Telling the Bees – Chapter 6
‘Allo, look who’s ’ere! My favourite Frenchie! Bonjour, ma belle! … That’s right: same pitch as usual. Where’s the old man? Ah, there he is! Orright, Tom?’
Since the autumn, Don’s goatee had been shorn back to a soul patch – which didn’t quite suit, Amélie thought. Without the moustache, his round face resembled a letter Q.
Still the jaunty new porkpie hat went well enough with the Cockney geezer act.
The chill of the September dawn bit through flesh and muscle to the very marrow of her bones as she climbed down from the cab of their little van. The Oval was a notorious frost pocket.
She gasped with the cold, belted the thick sheepskin coat tighter and pulled the rainbow beanie down over her ears.
I look like a dotty old hippie, she thought, catching her reflection in the van window. From under the bright knitwork peeped a thin, pale face, framed by wisps of grey hair.
She and Tom soon worked themselves warm. There was the stall to set up, trestle tables, boxes to unload and carefully unpack, wares to display to their best advantage.
When she finally had time to look around, the market had filled up with traders and steam was rising from the coffee van and the poffertjes booth. Early-bird customers were hovering, watching traders set out their stalls.
Tom brought her a long black and she cradled it in her fingerless mittens, sipped the hot, bitter liquid through the plastic slit.
There was already a queue forming at the bread stall. A PA crackled: at the other end of the market a band was getting ready to perform, huffing steamy breath into cupped hands, rubbing the cold out of stiff fingers.
Why always ‘Check! One, two!’?
‘How’s the boy?’ Ky from the pet treats stall across the way loped over, hands deep in pockets, and peered in the back of the van, where Harris was curled up in his cosy bed. The old dog raised his head. Somewhere under the tartan rug a tail thumped.
‘Oh, you know,’ she smiled at the long-haired young man. ‘Taking life as it comes.’
‘One day at a time, eh, Harris? You’ve got the right idea, mate.’ He scratched behind the dog’s ear.
Easy to say when you’re young, and the endless days of your life stretch ahead.
A steady trickle of customers began. The honey and jams went well and they sold a few packets of the beeswax food wrappers. The band proved to be a competent, lively jazz-funk outfit.
Then came a mid-morning lull, as the early birds fled the stubborn cold. The sun failed to fulfil the forecast. Instead of driving away the low cloud that hung over the valley, it remained a pale, apologetic disc. Skeins of mist curled up defiantly from the Yarra.
She imagined the less committed shoppers dithering, reluctant to leave their cosy homes. Who could blame them on this frigid September morning?
Taking advantage of the sudden leisure, she huddled in her deckchair and fished sugary poffertjes from a still warm paper bag. Tom excused himself for a saunter around the stalls.
She watched him make his way up the row, zigzagging to greet stallholders, then stop and shake hands with a lean, energetic man in a puffer jacket and a black-and-yellow Tigers beanie. Dr Jim Barry.
The blokey, jokey greeting seemed to segue into an earnest conversation. Tom turned away from her and leaned in, and she saw the doctor glance in her direction over her husband’s shoulder.
Talking about the Old Girl and her late-night shooting spree.
She gave the pair a brazen wave. The doctor waved back, after just the briefest pause.
Guilty conscience, eh? Just mind you keep my business to yourself, young man.
She looked round in time to see a woman approaching. Reluctantly she rocked herself forward out of the low seat to greet the customer. Youngish, dark-haired, slim under the bulky faux fur – or real fur? – coat. A fine-featured, East Asian face, crimson lipstick.
‘Hello, you must be Amélie. I’m Louisa.’ The woman smiled expectantly. Clearly this was supposed to be significant.
‘Hello, Louisa. I’m sorry … ?’
The pretty, dimpled smile faded into uncertainty and embarrassment.
‘Oh. So sorry! I’m your neighbour. At the Homestead. We met your husband – Tom? – the other day. He …’
‘Of course! Of course. Forgive me …’ She went to extend her hand, then realised that it was sticky with poffertjes, and the other still holding the bag. She shrugged helplessly. They both laughed.
‘Look at this produce! Did you make all this yourselves? How wonderful …’
Louisa was very pleasant, Amélie thought a few minutes later, as she watched her new neighbour walk off, clutching a paper bag heavy with their goods, high-heeled boots a little unsteady on the slick ground.
Not to mention: conspicuously pretty.
She knew her husband well, and this was not the sort of woman whose name he would forget in a hurry.
‘How’s the Barefoot Beekeeper then?’ She recognised the deep voice, turned to greet Anthony Gallinari, Rita’s brother-in-law.
Anthony was a professional beekeeper, as he liked to emphasise. His thousand hives were trucked all over the state and beyond the Murray to pollinate the fruit orchards; his production of specialty honeys was prodigious.
Amélie’s gentle, small-scale approach was to him the sentimentality of an elderly, amateur ‘lady beekeeper’ who could afford such nonsense.
‘Hello, Anthony, I’m fine, thank you. Not the weather for bare feet, though.’
She stamped her sturdy boots demonstratively. ‘How’s your business?’
The bulky, black-haired man grimaced, sucked his teeth. ‘Very tricky time of year … You know how it is.’
She nodded. Commercial fruit pollination was a matter of fine timing, trying to second-guess the erratic spring climate.
‘Could you maybe spare Lottie for an afternoon, though? Tuesday’s looking good for opening my hives, but these days …’ She shrugged, playing shamelessly on the ‘frail, elderly lady beekeeper’ shtick.
He considered for a moment, then grinned. ‘Sure thing. No Worrés.’ It was his little running joke, a pun on her tall Warré hives, which he found quaint, rustic and, his manner indicated, slightly ridiculous.
She forced a chuckle. Then it died on her lips.
‘What’s the matter?’
Louisa was walking slowly towards them, arm-in-arm with a man in a tweed jacket and flat cap. He looked as if he had come straight from a Scottish grouse moor, or stepped off the label of a malt whisky bottle.
Of medium height and build, his bearing was trim, straight-backed, square-shouldered. His demeanour was pleasant, non-committal as he looked at the wares his companion pointed out to him.
She had seen him two nights before. On her moonlit lawn.
Market stalls, people, Anthony’s concerned face – all began to wheel as she struggled for air which her constricted chest would not admit.
Next week in Telling the Bees:
Chapter 7: Tête-à-Tête
Dr Barry has a serious word.
Disclaimer: The people and events described in this story are entirely the product of the author’s imagination; they bear no intentional resemblance to real-life people and events. The locations are based on real places.