Unformatted text preview: Jeanette Winterson ORANGES ARE NOT
THE ONLY FRUIT GENESIS LIKE MOST PEOPLE I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My
father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t
matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the
Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she
put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.
She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there
Enemies were: Friends were: The Devil (in his many forms)
Sex (in its many forms)
The Novels of Charlotte Brontë
Slug pellets and me, at first, I had been brought in to join her in a tag match against the
Rest of the World. She had a mysterious attitude towards the begetting of
children; it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, more that she didn’t want to do it.
She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting there first. So she did the
next best thing and arranged for a foundling. That was me.
I cannot recall a time when I did not know that I was special. We had no
Wise Men because she didn’t believe there were any wise men, but we had
sheep. One of my earliest memories is me sitting on a sheep at Easter while
she told me the story of the Sacrificial Lamb. We had it on Sundays with
3 Sunday was the Lord’s day, the most vigorous day of the whole week;
we had a radiogram at home with an imposing mahogany front and a fat
Bakelite knob to twiddle for the stations. Usually we listened to the Light
Programme, but on Sundays always the World Service, so that my mother
could record the progress of our missionaries. Our Missionary Map was
very fine. On the front were all the countries and on the back a number
chart that told you about Tribes and their Peculiarities. My favourite was
Number 16, The Buzule of Carpathian. They believed that if a mouse found
your hair clippings and built a nest with them you got a headache. If the
nest was big enough, you might go mad. As far as I knew no missionary
had yet visited them.
My mother got up early on Sundays and allowed no one into the parlour
until ten o’clock. It was her place of prayer and meditation. She always
prayed standing up, because of her knees, just as Bonaparte always gave
orders from his horse, because of his size. I do think that the relationship
my mother enjoyed with God had a lot to do with positioning. She was Old
Testament through and through. Not for her the meek and paschal Lamb,
she was out there, up front with the prophets, and much given to sulking
under trees when the appropriate destruction didn’t materialise. Quite often
it did, her will or the Lord’s I can’t say.
She always prayed in exactly the same way. First of all she thanked God
that she had lived to see another day, and then she thanked God for sparing
the world another day. Then she spoke of her enemies, which was the
nearest thing she had to a catechism.
As soon as ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord’ boomed through the wall
into the kitchen, I put the kettle on. The time it took to boil the water and
brew the tea was just about the length of her final item, the sick list. She
was very regular. I put the milk in, in she came, and taking a great gulp of
tea said one of three things.
‘The Lord is good’ (steely-eyed into the back yard).
‘What sort of tea is this?’ (steely-eyed at me).
‘Who was the oldest man in the Bible?’
No. 3 of course, had a number of variations, but it was always a Bible
quiz question. We had a lot of Bible quizzes at church and my mother’ liked
me to win. If I knew the answer she asked me another, if I didn’t she got
cross, but luckily not for long, because we had to listen to the World
Service. It was always the same; we sat down on either side of the
4 radiogram, she with her tea, me with a pad and pencil; in front of us, the
Missionary Map. The faraway voice in the middle of the set gave news of
activities, converts and problems. At the end there was an appeal for YOUR
PRAYERS. I had to write it all down so that my mother could deliver her
church report that night. She was the Missionary Secretary. The Missionary
Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended upon it.
If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If
the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent
the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection,
and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Her husband was an
easy-going man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it
himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only
person in our house who would tell a saucepan from a piano. She was
wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned,
and really, that’s what mattered.
Somehow we got through those mornings, and in the afternoon she and I
took the dog for a walk, while my father cleaned all the shoes. ‘You can tell
someone by their shoes.’ my mother said. ‘Look at Next Door.’
‘Drink,’ said my mother grimly as we stepped out past their house.
‘That’s why they buy everything from Maxi Ball’s Catalogue Seconds. The
Devil himself is a drunk’ (sometimes my mother invented theology).
Maxi Ball owned a warehouse, his clothes were cheap but they didn’t
last, and they smelt of industrial glue. The desperate, the careless, the
poorest, vied with one another on a Saturday morning to pick up what they
could, and haggle over the price. My mother would rather not eat than be
seen at Maxi Ball’s. She had filled me with a horror of the place. Since so
many people we knew went there, it was hardly fair of her but she never
was particularly fair; she loved and she hated, and she hated Maxi Ball.
Once, in winter, she had been forced to go there to buy a corset and in the
middle of communion, that very Sunday, a piece of whalebone slipped out
and stabbed her right in the stomach. There was nothing she could do for an
hour. When we got home she tore up the corset and used the whalebone as
supports for our geraniums, except for one piece that she gave to me. I still
have it, and whenever I’m tempted to cut corners I think about that
whalebone and I know better.
My mother and I walked on towards the hill that stood at the top of our
street. We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of
5 chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The
hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now
and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old
tanks but the council took them away. The town was a fat blot and the
streets spread back from it into the green, steadily upwards. Our house was
almost at the top of a long, stretchy street. A flagged street with a cobbly
road. When you climb to the top of the hill and look down you can see
everything, just like Jesus on the pinnacle except it’s not very tempting.
Over to the right was the viaduct and behind the viaduct Ellison’s tenement,
where we had the fair once a year. I was allowed to go there on condition I
brought back a tub of black peas for my mother. Black peas look like rabbit
droppings and they come in a thin gravy made of stock and gypsy mush.
They taste wonderful. The gypsies made a mess and stayed up all night and
my mother called them fornicators but on the whole we got on very well.
They turned a blind eye to toffee apples going missing, and sometimes, if it
was quiet and you didn’t have enough money, they still let you have a ride
on the dodgems. We used to have fights round the caravans, the ones like
me, from the street, against the posh ones from the Avenue. The posh ones
went to Brownies and didn’t stay for school dinners.
Once, when I was collecting the black peas, about to go home, the old
woman got hold of my hand. I thought she was going to bite me. She
looked at my palm and laughed a bit. ‘You’ll never marry,’ she said, ‘not
you, and you’ll never be still.’ She didn’t take any money for the peas, and
she told me to run home fast. I ran and ran, trying to understand what she
meant. I hadn’t thought about getting married anyway. There were two
women I knew who didn’t have any husbands at all; they were old though,
as old as my mother. They ran the paper shop and sometimes, on a
Wednesday, they gave me a banana bar with my comic. I liked them a lot,
and talked about them a lot to my mother. One day they asked me if I’d like
to go to the seaside with them. I ran home, gabbled it out, and was busy
emptying my money box to buy a new spade, when my mother said firmly
and forever, no. I couldn’t understand why not, and she wouldn’t explain.
She didn’t even let me go back to say I couldn’t. Then she cancelled my
comic and told me to collect it from another shop, further away. I was sorry
about that. I never got a banana bar from Grimsby’s. A couple of weeks
later I heard her telling Mrs White about it. She said they dealt in unnatural
passions. I thought she meant they put chemicals in their sweets.
6 My mother and I climbed until the town fell away and we reached the
memorial stone at the very top. The wind was always strong so that my
mother had to wear extra hat pins. Usually she wore a headscarf, but not on
Sunday. We sat on the stone’s base and she thanked the Lord we had
managed the ascent. Then she extemporised on the nature of the world, the
folly of its peoples, and the wrath of God inevitable. After that she told me
a story about a brave person who had despised the fruits of the flesh and
worked for the Lord instead . . . .
There was the story of the ‘converted sweep’, a filthy degenerate, given
to drunkenness and vice, who suddenly found the Lord whilst scraping the
insides of a flue. He remained in the flue in a state of rapture for so long
that his friends thought he was unconscious. After a great deal of difficulty
they persuaded him to come out; his face, they declared, though hardly
visible for the grime, shone like an angel’s. He started to lead the Sunday
School and died some time later, bound for glory. There were many more; I
particularly like the ‘Hallelujah Giant’, a freak of nature, eight feet tall
shrunk to six foot three through the prayers of the faithful.
Now and again my mother liked to tell me her own conversion story; it
was very romantic. I sometimes think that if Mills and Boon were at all
revivalist in their policy my mother would be a star.
One night, by mistake, she had walked into Pastor Spratt’s Glory
Crusade. It was in a tent on some spare land, and every evening Pastor
Spratt spoke of the fate of the damned, and performed healing miracles. He
was very impressive. My mother said he looked like Errol Flynn, but holy.
A lot of women found the Lord that week. Part of Pastor Spratt’s charisma
stemmed from his time spent as an advertising manager for Rathbone’s
Wrought Iron. He knew about bait. ‘There is nothing wrong with bait,’ he
said, when the Chronicle somewhat cynically asked him why he gave pot
plants to the newly converted. ‘We are commanded to be Fishers of Men.’
When my mother heard the call, she was presented with a copy of the
Psalms and asked to make her choice between a Christmas Cactus (nonflowering) and a lily of the valley. She had opted for the lily of the valley.
When my father went the next night, she told him to be sure and go for the
cactus, but by the time he got to the front they had all gone. ‘He’s not one to
push himself,’ she often said, and after a little pause, ‘Bless him.’
Pastor Spratt came to stay with them for the rest of his time with the
Glory Crusade, and it was then that my mother discovered her abiding
7 interest in missionary work. The pastor himself spent most of his time out
in the jungle and other hot places converting the Heathen. We have a picture
of him surrounded by black men with spears. My mother keeps it by her
bed. My mother is very like William Blake; she has visions and dreams and
she cannot always distinguish a flea’s head from a king. Luckily she can’t
She walked out one night and thought of her life and thought of what
was possible. She thought of the things she couldn’t be. Her uncle had been
an actor. ‘A very fine Hamlet,’ said the Chronicle.
But the rags and the ribbons turn to years and then the years are gone.
Uncle Will had died a pauper, she was not so young these days and people
were not kind. She liked to speak French and to play the piano, but what do
these things mean?
Once upon a time there was a brilliant and beautiful princess, so sensitive
that the death of a moth could distress her for weeks on end. Her family
knew of no solution. Advisers wrung their hands, sages shook their heads,
brave kings left unsatisfied. So it happened for many years, until one day,
out walking in the forest, the princess came to the hut of an old hunchback
who knew the secrets of magic. This ancient creature perceived in the
princess a woman of great energy and resourcefulness.
‘My dear,’ she said, ‘you are in danger of being burned by your own
The hunchback told the princess that she was old, and wished to die, but
could not because of her many responsibilities. She had in her charge a
small village of homely people, to whom she was advisor and friend.
Perhaps the princess would like to take over? Her duties would be:
(1) To milk the goats
(2) To educate the people
(3) To compose songs for their festival To assist her she would have a three-legged stool and all the books
belonging to the hunchback. Best of all, the old woman’s harmonium, an
instrument of great antiquity and four octaves. The princess agreed to stay
and forgot all about the palace and the moths. The old woman thanked her,
and died at once.
8 My mother, out walking that night, dreamed a dream and sustained it in
daylight. She would get a child, train it, build it, dedicate it to the Lord:
a missionary child,
a servant of God,
And so it was that on a particular day, some time later, she followed a star
until it came to settle above an orphanage, and in that place was a crib, and
in that crib, a child. A child with too much hair.
She said, ‘This child is mine from the Lord’.
She took the child away and for seven days and seven nights the child
cried out, for fear and not knowing. The mother sang to the child, and
stabbed the demons. She understood how jealous the Spirit is of flesh.
Such warm tender flesh.
Her flesh now, sprung from her head.
Not the jolt beneath the hip bone, but water and the word.
She had a way out now, for years and years to come.
We stood on the hill and my mother said, ‘This world is full of sin.’
We stood on the hill and my mother said, ‘You can change the world.’
When we got home my father was watching television. It was the match
between ‘Crusher Williams’ and one-eyed Jonney Stott. My mother was
furious; we always covered up the television on Sundays. We had a DEEDS
OF THE OLD TESTAMENT tablecloth, given to us by a man who did
house clearances. It was very grand, and we kept it in a special drawer with
nothing else but a piece of Tiffany glass and some parchment from
Lebanon. I don’t know why we kept the parchment. We had thought it was
a bit of the Old Testament but it was the lease to a sheep farm. My father
hadn’t even bothered to fold up the cloth, and I could just see ‘Moses
Receiving the Ten Commandments’ in a heap under the vertical hold.
‘There’s going to be trouble,’ I thought, and announced my intention of
going down to the Salvation Army place for a tambourine lesson.
Poor Dad, he was never quite good enough. 9 That night at church, we had a visiting speaker, Pastor Finch from
Stockport. He was an expert in demons, and delivered a terrifying sermon
on how easy it is to become demon-possessed. We were all very uneasy
afterwards. Mrs White said she thought her next-door neighbours were
probably possessed, they had all the signs. Pastor Finch said that the
possessed are given to uncontrollable rages, sudden bursts of wild laughter,
and are always, always, very cunning. The Devil himself, he reminded us,
can come as an angel of light.
After the service we were having a banquet; my mother had made twenty
trifles and her usual mound of cheese and onion sandwiches.
‘You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,’ declared Pastor
My mother blushed.
Then he turned to me and said, ‘How old are you, little girl?’
‘Seven.’ I replied.
‘Ah, seven,’ he muttered. ‘How blessed, the seven days of creation, the
seven-branched candlestick, the seven seals.’
(Seven seals? I had not yet reached Revelation in my directed reading,
and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked. I
spent weeks trying to find them, in case they came up as a quiz question.)
‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘how blessed,’ then his brow clouded. ‘But how
cursed.’ At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich
into the collection bag; I saw it happen, but I was so distracted I forgot to
tell anyone. They found it in there the week after, at the Sisterhood meeting.
The whole table had fallen silent, except for Mrs Rothwell who was stone
deaf and very hungry.
‘The demon can return SEVENFOLD.’ His eyes roamed the table.
(Scrape, went Mrs Rothwell’s spoon.)
(‘Does anybody want this piece of cake?’ asked Mrs Rothwell.)
‘The best can become the worst,’ – he took me by the hand– ‘This
innocent child, this bloom of the Covenant.’
‘Well, I’ll eat it then,’ announced Mrs Rothwell.
Pastor Finch glared at her, but he wasn’t a man to be put off.
‘This little lily could herself be a house of demons.’
‘Eh, steady on Roy,’ said Mrs Finch anxiously. 10 ‘Don’t interrupt me Grace,’ he said firmly, ‘I mean this by way of
example only. God has given me an opportunity and what God has given
we must not presume to waste.
‘It has been known for the most holy men to be suddenly filled with evil.
And how much more a woman, and how much more a child. Parents, watch
your children for the signs. Husbands, watch your wives. Blessed be the
name of the Lord.’
He let go of my hand, which was now crumpled and soggy.
He wiped his own on his trouser leg.
‘You shouldn’t tax yourself so, Roy.’ said Mrs Finch, ‘have some trifle,
it’s got sherry in it.’
I felt a bit awkward too so I went into the Sunday School Room. There
was some Fuzzy Felt to make Bible scenes with, and I was just beginning to
enjoy a rewrite of Daniel in the lions’ den when Pastor Finch appeared. I
put my hands into my pockets and looked at the lino.
‘Little girl,’ he began, then he caught sight of the Fuzzy Felt.
‘Daniel,’ I answered.
‘But that’s not right,’ he said, aghast. ‘Don’t you know that Daniel
escaped? In your picture the lions are swallowing him.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I replied, putting on my best, blessed face. ‘I wanted to do
Jonah and the whale, but they don’t do whales in Fuzzy Felt. I’m pretending
those lions are whales.’
‘You said it was Daniel.’ He was suspicious.
‘I got mixed up.’
He smiled. ‘Let’s put it right, shall we?’ And he carefully rearranged the
lions in one corner, and Daniel in the other. ‘What about Nebuchadnezzar?
Let’s do the Astonishment at Dawn scene next.’ He started to root through
the Fuzzy Felt, looking for a king.
‘Hopeless,’ I thought, Susan Green was sick on the tableau of the three
Wise Men at Christmas, and you only get three kings to box.
I left him to it. When I came back into the hall somebody asked me if I’d
seen Pastor Finch.
‘He’s in the Sunday School Room playing with the Fuzzy Felt,’ I replied.
‘Don’t be fanciful Jeanette,’ said the voice. I looked up. It was Miss
Jewsbury; she always talked like that, I think it was because she taught the
oboe. It does something to your mouth.
11 ‘Time to go home,’ said my mother. ‘I think you’ve had enough
excitement for one day.’
It’s odd, the things other people think are exciting.
We set off, my mother, Ali...
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