the bookkeeper and the bees16 March 2022
A man walked into a shop. He went up to the counter and said, “I’d like twelve bees, please.”
“Certainly, sir,” said the lady behind the counter. “And may I say, an excellent choice.”
“It’s for my wife,” he explained.
“Well, she’s a lucky woman.”
“I … well”, he said. “Not really.”
“This is an atonement of sorts.”
“You see, I have not always been like this. I was a bookkeeper. I managed spreadsheets, every day. Make sure the right data is added, make sure it all collates, clear up any confusion. Keeping track of other people’s money.”
“It’s an honorable profession.”
“It is. Not the most exciting to be sure. But it was a reputable company—Felix Bane Equity, maybe you’ve heard of them. I did a good day’s work and went home to my lovely wife and two kids.”
“You said ‘was’,” said the lady behind the counter. “Did something happen?”
He laughed. “Did something happen? It did.
“We had a range of clients, as you do, but I had one client who took up the biggest part of my portfolio. There was a lot of money moving in and out. A lot. And always through these complicated mechanisms, in and out of shell companies, crypto exchanges, the City. Nothing illegal, at least not on our side. But you know. Not exactly legit either. Who he was, we did not know. Everything was anonymous.
“Over time work for this client grew until I was assigned exclusively to him. I would go into the office, sit at my spreadsheet and work through the latest transactions. I’d get a coffee, chat with a colleague, then immerse myself in high-end hotels, custom couture, luxury yachts. Over time, the meaning of the payments became associated with specific brands, with objects, times, and places. They started to form memories and associations in my mind. Daydreaming, I guess, but they became more than numbers; I could smell them.
“The work grew. Gradually the whole company ended up working on this one account. But I was on it the longest, so they were working for me in a way. It was good, the client was so rich, the company was making bank just doing the books. Until one day, we heard that there was to be a change in ownership. Nothing changed on our end, just our founders retired and we had a new name listed as our owner.
“Not unusual, of course, but I knew that name. It was some conglomerate. No different than a million others. But something about it, the smell, tickled me. I looked it up, followed it through the maze of shells, until it brought me back to the Client. We were auditing the books for our new owner.
“Dodgy? No doubt. But we didn’t do anything different. To be honest, I don’t think there was anything to it. I think there was just an offshoot of a shell of a branch somewhere, and someone managing a portfolio decided to buy this profitable accounting firm. They didn’t even know.
“Nothing mattered to anyone. Except me. Now I knew.
“Each day I’d come to work, assign the tasks, do my job. I’d see my colleagues, going on with their lives. I’d go home, kiss my wife, play with my kids. It was easier than ever to be happy. But there was this … split. Like I could be happy because I was watching myself drift, like a balloon. Unmoored.
“The numbers became too heavily freighted. There was too much meaning in them. They were like, pushing at the boundaries of their cells. I began to fear that they’d escape.
“One day, I got up from my seat to make a coffee, and I just kept walking. Out the door, down the street. I kept going.
“I saw things. Trees, children, cars. Nothing special. Not like the fantasy world that I knew in my spreadsheet.
“I wandered into a shop. They made fish and chips. I smelled it and walked out again.
“I wandered until night came. I grew tired. I ended up on a beach. It was nice. I sat there, looking out at the sunset. It was warm and still.
“It had been a hot day, and I didn’t like feeling sticky and smelly, so I decided to go for a swim. I stripped naked—there was no-one around—and dove in. It was lovely! I felt free and strong as I swam out.
“I turned, and to my shock, the beach was gone. I’d swam further than I thought. There must have been a rip. I didn’t know what to do. It was dark and I felt afraid. I swam, but did not know the direction.
“I knew that I was in grave danger. This was it. It was almost like I had come here for this. Looking back, it seemed as if my direction since leaving the office had been right here. Like my feet had been unconsciously leading me to this point and no further.
“I blacked out. But I didn’t drown, obviously.
“I came to in a medical station. White walls, medical equipment around the place. I was dry, safe, in a bed with clean sheets. I was wearing a gown. A nurse came in, smiled, and said, ‘You’re awake! Thank goodness. We were all so worried for you.’
“‘Where am I,’ I asked.
“‘Don’t worry, you’re safe,’ she said. ‘You’re on a boat. We saw you in the water. Or our owner did. He was on the deck, and just happened to see you. You’re very lucky. We’re a long way out.’
“‘Oh,’ I said.
“‘When you’re ready, you’ll meet him. He’s anxious to hear your story.’
“I was feeling okay, so I said, ‘I’d like to thank him.’
“‘Well,’ she said, ‘come.’
“I got up, feeling a bit self-conscious in my hospital gown. But the nurse laughed, told me not to worry. She led me down a long corridor, up an elevator, and along another corridor.
“‘How big is this boat?’ I asked.
“‘Big!’ she laughed. We came to a door. ‘Sir,’ she called.
“I went in. The owner got up to meet me. It was a sitting room, I guess. High in the boat, with views out to the waters. He smiled and took my hand. ‘So good that you’re okay!’ he said.
“I thanked him. He looked at me concerned and said, ‘Is everything alright? You seem not all here. Here, sit down.’
“It was the strangest feeling. I knew this place. I had been here. Of course, I had never been here, never anywhere even remotely like here. But I knew it. Every surface, every smell. And this man, I knew him. He was the Client. This was the world I had been living in every day, the world inside my spreadsheet. And here it was, in polished mahogany, in dewy bottles of champagne, in couches of soft leather. All these things had come to be through the touch of my fingers.
“I told him my story, leaving nothing out. When I finished, I said, ‘I’m right, aren’t I? You are he?’
“He looked thoughtful. ‘I guess so,’ he said. We paused for a while until he said, ‘Here, let’s get you some proper clothes.’
“He took me to his closet, filled with the most exclusive custom tailoring, and invited me to take what I wanted. I picked some clothes. They all fitted perfectly. He took me to a mirror, and said, ‘There, you look great.’
“It was odd. We were different people. We didn’t look all that much alike. But generically—mid-tall, medium build, white, brown hair with a bit of grey—we weren’t that different. And standing beside him, my savior and benefactor, in the mirror, it was almost like we were twins. ‘Perfect,’ he said.
“Then, to my astonishment, he started taking off his own clothes. ‘I’m sorry, what?’ I said. He said nothing. When he was stark naked, he walked out on to the deck, and without hesitation, dove in to the ocean.
“I was gobsmacked. What to do? I looked around me, panicking. Would people think I pushed him? What was he doing?
“‘Help!’ I yelled. Right away, a butler opened the door.
“‘Yes sir?’ he said.
“‘The owner—he just jumped overboard!’
“‘I’m sorry, sir, what do you mean?’
“‘He just took off his clothes and jumped!’
“‘Ahh, I see, sir. Well, I guess this is some kind of game, but I’m not sure how it is played.’
“‘Game? It’s no game.’
“‘Right you are sir. Well, since you have apparently jumped overboard, my services will no longer be required for the night, I assume. Have a good night, sir.’
“He closed the door, leaving me more confused than ever. I rushed out of the room, but every time I spoke to one of the staff, they just called me ‘sir’, until I realized the obvious: they thought I was him. Nothing I could do would change their minds.
“I slowly came to realize that this must have been an out for our Client. He must have been in some kind of trouble. Or maybe he had just grown bored with his life, as I had with mine. Maybe he’d been looking for an escape, and he saw me as some kind of doppelganger. I had left my life behind, and I was intimately familiar with his. I knew all I needed to know about his lifestyle, his preferences and tastes.
“Ruminating, I fell asleep on his large, circular bed. I woke to the sun streaming through the windows and sparkling on the infinite sea. The butler was back with a breakfast tray. Without looking, I knew exactly what was on it. A tossed omelette, two eggs, with fresh-baked bread and parsley on the side, a whole mango, a glass of fresh-squeezed mandarin juice with sparkling water, and a dash of sriracha. And of course, a strong black coffee.
“The butler served me silently, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. I was hungry, so I played along. I had to admit, breakfast was pretty delicious. Nothing like simple food done perfectly.
“Each moment it was as if I sank more deeply into the Client’s life. I knew it was a lie, but was it though? He didn’t want his life, so why not me.
“I enjoyed my day. Until as evening came, I got a call. A young woman came on the screen. She was in her early twenties, and obviously excited about something. ‘OMG dad! I got in!’
“‘I knew you would, sweetheart,’ I said.
“‘No money, no influence. They didn’t even know who I was. I just gave them the application and they liked me!’
“‘I’m so happy for you, my darling. I know how important it is for you to do your own work.’
“‘There’s a research grant opening up soon, and they say I should apply. The whole department’s behind me.’
“I was truly happy for her. We chatted about this and that, about her boyfriend, her new apartment. I was proud of her.
“And so it went. I slipped into his life like a second skin. I have no idea why or how, but somehow I just knew everything that I needed to know. It was like, this was the life I had been living all along, and my old life seemed more like a dream.
“Now I was the one making the deals, ordering the transactions. And someone in my old firm was keeping track of it all. I played in the best casinos, stayed in the best hotels, ate the best food, and drank the best wine. I met my daughter and hugged her and shook her boyfriends hand. And I made love with my new wife. It was perfect.
“Just one small thing. I couldn’t quite stop thinking. Where had he gone? I mean, he clearly made his choice, I felt no guilt. But did he just … go? Did he drown? I mean, I assume so. But I didn’t really know.
“I wondered whether he might make it to shore. Perhaps the rip reversed itself, or we had drifted into another tidal pattern. If he arrived there, with no clothes on. No life, no personhood. He might collapse, exhausted but grateful, on the sandy beach, just as the dawn was breaking. Taking the first breath of a new life.
“Early on the beach there are many eccentric people. Power walkers, yoga circles, models doing photoshoots, men with metal detectors looking for watches. And nudists. A naked man would be nothing strange. Maybe he’d walk up from the beach, grab some clothes from the shower or changing area, and walk on down the road. He would feel free for the first time.
“Where would his feet lead him? Would he gaze in wonder at the passing fancies? Would a mere traffic light or stubbed-out cigarette be an object of fascination for him? Where would his feet lead him?
“Down nondescript roads, past generic shopfronts, through beige suburbs, until he came to a house. Would he walk up to the front door and knock? And when a woman answered, would he say, ‘I lost my keys!’
“Would she squeal and embrace him, telling him how worried they all were? Would she assume he’d had a fugue state, wandering aimlessly overnight? And the next morning, after kissing his wife goodbye, would he look forward to going to work, settling down to an ordinary, good job. Taking care of my money?
“I have the resources, of course. I could easily get someone to find out for me. But that wouldn’t feel right, you know?”
“I understand completely,” said the lady behind the counter. “Hence the bees.”
“Hence the bees.”
Taking the box of bees from the shelf, she began counting them out. “One. Two. Three. Four …”
“I know it must seem weird,” said the man.
“Not at all, sir,” said the lady behind the counter. “It’s more common than you think.”
“I just need to know,” he said. “Once I know, I can settle it, go back to my yacht.”
“I’m sure your wife will love it.”
“What? Her?” the man said. “Oh no, you misunderstand. I’m going back to my yacht, but I won’t be taking her. My new wife is much better. I just need to know.”
“Oh,” said the lady behind the counter. “My apologies, I assumed …” She continued counting. “Five. Six. Seven. Eight.”
“I wonder what will happen, though,” mused the man. “I mean, if he’s there or if he’s not: which one is better? I guess in a way it’s better if he is there; more symmetry.”
“Indeed, sir.” she said. “Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.”
He thought, or imagined, a flicker behind her eyes. Like the studied facade of unquestioning service had slipped for a second. “Listen, miss …” checking her nametag, he said “Shesha. Who are you to judge me! I’m just following my dream.”
“Of course, sir,” said the lady behind the counter. She caught his eye, and slowly counted out an extra bee. “Thirteen.”
They stared right at each other in silence for a moment.
“But madam,” he said. “I paid for twelve bees.”
“That’s right, sir,” she said. “The last one is a freebie.”