Tangerine by Sally Gander

I have not always had this memory. It has been acquired, like the pains I feel in my legs and the ache I feel for my travelling son.

It begins with me sitting on the swing in the garden, lifting my feet from the ground and letting the swing take me, pushing hard as the momentum works with the weight of my body, the breeze combing my hair and drying the sweat on my skin.

At the highest point of the backswing I balance on the edge of the seat with the scuffed grass below me… a pause… my fists tightening on the ebbing chains… falling with the terror of knowing there’s nothing I can do to stop myself until I’m scooped up and feel the relief of the blue sky and clouds above me again…

… backwards and forwards…

…scuffed dirty grass… blue sky and clouds…

…Tangerine is sharp on my tongue… scuffed dirty grass… blue sky and clouds… it reminds me of Christmas.

Dad walks out and I come to a juddering halt, sensing a shift in his mood. I want to jump off the swing as he walks towards me, I want to retreat to my bedroom but I’d have to pass him to get there so I sit and wait, rocking backwards and forwards on my heels.

‘The peel,’ he says, ‘why isn’t it in the bin?’

‘I was going to,’ I say, picking up the curl of tangerine skin from the grass.

‘Well, eat it then,’ he says, as though I’m stupid for not doing it already.

I look at him but he just stares back, his dark eyes concentrated on me. The oily sap sprays my fingers as I tear the peel. I put a corner in my mouth, chewing, gagging and chewing and swallowing the lumpy mass, tear another piece, chew and swallow.

He stands over me, watching, and when I’ve swallowed the last mouthful he goes back into the house. My lips sting with zest and my tongue hums. I feel the humiliation deep in my stomach, a familiar sickness. I start to swing again… scuffed dirty grass… blue sky and clouds… the garden coming in and out of view.

This memory is not my own.

This memory is owned by my sister, but I am its guardian too. She told me the story when we were adults and as she talked I could feel the breeze in my hair, I could see the grass, the sky, Dad walking towards me. I could feel the slippery wax of the peel in my hand, the noxious fibre of mashed peel in my mouth as I chewed. And as he walked away, I could feel the shame of the last dry bite.

The only difference between me and my sister is chance, so we share the memory now, and we continue to swing up and back, up and back, trying to stay somewhere between scuffed dirty grass… blue sky and clouds…

Sally Gander writes fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as teaching Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. She is currently developing a collection of personal essays that explore origins, environment and family relationships.