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The Beekeeper's Promise
Author: Fiona Valpy

PART 1

Eliane: 2017

She knew that this would be her last summer. The warm caress of the late-spring sunlight couldn’t roll back the fog-like weariness that crept through her bones these days. But then there had been so many summers. Almost a hundred. She glanced up the hill, towards the little graveyard beyond the vines where those she loved the best were laid. They were waiting, now, to welcome her.

A worker bee, one of the first to venture out of the hive that bright morning, drew dizzy spirals in the air as it orientated itself, sensing the nectar in the flowers that she had nurtured in her garden. It circled around her, drawn by the scent of beeswax and honey that saturated her age-soft skin. ‘Good morning to you too.’ She smiled. ‘Don’t worry: I’m not going to abandon you just yet. I know there’s still work to be done.’

Beside the whitewashed hives, she set down the basket of frames that she’d been carrying and settled the veil of her broad-brimmed hat over her head and shoulders. She opened the first hive, gently lifting off the sloping roof, and bent closer to inspect the drones, a seething, humming mass of bodies attending their queen. Their honey supplies had lasted well over the winter and already the colony was expanding.

She slotted the new frames into an empty box and set it in place above the mass of bees. ‘There you go – room for expansion,’ she told them. ‘And for this summer’s honey.’

Working methodically, she attended to each hive in turn. When she’d finished, she paused, stretching her back to ease the ache from the effort of lifting the boxes of frames. She peered up into the delicate tracery of acacia leaves that cast their dancing, dappled shade over the hives. Any day now they would burst into flower and the cascades of clustered white blossom would turn the trees silver, and then the bees would drink their fill of the sweetest nectar of all. Her jars of acacia honey would be like bottles of summer itself, sweet and golden.

She smiled to herself. Yes, there had been so many summers. But just one more would be a gift.

Abi: 2017

I’m lost. Lost in France, just like in the words of a stupid song that I can’t get out of my head as I trudge along the road. I stop for a moment to wipe my face with my shirt, which is already soaked with sweat. The road runs along a ridge that falls away steeply to one side and, I must admit, there could be worse places to lose my way. The view sweeps away in front of me, patchwork fields of green and gold interrupted here and there by dark velvet woodlands. The broad satin ribbon of a twisting river edges the valley floor beneath me.

Peace and quiet in the French sunshine. It’s exactly what I’d imagined when Pru and I signed up for the yoga retreat. ‘Look, it’s just what you need, Abi.’ She’d brandished the glossy leaflet at me as we were putting away our mats and pulling our boots back on after the regular Thursday-evening class. ‘“A week of springtime yoga, meditation and mindfulness in the heart of the French countryside,”’ she’d read.

I didn’t point out to her that I’d hardly been able to bring myself to leave the apartment for the last couple of years, and that walking to the yoga class and back was the furthest I’d been in months. Besides the hospital visits, that is, where the physios and psychologists had tried to help me stitch the shattered pieces of myself back together.

But the retreat had been a tempting thought. I’d always loved France. Well, more the idea of it really; I hadn’t exactly spent a lot of time travelling there – or in any other foreign countries either, come to think of it. French was my best subject at school, though. Something I had been good at, immersing myself in the wonderful world of Maman, Papa and Marie-Claude and their lovely safe, orderly lives, as set out in the textbooks. And I knew I needed to make more of an effort now to get my life back on track, to start getting out a bit more again. Being able to travel with Pru would make it that much easier, I had thought. She’s good company and always very organised. We’d bonded over cups of cinnamon chai after she joined the yoga class to help get over her divorce. She’s got a good sense of humour and doesn’t witter on the whole time, which would set my nerves jangling, so I reckoned she’d make a good travelling companion and agreed to go. She’d signed us up that evening for the retreat and booked our flights too, so backing out wasn’t an option – even though I desperately wanted to, the minute she called to confirm the arrangements.

That’ll teach me to be spontaneous, I think, as I trudge along the hot tarmac of the road. Nothing good ever comes of it. And now I’ve no idea where I’m going, up the hill from the centre, through the vines – one vineyard looks exactly like the next, if you ask me. A tiny bit of me has to admit it’s rather beautiful, though, that golden light on the flourishes of lush green leaves springing from the gnarled, dead-looking wood.

But I don’t want to be distracted from my anger by the beauty of my surroundings. I need to let my fury at Pru – abandoning me like that – simmer and seethe for a while longer. My counsellor would be pleased; she’s always telling me that anger is part of the healing process. And at least I’m feeling something. Which may or may not be better than feeling nothing at all.

But so much for the serenity and enlightenment that the retreat brochure had promised. I stomp along a little further. Actually, I know I can’t really blame Pru. Most people would have done the same, given half the chance. The thought of a bath and a proper bed, never mind with some fit and flexible Dutchman alongside you, is certainly tempting. I’m just jealous; but still definitely entitled to be furious with her.

She’d met him in the queue for the loos, after lunch on the second day. A fast worker, our Prudence – not one to live up to her name, it turns out. She said they’d both felt an instant connection. ‘Kindred spirits’ were the words she used when she finally cornered me, plonking herself down next to me at lunch.

‘Based on a synchronised need to go to the loo after a plate of spicy lentil stew? It’s not exactly soulful,’ I retorted, unable to stop myself.

Ignoring my outburst, she said, ‘He’s paid the extra to stay at a guesthouse nearby. Apparently it’s gorgeous. He’s got a whirlpool bath, en suite.’

I sighed. ‘Well that certainly beats a mildewed concrete shower with someone’s grungy old plaster stuck in the corner.’

We’d arrived at the centre three days earlier. It had been evening when we got there and most people were already installed, their tents set up, claims staked, seeming to know their way round. A helper in a tie-dyed T-shirt, his shaved head gleaming in the late sunshine, showed us a corner where we could pitch our own tent. It was very obviously the last available spot: ‘handy for the loos’ would be the best way to describe it. We managed to get the tent up after a bit, although it took us a while to work out where the poles go. Banging the pegs in with a rubber mallet wasn’t easy either, since the ground was as hard as concrete. Eventually, we got three out of four corners staked down quite well, and the fourth a bit more precariously, and two guy ropes in, front and back, so it should stay up. There’s been no wind anyway. The weather’s been gorgeous – at least the brochure got that bit right. It’s been cold at night, but in the mornings the sun quickly warms the air and by midday it’s been downright hot.

I jump, nearly out of my skin, at a sudden rustling in the verge beside me, catching sight of a thin yellow-and-black-striped snake slithering away. A snake in the grass. Watch out for them; they’re the most dangerous of all. I take a deep breath and sigh it out, the way the counsellor taught me, to help calm myself when the alarm bells in my brain get triggered.

Get a grip, I tell myself. Try to stay in control: that’s the key. Don’t let the memories overwhelm you. Give it time – that’s what everyone says.

I’ve reached the top of a rise and the road flattens out in front of me for a bit before climbing again. I pause to catch my breath, pressing my fist into my side where a stitch is griping, and then push on, at an easier pace now. I glance at my watch. It’s gone six. Supper will be over in the dining hall at the centre, the portions of rice and vegetable stew doled out and consumed, rounded off with a piece of fruit. We’re all detoxing, although so far all this healthy eating seems to have achieved is an awful lot of irritable people with headaches, flatulence and really bad breath – talk about toxicity! But no one’s going to put on any weight on this holiday, that’s for sure. Unless Pru and her Dutchman are secretly pigging out back in his luxurious guesthouse. I imagine they’re probably swigging champagne and eating chocolates in bed.

I plod on, thinking that right now I’d kill for a bacon sarnie. Now there’s a sentence you’ll rarely hear on a yoga retreat, even if it is what most people are probably thinking half the time when they’re sitting on their meditation cushions trying to empty their minds. Or perhaps that’s just me.

It had all been a bit overwhelming, the evening of our arrival. After we’d got the tent up it was time for supper so we followed the tide of fellow retreaters to queue at the serving tables. We were all secretly eyeing each other up while trying to appear yogic and laidback. Pru had changed into a kind of long floaty kaftan-thing, very different from her usual attire. After the wrestling match with the tent, I’d felt grubby and hot. I hadn’t bothered changing out of my shirt and jeans, the uniform I wear to cover up the worst of the scars on my arms and leg. I could already feel the mosquitoes biting my ankles above the straps of my sandals too.

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