Image by Khanya, The Designer
Winner of the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2018 Fiction Category
It’s warm in the shop, the window so wide the whole of the street is beside me. But it could be warmer. A dog’s shat, running into the road to the ice cream van and that huddle of school kids and there’s a sleek black car. An Indian boy and his mother are sweltering in the heat. Long legged girls push their buggies looking so happy, This chair’s killing my back. Only job I could get, sitting up front in the cleaners with the sewing machine. The manager said, an old lady worked here, but if you’re deft with your hands, and you willing to learn, I’ll take you. I weren’t gonna argue.
So much of the damn year’s cold that any small bit of sun and girls go round in skimpy shirts and tops. I wish I was anywhere but here. Wish I was their age again, casting around for girls in the bars. Drinking in the late evening by the harbour of Gros Islet. Night hours creeping low as crickets call or sitting out on the back porch of the white house in the mountains, working the orchard.
The door bell goes. A blonde girl lays down a white dress on the counter, tells me about the vents and pleats and broken teeth on the zip. Her hair is ruffled. She looks like Casey. And I’m there. In that time. Working the estate, I knew like my own skin which had been her father’s and his before and going back, my folks working on it for them. But as my old man said, ‘all good things pass’. Like riding the bike down the bumpy and craggy road of the hill, when you think it’ll ruin the tyres but it’s worth it because of the worn old purpley mountains and villas scattered about between trees, maybe an old woman at the top of a wooden ladder leaning into the branches gathering olives with light dust from the road flying into your eyes hot with the sun.
In the early days Casey moved through them trees like the child of her father, more than the young woman she used to be, living between cities. She spent mornings pruning, checking for disease, collecting the figs and tangerines, telling me she was a born farmer. Farmer. She’s more likely set up with some rich guy in New York or Paris.
She came in the bar the week after her father`s funeral. I was with Jerome and the other guys but she dared come up. I thought, this is it. The old man gone. She’ll have other plans.
‘Those trees are special, Tyler. They need a guardian angel,’ she leant in, her fancy scent dizzying the air. ‘You know the land and the work’, she said.
‘That’s me. What I’ve been doing, though I ain’t gotta pair of wings,’ I answered pretty quick.
She laughed so I thought the glasses on the shelves would shatter and the other guys’d kick up the sawdust running over to see what had happened.
In June we sprayed the trees and gathered the goosepimpled lychees, figs and peaches bloated the baskets. She said I could keep whatever they made at market.
‘I don’t know where I’d have been without you.’ She stood at the end of the van, hands on her hips, eyes shadowed with late nights and parties I only heard of.
When her car broke down, she asked if I would take her to the city.
‘On my motor-bike?’ I checked because the saddle was so worn, last time I gave Jerome a lift he jumped up and down behind me as if he was sitting on coals.
She wanted to go to ‘L’Heure Bleu’. I hoped the boys wouldn’t be in and we found a seat near the window and had our beers. It was kind of friendly with her, although I was hoping to get out before anyone saw me. She said she had to go to the leather stall. An hour passed and the bar filled. Gone six and tightness ran in my chest. Dumping her shopping behind the bar, I headed into the alleys. I knocked past sacks and clouds of spice rose. The tinge of cardoman. Nutmeg, Cayenne. I strained to see in the dark.
She was on a low seat in the tea garden talking to an old man while others puffed their pipes and youngsters clogged the bar. Cross legged, eyes bright and dancing, she turned and smiled. I was lost in panic. Sweat ran into my mouth. I was in waves. Drowning.
‘Tyler. Have a drink. You needn’t have worried. I can look after myself, you know,’ she smiled and started to leave, bending to give the man a light kiss on his cheek.
She held the edge of the seat as I drove back, terrified of running low on gas. Left in the landscape. Me responsible. Or maybe she was. The van pelted and burped as I drove fast. Soon as I brought in the bags to the hall and she was on the phone laughing, a drink beside her, not caring about the packages. I didn’t get home till late. I was so tired I missed a turning and the next day I slept till eleven.
We never went to the market again and didn’t talk about it. It would be too many problems, hauling her out of the bar at night and having to look after the orchard during the day. I kept busy. I sold the fruit, took the grapes to the vinery and argued for the best deal. Often I bought equipment because, though she understood the trees, she had no idea of the best tools. I got to know my way around the house and the land. I wanted it looking smart and never minded the extra hours. She told me about her childhood in Ireland with an uncle who bred horses and sold to Americans and Arabs. Later she went to school in Switzerland was moving around, going to France then England. Along the way she married.
‘You ever wonder where you belong?’ I asked.
‘Not at all. Just because I moved around a lot doesn’t mean I don’t have a home. Anyway, now it’s here.’
I guess she meant it because she never did go very far. Maybe once a year ski-ing for a couple of weeks when the house and I’d have a nice quiet time, getting up late, doing the jobs whenever I wanted, entertaining the boys on her cream leather sofas. Once she returned early because she had twisted an ankle. When she had friends visiting, she always baked bread, her hands thick with flour moving dough around, like she belonged in the kitchen.
I drank a good amount of what I made but bought new trousers and shirts. Not that she would have noticed or guessed how through the days a longing had grown. To touch her rounded parts; her legs and her small stomach, the shadow of her ribs under her breasts.
She was particular about most things, especially about the green wine glasses but when I broke one, expecting her to go mad, she bent to pick it up like it was all right. I never heard her shout except that one time the American visited.
I heard from Jerome how the guy wanted to buy the lower fields and had already bargained with the old farmers to sign over their land. They were about to agree to what seemed like a load of cash till they realized they were making themselves homeless.
We were in the back kitchen getting ready for the wine harvest when the house phone rang. She told me to answer and if it was the American, say she was out.
That was her trouble. Liking people. She often had guests, couples or women friends wanting a break from their city lives, even her ex-husband from England whose other marriage had failed.
One December she killed a duck for dinner. Going out into the yard, she walked right up to a light grey one and without flinching, put out her hands to the small neck so it fell away with a call in the cold air. She lay the bird on the kitchen table and plucked it, swiped off the head leaving a ragged end, She washed the pale skin under the tap outside. The smell was over the house while it cooked and there was little left except for a crispy brown skin and a sauce of black cherries looking up like eyes.
That evening as I was bringing in potatoes, and she was not about the house phone rang. I answered and Casey came out of her room, holding only a small shirt to herself. Her face had no make up and her long body was pale, her nipples like roses and her hips curving. She stared as the phone stopped, like she was going to cry. She turned in a hurry but I saw in her room, the tanned skin of a man. A door slammed into silence and a car drove off.
I wondered if she had known him long. If she would see him again. I wanted to smash something, one of her beautiful pieces of glass, but the job was all I had. Her and me. And in the space between, that man.
I came up to the house on a Monday, and found her in the kitchen at her small desk, writing. She asked about new spray fertiliser and the times for sending the figs to market. She said the decoration of the baskets for market should be leaves draping the sides. When I brought them in for her to weave along the side, I thought how that man had watched her, stroking her down with his eyes.
She went out a couple of days later and I slipped to her room. His photograph propped against the mirror on her dressing table, showed a square face with dark hair and olive shaped eyes. Long and hard I cursed him and his money. I tore up the picture. In the kitchen range, it charred with flames, the little bits of his eyes becoming dust and I prayed in the name of my father and his before him, that the man would die.
She mentioned the photograph a week later, said it must have dropped behind the great drawers. I waited for news, if somewhere, something had happened to that man, until she called me into her sitting room. Stroked by expensive clothes, she was strained, sitting upright in one of the armchairs by a cold grate.
‘I’m leaving. Selling up,’ she said.
‘Leaving? For what? I mean, what’s the matter?’ I was hit in the gut and grasped the back of a chair.
‘Lots of reasons. But I want you to have good notice. ‘I’ll give you an excellent reference.’
‘Have I not done my job?’
‘This house is too big, for one person. And I have few friends nearby.’
‘I see,’ I said, not making sense of it.
The rest of the day, she packed. Tea chests of crockery and china were stacked. Books piled by the door as if she was in a hurry.
When she was in town, I went to her room. Clothes hung around, falling off chairs and jewellery was junked in heaps. I couldn’t help it. That brooch on a chest, a creamy colour with splashes of fire.
The last day, I put on a brave face though no other employer’d give me such space to work the way I wanted.
‘For all the harvests,’ she said, laying an envelope in my hand.
By the time I discovered the dollars, she had gone back into the house and I could only make my way down the dusty track of the mountain to the main road.
I planned to buy a car. I planned to buy lots of stuff but in the end the money ran out with me and the boys. Drinking made me less lonely until the evening I strolled up the hill. The new owner was chopping down the trees, changing things, making the land his.
A white dress sprawls the counter to be hemmed. The sun’s been a ball of fire through the huge window all day but I’ll stay late to catch up with the clothes piling up. This is the kind of dress she’d wear with that brooch. Least it got me some cash when I came over.
The material eases under the foot of the machine and the needle falls. I miss most having someone to talk to, arms stretching into the high branches for fruit and asking if they’re ready. Someone used to long afternoons when we drink juice fresh from the oranges. Maybe that man is out there, down on his luck. I don’t reckon he loved her. He would’ve showed up again. Love doesn’t slide out of sight. If it’s any good, it sticks around. Shit, my stupid finger. Blood trickling like a flower into the snowy flows of the skirt.
Deirdre Shanahan has published several short stories in the USA, UK and Ireland in journals including ‘The Southern Review’ and ‘The Massachusetts Review,’ as well as in ‘New Writing’ from Vintage and ‘The Phoenix Book of Irish Short Stories’. Last year her work was included in ‘The Best of British Short Stories 2017’. She has won an award from Arts Council England to write and in May 2019, the award-winning independent publisher Bluemoose Books are publishing her novel The Night Breathing.