'The Orchardist'


I am in my fourth year studying English and Scandinavian studies. I've loved writing for a long time now and think it's such a powerful way to send the stories of ordinary people to extraordinary places. This piece is inspired by how much I love peaches, and the ways that love carries quietly on through difficulties.

I remember your hands. Every image of you in my mind has blurred - your eyes were green or maybe grey - but your hands are etched into memory as if from stone. There's a mole between your left thumb and index that you had once thought was a drop of chocolate, and that you tried desperately to lick before discovering, with all the frustration of a toddler, that it would not budge.

I used to think your fingers were magic. Under them, plain paper became birds that soared around our dull apartment; they coaxed seeds into saplings that you swore would one day bear us the sweetest flowers we would ever smell. Every sentence you spoke was punctuated by some gesture more swan than human. I thought the whole world existed in your palms.

--

We were sat on our bed with our legs out the window. It had rained all morning, and the cool air tickled our toes and lifted our hems. You were smoking again.

"There's no point stopping now," you had said, "when we already know what's coming."

At the time I agreed. We were younger then, more stupid, and I was afraid of you in that childish way that lovers often are. So I watched the ash burn tiny holes in the duvet cover and let the fresh, rain-soaked air grow thicker.

Clouds skidded lazily across the sky. Below us, potholes, hubcaps, skipping ropes, the greasy-haired fruit seller whose grapefruits were never sour. Behind us in the half-light, paperbacks unravelling, the patch of mould in the cupboard, rows of glass jars holding the beginnings of our garden. And here, at the window, you and me.

--

We'd met at some open mic night, in some bar, where neither of us performed. I'd quite fancied the bassist, I remember. The frames of her glasses were acid-green and I had liked that. You sat down beside me and asked me for a light, which I didn’t have, which startled you. The bassist came and went, and I stayed, watching your fingertips trace beginnings into the air between us.

It was only when the barman asked us to leave that we realised we were the only ones left in the place. I told you I'd never had such an interesting conversation before, and you looked so surprised. "You must have a very quiet life," you said. I don't know how I didn't find that insulting. But you were right, as you tended to be, and you walked me to my bus with both fists buried in the pockets of your coat.

Neither of us had phones on which to save numbers, so I pulled a book from my bag and said, "I have to return this to the library tomorrow. Will you come?"

You took it from me and turned it over in your hands. "Can't I read it first?"

"It'll be overdue-"

"I'll have read it by morning," you promised.

And so you had. We met at the library at noon, you in the same clothes as the night before, and me, freshly ironed and fidgeting. We never did return the book. The afternoon was spent leafing through it, exchanging favourite passages. I still get those automated emails reminding me to come back in to cover the fine.

--

The summer had been unbearably hot, so we took to buying peaches from the fruit seller and eating them as we walked across the shimmer of the pavements in the neighbourhood. I loved how the juice ran down my chin, loved the sticky patches it left on the skin of my chest. It felt like the sun had dropped down to kiss me.

We would wander through the streets, chasing shade or a gust of cool air from inside a shop. It was a lazy time of year, where windows were open but curtains were pulled shut, and we made a game of deciphering the lives of the people within. Sometimes a radio leaked music in Spanish, or match scores; sometimes it was children playing pretend or a lethargic argument over whose turn it was to make dinner.

There was such simple wonder to realising that we would never know each other fully. I listened for your radio waves, put together the puzzle pieces you gave me: Your parents had loved you. You read widely. You were never free on Saturdays, and on the Sunday, you were always quieter, and smoked more. You pocketed the stone of every peach you ate on our walks.

One evening, a merciful wind had picked up and whirled down the street, cooling the sweat that pooled in the dip between your collarbones. The sun slanted down from the roofs of buildings, and the windows were gilded in its sunset gold. We had walked down a different street. Here, there were trees. I heard a bird and realised I couldn't remember the last time I had heard one sing.

You were telling me about a girl you had known once. I think you had loved her. I didn't know it then, but the twist in my stomach when you said her name was the clenched fist of envy. At the time I called it indigestion.

"Do you still talk to her?" I asked.

A smile curved your lips. "No need to be jealous," you said, nudging a pebble into the road, "I don't know where she is anymore."

I stopped walking. I could feel heat in my cheeks and wondered if I had got sunburnt. "I'm not jealous."

You turned to face me. The sun threaded through your hair and cast shadows across your freckled cheeks. "That's a shame."

My heart climbed up into my mouth. I reached for your hand for the first time. Your fingers curled into mine and you smiled. Later I would remark that your lips had tasted like peaches.

--

The city was ours after that. Every corner was painted in joy, that birdlike flutter of an uncovered secret. The sky curved around us, who spoke too loudly in art galleries and laughed at the sad moments in the cinema. We never went long without touching one another: a hand on a shoulder or waist, a playful bump of the hips. Looking back, I think the neighbourhood hated us. We were too obvious. Only the fruit seller didn't frown at the sticky honey of our smiles.

I can't remember what we talked about anymore. I know that we did, sifting hungrily through each other's minds, but I don't know if it was music we were after, or poetry, or a mutual love of bowling. I can't remember. Before, I'd talk to myself and hear you reply, knowing what you'd say and how you'd soothe me. Now, I talk, and only I answer, and I'm bored.

Some things stand out, though.

Like the day I first noticed you looked weaker. There had been dancing, and drinks, and the smoke that soaked our days clung tight to your clothing. You couldn't get out of bed.

"I'm just hungover."

"You've been coughing for a week now. And besides, we were barely drunk last night."

"Perhaps you drugged me," you laughed, sitting up.

I smiled. "Perhaps. I've been looking for ways to get rid of you for months now."

A cloud flitted across your face. You rubbed your eyes, slapped your cheeks gently, and got up. "It's working," you said, and bumped my shoulder.

--

Anyone who thinks they have it hard must not have witnessed me trying to get you to a doctor.

It was an endless stream of "there's nothing wrong with me", "it's just a cough", or any other phrase to reassure yourself that you were just out of shape. I tried vitamins, cough drops, even spoke to the fruit seller to ask him what he thought. He handed me a bag of apples and wordlessly tucked a peach in among them.

It was when you couldn't get up the stairs to our front door that I cast aside my fears of smothering you and dragged you to a chemist. There were frowns, referrals, more frowns, and finally that smouldering, poisonous diagnosis, and your silence.

--

We stopped going on our walks. We stayed holed up in our apartment like two sea birds caught in an oil spill. The quiet spread across every surface. I could barely look at you.

You liked to smoke out the window, and I hated the sight of it, so I sat in the middle of the floor with my eyes stubbornly shut and imagined I could hear the crackle of the paper with every inhale. Your cigarettes were like ticks of a clock, counting down to a future that you ran towards like there was so much waiting for you there.

"Don't you see," I raged, "that I don't choose this?"

"This isn't your decision."

"How? I'm the one who has to live out the consequences."

You smiled cruelly. "So leave."

I refused. You wilted and I stayed, you shouted at me and I stayed, I hated you and still, I picked you up and pushed the hair back from your face. Your hands took on the texture of paper. Now they would shake when you spoke.

I stopped asking you to quit; I knew you wouldn't. So I simply waited, and loved you.

--

The loss swept through like a brisk wind. It ended, not with fireworks or trumpets, but with a pregnant silence on the other end of the phone when I called your mother, deep, shaky breaths, and the sudden feeling that I now knew what a hit-and-run felt like.

It was an evening like the first one in that street full of trees, and sunlight dripping into every inch of my skin. There were speeches and photographs, and I was simply your 'close friend and roommate'. I didn't bother telling them that I had mapped out every freckle on your body like they were Braille.

I looked out of the window and begged my ears to hear the birds, remembering how they rejoiced in their indifference of us. Our lives spin madly on, building and crumbling, and they just sing.

I slipped out before the end of the service, not wanting to justify to distant relatives my right to be there. As I came out the door, I saw the fruit seller, hair washed and wearing a frayed suit jacket. He held a bag of apricots.

"We're out of peaches," he said thickly.

He and I walked down a side street whose tarmac was more patchwork than road. I could feel my old, weary heart climbing up my throat.

"I could tell she loved you."

"We were good friends," I nodded.

"No." He handed me an apricot. "I mean she really loved you."

"How can you know?" My cheeks were wet.

We turned down into our road. He led me into his shop. It smelled sweet in there, alive.

--

It's all faded now. As if underwater, the memories come and go in all their muted colours, and all that stands out is your hands. How they held me or a pen, pulled chords from guitar strings, struck a match to light a cigarette.

We never wore rings. It was our fingers that mattered, locked together as we slept, or the lingering warmth of your lips on my cheek. The books you read to me are a treasure chest containing your voice and your fingerprints, and sometimes, if you were feeling particularly emotive, your handwriting. They're small shreds of evidence that you were real, that we overlapped.

--

"A few weeks ago, she came in, very early in the morning."

I followed him into the back room, hesitated before irreparably crossing into a world where I knew him not as the fruit seller, but someone with memories of his own. "She had a paper bag and a long list with her."

We walked through and out into a small courtyard, where there was a growing light rigged up above dozens of glass jars. They were filled with earth. In each one sprouted young stems bearing broad, waxy leaves.

They were each labelled with a date: every day we had taken a walk.

"She asked me not to say anything. Until after, you see."

I pictured you with him, working in silence. Your hands dipping and soaring, carrying the weight of your gift to me.

"What are they?"

"Peaches."


*Illustration by Josie Berry*

© 2018 The Rattlecap

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