A bee sting, my mother and my need to be touched

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Léa Antigny

Ire­cently de­cided to start a flower di­ary. The di­ary would be weekly en­tries in­spired by a shrub or flower or even weed I had no­ticed that week. It was in­tended as a way of en­cour­ag­ing my­self to pay at­ten­tion – not just to the things around me but to pay at­ten­tion to the way I pay at­ten­tion at all. As well as notic­ing the plants them­selves, I’ve no­ticed some­thing else. An im­pulse ton ar rat iv i se ev­ery­thing.

Walk­ing along the New­cas­tle shore­line, I no­ticed bees hov­er­ing over the coastal shrub­bery. They were hyp­notic to watch. I could stand in front of them for half an hour be­fore re­al­is­ing my eyes had gone out of fo­cus. It re­minded me of the bee sting I made hap­pen as a child.

I’ve told the story of this par­tic­u­lar sting a few times. Some­times I say I did it on pur­pose. Some­times I say I was only set­ting the scene and, putting on a con­vinc­ing show, was stung by ac­ci­dent. By now I’ve retro­fit­ted so much mean­ing to the whole act that I can’t be sure which is true. When told out loud it is usu­ally for comedic ef­fect. In telling it, I’m self-dep­re­cat­ing about the fact that I’m needy, that I can’t be alone. That I’m an at­ten­tion-seeker. In­stead of try­ing to hide these things, I pre-empt them. I get ahead of them with a joke. Isn’t it funny how I need to be touched? Isn’t it silly?

My fa­ther once said “you’re just like a dog! You need con­stant pat­ting”. I was curled up in his lap and had in­structed him, as I so of­ten would, to “trace on my back”. When­ever his arm would grow tired and his hand fall away, I would shrug my shoul­der or make a small mur­mur. Keep go­ing.

This much of the story is true – my con­stant need for touch. Once, at the end of an es­pe­cially drain­ing work trip, I rolled my suit­case into the MAC store at Auck­land’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. “I’ve got these dark cir­cles un­der my eyes,” I told the shop as­sis­tant. She showed me a con­cealer and of­fered to demon­strate, as I had hoped she would. After the strange­ness of the hy­per-so­cial and in­cred­i­bly lonely week on tour, that first stroke of the soft brush on my face felt like I was crack­ing a crème brûlée. I closed my eyes and felt ev­ery slight touch, will­ing it to go on for­ever. I left with three prod­ucts I couldn’t af­ford.

On the af­ter­noon of the sting, when I was about six years old – even my age at which it hap­pened is a wild guess – I wanted to stroke my mother’s hair. Just to reach out and touch. She was busy at the time and kept swat­ting me away. I’d been won­der­ing what would get her at­ten­tion. If I was hurt – for ex­am­ple, if I had been stung by a bee – surely, she would have to let me.

So I sat, cross-legged and de­ter­mined, in the white clover in our front yard. I watched as the bees moved from flower to flower in fits and starts. The

clover was the kind from which we would make daisy-chains at lunch. Pick­ing a thin stem at its base, press­ing the cres­cent moon of my thumb­nail into the fleshy green un­til the skin on ei­ther side snapped, thread­ing a new stem into the fresh wound, join­ing clover to clover, end to end, till they were strung to­gether, hold­ing each other in their new mouths. Like tiny can­ni­bals.

I watched the clover as they bent and bounced back un­der the weight of the bees, drift­ing slow and lazy, land­ing and tak­ing off with the light­est touch. I reached out with my right hand and pur­pose­fully swept my needy fin­gers through the clover, dis­rupt­ing the bee’s path, un­til I felt the sting. At that mo­ment, the fool­ish­ness of the whole ex­er­cise be­came clear. I ran in­side and cried out for her, and it worked, of course. I curled into her, gripped her hair, and cried. My face was hot with shame.

The story is only ever weighted with mean­ing if I choose to tell it a cer­tain way. If I choose not to play it for comedic ef­fect. Some­times I tell it as though when I was six, I al­ready knew that my years of phys­i­cal in­ti­macy with her would be cut short. It’s not that poignant, re­ally.

It is funny to call them daisy-chains, I’ve never made one from real daisies. We didn’t have daisies in our yard. We did have dan­de­lions, which I thought were flow­ers, planted in­ten­tion­ally, un­til one day my grand­mother told me they were weeds. I used to think the same of lan­tana. Sweet pink and yel­low candy-like flow­ers. Once, vis­it­ing a friend’s prop­erty, her par­ents chas­tised me as I mar­velled at the toxic plant. “It’s ev­ery­where,” her mother frowned. “It’s chok­ing the earth.”

It’s easy to tell the story of the sting as though it’s about any­thing other than a child not yet able to ex­press her­self and need­ing a lit­tle too much. It’s easy to think the white clover is any­thing other than grass.

Pho­to­graph: Gy­orgy Varga/EPA

“The story is only ever weighted with mean­ing if I choose to tell it a cer­tain way. If I choose notto play it for comedic ef­fect.”

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