My father liked to call himself an Apiarist, which I think tells you a lot about him. He would puff with pride when asked and carefully explain: it is a person who works with and cares for honeybees. Ahh, the questioner might say, you mean a Beekeeper? He would nod sagely. Yes, an Apiarist.
And my mother would roll her eyes.
Of course, he was not an Apiarist by trade; it was a hobby. Nonetheless, it was his consuming passion. Every day, when he came home from the office, he would go straight out into the garden to check his hives, sometimes without even saying a word to his waiting family. So, when the bees left, something fundamental to his sense of self was lost. I don’t think he was ever the same again. It was, in so many ways, the beginning of an end.
I still remember the day. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. I arrived home late from school one day and he was sitting quietly at the kitchen table, tears pouring down his face. Terrified, I asked him what was wrong and in answer he led me silently down to the bottom of the garden. He showed me a frame from one of the hives and I was surprised to see that there were hardly any bees on it. Normally, it would have been a mass of activity. Moreover, the golden lattice was spotted and discoloured with weeping brown marks. Looking closer, I saw that many of the cells were filled with a vile substance like tar.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘Colony Collapse Disorder,’ he said, mournfully. ‘Also known as Mary Celeste Syndrome.’
‘What does that mean? What causes it?’
‘No one knows,’ he said, and his knees seemed to buckle momentarily. I held his arm. He slowly sat down on the bench by the shed.
‘They’re fleeing,’ he said, his voice cracking, and he started crying again.
It must have been at about that time that we first visited Oates Road. Was it one of the first manifestations? I’m still not sure. But I can remember clearly the unreasonable sense of resistance I felt as we stood at the end of the road and Liv dared me to walk into it.
We had left school to walk home together when she asked me if I had heard about this strange new thing, the empty street. I had not.
‘The Empty Street,’ she said, and the way she said it denoted capital letters. ‘Apparently, it’s really spooky. Shall we go and see it?’
I considered this possibility. There wasn’t much else to do, and anything that would delay sitting down to homework was welcome. I nodded.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘It won’t take long.’
And so that was the first time I visited Oates Road. I was to go there four times in total. Five, if you also count the time we looked into the back gardens.
It wasn’t clear to me what it was we were actually going to see. I asked Liv about it and she explained.
‘It’s a street,’ she said, ‘and…’ – she paused for dramatic effect – ‘everyone’s disappeared.’
‘Disappeared? How?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘They’ve gone. It happened one night. And now it’s empty. And it’s really spooky.’
For some reason, in my mind’s eye I saw men and women and children in long white Victorian night shirts and gowns drifting dreamily out through the windows of their houses and rising slowly into a moonlit sky.
We took a different bus that day and got off by a parade of shops that I had never seen before. We walked for about a quarter of a mile and Liv said, ‘I think this is it.’
We were walking down a long straight street called Union Road from which a series of shorter streets ran off to the left. We had passed Wilson Road, Bower Road, Scott Road and now we came to Oates.
‘What’s the difference between a street and a road?’ I asked.
We stood on the corner and looked along the street. Neat Victorian terraces with small front gardens lined either side. Many were screened with tall privet hedges. Some of the gardens had been paved to provide off-street parking. Cars were parked in rows along the sides of the road. A light breeze blew, rippling the hedges, but otherwise there was no movement. Did it look strange or unusual? No, it did not. Did it look ruinous or decayed? Not really. Perhaps a little unkempt. But that was pretty much par for the course in that part of town.
‘Do we go and look?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ said Liv, doubtfully. ‘You know, now we’re here, I’m not sure.’
‘What?’ I looked at her, incredulously. ‘It’s just a street. Just like all the others.’
‘I know. But still, there’s something odd. Can’t you feel it?’
I couldn’t, and said so. It was clear to me that the expedition had been a waste of time.
‘Come on,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to get back. I’ve got a ton of English and History to get through.’
I was an hour late when I got home and Mum gave me an ear bashing.
But I must have felt something, for Oates Road stayed in my mind in the days that followed. I kept thinking about it. I asked Mum and Dad about it one evening and he thought that it rang a bell. ‘Is that the commune?’ he said. ‘With the hippies?’
‘No, it’s the street where everyone has disappeared and the houses are all empty,’ I explained.
‘Gone? What do you mean?’ asked Mum, intrigued.
‘Disappeared. All the houses are empty, apparently.’
‘What? Have the police been? Or the council? You can’t just have an empty street. Someone owns those houses, don’t they? They wouldn’t just…’
‘I know. Weird, isn’t it? I’ll try to find out more.’
‘You do that,’ said Dad, distracted, undoubtedly pondering the problem of his beloved bees.
A few days later, I suggested to Liv that we go back. She agreed, and said we should take Stella too. So, we took the bus again, and on the way Stella told us what she had heard about it. One day, Oates Road had been full of people. It had been completely unremarkable. And then one night it happened. In the morning the street was empty. No one could say why or how. She said that for days cats and dogs could be heard wailing and barking inside the houses, calling to be fed, but eventually that stopped too. After a while, the bin men stopped going down the street as there was nothing to collect. The post office stopped delivering. Stella had heard all this from a friend of a friend, and it was apparently corroborated by a cousin, and by something overheard by her mother in the pub. Or something like that. It all seemed very far-fetched.
The three of us stood on the corner of Oates Road and looked down it. It was perhaps the length of a football pitch. A series of streets ran between Union Road, where we were standing, and Larkhall, at the other end, like the rungs of a ladder. Oates was in the middle.
It looked the same. Nothing much had changed, as far as I could see. Yes, I observed, the hedges were bushy and untrimmed, the flower beds unruly, but that was it.
But then, after a minute or so, I did begin to feel something odd. It’s difficult to describe. It was a peculiar tension, like when you’re watching a film and you know there’s going to be a jump scare and you’re waiting for it, bracing yourself. I had goosebumps on my forearms. And looking at the others I could see they felt it too.
‘I dare you to walk down it,’ said Liv. She looked fierce.
Stella and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
What was it that stopped us? To this day I cannot say. Afterwards, I wondered if we had just succeeded in spooking each other – like when you tell ghost stories after lights out – but when Liv and I discussed it a few days later, we both said that we had felt something very particular. It gave us a shiver of excitement to acknowledge it, to know that it was something we shared and had not just been a fancy.
We stood on the corner for ten minutes or so, and it was noticeable that no one came out of or went into any of the houses. And also, that while there was a steady stream of cars and vans on Union Road none of them turned down Oates Road. It was empty. A barren valley cut through the busy landscape of the city.
Yes, I had to admit that something was awry. Oates Road was not as it should be.
With nothing better to do, we walked further down Union and turned left onto Evans. At the end we turned left again so we found ourselves at the other end of Oates, looking back up to where we had stood previously.
Everything was still, as before.
‘Is it just me,’ said Stella, ‘or is it very quiet?’
It was true. We couldn’t hear anything.
The world was distant.
After that, time passed; we were busy with school life and exams, and Oates Road was forgotten. But about a year later Stella and I were at a party at a friend’s house on Scott Road. Stella’s father drove us there and it was only when he turned the car into Larkhall that I realised where we were.
Alison’s party was in the sitting room and kitchen on the ground floor and none of us were allowed upstairs. But the doors onto the garden from the kitchen had been thrown open and, as it was a fine warm evening, we spent most of the party out there. Alison’s garden was beautiful; a neatly clipped lawn and beds packed with flowering rose bushes. At the bottom of the garden was a shed and a paved seating area, and a high wooden fence that marked the border with the back garden of the corresponding house on Oates Road. By climbing on a bench, I was able to peer though a hole in the fencing into that garden – and saw an impenetrable mass of thorny brambles and tangled ivy, dense with dusty spiders’ webs that seemed to phosphoresce in the dusky light. It did not look anything like a garden at all. It was wild and unruly. In a clearing at the centre of it all, two foxes lay in a post-coital trance, their eyes closed, their tongues lolling, wet and pink. There was something about that sight that was deeply and profoundly shocking to me. Stella looked through too and I could see that it affected her in the same way. In the car on the way home, she looked at me and I nodded.
And so, a few days later, Stella, Liv and I stood again at the end of Oates Road. Now, it was clear that things had changed. The front gardens and hedges were completely overgrown. Drifts of brown leaves were piled along the pavements and up against the garden gates. The cars were covered in layers of moss and grime, as if they had not been moved in a very long time. A van listed on two flat tyres.
Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to me once again that an uncanny quiet filled Oates Road, as if it were somehow screened off from the rest of the world, remote from the traffic revving and groaning on the High Street, the conversations taking place in shops and pubs and bars, and the planes carving tunnels through the clouds high above us.
Liv made the dare. But this time I was determined to take it.
‘Really?’ said Stella, when I nodded. She had not expected me to be brave enough.
‘Yeah, why not?’ I said, feigning calm.
I put one foot in front of the other and began to walk down the centre of the street, following the road markings as if they were a gangplank.
As I walked, I looked about me. Many of the houses had curtains drawn across the windows (and I remembered then that whatever had happened there had happened at night) but others didn’t and I could see into them. But there was nothing there; no lights, no movement, just shadows. The houses were slowly, incrementally, falling towards dereliction. Everything was profoundly overgrown. The further I got from the end of the street, the more unruly and overwhelming the vegetation became. The ivy and creepers growing on some of the houses had even covered the windows and doors.
When I got halfway, I paused. Looking back, I saw that Liv and Stella had disappeared. I froze. Incapable of movement, I had the distinct impression that something had come undone, that I was adrift.
After some time – how long? – I looked up again and saw that they had appeared at the other end of the street. They must have run around the block.
It took all my willpower not to break into a run. But I knew that – for some reason – it was very important to maintain the appearance of composure. So, I walked slowly and, as I did, I fixed my gaze on my two friends. I was afraid to look into the darkness of the empty houses that loomed around me.
When I finally reached the end of the street, Liv and Stella looked at me in horror.
‘You’re bleeding,’ said Liv, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket. Looking down I saw that my white shirt was stained with a bloom of red and that blood was pouring from my nose. How had I not noticed?
After that, Liv, Stella and I drifted apart. Soon after, Stella went to another school. Liv and I were doing different subjects and found that we spent less time in each other’s company, although we sometimes still walked home together. There were new things to think about by then: boys, jobs, the future, the end of history, the end of the world. When I eventually left to go to university, I think I knew I would not live in that city ever again. I went back to see Mum and Dad of course, but when they passed away it was as if the tie that bound me to that place had been severed and with it any notion of a kind of ‘home’. Mum went first, after a brief and brutal illness. Dad followed slowly and sadly. It was clear that something had broken in him when the bees left. In a way it seems remarkable that he kept going for as long as he did after that profound loss. In the garden, long neglected, the hives stood empty amongst long grass, mouldy doll’s houses, hollow mansions filled with dust and thick with ancient spiders’ webs.
Nonetheless, recently I did go back. An old friend had become engaged and invited a group of us to celebrate. It was to be a bit of reunion. She gave me the name and address of a bar and it was only when I came out of the underground that I realised how close it was, and of course Oates Road came back into my mind for the first time in an age. It was early evening. I had time. I consulted the map at the tube station and then made my way there.
Oates Road was boarded up. Now it really was cut off from the world. As I came to the corner with Union, I saw that it had been closed off with high wooden hoardings. They were painted that particular green that they use on building sites and there were ‘no entry’ signs. But there were no gates or doorways and none of the usual signage one sees on building sites, the exhortations to wear hard hats and so on. There were no signs of activity – of construction activity or, indeed, demolition – but while the hoardings were too high to see over, I could tell that the houses of Oates Road were still standing.
I walked the block to the other end of the road and found it similarly closed off. Here, however, one of the panels had come loose and it was possible to squeeze through.
On the other side it was clear that a profound transformation had taken place. Oates Road was falling apart. I was reminded of photographs I had seen of the aftermath of war, of the uncanny exclusion zone around Chernobyl; the dereliction, abandonment, collapse. The distinction between road, pavement and garden was no longer clear. Weeds sprouted confidently from the gutters and from the cracks that now criss-crossed the tarmac. The creepers had left the gardens and curled over and around the cars, which were now grey and sooty with dirt and dust or obscured beneath carpets of moss. Litter had been carried in on the wind and formed huge piles and massive drifts. A gang of crows regarded me serenely from their position upon a cracking wall. Parakeets chattered to each other across the empty street, and when they took to the air they were like bullets of lime green.
A ragged fox lay in the middle of the road and I wondered if it was the same one that I had seen before. She watched me for a while, nonchalant, and then rose to her feet and sauntered away, slipping through a broken gate into one of the gardens and passing out of view.
How had this happened? Where had the people gone? Did someone not own these houses? They were property. It seemed impossible to me that no one was maintaining the street. Clearly, a decision had been made to isolate it.
As I moved slowly down the street, a huge flock of starlings and other birds took to the air from the sagging rooftops. They whirled into the sky, forming a helix of movement, before settling on the houses further along. I realised that the hedges were filled with the chatter and movement of a thousand tiny birds.
Breathing deeply, I felt that the air was filled with dust; or perhaps pollen or even spores. I looked closer and saw that lichens had turned the tarmac and stonework into a patchwork of colours; that almost every window was broken; that doors had collapsed inwards revealing shadowed hallways; that the roofs were sagging and many tiles had tumbled into the gardens; that paint was sloughing off rotting wood.
I did not dare enter any of those dark houses or even approach them.
As I slowly walked down Oates Road, I saw that something stranger had occurred, or was occurring: a weird flowering. Huge ferns and enormous horsetails leaned over the road. There were extravagant stands of bamboo, the leaves a pure emerald green. Unknown flowers were blossoming everywhere. Some of the gardens had been taken over by huge bushes with waxy bluish leaves and startling blooms that were the colour of blood and the size of dinner plates. There was a wildness which I found both impressive and oppressive. Spiders had woven vast webs between the branches of the bushes. Insects – flies, dragonflies, beetles and moths – were busy everywhere but, I could not help but note with sadness, there were no honeybees. They had departed long ago, it seemed.
As the darkness weighed down the sky, I turned about and reversed my steps. Before leaving, I looked back to fix the scene in my memory and saw an owl fly up the street towards me in slow motion, a rare white ghost, a magnificent omen in the gathering dusk. I held my breath as she wheeled over my head and sailed into the gap between two houses.
In one of the gardens the dried heads of an extraordinary umbellifer were silhouetted against the setting sun. I shook the seeds into my hand and carefully put them in my pocket. To what purpose, I know not. Maybe one day they will prove important.
I suppose it must happen all the time, for our towns and cities are increasingly filled with empty lots; odd lacunae, unexpected abysses and desolate clearings. Holes, in short. And then there are the hollow spaces that open up in the soft tissue of memory, the vacancies of perception, the voids of understanding, the collapse of cognition. And, too, the gaps in the natural procession of being, as species fall into conditions of precarity and those fellow creatures who rely on them follow too. Sink holes, worm holes, black holes. I imagine that one day they will all be linked together, a great chain of entropy, as stillness and decay become the prevalent state. It is inevitable.
I climbed back through the crack in the hoardings and made my way to the High Street, to where my friends were waiting.
Ben Tufnell is a curator and writer based in London. His stories have been published by Elsewhere, Litro, Lunate and Storgy, amongst others, and as chapbooks by Nightjar Press and The Aleph Press. His debut novel is The North Shore (Fleet, 2023).