The fruit stall

Marjory brushed away the morning flies that were circling around the crate of apples, her chequered apron swishing against the cold concrete floor, keeping a cotton beat to her low hum, soft and petered, like the light which came in from the car park entrance. She was the first of a few stall owners who had arrived before sunrise. Brian, the book seller was there and Owen, from the hardware stall, both unfolding their tables, thumping and chinking their wares, talking among themselves and tuning in their radios.

Marjory sold fruit under a small shopping centre near the sea. Her and her husband Jim owned twelve acres of land an hour west of the coast in the highlands and her gardens were plentiful in the summers, with gnarled lemons, passionfruit like tennis balls and glowing sweetcorn, all of which she neatly laid out on the table with an elegant slant. There was never enough passionfruit to last the entire day, the customers who came in before seven always selected the biggest and ripest. Every Saturday, Melvin, a restaurateur from across the road, wandered in and chose some eggplants for his vegetarian bake. “The best in the east”, Melvin would say each time, making Marjory blush. A fisherman, who spoke little, and whose name Marjory never remembered bought bananas before setting out to catch the fruits of the sea. All these people kept Marjory in her garden bent over crooked, her fingernails black with soil and at her stall – erect and proud at the Saturday markets until two-thirty in the afternoon.

Her space was just inside the car park where the roof was low and the alleys were narrow. She had always been at the entrance because she had always been one of the first to arrive. People always remembered that they needed fruit and vegetables at the end of their visit to the markets she reasoned, or not having found a home-made gift or a discount decoration for their homes, they justified their outing with a bunch of carrots or a fluffy lettuce. The space to the right of her was forever changing tenancy. For a few months it had been Roy, who sold woollen carpets, blankets and boots, then for a good while after it was Eileen, peddling her home-made cakes, biscuits, jams. Eileen often swapped a chocolate dessert for two kilos of potatoes or a large pumpkin.

Marjory ripped off a piece of bread and chewed, surveying her table with its clumps of colours, smelling its sweet, earthy aromas. She looked in her tin money box to make sure she had enough change to last the morning. Inside were mostly coins, a few small notes, some orange seeds and a fine, brown silt. She shook the box, looking for the gold coins, but there were none.

Outside, the sun was beginning to creep up the road, now animated with morning walkers, dogs on leads and the odd car. A pale, blue Volvo station wagon, pulled into the car park entrance, as it idled, the engine rattled and choked, spitting out black clouds of exhaust smoke which wafted into car park. Marjory spread a tea cloth over her produce but it hardly covered everything and her grapes caught a blast of the dark clouds.

The Volvo went forward and then reversed into the car park so that the car boot was just in front of Marjory’s table. The engine hummed at a higher pitch for a few seconds and then shut down with a rattle. A thin woman with a patchwork jacket and a shaggy mass of yellow hair popped out of the car. “Hello, I’m Sue,” she said.

Marjory raised her eyebrows.

“I’m in number three for a few weeks,” Sue said as she opened the rear door and began pulling boxes out of the car. “Got all these boxes to unpack. Yes, there’s a table. Did I bring my chair? Hey, those apples look good there! Save me a couple for lunch.”

“Whatcha sellin’?”

“Fruit-eze.”

“Frooties?”

“No, Fruit-eze. It’s powdered vitamin supplements. They’re imported from the States where they’re all the rage, has the diet circuit doing cartwheels. There’s one for everyone, mums, athletes, teens, elderly people and it comes in all sorts of flavours: banana, cherry, apple, rockmelon you name it; there’s even kiwi fruit. Would you believe it? Kiwi fruit! And it’s made from real fruit. I’ve already sold a heap down in Melbourne but I think it’s going to be a hit here too. Now that one was banana, oh yes, kiwi fruit, here it is – see the little picture of the running kiwi fruit? I think it’s so cute.”

Marjory screwed her face and put her hands against her wide hips. She stared as Sue struggled with a long table. Marjory had never had any problem erecting her table – Jim had made it especially for her from pine wood and metal hinges, which, thanks to Jim’s constant vigilance, assembled and collapsed silently with fresh grease every week. Sue’s tables on the other hand looked as if someone had attached four pool cues to a door.

Sue dropped the table and it hit the concrete floor with a sharp clap. “You’d think I’d be used to it by now,” she said and continued to work, singing successive choruses of ‘tsk tsks’ and exasperated sighs. She draped a white cloth over the table and arranged small glossy signs at each corner. The signs had the words ‘FRUIT-EZE’ printed across the top, above a cartoon image of an running man carrying a fruit basket. Sue stacked tins of Fruit-eze and arranged pastel coloured leaflets in front of them. “That looks just wonderful then,” she said and began singing ‘What a wonderful world’ in a growling Louis Armstrong voice.

As Sue trumpeted beside her, Marjory restacked the bananas and made sure that all the pieces of ripped cardboard had the correct prices and were sitting nicely on top of their respective piles of produce. Then she recalibrated her set of scales and weighed a couple of avocados she guessed to be about a kilo. The arrow bobbed up and down and then rested at nine hundred and seventy eight grams. Satisfied that everything was ready, Marjory sat on the edge of her picnic chair, rubbing her hands on her apron, waiting.

By six-thirty the market was yawning as stalls began to multiply and interested buyers drifted in from the street. Melvin, the restaurateur, came in looking tired and blurry-eyed. He bought four eggplants and a sweet potato and then left, mumbling something about Irish people and wine. He didn’t compliment Marjory’s eggplants. Marjory checked the others to see if they had blemishes or were too small. The fisherman didn’t come for his bananas but three tourists ambled in and bought two each. Marjory had not taken many bananas with her to the markets because, for the third time in two years, the trees on her farm were infested with fruit flies. Marjory didn’t like to use spray on the trees, but there had been no alternative. It was a pity, she thought, because bananas were always the best sellers.

A women of about forty walked through and paused at Sue’s table. She picked up a leaflet.

“Good morning!” Sue tanned face and yellow hair burst forward like an exploding sun flower. “If you’ve ever tried to diet and failed miserably, I know I have, or just looking to complete a balanced diet without the calories then I really recommend that you have a look at Fruit-eze.”

The woman smiled and nodded for Sue to continue. Marjory tried to appear disinterested and looked out onto the street. She coughed and edged closer Sue’s table, one hand over her mouth, the other on her hips.

“It’s got all the goodness of real fruit and all the flavour, I might add. Do you like fruit? Good. Well you’ll love Fruit-eze. It’s got twice the vitamins of real fruit and lasts up to three years in the pantry. You can take it anywhere too! No more rotten apples! If you just want a moderate intake of nutrients, try the rockmelon variety – it’s one of my favourites, not too sweet…”

Sue rummaged around in one of the boxes from which she produced an orange and white tin. She held it up high like a trophy. “For just thirty dollars, I’ll throw in a banana starter kit too.”

“No, thanks,” the woman said and left.

Marjory wiped down her apron and smiled. It was getting warm and the whirring engines of ice cream trucks on the footpath outside indicated that the day’s markets had awoken. The plant sellers had erected a temporary jungle at the mouth of the car park and the fresh smell of herbs began to swim around the market floor, joining the scented pool of donuts and saw dust.

Sue was wiping down a gigantic stainless steel milkshake maker with twin blenders. She smiled at Marjory.

“You make it like a milkshake,” she said. “You just have to add water and maybe some ice and then you stir it up! Some people even put ice cream in it! I mean, you go on a diet for a reason don’t you? It’s the athletes who can afford to do that I think, but I’ve heard that some mothers keep drinking Fruit-eze after pregnancy – they’re addicted to it! Are there any power points near here?”

“You got power up there – cuts off at two o’clock. And the taps are round back near the newsagent’s,” Marjory said and moved around some eggplants that had fallen on their sides.

“Thanks! Do you want any? Can you keep an eye on my stuff while I’m gone?”

Marjory waited until Sue had walked some way and then shuffled over to look at the multi-coloured tins. She picked up one called ‘Bouncing Berry’. “Flavour agent D89, non-crystallising solution, beta-Gluconates, Gum-Arabic…” Marjory turned her up nose. She didn’t know a lot about the new trends in health; she’d seen infomercials about intestinal cleansing diets and machines that helped you lose weight while watching television, but could never understand why people chose to eat things, the origins of which they knew little. She lifted the plastic lid and sniffed.

“Excuse me.”

Marjory fumbled and dropped the tin. It hit the concrete with a clang and exploded in a cloud of blue powder.

“Oh, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to startle you,” said the man. He looked about sixty and wore a blue track suit. An Alsatian puppy was running in circles around his ankles tied to the end of a red leash.

“Oh no, you-“

“I was hoping to try out some of this stuff; a friend of mine said it was quite good.”

“Well, I,- ”

“The banana I think, yes, that was it. The banana. I think I’d like to try that one.”

The dog yapped at the man’s feet. “Settle down, Ginger,” he said.

“I’ll just clean up.” Marjory bent over and picked up the empty tin. With her tea cloth, she began sweeping up the dry powder. Clouds of grey dust rose from the ground with every pass.

“You don’t mind if I take a look at some of these do you?”

“Uh, no,” Marjory said from under the table. The man went to each variety and read the contents, um-ming and ah-ing. From under the table, Marjory could see the Alsatian pup, nosing at the man’s black leather shoes: they had polished gold insignias. Marjory was the first to admit that, with her knitted striped jumper and rotten joggers, her sense of fashion was questionable, but she had rarely seen anyone wearing a blue cotton track suit with designer shoes. She got to her feet and put the re-filled tin of Bouncing Berry back on the shelf.

“Um, never mind about the banana,” the man said, putting back a tin of Cherry Chaser. “I might come back later. Will you be here?”

“Yes, but-“

“Goodbye!” And with that he darted out of the car park dragging Ginger behind him.

Marjory looked up and saw Sue’s yellow hair bouncing up the alley; she quickly went back to her stall and began rearranging potatoes.

“Thanks for that,” she said. “Anyone come by?”

“No, no.”

“Oh well, early days yet! I met the nicest man – Brian his name was – he was selling books. He gave me this vegetarian cookbook to read for the day. What great people you’ve got around here. Nothing like back home in the city. A girl could fall in love with a relaxed place like this but it’s a pity I’ve got to go north tomorrow.”

The day wore on and the sun crept its way into the car park. Groups of children walked passed the entrance carrying surfboards and smoking cigarettes. Marjory had not sold much that morning and was irritated when she looked down at her tired-looking tomatoes and browning bananas and then at Sue, who was chattering at the passing crowds with her permanent smile and high-pitched voice. And they came and they bought. From the corner of her eye, Marjory could see Sue’s money belt getting thicker while her tin box laid barely untouched beneath her chair.

“What about you sell me some of those great looking apples?” Sue asked Marjory around noon. “They are just crying out to be eaten. How much? A dollar? Great!”

Sue took the apples away and washed them in a bucket of water. As she crunched on her first apple, a siren wailed. Outside, people’s heads turned towards the road but Sue and Marjory couldn’t see what was going on. “Can you see? What is it?” Sue said just as a police car swerved in from the road and screeched to a halt at the entrance. Two burly constables trooped out from the rear doors. The front passenger door flew open knocking over one of the plant seller’s ferns and out stepped another. This one pointed at Marjory – it was the man she had seen in the blue track suit. Marjory’s heart raced and she stepped back, knocking her chair to the ground.

“That’s her,” he said. “She’s the one whose been selling stolen goods. The vehicle matches the description.”

“So we’ve finally got you, eh?” said the Senior Constable. “To be honest you look a little different to the description. Just goes to show that anyone’s capable of hijacking a truck and ripping off the driver. And I see you’ve made quite a little business out of it.”

“I… I… I just sell fruit,” Marjory blinked. “It was her. It was her! Look there she goes!” Sue had run off down the alley, bumping into market-goers, squealing “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!”. She crashed over a plastic bin filled with empty cans and napkins hitting the floor hands-first. Someone tried to help her but she thrust them back. As she did, a burst of yellow flashed into the air like a fire. Sue’s shaggy wig had flipped over her head and landed in a crumpled heap on the concrete, was now covered with a mixture of cordial, juice and soup from the fallen bin. The police gave chase, but Sue, now brown and scruffy, leapt through a hole in the throng of shoppers and disappeared into the hum of the day’s market. Marjory watched the police run off and then looked down at Sue’s wig. Its sandy curls were straightening out in the dregs of the morning’s market as it edged slowly towards the iron bars and into the drain hole.