Oh, I do like fruit. I do, I do. When I was little, my dad would bring us home a big bag of fruit after work on a Friday. We’re talking ’60s and ’70s here. Fruit was a special treat. I loved the apples, their soft flesh giving up their sweet juices inside my mouth. Bananas were rare and there was always a tangerine in your Christmas stocking or pillow case, as it was in our house. Most of all, me and my two little sisters liked ‘Slurp, Slurp’. ‘Have you got any, Dad? Have you?’
Dad would tease us forever before taking a wonderful green or yellow melon from the bag. Watermelon or honeydew, it didn’t matter. Dad must have thought himself a pirate for he used to hide the melons away in a secret hideaway, usually in the kitchen cupboard under the stairs. But we were treasure hunters, golden seekers, and we knew all his hideyholes. When we found it, we held up our prize in triumph. Dad sliced the melon into pieces the size of boats and we helped ourselves off the plate. The first bite was delicious. The juice ran down my chin and onto my hands. If it was water melon, you had a mouth full of pips too. I liked honeydew best, as it didn’t drench you. Either way, you still ended up with sticky hands and chin, glistening with a silvery sheen on the tips of your fingers, as if a big, fat slug had accidentally slid over them, trying to get off.
I’m sure it made Dad happy to bring us fruit home. He was a tall man to me. After he died, I found his seaman’s book which recorded all the places he’d sailed to and his height, 5ft 11 and three-quarters. Dad could have brought melon all the way from Haifa or Valparaiso. We marvelled at the colours and taste of it.
He walked quickly. My little legs ran to keep up with him when we went out together, often to the barbers. He took me to my first Everton game, a night match against Chelsea. Dad had dark hair, brown eyes and sticky out ears. He had a rigged, sailing ship tattooed on his left arm. He used to flex his muscles and it looked like it was sailing on the sea. The red lanterns faded to pink over time amid the dark navy. He cupped his cigarette inside his palm. For warmth or to shield the light? Knowing Dad, he’d probably copied the style off an American actor. He rolled his own from half ounce of Golden Virginia. He looked and walked just like John Wayne. To me, he was John Wayne. He was my Dad and he brought us the best fruit on a Friday night.
My first job after A-levels was a seasonal one in the 5-star Imperial Hotel in Torquay. Without a day’s training, they took me on as a commis waiter. I’d never carried a tray in my life before and struggled to serve the salad using a fork and spoon together in one hand without dropping any. Years later, I discovered it worked much better if I fitted the fork inside the spoon. I might crush a cherry tomato but there was more chance of the salad making it onto the plate. I enjoyed talking to the guests at table. One day, I found myself speaking with an author. I mentioned my own dream of wanting to write. ‘So, what’s the most important thing for a writer?’, she asked me. ‘Compassion. You must have compassion.’ I was just between Orwell and Oscar Wilde about to get onto Steinbeck. She smiled up at me and asked would I fetch her an apple.
I went into the kitchen, picked the best one I could see, a shiny green one, and headed back towards the door. ‘Where are you’re going with that?’, one of the waiters shouted at me amid the hullabaloo of the kitchen. ‘Someone’s asked me for an apple and I’m taking it back out,’ I said. ‘Not like that, you’re not! Over here.’ He took down a small, round silver salver, placed a doily mat and a side plate on top of it and balanced the apple in the middle. ‘There you are. Take that in and make sure you don’t drop it.’ I looked at the apple. How was I ever going to reach the table without someone bumping into me and the apple ending up on the floor? Still, everyday an adventure, ay, they say? Somehow, I managed it.
A couple of years after that, I met Mel at Poly. She was lovely and invited me to visit her parents’ home that summer. She lived in leafy Fleet in Hampshire. I so wanted to make a good impression and was trying to be on my best behaviour. One afternoon, me and Mel and her mum, a social worker in the East End of London, were chatting away in the kitchen. There was a bowl of fruit on the table. ‘Can I have an orange?’, I asked. ‘Of course, help yourself.’, her mum said. I picked the best looking one and, without thinking, sank my teeth into the peel and bit the top off. Using teeth and fingers, I took the rest of the peel off. It was hard to keep talking while doing this, so I didn’t, concentrating on my orange. Mel and her mum carried on. I was looking at the juicy orange in my hand. It was all there for me and I did what I always did, taking a giant bite out of it. A whole burst of sweet juice washed over my taste buds. Lovely! I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, sweeping up all the juicy bits from my upper lip and chin and took another. I had orange pips..? Tricky, I think I swallowed them. I sensed Mel and her mum looking at me. They’d stopped talking.
I turned towards them. Mel was exchanging looks with her mum. They were smiling but I put the partly eaten orange back on the table next to the peel and tried to join in but something had changed. I remember trying to pull the pieces apart for easier eating but it just got messier. I left it there on the table.
A few years ago, when I lost a front crown out of my top teeth, I had a denture fitted. The dentist advised me not to bite on an apple for fear of more teeth coming loose or falling out. I felt downhearted.Was that my last ever apple, I wondered sadly? But I soon found a way round it. If I chopped an apple into small pieces, removing the centre bits and pips, I could chomp away quite happily. Why not add a chopped banana or pieces of tangerine? Soon, each lunchtime became a feast.
I created a whole new practice of cutting up and eating fruit for lunchtime. The time it takes to chop the fruit is slow and gives me time to think, to centre on something simple and pleasurable. It also has a social side. I can offer a piece of fruit on a plate to my workmates. ‘Fruit?’, they all say and look at the plate strangely, as if they’ve never seen it before. Not like this, anyway. ‘Fruit? Umm, looks nice.’ I watch them, scanning the plate. ‘I’ll have that one.’ When they pick it up, I tease them, ‘I was going to have that one!’, and smile back at them. Rehana said to me once, ‘You do eat a lot of fruit.’
Only a week or so ago, I was sitting in the training room with a plate of sliced fruit. I had added a couple of broken fruit and spice oatcakes, delicious with banana, when I was called to reception. I noticed Harriet glancing at my plate. ‘I’ve counted them all’, I told her. ‘Keep your hands off. I know what you’re like.’ And off I went. I was back in ten minutes and looked aghast at my plate. ‘Where’s all my tangerine?’ There was plenty of apple and banana left but not a single piece of tangerine. People must have helped themselves to the tangerine as they passed and left the apple. I sighed and grumbled ‘greedy gannets’ under my breath. ‘How could they!’ And then, Harriet put a ball of damp, orangedescent kitchen roll in front of me. ‘My tangerine pieces!’, I cried. ‘Oh, great, thank you, Harriet, thank you.’ ‘I only took them because you said you’d counted them’, she said.
I arranged each one carefully back on my plate and ate them one at a time, like great, unexpected treats, tasting their freshness and zing. Harriet carried on talking about Trollope while I looked for my next morsel. Apple, tangerine, banana…what would it be? Oh, I do like fruit.
Thank you, Dad.
Now, you’ve read it, perhaps you’d like to hear me tell it… https://soundcloud.com/black-bog/slurp-slurp-wav