I dinny mind my first love. I wis ower young and have had ower minny, but I dae mind the wan that gied me the maist actual physical pain. It wis comin’ oan fur the summer holodays an’ I must hae been fourteen an’ I’d be jist at the en’ o’ second year an still interested in academic things, still “quite good at the school,” “wan o’ the bright wans”, but I had infatuation, a deep, and I knew, permanent and lasting love fur the art teacher - Wee Peachy. We a’ loved him, the lassies in my class, but I knew that my love wis the best love.
We used tae huv him oan a Friday efternoon an’ it wis summer an’ it wis hot, hot, hot, an’ because it wis his class, we a' dressed up, no’ in the usual school uniform, fur oan a Friday we were that wee bit lax because it wis near the holidays, an’ the en’ o’ the week an’ the summer. There werny minny summers that I can mind as a wean that were hot throughout, yon sweatin’ hot that you couldny dae onything, but this wan wis.
We were the academic two-language class and naebody had ever suggested that art could be a career, so we werny concerned wi’ the shape or the line or the form or the light or shadows. It wis later oan in life we learnt whit shadows were. It wis later we learnt what the art teacher wis trying to teach us, but then the sun cam’ beelin’ in the windaes, beeking us.
I sat there resplendid in my hame-made blouse and my sister’s stolen drindl skirt wi the belt buckle cuttin’ intae ma waist, she wis always a wee skinny-ma-link an’ I was a big sonsy lump. But maist uv o’ I'd stolen her shoes. She hud left the school by noo and wis jist feenishing her apprenticeship at John Brown’s as a tracer. She wis in digs a’ week but cam’ hame oan a Friday evening fur the weekend and fur her fancy claes. I wis still at the school and still in the regulation clumpy, dumpy shoes an’ I hated them. I had stolen hers. She wis a private kinna lassie an’ no’ that sharing o’ her possessions, nae wunner, when ma big feet were gaun’ intae her wee shoes, but I hud actually made a habit o’ nicking these shoes on a Friday efternoon, so much so that they hud geen me a corn on each wee pinkie tae that gied me gyp. They didny hauf gie me gyp.
I mind wan particular efternoon, my socks, nylon socks, white nylon ankle socks, too tight and these shoes that were also too tight, an’ ma feet sweatin’ in them, an’ I couldny take ma shoes aff because Wee Peachy cam’ tae ma desk to look at ma drawing. Noo, under normal circumstances I widda slipt the shoes aff under the desk and geen the corns a chance tae throb, but I couldny, fur it wis at the en’ o’ a long day an imagine, jist imagine if ma feet were smellin, an’ he wid be sittin’ there, nearer ma feet than me, an’ he wid mibbe smell them. Oh, I wid die, I’d be jist black-affrontit.
So he sat there and he had his sleeves rolled up an’ the hairs oan his foreairm mingled wi’ mine, an’ the shocks ran up an’ doon ma airm an’ I could hardly haud ma pincil. He must hae thocht I wis a silly beesom, or mibbe he kent, mibbe it wis jist an occupational hazard wi’ him, but I can mind yet the sun beeking in and the hale class comatose, and of coorse there wis aye a bumblebee banging its heid oan the windae, stupit enough to fly in an’ fin’ a big open windae and too stupit tae fin’ it oan the road oot. I never could unnerstaun’ that.
Hooever, there wis I, wi’ ma hert gau’n like the clappers and yon anticipatory, beginning sexual stirrings that we didny ken were that. We were that young and uninformed. An’ I could see the sun glintin’ oan his lashes. They were quite dark and whin the sun hit them, they trapped a golden puddle in the curl and jist glintit at ye, and his face wi’ the growth of his five-o-clock shadow hinting through, that made it that grown-up beside the soft formless faces o’ the boys in the class, an’ the hairs oan his airm minglin’ wi’ mine.
I never hud fun airms interesting but I can see his yet. He had quite a wee haun fur a man an’ saft, wi’ him no daein manual work, but it wis strong and hud knuckly knuckles, bony but wi’ well-kept nails. I’d never noticed nails oan a man afore, either, but my hale life wis jist this wan airm, wi’ the hairs, an’ the pincil wi’ his deft strokes, where mine were a’ watery and waffy, like ma legs at his nearness, an’ ma feet wi’ these corns jist gowpin’ below the desk, and the belt buckle slicing my spare tyre and the sunlight splinterin’ aff his lashes and the een oan him smiling at me.
“Now, remember,” she said, “Go all the way up the street, paying out and on the way back down you do the buying. That way you don’t have to carry the weight twice.” The elder of the two girls nodded, “Yes mum, I know, you say that every week.” “I've written the list in the order that you do things, take your pencil and tick off what you’ve done, then you won’t forget anything.” “Yes mum.” “Have you got the shopping bag and the big basket?” “Yes mum.” “Mind and put the eggs in the basket, not the bag.” “Yes mum.” “When you've bought the veg, if you've any money left, get some fruit.” “Yes mum.”
The ritual was the same every Saturday morning, and while the girls looked more and more bored, every word was waited for, the familiar litany a prayer at the start of the journey
“Have you got a hanky, watch crossing that road and for the Lord's sake don’t lose the money, it’s all I’ve got.”
“Don’t worry, mum.”
They left, the younger girl carrying the big red leather bag while her sister swung the basket.
They were a close knit family. Their father’s quest for work had taken him to the north east, but his sudden death had left them stranded far from the support of an extended family. They had learned early to rely on each other and take responsibility where necessary but their mother’s strength kept them secure enough to squabble incessantly when they were together.
They knew the routine. Into the Co-op at the end of the street to pay the milk, Ross’s to pay the papers, a slow nosy walk past the huge queue for Munro’s hot pies, into the rent office then pick up the single shillings for the meter at the post office and only then it was time to start filling the basket.
Most of the shops in the small town were family owned, narrow and constricted. Usually there was a counter on the right hand side of the door and the queue would form a U-shape along the left wall, round the end and down the counter.
“If there's a queue at the butchers you can go in and keep my place,” said Mary with her fourteen months seniority.
“I will not,” said her sister Betty, “just because you’re feart to stand in aboot the hingin’ corpses, I’m no daein it on my own.”
Mary shrugged with what she hoped was a casual air.
“It’s no that, it’s just that I thought I’d get the bread while they still have yesterday’s cheap and we’ll maybe get a skin for a sweetie.”
Her nine year old sister squinted at her out the corner of her eye, weighing up the truth of that statement and mentally running her eye over the penny tray at Angellini’s cafe.
“Right, but you better be back for I don’t know what to ask for.”
Glad to escape from the moving mural of lop-legged lamb corpses. Mary joined the queue at the bakers next door, pressing into the crush of soft large feminine bodies, listening carelessly to the intimate details of the lives, loves, finances and morals of those of the townsfolk who had rippled the gossip pond.
She never heard a full story because every time two women leaned close to whisper, she slid from between them to the other side of the one nearest to being served. Slowly eavesdropping and queue jumping, she made her way to the counter, got the bread cheaply and was back at the butchers in time to be served without having to stand along the hated back wall
“I've only pullets eggs this week, lass. Tell your mum they’re only one and six rather than half-a-crown, and I’ve put in the tail end of a bit of my own cold meat, maybe you can put it on a piece and have a wee picnic.”
“Thank you very much, Mr Matheson.”
That was lucky, she’d been supposed to go into the Co-op and buy some cold meat, but that wee gift would save some more money. They’d get a good skin that week, maybe enough for an ice-cream and a bag of broken biscuits at MacKenzie’s at the end of the street.
Slowly they travelled down the street, following the list until they were at the last official shop - Macrae’s the Greengrocer, Fruiterer, Florist and Market Gardener.
Mary loved this shop. It was always full of forbidden fruit. By the time she reached it her little purse was usually almost empty and the vegetables had still to be bought. Her eyes always scanned the shelves of fruit and marked the passing transient seasons. Her mouth watered over the rich red cherries for the short June fortnight they were available, likewise the strawberries, peaches, nectarines, pomegranites, plums and dusky shadowed black grapes which were all beyond her ken. Her fruit buying was confined to oranges, apples, occasionally bananas and even more rarely, pears. The knowledge of cashlessness had always been with her, she knew what little money there was, where and how quickly it was spent and she had already learned to temper her real wants, if not yet her dreams.
Sometimes in the fruitshop there were melons, huge yellow suns that shouted of another world, but they were part of a dream world she dared do no more than lift the corner of, so her eyes never lingered on them, they were too huge a concept.
“Come on, come on, don’t hang about on the door-step, blocking folks way, are you going in or out?”
The old lady with the deep basket on wheels, and the bent walking stick handle had no time for two wee lassies counting pennies. The girls stood back to let her in, smiling politely as they had been taught. Something in the pretty freckled face of the younger girl tugged at a memory in the old lady.
“Forgive a cross old lady, lassies. Here, here’s sixpence, buy a sweetie for yourself and your sister.”
She put the sixpence in the girl’s hand and went to the counter. While they were waiting the girls counted up the money again, including the six-pence. They looked round the shop, their eyes having to do what their hands and mouths and noses could not.
“Yes girls, what is it today?”
The counter in the fruit shop was high and the assistant’s head and shoulders loomed over it. “Just give me your list over and I’ll go through it at this side.”
The list was handed over and the woman worked down it, measuring, weighing, bagging.
“Give me over your basket and I'll pack it for you. You won’t be wanting the tomatoes and the bottom or the tatties on top of eggs. Right, that’s it, now it just says ‘fruit’ here. What are you wanting in the fruit line?”
“How much does all that come to?” asked Mary, the shopping money in her hand and the skin and the sixpence in the purse.
“Oh, I see,” said the woman, thinking they couldn’t count, “Give me over your purse and I’ll tell you what you have left.”
Her hand came over the counter and whipped the purse from the child’s hand before she could demur.
“I hope you’ve got more than this, there’s not enough here to pay for the vegetables.”
A small hand stretched up over the counter with the rest of the money and a wee stump of pencil was plied rapidly on the back of a paper bag.
“You've got 4/10d. I’ve got apples at 1/2, 1/4, 1/6 and 1/9, wee oranges at four for a shilling and big Jaffas at sixpence each.”
Mary turned her head to scan and choose the apples. A sign on a melon jolted her still.
“RIPE MELON” “ONLY 4/6d”
She was transfixed by the huge yellow enormity of it.
“Come on, lass, what are you wanting, there's others waiting.”
She heard the voice, huge and loud and determined and was amazed to hear it.
The shop assistant wasn’t amazed. She just lifted the melon down, pressed the end, nodded to herself, nestled it in the basket against the tomatoes, replaced the eggs and gave Mary four pennies back. Mary stood speechless and immobile.
“Mam’ll kill us, well, you,” she heard Betty whisper, but there was none of the usual sibling gloat in her voice as she reached to loft the basket.
“I’ll carry the basket,” said Mary.
“I want to carry it.”
“No, its got the eggs in it. You're too rough.”
“You don’t care about the eggs, you just want to carry the melon. You’ve had it, see when you get home, you’ve had it. You never even bought an orange. You don’t even know if you like melon. Mam never told you to buy a melon.”
Normally such provocation would have led to a bickering battle all the way home but Mary was wholly absorbed by the huge yellow heart of her shopping. The basket was heavy and had a long handle, and she had to hunch her shoulders up to prevent it banging off the ground. She held it in front of her, with both hands and turned her knees and feet outwards as she walked, shielding the fruit with her legs. Betty traipsed along beside her, still muttering and taunting and dying to carry the huge fruit.
“Stop a wee minute, stop. Put the basket down a minute till I feel that thing.”
“Wait till we get to the low lane, to the summerseats and then we’ll stop.”
Mary sat down on the first seat, lofted the basket beside her and for the first time reached her hand out to the melon. Melons had always been so far out of her reach that she had never really imagined what they would feel like. She ran her hands over the top of it, round the ends and underneath, feeling the huge hard ripe heaviness of it on her palms before she actually lifted it.
“Let me see, let me feel, let me hold it. I want it. What does it feel like, does it smell?”
Her sister’s small hands pattered over hers, poking, prodding, taking, but she held firm and lifted it onto her lap. The outside gave no clue as to what might be under the hard skin. She lifted it to her face and sniffed - nothing. No citrus tang, no minty tomato-stalk smell, no crisp-perfumed apple. A small tongue peeped from her mouth and she licked it. Still nothing. She pressed her fingers and the end as she’d seen the shop assistant do, but the slight give told her nothing. Doubts stabbed her. What has she done? Could she take it back? No, not without a note from her mother. What would mum say. She was supposed to have bought the week’s fruit and here she was stuck with this big clumsy tasteless heavy unwieldy yellowy lump. Maybe it wasn’t a fruit at all, maybe it was like a turnip, hard all the way through. What if she had spent 4/6 on a turnip! She’d never get to do the messages again. She’d have to stay at home and polish the silver, brasses and cutlery, she’d have to scrub the hated concrete kitchen floor.
She slapped her sister’s hand away, lifted the burden from her lap and put it back in the basket.
“Come on, you know what Mum’s like, she’ll think we’ve been run down.”
“I’m going to tell. You think you’re smart, buying a big melon. I’m going to run and tell mam,” with that the little girl ran off, leaving her bag of shopping.
Pursuit was out of the question so Mary picked up the bag and the basket and reluctantly plodded home. She could see her house from the lane. There had been times in the past when her angry mum had been known to come and meet her.
‘Please, please, please,’ her brain said, ‘don’t let her come out, let her stay in till I get home and can explain. Just wait till I get that Betty, I’ll pull the head off her dolly.’
Her mother met her inside the door.
“Give me that shopping bag. You shouldn’t be carrying both of these. Oh, what a beautiful melon. How did you know my mouth has been shaped for melon all week? I’m glad I sent you for the messages, I could never have let myself outlay that much money. I haven’t had melon since the day your father and I took you to the zoo before Betty was born. Tell you what, help me put the messages by, hang out the washing and after we’ll go up the river for a picnic.”
“Can I carry the melon?”
They didn’t go far up the river and the picnic wasn’t elaborate, bread, the cold meat, tomatoes, a flask of tea for mum and bottles of water for the kids.
They had a paddle, fished for minnows, catching the wee peenheids in their cupped palms, rolled down the hill through the inevitable sheep dirt and thistles but nobody was really concentrating, their minds were all fixed on the melon, safely under their mother’s protection. They knew better than to importune her but she seemed to take an incredibly long time over her tea and cigarette.
“Would anyone like a slice of melon or are you all full up?”
Four small bodies ran to the blanket. The melon was balanced on a blue enamel plate on the blue blanket. It looked as if the sun and sky had fallen onto the grass. The children held their breath. Here was a whole new world on their plate.
“This is where you get your face washed,” said their mother.
The children looked up stunned. Had they heard right? Had they to go and wash their faces? Where? In the river? Mum smiled.
A knife blade flashed in the sunlight. The hand holding the fruit steady paled to white as it stretched across the vivid yellow skin. A thin ribbon of juice followed the knife as the blade slid down one side to the base. The white hand rotated the fruit, keeping it closed, allowing no glimpse of the hidden centre. Down the other side went the blade, the thin juice following less eagerly now that it could drip out onto the plate. The fruit fell in two halves, the soft ivory-coloured seeds in the centre and the pale green flesh glistening in the sunlight. Another flash from the blade before it was cutting again and then again to make the quarter into an unbelievably vast eighth.
“Mary first I think. Tell us if you like it.” Her mother held the plate out to her.
She remembered the solidity of the whole fruit, its weight pulling her heart with fear as she carried it home. She put both her hands out to grasp the slice. It curved out of them like a huge gondola. The other children watched her, their mouths wet and open.
She looked to her mother for guidance.
“In polite society you use a spoon and a fork and a little shake of ginger, on a picnic up the river, you just set your teeth in it. “Go on,” said her mother with a little encouraging smile.
Gently, delicately, almost regretfully, she sank her teeth into the soft moist flesh. The honey-sweet juices ran from the crushed fibre, into her mouth, out the sides and down her neck. As she dug deeper, sucking to avoid losing the sweetness, the upturned ends curved round her face.
“That's your face washed now.”
Her mother’s voice galvanised the other children and three pairs of greedy hands grasped their share.
Mary lay back on the grass. She could never have imagined such a taste or texture. With a smile as broad as the slice of sunlight in her hands she settled herself to making this first voluptuous pleasure last as long as possible.