Monday, September 24, 2007

Apricots

Something different -- a short, short story I wrote some years ago

“Where’d they come from?”
“Jessica.”
“What for?”
“A gift, I suppose.”
“What’s she want to go giving us gifts for, all of a sudden?”
“She grows them, you know.”
“That’s no reason to go giving them away.”
They sat, one either side of the table, and contemplated the bowl of apricots. It was a focal point of brightness in the dingy room. Once, forty years ago, this kitchen had been her pride and joy with its bright linoleum and its modern, practical, red and white formica table. But the floor had been dulled by the long defeat of years to the colour of tropical mud, and the battered table had acquired the same cheap air as a hundred sleazy cafes. The pot plants on the windowsill had withered (she never remembered to water them any more) and only one of the light bulbs was working (he had been meaning to change the other one for the last two weeks.) The Holland blinds were drawn against the heat of the afternoon sun, and the room smelt of tea that had been left brewing too long, and the beer glass that had not yet been washed up from his lunch. Surreptitiously, each leant a little closer to smell the rich sweetness of the fruit. It was the smell of memory.
“Jessie used to love apricots when she was little”
“Did she?”
“Oh, you remember, George. She used to raid the fruit bowl and the boys were always complaining because she hadn’t left any for their lunches.”
“I remember they were always complaining. Those ones would complain about anything.”
“Including their father?”
“Cheekiest kids around.”
“Not half as cheeky as the Travis kids.”
“They were terrors, those ones. Needed a man’s hand, of course.”
“Of course,” she answered, but he knew she was really laughing at him, and glared at her suspiciously.
“Then again,” she added, when she felt he had glared his fill, “Jessie wasn’t the only one in the family who loved apricots.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember Bellbird Ridge?”
He looked at her blankly for a moment, then his face creased into laughter. “You,” he said, “you and old Bob’s apricot tree! I remember something else too, ”and he shook his finger at her till a blush crept over her tired skin and she giggled, “I remember a girl who couldn’t sneak off to me in the night like we planned because she was so sick afterwards!”
The word girl brought it all back to him. She hadn’t been the only one who was sick, so to speak. While the other guys were playing the field and boasting of conquests which nobody could quite disprove, he had been sick with longing for Em Stevens, the girl from Sydney with her clear soft skin and copper hair. She had been the prettiest thing to come in their direction ever, and he still remembered the awe that had kept him tongue-tied with wonder on their wedding day, the awe that this marvellous person had actually chosen to marry him!
Forty years did hard things to a woman. The copper in her hair had changed to silver, and long years of work and weather had hardened her skin and spotted it with age. Her body had grown sturdy that had once been sapling-slender, and her beautiful eyes had taken refuge behind glasses years ago. Yet she was still quick to smile and always ready to laugh, and she still baked the best scones he had ever tasted. He found himself looking at her as if, after forty years of day in, day out familiarity, he was seeing her for the first time. She caught his eye as he looked her up and down, and he knew that she knew what he was thinking. For a moment he wanted to retreat to the safety of surliness, then, with a rush of feeling that surprised him, he decided he didn’t care.
She read his face with the same long-practised skill that she could demonstrate in interpreting a knitting pattern or a recipe, and was glad that her glasses hid the unexpected misting of her tears. Moved by a sudden impulse, she rose to her feet, proceeded to the window and tugged at the Holland blind. It shot up abruptly, and a stream of bright sunlight flowed into the room, cascading down upon the bowl of apricots. For a long, silent moment they contemplated the rich fullness of them - the swelling globules of orange gold sitting full, round and opulent in the shocking glory of the light. Dust motes danced up and down the sunbeam with the intricate, ceaseless grace of Jacob’s angels going up and down the ladder to heaven, and with the same sense of heavy purpose borne with wonderful lightness. It was as if God dwelt at both ends of the beam.
They shook their heads and looked at one another, each wondering how he or she came to be thinking of God at all when it wasn’t Sunday and they weren’t in church. There was something deeply uncomfortable and vaguely shocking about the notion of God Himself coming into their kitchen. It wasn’t His proper place. There was a tinge of fear in their eyes as they involuntarily sought each other, needing a human ally against this terrifying irregularity.
“It’s only sunlight,” he said, deliberately dismissive.
She was not so easily convinced. Her eyes lingered on the shaft of sun, and the dancing dust, and the apricots glowing quietly in the full splendour of the light. Her eyes softened, and she felt the welling prickle of tears. She knew he would see her crying as a weakness in her argument, but she was too moved by wonder to care. The tears could do what they liked. She thought of trees, and the mysterious way they drew life from the very stuff of earth, how the sap carried the mystery from the deep place of the roots, up though the trunk to the tips of the branches, where it burgeoned forth as fruit. She thought of the sun, nothing but a ball of burning gases, or so she had been taught, yet somehow the thing that all living and being depended on. It seemed to her then that nothing was mere or only, that just beyond their tight brick walls and their carefully pulled down blinds, the whole universe pulsed with terrible life, waiting to break in upon them the moment their defences should falter. Why should her kitchen be immune?
“It’s the glory of God,” she amazed herself by saying.
He wanted to laugh at her, to mock all such fancies as absurdity, but when he focussed his eyes on this blazing wonder in their midst, he couldn’t do it. “I am no stranger to miracles,” he thought, with a sudden surge of awe. He thought back across the long years of his marriage to his wedding night, to their first kiss (under the willows down by Jimmy’s creek), to the time when he had first taken her tentative hand in his and, after an agonising second, had felt her soft fingers trusting curl around his own. He was such a plain, ordinary guy, and all these years she had stayed by his side and given to him and kept on giving! They had never been rich, but they had always had enough for the glad things of life, the birthday cakes and children’s treats and something to share with the neighbours when times were hard. It suddenly seemed to him a crime that he had lived all these years amongst such bounty and never been thankful.
He became aware of his old gardening hat which he hadn’t bothered to remove when he came into the kitchen. Such courtesies had slipped from his life a long time ago. Now it seemed horribly out of place, and he tugged it from his head with an impatient gesture, and bowed his head. Would Em laugh?
She did not laugh, merely smiled softly to herself in wonder. She reached across the table and took his hand. Their eyes met and held across the apricots. “Yes,” he said, “the glory of God has come down to our kitchen.”
Simultaneously they reached out, picked up an apricot and each handed it to the other. A phrase from a lifetime of church going flitted across her memory and she repeated it aloud, “From His mercy have we all received.”

3 comments:

codepoke said...

You made me slow way down to read this. What a great picture. Thank you.

Lynne said...

Thanks. I wasn't too sure whether to put it up, I thought it might be too cheesy...

Suzanne R said...

Not too cheesy at all -- that was lovely. Thank you for posting it.