Oranges by Jacob Parker


It’s Sunday morning. The days are longer now and today there is the first real heat of summer in the air. I’m shopping in a market in the suburbs of London. I’m in the market shopping and I’m standing in front of oranges. Oranges from Seville. They’re piled high and they are spectacular and I realise I’d completely forgotten you, for all these years. And I remember now how Seville is oranges – oranges that are on trees and squeezed in cafes in metal machines. They roll down metal slides on these machines, one by one. Firm, waiting to be parted, clenched until dripping. Makes me wonder what I owe you. 


I’m twenty-two and I’m in Seville for a month and I’ve decided to be a different person. I’m here to do a course. I get allocated a shared apartment. I get a room right at the top of the apartment that leads out onto a roof-terrace. There’s a washing machine up there somehow and laundry hanging out in the dry heat. I share the apartment with two other guys who are also on the course. Older than me. Grey hair, divorce, cancer. They’re both starting out on a new life. A second existence for them too. We’re really all the same in what we want, what we’re striking out for. Newness. For something to happen to our lives. And we do well together and we get on. They understand one another and get close and I’m on the edge of that, which is what I want. But we still sit out at night together on the front steps of the apartment and we drink red wine and watch this residential street in Seville cooling in the dark.


And Seville is oranges. It really is. They actually hang from the trees around the city – these orange trees that are all over the place. And not even for the tourists, they’re just there. They’re not trying at all. And I’m here walking around this hot city in the early autumn and I decide I will be happy, open, I will say yes and I will forget all about that pathetic person I was. And the city is mine, it swallows me up. It’s there for me and I can turn down any of the winding streets I choose. I can turn down any street and no one knows me and I’m light on my feet and every street, every street is some possibility.


I’m popular with the other people on the course, this new person I am. They all seem to like me. Particularly the girls. Which doesn’t feel too bad, seeing as I’m not me. I’m into this. And the girls – it’s so hot in the city, even in October – they’re kind of on show. We’re all on show. We’re all in a foreign country with people we don’t know. In the first few days the girl with the strawberry-blond hair makes it so we’re walking together to the bar, or wherever it is we’re all going, and it’s a really warm evening and she’s wearing a white vest and she wants to walk with me and I don’t remember you yet, but this girl, she’s made sure it happened that we’re walking together like this and she’s asking questions. So, why are you here? This must be what it’s like, I think. It’s so easy and I can’t believe it. Although I don’t really care. Even though it’s warm and she’s beautiful and she’s kind of walking with her shoulders back.


We all go for the morning coffee break to this tiny bar where everyone’s standing and someone’s paying for a coffee and I hear how they say it and takes me a while but I piece it together into English. What is my debt to you? Or maybe it’s, What do I owe you? Anyway, I like that – what is my debt to you. The barmen are in white shirts and they have black hair that shines and there are mirrors all around the outside of the bar to make this small place feel so much bigger and even the counter of the bar is all chrome metal. We can see ourselves everywhere reflected all over the place. 


On the weekends I turn down invites to visit places and see the sights with the others. This just seems to make them like me more. I stay in my room and on my roof-terrace surrounded by terracotta tiles. I can see rooftops for miles around. All terracotta tiles. I read. I read books on religion. Dostoyevsky. An academic commentary on Mathew’s Gospel. I do stretching exercises in the sun. I’m obsessed with this – a thirty-minute routine. I hate it too though. It’s like a penance. But I’m convinced it will make me better, that it will make me a better person. I want to be lithe and flexible and achieve some sort of inner strength. I want my body to hide a coiled power – not to use it, but so I know it’s there. On hand. I want to be surprising to people. 


I wasn’t even thinking about you at this point, hardly at all. You are all edges is how I remember you though. Plimsolls, skinny jeans, tight long-sleeved tops. Your elbows pointing. All angles. Like your limbs have an extra hinge somewhere. Cutting too – no  bullshit – you say exactly what you mean and you’re not afraid of anything. This whole thing is a breeze for you. 


Then we have a party at our apartment for the end of the course and everyone comes over for it, even the tutors. Inside there’s music, lamps and everyone is arriving and everyone is talking and you are talking to Ian. 

‘So what does your girlfriend do?’ you ask him.

‘She’s a dancer.’

‘A dancer? That’s interesting. What kind of dance?’

Your tone. I don’t even know if I care. I go to the kitchen and in the kitchen there are wine bottles beer bottles red plastic cups ice in the sink blue plastic bags and it’s all everywhere. José is in there too. José is young and he has long black hair that he keeps tucking behind one ear and he wears a white V-neck t-shirt and a black necklace. He’s into jazz, plays jazz piano. He’s the real thing. He helps me to say it’s okay in Spanish. All I seem to want to say is it’s okay

‘I think you are not saying it right,’ he says. ‘You are saying you are good, which means you are always good. You are never always good.’


The kitchen spills out into the living room where everyone is and Joanna is wearing a dress of bright sharp colours. She’s tied her blonde hair on one side with a red flower in it and she looks very Spanish and like she’s standing in some extra light or something. The music gets louder and someone opens the door to let air in. The walls of the living room are all blurred edges and feel too close like they’re pressing us all in, and the next moment it’s like they’re not there at all. And Maria, in a long sand-coloured dress, is leaning against the open door, laughing.


Then I’m upstairs somehow showing you around, sparkling drunk now and we’re having such a good time and we’re drunk and everything’s so funny and I think it’s so good being someone else, it’s so good that we’re avoiding going back downstairs where we can hear everyone and the party that is ignoring us. But to go into a bedroom would feel too irreversible so we stay on the landing with all these doors around us and the stairs going down. I want to stay where everything is still possible all of the time, all of the time, before some blunt act shuts off all those other ways. But then we’re too close and it’s all going away going away fast now and you’re leaning against the wall and I’m leaning against the wall and then it’s just too late and your lips are parting and there’s no way back. And although I’m enjoying all of this – because I know this isn’t me, I’m so pleased with myself – it’s still all just about ruined because those other possibilities all those others things that are meant to happen or happen but not like this they’re all closing now like eyes shutting. 


Then it’s done – the course – and we’re finished and we have to move out. But we all hang around in Seville not knowing what’s next and we all go out drinking and me and you from the time on the landing carry on drinking together and the others kind of drift home. We’re really into each other and we’re all over each other and the bar closes and we walk out and around the streets. We walk for a long time around the dark streets of Seville. We’re walking aimlessly with no idea of where we’re going and we end up down by the river. It’s either really late or it’s really early. There’s no one around. Then I’m trying to tell you I’m not actually that into you and I’m a real prick about it and you get angry and somehow while we’re arguing we end up going back to the pensíon where I’m staying. It’s the cheapest place I could find to stay and the pillows are lumpy and the bed sheets are thin with all their colour washed out of them. 


Once we’re in the room there’s nothing else but the bed. It’s just the room and the bed. So it’s going to happen. It has to happen. The bed is flimsy and the sheets are so old and worn and it’s so hot and we do the best we can here and we actually manage to make it something – something more than just sex in a cheap room. And everything’s all orange, everything’s washed in an orange light. It’s early morning, the curtains are dark orange and the gathering light outside is coming through the curtains and the room and everything is washed in orange. Your skin is dark orange all over. Your arms, your shoulders, your thighs. And we’re holding each other clenched together just right there. 


The next morning when you’re gone and I’m clearing out of the room – because I want to get out of this place and get unknown again – I find a used condom on the floor behind the bed. It’s not ours. It’s been there the whole time. It’s behind the bed on the laminate floor. It looks cold. Something just cast aside. But then I pack and get out and outside the sunlight is everywhere and it’s hard and definite and that helps. 


I’m trying to tell you something. In Cadiz in a restaurant, I saw a woman having dinner alone. This was before all of this in Seville, before any of this had happened. She had dressed up. This was in a restaurant in Cadiz. It was a modern restaurant. Bright. Large white plates. She was alone and she’d dressed up and she’d brought a book with her to read but she wasn’t interested in the book at all. It was like a prop. She was having dinner alone but she wanted something. She kept looking around. She wanted something else. That pointless book. She was ready – ready for everything to happen. For a hand to be offered, and  all the ordinary days to fall to earth around her.


Jacob Parker lives in London and teaches in a sixth form college. His short fiction has also featured in Structo, Open Pen, MIR Online, Litro, The Interpreter’s House, and others.

21 March 2022