Someone had forgotten to clean away the bowl of fruit. It was easy to miss, that one orange lying there in the glass bowl. It was only when I walked passed it and caught the faint whiff of mould that I noticed it.
Saw that it had been left there to rot, all forgotten and blue, so that now, if you picked it up, it was almost powdery, just a sphere of disintegrating greenish blue dust.
Ordinarily, I would have paid no attention to such a thing, checking only the bowl itself, to see if it had any value. The orange itself, would have failed to register.
But today for some reason it did. Today I looked at it and wondered just how long it had been lying there.
Which was a mistake.
There are rules in this game, the first one being to avoid the personal. As long as you stick to that rule the rest will take care of itself.
And yet here I was, staring into the bowl and thinking that it had probably lain there as long as she had.
Imagining her skin as it took on that same ghoulish hue, that same mouldy disintegration. The orange in the
bowl, while she lay on the floor.
A sharp stench of carbolic brought me back. The familiar smell that always lingered in these places, the smell of people who die alone. No amount of scrubbing could mask that one hard fact.
She had lain alone for weeks before someone noticed. The smell being the thing that finally brought them to
her door and the thought of it made him shudder.
Why did I have to notice that orange?
I stood still in the room and closed my eyes for a moment trying to regain my composure.
Had this ever happened before?
In all the years I had been doing this I could not remember feeling like this. I come and tidy things up.
Salvage those things that can be sold on. That is all. That is how we deal with what remains when people die
alone like this.
I breathe and open my eyes but the moistness of my palms leaves me uneasy and needing a drink of
water, so I head to the kitchen.
It is the most extraordinary kitchen I have come across in years.
Extraordinary because of the things that are not there. No washing machine, no fitted units, no inlaid gas hobs, no glass fronted storage cabinets for plates and cups, no gadgets that make life so easy – like kettles and toasters and orange juice squeezers.
It is simply barren and untouched by modern life. A sink, a table, a cupboard and a pulley system on the
ceiling for the washing to dry. Nothing more.
And all of it a strange pale green colour. Hospital coloured green, the colour of hand soap. A colour that I
thought had died out a long time ago.
The cupboard was built into the wall. A cool space for storing things when you had no fridge. Inside, neat little china cups hung from hooks screwed into one of the shelves, waiting for the tea to be poured. The tea tin sitting patiently below, black and square, little painted impressions of life in China adorning it in red and gold. It held centre stage in the cupboard as if it was the star of the show, the most precious of objects there, yet it was worthless now, a thing to be tossed aside and scrapped.
The shelves still stored tins of food lined up neatly side by side, and there seemed to be some sort of order to them, as if the person who placed them there had decided already the meals that lay ahead. The days for beans on toast, vegetable soup, sardines and pilchards and endless cups of tea. Perhaps when you’re old, this is what happens. You think of the future only in these terms. In terms of days and meals, all grand plans forgotten because there’s simply no time left.
I pour myself a glass of water and stand by the window for a moment, wondering how a rotting orange
could start all this, cursing whoever it was that had failed to clean it away. Perhaps I should take a break? Go somewhere? Have a holiday somewhere warm like Spain. Far away from all these dead people’s things. I need a break from it.
With the drink of water came resolve.
Take a look around, mark out those things to be taken away and then leave it at that. I can be done in half
an hour if I put my mind to it, then I can head to that travel shop on the high street and see about getting
In contrast to the cold green of the kitchen the bedroom is a welcome relief. It has a comforting aspect to it.
The wood of the furniture. The rug on the floor. The silver picture frames. The bookcase with its neatly ordered line of books.
And it is in one of the drawers that I find it. The mahogany box full of memorabilia. Photos of a young man
in uniform. A box with two medals. Letters tied with ribbon, filled with pencil scrawls, the dates testifying to the events written down. September 1944, Arnhem.
She had kept these things precious.
Had he been lost there, I wondered. This young man in the photo whose letters she had tied with ribbon. Or had he made it home after that catastrophic battle on the Rhine, to a life with his sweetheart who had tied his letters with red ribbon? I stare at the photo of the young soldier, just a boy really. Too young, I think, to be facing the horror of war.
My teeth grind has I think of it and I snap the box shut, irritated that I cannot seem to separate myself
today. I mark the box with a sticker to let the cleaners know I will return for it, then move back to the
living room and the rotting orange.
The fruit bowl sits on a sideboard. I examine it. Good quality teak. I take another sticker and mark it,
then open it up to take a look inside.
Inside the usual knick-knacks lie piled up. The “special” cutlery set of plated silver that never left the box, save perhaps for Christmas, and even then. The china dinner set, a wedding gift long forgotten, tucked away still in its tissue paper and smelling vaguely for some reason of mothballs. I wonder about that for a second, why someone would think to protect their china plates from moths, then spot the tablecloths and napkins. Belgian lace, quaint and pretty, again one of those things that belongs to a different time, and has now outgrown its charm.
I pull it all out of the cupboard and lay it all out on the floor around me so as to better order the good stuff from the rest. I am crouching forward to get into the back shelves, when I catch sight of her.
She’d put on the dress for the occasion, you could tell. A fine silky thing that had been caught by the breeze, and wafted around her knees, as she laughed, frozen in the frame. She’s wearing a hat too. Nothing fancy, just the kind of hat people wore back then, back in the days when it was normal and usual to wear a hat and to get dressed for Sundays.
She looks happy, smiling into the camera, squinting a little in the sunlight, her face obscured because the
photographer is inexperienced and has taken the photograph into the sun, so her eyes are just deep shadows
as they stare out at him to this moment, as he sits there in her living room, rummaging through the remnants
of her life, the Belgian lace spread all around him.
And for a moment I thinks I hear a voice.
“It was a present. Belgian lace, yes, but brought back from Arnhem.”
And I sees it. The shelled out homes, exposed to the world. Their contents there for the taking as a young
English boy walks by and thinks of his sweetheart back home.
I feel that lace now as I runs it through my fingers, as I look at the things scattered on the floor all
around me, smell the carbolic again and the ever present stench of that rotting orange. Then I get up and
head to the door, pulling the sticker off the sideboard.
Someone is asking a question as he walks out the door
“You all done here?”
But I do not answer. Just keep on walking. Thinking about Spain and wondering how warm it must be