Extract from Andrea Levy's third novel:
Fruit of the Lemon
My parents hobby was collecting empty boxes. They'd been doing it for years. Brown cardboard boxes mostly. Fyfees boxes that used to contain bananas from the Caribbean; packets of Daz boxes; toilet roll boxes; Wagon Wheel packet boxes; unspecified boxes; thick double lined boxes; stapled up on the bottom boxes; small handles cut out the side boxes; supermarket boxes; green grocers boxes; stationers boxes.
My mum was the greatest gatherer. She'd come back from the shops with the groceries inside her brown plastic shopping trolley whilst balancing two, sometimes three empty boxes on the top of it. My dad and she would discuss the merits and weaknesses of each box brought into the house. 'You see Wade, what took my eye is that it has a strong bottom that sort of interlocks.' Or, 'But Mildred, I don't think we can have a use for a box six feet long and only eight inches wide'. My dad would store any new boxes in the small cellar of the house with mathematical precision - boxes in boxes all standing on black plastic sheeting to keep out the damp.
It started when we moved from our old council flat to the house in Crouch End. My parents had to, 'pay good money,' to rent boxes from the removal company to place in all our, 'nick-nacks and paddy-wacks'.
'Crooks,' my mum had said as she and my dad had watched the brick-shit-house removers in dirty jeans, take back all the boxes when we had finished with them.
Just after that the first box came. It contained the new television. My brother and me watched Dr Who in glorious living colour as my parents cooed over the box. The next one was oblong and had 'hoover' written on the side. 'You never know when a box will come in handy,' my parents would say . 'You just never know.'
The day I moved out of home Dad had struggled into my room with several of his very finest, 'double strength even got a top,' boxes. 'I've got bags' I said, showing him a suitcase and piles of well used, screwed up plastic carrier bags. He looked at me like I was no child of his. 'Bags,' he spat, 'things get mash-up in bags, Faith. Bags break. They not strong. You need a box.' He then banged the bottom of the sturdiest one. 'Strong,' he added, as he picked up a plastic bag from the bed, unravelled it and punched his fist straight through the bottom. He then sucked his teeth. Point made, no more words necessary. I took two of the boxes and he left a happy man.
I thought I'd have hardly anything to put in them. At that time I was leaving behind my childhood. Leaving behind my student days. I had lived at home all through my art college life.The grant authority had uummed and ahhed for months before they decided that my parents didn't live far enough away from the college to warrant them giving me independent status. And for four years I had had to juggle late night parties, sit-ins and randy boyfriends, with 1940's Caribbean strictures. 'Faith, you see you in by eleven - Faith, you can bring a nice girl back with you if she's clean - Faith, I don't want you messing around, you have plenty time for fun when you're older'.
All I had to take were my duvet, my alarm clock with the bells on top and a clanger that whizzed so fast that I cut my finger every time I turned it off. Several assorted empty tins that looked pretty and were given to me as presents so throwing them out as useless junk felt like betrayal. Various bottles of hair oil called things like 'Sta-soft-fro-curl' or 'Afro- sheen-curl', that I never used but thought I might. A record player and a pile of dusty dog-eared records ranging from the Sound of Music and Oliver to Tamela Motowns greatest hits in many volumes.
The boxes had soon filled up and I had to ask my dad for some more. He looked at me and sucked his teeth then started to moan that I was, 'Taking all the good boxes'.
'You offered!' I shouted, then added, 'What do you need them for anyway?' At which my dad did the strangest thing. He blushed. Then silently gave me three more boxes. But as I left the cellar he said, 'Don't come askin' me for any more'.
I was moving into a short life, shared house with friends - two men and a woman. I had thought I was reassuring my mum when I lied a little and said my new flat mate was a young woman. But instead she had said, 'A woman. Be careful of living with women.' I had then looked at her and smiled. I had tipped my head to one side and explained to her that, 'Nowadays, Mum, women have different relationships with each other. Nowadays', I'd elaborated, 'women supported one another - they were sisters'. To which my mum had butted in saying that the worst women she had ever lived with were her sisters and that if women started behaving like sisters then God help the world. She then looked to the portrait of Jesus on the wall and apologised, 'Excuse me Lord'. And went on telling me about the handfuls of hair she used to find in the bedroom she shared with her sisters in Jamaica, pulled out of a head during one of the many sisterly fights. And how her big sister Coral, once punched her so hard that the sweet she was sucking got stuck in her throat. Her mother, apparently, had to grab her by her feet, turn her upside down and slap her on the back until the sweet popped out.
'Be careful of living with women and thank God you only have a brother,' she finally ended.
My brother Carl had said, 'So you moving in with a bird then?' as he helped me carry my boxes to the back of his van. 'No, a woman actually' I said pointedly 'Wos a matter with calling her a bird?' 'Birds,' I said, 'Have wings. They fly. They sit in trees and tweet. Women don't.' 'Bird not good enough for you an all your women's libber friends now. So what do you birds call blokes then?' my big brother had asked with a broad goading grin.
I did not respond. Not immediately. Because when we were young Carl came home one day and insisted that from that day on he wanted to be called by his middle name, Trevor. They used to tease him at school. Carl was an unusual name in the schools of North London. There were no other Carls and boys used to walk behind him in the street shouting his name or calling him Carol amongst other things. So Carl became Trevor and from that day he would answer to nothing else. It took Mum, Dad and me months to remember. Months of calling out, 'Carl dinners ready,' only to hear him say, 'I don't know who you mean, my name is Trevor.' But eventually we all got it.
Then Trevor left school and started work driving a delivery van for a textile company. After two weeks he decided that Trevor no longer suited his image. He wanted to be called Carl again. Carl, he decided, had a certain Superfly, Shaft, don't-mess-with-me-I'm-a-black-man message. He deployed the same tactics, 'Trevor, whose Trevor? - never heard of him'. Until he was once again Carl.
So I didn't have to say anything about birds. I just smiled and said that we call blokes Trevor and he shut up.
My dad had stood by the door to watch me take the last bits of my belongings out of the house. He had hedge clippers in his hand and he stood in front of the perfect clipped privet hedge in the garden, pretending to cut at stray leaves, like a barber clipping over the top of a well cut head of hair. Then my mum came out wearing pink rubber gloves and carrying a duster and a can of Mr Sheen which she sprayed onto the front door and began to wipe at vigorously. They had needed something to do as they watched me leave
It wasn't how they would have liked their only daughter to go. They would have preferred to see me swathed from head to toe in white lace, with hand stitched on pearls and sequins. Standing in between my bridesmaids - one my age and two little ones - dressed in lemon yellow satin with white lace trim. Our skirts ballooning out in the sun as I stood with my back to them ready to throw my bouquet into the cheering, laughing crowd. My new husband - a christian with family from Jamaica or one of the 'small islands' - watching-on in a dark suit with wine coloured cummabund and a frilly shirt. Then the two of us moving happily down the human-arch of men standing holding paintbrushes aloft like swords.
'Marry a decorator like your dad and you'll never have to worry about paint,' Mum had always advised. Every year she steeped several bags of dry fruit in rum ready to make a wedding cake at a moments notice. And every year she looked at me accusingly as she tipped out the jar of alcoholic sultanas and currents and made another Christmas cake instead.
'Ah Faith, what can we do with you? You just go your own sweet way,' my parents had both decided a long time before. 'Your own sweet way.'
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Fruit of the Lemon
The Long Song
Never far from nowhere
Every light in the house burnin'