Bitter Oranges

My latest contribution to Visual Verse. A response to this image:

Jenni_fagan_full2

 

Adele was ready to return. Back to the house with three windows and the door that creaked. The house that shook as the train rattled by, spewing out coal smoke that covered the furniture in a layer of soot.

That house was where she returned when the pillow sagged under her cheek at night. The smell and the taste of mould-mottled walls, and the soft-to-the-touch wood that puckered around glass. The sound of adults playing poker in the grubby room downstairs, their drunken laughter floating up through the floorboards, reaching her girlhood dreams. And of course, flame-haired Pucette, a tiny, formidable thing, greeting gents and soldiers and judges at night and letting them in to relieve themselves in that squalid bedroom with the fire burning low, the candle wax spilling over and staining the mantel.

Pucette swore it was the smallest house in Paris. The cage she called it. Adele had never seen anywhere smaller. Even her drab room in Pigalle, the many mirrors made the space look large.

She made the journey by train, the week after she heard the news. Wore her thin velvet gloves and a hat with a peacock feather tucked into the band, strung her paste pearls around her neck and swept a black shawl across her shoulders; an eccentric, on the way to pay homage to another.

When she arrived the sun was low in the sky and the house was even smaller than she remembered. The shutters were gone and the windows were ruined by smoke. The fire had devoured the insides, had choked down the walls and demolished the roof, turning everything to ash.

She remembered the first time she went there. When Pucette had taken her in and unpacked her trunk. Adele had been scared, but hopeful for a mother’s love. The kind she saw pass between ladies and girls in crisp white dresses, ribbons at their sleeves.

For weeks, Pucette had watched Adele selling flowers by The Seine, doll like in rags, with large eyes and the sort of face that men would stop to look at before buying bunches for their wives.
She’d taken her in. Had seen her potential. Had offered her lodgings in exchange for hard work.

The first snow had been falling. The offer was good.

Pucette established a routine. A slug of gin before and a slice of orange after. In all that time, throughout the comings and goings, the twisted belt buckles, the scratch of stubble and the heave of stale breath, there were always oranges; wrapped carefully in newspaper and set upon the wooden shelf. Precariously close to the Bible.

Every day Pucette would unwrap them theatrically, spinning the orb in her hand like a sun. C’est toi mon soleil. She’d say, before cutting into them with a knife and letting the halves fall and worry themselves to a halt.

Adele placed black tulips on the charred threshold, put a flask to her lips; sipping on spirits before walking off into the night.

Image via Jenni Fagan

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