Oranges

When Geoffrey got to the ticket barrier a young man leaped to his feet and raised his hand in apparent signal that he should halt. Since he was wearing jeans, T-shirt and trainers rather than a London Transport uniform Geoffrey chose to ignore him.

      "Give us twenty pence will you mate," the man called after him forlornly. "I just need twenty pence then I've got enough to get me a ticket. Come on mate, what's twenty pence to a man like you?"

      Geoffrey walked straight ahead, and as he passed the barrier he jingled the change teasingly in his pocket. After a day of running errands in the office and being treated like a tea boy, he enjoyed lording it over those even less fortunate then himself.

      The man was still swearing behind him as he wandered down the platform, stopping opposite a poster showing a model family; man, woman, boy, girl and dog running across a sun-kissed beach after a big blue ball as if it were happiness itself. That was what life should be like, he thought. How he longed to take Sarah and the child away with him to somewhere like that. Away from the cramped flat and the mountains of ironing she had to take in to make ends meet. But how would he ever manage it as a mere clerk in a solicitor's office?

      "Hey you!" came a voice at his shoulder. "Twenty bloody pence. Now that was hardly going to break the bank was it?" It was the man. He stood there in front of Geoffrey, one hand in his pocket, looking him up and down through cold, angry eyes. "Lucky there are some people left who give a toss for their fellow man," he said, casting a nod at a man in a dark suit and a dark hat a little way up the platform. The man nodded back sagely and his half smile seemed to suggest he felt he'd spent his money wisely. Geoffrey silently cursed him.

      He decided he had better appease the irate beggar. "You're right, it was mean of me," he said with what he hoped was quiet dignity. "Look, here's fifty pence. To make amends."

      The man looked at the coin like it was pigeon dirt. "Keep your money," he said in a hurt voice. "I don't need it now, do I?" Geoffrey noticed he wasn't as young as he had thought. He had a slight double chin and the skin around his eyes was puffy and sagging. A chunky yellow chain hung loosely around his scrawny neck. Geoffrey wondered whether it was gold. "I'm not a fucking beggar, all right? Here's fifty pence! I needed the money for the ticket home. I've got it now so I don't need any more money, do I? I ain't short of money!"

      "I'm sorry if I offended you."

      "Sorry?" he snarled. White spots had appeared on his cheeks. "Treat me like a beggar, like a bloodsucker, then say you're sorry? What do you think it feels like to be treated like that?"

      Geoffrey was saved from replying to a rhetorical question by the arrival of the train. He walked a little way down the platform hoping the man would leave him alone now he'd had his say. But the other followed him, as if determined to exact retribution. The man in the dark suit cast Geoffrey a smile of sympathy before disappearing into a carriage further down. Geoffrey smiled back.

      "What you bloody smiling at? What's so funny?"

      Geoffrey felt the blood rising in his neck. "Look, I offered you money, I offered you an apology. What else do you want from me?" It was meant to be firm, but there was a tremor in his voice.

      The man was eyeballing him unblinkingly. Geoffrey thought for an instant he was choosing a spot to lay a punch, but instead he slid slowly down into the seat next to him. There was something awkward about the way he positioned himself in the seat, taking all the strain on his right arm. The other one was so skinny it hardly filled his coat sleeve. Geoffrey suddenly realised with a guilty sense of relief that it was paralysed.

      "Got a fag?" asked John.

      "This is a no smoking compartment." Geoffrey said stiffly but passed him his packet anyway. The man took two cigarettes, lit one with Geoffrey's lighter and stuck the other behind his ear. "Listen, I'm sorry about all that . . . ranting and raving." He laughed hollowly.

      Geoffrey was wondering what had made his arm go all limp like that. "Forget it," he said.

      "Hadn't been you it would have been someone else. You know, I'd been standing there for nearly two hours when you passed. Nobody fucking wanted to know, did they? Still, suppose you can't blame 'em." He rolled his head on his neck, as if easing seismic tensions within. "Pleased to meet you. I'm John," he said, holding out his good hand.

      Geoffrey said his name sulkily. His unease was turning to boredom. The journey to and from the office each day was a special silent time, one of the very few he got. He hated talking on the tube.

      John drew deeply on his cigarette, shooting blue jets from his nostrils. Geoffrey looked around him and seeing there was no one else in the carriage lit a cigarette himself. After the first puff he doubled up, his skinny body wracked by a violent coughing fit.

      "Nasty cough that, Geoffrey old mate. Tell you the truth, you look a bit under the weather. I bet you work in one of them offices, don't you?" Geoffrey, who had finally managed to stifle his coughs, admitted that he did. "Very unhealthy, them offices. So what's your game then?"

      "My game? Oh, I'm a solicitor," he lied. "Work in a law office off Chancery Lane."

      John looked at him shrewdly. "Lots of money in soliciting eh, I bet!"

      "Not as much as you might think," Geoffrey answered quickly.

      John leaned forward as if he had a secret to share with him. "Vitamins. That's what you need. Citrus fruit."

      "Uh?"

      "Citrus fruit. Oranges, lemons. Do you a power of good."

      Oranges. When was the last time he'd had one? A dozen years, maybe more. When he was a child there had always been a basket of them on the table at home. You bit into one and afterwards your lips tingled like they had been stung. Then the shortages came and the basket was left to gather dust in the bottom of the larder.

      "You know, I swear by an orange. Live on 'em," said John

      "What do you mean? Where do you get them from?"

      "Bloke I know works in the docks. They still bring them in. Just that they go to them special shops, not where you and I go to buy stuff. I could get you some. If you liked."

      "Could you? . . . No, that's all right."

      "Sure?"

      "Yeah  . . . thanks anyway." The train stopped briefly at an empty platform and then moved back into the tunnel, discharges from the electrified rails fitfully illuminating a landscape of rotting brickwork and cables as thick as a man's arm. Between the flashes, like ghosts, Geoffrey saw two figures, one of them dressed in a dark suit with a pale face and hollowed eyes, the other crouched upright on the seat like a buzzard. Geoffrey hoped the buzzard would stay quiet.

      "You being a legal man might be able to help me," he said. "I got this problem. I live in this building, right? In this house. Beautiful old place. I lived there ever since I was a kid, since I run away. Bloke lived there gave me odd jobs to do, in return for my board, like. I'd clean the house for him, polish the boards, that sort of thing. Funny chap, think he was a writer or an actor or something. Never quite sure what . . . Well, I'd been living there ten years or so and one day, he was getting on a bit, one day he said he wanted me to have the house when he passed away. Didn't have no family, no one else to leave it to, see. That's what he told me." He looked up at Geoffrey, as if to satisfy himself that he was paying sufficient attention. Geoffrey asked himself where all of this was leading.

      "Well, about a year after that he fell down the stairs and they took him away." John continued. "To the hospital. I went to see him and there was all these tubes and things, you know, he was all connected up. It was horrible . . . He never came home. He stayed there a long time and then they told me that they had unplugged him, like. So he . . . he passed away and I been living there ever since. That must have been, well, years ago."

      While he spoke, he rubbed and kneaded the meagre flesh on his withered arm. Geoffrey wondered if he could feel anything in it or if it was just a dead appendage.

      "Then a couple of months ago bloke comes to the door, big bloke in a suit, and he says this house don't belong to me. He says, this house is private property, I want you out of here. Shows me some papers he says proves it. Well, I just closed the door, slammed it right there in his face. But that wasn't the end of it. He kept coming back, banging on the door, all hours of the day and night, saying he's going to call the police and the bailiffs and how I'd better get out if I know what's good for me. Then one day I go out and when I come back they've jemmied the door, forced their way in. Bloke there, another bloke, he's moving his things in and everything. I says to him, I says, look here, you can't do this, this is my house. You can't just go moving your things in here without asking me. He says, I've bought this house and nobody ain't going to take it away from me. He wanted to throw me out, he did, right there onto the street. But I wouldn't go, I held fast. There wasn't no getting me out.  In the end he said he'd let me stay. On condition I do odd jobs for him. Polishing the boards, that sort of thing. But I've got this paper. I never told him that. I've got this paper the old man give me. He said, whoever has this paper owns the house. I carry it around with me wherever I go."

      He thrust a hand down into his jeans and withdrew a scrap of yellowed paper which he carefully unfolded and handed to Geoffrey. "What do you think?" he asked anxiously.

      The document had the texture and thickness of blotting paper and was beginning to tear along the folds. It was covered in elegant cursive script and had an impressive wax seal attached to a ribbon on the bottom. The text was so faded it was barely legible and in places it was smeared and blotchy as if it had been left out in the rain.

      "I don't know. It could be the deeds. It's hard to say . . ."

      "You can't say for sure then?" He looked like he'd expected more of a legal expert.

      Geoffrey peered at it with a serious face. "It's very old. Could be the deeds for an old property. They don't do them like that anymore."

      "Oh well it's an old place all right. Very old." John took back the document, folded it carefully and then shoved it roughly down his trousers. "Bloke that bought my house, he's got a document. That's new, that is." A sly look came into his eyes. "Tell you what, you could take a look at it. I live near next stop. We could nip round there, have a look, and I could get you them oranges. What d'you say?"

      "Well, I don't know . . . " All he wanted to do was get back home and soak his aching limbs in the tub. But then he imagined Sarah's resentful back bent over the ironing board. That was always the sight that greeted him when he got home. Bang, bang, bang, went the iron each time he crept back in, hoping not to provoke her ire. Well he'd be able to hold his head up high if he came back laden with oranges. That would make her look at him differently!

      Then there was the business of this man's house. It might even be amusing to sort it all out. He could imagine the awed faces as he examined their papers and passed his irrevocable judgement. "Bad luck, old chap, your documents just don't add up." and to the other, "Congratulations, this is your property after all!"

      A damp gust met them as they came up to street level and Geoffrey shivered and raised his collar. The air smelled of coal smoke and was full of blaring horns as buses and taxis and the odd private car jostled for position. John walked along swiftly, forcing his way through the crowded pavement with his elbows, and leaped up into a bus. Geoffrey hesitated an instant then followed him.

      "I thought you said it was just around the corner from here," he grumbled.

      "Just a few stops. Don't worry, mate you'll be back before you know it."

      The bus followed the abandoned Metropolitan Line tracks for a while and then veered off. Geoffrey thought they were going north but he couldn't be sure. It struck him as odd that he'd lived in London all his life but knew so little of it. His life was all conducted along a narrow swathe of the city running along its main east-west axis. He decided to treat his trip out with John as an interesting sight-seeing trip. It might make an amusing anecdote for the lads next time they went out together. "You wouldn't guess where I ended up last night after work . . ." he'd say, and he imagined the pale circle of faces, hanging on his words.

      A grey-haired conductor wearing gold-rimmed half-moon spectacles loomed severely over him and he found himself buying tickets for both of them. The fellow certainly had a nerve, he thought to himself. But it hardly irked him at all, really. It was rather fun heading off like this on an errand through the mysterious outer reaches of the city.

      The bus began to bounce about and Geoffrey saw faintly ahead that the road was pocked like the surface of the moon. The occasional street lamp revealed crumbling, sooty Victorian facades.

      "What a pity people don't take more care of their houses," he said.

      "This the first time you've headed out to the suburbs, is it?" John asked, and Geoffrey thought he sensed a note of scorn in his gruff voice.

      Geoffrey noticed how filthy the streets had become. Here and there were what looked like heaps of rags and in the light he could just make out figures scurrying to and fro. He began to wonder whether his coming was such a good idea after all. The bones in his legs were aching and he felt depressed by the dark, cityscape unfolding endlessly before his eyes. At last John jabbed a sharp elbow in his ribs and told him to get ready to step off.

      The bus slowed but the driver appeared unwilling to waste time stopping altogether so they were forced to jump out into the darkness. Geoffrey swore as his moccasins sunk into the liquid mud.

      A crowd of people was standing around a line of ancient Japanese all-terrain vehicles. John shepherded him towards one of them.

      "You've got to be joking. Don't tell me we've got to take one of these. You said it was just round the corner."

      "Bloke with the oranges lives up there," said John, pointing at a constellation of lights twinkling prettily on the hillside. "My house is just beyond. Course if you'd prefer to walk . . . "

      The old Mitsubishi was already crammed full and the passengers grumbled when the driver told them to make room for two more. Geoffrey ended up with a shopping basket on his lap next to a woman with forearms like a wrestler. All the windows were closed and the air was heavy with cheap perfume, sweat and beer. Geoffrey wiped the steamy window with his elbow. They passed through some massive rusty gates and then up a rubble strewn path between lines of shacks built from breeze blocks and tin sheets. Here and there a bare light bulb pierced the darkness.

      "My God, wasn't this a park before?" he asked.

      "It was. Beautiful trees here once. Then people started moving in from the countryside and squatting." John laughed, "The electricity board still won't connect them up so they nick the power straight from the cables."

      The Mitsubishi stopped and the passengers spilled out into a mean little square. There was a church at one end which seemed to have been thrown together out of the same rubble used to fill the ruts in the road. Geoffrey paid the driver, who added his fare to a greasy wad of low denomination notes he stuffed into his back pocket.

      John led Geoffrey towards a grimy cafe opposite the church.

      "The oranges are a pound each. Give us the money now and I'll come back for you."

      "Why can't I go with you?"

      "He wouldn't like it if you did. Doesn't want anyone to know where he lives."

      Geoffrey took a crisp new banknote from his wallet. His only one. "Give me something so I'll know you'll come back. It's not that I don't trust you, but . . . "

      "What can I give you? I don't have anything."

      "The document from the house. That'll do."

      "I can't give you that. What if you went off with it? Where would that leave me?"

      "Take me with you then."

      John pulled the ancient paper reluctantly out of his trousers and handed it to Geoffrey.

      "I'll be back in about ten minutes," he said.

      Geoffrey glanced into the grimy interior of the cafe and decided to take a draughty seat under the awning outside. Three pairs of eyes at the next table examined him suspiciously before turning back to plates of steaming food. Brawny men in shirt sleeves, oblivious to the cold; truck drivers, Geoffrey decided. A skinny waiter came out and he ordered a bottle of beer. There was a hand pump in the middle of the square and a queue of women were patiently waiting their turn to fill buckets and jerry cans.

      The waiter came back with the beer. He smiled and revealed a mouthful of rotten teeth. Geoffrey wiped the neck of the bottle carefully with his sleeve and sipped slowly. How much longer would he have to wait here? A group of boys with filthy, torn clothes and long, unkempt hair had crept silently to the edge of the awning and watched the men's plates intently. They had curiously expressionless faces and one of them was barefoot - not at all like the children Geoffrey was used to seeing. The waiter came out and shooed them away.

      Then it seemed someone had turned a radio on because there was a sound of music. But no, it wasn't a radio, it was an old man walking through the square with an accordion. He shuffled easily towards the cafe, his feet skipping like a young man's on a dance floor. Geoffrey felt there was something familiar about the tune but he couldn't say what. One of the truck drivers was talking loudly and his companions waved him silent. Their red faces became dreamy. A piece of sausage impaled on a fork remained suspended in mid air. The waiter stood by the door grinning horribly.

      Then it came to Geoffrey where he'd heard the tune before. A car ad on television: a woman, red rose clenched between her teeth, dancing with a man with black pomaded hair and a moustache. It had been funny on television, but it sounded sad the way the old man played it. There was a final flourish on the accordion and it was over. The lorry driver took up his story, the sausage completed its journey and the waiter closed his mouth. Geoffrey found himself reaching inside his pocket for a coin to give the old musician, who nodded at him curtly and went on his way.

      There was a grinding of chairs and the men got up, scratching their bellies. The children dived forward, snatching scraps from the plates. He looked at his watch. Half an hour had gone by! So that was that. He had been conned out of his money and all he had to show for it was a rotten worthless scrap of paper. He wanted to do something violent, pick a fight with someone, cry out, smash something. Instead he quietly paid for his beer with the last of his money. He didn't even have enough left to get the car back down the hill. He'd have to walk, then hope he found a taxi somewhere on the way. He could imagine Sarah's face when he arrived at the door asking her to pay his fare home.

      He began picking his way down the rough road. At first he tried to avoid the big welts of mud thrown up by the car tires but he soon just walked ahead regardless of where he put his feet. A little way down he felt the heat of a fire on his cheek. Some men were burning a pile of trash in a gap between two shacks. An old tire was smouldering with a deep red flame which cast a satanic light on the men's faces. Geoffrey took a step forward and tossed the paper into the fire. It trembled a moment in the smoke and then disappeared in a bright yellow flame.

      The men grinned at him and he turned and walked on into the gloom. He felt a little better, not much. His eyes retained the glare of the flame and he was only vaguely aware of a movement in front of him.

      "Geoffrey!" someone yelled and then he'd run in to whoever it was and down they went together. He thrashed around with the other on the muddy ground. There were soft heavy things under him and all around. Then he smelt it, in the air and on his clothes. The sweet-bitter smell of oranges.