There’s something about pears, thought Tessa …. the greenness shading into yellow, the smooth shapeliness of them, their roundness that refuses to stop, goes up and curves outwards and upwards. The tiny brown spots a perfect pear may have on its upper bulge.
Tessa knows the only way to eat a truly perfect pear is straight off the tree. A pear brought in fresh to a shop one day can be soft and mushy the next. A pear bought looking and feeling firm and plump might house a pulpy heart.
Tessa always stops at the market stall that sells old varieties of apples, and pears, standing for half an hour at a time, taking in the reds, greens, yellows and shades in between. Admiring the pure curved shapes while the crowd jostles against her. She loves the names – Lord Lambourne, Cox’s Orange, Geeveston Fanny.
She’s not keen on the newer, Japanese varieties of pears, like nashi. Sort of perfume-flavoured. It’s the time-honoured favourites for her: Williams, Packham’s triumph. Also buerre bosc with its golden-brown skin that stays firm longer. But with all of them, the secret is to eat them while they’re fresh. She takes the quarter-pear that’s offered to her on the end of a knife by a young woman with smiling dark eyes. Its juice swirls up over her tongue, cascades down her gums along the inside of her jaw.
She buys two Williams and walks on.
She wanders to the park, ignoring stallholders hawking their goods, harried shoppers and dawdling tourists. She lies on lush green lawn among flower beds and massive trees, now in full spring leaf, legs bent up at the knees, skirt tucked in under them. She closes her eyes and bites into one of the pears. Sweetness explodes in her mouth. She thanks the fruit for all it has brought her.
Tessa’s Aunty Gina and Uncle George had a pear tree in their back yard at Swansea. Tessa had never taken that much notice of it growing up, staying there for holidays. Perhaps because the pears were never ripe when she was there. But now she remembers the shape of the young pears, at Christmas time there were already miniature green pears hanging on to the branches from thick stalks that stayed the same size as the pears grew. For the first couple of years, Tessa’s mother had spent the holidays at Swansea with her; then it was just her and her cousins.
Tessa never understood why her visits to Swansea had stopped when she turned fourteen. Her father said it was because she was too old now to go and stay with her aunt and uncle. She went back once; years after the bad times were over, after she’d left home. The old house was still there, but the front garden was bare: Aunty Gina’s beautiful roses were gone. Someone she didn’t know answered the door: a young woman, squalling baby on her hip, great green runnels of snot running down to its mouth. The woman had never heard of Gina or George Phillips, and turned away, closing the door before Tess could ask anything about the house and garden.
Hearing the screaming baby from inside, and the woman shouting at a fractious toddler, Tess felt she would be safe taking a quick look around the yard. The house still looked pretty much the same – though older, shabbier, the fibro a more faded green, the guttering sprouting grass and rust – but the absence of the garden was what shook her. Where were the fruit trees – the pear tree, which should be sporting small red and green baby pears now – and the veggie garden, where Uncle George spent nearly every day of the holidays she spent there, after his early morning fishing trips?
Trailing her fingers along a wooden paling fence, grey with age, Tessa stopped when a thin branch emerged in front of her, through a gap in the fence. Its bark was smooth golden brown, silken almost, not really bark: more like skin.
Tessa moved so she could see through the gap, where a paling was missing. She sucked breath in and held it while her wide brown eyes took in the scene in front of her. It felt as familiar to her as her own home – as if she used to live there, though she could only remember ever having lived in the weatherboard cottage in Denison Street with her parents. The cottage had very little garden, with her father’s big shed in the back yard, and a small lawn and her mother’s attempts at a flower garden, in the front.
Either side of her face poking through the gap, the naked branches of a pear tree – she recognised it from Swansea – spread against the fence. She could see other trees, apples and maybe another pear, free standing, surrounded by a sea of unmown grass.
Tessa was drawn back to that place, started walking the same way every afternoon, and in the mornings if she got out of bed early enough to walk to work. Which she was doing more and more, waking early, dressing breathlessly, bolting her breakfast and grabbing a vegemite sandwich for her lunch.
“Bye Mum and Dad,” she’d sing as she raced out the front door, her sturdy-heeled shoes clumping down the stairs as the door slammed closed behind her.
“What’s gotten into you?” Her father asked one late afternoon when Tess came in. The gruffness of his voice, gravelly from two packs a day, didn’t faze Tessa. She was used to it. But she could tell by the tone, by the way he looked at her out of the corner of his eye as he said it, that he suspected she was up to something.
“Nothing Dad. Just the lovely spring weather we’re having. That’s all.”
A growling, phlegmy noise came from the corner where her father sat by the kitchen fire reading the paper, stubby rested on the filthy faded arm of his chair.
“We’ll have to get Mum out now that it’s warming up,” Tess ventured.
“Grmphh,” her father replied. “What’s that yer got there?”
Tess was holding flowers behind her back – tall daffodils for her mother. She brought them around to face her father.
“Where’d you get them?”
“Oh, I just picked them on the way home,” she said in an airy tone she hoped would cover her nervousness and defray any further questions.
“Well you can stay home tomorra. There’s things need to be done here.”
“But, Dad …”
“But nothin’. You can clean out yer mother’s room and keep her company. Stop gallivantin’ around for once.”
Len could move quickly when he wanted to, despite years of sitting, drinking, smoking. He leapt from his chair, grabbed Tessa’s arm, squeezed it hard, his knuckles white with the effort, his face glowing red and purple. As he leered into her face, Tessa couldn’t help leaning away from his foul breath, avoiding the sight of his rotten yellow teeth and white-whiskered chin, the rheumy yellowed whites of his faded eyes.
“What? Not good enough for yer now, are we? I’m tellin’ you girl, do as yer told or yer won’t sit down for a week!”
Spit erupted from the corners of Len’s mouth, as he flung Tessa’s arm back at her and staggered back to his chair, his chest heaving, to take a swig from the stubby miraculously still resting on the arm of his chair.
Tessa picked a pear out of a basket, held it in both hands, out in front of her, and looked down at it. Light from a window reflected on the rounded top, towards the side, a rectangular white patch lightening the yellow skin. Almost yellow – there was still the faintest hint of lime green in the yellow, and a few tiny brown spots. Straight lines of the pear’s natural colour crossed through the square, reflecting the four separate window panes.
She weighed the pear in one hand, feeling its heaviness, its fullness. She lifted it up to her face, breathed in the pureness of its scent; then, closing her eyes, placed it gently against her skin and rolled it up and down, around her cheek.
“You’ll have to pay for that now.”
The voice, harsh with disapproval, startled Tessa. She dropped the pear – stared at it, rolling away under a huge slatted crate of Geeveston Fannies. Down on her hands and knees, she tried to reach it, but it was under too far.
“Are you going to buy anything? Or just fondle the fruit?” The man, wearing a smeared white apron over his poking gut, smirked.
Tessa quickly grabbed some Royal Galas, put them in her shopping bag and walked, eyes downcast, to the cash register. She placed the fruit, one by one, on the scales and plucked them off again before the check out operator could touch them. She paid and left.
Competition: June 2015 Pen Factor, Round 1
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