Sour Plums

Sour Plums

A single piece of rope and her mother determined Moyra’s future in the summer of her sixteenth year. Moyra entered the greenhouse to crank open the windows in the glass ceiling. While yanking the handle anti-clockwise, Moyra noticed one of her mothers’ beaten gardening shoes on top of a mound of tomatoes on the soil. Glancing upwards, her mother’s limp body twirled at the end of a rope dangling from the rafters, quashing Moyra’s future plans. No attending Art College, or escaping this dreary town, nor her disagreeable father. Moyra could not forgive her mother for killing herself and, subsequently, killing Moyra’s dream.

In the following months, her father, devastated by his wife’s untimely death, wallowed in despair and strong alcohol and in the arms of wanton women. Alvin, Moyra’s older brother, argued with their father and left the family tomato orchard. Moyra resented her brother’s absence, his freedom.

In the following years, Moyra and her father worked side-by-side tending to the business of growing tomatoes. Yearly, replenishing the soil in the three large glasshouses, nurturing the seedlings, picking the fruits and carting crates of the plump firm fruit to the early morning markets. As her father became bent with age and sour disposition, Moyra lost her glimmer of youth and innocence.

Caroline, a biographer with a local charity, hopes that her third visit to Moyra will be the last. Obliged to complete the bleak account of the unfulfilled dreams of a middle-aged woman’s life story had become a weary burden for Caroline. An uninspiring narrative of filial obligation to a taciturn, over-bearing father. A boring life where nothing happens, nothing that is until the father mysteriously disappeared seven years ago.

The worn, over-stuffed armchair all but swallows the fragile body that is Moyra. Since her diagnosis six months previously, Moyra has rapidly declined. As she sips on a thick green energy drink prepared for her by her niece, Anna, her face scrunches in disgust. She emits a croaky cough. In her beaten armchair, Caroline squiggles trying to position her bottom to lessen the impact of a rogue spring from within the seat.

Glancing at the walls in this stuffy room, Caroline shivers. Crammed with canvasses of various sizes and subjects, the walls paint a pall of despondency. The pretty, hopeful vase of flowers in muted pinks and yellows, the fine black-and-white etching of an old barn, the long reproachful face of an older man with piercing, creepy eyes. Is this the man who vanished one night seven years ago, neither seen nor heard of since? A small picture of a bowl of dark, purple plums hangs next to the portrait, and an absurdly large canvas of dragon-like creatures devouring a pitiful baby lamb hangs below. Moyra sucks and gags on the horrendous juice.

With a forced smile, Caroline opens her notebook, determined to complete this monologue today. ‘Last time, you said your father disappeared and …’

‘I don’t want to talk about my father.’

The creepy eyes in the picture of the old man take on a malicious glare. A chill enters the room. Drips of blood from the dragon’s mouth seep from the canvass and dribble down the wall ominously. The pretty flowers droop. Caroline grips her pencil firmly; her pulse quickens.

‘Moyra, your mother’s death thwarted your ambition to pursue an art career. But these pictures,’ the biographer waves her pencil around the walls, ‘I’m guessing, are your creations?’

Moyra wipes her hand across her green-coated mouth, nods, croakily coughs, ‘Yes, in his absence, I’ve finally found the peace to express myself.’

‘In your fathers’ absence?’

‘I don’t want to talk about him.’

‘That one, what was the inspiration for that?’ Caroline points to the dragon-lamb picture.

Awkwardly, Moyra twists her head. ‘It’s symbolic of how this world works, of oppressors subjecting the innocent to their might. That there’s never any escape.’

The innocent versus the oppressor, a sentiment Caroline could connect with. Still, always, there’s an escape if you wait long enough. Caroline recalled the terror on the frail old face of Mr Owen George moments before his demise. She relished the fear in his eyes, his trembling, dribbling, thin lips pleading for mercy.

‘Symbolising the relationship between you and your father, perhaps?’

Moyra fixes her watery eyes on Caroline but does not speak.

In the ensuing uncomfortable silence, Caroline pretends to scribble something in her notebook.

‘And the picture below is of your father, right?’ she persists.

Moyra eases her body to the edge of her chair and places the empty glass on the coffee table. She lowers her eyes, shuffles back in her chair, and tugs the thread-bare green cardigan across her thin chest, wrapping herself into a tight ball.

‘Have you heard from him at all since he left?’

Moyra, wrapping herself tighter, hums tunelessly, then pauses, ‘No, and I never will,’ she whispers. ‘The dead can’t speak.’

‘Your father is dead? You never… .’

Anna breezes into the room with an empty bowl under her arm, ‘Hi, Caroline,’ she says, flashing a radiant smile. ‘Nice to see you again.’

Caroline, lost in her own thoughts, nods at the twenty-something. The dead can’t speak. Her father is dead. Yet, it is only Moyra who appears to know this. Moyra, a murderer? Caroline shook her head; surely, that’s not possible.

‘Look to thy own-self.’

‘Caroline? Did you say something? You look miles away.’ Anna patted Caroline’s arm.

‘Sorry. I’m fine, perhaps a little dehydrated.’

‘Yes, it is a bit stuffy in here.’ Anna steps towards the wooden French doors and opens them wide. ‘The plum tree is laden, mind if I pick myself a bowl, Aunt Moyra?’

‘Help yourself. I hate the things, too damn sour for me.’

‘Care to join me, Caroline?’

Beyond the plum tree and overgrown garden, like skeletons of creatures from long ago, the buckled and rusty iron struts of the three glasshouses poise as if ready to battle. Panes of broken or cracked glass and unruly weeds tangling around the frames, a testament to a time past. A creed of neglect and loneliness.

Anna looks at Caroline looking. ‘A sorry sight, isn’t it? Moyra gave up caring about the tomatoes and invested all her time in her paintings since Grandpa’s disappearance. Can’t say as I blame her. She’s had a pretty dreary life.’

‘Do you remember your Grandpa at all?’

‘Not really. As a child, when I came to stay, I’d follow Moyra around, steering clear of Grandpa, ‘cos he was a bit of a grouch and utterly horrid to Aunt Moyra. Worked her like a slave, belittled her and showed no affection.’

‘But missing for seven years, and neither sight nor sound from him. Do you ever wonder if something happened to him like he had some sort of accident?’

‘Harsh as this may sound, but who would care? I’m sorry, but he really was a sour, nasty person.’

A nasty person. Mr Owen George was a nasty person.

‘Let’s sit awhile.’ Anna motioned to an old, wooden garden bench. She rubbed her hands on her skirt, turned to face Caroline and began to speak. At the time of the mother’s death, Alvin, Anna’s father, was one year from finishing his engineering degree. Grandpa wanted his son to work on the orchard with him. He refused, and father and son had a blazing row. Alvin blamed his mother’s death on his father’s cruel treatment of her. Alvin vowed to never return, and he didn’t. Leaving Moyra stuck on the orchard with Grandpa, Alvin felt guilty. When Anna was twelve, her dad persuaded Moyra to live with them in the city. Moyra enrolled as an adult student at the Art School. After a few months, Grandpa rang, pleading that Moyra returns to the farm, that he was terminally ill. Against her dad’s protestations, Moyra returned. Her life continued as before. Grandpa, of course, wasn’t ill.

‘And when Moyra dies with your Grandpa having been a missing person for seven years, therefore presumed dead, this place passes to you, correct?’

‘Oh, that is too morbid to think about.’

‘Moyra said something strange when I asked about your Grandpa’s disappearance: she said the dead can’t speak. What do you suppose she meant?’

Anna shudders. ‘I don’t know. Moyra frequently confuses fact with fiction, an effect of the medication. But what she tells you is confidential, right?’

‘Yes, completely confidential,’ Caroline assures the young woman, taking a bite from a plum. She winces and throws the plum on the ground. ‘Aargh, your Aunt is right. So sour.’

Anna laughs. ‘We call the tree, The Grandpa Tree. Planted years ago, the tree never bore fruit until after his disappearance. At Moyra’s insistence, the tree is never to be uprooted. Weird, don’t you think?’

With the bowl fill, they return inside. Anna goes to her Aunt, kneels and begins to talk to her in a hushed tone. Caroline walks through the lounge to the kitchen. She pours herself a glass of water and, gazing through the window, sips the water. The events of that Sunday afternoon twenty years ago, the day Mr George died, are as vivid as if it happened just yesterday.

That Sunday, seventeen-year-old Caroline, had reluctantly accompanied her mother to the rest home. While preparing the tea trolley, Mrs Hutton, the other rostered volunteer, mentioned one patient’s excitement, Mr George. ‘His family are finally coming to visit. You know, he hasn’t much longer in this world.’ Looking sideways to the sulky girl, she tapped her nose.

‘Mr George?’ Caroline had queried.

Her mother had said that she must remember Mr George, her Sunday School teacher when she was around ten. A wonderful man, a pillar of the community who will be sorely missed when he passes, Mrs Hutton said. Then her mother suggested that Caroline pop in and say hello to the old dear that he’d like that.

After the tea round, Caroline did just that. ‘Remember me, Mr George?’ she’d said on entering his room, locking the door behind her. With a puzzled expression, the old man looked at the tall, thin seventeen-year-old.

‘Caroline, Caroline Hughes.’ She stepped towards his bed. ‘Sunday School? The shy, timid girl who gathered the prayer books after Sunday School?’

The old guy squinted through his bifocals perched on his nose. A flash of recognition. ‘Caroline? Ah, sweet Caroline, haven’t you grown and such a beauty. I’d not have recognised you. You were such a scrawny little waif.’

Sitting on the edge of his bed, she held his hand, smiled. ‘Remember what you did to me Sunday after Sunday behind the bookshelf.’

‘What I did to you?’ he’d croaked, a quiver in his voice.

Caroline clambered onto the bed. Straddling the thin body beneath the bedclothes, she angled her knees into his rib-cage. Mr George tried to pull his hand away from Caroline’s. She clung tightly. ‘And what you said to me after each time? That God would strike me dead if ever I said a word.’ Fear registered in his milky-white eyes.

‘You’re wrong; that’s not what happened. I only ever showed you kindness and affection. No one else did, not your silly, simpering mother nor your domineering father. I noticed the other children avoided sitting beside you on the benches, how they made cruel jokes about you and sniggered behind their hands. But I showed you love.’

‘Love? By thrusting your hand into my panties, panting in my ear, clasping my mouth shut with your other hand as I pleaded with you. I felt like trash, dirty and worthless. You made me hate myself.’ Releasing her hold on his hand, she wiped a tear from her cheek and relaxed her knees.

Mr George hoisted himself up on his elbows. ‘Oh, poppycock! You loved it; you know you did,’ he sneered. ‘In my experience, little tarts like you always do.’ He laughed hoarsely.

Swiftly, Caroline whipped a pillow from under the old man’s head and reasserted her knees pressure into his ribs. She removed the old man’s bifocals, placing them carefully on the bedside cabinet. ‘Don’t want to break your glasses, now do we?’ and held the pillow over his face, pushing down.

He struggled. Caroline lessened the force, and he spluttered. ‘Please, I haven’t long in this life; let me see my family one last time.’

Like a cat plays a mouse, Caroline repeatedly pushed the pillow into the old man’s face. He’d struggle and plead, and she’d relax the force until … the struggling stopped.

Taking a long sip of water, Caroline recalled her mother’s words later that evening. ‘Mrs Hutton just called to say that poor Mr George passed in his sleep before his family arrived. Did you pop in to see him, Caroline?’

‘No, I forgot,’ she told her mother.

Caroline rinsed the glass and sat it upside down on the bench. She returned to the lounge.

Anna rose from her kneeling position beside her Aunt. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ve popped a pumpkin soup in the fridge for your super.’

Caroline sits back on the uncomfortable chair. She closes her notebook. ‘Tell me about the plum tree, Moyra. Why do you think it never bore fruit until after your father disappeared?’

A look of consternation flashed across Moyra’s face.

‘It’s okay, Moyra. Everything you say is completely confidential. You and I will bury our secrets with us when we die.’

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