The summer continues with its oppressive heat. Kensington is thick with it. I don’t venture down to the shopping streets if I can help it; the squeals of the lipsticked girls, the boys with all that hair and all that sweat. The immorality of a wide-legged trouser. I keep mine close to the leg.
I think back to happier days in Sussex in my early twenties. It was only five years ago, though it feels like more. I’d left Central St Martins without finishing my degree and I was living in a small, rented cottage in Hurstpierpoint, keeping bees and practising my carpentry. My parents still lived in Lewes. Martha had not left home yet; family was within reach but not too close. The late summer sweetened and swelled towards autumn and I harvested apples, plums and honey and carved little love spoons in front of the fire in the evening, or sketched designs for a monumental oak Madonna and Child.
Many bees are solitary creatures – the carpenter bee, for instance; the mason bee. Others are highly social, living in huge colonies of up to a hundred thousand creatures. But I kept the Apis mellifera, or Western honey bee, in my small garden – a swarming, communally living bee. To practise bee husbandry one must be keenly attuned of the cycles of the year. In winter, the queen begins to lay eggs. In the spring, nectar is collected. In late summer, the production of new bees and nectar slows down. In the early autumn, the drones are evicted and die. It’s the cycle of life.
Every colony must have a queen. The queen is the centre – the link to the next generation. The other females exist purely to collect pollen and maintain the hive, the males to reproduce.
The queen lays fertilised eggs in the smallest cells in the hive. In twenty-one days these produce female worker bees. In larger cells she lays unfertilized eggs, which, in twenty four days, become the male drone bees, and a special cell which hangs vertically is used to produce a new, virgin queen – a virgin queen who will emerge to slaughter any rival queens. If a queen dies unexpectedly during the summer the bees quickly make an emergency queen in the same type of cell. A weak queen will be destroyed by the hive and replaced.
I found much to occupy my mind.
I passed my days quietly and productively, enjoying the unfussy ceremony of beekeeping and the slow and steady labour of woodwork. And so the autumn moved towards winter and spring tapped on my cold windows. I moved softly through the house and gardens and through the seasons, content with my own company. Every now and then Martha would visit and we’d sit peaceably by the fire with a cup of tea. After that spring Martha’s visits tailed off and my own visits to Lewes were rare. I never got on with my father, truth be told. I was a disappointment to him. He’d wanted a brighter, more athletic, more outgoing son – the sportsman, if you like, rather than the scholar. He was an old fashioned man and had always shown his disapproval with his fist. Mother was not the type to object.
Anyway. The honey days were numbered. Within two years, I’d moved to Kensington. I knew that this future was waiting for me and I accepted it, but my heart remained in Sussex. I’m a carpenter bee, not an Apis mellifera. The hum and buzz of London isn’t for me. I don’t fit in with these people. Perhaps the son my father wanted would have done.
Today, though – a swelteringly hot day – saw the arrival of a new companion. Continuance is an important part of any association. This much was drummed into me by my father. And particularly our own association, which has its roots so far back in time; which is built on the idea of fellowship – fellowship of feeling as we work together and the renewal of history as we pass on the baton to the next generation. I think of us all holding hands down the centuries and it does make me smile, much as I’d like, in some ways, to quietly unhook my hand and return to my bees. It’s my duty and I won’t shirk it.
Albert arrived this morning, fresh cheeked as a young piglet. He came to our doorstep straight off the train, the bright light from the street framing his pale face, his skinny body hanging lost in a suit that would be tight on any other man; his waistcoat buttoned up to the chest, his collar saying hello to his shoulders, his trouser bottoms disappointingly familiar with the toes of his shoes.
I installed him in the best room – the double height studio, which is blessed with our famous northern light. Only the exceptional for my nephew and heir, poor Martha’s boy. May the clear, even sunlight fill him up and make him the best he can be. Though he doesn’t look well. He has an air of rickets and malnutrition. He’d better get as much sunlight as he can.
Albert is free of other associations, free to embed himself completely in our fellowship. This isn’t a place for the half-hearted and the part-time. We are all or we are nothing. I can hear my father’s voice in my head as I write. Perhaps, despite the plunge into the icy black of eternity that awaits us all, the dead do stay with us in some way. Will my own voice remain in anyone’s mind? Who knows.
Martha, bless her poor heart in its current state of decay, has left us for a better place and, God knows, the father of her only child was unknown. At least, God may know who it is, but my sister didn’t. Albert is the fruit of a rather indiscriminate womb. I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But perhaps I may be permitted to speak the truth about this particular corpse. She was as fickle as a magpie and as voracious as an un-spayed mutt. Our father would be the first to say so. I think of her as a soft-cheeked child and her eventual fate saddens me; it fills me with anger at the world and what it can corrupt. Never mind. She’s gone now and I’m all that that poor orphan Albert has in the world. He is friendless too, I suspect; his is not the open, sociable heart. Much like mine, maybe, in some ways.
He crept around my building like a little mouse. Look about you and there’s the whole world to explore within these four walls – riches, beauties, surprises – and he just crept through the corridors in the dark. Imagine a dog cruelly imprisoned in a single, stenched room since being a puppy. Show it the light and freedom and does it run around joyfully, or does it pad quietly in small circles in an imaginary prison? If you have the answer then you have the sum of Albert.
I’ve thought about Albert a great deal. A blank slate can be drawn upon, but a completed painting needs painting over and even then, the original brushstrokes may show through. Provided he has some creative talent and – and this is important – he loves this building, then he just might do. I can create someone worthy of passing the baton on to when the time comes. We will see. His weakness is a worry, though. Is he fit for purpose?
Albert’s pale skin and haunted eyes. The thought of poor Martha. My father. The eternal dark that waits for us all; a bottomless, black sea, just out of our sightline. It’s always there at my shoulder. I feel it on my skin – a warm shiver, like someone breathing down my neck impatiently. Even as a small child I had this fear. I’d wake up regularly throughout the night to check the end of my bed for the grim reaper. I set an alarm on the hour, every hour. If I could just catch him in tim,e I could shoo him away.
The fear’s never really gone away. The only thing that made me forget it was caring for my industrious bees. Here the buzz of people and traffic – three cars an hour down this street at times – gets into my brain and curdles it, opens up little doorways to let the fear back in.
Dancing, feeding, cleaning, guarding. A worker bee’s duties are connected to its age. At one to two days it cleans the cells. At days five to eleven it feeds the young. Days twelve to seventeen see it producing comb, transporting food, carrying out undertaking duties. At days eighteen to twenty one it guards the hive entrance. After twenty two days it flies from the hive to begin its life outside, collecting pollen and nectar. Kensington is my fate and my duty, but I do find myself missing Sussex and a simpler life.
While Albert was settling into his room – I expected more of an exclamation of wonder, I must confess, when he saw it, than a simple ‘okay’– I did my daily rounds, visiting all of my building’s most private places. Do I love her underbellies more than her soaring ceilings and light bathed rooms? Perhaps. They have a hidden intimacy. And they’re away from the sun-drenched, hectic streets of Kensington. One can relax into them, free from the pressure to fit into the modern world. If I were a bee I’d stay in the same hive for life, unless I was led away by a virgin queen to a new and better place. I wouldn’t have to deal with all of this.
Notes for a sermon: the sun casts its light into the main hall of the cellar so that we may be bathed in it, take it in and convert it to our own kinds of beauty, be they drawing, pottery, painting, carpentry; even goldsmithery (or bashing metal about into trinkets, as I’d describe it).
I passed through the main cellar, slipped up the back stairs and made my way through one of the old artists’ model’s passageways into the disused store – the one with the spy hole that looks into Annie’s room. Back in the day the unsavoury models would be hurried in and out of the house through these secret passages. Now they are mine.
My gaze gradually became accustomed to the smallness of its spyhole and the relative darkness of the room I was watching. Even in the heat of June’s midday sunshine, Annie keeps her thick, brown curtains closed. She truly is one of life’s moles.
I looked through the peep hole at her somewhat uninspiring decor. Was that a Habitat beanbag I saw in the corner? So much for the authenticity of craftsmen at work! Were we now seaming the factory production line, dressing our rooms in items produced for the mass market? I quietly resolved to obtain and dispose of the item at the next available opportunity.
As I was contemplating this point, Annie’s door opened and in walked, not just Annie, but Jenny and Clive too. Clive looked urgently behind his back before shutting the door. The man is morbidly paranoid about his personal privacy. Delusions of grandeur. The three of them gathered in the middle of the room, perfectly in my sight line. Clive glanced over his shoulder again.
‘Let’s sit down,’ said Annie, tucking her mouse hair behind a pink ear. ‘Standing here like this makes me nervous.’ She wore a shapeless, brown, smock-like garment over her jeans (wide at the ankle, I’m afraid). Her feet were bare.
‘Everything makes you nervous,’ said my Jenny, with a not uncharacteristic caustic tone. As ever, she was neatly dressed in a close fitting dress.
‘Now, now, girls. Let’s remember why we’re here.’
They moved out of my sight line, presumably to sit down. But I could still hear them and Annie’s nose remained in clear view.
‘Now.’ Clive’s voice. ‘Let’s remember the spirit in which our little group was formed.’ Well, quite! ‘Fellowship and all that.’
Annie made a noise that sounded like a harrumph, not what I’d expect from my adoring little mouse. In recent weeks, she’s proved herself to be quite obliging and not nearly as submissive as her demeanour would imply. Jenny remains, of course, my number one. Not that I’m concerned with such hierarchies, but the women do like a structure.
‘Art and truth,’ said Jenny. Jenny can always be relied upon to make a succinct point. Her mind is as arid as the desert. It’s agreeable, if not always alluring.
‘Beauty,’ said Clive. ‘Honesty. All that. And how do we all feel it’s going?’
‘Ralph,’ said Annie with a bitterness that made my eyes water. I’m surprised a drop didn’t hit her earlobe, its delicate pink curves just in view. ‘Ralph is a despot and a tyrant. I’m buckling under the weight of his demands.’ Not something she objected to yesterday, I’ll note here for the sake of completeness. ‘I can’t take it anymore.’
She sniffed loudly. A fat globule of water hung delicately from the end of that fine nose, the very nose I’d sketched on the studio wall only days before. Not my studio anymore, I have to remind myself. Such is the circle of life. Things are ours to keep only temporarily. This treachery, however, was unexpected.
‘It’s his building,’ said my fair-minded Jenny.
‘Yes,’ said Annie, ‘but it’s our lives. He can’t control all of it. He even,’ she continued, ‘refuses contraception because he doesn’t want the flow of his inspiration to be impeded by rubber.’
There was an awkward silence in the room as everyone contemplated Annie’s intimate knowledge of my flow of inspiration. Personally, I wasn’t sure how much she would be on the receiving end of it any more. But tomorrow’s another day. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain.
‘Well,’ said Clive.
I silently accused Clive of being a little on the provincial side at heart. I suspect him of objecting to my dealings with Annie on the grounds that he got there first. In my darker moments I think that he views Annie as his girlfriend – a possessive terminology that we have all eschewed. And, of course, if she belongs to anyone, it’s to me.
‘I can’t take it anymore,’ said Annie, ever the hysteric. ‘It’s driving me mad.’
‘Calm down, Annie.’ Jenny’s dry, soothing tones. ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t have got so closely involved with him if you feel that way.’
‘Oh, it’s not just that. He’s everywhere. I feel like he’s slipping between my brain cells and making a home there. I feel like he’s watching me now, even.’
‘The point being,’ said Clive, ‘that he’s a self-appointed leader, not a democratically elected one. His ownership of the building is neither here nor there. Is he a subscriber to this sort of out-dated notion of property and hierarchy?’
‘And,’ Clive continued, ‘we, the artists, do have the right to inhabit the space, rights that go back as far as his family’s ownership of the building.’
‘Perhaps ownership always brought leadership with it.’ This was Jenny, of course.
‘I can only speak for myself,’ Clive said, ‘but personally, I feel that Ralph’s assumption of leadership wasn’t democratic. I can’t support it.’
‘Do we even need a leader?’ asked Annie in a voice bright with tears. The other two ignored her.
‘What are you suggesting, Clive?’
‘I’m suggesting,’ he said, ‘a bloodless coup.’
‘What does that mean?’ cried Annie.
Clive was silent.
‘And what about this Albert person?’ she said. ‘Who’s he?’
‘The heir,’ said Jenny.
‘Ah,’ said Clive after a few moments. ‘I’d rather hoped that was up for grabs. Ralph having no living relatives. Our rights to inhabit going back so far. And so on.’
For grabs, no less. The very idea of anyone grabbing my lovely building in some sort of shameless, avaricious embrace made me shudder.
‘Well,’ said Jenny. ‘No such luck. Albert’s a living heir. His nephew, I believe.’
‘Heirs,’ said Clive. ‘Bloody Victorian system of distribution of wealth. The meek shall inherit the earth. What about the deserving?’
‘He doesn’t seem well,’ commented Annie, master of the non-sequitur. ‘I heard him coughing away all morning. And have you seen him? So slight he’d struggle to make a pigeon jump.’
Clive coughed or laughed, I’m not sure which. ‘Unwell,’ he said. ‘Yes. Feeble.’
‘The sister – his mother – died of TB, so I hear,’ commented Jenny, ‘and he’s got a weak heart.’ A gossip mongering side I’ll confess I haven’t seen in her before, but it’s true. Martha died a poetically apt death – the death of a Victorian prostitute.
‘He’s stolen my inheritance,’ said Clive. ‘Don’t feel too sorry for him.’
‘I thought you didn’t believe in inheritance?’ said Jenny.
Clive snorted. ‘I’m broke,’ he said. ‘Believe me, I believe in it. When it’s coming in the right direction.’
‘What does he do,’ asked Annie, ‘this Albert?’
‘A photographer, apparently,’ said Jenny.
‘Ah,’ said Annie. ‘He looks the type.’
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Clive sounded irritated.
‘You know,’ said Annie. ‘Fey.’
‘This meeting,’ said Clive, ‘isn’t proving particularly productive. Let’s focus on one thing at a time. How to depose Ralph.’
This was no less shocking to hear a second time. I sat back a little to allow myself to take it in.
And,’ he paused dramatically. ‘Who should take the reins.’
There was silence.
‘I don’t know if we need a leader,’ said Annie quietly.
The other two ignored her.
‘Let’s meet again in a week or so,’ said Clive. ‘Take some time to consider our course of action and meet up – more productively – next week.’
‘Okay, Clive.’ Annie sounded relieved. ‘Let’s say the same time next week.’
I glanced at my watch.
‘That’s good for me,’ said Jenny cheerfully. She’d certainly taken the news of my deposition with some aplomb, I must say.
The sound of footsteps, farewells and Annie’s door closing. Throughout, her damp nose remained in frame. Then it rose into the air and left the picture entirely.
‘Oh, I can’t stand it!’ she cried. ‘I can’t stand him!’
Then there was the sound of her slight body hitting the bed springs – a noise I am, I’ll admit, familiar with – followed by sobs wracking her small body. She does take things hard, Annie – my little, grey mouse. I considered going to her door to offer her some comfort.
‘Oh!’ she cried. ‘It’s too much.’
The decision was made. I unharnessed my eyeball from the peep hole and made my way to her room.
Some time later I write this, having helped Annie rid herself of some of her mental demons. I’m struck by the tenor of my response to the proposed treachery. Far from angry; far from vengeful; far from horrified. In fact, I’m calmly confident. Such small rebellions are, of course, inevitable.
I’m not concerned.