A Glass Room
He ran his hand over the bronze door knocker, hesitant to use it; in fact, he was unsure if he had guessed correctly that it was indeed a door knocker. He was quickly coming to the conclusion that this job was going to be an odd one but he could hardly have said no, and the boss had said he’d find the Oswalds’ place ‘an interesting experience’. The address the boss gave him was two hours out of the city, in some town the boy had never heard of nor noticed before on the GPS. It was a desolate strip of shops and run down houses called, ambitiously, Queens End. However, the Oswalds didn’t even live in the little ghost village: they lived off the main strip, on acreage, surrounded by a six foot electric fence. He wondered what caper these Oswalds were in to afford such an imposing estate.
Taking a deep breath, he grabbed the ring on the knocker and gave it a good rap, thinking not unwisely that such a gigantic house would swallow the sound of a visitor’s knock. But when he heard the door knob immediately begin to turn, he looked above his head to note a camera trained on him: of course, he had been watched on approach, and someone must have buzzed the gate to let him in from the road. He felt a prickle of apprehension and wondered why these people would need such tight security.
He stepped back to allow space between himself and the person behind the door, and bent down to pick up his tool kit. Lifting his head he initially saw black shoes: shiny, heeled and with a strap, like school shoes but fancier. They were tiny, and had little flecks of gold on them that sparkled in the sunlight spilling over his shoulder. He rose slowly and looked up the length of pale legs, very slender but shapely; black short shorts, snug on hips; the exposed strip of a flat stomach visible under a cropped black blouse; pale and thin arms crossed over a flat chest; slender neck draped with straight black hair; and finally, a small heart shaped face, plain and pale but notable for strong arched eyebrows and unadorned blue eyes. He stood silently, tool kit in right hand and focussed on the small tattoo on this intriguing girl’s neck. In trying to make out what it said, he realised he looked like some slack-jawed fool, and promptly shut his mouth.
The girl sniffed derisively, and turned on her heel, curling a finger imperiously and ordering ‘This way’. He stepped onto the landing and wiped his feet, while quickly glancing around the high ceilinged foyer, empty bar a marble table in the centre with a bronze statue of a winged creature on a stand. He hastened his step to keep up with her steady stride through the hallway, out into a sitting room adorned with a white grand piano and a crystal chandelier. The sitting room led into a kitchen, the size of a commercial one, and equipped like one as well. Several silent workers moved around the appliances, stirring bubbling pots and lifting boxes into a bank of glass door refrigerators lining the kitchen walls. He glanced into them to see varied shapes and colours but couldn’t make out the items, such was his hurried pace in the wake of the girl in black.
They left the kitchen to enter a glass enclosed courtyard filled with large cactus-like plants, in varying shades of green, and he noticed that the air conditioning was not streaming into this space. The plants, of which vast numbers he had never seen before in one indoor area, were dripping with moisture from the humidity. The room was silent except for the tapping of the girl’s heels on tiles. She approached a glass door at the far end, which appeared to lead into some sort of other narrow, high ceilinged room. He stopped at a respectable distance behind her as she stood on tippy toes to reach for a key on a hook beside the door. He noted with great interest the slow reveal of an intricate and altogether startling tattoo covering the entirety of her creamy white back. He cricked his neck and took in all the detail: it was circular, a border of thorns, maybe a wreath. Inside the circle danced a girl, not dissimilar to the girl on whom the ink lay; and dancing with the girl were two bees. Of course, he mused, thinking back to the foyer and the statue he now identified as a bee. To be honest, he couldn’t remember seeing a live bee, he only knew what they looked like from his Little Golden Book of Words, and from science projects at school. He wondered why the girl would tattoo herself with an image of an insect virtually disappeared from Australia. To be quirky? To be cool? While he wondered, the girl had put the key in the lock and was about to turn it before she paused and seemed to remember he was behind her.
‘We need to keep this room at a certain controlled temperature and the air conditioner struggles to do so against these weather extremes. Your boss has fixed our unit many times so I’m hoping he gave you some information on how to do a similar service?’
Her voice was low and grave in tone: she was very serious for a girl her age and he was a bit flustered by her direct gaze.
‘He described the unit. I should be able to give it a crack.’
She winced at his response before turning, and gently pushed the door open.
At once a heaving noise and a shock of heat hit his senses. It was a noise he had never heard before but if he had to describe it he would have thought it much like an army of helicopters flying in formation. He bent a bit, just like one would bend under the blades of a chopper and the girl smirked at him as she stood at the door.
‘Are you coming in?’
He picked up his tool kit and took a few tentative steps into the doorway. Inside was something like he would imagine paradise to be: hundreds of small trees and plants crammed together in a glass walled room, with a mass of movement swaying the branches and foliage. He couldn’t make out at first what all the movement and noise was but he glanced again at the back of the girl as she shut the door, and he realised he was surrounded by bees. Alarmed, he backed into a tree to escape the thousands of insects surrounding him, but the tree let forth a swathe of the creatures, and he raised his hand to his forehead in a vain attempt to protect himself.
‘We breed bees.’
‘Yeah, I can see that.’
He lowered his hand and let out his breath as he did a quick inventory to check for any bees landed on his person.
‘Have you even seen one before?’
‘Only on tv, on the net for a school project.’
‘My family saw their imminent extinction many years ago and started breeding them here, away from the chemicals.’
‘I’d heard there were still some around. So you have, like, a monopoly on bees or something?’ He stepped over to look at the fruit on the tree behind him. ‘What are these?’ He rolled the spiky red globe in his fingers, and sniffed the earthy perfume released from the rustling of the leaves.
‘Lychees. You used to be able to get them easily when the bees were active, but now’, she paused, ‘we sell them for a small fortune to those who still remember them.’ The girl took the lychee out of his hand and stepped closer to him. They bent over to watch her gently squeeze the fruit, a split forming in the red skin and the sticky juice dribbling into her palm as she caught the clear flesh slipping from a rock sized pip.
She raised the lychee to his lips and with her free hand, pressed her finger onto his bottom lip, forcing it open. As if he was a child, she fed the lychee into his mouth and he felt the cool wetness cover his tongue, coating his teeth. He hadn’t tasted something so fresh, so tangy, for a long time; he tossed the pip into his tool kit and licked his sticky lips, dragging his top teeth over his bottom lip to savour all the lychee juice. All the while, the girl stood with her hands clasped behind her back, immobile as bees flew around her head, some gently landing on her shoulders only to take off again on some new mission.
To his surprise, the lychee raised dormant memories in him and he looked further into the room, trying to place the name of a tart taste that was materialising in his mind, a childhood treat. He remembered a large tree, easy to climb, in his grandparents’ garden. It had huge, heavy fruit.
‘Mangoes!’ He clicked his fingers and laughed. ‘Mangoes, I remember mangoes. That taste reminded me of mangoes’.
The girl unclasped her hands and turned carefully. She beckoned with her finger and he followed her into the dense mass of trees. The thrum of the bees pulsed, making he and the girl slow their steps and push branches aside delicately so as not to break the rhythm. Each push of foliage sent a spray of sticky sweet perfume; its freshness made the boy lightheaded. He was used to clouds of sterile chemicals in the air conditioning workshop.
The girl ducked under a low hanging branch, and took his hand to pull him under a canopy of expansive boughs. Without a word, she took a dainty step onto a low hanging branch, and gripping the bough above it, rose up to twist off a perfectly formed mango, hanging like a droplet among bright green leaves. Something made him automatically reach up to help her down, and like a queen, she took his hand without looking at him. She drifted down gracefully, like climbing mango trees was an everyday activity for her. Startled, he noticed that her hand was icy cold, even though the humidity of the room was making sweat run down his back and pool under his armpits. Sensing the heat pulsing unpleasantly from his body he stepped away from her so as not to taint her cool perfection. She stepped closer, and with his hand grasping hers, flipped it and placed the mango neatly into the cup of his palm. He closed his fingers over the yellow globe, and gently pulsed the yielding flesh. He lifted it to his nose and breathed the fragrance deeply, closing his eyes and remembering vividly his grandmother’s image. He found himself murmuring ‘Grammy’, and opened his eyes to the serious gaze of the girl. ‘You can take that home to your Mother’, she said as she turned on her heel and ducked back under the mango tree branches.
‘How did you know it was my mum’s mother?’ he mumbled to her retreating back.
‘Honey?’ she called out to him, through the rustling of foliage.
He struggled under the branches and followed the sound of her voice, crystal clear through the drone of the bees.
‘I said honey. Would you like some honey?’
He ducked under the limbs of a lemon tree, fragrant white blossoms falling to his shoulders as he came close upon her back. She turned her head and spoke quietly over her shoulder, cautioning ‘No sudden movements’. She lifted a net away from a series of caramel coloured boxes, hundreds and hundreds of them, oozing with liquid running down the sides. Here the bees were a mass of bodies, wings flapping so rapidly that the air seemed to move towards him as a live thing. He wanted to cover his ears from the din of noise but was too scared to disobey her warning. Instead, he kept his hands glued to his side, and let a trickle of sweat run down his temple and his cheek, eventually dropping slowly off his chin.
‘This is a hive. You may have seen one on your “net”.’
The bees parted as if she held some magic power over them, and she pushed her arm through the path they created, holding her elegant fingers under the dripping honey. The liquid was golden and sunlight streaming through the glass ceiling made coloured prisms through the sticky strands hanging from the girl’s hand. She turned and held her forefinger to his lips, which he parted readily this time, anxious to again feel her icy touch on his mouth. He pushed his tongue forward slightly and was intoxicated by the heady contrast of her cold finger with the warm honey on its tip. The taste of the honey was like a distant memory, the texture deliciously from the past; his diet, for years now had been consumed completely with dry, processed foods.
‘More?’ The girl raised her eyebrow in question.
She then popped her own finger into her mouth, sucking in her cheeks and making a popping sound as she removed all traces of the gooey nectar from her index finger. She cocked her head and nodded before he could answer, scooping more honey from the hive. He watched her languid movements, the swirl of the bees above her head and he felt faint from the heat, the noise, the scent of citrus blossoms, and the anticipation of her touch again. With a kind of swoon, he tipped his head forward, and accepted the honey in his mouth. However, this time some crazy compulsion came over him to sink his teeth onto the cold flesh of her finger. Not usually prone to impulse, the strangeness of the whole experience made the boy lose his head, and with abandon, he pressed his teeth gently down. She gasped softly. At that moment a large bee appeared in his line of sight and as a lone missile, flew in a direct line to land onto the tip of his nose. Surprised, he released the girl’s finger, just as the sharp stab of the bee’s sting pierced the soft flesh of his nose. In the surge of heat, adrenalin and blackness that followed he knew, in that moment, only one thing – that he had fallen in love with the girl. The girl, in turn, as she recognised the tell tale signs of anaphylaxis, sighed and reached for the emergency cabinet of EpiPens behind the hive. She knew, in that moment, that she would never see the boy again.
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