Plums in thick beads weigh the tree down,
causing branches to shear and peel
while yet attached by the merest slip of skin.
He fondles the ripe clusters—packed
almost conical—dandles them on his palm,
brushes lightly where the tree holds cold
though the sun shines. Each plum
is purple, but with glimmers of red, pink,
gold, pale green. He shakes the bole,
and little clicks come through the leafy rustle.
Suddenly, with surprising thumps,
the plums bounce; a few shrivelled leaves
spiral on their slow descent. Vigorously
he shakes. A black and yellow wasp
whirls in close circles buzzing as if to shave
his scalp. He brings his hands up,
windmills furiously until the wasp flies off.
His hands alight gently on his face.
Nose, lips, chin, he pats and presses them.
They don’t feel as the plums feel. They feel
papery, coarse, and they seem not to fit.
He bends, noticing a solitary plum has fallen
into his basket. The rest lie scattered
at the tree’s foot, or peep from tufts of grass.
Some are bruised, their skin broken, their
jellied innards showing. He shrugs.
There are far too many to eat. A punnet
or two for friends, the rest will
rot, soften and spawn a grey fur of mould,
adhere to the bowls that contain them.
Finally he’ll dig a hole in rockery clay
and empty them in. And forget about plums
until white blossoms dress the bough
again, bringing him—in the lift
of a new spring—devotional as the legendary
fruit man of the Moluccas tip-toeing
round a clove tree, to whisper and dance.
But this one plum sitting in his basket
bothers him by its difference. Lopsided;
dark brown battling other colours out.
He picks it up, revolves it slowly between
fingers—dry and scaly in its unlovely
skin where an insect nipped, all the succulent
energy spoilt, no bouquet when he
puts it to his nose and no ease in rolling it
along the rigid red line of his lips or about his
overly rounded chin, rather a frail
scraping that causes him to wince. His eyes
cloud. He can’t see the scattered plums
or the plum tree any more. He hears
the mournful sound of the wasp returning.
His fingers tightly bunch. The rough plum
bursts. His fingers rid themselves
of plum-flesh until there remains only
the wet, wrinkled stone—it is here, just as
he’s preparing to toss it from him,
that the swarthy wasp lands. And stilled
to fascination, he watches the wasp
dip and pirouette, probing for those last
vinegary vestiges, then hears it gnaw to small
avail, and trembles remembering
how the young man mumbled ‘only havin’
a lark,’ and how the judge decreed
a suspended sentence. Acid flung in his face
as he cycled home, a daylight moon
following, diaphanous with but one cloud,
February’s cold air cuffing his ear,
the weathered nests of a flown year creaking,
seeming to sail amid rigging of branches
black and bare, no bother or niggle
knowing that his wife would see through
palaver about birds’ nests and moon, yet cover
with ardour—it was Valentine’s Day—
his absence of flowers, would meet him
at the door. He flinches at the tingle becoming
scald, opening blood and bone, skin
and flesh flapping loose, gristle being eaten—
his frantic hands, his mad fingers
seemed to stick to his face; the young man
and his grey-hooded accomplices
ran; for all he knows they still run, honking
and whooping their ecstatic laugh.
The wasp, how curious it is, taking stock of his
unsteady hand. And the tree, gathering
yearly to a gallant harvest, yet such a scrawny
wretch of a thing planted that bad winter
when reconstructive surgery’s slow
graft began—paroxysms of anger and shame,
half-remembered scraps of himself
dawning in the patchwork face in the mirror.
Strangers glance, turn swiftly from him.
Mouths of friends move, overcompensating
with talk. She kisses him on the mouth
though his lower lip caves and there is simply
numbness. They manage a getaway
together. Heat burdening his shoulders, narrow
hilly streets, at evening the cool consolation
of her fingers winkling him, slack
muscle and skin’s ticklish undertakings.
Germanic hymns drone endlessly
from the old church uphill from their hotel.
Incongruent, for this is a haven of
honeyed light and red clay swirling in thick
rambunctious rivulets each time
cloudburst happens—brief, explosive, always
at sunset. And the women stroll
barefoot, carrying their sandals through deluge.
One merciful night a bolt of lightning
puts the hymns to bed and he and she find
something to do with the silence
and the dark and the spring of desire begun
to muddle through. There’s the tail-end
of that heat here, gift and continuance
of an Indian summer—he idles, dreaming
her kisses anew, her concupiscence
a gentle pucker of lips gone testing and teasing,
tongue touching tongue until love
grows fierce and all’s to make, all’s to mend,
their two bodies drawing down among
squashed plums on the stained earth strewn.