Oranges by Tove
Translated by Ann and Peter Thornton
Jonassen, the greengrocer, had collected his 25 oranges from the
market that morning. He drove home with them behind the huge lorries
covered with their 'Fruit Vegetables' signs and gave his old sway-
backed nag a vicious cut over the neck in order to get through the
crowd. He was convinced that the lorries got a larger share than the
horse-drawn carts. With his own eyes he had seen a great, red-haired
lout heave a whole crate of oranges into his lorry. Everywhere in the
pale wintry sunlight he glimpsed the flash of yellow and orange
amongst the carrots, frozen brussels sprouts, and the stringy winter-
Already yesterday it had been in the papers that 'oranges have been
distributed to all the greengrocers in the city'. A fine distribution,
he'd say. It was about time the Government intervened. The whole
community was corrupt and rotten to the core. Throughout yesterday
there had been a continual stream of customers staring at him as
though oranges were about to burst from his button-holes. For the sake
of appearances they had bought some cheap vegetables for making soup.
"Cut the celery across, Jonassen, so I can see that it's not black
inside." And "promise you'll keep a couple of oranges for me when you
get them tomorrow, won't you Jonassen?"
Normally they never addressed him by name.
He sent his wife home as soon as he got back from market. He knew
she was incapable of sharing out the 25 oranges justly; by that he
meant, one to each of those customers who bought all their vegetables
from him and didn't drift across the square to rival greengrocers
every other day. Give her a chance and she'd bundle all 25 into the
lap of the first comer. She couldn't tell a lie to anyone, and she
couldn't resist a customer who addressed her kindly. He often claimed
that she ruined the business for him. She looked too happy when
customers approached the barrow, and far too miserable when they
walked by; the customers hated is. The thing was to look as if one
didn't give a damn whether one sold anything or not—to look as if one
were only standing there for pleasure. That was what he did.
He sat on an upturned crate, his nose purple with cold, rags wound
round his swollen hands under the mittens, visualizing how it would
look, this shop that they never got; a big stove, a white counter,
pale green distempered walls—perhaps even an errand boy, and outside,
over the window, a tall sign, "J. JONASSEN. FRUIT VEGETABLES".
"What can I do for you, madam?"
"I'd like three pounds of potatoes."
"It must be terrible standing here in this cold, Jonassen."
His usual answer was that he was too busy to feel the cold, but
this wouldn't wash with people who lived in the block across the
square; they could see from their windows how business was going. "Oh
well," he replied, turning his back as he weighed out the potatoes,
"I'm still pretty hale and hearty. I'll manage." With a broad grin he
handed Mrs. Klingspuhr her bag; what the devil had it got to do with
her whether he froze or not. Perhaps she could suggest some other way
for him to earn a living? He had once spotted her coming from the
greengrocer opposite with a bunch of chervil sticking out of her
basket. She had looked quite alarmed when he caught her eye, and ever
since had never passed his barrow without buying something, unlike so
many others who preferred to stand in a warm shop in the wintertime.
But she didn't get her orange.
He just couldn't stand her. Her pale face nestled in the deep fur
collar of her coat like a flower in a buttonhole. Every afternoon he
saw her sitting in her bay-window drinking coffee with her friends.
Plenty of leisure for a married woman with no children. His wife was
always chatting with her. His wife had a way of rubbing her frozen
hands together and looking pathetic when she talked to customers, even
in the summer, but then perhaps it was because of the heat. He swung
his arms to get warm as he watched Mrs. Klingspuhr walk away. What
would she have said if she had known he had 25 oranges lying in a row
behind the cashbox? By the time the others told her he would
'unfortunately' have sold out. "How stupid of him, he had quite
forgotten this morning." One still had some pride left; why should she
and her friends gorge themselves with his oranges?
It wasn't because Mrs. Klingspuhr was Jewish. He just didn't like
her. He had been just as indignant as everyone else when the Germans
started routing out the Jews, and before that one had never considered
whether so and so was a Jew or not. Of course they were easy enough to
spot. They had a certain look about them, there was no denying it,
like Eskimos or Chinese. Not that one held it against them—but there
was a difference, obvious to anyone who had eyes in his head and knew
how to sum people up at a glance; and the whole secret of business was
to be able to see right through the customers and know in advance what
they were going to say before they even opened their mouths. Take this
Mrs. Klingspuhr for instance. She was obviously only spared because
she was married to a gentile, now she had a way of always asking what
a thing cost before she bought it, even if it was only a bunch of
parsley. "It's the small things that give people away," he said to his
wife. "Mrs. Klingspuhr is stingy like all Jews." His wife protested
feebly which was always his cue to give rein to his undefined
bitterness, and just to contradict her he snarled, "They are a foreign
element in our midst and if they're not kept in their place they'll
threaten our very existence."
Jonassen wasn't sure of the origin of these phrases. It was often
like that. One heard so much talk during the course of the day: some
of it was bound to leave a mark. Anyway it relieved one to say that
sort of thing, the Devil alone knew why. It made one feel one was in
the swim, that one wasn't born yesterday. It wasn't one's own fault
one never got that shop. Secret forces were gnawing at the roots of
the community; something was dragging one down like water running out
of a bath, relentlessly, draining one's strength and energy. The
Germans were a lot of thieves and cut-throats, but in some cases they
knew what they were doing.
During the course of a day something was bound to leave it's mark.
One has to discuss so many things and sometimes words crop up which
might perhaps originally have had a quite different meaning, perhaps
not. No matter, they can be used. They warm one inside. They come from
nowhere. They are just in the air and they belong to one. In the long
run, they seem to make life slightly more bearable, so one hangs on to
them. Slowly they fall into place in the grey mosaic of the mind,
adopting the colour of the other pieces and then one day, there one
is, on an upturned crate, watching Mrs. Klingspuhr crossing the square
and quite prepared, should the occasion arise, to defend those 25
oranges with one's life.
The greengrocer clenched his swollen fists in his pocket in blind,
unaccountable fury. There was something about that woman he just
couldn't stand. He looked malevolently at her at she walked away and
thought of how they treated the Jews in Germany. He'd a good mind to
hurl the whole lot in her face, all 25 oranges, blood oranges, and
that would be letting her off lightly; what the Devil had it got to do
with her whether he was cold or not?
Mrs. Nielsen came up to him with her two children. She only wanted
a bunch of carrots. (Now the run on the oranges would probably start.)
"Certainly, madam," Jonassen looked down benevolently at the two
clean, fair-haired children and in sudden generosity reached behind
the cashbox, drew out two oranges and handed them to them.
"These are for you but don't tell anyone!"
"Oh, that is kind of you. For the children? But they have never
tasted one in all their lives. Makes one think, doesn't it?"
The greengrocer shook his head sadly as he wrapped up the carrots:
"These are bad times. We must do what we can for each other." He
caught himself rubbing his hands together in exactly the same way as
his wife and angrily stuffed them in his pockets again. He closed Mrs.
Nielsen's fingers over the change and whispered confidentially, "Mrs.
Klingspuhr didn't get one." Then tearing a paper bag off the hook he
took the oranges from the gaping children. He gave her the bag. "You
had better distribute them," he said and in spite of Mrs. Nielsen's
protests refused to let her pay for them. "They're a present," he said
with a warm, genial smile, "I've decided to do a good deed each day,
like the Boy Scouts," he laughed and looked at her as if they had just
sworn a secret alliance.
"Ugh," said Mrs. Nielsen to her husband, "there is something about
that greengrocer I can't stand. Think of it, he gave me two oranges
today, actually GAVE them to me and then told me spitefully that he
hadn't given Mrs. Klingspuhr any. Yet she buys all her vegetables from
him as far as I know, and she's always so kind and friendly."
Her husband yawned behind his paper. "Oh well," he said
indifferently, "I suppose he just doesn't like Jews."
"It can't be very nice for her," said Mrs. Nielsen thoughtfully,
"sitting here, not knowing when the Germans will come and fetch her—
funny she doesn't escape to Sweden like all the rest."
"Bah! She'll manage. Jews always do." Nielsen turned over the page
of his paper.
Mrs. Nielsen didn't answer. She looked out of the window. There was
still some sun on the other side of the street. The Klingspuhr balcony
overhead prevented the sun from ever reaching any further than the
outer edge of the Nielsen's windowsill. She said, "What a pity we
didn't get Schempinsky's flat when he left. Would you believe it,
there had been a waiting list for it from the day the Germans came.
Isn't it shocking? Actually reckoning with the misfortune of others."
This time Nielsen lowered his paper. "What a lot of drivel," he said
sharply. "He didn't clear out a day before he had to on that account,
and someone has got to live in the flat till he comes back? One must
see things as they are."
"Yes, of course," said Mrs. Nielsen vaguely, "but still." She
looked up at the underside of the huge sun-blocking balcony and
remembered that the Klingspuhrs had one room more than they even
though they had no children. It really seemed unfair. How lovely it
would be to have a separate room for the children. She said
hesitantly, "Do you think people have written themselves down for the
"Of course they have but you can always have a try. Call at the
estate agents tomorrow. Better late than never." Mrs. Nielsen's kind
blue eyes filled with wonder. It didn't seem right. Out of the window
she saw Mrs. Klingspuhr on her way home with a full shopping basket.
She stopped and joined the queue at the vegetable barrow. When her
turn came, Jonassen made a deploring gesture with both hands and said
something that made the other customers laugh. As Mrs. Klingspuhr
crossed the road she looked up, saw Mrs. Nielsen in the window and
nodded smilingly to her. Mrs. Nielsen inclined her head stiffly,
hastily drew the curtain and stood rather irresolutely, her back to
Of course in a way her husband was right. It couldn't do Mrs.
Klingspuhr any harm if she were to put her name down for the flat. It
was surely only a question of time before they started on the rest of
the Jews, those German brutes.
The nursery was to be done in pale blue and white, with proper
nursery wallpaper, small chairs and a rocking horse—and perhaps in
the not too distant future, a little pale blue cot.
Mrs. Nielsen smiled at the thought as she went into the kitchen,
peeled the two oranges and scrupulously divided the segments into four