Sunday, September 06, 2009

'Do you know the land where the lemon trees flower?'

'Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühn…?'


That was one of the questions Joe put to me in the early stages of the 'Questions' dialogue, when we were still preparing it as a Qarrtsiluni submission. My answer to it was an anecdote. Finally, when we were reviewing the series to post at Compasses, we dropped it, mostly I think because, however I cut it, its straight narrative, prose memoir form simply sat ill with the poems that developed. Though there is a ghostly trace or two of it within them, at least at first.

I thought it would work better as a blog post here, anyway, but then it drifted off, and has been sitting all this year with some editorial notes on a Google document, largely forgotten.

Then in the last few weeks, I found a whole stack of photos and other memorabilia I didn't know I even had any more. Some of it was unwanted, unsettling or redundant, or just evoking of that sinking 'oh no, not more clutter to deal with...' feeling. But amongst it was an old Instamatic pic of R and her daughters, which inclined me to go back to the original piece, look it over and post it.
I realise the younger child is now probably older than R was when I knew her, and R herself is probably a grandmother several times over. But in the manner of people we knew for a short time at a particular stage, in my mind she remains the gracious, graceful young woman I remember.

Do you know the land where the lemon trees flower?

No, I don't, but I knew someone who did.

That winter, about 25 years ago, I was just out of university, lingering in the town and rather directionless. I would catch a bus to the station, and walk, over the sluggish wide river and past the brewery, the Chinese supermarkets and the stores selling saris, the corner shops smelling of spices and old lino, down a street of small terraced houses, to teach English to R.

I was often rather cold and hungry, but she greeted me with tea, not weak and sugarless as I usually drank it, but boiled in a saucepan with milk and sugar, an unexpected pleasure and comfort, and when she was cooking, she'd sit me down with a plate while she finished: a small piece of dry spiced lamb, or an oily cauliflower curry, with an egg broken and scrambled into it, rice, a chapatti. Food never tasted better, though eating it with fingers made me shy. I broke up the chapatti, made it into spoons.

" You eat like that?" she laughed, though kindly "I saw a Bengali lady in hospital eat like that!"

"She's in purdah," the community worker, a Pakistani woman like R, told me, with an inflection of pity "she can't go out, not without her husband."

He, the husband, was gentle and quiet, affectionate with their two little girls. I saw him rarely; he worked long and late at a dairy. The older girl was about five, sturdy and mischievous; sometimes I combed her hair, I loved its dark lustre, she loved the attention. The moment she went to school, her drawings of people leapt a whole developmental stage, going from cephalopods to properly proportioned figures with arms coming from their shoulders. Her three-year-old sister was asthmatic, soft and babyish still, sometimes when I arrived she was plugged into her nebulizer, her eyes, dreamy over the top of its perspex mask, smiled benignly at me. R had no vacuum cleaner, only a stiff brush for her carpets, but a very sophisticated sewing machine and she made beautiful clothes for herself and her daughters; salwaar kameez, I learned later, trousers and tunic, one I remember she wore in a velvety fabric in tigerish shades of gold and rust and cream, and an intricately knitted set for the little girl in fine red wool, traditional styles adapted for a colder climate. She seemed generally cheerful and stoical.

It was the first English teaching I ever did, and I hadn't a clue, received no guidance or materials. Yet those afternoons were companionable, cosy. Her English was good already, she had taught herself entirely from watching television. One might have thought this would cause her to use unusual idioms or quirky language, yet I don't remember that it did, she simply spoke careful, serviceable English. She was just a few years older than me.

"Do you drink alcohol?" she asked once.
I shrugged. "It makes me happy."
"But you are happy now!"

I was.

I was ignorant and overpolite, and asked her few questions about culture or religion, or about being far from home. But I tentatively asked about purdah, and keeping indoors.

"Oh, but in my village I could go out, with my friends, and family, it was easy. It's only here, where I know no one. My husband takes me whenever he can, to my friend or my cousin, but they live in other parts of the city, it's a long way on the bus."

She showed me their small, fenced back garden, empty and wintry.

"In my village," she said "there were lemon trees. I loved to see the flowers, and to look right inside the flowers, to see the little green new lemons just coming there."
She looked up at the damp, grey South Wales sky, and sighed, just a little.

I left that town shortly after, went to London. We didn't keep in touch, I don't quite know why; writing would have been difficult, I suppose. I was pursuing a freedom I didn't really know what to do with, insisting on choices I never, in the event, took up. I went here and there, this way and that, and I have taught quite a lot of English since, and I have come to know a few things, but, as yet, no, I don't know the land where the lemon trees flower.

R did, though.


Rouchswalwe said...

The first woman to whom I taught English came from Saigon. We lost touch initially, but then managed to re-connect and have been friends for over two decades. There are others I wonder about though.

marja-leena said...

Going through old stuff is producing some treasures! Lovely story.

JamaGenie said...

What a lovely story about a lovely woman! Thank you for (finally) sharing it. What a pity you didn't keep in touch. Sounds like R was wise beyond her years.

herhimnbryn said...

A good story to read this morning, L. Glad you brought it all out into the light.

HLiza said...

Oh it's stories like this that keep me coming back here! in life there's so many people that touch our lives in different ways..and it's refreshing to immortalize the memories in writing..thanks for this Lucy..I can imagine you must be a good English teacher!

Meggie said...

A beautiful post Lucy. Beautiful photo.

I have a small land where a Lemon tree flowers...

Roderick Robinson said...

References to that poem usually stop short after the first four words, Kennst du das Land... making it an even more mysterious and seductive invitation.

You evoked a memory when I too became briefly part of an Asian family; I had just sold them my BMW which the father (not a wealthy man) had bought for his teenage son. The children ran out excitedly when I arrived and jumped all over the interior of the car and the teenage son turned piteous eyes to me on finding he couldn't see through the windscreen from the driving seat. I readjusted the seat and his flashing smile was something I hardly felt I'd earned. Later there was a problem regarding the insurance. I took over the phone from the father and suggested in a steely manner that what I'd overheard sounded perilously close to discrimination. The insurance company gave in and I was lauded as a hero. While all this was going on other members of the family were preparing the house for a wedding. Yours is a quieter, longer-lasting memory but I look back on mine delighted that what I'd expected might be awkward turned out so happily. No lemon trees but something unexpected.

Unknown said...

I'm so glad that you published that account. It did set the tone for much of the dialogue that followed and which is still going on. There is another response in the pipeline.

Lucy said...

Thanks all, and for your own contributions and recollections.

The Goethe quote always hung in my mind, half-associated with her, in the way these things do, but one sometimes needs to be required to think about somethign for these connections to be clearly made.

There were other pleasant or interesting bits and pieces that came to light, so perhaps more source material for reflection.

Bee said...

This is so very touching to read, Lucy. So beautifully detailed; how do you remember it all? How marvellous if this woman could know that she is forever associated with lemon trees in your mind. (That paragraph -- her sigh -- such perfect writing!)

Granny J said...

Your post reminds me of the problem one faces in later years, when life has been lived in a series of boxes, of settings that were closed at the end. I'm fortunate at this stage of my life to have lived in the save place and amongst the same people for nearly 30 years now. But there's very little of my youth and friends of my youth left.

christopher said...

For some reason the combination of Purdah and long ago got to me. I have reminiscence in my heart, I think. Normally I live here and now, but lately I notice a willingness to grieve the long ago when I receive a small push.

I was in Bangladesh from 1967-69. The lemon trees however were in California. The mix of sweet and lemon when they flower is remarkable.