reached the mid point of the nave, both sides stopped, about the same distance apart as fencers en garde. Sun pierced the stained glass windows on the left of my vision.

I crossed my arms, tilted my chin up a little.

We examined one another.

After a minute, he said to me: “What’s your name, girl?” His voice was soft, a little sandpapery, but not unpleasant.

I considered for a moment whether I should tell him the truth.

“Rousseau,” I concluded.

He smiled, causing his double chin to stretch sideways like limp dough. “What a pretty name.”

I nodded. Beside me I could feel Marcus and Daisy coiling like springs, like lions ready to leap, claws sharp and naked.

“So, what did you want to discuss?” he said.

So many things. “Your slavery,” I said. “It has to stop.”

“Slavery? I think you misunderstand, little girl. I’m helping those poor little Bees. You do know what would happen to them if I released them into the harsh, cruel world, don’t you?”

I set my jaw. At my back stood a host; a legion. Locke lent me his spear, Tom Paine his shield. Smith and Jefferson, De Tocqueville and, yes — Jean-Jacques Rousseau — closed ranks behind me. The Mills, James and John Stuart, stood together with Popper and De Beauvoir — an unlikely pair those last two, but deadly fighters. Chomsky and Sen polished their spectacles at the back.

Let me tell you, dear reader, as if you didn’t know already: no man could have stood against them.

* * *

It has been almost a year now since the metal door slammed shut behind me and my freedom ended.

As you can imagine, the commotion in the Library brought crowds running, and the people stared as we hurled words like javelins. In the end the police broke us up, arrested Daisy and Marcus and me on the grounds of Breaching the Peace. Which we had done, to be fair.

I have been in and out of the courts ever since, swapping my cell for a witness box and then swapping back again. I can count the number of times I have seen my family on the toes of my left foot. I haven’t seen Daisy and Marcus at all.

But, dear reader, even a barred window lets in sunlight and air. My gaoler changed recently, the stubbly old bugger replaced by a young man with circular spectacles. Yesterday he slipped me a book: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; and tucked inside were a few sheets of lined paper and a cracked biro.

You know, dear reader, I reckon a paper aeroplane could fly quite a long way, if thrown with enough force between the bars of that window.





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