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Fraser was sitting on a shady grass bank at the side of the cherry orchard. He had just picked the last of the salad out of his sandwich and was swigging from a can of coke when he saw the old man fall off the ladder. The shape of the ladders interested him, wide at the bottom for stability then gradually narrowing towards the top so that they could fit easily into the tangled, fruit bearing branches.
'That's got to have hurt,' he said under his breath, wise-cracking despite the lack of audience. He remained rooted firmly to the ground with the sides of his mouth fighting a smile. He had been sitting there thinking about the guitar; buying and playing the new guitar was what the summer was all about.
Balancing their boxes and now clinging firmly to their ladders, the rest of the workers turned and stared at Norman lying on the ground. There were no signs of life. There were grass stains down one arm of his striped t-shirt and both of his sandals hung loose from his bony feet. His cherries had beaten him to the orchard floor; some of them were bruised and bleeding, their blood-red juices already staining the sides of the fallen box. For a few seconds no-one moved. It was as if something threatening and alien had fallen from the sky.
Alesky was the first to react; he slowly walked towards the scene, bent down and gently took Norman's wrist. Fraser watched Alesky take charge. Alesky wasn't a particularly tall man but his stature was boosted somehow by an abated air. Fraser imagined him working as a surgeon or aircraft pilot maybe, such was his composure. What was he doing picking fruit?
From the bank Fraser could see a human circle had formed around Norman; each of them silently waiting and hoping for any signs of movement. All human activity had stopped in the orchard. The birds took full advantage; flying down and pecking at the cherries, running sorties in the gaps between the booming noise of the gas exploder. The breeze seemed to pick up a little and it rustled the branches and the leaves. It even moved the back of Norman's shirt givin false hope to the on-looking crowd.
Fraser's father, who worked at the other side of the farm, had organised the job for him. He had mockingly described it as six weeks of "actually working for a living" but at the end of the summer holidays Fraser would have enough funds to buy the guitar. His father had told him that it would show him the value of money, better for him than the usual handouts for clothes and mobile phone top-ups.
The amplifier was already in place, sitting in the garage at home, bought from his school friend Bradley. In fact he had been interested in working with Fraser during the summer but he had only lasted one day. He had turned a mild case of sunburn into near fatal sunstroke and joked about an acute phobia of fruit and foreigners that would prevent him from taking any further part in the money making project. Fraser thought it had more to do with the new girlfriend on the scene.
He understood where Bradley was coming from though; it was boring, hot work and most days he extended his lunch break as much as he could to avoid the midday sun. All the black clothing didn't help either; it drew the sun's rays and it felt like his body was slowly cooking under its swarthy cover of devils, skeletons and motorbikes.
Sometimes he envied Bradley greatly, spending six weeks all loved up with his new girlfriend. But then there were moments when he thought why should he envy him? Apart from the obvious advantages, that length of time living in each others' pockets wouldn't be much fun anyway. He wouldn't be able to do what he wanted to do; everything and everywhere he went would have to be decided jointly. From what he had seen of his friends with girlfriends it didn't seem to make them any happier; in fact if anything it had made them more serious, more morose.
He did wonder what it would be like to kiss a girl, though; that seemed to be a big thing. Surely he should have kissed a girl by now; the delay in reaching this milestone was getting to be embarrassing. He knew a few lads now that had done a lot more than kissed their girlfriends and they weren't just bragging or exaggerating, they had actually done it for real.
Why didn't the girls at school seem to fancy him? Was it because his face was peppered with spots (good job they couldn't see his back and shoulders, he thought) or was i because when he was in their company he couldn't think of anything to say? All the girl-rich lads he knew seemed to put on a performance when talking to them, you had to be confident, funny, better than the next guy in some way. All that the girls seemed to do, as far as he was concerned, was stand there and look pretty and laugh in the right places; what an easy job that was! He thought his personal hygiene was pretty good for a lad of his age and more than acceptable for a budding rock star. There must be something to this girlfriend stuff, with all the fuss that was made about it.
Roza, Alesky's girlfriend, was kneeling down by Norman stroking his face softly, trying to rouse him. The perfect Roza, watching her soft nurturing was much more appeal than sweltering under the midday sun. It was easy to drift off into fantasy and imagine it was him lying there being touched and caressed by her. Would it be too painful to fall off the ladder, maybe tomorrow, and be attended to by Nurse Roza? No, best to leave it at least a week he thought, it wouldn't look so obvious then. Anyway, knowing his luck, it would be the fat one that came running; the one that looked like she had picked all the cherries and eaten them. He knew Roza wouldn't seem attractive to everyone, she was quite plain he thought; he liked the plain girls, there was more to them than the short-skirted bimbos, all lipstick and attitude. Her short hair made her look boyish in a way. It was her bare feet that fascinated him, why didn't she wear any shoes? He didn't know why but he was glad that she didn 't. If he pointed her out to his friends at school as someone to be rated, they would laugh and ridicule him. There was definitely something about her though.
Fraser's father had spoken about Norman before Fraser had started working there in the summer. Apparently he had worked there for years and never had any time off. In fact the only time he couldn't remember him being there was the day of his wife's funeral. Norman picked fruit like all the other workers but he also had the added responsibility of driving the tractor. The red and rusted tractor that was almost as old as Norman himself. He would drive it down to the orchard in the morning carrying an empty pallet behind him and at the end of the day load the boxes of fruit onto the pallet and drive them assuredly back to the farm buildings for cold storage and then distribution the following day. The time he spent with the tractor seemed to be the only time when he seemed relatively happy.
Roza had managed to revive him. Norman slowly began to sit up. He looked all around him, dazed and confused he rubbed his wrist; his eyes were darting about from person to person as if he was trying to establish who was a friend and who was an enemy. Something was said to him from the crowd of workers and he started to become agitated, he started to wave his arms around and shake his head. And then he pointed in Fraser's direction, over to the shade on the bank. Alesky and Roza took a shoulder each and carefully walked him over to the cool grass.
Alesky gently eased Norman down on the grass next to Fraser and made eye contact with him. Nothing was said but there was an unspoken understanding that Norman was Fraser's responsibility for a while at least. Alesky then walked off to where Rosa was standing. Fraser looked at the old man with an uncommitted glance and then back down at the bank scraping the sides of his trainers disposing of invisible dirt; his shaded part of the orchard had been invaded. They sat there in their own worlds, unconnected until after a few moments Norman broke the silence.
'Sorry to interrupt your lunch. I'm a silly old fool, creating all this fuss.' His breath was laboured and Fraser could hear whistling noises coming from his chest. His whole body seemed to be trembling.
'Are you alright?' Fraser was sitting so close to him that he could see the skin on face and his arms was like leather and covered with moles, the sun had made its mark over the years. He noticed at the back of Norman's neck his skin was so creased it had formed a criss-cross pattern, so much so that playing noughts and crosses came to mind.
'There's nothing wrong with me. Those two, they're trying to make me go to hospital. I'm not going, I just won't go.' His hands appeared to be trembling at a faster rate to the rest of his body and his eyes, housed in deep and narrow sockets, were filling with tears. Fraser brought his legs nearer his chest.
'Maybe you've hurt yourself. '
'I'm just a bit shaken, lad, that's all.'
'Well, sit here for a bit and see how you feel. It's nice and cool here.' Fraser was doing his best. For once he wanted to go back to the orchard and pick cherries again but something stopped him, he couldn't leave the old man on his own and shirk his responsibility despite how tempting it seemed.
He noticed that Aleksey and Roza had started rowing. Aleksey stood there and listened to what Roza had to say, her hands gesticulating. He waited until she had finished and said a few words calmly. Roza turned away, throwing her arms up in frustration and headed back towards the orchard . And although he didn't understand what they were saying, Fraser guessed they might be having a row about whether to phone an ambulance or not. For a few moments Fraser just sat there, not saying anything, waiting for the old man to clutch at his chest and scream out in agony. What would he do then? He had seen a programme on first aid at school on what you should do when someone stopped breathing but he couldn't remember what you thumped and what you pressed and how many times you breathed into their chest. Giving the old man mouth to mouth, just his luck that that would be his first snog.
'Make sure you land on your feet, that's the last thing I remember thinking. Make sure you land on your feet, Norm. '
'How comes you fell, did you lose your balance or something?' Fraser was relieved that Norman had begun to recover and was coherent, even though he was still rubbing his wrist.
'I don't know really. I just remember reaching over and then feeling faint and then...well then I went. '
'Did you want some of my drink?' Fraser offered the last dregs of his coke.
'No you save that for yourself. I'm fine.' He stared at Fraser. 'You're Chris's son aren't you? You look just like him. Little Chris, that's what I'll call you. '
'Oh God. Is that good or bad, looking like my father?'
'It's a big compliment. Your dad has looked after me for years. He's been kind to me especially after... after my wife died. '
'Oh right, I didn't realise. I'm sorry to hear that. '
'Don't be sorry. It's a long time ago now. It's a part of life, death I mean. Just be grateful it's not something you know a lot about yet. ' His voice was becoming less shaky, more controlled. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers as if he was removing the last of the shock from his body. Fraser's mouth opened a couple of times as if he had a sentence ready in his head but couldn't bring himself to say it. On the third attempt it came.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but what is it like when someone dies?' He looked back down at the ground,
'What's it like?'
'I can't imagine anything being the same again. Is it just like they have gone on holiday but they never come back?'
'I suppose it is a bit like that. Only if they were going on holiday you would expect them to come back. But when you see them lying there.. well let's just say that you know how final it is.'
'What was your wife's name?'
'Grace. It was Grace. '
'That's a nice name. '
'Yes it is. We used to go dancing. Every Saturday night we would be dancing. I miss that now. Every Saturday night now I'm on my own watching the rubbish on TV.'
'Dancing, what kind of dancing? I can't imagine you at a disco or a nightclub, no offence.' Fraser regretted it as soon as he said it. He expected a smile or maybe even a laugh from the old man but there was just a slight grimace, he just wasn't sure whether it was from disdain or irritation.
'Ballroom dancing. All kinds of ballroom dancing, Foxtrot, Tango, you name it we danced it. She looked beautiful in those dresses.'
'I'm not really into dancing myself. Whenever there's a disco at school I try and avoid it ' Now the anxiety of Norman suddenly dying on him had passed, Fraser had started to enjoy the conversation.
'Shame, I suppose it's not for everyone, but my wife and I loved it. Everyone jokes about men and women being breeds apart but in that moment when you are dancing, well it's like you have become one person and when you dancing with someone that you love, nothing else beats it. If you don't like dancing little Chris, what do you like doing then?'
'Music mainly. Listening to it and playing it, writing songs and stuff. I'm only here so I can save enough money to buy a decent guitar. I've only got an acoustic at the moment and well it's crap basically. '
'Music? You're not into girls yet then?'
‘Well I'm into them but they are not really into me if you know what I mean.'
'Don't worry, little Chris, your time will come. At least you've got an interest. At least you don't go round stabbing people or making people's lives a misery like other teenagers.' Norman slapped his bony hand gently on Fraser's back.
'I don't know anyone that carries a knife. '
'That's because you don't mix in those circles. A bloke, just down the road from me got mugged the other day, left his house for a pint of milk and a paper and ended up in hospital with tubes and all sorts coming out of him. He's lived in that road for over forty years. You think he would be entitled to walk down the street without any trouble. They had a picture of him, he looked black and blue all over. One of the foreign lot did it, they reckon.
There are so many of them over here now.' He nodded in the general direction of the orchard.
'They're OK aren't they; they've been friendly to me. '
'Yeah they're OK. '
The two of them sat there and talked for what seemed like ages. Norman told Fraser about how things weren't the same since his wife had died and how everyone and everything was going to the dogs. Fraser sat there and listened. In moments there was genuine interest and other times he had to fidget his legs out of boredom and awkwardness. He confided in Norman and told him about the songs he was going to write on his guitar and who he fancied at school. Fraser, now fully confident that Norman was going to be alright, pushed his hands on the grass and pushed himself up onto his feet. Alesky looked over to the movement on the bank and Fraser raised his thumb to give the all clear.
'Before you go lad, let me show you a picture of my wife.' Norman fumbled around at the back of his trousers. He was becoming more and more distressed. 'I can't believe it; one of them has stolen my wallet. While I was on the ground unconscious one of them has taken my wallet. '
'Don't get upset; I'm sure you wallet hasn't been stolen. You stay here and I will go and look for it for you. ' Fraser left the cool of the bank and when his black t-shirt and black jeans were in range of the sun again the heat started to build immediately and he felt the prickles on his skin. As he walked towards the tree where Norman had fallen he had to walk passed Roza. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
He searched under the tree next to where Norman had fallen but he didn't find anything. He looked at the figures around him, some reaching over at trees, some wiping the sweat from their faces. They all looked busy. Surely none of them were capable of stealing the wallet.
After his tea it was clear to Fraser that he wouldn't be able to rest until he had looked for Norman's wallet one more time. It was playing on his mind. He made his excuses, carried his bike out of the garage and cycled as fast as he could back down to the orchard. It was getting dark when he arrived at the gate and with no-one around the orchard had a somewhat sinister feel to it. He expected something or someone to come running down the rows of trees after him. Even the cherries themselves had taken on a malevolent air, the skins seemed darker and for some reason he imagined their flesh to hold poison.
He went round to the spot where Norman had fallen and again searched for the missing wallet. There was nothing. He searched the adjacent trees but still nothing. He turned to walk back to his bike, towards the cold store shed where the fruit was kept overnight. Sitting in the yard was the red tractor. Norman drove the tractor every day, that's where the wallet would be, he thought to himself.
The tractor was silhouetted now. And in the failing light it looked redundant (as if it had never been capable of work). And sure enough, below the seat near the pedals was Norman's wallet. Fraser held it in his hand, opened it and checked that the picture of Grace was still there.
The photograph was much smaller than he had expected. It had obviously meant so much to Norman that he had imagined it to be a lot bigger. It was about the size of a passport picture, black and white with a crease one third of the way down. Grace smiled back at him dressed in one of the ball gowns Norman had described. With the wallet secure, he turned back in the direction of the gate and his bike when he heard music coming from the adjacent field.
He walked towards the field, through the rows and rows of cherry trees. He didn't care much now about the demons and poison berries, the music was too enticing. And as he got closer he could see the lights of the caravans and tents. The cherry pickers were eating their supper and chatting. There was a group of them clapping along with someone playing a guitar. Fraser watched the strumming and listened to the music, trying to pick out the chords. The man had an audience, they were captivated. That would be him one day.
And at the far end he could see two figures dancing. As he got closer he realised it Roza and Alesky. Alesky stood there confidently and led Roza into twist and turns around him. That was the way to be with girls, confident and in charge. The couple's movement was lit by the light from the caravan kitchen. They looked so happy, so at peace.
He stayed there for a few moments watching Roza move blissfully in the cool evening air. One day this would be him he thought, not with Roza but with someone else. She had changed into a skirt and every time she moved, it twisted with her, wrapping around her body. Her feet were still bare.
The last time she turned she looked directly over at Fraser. He thought, for a split second, about running behind one of the trees but it was too late she had seen him. She moved over to the fence that separated the orchard from the field, kissed her palm, held it out in front of her just below her lips and blew in Fraser's direction, staring straight at him. And then she quickly ran back to Alesky and laughed, they both laughed. They took each others' hands and walked towards the door of the caravan. Fraser just stood there and watched them go. Had that been it? Did that count as his first kiss? Why would she do that, especially in front of Alesky? He kept asking himself, why?
He walked back through the orchard towards the gate and his bike. He could still hear faint traces of music from the field. Just before he climbed onto his bike he looked at the photograph of Grace again. When he had finished, he squeezed the wallet carefully into his back pocket. He would tell Norman about the dancing; he knew he would like to hear about that.
ss - a graceless age: Text
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