Hollow Oranges by Deborah Bowkis
Frank left the oranges so she’d find them. He’d arranged them carefully, in a heap, like cannonballs. Elizabeth looked at them, rolled up the sleeves of her blouse, picked one up and weighed in it her hands; it felt light, as though it was hollow. She tumbled them into the sink where they bobbed about in the water.
‘Seville oranges are in,’ Frank had said, the day before, and he’d dumped a carrier bag, full of them, in the kitchen, ‘make marmalade.’
She pressed down on one of the oranges and held it under.
Elizabeth pulled the plug out of the sink and the drain sucked at the water, like a child drinking through a straw. She picked up an orange and sliced it in half, squashed it in the juicer and the citric liquid gushed out. She poured it into the pan and threw the skin to one side. As she worked the skins piled up; they lay, like empty bellies, only bitter pith left inside them. It beat her why Frank liked the stuff.
‘Course, a blob a jam’s good enough for you,’ he’d said when she complained about making it, ‘you wouldn’t understand a sophisticated palette.’
With the edge of her metal spoon she scraped at the inside of the discarded skins, scouring out the pith and flopping the pulp onto a square of muslin. A faint perfume misted the air but as she sniffed, it faded. Scraping again at orange after orange she pared away the flesh like fat from a hide. Each orange was purged until the mound inside the muslin grew. Finally she tied the muslin tight and plopped the ball of pulp into the pan with the juice, where it bobbed about helplessly. The bitterness would seep out and taint the marmalade.
‘Poor bloody blob,’ she said as she watched it float.
The hollowed out skins remained, cupped inside each other. She split them apart then shredded them. The tiny slivers scattered about the worktop. As the sun shone beneath her window nets it picked them out like sunbeams. Elizabeth lifted a piece of the rind and put it on her tongue but its bitterness splintered through her mouth.
The marmalade was beginning to bubble. She tipped in the shredded rind and for a moment the pieces of peel glowed like sunshine. She poured in some sugar and turned up the heat. The slivers of orange began to rise up and roll over like dead goldfish. Bubbles rose to the surface turning the liquid the colour of autumn.
‘I want it thin cut,’ Frank had insisted.
‘But Frank it’ll take me hours,’ she’d said.
‘You’ve nothing else to do woman.’
That was true.
In the pan small glass domes appeared on top of the liquid, swollen by the heat, they grew bigger and bigger, like boils. One burst. Then a second, and a third, until the pan bubbled like a cauldron. Elizabeth stirred. The steam rose and her face shone with the moisture; her hair frizzed. She seized the spoon and held it above the broth like a wand,
‘I wish, I wish …’ she said, but no wish came.
She spooned out the pulpy muslin bag and threw it into the sink,
‘Useless bloody blob,’ she said.
Scum frothed on the surface of the liquid and settled, like litter, around the rim. After a while it hardened to a white crust. She skimmed it away, glad to be busy, glad not to think. All that wishing ... The marmalade boiled, she stirred the bubbles down, scared they’d boil over. The hands of the clock ticked towards the end of the day.
The old jam jars were sterilising in the oven; she opened the door. A whiff of fusty old air wafted out.
‘Those lids!’ she said and waved the smell away.
‘Use the old ones,’ he’d said when she’d asked for money.
She slammed the door shut, lifted the pan off the heat and puddled a dollop of the marmalade onto a saucer. Pushing her finger through the warm pool she watched it crinkle. It was set. She licked her finger, and then shuddered at the taste.
Elizabeth looked at the clock, then at the door. Frank would be home soon. She imagined him walking in and the sound, like sandpaper, as he rubbed his hands together in expectation. She rushed to finish. Sloshing the marmalade into the jars, it dribbled down the sides and onto her hands making them sticky. Pushing jar after jar aside she fumbled, lost her grip, one fell on the floor and smashed. The broken jar oozed its liquid across the lino’. The front door clicked open. Frank. She froze. The metallic zing of his zip undid the silence. He be hanging up his coat, on the hook, then he’d walk into the kitchen, and see the mess and…
She grabbed a paper towel and tried to wipe up the goo. Swishing from side to side she wiped frantically but it was so thick. Damn! She ripped another towel and wiped again at the floor. As she smeared she looked closely at the tiny slivers of peel she’d cut so carefully. They looked like insects trapped forever in amber.
‘You stupid woman!’
For a moment she just stared up at Frank. Then she stood. Looking straight at him, she swept the jars off the worktop. A million fragments scattered like spent ammunition across the floor, but the marmalade flowed.