Short story: Bitter lemons, by George Mandow

“Mild affection bloomed into love”: resthome fiction

I have never been a gardener. I don’t mean I’ve never had a house with a garden, been responsible for a patch of grass and a flower bed or two, but I’m not a land nurturer. For some years I owned a ramshackle bungalow in several acres of scruffy fields, most of the land owned by a mental hospital and graced by cattle. At the bottom of a hill, rain water flowed into the acre of grassland, in front of the house. In spring, lush grass grew in the paddy field-like ground, far too boggy for my sit-on mower to cut. By the end of May, the ground had dried out, but the grass was 10 inches long and blocked the mower blades, causing it to stall. The field became a wetland. Ponies, stabled next to the house by teenage girls, escaped to feed on the greener side of the broken fence.

One summer I employed a horticulturist from the nearby 7th Day Adventist College. It was bliss: a flowering heaven, weed-free. She left, despite my pleading, for missionary work in Africa.

I abandoned country life for a flat in London. Time and marriage elapsed, I found myself living in the considerable comfort of a New Zealand retirement village. The balconies of most apartments had plants growing in pots. Their green fingered owners urged me, for my own good, to follow their example and cover my balcony with flowers and herbs, but apart from using it to dry my washing (which I was forbidden to do) I wanted my balcony to remain a void .

I am not sure whether my display of pique about the washing was just a reflection of gamma male being thwarted in a harmless ambition but I bought a retractable clothes line and eventually managed to attach it to the balcony wall. I got pleasure from my clothes line. It was hung with blouses and shirts, and sheets decorated with roses and dahlias and orchids.

A reprimand duly followed. I informed the emissary that in Bangkok there was a popular tourist boat tour to view and admire the bright garments hanging from the clothes lines of riverside houses. In my opinion, I said, the retirement village would be greatly cheered by decorations of laundry. And if I was banned from hanging out my washing, I would make a statement with my bleak balcony. I would sulk: I’m a good sulker.

I didn’t expect to win and I didn’t, but I became fixed with my balcony and the need to keep it pure, free from plants.

Then I acquired a lemon tree. It came in a big pot with lots of compost, delivered to me as a thank you present for a very small service I had rendered to the donor. I was touched. Like it or not, I would have to keep it and to try to keep it alive.

The usual things happened: its leaves turned yellow; it produced dozens of flowers which fell off. But it grew, and when I fed it, it rewarded me with green leaves and shoots at the top. I grew fond of my lemon tree. I worried when it got an infestation of little insects, and the leaves at the top died. I inspected it closely and was amazed to find two little lemons. Mild affection bloomed into love. I expected them to wither but as weeks went by they grew and ripened into large fruit. During the winter the plant seemed to be dormant but my two lemons glowed. My success as a lemon grower improved my sulks such that people spoke to me. We had my lemons to discuss as well as the weather and our grandchildren.

I haven’t decided what to do with my lemons. It would be a big step to pick them and what then? There are many recipes that use a lemon, but once used it has gone for ever. Well that’s life. I could buy a bottle of gin and live on G&T. Or lemon meringue pie? Or squeeze it on Greek dishes? My neighbors had ideas but it was hard for them to comprehend the emotional seriousness of my problem. And it has just got worse.

I was lying in bed counting the flashes from the smoke detector, (I cannot imagine farm animals) when it occurred to me that if I picked one of my lemons it might not taste as delicious as it looked.That would be devastating to me, though not, of course, to anyone else.

It’s a bitter problem.

Next week’s short story is “The Sensitivity Reader”, a satire about exactly that, by author Stephanie Johnson.

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