The Hive

A Novel

By Gill Hornby

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Gill Hornby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-23479-5


Autumn Term

The First Day of Term

8:45 A.M. DROP-OFF

There was Bea, standing over the other side, in the shade of the big beech tree.Rachel, clearly waiting in the wrong place as usual, moved to go and join herand then stopped short. Uh-oh. She could read the signs even from that distance:taut, watchful, smiling ... Bea was building up to one of her Big Announcements.The playground was so noisy and frenzied—it always was the busiest morningof the school year—that a normal person might have to shout, bellow even,to attract everyone's attention. But not Bea. She would never raise her voicearound school, especially after the bell had rung. Anyway, there was no need.She just picked her moment, cleared her long hair from each side of her face asif parting the curtains on a stage, gave a little cough and began: "Welcomeback, welcome back. Hope your summer was amazing." And at once the chaoticback-to-school clatter dropped to a placid, steady hum.

The groups that were scattered about, catching up after the long break, allstopped and turned around. Those who were standing alone, anxious about thefirst day in a new class, forgot their nerves and stared. "Now then, everyone.Listen up. Please." Bea held up her enormous bunch of keys, gave them a sharprattle and smiled some more. "I have been asked ..." she paused, "by the newhead ..." the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, "to pick a team."She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was thetallest of them all by far.

Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the prefab classroom, lookedon and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What wasBea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the treeand clustered round. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with littlechoice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this oneout, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would waithere. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

The tarmac in the playground needed restoration and was already tacky from theunusual morning heat. Rachel had to keep peeling up the sole of her shoe to stopit sticking. While August had been dank and dark, the summer had bounced backbuzzing and full of beans for the start of the new school year. It was funny,she thought, how the seasons seemed to take the holidays off, too. The last fewChristmases had been warm and wet. Only in the Easter term had winter eventuallyshown up, buried them all and shut the school completely. And now here they allwere, after a month of fleeces and cagoules and more Simpsons than wasgood for them, back for the autumn and sweltering. Perhaps it wasn't justschools that came alive according to the academic calendar: it was a pattern tosuit the whole of the natural world.

Rachel tried to tune into Bea's little rally without actually moving, but shecould only hear snippets. There was something about the fabulous newheadmaster. And the latest savage cuts. And, guess what, some fund-raising.Of course. Yet more fund-raising. She shifted her weight onto the otherhip and tuned out again.

She watched idly as a tractor measured out lines on a field beyond the gamespitch, gazed up at an airplane drawing a perfect curve in a sky the color ofQuink. Christ, it was hot. What was she doing wearing jeans? This weather wasdoing nothing to help her general feeling of listlessness. Unlike, apparently,the rest of nature, Rachel had no back-to-school bounce. She was buzzless.Bean-free. She'd had to drag herself up the hill to get here thismorning—Sisyphus and his wretched rock rolled into one. But still, after aholiday like that one, even Rachel was, if not quite glad, definitely relievedto be back.

She always did like this school, and even from the murky puddle at the bottom ofher own little well of misery she could see that today it looked pretty muchlike paradise. St. Ambrose Church Primary teetered on a hill, clinging to theedge of its market town, enjoying the view of the luscious green belt while itcould, before the inevitable retail park came along to ruin it. Rachel loved itsmock-ecclesiastical architecture, its arched front door and slopingroof—so resonant of the splendid nineteenth-century social values that hadbrought it into existence. She could lose herself for hours in the differentshapes thrown above the playground by the puzzled branches of the old beechtree, under which the children played in the day and their parents wereassembling now.

And of course she liked the people. OK: most of the people. St. Ambrose, afterall, was famous for its people. It was known throughout the county for itsone-big-happy-family shtick. They all looked out for one another at St. Ambrose;prided themselves on it. Well, some of them did. And Rachel had always,instinctively, made a point of having as little to do with that lot, thank youvery much, as was politely possible. Still keeping her distance, she watchedthem all over there, one-big-happy-family-ing round Bea, raising their hands tovolunteer for something or other, jittery with excitement. Rachel shook herhead: frankly, she despaired sometimes, she really did. But, at the same time,she did think Bea was amazing; it was impressive, really, to give people somethankless task of joy-quenching tedium and make them feel truly thankful. To seeher surrounded by women—outlining plans, issuing commands, thinking big,rearranging a few mountains—was to see a creature in its element. It wasjust who she was. Rachel could only look on, with love and enormous admiration.Really, she and Bea might as well belong to different species. But it didn'tmatter: they had been great friends—best friends, really—since theday they met, when the girls first joined Reception five years ago.

The soundtrack of the first day of term—the chanted good-mornings, thelittle chairs being scraped into low tables, plastic trays thumping back againstclassroom walls—drifted out of the open windows. And suddenly the cornerof Rachel's eye was caught by someone she had never seen before—tall,dark, a study in elegance from her clean, swinging bob to her pretty ballerinapumps. And, Well, well, well, she thought to herself as she turned to get abetter look. Well, well, well. That was a rare and wonderful sight: an actualexciting-looking newbie. In her long and wearying experience of that playground,the September intake was so strikingly similar to the previous term's leavers asto be virtually indistinguishable—as if she had sat in the dark through tothe end of the credits and the same boring old movie just started playing allover again. Could it be that this year might turn out to be different? The samestory but remade, with a fresh new cast?

The newbie approached the crowd around Bea and hovered on its edge, circling.She seemed to debate whether to join in, weigh up the pros and cons, beforedrifting off through the gate and towards the car park. While Rachel wished shewould hang around, just for a minute so they could meet, she also had to applaudthe wisdom of getting the hell out without being nobbled. But even as she didso, some grudging admission that she really should be doing her bit was bornwithin her and grew until, like a nagging small child, it was pulling andpushing her somewhere she didn't want to be. There was nothing for it but togive in. Rachel sighed and dragged herself over to the tree to be given a minor,lowly, inconsequential task—some small token of belonging.

"Aw, that's amazing. Thanks, lovely," Bea was saying to the unlovelyClover, who was always hanging around on the edge of things, like a black cloudat a picnic. "And I've got Colette, Jasmine and Sharon on board. All old hands."

How did Bea do that—know who everyone was? Rachel had seen them every daysince forever, but she still found it hard to tell that lot apart. Well, thatwasn't quite true: since Colette's marriage broke up last year and she releasedher inner teenager, Rachel did now know Colette. It was hard to shut out thegossip, however much you wanted to, and the gossip seemed to suggest that everysingle bloke within quite a significant radius also now knew Colette. ButJasmine and Sharon—she defied anyone to know who was who there. They couldswap lives and no man or child would necessarily notice. And even if they did,would they bother to mention it? Those two exercised together, shopped together,thought—even spoke—as one. Rachel didn't know if they had holidayedtogether too, but she did know they'd had too much sun—they looked like alittle helping of snack-box raisins.

That was always the striking thing about the first day of term—thechildren had all gone trotting into class trimmed and polished and shiny, butthe mothers looked about as groomed as Robinson Crusoe. Rachel couldn't quiterecognize half of them. Give them all a few weeks, and their turn at thehairdresser or the spa, and the situation would be reversed: the kids would be amess and the adults reborn. Apart from Heather, of course. Heather didn't reallydo polish, or trimming, or grooming. She had been the same reliable recognizablefigure, in the same reliable clothes, for the past five years. Right then shewas on tiptoe—she did need to be—and using her left hand to push herright up yet higher, waving it frenetically. And as she did so her specs wereslipping dangerously far down her nose.

"All right, er ... Heather, isn't it? Perhaps you can ..." Bea looked stumped,then inspired. "I know! You can be secretary to the committee! We'll give it ago anyway. No promises, mind. But let's see how you get on."

Heather flushed with triumph. It was a shame, thought Rachel with genuinesympathy, that Heather did not meet triumph more often. All pink like that, shedidn't look quite so tragic and mousey.

"Ah." A note of something like mischief came into Bea's voice. "Georgina.Joanna."

Georgie—who, to be fair, was as kempt as the average castaway whatever theseason—was trying to sneak past. Her hair was even wilder than usual afterthe long weeks of holiday, but Rachel still thought she looked quite lovely.However much she tried, Georgie could never quite hide her natural, classy,skinny good looks. Jo, stocky and strong, stood beside her like a minder.

"What"—Georgie sighed as she stopped and turned towards Bea—"now?"

"The new headmaster is determined to somehow overcome the absolutelyappalling attacks on the St. Ambrose budget this year—it's ascandal what's happening, we are so lucky to have someone withhis wealth of financial expertise—and he has asked, um, meto form a fund-raising committee. I just think it would be nice if you twojoined in. For once."

"Me? No. Sorry. Really. Love to. But couldn't possibly." She picked up thetoddler padding along beside her and held him up as her passport out. "I've gotHamish ..."

"Georgie, he's hardly a baby anymore! And you do have more children in thisschool than any other family." Bea smiled at the crowd as she spoke.

"But you don't want me. Really. I'd be useless." She moved closer to Jo. "We'dboth be useless."

"Yeah," nodded Jo. "Rubbish."

"Well, thank you. It's great to have you on board." Bea wrote down Georgie'sname. "And you, Jo." Another little tick. "Excellent." They retreated,muttering, indignant.

Rachel was hardly going to raise her hand like everyone else. She was not atotal loser. But she was preparing to attract Bea's attention and make a small,subtle yet ironic sign that she might help in some way vague and tangential,when someone else she had never seen before stepped to the front and addressedthe whole crowd. Hello, what was this? Not another standout newbie? They werereaching levels of excitement here that were really quite unprecedented. Rachelchortled away to herself. She did hope St. Ambrose was up to it ...

"Oh, OK," said the exotic stranger, who was as tall as Bea, as blond as Bea andactually—golly—as good-looking as Bea. "Surrender! No excuse. Careerbreak. Extraordinary feeling! Nothing for it. Do one's bit. Yikes! Heregoes. I will come and help you all."

Bea raised an eyebrow. Oh dear, thought Rachel. Bea didn't raise an eyebrow veryoften—risk of skin damage to the forehead—but when she did ...blimey. It was on a par with an ordinary mortal, say, throwing a chair out of awindow or driving a car into a lamppost. Christ. The eyebrow. Rachel gave a lowwhistle.

"Sorry." Bea's voice was as warm as her smile, but that eyebrow was still way upthere. "I don't think we've met ..."

"I'm new. First day. Just loving it." She swept her enormous sunglassesoff her face and up into her long hair. "You know that feeling: done theright thing. We're so pleased we chose St. Ambrose. Perfect. Gad.The private sector! Escapees. Never again. I'm Deborah." She stopped todazzle the assembly with her teeth. "Deborah Green. But everyone calls meBubba."

Woo and hoo, thought Rachel. We've got a right one here. That's it. I'm in afterall. This is going to be a laugh. She raised her hand, just as Bea flicked backher hair and declared that her work there was done.

"Thanks, all." Bea laced the strap of her enormous handbag into the crook of herelbow, shook her gigantic bunch of keys. "I really do think this is going to bea very interesting year." And she swept out of the school gates and off to hercar.

Rachel stared after her. She had hardly had a clear thought in weeks, what withthe murk, the well, the puddle, the depths, etc., but at that moment, as shestared at the blond-on-dark stripes on the crown of Bea's retreating hair, shehad several. One after the other. Clear as day.

The first was: Huh. Weird. She didn't speak to me. And I haven't spoken to herfor ages.

The second: Hey. Have I actually clapped eyes on her since Chris walked out?

And the third, very, very sharp this one: Hang on. Bloody hell. She didn't pickme.


Minutes of the First Meeting

Held at: The Headmaster's house

In attendance: Tom Orchard (Headmaster), Beatrice Stuart, Georgie, Jo,Deborah Green, Sharon, Jasmine, Colette, Clover

Secretary: Heather Carpenter

THE MEETING began at 8 p.m.

MR. ORCHARD thanked everybody for giving up their evenings and wished to—

BEA seconded that and also informed the committee that HEATHER was to act asSECRETARY for the very first time and informed HEATHER that all she had to dowas take down exactly what everybody said and make it sound a little bit, sheknew, more official-sounding if she could. She also would like to add that shereally loved those new shoes.

MR. ORCHARD continued that he was touched by the dedication of so many parentsin the community. He explained that this was his first post as headmaster afterseveral years in the City, that the financial situation was as grim as therumors suggested, but he was in possession of a number of proposals which in hisview would lead the school out and up to a brighter—

BEA thanked THE HEADMASTER on the committee's behalf and stressed the excitementat its hearing of all his plans, which she already knew to be awesome and whichshe totally promised would happen so soon.

COLETTE informed the meeting that she had made some nibbles, nothing much, justa few cheesy bits into which the committee should simply dive.

MR. ORCHARD requested that the meeting just took the time to hear—

BEA thanked THE HEADMASTER again and proposed the coming of first things first.This committee needed a Chair.

MR. ORCHARD informed the meeting that he presumed he was the—

CLOVER wished to add that she had bought some Wotsits.

SHARON requested to inform all present that BEA was the obvious choice forChair—

JASMINE explained that this was because BEA was always Chair.

BEA proposed that she really did not want to be appointed Chair for the reasonthat she was always Chair. And perhaps it was time for someone else and thedoing of their bit.


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