Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Of Loneliness, and Oranges

by Alison Bell

The oranges rocked gently in the back of the car. Wind was getting up again and a small wave smacked the rear bumper. Bright fruits, obedient to the rising water, followed each other between the front seats, shouldered floating petrol receipts, empty crisp packets. Ricocheted silently off the dashboard.

They seem happy, I thought. They’re like unconfined breasts, freed to roam. The laws governing the proper behaviour of marmalade oranges have been washed away. Nullified. My proper behaviour would have been to stay home, not to embark on some crazy hunt for a second-hand desk in the worst storms since the Muckle Spate o’ Achteen-Twenty-Nine.

Turning from the window ten feet above a flooded farm yard, I looked at the red-haired woman wrapped in her duvet.

‘It was weird.’ She cleaned the nails of one hand with her teeth, with precision. ‘I didn’t finger knives in the kitchen drawer, or think about how much blood there would be. Or ever, even, reach real despair and want to end it all. But when I was exhausted and on my own, which was most of the time, I just saw this knife hanging in the air in front of me. I liked it. It made me feel safe. As if there was still a choice I could make.’

Come, let me clutch thee.

‘Was the handle towards your hand?’ Stupid. No thought, no restraint. And this girl is saying something true, now. It’s taken all day, but we’ve gone somewhere, she’s prised the lid off Pandora’s jar, dared the darkness.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s how I knew it was for me, not for the baby. It meant I was still in control.’

When the light goes, we’ll curl up again on her bed, rolled in separate duvets, facing opposite walls to imitate privacy. Wide-eyed in the pitch-black, I know we’ll both be seeing mud-water lapping the kitchen ceiling. She’ll be thinking of her son, safe, but restive in a child-minder’s spare room. I’ll be praying she’s a strong swimmer. We’ll finger our phones, wondering if by an error on the part of the universe there is after all a squeeze of juice left and we can call someone.

In the morning, the alder tops were simply a swirl at the surface of a leaden loch extending half a mile across the glen. The rain hesitated, then got going again.

‘I’m sorry about the desk.’ she said. ‘It’ll be ruined.’

Autres temps, autres desks.’ It seemed a minor issue. ‘If it dries out I might still buy it. Look. It’s as if this were the real thing, not how it was before. Your land was a dream of a pre-diluvian world.’

Poor bees. No crocuses or snowdrops to get them started this year. All the things under the turf in their larval state, waiting to be surprised by spring. Pinky-blue, bloated worms. Mice uncurling from mossy cocoons, trekking to higher ground.        

‘I never told my husband about the knife.’ Both hands twisted in her hair, tugged. ‘What could he do? He couldn’t help me here, on my own. It was as if my self had leaked away. There was no space for me in the world. I felt ashamed. If no-one wanted to be friendly, it must have been because I was without value.’

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘The landscape doesn’t find you wanting. In fact, it finds you acceptable. Does that make any sense? When you reach a physical accommodation with where you are. Trust the land, and the people will come.’

She’s bright, I thought. Watching the water as it leaves she’ll see a new earth emerge. It’ll shape itself around her. Highs and lows, the heichs and the howes. The river will show first, then the field walls will come back and before she knows it,  stinking mud will be green grass. Deer will be among the alders, birds just waiting for their chance. Then this will be her place and people will come.

I glanced down at my car, lurching slowly below me now. The oranges were bobbing back again. A little, sheepish flock of drowning suns.

‘I’ll have to buy more sugar,’ I said.