Fruit of the Lemon
By Andrea Levy
Picador Copyright © 1999 Andrea Levy
All rights reserved.
My parents' hobby was collecting empty boxes. They'd been doing it for years. Brown cardboard boxes mostly, Fyffes boxes that used to contain bananas from the Caribbean; packets of Daz boxes; toilet-roll boxes; Wagon Wheel packet boxes; unspecified boxes; thick double-lined boxes; stapled up on the bottom boxes; small handles cut out the side boxes; supermarket boxes; greengrocers' boxes; stationers' boxes.
My mum was the greatest gatherer. She'd come back from the shops with the groceries inside her brown plastic shopping trolley whilst balancing two, sometimes three, empty boxes on the top of it. My dad and she would discuss the merits and weaknesses of each box brought into the house, 'You see, Wade, what took my eye is that it has a strong bottom that sort of interlocks,' Or, 'But, Mildred, I don't think we can have a use for a box six feet long and only eight inches wide,' My dad would store any new boxes in the small cellar of the house with mathematical precision — boxes in boxes all standing on black plastic sheeting to keep out the damp.
It started when we moved from our old council flat to the house in Crouch End, My parents had to 'pay good money' to rent boxes from the removal company to place in all our 'nick-nacks and paddy-wacks.'
'Crooks,' my mum had said as she and my dad watched the brick-shit-house removers in dirty jeans take back all the boxes when we had finished with them.
Just after that the first box came. It contained the new television. My brother and me watched Dr Who in glorious living colour as my parents cooed over the box. The next one was oblong and had 'Hoover' written on the side, 'You never know when a box will come in handy,' my parents would say, 'You just never know.'
The day I moved out of home Dad struggled into my room with several of his very finest 'double-strength even got a top' boxes. 'I've got bags,' I said, showing him a suitcase and piles of well-used, screwed-up plastic carrier bags. He looked at me like I was no child of his.
'Bags,' he spat, 'things get mash up in bags, Faith, Bags break. They not strong. You need a box.' He then banged the bottom of the sturdiest one, 'Strong,' he added, as he picked up a plastic bag from the bed, unravelled it and punched his fist straight through the bottom. He then sucked his teeth. Point made, no more words necessary. I took two of the boxes and he left a happy man.
I thought I'd have hardly anything to put in them. At that time I was leaving behind my childhood. Leaving behind my student days. I had lived at home all through my art college life. The grant authority had ummed and ahhed for months before they decided my parents didn't live far enough away from the college to warrant them giving me independent status. And for four years I had had to juggle late-night parties, sit-ins and randy boyfriends, with 1940s Caribbean strictures, 'Faith, you see you in by eleven — Faith, you can bring a nice girl back with you if she's clean — Faith, I don't want you messing around, you have plenty time for fun when you're older'.
All I had to take were my duvet; my alarm clock with the bells on top and a clanger that whizzed so fast that I cut my finger every time I turned it off; several assorted empty tins that looked pretty and were given to me as presents so throwing them out as useless junk felt like betrayal; various bottles of hair oil called things like 'Sta-soft-fro-curl!' or 'Afro-sheen-curl' that I never used but thought I might; a record player and a pile of dusty dog-eared records ranging from The Sound of Music and Oliver to Tamla Motown's Greatest Hits in many volumes.
The boxes soon filled up and I had to ask my dad for some more. He looked at me and sucked his teeth then started to moan that I was 'taking all the good boxes'.
'You offered!' I shouted, then added, 'What do you need them for anyway?' At which my dad did the strangest thing. He blushed. Then silently gave me three more boxes. But as I left the cellar he said, 'Don't come askin' me for any more.'
I was moving into a short-life, shared house with friends — two men and a woman. I had thought I was reassuring my mum when I lied a little and said my new flatmate was a young woman. But instead she had said, 'A woman. Be careful of living with women.' I had then looked at her and smiled. I had tipped my head to one side and explained to her that 'nowadays, Mum, women have different relationships with each other. Nowadays', I'd elaborated, 'women support one another — they are sisters,' To which my mum had butted in saying that the worst women she had ever lived with were her sisters and that if women started behaving like sisters then God help the world. She then looked to the portrait of Jesus on the wall and apologised, 'Excuse me, Lord', And went on telling me about the handfuls of hair she used to find in the bedroom she shared with her sisters in Jamaica, pulled out of a head during one of the many sisterly fights. And how her big sister Coral once punched her so hard that the sweet she was sucking got stuck in her throat. Her mother, apparently, had to grab her by her feet, turn her upside down and slap her on the back until the sweet popped out.
'Be careful of living with women and thank God you only have a brother,' she'd finally ended.
My brother Carl said, 'So you moving in with a bird, then?' as he helped me carry my boxes to the back of his van.
'No, a woman actually,' said pointedly.
'Wos a matter with calling her a bird?'
'Birds,' I said, 'have wings. They fly. They sit in trees and tweet. Women don t.'
'Bird not good enough for you an' all your women's libber friends now? So what do you birds call blokes then?' my big brother asked with a broad goading grin.
I did not respond. Not immediately. Because when we were young Carl came home one day and insisted that from that day on he wanted to be called by his middle name, Trevor, They used to tease him at school, Carl was an unusual name in the schools of North London, There were no other Carl's and boys used to walk behind him in the street shouting his name or calling him Carol, among other things. So Carl became Trevor and from that day he would answer to nothing else. It took Mum, Dad and me months to remember. Months of calling out, 'Carl, dinner's ready,' only to hear him say, 'I don't know who you mean, my name is Trevor,' But eventually we all got it.
Then Trevor left school and started work driving a delivery van for a textile company. After two weeks he decided that Trevor no longer suited his image. He wanted to be called Carl again. Carl, he decided, had a certain Superfly, Shaft, don't-mess-with-me-I'm-a-black-man message. He deployed the same tactics: 'Trevor, who's Trevor? Never heard of him.' Until he was once again Carl.
So I didn't have to say anything about birds. I just smiled and said that we call blokes Trevor and he shut up.
My dad stood by the door to watch me take the last bits of my belongings out of the house. He had hedge clippers in his hand and he stood in front of the perfect clipped privet hedge in the garden, pretending to cut at stray leaves, like a barber clipping over the top of a well-cut head of hair. Then my mum came out wearing pink rubber gloves and carrying a duster and a can of Mr Sheen which she sprayed onto the front door and began to wipe at vigorously. They needed something to do as they watched me leave.
It wasn't how they would have liked their only daughter to go. They would have preferred to see me swathed from head to toe in white lace, with hand-stitched-on pearls and sequins. Standing in between my bridesmaids — one my age and two little ones — dressed in lemon-yellow satin with white lace trim. Our skirts ballooning out in the sun as I stood with my back to them ready to throw my bouquet into the cheering, laughing crowd. My new husband — a Christian with family from Jamaica or one of the 'small islands' — watching on in a dark suit with wine-coloured cummerbund and a frilly shirt. Then the two of us moving happily down the human arch of men standing holding paintbrushes aloft like swords.
'Marry a decorator like your dad and you'll never have to worry about paint,' Mum had always advised. Every year she steeped several bags of dry fruit in rum ready to make a wedding cake at a moments notice. And every year she looked at me accusingly as she tipped out the jar of alcoholic sultanas and currants and made another Christmas cake instead.
'Ah Faith, what can we do with you? You just go your own sweet way,' my parents had both decided a long time before. 'Your own sweet way.'
I was alone in the house the day my dad made his surprise visit to me. Lying on the settee enjoying my last days before I had to start a new job. I saw him standing in the doorway of the front room and I looked up unsurprised, saying, 'Hello, Dad.' Until I began to realise that it was in fact unusual, very unusual, for my dad to be standing in any doorway in that house.
'How did you get in?' I said, struggling to get up.
He held out a key in front of him as he grinned and said, 'I found this in the door.' He was looking around, 'You must be careful, anyone could have come in. It was lucky it was me,' He gave a strained chuckle, 'Could have been a burglar or anyone. You're lucky it was me and not some madman. Ha ha,' His mouth laughed but his eyes stayed their what-time-d'you-call- this stern. 'You must remember to take it out of the lock, Faith.'
I took the key from him muttering something about being grateful and forgetful and promising to be good, as I scanned the room for anything that would shock him. The ashtray on the coffee table was not only full but choked with roaches — the cardboard remains of several joints rolled the night before and smoked in quick succession in the hope of getting some small 'buzz' out of Mick's homegrown, but which instead sent us all to bed with rasping throats and headaches. But my dad was too busy looking at the dark green walls to notice.
'You like this colour?' he asked, his top lip curling.
'It was here when we came.' I told him. He nodded then looked round at the double doors that divided the front room. He ran his finger down the mottled pink paintwork. He frowned. 'You wan me paint it for you? I could bring a few of the boys and we could ...'
'No thanks, Dad,' interrupted, 'we'll do it ourselves.'
'Suit yourself,' he said, looking up at the cracked ceiling. He knocked one of the walls with his knuckles and looked surprised. 'Umm, quite solid.'
'What are you doing here anyway?' I wanted to know.
'Well, I thought I give you a little surprise. I was just having a walk. We finish early today, so I thought I'll just go for a walk. And I find myself passing here.'
My dad liked to walk. He would set off from our house in Crouch End returning several hours later with tales of the lovely boat he saw on the River Thames. 'Thought I'd give you a little surprise.' He smiled. 'You goin' to show me round?'
I tried to stay looking pleased but I knew I was being spied on. I could hear my mum: 'Go on Wade, go up and see what she up to. You could say you just passing. You always just passing. Just go and see nah.'
My dad stood in my new front room ready to report back, 'Mildred, the walls are green and the doors are pink — the child gone mad!' But worse he would soon be reporting, 'But wait, Mildred, you tellin' me she told you her flatmate called Marion?' He would soon be anxiously saying, 'Cha. Mildred, the child is sharing a house with grown men. Is there nothing we can do?'
Marion was my friend. We had met on the foundation year at art school in London, At the time I was being followed round by a boy who was pale, skinny and underdeveloped and whose name I can't remember, but who had a crush on me. I knew the only reason he fancied me was the thought of the look on his parents' faces if he took a black girl home to meet them. He liked to think of himself as a rebel and I was the only black girl on the course. He fancied me and Marion fancied him, for some reason. So she would turn up wherever we were saying, 'Oh hello, I didn't know you were going to be here,' Marion was completely undeterred by the boy's lack of interest in her. When he would say, 'Not you again,' she would smile and offer to buy him a drink. I began to admire Marion, She was like a boxer — punched and staggering but still coming back for more. After a while we became friends. Even after she left art college saying it was too boring and took up her place at the University in Norwich which was saved for her by three As from school A levels. We used to meet in the holidays and spend days in Marion's parents' house, discussing the strange habits of the middle-class people we met and drinking Coca-Cola with ice cream.
Marion collected old boyfriends. She had lots of them who all remained friendly with her, 'They're just so relieved they're not still going out with me,' she would say wistfully, Mick was one of them. He had found the house and needed people to share it with him. It was a house that was waiting to be converted into flats by the council. But there was time between buying the house and 'doing it up'. So they let it out to Mick for six months, Mick felt sure it would be empty for longer than that, 'They'll need loads of money to do this place up — it'll take them years. No sweat,' he told everyone. His friend Simon had put down for one of the four bedrooms and Marion and me talked our way into the other two. We had a meeting in a pub before we moved in and giggled our way through several halves of lager until we'd convinced ourselves that we could all be happy together.
My dad started to look at the mantelpiece in the room, not touching anything but straining his neck round to read a moving-in card Simon had been sent by his mother. He then looked at the wooden floor, tapping a floorboard with the heel of his shoe. He was about to turn his attention to the coffee table when I said, 'Well, come on then, I'll show you round and then we can have a cup of tea.'
'I not stopping long,' Dad smiled. 'I have to see a man about some bathroom tiles.'
Dad followed me through the house.
'How's Mum?' I asked.
'Oh busy, busy, busy.'
'Oh, you know, you know,' It occurred to me then that I had never really spent any time alone with my dad. He was just part of Mum. Mum did all the talking and Dad looked absent-minded until called upon to say, 'You heard your mother nah.'
'This is the kitchen.' Dad stood still in the doorway, moving only his head to look around. Then he saw the sink and walked slowly towards it. There was washing-up piled on the draining board. 'I'm going to do it,' Mick had said the night before, 'I know it's my turn, it's just that I'll have to buy a plunger for the sink. The water won't go down.' The sink was blocked with something mysterious and was full of fetid brown water with grey scum floating on the top. Mick had pulled a face and stuck his hand down into the water and wiggled his finger in the plughole. And Simon had untwisted a wire coat hanger and stuffed it down the hole. When he pulled it up again it had a squelching potato skewered to it. We had all clapped and Simon had taken a small bow but the water level remained the same. 'We need a plunger,' Mick decided.
'You need a plunger,' Dad told me. He looked around the sink and then at me. 'You have one?'
'No — but were getting one today,' I told him and quickly changed the subject. 'Come and look at the garden.' Dad had trouble turning his head away from the sink — every time he went to move towards me his head would snap back onto the trouble spot, trying to find a new solution. 'Or caustic soda,' he added.
The moment I opened the double door and stepped in the garden I regretted it. The garden was a mass of uncultivated, uncared-for weeds. Apart, that is, from the extremely neat, lovingly tended row of Mick's home-grown marijuana plants which were swaying gently in their pots.
'Actually there's nothing much to see out here,' I said, as Dad began to peer out over my shoulder. 'It's a lovely house, isn't it?' I said, shutting the garden door. Dad turned round too quickly and tripped over his own foot. 'Georgian, you know, beautiful, bit run-down but nice.' He straightened his jacket and stared back at the spot where he'd stumbled. 'Oh yes, they all lovely,' he said, then added, 'from the outside.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy. Copyright © 1999 Andrea Levy. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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