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Handmade Oranges

The Spanish police had blocked the street, redirected traffic and were now taking a break to smoke and tell jokes.

It was the first Sunday of Primavera.  A gentle sun smiled on the street market below where women with wicker baskets passed sellers giving a thousand reasons why their produce was worth the money. By the time I arrived, their persuasive calls had reached a pitch that would crack glass at 100 metres.

“Senorita, here, two for the price of one.”  I shook my head, smiled politely not wanting to offend and moved to the next stall.

“Hey lady! How ‘bout some strawberries – they’re very sweet, very cheap.”

I could see dew still glistening on their plump red bodies and found them hard to pass up so I made my first purchase and, with a punnet in my basket, moved on.

The market was like a Carmen Miranda costume with colours so loud they hurt my eyes.  Carts, barrows and makeshift tables stood in rows with hardly a foot between them.  The sticky scent of pineapples rolled into the citrus smell of lemons which rolled on to the ground as you passed. Grubby-faced children in hand-me-downs played tag between the stalls and more often than not squeals of laughter gave way to tears as a heavy hand swiped their scalps in punishment for a multitude of sins.

There were the regulars such as the apple man, who insisted his name was Adam, and the potato seller who told you of his nine children and how they would go hungry if you passed without buying.  But most of the sellers came only once or twice a season, preferring to move between the region’s various markets.

I weaved my way through the rows of stalls and around the clusters of women battling with sellers.  Here, push usually came to shove as the women jostled for position using their baskets like deadly weapons. But the market was a happy place where all the haggling over price and quality was conducted with lavish servings of humour and where gossip was traded in huddled whispers.

Reaching one of the last rows, my nostrils flared at the strong scent of citrus mixed with sugar.  It travelled up my nose, trickled into my throat, triggering a flood of saliva.  My tongue slid over dry lips.

The man selling oranges wasn’t hard to find.  His fruit was like a beacon amid a sea of green vegetables.

Unlike other sellers, the old man sat quietly on a crate by his barrow, his grey and brown tweed cap pulled slightly forward – shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun.

As I approached, he took a snow-white handkerchief from the top pocket of his woollen jacket, lifted his cap and wiped it across his hairless head.  The day was not particularly hot so this was probably done more out of habit than necessity. The face I saw was tanned like the earth he tended, but not harsh, and a patchwork of deep lines criss-crossed around a large nose that rose like a rugged mountain from the landscape of his cheeks.  His generous mouth showed remnants of what had once been a beautiful pout but it was his rusty brown eyes that were his true feature – they were large and round with a glint of wisdom.

Replacing his cap, he gazed around and his eyes seemed to smile ever so slightly when he caught me staring.

“Beautiful day isn’t it senor,” I said, casually handling one of the oranges on display. He made no response.

I continued.

“How much a bag?” I asked.

“Eight hundred pesetas,” he said in a voice that was soft and gentle.

A quick calculation told me he was charging a staggering $8 a bag.  I instantly dropped the orange I had been holding and stared at him, my eyes wide with surprise.

“Eight hundred pesetas! That’s an awful lot to pay in a market.  In fact, that’s a lot no matter where you buy them.  I’m sure they are very good but why so expensive?”

He pushed his cap a little farther back on his head, looked up at me from where he was sitting and replied: “Because, senorita, these are hand-made oranges.”

I reached for another orange and raised it to my face pretending to smell its skin but, in truth, trying to hide the smile produced by his unique selling tactic.  I had heard many good lines in my years of visiting markets but this was by far the most original.

“Oranges are made by nature, not by the hand of man,” I said, with the smile slipping into my voice.

“Not these. I made these oranges and nature was far from helpful,” he insisted and the look of sincerity on his face was beginning to intrigue me.

“Sit,” he said with a mix of authority and invitation and he nudged a spare crate towards me with his foot. Still cradling an orange in my hand, I placed my basket at my feet and sat gingerly on the old wooden crate.

“It was the year of Franco’s death,” he began.  “Some celebrated through freedom of speech, others through liberal behaviour… and me, I planted orange trees.  My grandfather’s land had not been ours for 50 years so there was no machinery or tools.  All I had were my seedlings, my land and my hands.

“The next year there was a terrible frost.  But I would not let it take the tiny trees.  I build small fires around the orchard to keep away the fingers of cold and the trees survived to see the coming of a glorious spring.

“As their thin limbs strained upwards and the first buds of orange blossom swelled with scent, a distant hum could be heard.  The sky went dark and a hungry army of locusts swarmed on to the horizon.  But I would not let them dine in my orchard so I gathered the family (including grandmother confined to her chair) and went into the orchard to fight.

“Each member took a row of trees and with the linen from our beds and the clothes from our backs we covered the oranges to keep out the pests.

“The dark cloud passed.

“Spring changed to summer, summer to autumn and the cycle of seasons rolled on.  Two years later came a winter marked in the history books. Day after day came the rain, turning the dark earth to mud.  I laid sheets of plastic around the base of each tree, dug trenches among the rows to channel the run-off and, with a pump made from parts of an old engine, I pushed the water into a swollen stream.”

The old man paused, took a knife from his pocket and pierced a hole in the orange I had been holding.

“Taste”, he said and as I sucked out the sweet nectar he continued.

“Year after year I tended the orchard daily, removing weeds, pruning wayward branches and seating grandmother in the middle to scare away the birds.  Each year the trees grew taller until they finally bore the first small crop.

“Then there was none.

“The leaves died and the limbs sagged like a person without love. I travelled to Valencia in search of a cure but no one knew the answer.  Grandmother remembered a dark-eyed gypsy once telling her that music was a good remedy for everything.  We had no gramophone so I bought an old guitar.  For 20 days and 20 nights I stood in the orchard playing to the trees and on the 21st day I saw the first new shoot.  But it was three long years before the trees bore fruit again – those fruitless seasons passing like retarded time, slow and awkward.

“Finally we had a crop and it was picking time.  The cart was full and the horse bridled ready for the trip to town.  But the steep climb and winding path proved too much for the animal.  It collapsed from exhaustion, tipping the cart and causing a thousand oranges to roll down the hillside.  I collected each orange, one by one, and returned home with bruised fruit and empty pockets.  We had marmalade every day that year.

“For many more years the malice of nature forced me to fight for my oranges.  I watered by hand through the drought of ’85, built shields against countless cruel winds and picked off entire colonies of grubs as they hatched.  For all these years my hands have not enjoyed the pleasure of holding a book while dozing in the sun or rested idly by a late-night fire.  Instead they have worked hard and constantly.  The result is the fruit you are holding and the juice you have savoured.”

I looked down at his hands and he turned them over to show his palms.  Calloused and thick, they bore testimony to the tale he told.

“So, senorita, now you know why I say these oranges are hand-made and why I believe they are worth every peseta I’m asking.”

I could do nothing but nod and stare at his mountain of oranges, picturing the events that had got them here. Murmurs of conversation finally reached my ears; I looked around me for the first time since the old man had started his tale to see that a group of shoppers had gathered to listen.

Touching the man’s hand I stood and began placing oranges into bags then, turning to the crowd, I proudly shouted:  “Who wants to buy some hand-made oranges?”

The push forward was almost crushing as arms reached out to grab the bags.  Money fluttered onto the barrow like leaves; most people not even waiting for change. Within minutes every orange was gone.

The old man swayed slightly as he raised himself from his seat and his eyes revealed the dampness of overwhelming gratitude. He reached behind the cart and retrieved a bag of oranges that had been missed in the rush.

“These are for you,” he said, handing me the bag. “A gift.”

“Please, I must pay you,” I said. As I gently pushed the money into his hands he gave me a silent smile and turned to pack away his things.

I stood for a moment letting the noise of the market return to my ears.  Then, picking up my basket, now heavy with oranges, I made my way out of the market and back into the traffic.   Groups of waiting husbands hovered at street corners laughing, smoking and dreading the inevitable intrusion of their wives, while young girls giggled as posses of boys zoomed past on scooters.

Smiling at the familiar scene, I hoisted the basket on to my hip for better support and began to cross the busy street.  As I did, the movement caused an orange to tumble from the basket, drop with a small bounce to the pavement and roll onto the road.

I chased after it, dodging the speeding cars as best I could until the orange finally came to rest in a dip in the bitumen on the other side of the road. I scooped it up into the safety of my hand as a car horn sounded and tyres squealed. The angry driver leant out of his window, shouting: “Stupid senorita. It’s just a bloody orange.”

If only he knew.

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2013-02-28 18:50:46 Reply

A dream come true….


2013-03-07 07:44:28 Reply

What a wonderful and beautiful story. Just gorgeous.

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