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Verge 2017 – Chimera

2

The Lemon Tree

Chloe Riley

The tree was dead.

Its branches were naked, their brown colour faded to a dull grey. It hadn’t borne fruit in over a year. I remembered how the last lot of lemons had simply dropped to the ground, freckled and rotten. Dad crouched by its roots and marked out the earth around it. The fresh grass cut away as he pressed through it with the tip of a little spade.

‘That’s the problem with fruit trees,’ Dad told me. ‘They’re prone to disease, especially here. The environment’s not right for them.’

‘This block used to be an orchard.’

‘Climate change,’ he explained. ‘I’m sure it made a great orchard once. But unless the weather settles, I doubt we’ll see many fruit trees growing here again.’

I’d never really liked the tree. I didn’t like lemons. They’re sour. It was Nonno who’d done the landscaping for the house, before he died. At the centre, he’d put a large square patch of grass—a classic Aussie backyard in the middle of an Italian giardino. We were only half Italian, Mum’s side. But living with Nonna was a constant reminder of our heritage.

It was Nonno who had planted the tree. He was from Vizini, but my Nonna had grown up on an orchard in Floridia. She’d had hundreds of trees exactly like it. Nonno probably planted it for her.

I came into the kitchen to make coffee. The caffettiera was sitting empty on the stove from this morning. Pulling it apart, I took out the filter. It was still full from the last pot. I struck it against the rim of the bin, watching the ashy remains fall limply into the bag.

I got two cups from the cupboard. Noticing the thick dark rings inside them, I realised Nonna had washed the dishes again. I hurried through the remaining cups, trying to decipher which were clean and which were dirty. Frustrated, I brought them all to the sink and turned on the hot water. The bottle of detergent was sitting unopened next to the tap. It was probably the only thing in the whole kitchen her greasy hands had not touched.

Devi usare il detergente!’

I would tell her this time and time again, and she still wouldn’t listen.

‘Eh, fai fatti tuoi!’

We would often argue like this for half an hour, which would always leave a strange sour taste in my mouth. There had been a time when she would never have left a speck of dirt uncleaned.

The lounge room had once been the pride of Nonna’s house. It was the mandatory room in every Mediterranean home, where the antique furniture, the ‘family jewels’ rather, were proudly displayed. The sofas were baroquely ornamented and cushioned in a rich maroon. The walls were neatly lined with fading photographs. Old photos of weddings and babies, but none of the lifetimes that had followed. There was another table covered entirely with broken frames of all the people in our family who had passed away— Nonna’s private collection.

It was only the small flat screen TV that brought the room back to the twenty-first century. It was also probably the cheapest thing in the room, and definitely the only thing that worked. Not even the dusty chandelier had been rewired, and its switch was taped over to avoid causing a power outage. At night, the room would only be lit by the little TV.

I found Nonna sitting in front of it when I came in with her coffee. I’d also cut up some leftover panettone. It was a bit dry, but still good.

Beatrice?’

It was what she always called me. Chloe was too hard for Italians to say, so Mum had ensured that I had a more suitable middle name. I was named after the woman Dante loved. He never told her though. He just loved her from afar.

Vuoi un po’ di caffè?’

I always liked how Italian felt in my mouth. My grammar was terrible and I could never remember enough vocabulary, but I could always pronounce everything right. She nodded in response and I placed the panettone on her lap and handed her the small cup. She clutched it gingerly in two hands and began to drink. I placed my own cup on the table and sat down on the arm of her chair. She was watching My Fair Lady.

Ti piace questo film?’

Nonna waved a hand. ‘Ah, I see many time. Lei è pazza.’

I smiled, glad she was in a good mood.

‘Where is-a your mother?’

She’d already asked me this twice that day.

‘At work, l’ho detto prima.’

She sipped her coffee contently, her thickly rimmed glasses reflecting the light of the screen. At ninety-two, she had outlived all her siblings and her small circle of friends. Every morning she would pray a rosary to her husband Giuseppe—my brother’s middle name. At any other time of day she wouldn’t think about her husband, just of her mother. Sometimes she would think Mum was her mother, or her sister. We let her think that. We let her think lots of things.

We sat for a while, the film playing in front of us unchanged in any way. She always laughed at all the same moments exactly the same way. I think I’d seen it more times with her than with anyone else. Her moments might as well have been a part of the film.

Audrey Hepburn sat singing on a vegetable cart, a bouquet of celery in her arms. I turned again to Nonna who was now munching on the aging panettone. She was wearing the same clothes she’d worn the past three days, now with an additional coffee stain on the collar. Normally I would have had a go at her about it; but looking at her sitting there, something stopped me. She was the quietest I had seen her in months. Her good days were quickly growing scarce and it was hard to remember when the last one had been. Her hand shook as the cake crumbled between her fingers and mouth, falling onto her blouse and skirt. I suddenly thought of the lemon tree in the back yard.

Ti ricordi l’albero di limoni?’

Come?’

‘The lemon tree.’

She looked at me.

Che dici?’

‘Never mind.’ She returned to her coffee, her eyes fixed on the screen. I took in her crooked fingers, swimming under the weight of her sagging skin. Her gold band hung limply round her wedding finger. She’d lost weight again. She always forgot to eat if no one was home. She’d just sit there, shrinking away beneath her own skin. I tried not to think about this as I sat by her, watching Audrey Hepburn graciously transform from a cockney flower girl into a grand duchess.

Beatrice?’

I looked at her. She placed one of her trembling hands on my arm.

‘Where is-a your mother?’

Mum finally came home from work, slumping her satchel and laptop bag onto the table. She was in a bad mood. I came into the kitchen, just as she started storming about, fussing over dinner.

‘I asked you to thaw the chicken.’

‘No you didn’t.’

‘Check your phone.’

One missed call.

‘Mum, you know I don’t check voicemail.’

‘Well you need to.’

She pulled the freezer drawer open and began to dig for the meat.

‘Did Dad start on the tree?’

I remembered watching him scratching that thick ring through the grass.

‘Yes.’

‘Good, I’ve got someone coming for it tomorrow.’

I looked at her, bewildered. ‘Tomorrow?’

She pulled out the meat and slammed the drawer closed.

‘So soon.’

‘Well it’s just standing there, taking up space.’ She looked up, finally seeing my face. ‘I thought you hated it.’

I didn’t answer.

She came to the sink, dropping in the meat and turning on the tap. She rubbed her fingers under the stream and began to prod its icy surface.

‘It feels weird, getting rid of it.’

‘Of what?’

‘The tree.’

‘Well it’s dead.’ She turned off the tap. ‘You want a dead tree just standing in the backyard?’

‘No.’

‘Well?’

Again I said nothing.

Mum looked down at the meat. It was still frozen. She picked it up and began to whack it against the sink.

The workers came, just as she said. They came out of a truck, which was branded with a giant logo of a luscious tree in a neat circle. They all wore the same yellow polo—the image of the tree stitched clumsily on the left breast.

I watched them as they unearthed the tree. Its branches shook and I had a vivid image of how many lemons it had dropped in its lifetime. Perfectly good lemons that we had never even bothered to pick up. The men worked around the tree until they’d forged a moat. I looked into it, seeing for the first time the tree’s thick roots, naked of soil. I turned around, not wanting to watch anymore.

I walked back to the house, trying to block out the sound. The thwack of shovels against the rock hard earth.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates