by Nicola Belte
Illustration by Athina Saloniti
They’ll never replace you, my queen. I will not let them replace you. But I am lonely.
“We’ll have no sobbing for old B,” you told me, wincing as you propped yourself up and turned to look me straight in the eye. “Life goes on, Ed, and you’d better go on with it.” I didn’t reply. I didn’t trust myself to speak. I took your hand and shook my head, seeing the wilted petals on the disinfected floor, seeing the tape that held your IV in place, curled around and over the cruel point like an impossible hieroglyph; an Omega, an end.
She’s pretty, this one, in a skinny, tarty kind of way, all ribs and hips and perfume. Her cheeks are sunken, and her eyes are ringed in heavy black make-up. She keeps smoothing down her dyed black hair, trying to calm the curls that are springing up at the ends. There’s a pinch in the air at this time of year but she’s dressed like it’s a June afternoon, in a short denim skirt and a flimsy black top that’s open all the way down the back. She’s wearing high heels that she can barely walk in, and I run my finger across my dry lips, imagine her blisters soothed beneath my thumb, made better.
She totters around the bar like she’s looking for somebody, circling around the round wooden tables, craning her neck and checking her mobile phone and chewing her black-cherry lips, but I know that it’s all a show. She’s just looking for somebody to be looking at her.
“Would you like a drink?” I ask her, when she passes me for the third time. She stops and rolls her eyes. She thinks I’m predictable. She’s expected me to offer all along. She needed me to offer. But she’s already bored of me, of men like me. She’s bored of herself for wanting this.
She looks around to check that there isn’t a better option, but it’s quiet at this time, after the lunch rush and before the nine-to-five grind is over. I follow her gaze, see the young couple kissing in the furthest corner, him with a blue Mohican, her with half her head shaved; see the middle-aged barman standing at the end of the counter, wrapping cutlery and wiping sticky fingerprints and ketchup off the laminated menus.
“Is that a yes?” I say.
“Depends. You’re not a weirdo, are you?” she says, but her hand is already on the bar stool next to me, pressing at the flat foam under the rough fabric, testing the waters. I notice slashes on her arms, small red suns circling her wrists, orbs the same size as a cigarette end.
“All the best people are,” I say, and I feel her relax. Her shrug shivers through the air, and she sits down.
“I’ll have tequila,” she says, picking at a bit of skin around her bitten nails, “this place could do with livening up.” I slam my glass down to get the attention of the barman. He pours the drink and fetches the salt, and in the distance I hear my drones, beginning to buzz.
“Will that sting me?” I asked, the night we met, pointing at the tiny gold bee pinned to the front of your tassled waistcoat.
“Not unless I tell it to,” you said with a smile. You took my hand and led me away from the party. It was winding down, and people were scattered all over the lawn, the girls dancing slowly in the moonlight with daisies woven into their hair, the men watching, bare-chested in in their low-slung flares.
We sat at the edge of the lake, looking up at the stars as the breeze rustled through the sun-scorched grass and the muffled sound of The Doors rippled out across the silver-shoaled water.
“I got it from Crete, the bee,” you said. “I spent last summer out there, painting the caves of Matala.” You shook your head, amused at something, and I raised my eyebrow. “Too much sun, too much acid, too many minotaurs of the mind,” you said, and before I could ask what you meant, you pushed me back and sat astride me.
“Bees are the symbol of immortality,” you said, fingering the badge, staring into the distance, distant, “and of resurrection.” Then you took off your waistcoat and untied your bikini top, and leaned back for me to take you in.
Tan lines criss-crossed your skin in stripes of shade and sun, and you smelt like honeysuckles, like the first scent of spring after a winter that’s lasted too long. You kissed my chest, my stomach; your long, brown hair falling around me, making me feel safe, like a bee-keepers’ veil. You ran your lips across mine and you tasted of beer, and weed. Then you kissed me, properly, and in that second I knew that I’d been dead before, but that I’d never known it. Not until you brought me to life.
“What’s your name?” I ask her, as she chews on a piece of lime and wipes her mouth on the back of her hand.
“Sarah,” she says, and holds out her hand, amused, like manners are only for old people, like me. I shake it and bow my head. She giggles. I think that the drink has gone to her head. “My mom, she loved Thin Lizzy, you know, the band? That’s what she named me after, one of their songs?” She starts singing to herself and suddenly her face lights up, and her voice is beautiful, like the taste of something sweet that you can’t quite place. But then I remember you, my queen. My stomach clenches and I feel my fists curl, imagine them splitting her lip, shutting her up.
“You’ll make it rain,” I tell her, and bang my glass down and nod at the bar man.Another. Her bottom lip comes out and her face furrows, and despite the rage making my body buck and tremble, I force a smile.
“I’m in a band, you know,” she says, oblivious. “Well I will be, once the guitarist gets over himself. Such a prick.” She necks the shot with a grimace, and slides off the stool. “Powder my nose,” she says, and giggles again, “and what does that even mean?”
As she walks away I stare at her bare back. I can see where her wings will grow, can already see them pushing against the pale, freckled flesh. She has a tattoo on her shoulder blade, a heart, and some initials. She’d understand the romance, then, this one, she’d understand why.
I asked you to marry me when you were jabbing bright, red pins into a map of Mexico; all of the places that you wanted to visit. I wanted to pin you down, like a butterfly in a case, wanted to pin you to me.
“Marriage makes people miserable,” you said, thinking of your parents in their tight-lipped-silent-seething that made the floorboards hum and their perfect crockery rattle.
“Not us,” I said, and I knew that your wings were weary, no matter what you said. You chewed your lip, considered it, and then you dropped your heart into the crocus of my hands.
At our wedding, I trod on a bee and you fell to the ground like I’d killed you, your pretty lilac dress (‘White? Me? Come on’) covered in leaves and your bouquet scattered like a ransacked grave.
“Stop it, Bridget,” I said as I tried to pull you up, but you were drunk, revelling in the tut-tuts and the dirty looks and the shush of our shared jokes.
“B, get up!” I snapped, flushing red as the confused guests gathered around us, my heart pounding in case this wasn’t just another game. You rolled your eyes back in your head and groaned, until I could feel my throat closing up.
“Sorry,” you said, eventually, your breath hot in my ear as you slung your arms around my neck. “Till death do us part can do that to a person.”
“It wasn’t funny,” I told you later, as we lay in bed, our limbs entwined like driftwood.
“I was nervous, all those strangers, my parents, I—”
“It’s ok,” I said, stroking your hair. But it wasn’t. It would never be. Because I knew then, my queen, that one day I’d lose you.
I have to move quickly. I order her a beer and as the barman turns back to the screen, I take the tablet from my pocket and drop it into the foam. I take a striped straw from the pot on the bar and use it to stir the drink; throwing it on the floor, my heart racing, as she comes back.
“Beer?” she says as I slide it towards her, “I’m meant to be watching my figure.” She stands looking at me, waiting for the compliment. My mouth is dry, and I can feel my skin screaming as I stretch a smile across it.
“There’s not a thing to you,” I manage, with a cough. “You could do with some meat on your bones.” I hold my hands together, tight, as her eyes burn into me. She’s waiting for more, and I feel the shout gathering in me, but then she smiles, seems satisfied.
“Just the one, mind,” she says, clambering back onto the stool, “I’m going out tomorrow and I need to look hot. He’ll be there, with her, that slag.”
I breathe in deeply, and turn to her. The alcohol has turned her face red, made it soft, loosened her tongue. She rambles on, and pulls herself closer, leaning in, confidentially, her chin propped on her hand, her elbow on the bar. She’s almost too close to bear. I can see that her eyelashes are false, can see the glitter running through them, and I can smell cigarettes on her breath.
“She’s a right dog, nothing on me, but she’s dumb as fuck. Mind you, that’s probably why he likes her, him and his mind-games.”
“Him?” I ask, my tongue feeling too big for my mouth, my lungs suddenly too small.
“My ex, well…sort of…we’re together…even if we’re not, we have that connection…that can’t live with ’em nor without ’em thing going on? I mean, I fucking hate him…but it’s only cus I love him. I dunno…he’s all I’ve got…it’s hard to understand.”
“I understand,” I tell her, and she shakes her head dramatically and lurches forward, about to interrupt, but something in my face stops her, shuts her up, tells her that I do.
After you’d gone, the sun smashed like a broken light bulb. At your grave, I grabbed the pieces in my bloody fist, breathed in the winter until my heart shattered, until my blood slowed.
It’s cold now, all the year around. In the middle of spring, thick frost coats the walls wherever I walk. There is nothing inside, my queen. And there is no life. Except in my hives.
“Had a little too much,” I tell the barman as she starts to sink down the bar. She’s like a puppet whose strings have been cut, with her hair all over the place and her head lolling about like her neck’s been broken. I pull her skirt down as it’s rising up and her knickers are on show. I was expecting some cheap, sleazy underwear, but she’s wearing cartoon pants, with The Count from Sesame Street on them, some retro things that must be cool. And I nearly falter, B, I do.
“I’ll take her outside, get her some air,” I say, putting my arm around her skinny waist like we’re old drinking buddies.
The barman looks concerned, annoyed even, but then the phone rings and he turns to answer it, the pair of us already forgotten.
“I feel sick,” she says as I put her into the back-seat of my car and throw an old, tartan blanket over her.
“Just keep yourself warm, sweetheart,” I tell her, “and try to sleep. You’ll feel better in no time.”
I couldn’t save you, B. Maybe they can.
She’s crazy when she wakes up, but they always are. She punches at her glass cage, her desperate fingers making the polished shell squeak, her mouth the ‘O’ of a silent sting, over and over.
“Shush,” I whisper, and I crouch down and put my finger to my lips. She screams, her eyes bulging out of her red face, and cries, and it makes me feel like a monster, B, and the things she calls me! I know the cruel shapes that her mouth makes. I’ve seen it before, with the others, such ugly words from such pretty girls, ‘F-you, and F-that’, like that’s any way to be carrying on.
She kicks at the glass and runs around and around in circles, and then she slumps to her knees, begging, and I’m soft, B, you know I am, so I tell her that I’ll make it better, and I will.
I quickly get the pipe. I open the small hatch at the bottom, and let in the smoke that will make her drowsy, make her docile. I learnt this after the first one. I only wanted to hold her, just for one night, to feel somebody close to me, but she made such a fuss.
She coughs, and struggles, and fights, but she’ll settle. And soon, when it’s safe, I’ll introduce her to the hive.
She curls up on the floor, her wings tucked in, her tiny legs pulled up to her chest, like a swatted bee on a windowsill or under a bus seat. But alive, B, oh so full of life. Full of terrible, desolate, beautiful life.