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Oranges by Tove Ditlevsen

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- leeks.

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."

"Certainly, madam."

"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 Klingspuhr's flat?"

"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 the window.

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 equal portions.

 
 
 

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