My father almost made me afraid of bees. He was stung by a bee when I was eight or so, while mowing the lawn or trimming branches in our untameable front garden, and I was the only other person home.
“Don’t be scared Shan,” he said, “But I’ve been stung in the neck and if it starts swelling up you will have to call triple oh and get an ambulance.”
I can’t remember what my thoughts were at that point. Looking back now, I wonder if for a terrible minute I considered not calling an ambulance if he went into anaphylactic shock. I know I felt sorry for the bee. I had trodden on one the previous summer, running between the eucalypt and the verandah with bare legs and bare feet. It hurt, but I was more upset that the bee would now be crawling off to die, eviscerated by one careless step.
Bees are essential creatures. Even at eight, I was aware of the basic mechanisms of plant propagation – I plucked the runners from spider plants and inserted them into soil-filled egg cartons to make a dozen new spider plants – and I had a disproportional level of empathy for the insects which made my favourite fruits possible. I was much more concerned for the bee than for dear old Dad.
To anyone who is shocked at the idea of an eight year old leaving her stepfather to die, blue-lipped and gasping from a bee stings while she climbed trees and spied on neighbours, perhaps I should tell you that I was not a normal child and this was not a normal childhood. My father resting his life in my ill-equipped and potentially murderous hands is simply one instance in a long list of missteps and rash words than now float unwelcome through my brain at inopportune moments – usually 3am after too much wine, in a room with too many sharp objects.
Back then I considered my father ridiculously benign, like a skin tag – unwelcome and unsightly and unexplicable, but for the main part merely a lumbering presence constantly shadowed by my mother’s sharp words. I had been told once or twice ‘just wait until your father gets home,’ but many times she forgot to tell him whatever it was I had done, or he didn’t care.
But yes, my father was just someone who made dumb mistakes (a hot bath when I had hives) and was easily avoided. I knew the real power lay with my mother.
It is strange for me now to realise he is equally to blame. To discover that not everything that keeps me awake in the small, dark hours is from her, that some of the lines that runs through my head are in his voice. There’s a near endless litany.
It’s a problem of cerebral wiring, the fact that I can recall with perfect clarity what he told me when he found out I was pregnant with my first child, but I can’t remember any good things. The brain cannily grasps each negative emotion and amplifies them, spinning them endlessly and biasing us against any alternative. While I know at my graduation he bought me a gold locket, what I remember vividly is another lecture on why I should be nicer to my mother. They had been separated for 14 years at the time.
Having a father is not the be all and end all. He taught me how to drive and change a tyre, how to cook spaghetti bolognaise and to never, ever admit fault in a car accident in case your insurance decides to make things difficult and for these things I am eternally grateful, but they don’t make up for the other acts that made me who I was by the time I had to leave home. Or the lack of acts, that didn’t protect me from the world, or from my mother.
I am not afraid of bees. I stand by the hive with my arms widespread and let them buzz their furry-legged dance on my bare skin. When I step on one, or when one gets mired down in honey and drowns in its own sweetness, I mourn a little, but recognise that they are just doing what bees do. They protect the hive. They sacrifice themselves for their family. They face unsurmountable odds to provide the nectar the young bees need to survive.
And if the previous generation makes decisions that are no good for the hive, the young bees will swarm and leave, taking what they know out into the world and never looking back.

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