Today's story is delicate, ripe, as sweet as jam and gooseberry bitter. Here's another short story from our vaults, this time from our GREEN May issue, 2013, in honour of National Short Story Week.
Take the gooseberry between your thumb and forefinger. Take the sour berry and squeeze it until it bursts and the jellied placenta sticks to your skin.
There once was a garden full of the prickly bulbs. Some are sweet and others bitter to taste. The ripe and delicious are picked to boil and simmer with sugar for jam. The rest are left to shrivel and harden under the sun. They are difficult to reach and those tempted by the fruits are scathed whilst foraging. They draw blood. In time the gooseberry bushes thrive and devour the garden until there is little space for anything else. Their sharp spines twist and turn resulting in a tangled mess.
The garden is swallowed whole.
I was there from the very beginning, when there were four of us. I cherished the gooseberry bush, spending many hours in the fruit garden planting new seedlings guided by the Lunar calendar. My finger tips were like rusty nails. I had true gardeners’ hands with stained palms which often bled. I was nicknamed Lumberjack, and for once, I felt a part of something big and great. We worked eight-hour days; woke at sunrise and finished around lunchtime when the sun was at its highest point. Most of us worked alone. We ate mostly from the land and for a while it seemed we were living the bohemian simple life, totally self-sufficient and in love with our project and each other.
Then word spread and our community grew to fifteen members in just over six months. Some found us by accident and decided to settle down. Others were strays, vagabonds and lost folk who had left their loved ones behind or their loved ones had left them. Our plot of land expanded and we started a workers’ cooperative and sold some produce in the village nearby. It was around this time when Jasper arrived. He entranced us all.
It began on a clear, dewy morning. His shadow stretched across the grass and my body was sheltered by his.
“I don’t mean to encroach,” he said as he knelt beside me. I dropped the secateurs and removed the soiled gloves to free my hands. He used his thumb to wipe away the dusty earth which clung to my hairline. From his pocket he removed a small bundle of purplish-looking baubles carefully wrapped up in a handkerchief.
“Open wide” he said.
I bit into the soft fleshy fruit; it was the first fig of summer. Then he reached out and pinched my cheek.
“So much life ahead of you, girl.”
I didn’t say a word. He stood up and for the first time I noticed his club foot. The arch was barely visible and as he walked away I saw how strange his figure was. His body was slightly hunched as if his spine were an s-shape. Perhaps sensing my perpetual stare he turned and said “I have a surprise for you when you finish up.” Then he shuffled back towards the main house and the darkness of his shadow shrank with the rising of the sun.
I arrived home and discovered a package on the edge of my bed. It was wrapped in newspaper and buried beneath the print was a note from Jasper. Scribbled in juvenile handwriting were the words ‘not a sound, J’. There lay the undergarments that he had promised me. The delicate lace and satin was as pale as my colour; it was an extension of me. My woman-self unleashed and ready to feel the hands of another. I had chosen to skip supper and instead sucked on liquorice root all afternoon. He had asked me to be ready by eleven-thirty. It was eleven-fifteen and there I stood in my matching underwear sucking on the liquorice and trying to keep as still as a model.
I wondered what Jasper would say to me. I wondered how many others had been before. I wet my face and patted it dry with the flannel. Then I applied the lipstick a little beyond the line for added effect. I scrubbed my hands wanting so badly for the tough bits to soften and melt away. I wished for longer painted nails instead of my chewed ones. I listened for his call, the beep of the horn. I thought it would never come. Then it did.
He took me out in his pale yellow MG and we parked on the cliff top. It could have belonged to us: the sea, the horizon, the sky. All of it could have been ours. Few words passed between us because we knew what was coming and didn’t wish to delay it any longer. I was wearing a cream shirt with hazel buttons that match my irises. Underneath my shirt and camisole I wore the matching bra and pant set.
The gooseberry pulsed. He was lopsided; it was as if he had two legs of different length. My bones rubbed against his and I lay there waiting for his first order. His weight was overbearing. The gooseberry split and its contents bled an inky red. It delivered a great gushing flood, and I almost drowned in it. His silky film clung to my pants and spread itself thick on his faux leather car seat, stained with his aged ripened juices.
Natalie Baker is a recent graduate from Kingston University with a BA (Hons) degree in Creative Writing with Drama. She currently works as product editor in children's entertainment publishing and drifts between poetry and playwriting.