They were back.
I watch them unload their chainsaws and walk to the base of the huge gum tree, all shaking their heads as they all look skywards. The three of them, dressed in fluorescent orange and yellow vests, hard hats and big boots, were accompanied by a large cherrypicker, a tip truck and a ute. The largest of them jumps into the cabin of the cherry picker, while the smallest one waves his arms about and shouts instructions to anyone within earshot.
I sink further into the corner of my old bed, savouring the last of my chamomile tea, and close my eyes. I breathe deeply, then try to stuff myself all the way back into my old doona, grinding my teeth as the grinding of machinery breaks the early morning silence, and my resolve for a few days of peace and quiet.
They were back to do battle with the bees. The tree is full of them. Bees, that is. It was far enough away not to bother me. And I didn’t bother the bees either. A bee colony can be a formidable enemy if it wants to be. Live and let live I say.
A few weeks ago a few more men had stood at the base of the gum and made notes. They had looked official, which would have been my uneducated guess, until a truckload of hippies with banners turned up started yelling obscenities, which had confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t get involved, I hardly ever do these days, but it was interesting to watch them all scatter as an army of tiny airborne assassins ran them off their patch quicksmart. Bees do not discriminate. They attack all interlopers equally.
I thought that this would have been the end of it for a while, but the local council is nothing if not tenancious when it comes to doing absolutely everything about nothing, and nothing about everything. And a tree with a few bees on a large block of land is nothing as far as I am concerned – therefore the council must do everything within its power to be rid of it. If the wind is travelling in the right direction with a couple of by-laws in alignment, then Council will win the day, regardless of a few greenies heckling from a safe, stingproof distance.
So here we are. The revving of two or more chainsaws and the smell of petrol filled my sunlit bedroom. I concede defeat for the moment and walk out onto the veranda. Two more hard-hatted workers have turned up and are busy wrapping some ropes to a highly polished cherry-red ute. One looks in my direction and sneers. I close the shutters and walk into the kitchen. Out of sight, out of mind, and hopefully all over soon. And to the victor will go the spoils.
Silence. Not even a bird twitter. I can’t help myself. I peer through the shutters. Dust, a massive branch and the flattened bonnet of the cherry-red ute lay before me. The sneerer runs to the base of the cherrypicker, screams and points at what is obviously his flattened pride and joy. I almost feel sorry for him, but let’s face it, it’s just a ute and they are certainly not arborists. A couple of kookaburras laugh from the safety of a nearby tree, and I swear I hear cheering from the next field.
The smaller man yells and points to the bigger man in the cherrypicker. Then he points to the ground. The bigger man gives the smaller man a one fingered salute and revs up the chainsaw. What is left of the ‘groundcrew’ scuttle to the remaining vehicles, and they move them out of the way. For the next half hour or so, I hear the grinding of the chainsaw and a regular thump as the tallest bits of the gum fall to the ground. I abandon the paperback I’d started a few days ago to the coffee table, it’s saga now less interesting than the saga unfolding around me.
The chainsawing stops, and I hear the sound of the cherrypicker being lowered to the ground. I walk back to the veranda and see the truck moving off down the road in the direction of the local pub, and no one in sight. It must be smoko. I look at the tree. Its massive trunk is intact, with a few branches poking sideways from the top. The last magnificent bastion rising up from the earth. But no bees. Just a few tiny stragglers flying around at the top of the last cut. I look at my watch. A short reprieve for the small intrepid trunk dwellers that would not last. I retreat to my daybed for some mid-morning refreshment and a nap. It’s a nice life when I can get it.
I awake to the sound of a car door slamming. I grit my teeth as I rub my eyes, and prepare for round two, but the sight of half a dozen semi-naked, mud-encrusted hippies that greets me over the veranda railing is not quite what I expected. One waves cheerfully as he opens the ute door and sprays something onto any hard hat and vest he can get his hands on. His friends appear to be doing the same to the cherry picker.
‘It’s bee juice, man.’ he chortles to me, and now his friends are all waving. ‘Bees hate it, man. Stay clear for a while.’ I nod at him as I think about how clear I will have to stay. I want to see what happens. This may not be fair, but it’s fun. Leave it to the hippies to wage passive warfare on the ute-toting rednecks.
I watch the hippies disappear back into the next field as I make myself another chamomile tea. I look at the clock. Two hours is more than enough time to fill up with a hamburgers, a few beers and some bravado. I feel like a co-conspirator as I sit back on the day bed to enjoy the show.
I’m rewarded by the sight of the truck moving back towards the battle-zone, followed by a tow truck, and an older looking ute. They all pull in, the sneerer jumping down from the tow truck to hook up the cherry-red ute to it’s back-end. I assume he is leaving the scene for the time being, and feel a little disappointed. But he has brought a replacement, who is now standing near the base of the trunk, scratching his beard and shaking his bald head.
‘I dunno boss. I dunno.’ He raps his knuckles on the trunk. ‘Pretty hollow boss. Plenty of bees.’
The small man pulls the hard hats and vests out and hands them around to his men. ‘Don’t worry about the bees. Ken’s here. He knows about bees.’
All eyes, including my own, move to the fellow removing a silver contraption from the back of the old ute. This must be Ken. ‘This is a smoker.’ says Ken, ‘I won’t light it until we get to the top of the trunk. Calms the bees.’
Everyone nods knowingly at Ken. I smile, and hope they are all upwind.
The cherrypicker starts its ascent while the crew ready the ropes on the ground. As they reach the top, Ken gets busy with his smoker while the bigger man revs up his chainsaw. We all wait for the first cut, and then the next.
‘We’re close!’ screams the bigger man. He makes the final cut.
Ken starts smoking his smoker.
Then all hell breaks loose.
I can’t see much as I squint up into the sunlight. But there’s plenty of screaming and plenty of smoke from Ken’s magic bee calmer. I move to get into a better position, and I see the men in the cherry picker surrounded by a huge cloud of bees now swarming from the top of the trunk. Ken is waving his smoker around like a madman, but the big man is is almost lost amongst the thousands of angry little bodies swirling around him. The cherrypicker starts moving from side to side erratically, then up and down. Ken abandons his smoker and throws it to the ground, hanging on to the sides of the cabin for dear life.
The smaller man on the ground is running back and forth with his arms in the air. ‘Bring it down! Bring it down!’
I see the cherry picker being lowered at a rapid rate with the bees in hot pursuit. They almost fall from the cabin as it reaches the ground and the bees spread out. The big man runs to the truck screaming while Ken retrieves his smoker and surrounds himself with smoke. This seems to work for a bit, as the bees go after every other vest wearing invader that they can find. The smaller man and his offsider are broadsided by the black mass as they jump into the ute and take off. As the windows were down I’m pretty sure that there were more bees in the front seat than were in the tree trunk.
Ken and the bald man run to the truck and try to climb in the cabin. They are now the only eligible contenders left for the bee tree title, so they are attacked from all sides. The big man in the truck is having none of it and locks the doors. So much for comraderie. I see them looking around desperately for some shelter and I hide behind the screen. Hey, I can sympathise, but it’s survival of the fittest. As they turn and make a run for it down the dirt road towards the local creek, the black swarm starts to dissipate from around them and return to the tree. The big man in the truck waits for a little while and then drives down the dirt track after Ken and the bald man.
I look around me. There is no noise, everything is still. I hear a couple of indian war cries from the next field, and I imagine a party of epic proportions down in hippy valley this evening. There’ll be tales to tell and reputations to uphold -the stuff of legends. I look at the tree once more. It’s still standing, a little worse for wear, but with an army of tiny terminators to protect it and some happy valley co-conspirators, it may well be here for a lot longer yet.