“It’s all about honey and roses, my life is,” Bill says, and you wonder how to take it – as an apology or a joke. The high colour on his cheeks makes him look like a boy that’s been running in the cold. His forefinger draws squiggles on the diner’s tablecloth, infinite figure-eight-shaped turns.
“Sounds good to me,” you offer, and his shoulders relax.
“Some think it’s strange. How I live up in the mountain. Like a hermit.”
There it is again, that tone begging forgiveness – for what? For being a loner? He looks it too – a creased shirt, a bit overweight, hair badly cut – as if growing up has caught him by surprise. In the city, he wouldn’t have turned your head – but here, he fits in perfectly. One of the nice blokes.
Has this little town changed you already? You’d vowed – no more dates. So why did you say ‘yes’ to a beekeeper? You should apologise, stand up and go. Then you think about the honey jar you got from him as a sample for the shop. Slender, six-edged – so perfect it was like a work of art: a honeycomb tower in the middle of amber liquid; the label ‘Honey Rose Garden’ – a hand-drawn picture of a single red rose with a hovering bee. Who can make such beauty? You had ordered a few boxes, and there he was – leaving his muddy boots at the door, kneading his beanie instead of offering a handshake.
“Bill Mason, the honey guy. Got a wee delivery for you,” he’d said, looking around. “You’ve fixed this place up real nice. Funny, I’ve never had my jars sold here; people find them too dear?”
His voice had trailed up as if he’d asked a question, but they all talked like this – a little old-fashioned, saying ‘dear’ instead of ‘expensive’, with their never-ending sentences that kept the conversation going.
“Got lots of customers already?” This time a real question.
“Not yet, I’ve just opened.”
“It’s hard to start in a small place like this. Everybody knows everyone here – and they don’t trust townies. But you’ve got good stuff; they’ll swarm in.”
“Thanks, I hope so. Shall I help you bring the boxes in?”
Your suggestion had confused him – a gentleman, not expecting an offer of help from a woman. Neatly stacked in his van, each box had been sealed with that colourful label.
“I love this picture – the rose and the bee,” you’d said, and he had laughed, “Ah, just something I drew when I started. Had plenty of real-life models around.”
His scent of beeswax and woodsmoke had lingered for hours after he left – melting away the curse of the newcomer hanging over you. And he was right – people came, lingered over the shelves stacked with hand-made jewellery, soaps and creams. The honey jars sold well, and there he was again delivering his ‘wee’ orders.
“You’ve got to let me buy you dinner; I’m busier than the bees these days,” he’d said.
So, here you are, searching for the next line in a conversation that has run out of questions.
“It’s probably easier not to talk to people. That’s what I do all day – small talk about the weather, the rail station, the new development over by Scott Road. I can’t wait to go home where it’s all silent. But over the weekends it gets lonely.” You are startled by your admission.
“You can never get lonely with bees,” Bill says, and laughs silently, his shoulders shaking a little. A tooth juts out, and that imperfection only makes you like him more. “Sorry,” he pulls a serious face, “that came out like a line from Winnie-the-Pooh, but it’s true.”
“Gosh, I hardly remember the book.” He surprises you – a boy in the man, the contradiction of it.
“Ah, Winnie’s a pal. Now, he knows about bees; I’m still an apprentice. Nana gave me the book when I went up to live with her. I was 12.” He draws another shape on the tablecloth. “My parents… There was an accident. I was the only one with a seat belt.”
He drops his gaze, and you realise it’s not pity that makes you reach for his hand. It’s something else, something stirring. He looks at your hand over his, and you pull it away. What are you doing? Maybe you really should go, but where – to the dark house, where even the shadows are lonesome? You pick up your glass.
Bill leans back and – as if he’s waited the whole evening to deliver it, says in one breath, “Did you know there is a rose named like you? Matilda Rose – a high-centered bloom, double corolla in terracotta pink and a strong fragrance. It’s also called Love’s Promise.” He is looking into your eyes, and there is nothing boyish left about him.
You sip your wine, needing time to process this. Emotions cartwheel in your chest, and there’s not enough space for all of them in the single stem of you. The way he said your name.
Matilda Rose. Not Mattie, as Robert called you during your university years – before he married your best friend. Not Tilly, as Jerald pet-named you, the word whispered during lovemaking every third Saturday in a different motel on Highway One. Tilde was Richard’s special invention, to remind him of his German past; and Maud you ran away from before it even started. And you ended up here, hollowed out, hoping for nothing, for no-one. And now this honey-maker is offering your name back to you.
“Would you mind if I called you Rose?”
It’s even better – he offers you a new name.
“I’d love that. To be called like a flower, a rose. Do you have it in your garden?”
You imagine the bright petals and want to breathe in its fragrance, to prick your skin on it; to be that rose – fresh, untainted. You blush at the self-invitation and what it could mean to him, but all you want is to see your namesake and nothing more. Please, God, nothing more.
“You should come and visit sometime, I’ve got quite a few of them,” he says matter-of-factly, then quickly adds, “and I’ll show you to the bees.”
“You’ll show me to the bees?”
You haven’t laughed like this in a long time. It’s not the wine; you’re getting drunk on him.
“Now don’t think I’m daft, but I can tell some of the bees apart. At least, I think I can. There is Elizabeth – the queen, of course – she’s the easiest to spot. There’s Arthur, always nearby, and there are a few pairs of Jack-and-Jills. Okay, I don’t recognise them that well, but I swear, there are pairs. You can see it in the way they turn to each other, looking at their yellow-tanned boots of pollen as if politely enquiring,” he puts his hands up, like little wings, makes his voice higher and tilts his head, “‘Where did you get that from – from Mrs Wallace’s plums or from the wild berries?’ Sometimes I wish I could speak bee-buzz and hear the gossip of the mountain.”
You laugh again and wonder – why is this so easy? How can a first date feel like you’ve known this man forever… maybe from a previous life, when he’d started talking about these golden furry insects with names and habits – and he still talks about them, eyes glowing with a soft light the colour of honey.
You know you’ve got to tell her. Not sooner or later. Today.
It’s been four months and a dozen more dates since you called her by a name new to both of you. The first sunny Sunday and she is finally here, cupping the head of the rose, leaning over as if drinking from it. She glances up, and emotions splash through your veins, pushing your heart into an extra beat. How many beats left until you lose her?
You’ve practised. You’ve whispered the opening line, “Matilda Rose, I’m not good with words. You know how special you are to me. But there’s something else you need to know.” She’d get the seriousness right away because you’d use her full name. And then – what? That’s as far as you’ve dared to go. You’d see her smile wilt, and the old rust of panic would grip you.
That same panic as when your mum had screamed before it all went black. The fear, when you saw all the doctors, but not your father. It’s a blessing, they’d said, such a miracle that you’re alive: the accident, the operation. But they didn’t tell you about the rest. The bottomless pit of your grief. The scar across your groin dividing your life in two. The unnerving questions you couldn’t ask as the boys shared spicy pictures and went wild with fantasies, but you had no idea what they were on about. Later, Joanne’s kisses and her hands slithering all over you, before her stinging giggle, “What, are you impotent or something?”
The venom went in deep, mixing with the rest of your terrors. Doctors, tests – nothing. The ‘blessing’ that turned out to be a curse. Nana had said once, “You’ll find her, Billy, she’ll come to you and that won’t matter.”
Was she talking about Rose? Can you keep her on love alone?
Rose comes and sits under the oak where you’ve laid out honey, cheese and biscuits; a bottle of white is running beads of perspiration.
“Oh, this is lovely … a picnic in paradise.” You follow her gaze over to a blossoming cherry tree alive with the buzzing of bees. She smiles. “Jack and Jill are somewhere there, right? Or is it Arthur, collecting pollen for his queen Elizabeth?”
She is wearing a light-blue sleeveless dress; freckles dust her arms. Running fingers through her hair, she nods towards the bottle with her usual semi-smile.
“The first day of summer and hot already. Shall we open it?”
The pale liquid swells in the glass. You pass it, avoiding her eyes. “Matilda Rose,” you say, and your voice quivers. “There is something you need to know.”
Her grey eyes hold your gaze, and she listens, taking it in like a confession. You feel the venom inside dissolving, and you love her more because she is letting you talk and doesn’t interrupt, not with a nod, not with a question. Only now and then she presses her fingers to her lips. You want to go close to her, bury your face in her hair. But you can’t, and she is silent. Clouds pass over the face of the sun. The cheese has melted. Two bees drink from the honey dish.
Suddenly you hear the voice of your new assistant, Tyson. He has brought his girlfriend to the garden too. They stop between the roses, young and keen, his hands wrapped around her as she leans into him. You should go and ask them to leave, but they are already before the oak, and the girl clasps her hands.
“Oh, Mr Mason, this is so cool. I’ve never been to a place like this! The roses are incredible, the colours, the fragrance – so beautiful. Do they always bloom like this?”
You cannot answer. Your throat is dry, and your heart is too – a word, and it’ll shatter.
Tyson hugs his girlfriend and replies with authority, “No, silly. Roses are flowers – they bloom only to attract the bees. It’s all about sex, really.” He places a kiss on her lips.
You can’t take it any longer. You stand and turn to go, but Rose grabs your hand and holds it, connected to you, grounding you back. Looking at Tyson, she says, “You’re wrong. It’s not always about sex.”
She blinks as the sun shines into her eyes and waves at a bee hovering above her head. Her voice, like new honey, is filled with promise.
About the Author: Ronnie Karadjov
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Ronnie now lives with her family in Auckland. A graduate from the Bulgarian Music Academy, she conducts choirs and heads a music department, but spends her holidays writing. Being fluent in both Bulgarian and English makes her wonder what language to write in – her book of poetry and published childhood and family stories are in her mother tongue, but she finds it easier to write fiction in her adopted language. Ronnie is particularly proud of her diploma in Writing Fiction from the UK National Centre for Writing.