There must have been over a thousand in the town hall on the night of the annual beard-of-bees competition. In previous years I’d been a member of the audience. An enthusiastic spectator. But this year I was competing and I felt sick. I felt sick because soon I’d have to step out onto the stage without even the most rudimentary facial-covering. I was clean shaven. In the context of the evening it wasn’t a good look.
Arctic Jim was strutting about backstage. His beard must have been at least eighty pounds. A coterie of groupies were following him around braving the swarm. Sleazy Carlos was there too. Even he had a fair covering. A light stubble.
I, on the other hand, had not even managed to get a single wasp to grace my cheek. I’d tried. I really had. I’d spent hours hiding in the herbaceous border, my face painted like a flower. I’d doused myself in nectar and lain down in a wild meadow. I’d sat below a hive and sung the special bee song and done the special bee dance, waggling my arse in time to my guitar strums. But bees, you see, are intelligent creatures. They can tell a fraud straightaway. If deep down you don’t really want them to swarm onto your face, they won’t. And that was my problem; I didn’t want bees on my face. I didn’t want to be the town’s beard of bees champion. The bees knew this.
So why was I in the competition? Well, because of my father. He’d been town champion the previous year. And every year before that for twenty years. And before him there was my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. For close to a century a male member of my family had carried away the annual beard of bees trophy. You see the thing is, if you’re a man, to be anything in this town you have to be able to charm the bees. And the men in my family could charm the bees the best, therefore they were the manliest men in the town. Well, up until I came along that is. So that’s why I’d lied to my father. Told him everything was coming along great, that there was no doubt I’d be champion. I just couldn’t admit to him that I could no more charm a bee to my chin than I could charm a fish out of the sea.
I peeked out from behind the stage curtain. There was my father in the front row and my grandfather beside him. And beside them there was the urn containing my great-grandfather’s ashes. Three generations. Three-fold disappointment. In the last row I caught a glimpse of the mole-catcher’s daughter. In truth, I wanted her much more than I wanted to win this competition. But why would she want me, a man who can’t even muster a beard of bees in a town where that is the minimum and sole qualification for manhood?
When the time came, I’m still not sure why I stepped out onto the stage, my face naked and bee-less. I think I wanted to make some grand speech about how we should be judged on the things we do and say – our compassion, our understanding, our generosity – rather than our ability to cover our faces in stinging insects, but in the end nothing really came out. My face turned red and hot and I fled the stage before the judges could announce their decision.
Fully expecting the walk home to be a solitary one, I was surprised when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the mole-catcher’s daughter.
“So you can’t get bees to form a beard on your face” she said. “So what? I can’t catch moles.”
We walked together in the twilight on the road out of town. The bees left the flowers in the hedgerow as we passed.