The Beekeeper's Daughter
Tekanasset Island, Massachusetts, 1973
Of all the weathered gray-shingled buildings on Tekanasset Island, Crab Cove Golf Club is one of the prettiest. Built in the late nineteenth century by a couple of friends from Boston who shared the sentiment that an island without a golf course is an island deficient in the only thing that truly matters, it dominates the western coastline with an uninterrupted view of the ocean. To the right, a candy-cane red-and-white lighthouse stands on a grassy hill, used more for birdwatchers nowadays than sailors lost at sea; and to the left, yellow beaches and grassy sand dunes undulate like waves, carrying on their crests thick clusters of wild rose. A softer variety of climbing rose adorns the walls of the clubhouse, and dusty pink hydrangeas are planted in a border that runs all the way around the periphery, blossoming into a profusion of fat, flowery balls. The effect is so charming that it is impossible not to be touched by it. And rising above it all, on the gray slate roof, the American flag flutters in the salty wind that sweeps in off the sea.
Reachable only by small plane or boat, the island of
Tekanasset is cut off from the rest of the country, so that while the Industrial Revolution changed the face of America, it missed Tekanasset altogether, leaving the quaint, Quaker-inspired buildings and cobbled streets as they had always been, and allowing the island to settle into a sleepy, wistful rhythm where old-fashioned values blended harmoniously with the traditional architecture.
There are no unsightly road signs or traffic lights on Tekanasset, and the shops that thrive in the town are charming boutiques selling linen, gifts, pretty toiletries, and locally crafted lightship baskets and scrimshaw. It is a nostalgic, romantic place, but not unsophisticated. Famous writers, actors, and musicians from all over America escape the frenetic, polluted cities to breathe the fresh sea air and find inspiration in the beauty of the landscape, while wealthy businessmen leave the financial centers of the world to summer there with their families.
Crab Cove Golf Club is still the heart of the island, as it was always intended to be, but now it is no longer the hub of gossip that it was in the sixties and seventies, when society struggled to keep up with the changing times, and the old ways clashed with the new like waves against rock. Nowadays the young people who had fought so hard for change are old and less judgmental than their parents were, and conversation around the tables at teatime is more benign. But on this particular evening in July 1973, an incident which would not even merit comment today had whipped the ladies of Crab Cove Golf Club into a fever of excitement. They had barely glanced at their bridge cards before the subject which had been teetering on the end of their tongues toppled off into an outburst of indignation.
“Well, my dear, I think it’s immoral and I’m ashamed on her
behalf,” said Evelyn Durlacher in her low Boston drawl, pursing her scarlet lips in disapproval. Evelyn was the weathervane of polite society. Everything in her environs reflected her conservative values and high moral standards. From her immaculate cashmere twinsets and auburn coiffure to her beautifully decorated home and well-mannered children, nothing escaped her attention. And with the same scrupulous application, and a habitual lack of generosity, she passed judgment on those around her. “In our day, if you wanted to be alone with a man, you had to lose your chaperone. Now the young are out of control and no one seems to be keeping an eye.” She tapped her red talons on the table and glanced at her cards distractedly. “Terrible hand. Sorry, Belle, I fear I’m going to let you down.”
Belle Bartlett studied her cards, which were no better. She took a long drag on her cigarette and shook her blond curls dolefully. “The youth of today,” she lamented. “I wouldn’t want to be young now. It was better back in the forties and fifties when everyone knew where they stood. Now the lines are all blurred and we have no choice but to adapt. I think they are simply lost and we mustn’t judge them too harshly.”
“Belle, you always try to see the good in everybody. Surely even you must concede that Trixie Valentine has let herself down,” Evelyn insisted. “The fact is, she has not behaved like a lady. Ladies don’t go chasing boys around the country. They allow themselves to be chased. Really, it’s very distasteful.”
“It’s not only distasteful, Evelyn, it’s imprudent,” Sally Pearson agreed, giving her lustrous waves of long brown hair a self-conscious toss. “By throwing themselves at men they tarnish their reputations, which can never be restored.” She waved her cigarette between two manicured fingers and smiled smugly, remembering the exemplary young woman she had
been. “A man needs the chase and the woman needs to be a prize worth fighting for. Girls are far too easily won these days. In our day we saved ourselves for our wedding night.” She giggled and gave a little snort. “And if we didn’t, we sure as hell didn’t let anyone know about it.”
“Poor Grace, to have a daughter shame her in this way is very unfortunate,” Belle added sympathetically. “Horrible to think we’re all picking at the pieces like vultures.”
“Well, what do you expect, girls?” interjected Blythe Westrup, patting her ebony updo. “She’s British. They won the war but they lost their morals in the process. Goodness, the stories that came out of that time are shocking. Girls lost their heads . . .”
“And everything else,” Evelyn added dryly, arching an eyebrow.
“Oh, Evelyn!” Sally gasped, and placed her cigarette holder between her lips to disguise her smile. She didn’t want her friends to see her taking pleasure in the scandal.
“But do we really know she ran off with him?” Belle asked. “I mean, it might just be malicious gossip. Trixie’s a character but she’s not bad. Everyone’s much too quick to criticize her. If she wasn’t so beautiful, no one would even notice her.”
Evelyn glared at her fiercely, the rivalry in her eyes suddenly exposed. “My dear, I heard it all from Lucy this morning,” she said firmly. “Believe me, my daughter knows what she’s talking about. She saw them all coming off a private boat at dawn, looking the worse for wear and very shifty. The boy is English, too, and he’s . . .” She paused and drew her lips into a line so thin they almost disappeared. “He’s in a rock ’n’ roll band.” She articulated the words with disdain as if they gave off a stench.
Belle laughed. “Evelyn, rock ’n’ roll is over. I believe he’s more Bob Dylan than Elvis Presley.”
“Oh, so you know, do you?” Evelyn asked, put out. “Why didn’t you say?”
“The whole town is talking about them, Evelyn. They’re handsome young British boys, and polite, too, I believe.” She smiled at the sour look on Evelyn’s face. “They’re spending the summer here at Joe Hornby’s place.”
“Old Joe Hornby? Really, you know how eccentric he is,” said Sally. “He claims to be a great friend of Mick Jagger’s, but have you ever seen him on the island?”
“Or anyone of any importance at all? He claims to know everybody. He’s an old boaster, that’s all,” said Blythe.
“Those boys are writing an album, apparently, and Joe’s helping them,” Belle continued. “He has a recording studio in his basement.”
“Joe hasn’t produced anything in fifty years!” said Sally. “He was a very mediocre musician in his day. Now he’s simply past it. Anyway, who’s bankrolling the project? Joe hasn’t got the money, for sure.”
Belle shrugged. “I don’t know. But the word is, he’s taking them on tour around the country in the fall.” She raised her eyebrows. “That’ll cost a small fortune, don’t you think?”
Evelyn was determined to bring the subject back to the scandal. She glanced around the room cautiously and lowered her voice. “Well, according to Lucy, Trixie Valentine and her friend Suzie Redford disappeared in a boat with the band on Friday evening and didn’t come back until early this morning. Suzie told Lucy not to breathe a word to anybody. They clearly went behind their parents’ backs. I can’t say what they all got up to, but I don’t think we have to stretch our imaginations too far to get close to the truth. You know how those sort of people live. It’s disgusting!”
“Maybe Grace thought Trixie was at Suzie’s!” Belle suggested. “There must be an explanation.”
Sally cut in. “I daresay, but that Suzie Redford can do whatever she likes. There are no boundaries in that family.”
“Well, I’m surprised,” said Belle quietly. “Though I know Grace has a difficult time with Trixie. But I really don’t believe Trixie would have disappeared for three days without telling her mother. Besides, Freddie would never have allowed it.”
“Freddie’s been away on business,” said Sally gleefully. “While the cat’s away . . .”
“It’s all in the nurturing,” said Blythe. “Cherchez la mère,” she added darkly.
Belle stubbed out her cigarette. “Isn’t the saying cherchez la femme?”
“It amounts to the same thing, Belle,” Blythe retorted. “You need look no further than the mother. Grace might be a paragon of virtue and I am the first to say she is the sweetest person alive. But she’s much too lenient. Trixie needs a firm hand and Grace is weak.”
“Grace is indulgent because it took her years of heartache and miscarriage to conceive,” Belle reminded them. “Trixie is the longed-for only child. It’s no wonder she’s a bit spoiled.”
“Grace buries her head in her gardens and tries not to think about it, I imagine,” said Sally. “With a daughter like Trixie, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, she’s a wonderful gardener,” Belle added emphatically. “The gardens of Tekanasset were all very ordinary before she arrived from England and transformed them with her wonderful taste and expertise.”
Evelyn scowled irritably. “No one is questioning her talent,
Belle. It’s her mothering which is open to debate. Now, come on, who dealt?”
“I did,” said Blythe. “And I’m bidding one no trump.”
At that moment the four women were struck dumb by the appearance of Grace herself, followed by a large soufflé of a woman known to everyone as Big. Evelyn closed her mouth sharply. Big was the most respected and formidable woman on the island. Not only did she own the largest and oldest home, which had once belonged to the first settler back in 1668, but she was the only daughter of the wealthy oil baron Randall Wilson Jr., who died at the age of ninety-five, leaving his entire fortune to her. It was said that she had never married because she could find no man qualified to match her in either wealth or spirit. Now that she was in her seventies, marriage was never mentioned or alluded to and Big showed no sign of regret. She treated her closest friends like family and took great pleasure, as her father had done before her, in sharing her wealth through the highly esteemed Randall Wilson Charitable Trust, or simply by writing checks when she felt so inclined.
Grace Valentine looked as out of place in the clubhouse as a shire horse in a field of thoroughbreds. Her long mouse-brown hair was streaked with gray and pinned roughly onto the back of her head with a pencil, and her taupe cotton trousers and loose-fitting shirt were in sharp contrast to the starched perfection of the four bridge players. The only thing she seemed to have in common with them was the sparkle of diamonds in the form of a surprisingly exquisite bumblebee brooch pinned to her chest. Her nails were bitten down, and the skin on her hands was rough from years of gardening. She wore no makeup, and her fine English skin had suffered in the Tekanasset sun and sea winds. And yet her hazel eyes were full of softness and
compassion and her face retained traces of her former beauty. When Grace Valentine smiled, few could resist the sweetness of it.
“Hello, Grace,” said Belle as the two women passed their table. “Hello, Big.”
Grace smiled. “Good game?” she asked.
“It’s not looking good for me,” Belle replied. “But I’m not very good at bridge.”
“Oh, really, Belle Bartlett, you’re just fine,” chided Evelyn, tossing Grace a smile and scrutinizing her for signs of shame. “She’s just being modest.”
“Where would you like to sit, Grace?” Big asked, striding past the four women without so much as a nod. They shrank into their chairs guiltily. Big seemed to have an almost psychic sense when it came to unpleasantness, and she narrowed her eyes knowingly and struck the shiny wooden floorboards with her walking stick without any concern for the noise it made.
“Let’s sit outside, if it’s not too windy for you, Big,” Grace replied.
Big chuckled. “Not at all. If there was a hurricane, I’d be the last person standing.”
They walked through the double doors onto a wide veranda which overlooked the ocean. Small boats cut through the waves like swans and a pair of black dogs frolicked about the dunes while their master strolled slowly up the beach. The evening sun was low in the sky, turning the sand a pinkish hue, and an oystercatcher pecked at the remains of a fish with his bright-orange beak. Grace chose a table nearest the edge of the veranda, against the balustrade, and pulled out a wicker chair for Big. The old woman handed Grace her stick, then fell onto the cushion with a loud whoosh. A few wisps of gray
hair fell away from her bun and flapped against the back of her neck like feathers. “There, the hen is on her nest,” said Big with a satisfied sigh. She clicked her fingers and before Grace had even sat down she had ordered them both a cocktail. “You need fortification, Grace,” she told her firmly. “Never mind those hyenas. They’re all so jealous of you, as well they might be: they have not an ounce of talent between them.”
“They’re all right,” Grace replied. “Believe me, I’ve encountered far worse.”
“I’m sure you have. British women make those four look positively tame.”
Grace laughed. “Oh, I don’t care what people say behind my back, as long as they’re friendly to my face. The trouble with British women is they’re much too outspoken, and I do hate confrontation.”
“I prefer the British way, if that’s the case. If people have something to say, they should say it to your face and not behind your back. They should have the courage of their convictions or not speak out at all. Evelyn Durlacher is a terrible old wooden spoon and I’m quite prepared to tell her so. She should be ashamed of some of the trouble she’s caused on this island with her stirring. It’s as if she goes around looking for things to gossip about. The smugness of the woman is intolerable. She has placed herself so high on her pedestal, the fall will be devastating.”
The waiter placed their cocktails on the table with a china bowl of nuts. Big thrust her fat, bejeweled fingers into the bowl and grabbed a fistful of pistachios. Her face was deceptively gentle, with a wide forehead, full, smiling lips, and spongy chins that gave her the look of a gentle grandmother, but her eyes were the color of steel and could harden in a moment, turning
the unlucky recipient of her displeasure into a pillar of salt. When she looked at Grace, however, she did so with surprising tenderness. “So, what’s Trixie up to, then? I imagine Evelyn has exaggerated the story for her own ends—anything to make her Lucy look good.” Big inhaled through her nostrils and the steel in her eyes briefly glinted. “If she knew half of what her Lucy gets up to, she’d keep her mouth shut.”
Grace sighed. “I’m afraid Evelyn’s probably right. Trixie has fallen for a young man who plays in a band. I don’t mind that, he’s perfectly nice, I’m sure, but . . .”
“You haven’t met him?”
“She told me she was going to stay the weekend in Cape Cod with her friend Suzie . . .”
Big raised her eyebrows cynically. “Suzie Redford! That girl’s trouble, and wherever there’s trouble, she’s in the middle of it.”
“I would honestly say they’re as bad as each other.” Grace smiled indulgently. “But they’re having fun, Big, and Trixie’s in love for the first time.”
Big looked at Grace’s gentle face, her soft hazel eyes and soft windblown hair, and shook her head at the sheer softness of the woman. “What am I going to do with you, Grace? You’re much too kindhearted. So, tell me, where did they really go?”
“With the band.”
“Where, with the band?”
“To a private concert they were giving in Cape Cod for a friend of Joe Hornby, who’s in the industry.”
Big sipped her cocktail thoughtfully. “But she was found out.”
“Yes, Lucy saw them all returning on a boat this morning
and told her mother. Now, I imagine the whole island is talking about it. Trixie came clean before she went off to work. You know she’s got a summer job at Captain Jack’s. Anyway, I didn’t have time to talk to her. In spite of her rebelliousness, Big, she’s a good girl at heart. She confessed, at least.”
“Only because she was spotted by Lucy. I’m sure she wouldn’t have told you if she thought she had got away with it. I’m afraid she’s a disgrace, my dear, and you should ground her for the rest of the holidays. In my day I would have been beaten for less.”
“But it’s not your day, Big, and it’s not my day, either. Times are changing. Young people are freer than we ever were, and perhaps it’s a good thing. We can disapprove of the music they listen to and the inappropriate clothes they wear, but they’re young and full of passion. They demonstrate against inequality and war—goodness, you only have to look at my poor Freddie with his one eye and that terrible scar down his face to know that there are no winners in war. They’re brave and outspoken and I rather admire them for that.” She pressed her rough fingers against the bee brooch on her shirt. “They’re idealistic and foolish, perhaps, but they realize that love is the only thing that really matters.” She turned her hazel eyes to the sea and smiled pensively. “I think I’d like to be young now, with my whole life ahead of me.”
Big sipped her cocktail. “Heavens, Grace, you baffle me sometimes. When everyone else is pulling in the reins, you’re letting them out. Is that a British trait, I wonder? Or are you just contrary? Tell me, does Freddie know about Trixie’s little adventure?”
The mention of her husband cast a shadow over Grace’s face. “I haven’t told him yet,” she replied quietly.
“But you will?”
“I don’t want to. He’ll be furious. But I’ll have to. Otherwise, he’ll hear it from someone else. Bill Durlacher teeing off at the fifth hole, most likely!” She laughed out of anxiety rather than merriment.
Big’s large bosom expanded over the table at the thought of Bill Durlacher gossiping on the golf course. “Bill’s as bad as his wife,” she retorted. “But you’re right to tell Freddie. He won’t want to be the last person on the island to know.”
“He’ll be horrified, Big. He’ll give her a lecture on discipline and probably put her under house arrest for the remainder of the summer. Then she’ll spend all her time finding ways to see this boy behind our backs.” She chuckled. “I know Trixie. She’s got more of me in her than she knows.”
Big looked surprised. “I can’t imagine you breaking any rules, Grace.”
“Oh, I wasn’t always so well behaved.” She smiled wistfully at the memory of the girl she used to be. “Once I was even quite rebellious. But that was a long time ago.” She turned her gaze to the sea again.
“What whipped you into shape?” Big asked.
“My conscience,” Grace replied with a frown.
“Then you would have done the right thing, for certain.”
“Yes, I suppose so.” Grace sighed heavily, and there was a hint of defeat in it as well as regret.
“Do you want the advice of an old matron who’s seen it all?” Big asked.
Grace drew her mind back to the present. “Yes, please.”
Big wriggled in her chair like the nesting hen of her own description. “You go home now and have stern words with Trixie. Tell her she’s not to deceive you like that again. It’s
important that you know where she is and who she’s with, for her safety as well as your peace of mind. You also tell her that she’s not to leave the island again for the rest of the summer and it’s nonnegotiable. You have to make it very clear, Grace. Can you do that?”
“Yes, I can,” Grace replied halfheartedly.
“It’s a matter of respect, Grace,” Big stated firmly. “Really, my dear, you need to toughen up if you wish to assert any control over your child, before it’s too late.” She took a moment to sip her cocktail, then resumed. “When her father arrives, you tell him what happened but inform him that you’ve reprimanded her and that the business is done and dusted. Period. You think he’ll drop it?”
“I don’t know. He’ll be very cross. You know how he likes everything to be in order.” She shrugged. “I could play it down . . .”
“You mustn’t lie to him, Grace. That’s important. You two have to stick together. You’re a softhearted woman and I know you want to support Trixie, but you chose your husband first and it’s your duty as a wife to stand by his side on all matters.”
Grace looked beaten. “Duty,” she muttered, and Big detected a bitter edge to her voice. “I do hate that word.”
“Duty is what makes us civilized, Grace. Doing the right thing and not always thinking of ourselves is vital if we don’t want society to fall apart at the seams. The young have no sense of duty, and by the sound of things they don’t have much respect, either. I fear the future is a place with no morals and a distorted sense of what’s important. But I’m not here to preach to you. I’m here to support you.”
“Thank you, Big. Your support means a lot to me.”
“We’ve been friends for almost thirty years, Grace. That’s a
long time. Ever since you came to Tekanasset and turned my backyard into a beautiful paradise. Perhaps we bonded because you never knew your mother and I never had any children.” She smiled and took another handful of nuts. “And everyone sucks up to me but you,” she said with a chuckle. “You’re a gentle creature but an honest one. I don’t believe you’d ever agree with me just because I’m as rich as Croesus, as old as the Ark, and as big as a whale.”
“Oh, really, Big!” Grace laughed incredulously. “You might be as rich as Croesus but you’re not as old as the Ark and you’re certainly not a whale!”
“Bless you for lying. My dear, when it’s a matter of age and size I give you my full permission to lie through your teeth.”
• • •
When Grace returned to her home on Sunset Slip the sun had turned the sea to gold. She wandered onto the veranda with her two retrievers and gazed out across the wild grasses to the beach and glittering water beyond. She soaked up the tranquil scene thirstily. The sound that soothed her more than anything else, however, was the low murmur of bees. It filled her heart with melancholy, and yet that wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. In a strange way it gave her pleasure to remember the past, as if through the pain she remained in touch with the woman she had once been and left behind when she had set out for America all those years ago.
She went round to the three hives she kept along the side of the house, sheltered from the winds and sun by hemlock planted for the purpose, and lifted one of the lids for a routine check. She didn’t mind getting stung occasionally. She wasn’t afraid, either, but it caused her distress to think that, on stinging, the bee was sacrificing its own life to protect the hive.
Arthur Hamblin had taught his daughter everything he knew about bees, from their daily care to the tinctures of propolis he made to cure sore throats and other complaints. Beekeeping had been their shared love, and tending the hives and extracting the honey had brought them close, compounded by the fact that they had only each other in the world. Grace remembered her father fondly every time she saw a bee. His kind face would surface in her mind with the gentle humming of the creatures he had so loved, and sometimes she could even hear his voice as if he were whispering into her ear: “Don’t forget to check that the bees are capping off honey in the lower supers.” Or: “Can you see the bees guarding the entrance? There must be a threat. Wasps or robber bees perhaps. I wonder which it is.” Arthur Hamblin could talk about bees for hours and barely draw breath. Often he would talk to them, reciting his favorite poem, which Grace had heard so often she knew it by heart: Marriage, birth or buryin’, News across the seas, All you’re sad or merry in, You must tell the Bees.
Now as Grace looked inside the hive, the bees were settling in for the night. The temperature had dropped and they were sleepy. She smiled fondly and allowed her memories to ebb and flow like a vast sea of images and emotions. Time with her bees was time to be herself again, and time to remember.
As she replaced the lid she sensed the familiar presence of someone standing close. She knew not to turn around, because the many times she had glanced behind her had revealed nothing but the wind and her own bewilderment. She knew to sense it and not to analyze it; after all, hers was an old house and Tekanasset was an island well known for ghosts. Even Big had stories to tell. The presence didn’t frighten her; in fact, she
felt strangely reassured, as if she had a secret friend no one else knew about. When she was younger she had confided in her mother, who she hoped was able to listen to her from Heaven. Nowadays, when she felt low or lonely, she’d come and talk to the bees and feel comforted by this ghost who gave out a loving energy and was perhaps as lonely as she was.
Recently she had begun to sink more often into her former life. It was as if with the passing of the years her regrets grew stronger and her attachment to her memories more desperate. For the last twenty-odd years she had thrown herself into motherhood, but Trixie was growing up and soon she would move away, and Grace would be left alone with Freddie and the fragile remains of their marriage.
“Hello, old friend,” she said, and smiled at the absurdity of talking to someone she couldn’t see.