Wednesday, 30 January 2013

How to Live with Lemons

Hello! Well, after a week of feeling terrible, I'm finally well again and thank goodness - I couldn't take another day stuck in the house. Now that I feel better, I present unto you a short story I wrote last week, using the prompt of 'How to Live with Lemons'. I quite like it - it's simple and nicer than the other stories I write. I just hope you like it as well.

How to Live with Lemons



The sun was soft and the lemons shone with a waxy yellow glow.

John looked at them for a moment before setting his polished cane on a workshelf and busying himself with the oranges beside him. They weren’t ripe yet and their skins were still tinged green and brown, speckled with tiny midges. John swatted them with his hand and bent forward to water the trees. The sunlight warmed his back - it was only May, but the sun had reached his climax in the sky. The two weeks of British summer had arrived, and predictably, everyone was still stuck in their offices, left to rot in sweltering cubicles, tied to slowly melting plastic desks.  If there was one thing John liked about this job, it was being in the open air.

A bee buzzed by a flower and John paused to watch it dive inside and reach towards the nectar. Its striped body shook for a moment and then it was gone, carrying precious pollen with it. It fluttered towards the lemons and settled on a leaf, grooming itself with spindly legs. Beautiful. Calming. It was just what the doctor ordered. Literally. This job, this small job slaving away in a greenhouse, was prescribed by the therapist. He wouldn’t have chosen it himself - he liked to think he was too active to be stuck here all day - but he was so glad he had been forced to do this. It had done wonders for him. His leg no longer ached and slowly, he was beginning to forget the screams and the flickering flames.

The sun was orange in the sky and the lemon trees quivered in a gentle breeze. The plantation was deserted. John stood straight, his gun on his back and his hand curved around a single flickering match. Behind him, the commander was smiling at him, silently egging him on. John took a step forward. He knew what he had to do; he knew why he had to do it. This orchard provided an income for an illegal terrorist ring. He knew that and he knew that if he destroyed it, he would be a hero. Glancing at his fellow soldiers, he threw the match on the ground and the trail of gasoline they had laid sparked. Swooping rings of fire licked the trees. There was a crackling and the lemons lit up like Christmas decorations. John nodded at his commander. He had done well.

That was when the screaming started.

 “Hey, John?”

John glanced up and smiled. Zipper was standing at the door, his small eyes glinting in the sun and his mouth pulled into a lopsided grin. He was wearing the trademark outfit that gave him his nickname - a pair of standard issue dungarees but the zip and fly ripped off and replaced with a small patch of Velcro. He said it was for easy access. The sex-crazed hound.

“What’s up, Zip? Are the aphids back?” John shifted and grabbed his cane from the table. It was oak, strong and sturdy, and its support made him feel safer. His leg was stiff and painful in the mornings. The afternoons weren’t so bad.

Zipper shook his head, his mop of brown hair tumbling in front of his eyes. “Naw, mate. Someone’s here to see you.”

John widened his eyes and stood up a little straighter. “Me?” he asked. The only person who ever wanted to see him was his therapist. He had no girlfriend, no wife, no friends other than Zipper and Grant, the other guy that helped look after the greenhouse. He lived by himself. He never phoned or talked to anyone. He never went out. So who could be coming here to see him? “Surely there’s some mistake.”

“Nope. She asked for you directly.”

“Who is she?”

Zipper shrugged. “I don’t know. Didn’t say her name. She your girlfriend?”

John let out a small laugh. “No, she’s not. I don’t have one.”

“You need some action, that’s what you need. A little-”

“Ok, Zipper, that’s enough. Bring her in please.”

Nodding, Zipper turned around and walked out the greenhouse, leaving John to mull over the information. 

Someone was here to see him - a woman who didn’t say her name. Great. A lot to go on there. John shifted and slowly, carefully leaned toward a silver plate used for carrying seeds. The reflection was distorted and grimy, but he could still make out the hollows of his face, the pits and valleys where life had taken hold.

He smoothed back his hair and stared at himself. He was still quite handsome. He was still young. Why wouldn’t a woman want to see him? Giving himself a quick pat on the cheek, John turned around and heard footsteps echoing through the greenhouse, walking through the lemons and the oranges. For a moment, he saw nothing, but then, she appeared.

His angel, his maker, his master.

His saviour.

He couldn’t speak for a second. His eyes were pinned to her face, dark and Arabian, with almond eyes and lips the colour if plums. Her hair was hidden beneath a purple hijab. “John,” she said, her accent twisting the word into something it wasn’t. She made it sound beautiful.

“What is your name?”

A dark face leaned over his and John licked his dry, cracked lips. He couldn’t remember what happened. Something to do with lemons...

“John”, he murmured, his eyes drooping. A cool cloth was pressed to his forehead and someone touched his leg.

“It’s ok. Sleep.”

With the angel’s permission, he rolled over and began to snore.

John stammered, not quite sure what he wanted to say. Thank you? How are you? It was not enough. No words would ever be enough. So, instead, he forced a smile. “Adara. What are you doing here?”

A smile spread across her face and she leaned towards him, giving him a gentle peck on the cheek. 

“Checking up on you, of course.”

“No, really. Why?”

Adara moved away. “I needed to leave. They found me.”

John’s heart thumped in his chest and he to fight an urge to run forward and wrap his arms around her, a pitiful excuse for safety. “The terrorists?”

“Yes. They...how do you say it in English...had it in for me.” She smiled again, but her eyes were sad, lonely even. “So I come here. I thought you would want to see me.”

Nodding, John glanced at the ground, too embarrassed to look at her anymore. “Yes. Thanks.”
There was a moment of silence, a gap in the air. “So...lemons?” Adara curled her hand around one and pulled it from the tree. It sat in her hand, glistening with moisture and heavy with juice. She gave it a gentle squeeze. “Funny how it all comes back to lemons,” she said in her fractured English. “Very funny.”

John sighed and turned back to the oranges. “Do we have to talk about this?”

“No. But I would like to.”

Picking up a pair of hedge cutters, John started to trim the stray branches of the tree. Pruning - cutting away the dead so the living don’t suffer. His leg twinged painfully all of a sudden.

“Your leg?”

John wasn’t aware he had done anything, but nonetheless he nodded. Adara motioned for him to sit down and with gentle hands, she pulled back the trouser leg. The flesh was white and ragged, with mountains and ridges of scar tissue carving out the landscape of the skin. It was hideous, and John turned away from it. 
Adara sat and looked at it for a second, before sighing. A finger stroked the blisters and John glanced at her.

“And here I was,” she said, “thinking I had done a good job.”

When he woke, the angel was standing over him, a battered stethoscope round her neck and a pile of bandages in her hand. “My name is Adara,” she said, leaning towards him. The world came into focus - he was in a little girl’s bedroom. He could see smoke in the distance. A man was standing at the door, glaring at him with a rage he had never seen before. “I’m a nurse. Let me help your leg.”

“My-my leg?”

John glanced down, but the nurse pushed his head back up. “No, no,” she soothed, letting is head rest on the pillow. “You don’t want to see. Not yet.” A smile played across her face. “Surprise.”

“Oh, I hate surprises...” John yawned as Adara raised his leg. He couldn’t feel anything. “So, where’s the little girl? The owner of the room?”

Adara’s face darkened and she ducked her head. “She is not here. Not anymore.”

“Oh.”

Looking up, Adara nodded. “Oh, indeed.”

John shook his head. “You did a brilliant job. It’s just...well, sometimes there isn’t much you can do.”

“I know that...but I like things to be beautiful. You are a beautiful man, John, but your leg...” She trailed off and waved her hand in the air. “I knew someone who could fix this. A very good man - could have done it for free, if I asked-”

John caught her hand in mid-air and laid it gently on his lap. “It’s fine, Adara. I don’t notice anymore.” He always had been a good liar. “Thank you for fixing it up as well as you did. Without you, I probably wouldn’t even have a leg.”

“Yes, well, you learned a lesson that day.”

“And what was that?”

Adara stood up, the sadness back in her eyes. “Not to run into burning orchards.”

John’s stomach dropped like a stone and he felt guilt burrow into his mind. “You know about that?”

“I always knew about that.”

“H-How?”

Adara shrugged and played with lemon she had plucked, rolling it across her thigh. “Not hard to work out. Soldier stumbles into my father’s garden, leg on fire and smoke drifting from his hair. Meanwhile, a lemon grove burns. Not hard to figure out.” She paused. “Also, you smelled of...of...what is the word...petrol, that is it. You smelled of petrol.”

John buried his head in his chest. He hoped she would never find out. That she would never see him as a destroyer, only as a friend and a lover. But that illusion was over now. He had failed her. He had failed her, and he had shamed her.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a few minutes, choking back guilt and swallowing tears. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s alright. It was you job. I must say these fruit suit you better.” John forced a laugh and Adara knelt down beside him, holding his head in her hands. “You are not a violent man, John, that I know for sure. Just tell me...what happened that day?”

“I-I...I don’t remember.”

Adara raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember, or you don’t want to?”

The screaming pierced the air like a siren and the group fell silent. It took a moment for the commander to tell everyone to move, to run, to get the hell out of there. The soldiers splintered - some running west, others running south, away from the tower of smoke and the bitter smell of burning citrus. John didn’t move. He couldn’t move. All he could hear was the scream. He had done that.

“Connelly, move!”

“No, Sir.”

John yanked off his boot and wound his sock around his face. It stank, but it was better than the smoke. He could hear the commander screaming at him, threatening to shoot his sorry ass. It didn’t bother him. A life wasn’t about to end because of him. Not today.

Bracing himself, he ran forward into the flames. The heat seared his skin and he could feel smoke creeping up through his lungs with every breath, a deadly cancer. He kept going, pushing through the mouldering trees. The screaming was getting quieter and quieter. Whoever it was was losing hope. 

John pushed on. The leaves were burning his face and he could feel flames lick the inside of his trouser leg. The pain started and he bit down in his tongue to stop himself from crying. He could feel flesh sizzling, burning, dying. He had to go on...

There. In a clearing. A girl. He head was pressed to the ground and her clothes were back with smoke. She was sobbing gently, and tears were dampening the earth below her. She rose for a moment and fell again. Praying. She was praying.

With a cough and a stutter, John ran towards her, limping as his leg was eaten by flames. He didn’t pause to take her hand - instead he hauled her over his shoulder and ran back. Her heart was faltering. He could hear it under her breast, trying so very hard to grasp the ragged edges of life she still had. She was breathing slower, shallower and her tears had stopped flowing. No. Not today. Not on his back.

John ran, weaving through the lemon trees, stumbling over roots and squashing plump yellow  lemons, miniature suns that burned and flickered. Smoke was clogging his lungs and his leg had gone numb. He had to keep going...he...he had to...go...

John reached the edge of the orchard and slumped forward. The girl was lying on top of him, her chest still and her eyes closed, the eyelids stained black with soot. Coughing, John rolled her onto the ground beside him and touched her forehead. He couldn’t speak, not properly, but he tried. He murmured Arabic phrases to her, cooed to her, begged her to be alive. Nothing. Not a breath, not a sneeze. Just...nothing.

Tears spilled down his cheeks and John suddenly howled, pain ripping through him like a bullet. Guilt and grief and agony exploded out of him. He pushed himself upright and screamed. His leg was mutilated by fire, burned and scarred and blistered. Pus was already beginning to form, seeping down his boots. He bit his tongue and glanced at the dead girl. She looked scared. So very very scared.

John wiped his eyes and gritting his teeth, he started walking, he hoped, to his destruction.

By the time he was finished, tears were flowing fast from his eyes, warming his cheeks and wetting his shirt. Adara put her arm around him and cradled his head. “It’s ok,” she said, stroking his hair. “I will help you cry.”

They didn’t speak for a while -John sobbed and Adara rubbed his back, singing lullabies to him. Eventually, he stopped and ducked his head. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s ok, John. It was not your fault. You tried to save her.”

“But I didn’t. I was too late, far too late. She was dead, Adara. She was dead and I killed her.”

“You were a soldier in a war that doesn’t need to be fought. So was she. There are casualties. People get hurt. But it is not your fault.”

John sobbed and felt the lemon in his hand. “You must learn to live with yourself, John. It’s not your fault. 
Guilt will not bring her back...” Adara smiled slightly, her eyes twinkling in the sunlight. “You must learn to live with lemons, John. They are bitter, they are sour, they are sweet. But the world would be much less beautiful without them.”

John watched her stand up, his cheeks damp and his eyes stinging. “I can’t thank you enough, Adara. You saved my life.”

“Nonsense.” Adara glanced past the trees and sighed. “I must be going away now. Thank you, John. For telling me what happened.”

John shook his head and slowly stood up. He reached for his cane and leaned on it, trusting on it to support him and the guilt he harboured. “Why did you want to know? After all this time?”

Adara paused by the door and a smile ran across her face. “My sister’s body was found three days after the fire, sitting at the edge of the black trees. People wondered how she got there - they wondered why she was still whole and not ash, sprinkled through the wind.” She nodded at him. “You saved my sister’s body. You tried to save her life.”

“Adara, wait...please...” John let his words fall flat. They were pointless. She wouldn’t listen and anyway, she was gone, her skirt trailing behind her and her arms swinging loosely by her sides. John slumped back down into the chair. Her sister. The empty room.  Her father’s hatred towards him.

John looked down at the lemon in his hand and he squeezed it. Bubbles of juice formed on the skin, round and perfect.

Funny how it all came back to lemons. 

5 comments:

Emily said...

That was brilliant - really well-written and powerful. I thiiiink it's the best thing I've ever read by you :)

Jack said...

I agee :D

Rose said...

I agree also. I am a third agree-er. There's this line, like John Green would write: “You must learn to live with lemons, John. They are bitter, they are sour, they are sweet. But the world would be much less beautiful without them.” And oh my goodness, I thought I would die of the beauty.

Abbie said...

I've nominated you for the 'Reader's Appreciation Award' and further details can be found on my blog. Well done!!!!

http://welcometomypalace1998.blogspot.ie/

Jenny said...

I currently feel like banging my head against my desk because of your sheer writing skill. Oh, and by the way, I've made a blog.
Jenny-with-a-y