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   Chapter 4 Summer Fruits

Attention Span and Other Stories By PaulineWiles Characters: 13655

Updated: 2018-01-11 12:03

'That, ' I say, collapsing into the hammock and half squishing my sister Madeline, 'was the absolute last straw. From now on I'm going to have a checklist.'

'Didn't your date go well, Al?' Maddie untangles her elbow from mine so she can continue tapping on her phone.

'It was the absolute pits.' I make sure to add sufficient melodrama to my sigh. 'A total waste of a Saturday afternoon.'

As I speak, the Saffron Sweeting church clock chimes four.

Olivia looks up from her low-slung deckchair, where she's polishing a silver coffeepot.

'Where was it you went?'

'He took me bowling. I thought he meant tenpin, you know, the cool kind with loud music and fried food.'

'What kind was it, then?'

'Grass. As in, old people dressed in white and wearing flat caps.'

'Crumbs, ' said Olivia. 'I didn't know they still did that.' She wafts the air to discourage a passing bumble bee. It hums off obligingly.

'Indeed they do, ' I tell her. 'Although they complain so much about their knees, it has to be a dying sport.'

'And he took you to that? Why?'

I narrow my eyes. 'He's close to his grandfather. Goes every week, apparently.'

'That sounds sweet, ' says Maddie, who never got over being the one to discover our own Granddad Dunbar, dead in his chair while we thought he was watching the Atlanta Olympics.

'Quite the opposite. The first time I tried to bowl, the old geezer slapped my bum. So, anyway. I'm making a list.' I pull out my sketchbook, the one I keep near me to capture bits of nature which take my fancy, and flap it to a fresh page. 'I'm going to use it to vet everyone, weed out the time wasters.'

I look up long enough to see Maddie glance at Olivia, but carry on regardless.

'Item one, no bowling fans. Item two, no grandfathers on dates.'

'No wedding rings, ' Maddie says helpfully. Then, at the look I give her, she adds, 'It's important!'

'Fine.' I add no rings as my third item. Then, writing slowly: 'Smelly. Remember that interesting guy I met online, but it turned out he ran a fish stall on St Ives market? I couldn't live with the pong of haddock.'

'Dirty, too, ' offers Maddie. 'I couldn't do dirty.'

We add yellow teeth, greasy hair, and bad breath.

'Weird ears, ' I mutter. I don't like to even notice ears. If I'm aware of them, there must be something wrong. Same with toes.

'How will you use your list on a date?' Maddie asks.

'I dunno. Sit there with a clipboard on my knee, I suppose.'

'Won't they think that's strange?'

'I really don't care at this stage.' I'm twenty-nine, the age by which I was convinced I would be married and pushing a pram. Instead, I'm dealing with bowls parties and fish sellers.

'I could code it as an app, ' says Maddie, trying to sit up in the hammock but wriggling hopelessly. 'An app would be cool. We'll call it Rate Your Date.'

Madeline is just eleven months younger than I am. Frankly, I think there was a mix-up at the hospital. Where I'm cynical, she's enthusiastic. Where I'm a would-be artist, she's a techie genius. She's the one who resets all the electronic clocks in our flat twice a year, and helps Dad with his iPhone and the defrost setting on the microwave. We have the same green eyes, and the same way of sitting with our toes scrunched under our feet when we get nervous, but that's about it.

'Long distance is a pain, too.' Maddie wrinkles her nose, and I bet she's thinking of the guy from Alabama, whom she met in a Javascript class. He was gorgeous and from a wealthy family, but after two trips to his home in leafy Mountain Brook, Maddie said the hassle wasn't worth it.

'Children, ' says Olivia suddenly, holding up the coffeepot to examine her reflection. She used to use that word on Maddie and me when we were younger, a disapproving multisyllable sigh, as though the eight-year age gap made her Mary Poppins.

'What?' I'm still thinking about the dangers of distant love. My farthest boyfriend lived in Inverness, but that was still a pain.

'Whether he wants kids, ' Olivia clarifies. 'Yes, no, later.'

Being the eldest, Liv is the responsible, diligent one who knows where the candles are when there's a power cut. As a result of this competency, she networked her way into a fantastic job: long-term house-sitting for wealthy people. Sometimes, when they're away, they let her have guests, which is why Maddie and I are swaying in this hammock in the grounds of a gorgeous house in Saffron Sweeting, instead of dragging around the Royston shops, like we usually would.

'Right.' I nod and write How many kids. Two is best, three would be okay. More, without prior discussion, is scary, and Olivia should know. Her husband, Adrian, works in London and has a tiny studio flat for Sunday to Thursday nights. Then he joins her for the weekend, wherever she's house-sitting. He's not here today, helping a friend buy a car instead. But he's recently told Liv he wants at least four children and she's freaking out, especially given her age.

'What bad dates have you had?' I ask Maddie.

'Oh, I dunno, ' she says, in the way people often do, before they start reeling off details. 'A chauvinist, a fascist, a creationist, a zoologist, and two taxi drivers.'

Her logic is inexplicable, but I write the first three down and add womaniser.

'Guys who spend more time on their hair than I do.' She leans down from the hammock, plucks a tall piece of grass, and starts to chew on it. 'Oh, and control freaks, ' she suggests, when my pencil has caught up.

'Such as?'

'Well, the dude who rearranged the stuff in our dishwasher each time he came over.'

'What, the clean stuff?'

'No, the dirty. He said ours was suboptimal.' She shrugs, clearly still mystified.

But this reminds me. 'Guys like Sebastien, who want a secretary, not a girlfriend.' Six months into our relationship, it was my fault he forgot to send his mum a birthday card. 'It was like he transformed from my boyfriend into my boss. When we went to dinner with his best friend and wife, I was supposed to buy, write, and send the thank you note.'

'Talking of dinner –' Maddie spits out her grass, '– men who want a cook.'

She can only produce meals involving an electronic gadget, like a bread maker or a slow cooker. Ask her to fry an egg and she's hopeless.

'And if you're eating out, ' Olivia adds, 'they should be polite to the waiting staff.'

'Totally, ' Maddie confirms. 'It's awful, otherwise.'

'Right.' I add that to my growing list. All three of us have been on the receiving end of cranky customers during waitressing jobs.

I pause, then put fanatical hobbies on the next line, doodling swirls on the tail of the 'f'. That one covers a multitude of sins, including the botany student who obsessed over his specimens. 'Do you remember Ken?'

I ask my sisters. 'Once autumn came, he dug up all his dahlias and spread the tuber thingies across his bedroom floor. I kept crunching them on my way to the bathroom.'

Olivia shakes her head and laughs, which is refreshing as she usually disapproves of my projects.

'How about you, Liv?' I ask. 'What bad dates have you had?'

She pauses, working her cloth into the awkward corners of a toast rack. For a moment I think she's going to refuse to join in.

But then she grins. 'Well, there was the one I met in a bookshop. I got there early, to browse. He was sitting there trimming his fingernails.'

'What, actually in the store?'

'Yes, in Science Fiction, as I recall.'

Fingernails, I add to my list.

'I could have overlooked that, ' she says, with a melancholy sigh. 'It was the rest of it.'

'What did he do?'

'He stared openly at my breasts and asked me, when I last flew out of Stansted, whether the security guy touched me all over.'

'Eww.' Maddie and I shrink back in the hammock.

'Oh, and tattoos, ' she adds, on a bit of a roll.

I pause. 'What's wrong with tattoos?' I quite like them, in moderation.

'Shows a lack of self-respect. Who would do that to themselves? Oh, and poor ability to plan ahead. Who wants a ninety-year-old husband with tattoos?' This is classic Olivia, always crossing bridges before the river's even flowing.

'Who wants a ninety-year-old husband at all?' Maddie looks repulsed.

'Wait, I've got another, ' Olivia says. 'Ask how their last relationship ended. If he says she died, ask how. And if any others have kicked the bucket in mysterious circumstances.'

'Really?' My pencil stops.

'Uh-huh. I once spent thirty minutes in a pub, talking to a guy who claimed two of his previous girlfriends had "simply disappeared".'

'You're kidding. What did you do?'

'I ran out the back and made it three. Jumped on the first bus that was passing and ended up in Hammersmith.'


Half an hour later, we're still going.

'Wow, ' I say, 'this is really cool.'

'You're never going to date anyone again.' Olivia cranes her neck to peer at my list. 'You're onto two pages.'

'Fine, ' I say. 'So be it. Think of all the time I'll save.'

I gaze fondly at the list, starting to embellish it with leaves around the edges.

Maybe, I think, I can take it to a copy shop and get it laminated. Or upload it as a printable to Etsy.

Olivia's phone rings. 'Yep, ' she says. 'Hang on a minute.' She hefts up and out of her deckchair. 'Back in a jiff. It's the new gardener, to see about trimming the trees.'

I look up at the branches above us, skittering in the breeze. They seem fine to me. On cue, a wood pigeon lands and begins cooing from its lofty vantage point.

We hear voices in the front garden, then closer, coming through the vegetable patch, or kitchen garden, as Olivia prefers to call it.

'And we thought probably the beech trees, too, ' she says, her words carrying as she approaches.

Olivia doesn't walk into a room, she sails in, like a matron in a hospital comedy. No wonder people trust her with their multimillion pound houses.

Behind her strolls a man, silhouetted by the low afternoon sun. I still have one eye on my magnificent list, but I look up as a shadow falls across the hammock.

'Absolutely, ' he says, in a rolling accent which sends a zing through me. 'I agree, this is essential.'

He steps closer to examine the trees, and I see he's tall and lithe with tanned olive skin. He's wearing battered jeans, sturdy boots and a worn leather jacket. He's so close I can smell the leather, and aftershave, too.

I look down at my list. Item four: strong smells.

'Hello, ' says Maddie, from beside me.

I notice she's smiling up at him.

'Buenas tardes.' He nods at her and then turns a languid smile on me. 'You ladies are under a very beautiful tree.' He makes those last two words sound as soft as butter.

'This is Javier, ' Olivia says, pushing her sunglasses onto her head. 'These are my sisters, Madeline and Alyssa.' To us, she adds, 'He's come to cut the trees, ' apparently forgetting she told us that already. Either she's starting to lose her marbles – unlikely – or the gorgeous gardener has rattled her, too.

'But not today, ' says Javier. 'Today, I only look.' And look he does, first at Maddie, then me. The light catches the edge of his ears as he shrugs his jacket off and drapes it over the hammock. As he does so, I notice his fingernails are dirty.

Item nine: weird ears; item twenty-three: fingernails.

Javier takes out his phone and begins snapping photos of the trees.

'Where are you from?' Maddie asks, shooting me a sideways look.

'Sevilla, ' he replies. 'That is Seville, to you.' This is barely out of his mouth before I think, eleven: long distance.

Then, with a grin, he adds, 'Like Don Juan.'

And possibly item sixteen: womaniser.

At this point I notice he has beautiful hair, almost shoulder length, falling back from his face in dark, glossy waves as he assesses the tree. He would indeed make a mesmerising Don Juan on the stage. And the urge to run my hands through item seventeen takes my breath away.

Slowly, I close my sketchbook, tapping my fingers absent-mindedly on the cover.

I could just ask him how many kids he wants, I think, really sink it. Or whether any of his girlfriends have died mysteriously.

'And you specialise in trees?' Maddie speaks up now. 'That's cool.'

'Trees, yes, trees are my first love, ' he replies.

Item twenty-two: fanatical hobbies.

'But I have to make the ends meet, too. I drive taxi in the evenings, also.'

I catch Maddie roll her eyes and look away.

Taxis, I think. Taxis are fine. Taxis never officially made it onto my list.

'What, every evening?' I say. When Javier looks at me, I give him my best smile. 'Surely not?'

'Well, no, Se?orita Alyssa, ' he admits, with a shrug which shows off strong, working shoulders. 'Not every night.'

Surreptitiously, I slide the sketchbook behind my back as I bat my eyelashes a little.

'So… you do have time for… other things?'

Javier leans a hand on the sturdy tree trunk which holds up one end of the hammock. Behind him, Olivia folds her arms and shakes her head.

Fortunately, the gardener from Seville doesn't notice. I think I detect a wink as he looks down at me. 'Sí, yes, of course I have some time.'

I shift in the hammock and the sketchbook crunches beneath me. 'Well, good.' I ignore it, holding Javier's gaze. 'In fact, I'm delighted to hear it.'


>> Author's note: My thanks to reader Connie T. who won my contest to supply words to be incorporated in a short story. I accepted her challenge of Madeline Dunbar, Mountain Brook, Alabama, artist, and transformed. This is the result.

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