Michael peeled an orange for me. Late summer or more properly early autumn and we had rented a villa in Greece, seven of us all from the same year at uni. A research trip, nominally, but the sunshine and the pool and the late warmth were a bonus. Paul didn’t come, he had been seeing practice all summer with a large animal vet near home which resulted in tickets for the races, tickets hard to come by and therefore precious that he didn’t want to waste.
Michael and James arrived later, driving a silly little hired car. They brought with them laughter and cheap wine.
I didn’t know Michael very well, didn’t really register his presence amongst so many until he peeled the orange. It was the time of the year in Greece when the orange crop starts to comes in. Everywhere there are bowls, baskets and boxes heaped with gleaming, luscious fruit. We had all gone into town and eaten at one of those little Taverna places which should be clichéd and touristy but, because the waiters really do love their sun-kissed lives and because you are away from what is usual they gift you a special experience. Out of the humdrum and spiced with just a little everyday magic.
My heel was blistered by a pair of silly holiday sandals. So, when the others went off to walk the harbour and shop for dinner Michael and I loitered at the table with an extra cup of tarry coffee and a bowl of fruit.
It was easy and relaxed. The sequined ocean rippled and glinted. A tiny blue boat hovered on the horizon floating just above the water in that strange, fantastic way that things do on days when the heat is too much for the earth to hold and it leaks out into mists and mirages and everything is just a little more.
I reached to the bowl of fruit and Michael’s hand was there before mine. He lifted the orange as our skin brushed. “Let me.”
His hands were sun-browned from a summer touring the islands, fishing and sailing and giving his body to the elements to do with as they would. Against the darkened skin his nails looked bleached, ivory almost. One nail, the one on his index finger was snagged, the corner missing.
He squeezed the yielding globe softening the skin and releasing the adhesion between it and the flesh inside. His thumb pressed into the rind then his long hands crawled over the surface of the fruit pulling and tearing as the peel spiralled away and fell to the table. Round and round went the long brown fingers like some strange muscular insect, mesmerising and hypnotic in the sunshine and the heat.
The peel lay in a fading, orange pile against the white of the cheap plate as he tore the segments apart. Juice dripped from his hands to run and puddle on the table top. I lifted my face to his and he presented me with the prize, a crescent of sunfilled flesh juicy, sweet and warm from his touch. He laid it on my tongue, a dribble of liquid sweetness ran down my chin and he caught it with his finger end and carried it away to his own mouth. The day was hushed.
The jollity of the rest of the group returning collided with the mystery of the moment leaving me light-headed and befuddled. Michael gently touched my cheek with his nail nicked finger, running it towards my lips. He smiled into my confusion and then turned to walk with the others back up the hill to the villa.
The afternoon and evening were endless. Dinner of griddled tuna steaks and crispy fried potatoes was tasteless to me. Hours were passed in endless debate and discussion, idle chatter and humourless jokes. I tried to catch his eye but always there was someone between us or something to distract his attention. Eventually the day gave up its light and the late dusk fell with the song of the crickets and the buzzing of mopeds outside in the road. The group dispersed and at last, at long last I went to my room. I took my shower and smoothed my skin with oil. I sprayed perfume on my body and tied my hair with a ribbon of pink silk. My white nightdress was soft cotton and although possibly a little virginal for the occasion it was all I had and at least it was feminine rather than silly, funky or practical like so much of my nightwear.
I closed the curtains and sat on the bed reading a book of poetry. My ears were alive with listening, every creak and whisper resounded in the hush. The doors in the villa banged and creaked in turn as the others settled. Simon sneezed, Pippa laughed and blessed him it was all abnormally normal.
The night was silent, he would come soon. I was ready for the tap on the door, maybe he wouldn’t knock but rather just walk in. I crossed the tiles and made sure that the lock was off, bethought myself wanton and locked it, acknowledged my desire and unlocked it.
The hour past, he was very discreet of course making sure everyone was settled but I wished he would come. My heart had long since finished pounding and settled into a regular rhythm until a door somewhere opened and it fluttered into thrill again. The toilet flushed.
Through the long watches of the night I waited until the dawn threw a pink and pearly sheen across the ocean and the orange groves and I understood that he wouldn’t come.
He left the next day with a heedless wave to return the hired car and fly back to England and his studies and his life. I am leaving later today back to Paul and I am taking with me the guiltless memory of Michael and the orange and the guilty knowledge of my traitorous desire.