by Nod Ghosh
The basket, with its blue ribbon and cellophane, had me bursting with pride. Pride before others. Pride before a fall.
Fifty years later, I can still hear Miss Evanton’s piano when I think about it. All good gifts around us are sent from Heav’n above. Jane Willis stands in the corner of the hall and pisses on the floor. Mrs. Booth rushes to help. The hot iron smell of urine mixes with ripe flavours from the flowers and fruit and home-baked cakes.
Alison Cockcroft brought eggs from her hens. Robert Plumb had eaten one of his pears. Dark juice stained the paper bag chocolate brown. It slumped on stage next to my basket. My wonderful basket.
Everyone looked at that basket, and my heart swelled with the honour of it.
How could Natalia have a basket like that?
Well I could. Though Mother couldn’t put every imaginable fruit in it − there were no mangoes, no paw paw, lychees, no guava − she’d done her best with apples from our tree, bananas from Newman’s, brown with spots, and a couple of oranges I knew she’d been saving for my little brother.
How did you get that? Lorna Sanders hissed. Her elbow dug into my flank like a penknife into butter.
My mum bought it, I lied.
Oh yeah? Lorna said. Miss Evanton looked at us over her glasses, whilst playing All things Bright and Beautiful. Mrs. Booth came back with Jane Willis.
It’s the best basket here, I whispered. Pride before a fall.
Yeah, but how could she afford it? Lorna flicked a lock of hair back with her thumb.
Oh we’re not that poor, I said.
Christine Tennant shuffled and smoothed her hands down the front of her grey tunic. But you haven’t even got the new school uniform, Natalia. My cheeks burned with shame. I wasn’t the only one still wearing the old navy-blue tunic, with its buttoned belt. But that didn’t matter. I tried to think of something clever to say, but Mrs. Booth wagged her finger at us.
The Tall Trees in the Greenwood, I sang and focussed on my beautiful basket.
Ho-ow Great is God A-al-mi-igh-ty.
Lorna’s voice swelled beside me.
Miss Gentry, the head mistress, took to the wooden podium.
Thank you Miss Evanton, she said, and bent her head.
Most gracious God, she began.
Christine sniggered beside me, and whispered to Isobel Price.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the ribbon on my basket. How carefully my mother had unpinned it when the cellophane-wrapped package had arrived.
I’ll put this somewhere safe, she’d said, rolling the blue satin. We could use it again.
We’d feasted on pineapple, tangerines, pears and grapes, green and red, seedless and plump. My mouth watered as I remembered the flavour and the exotic wildness of mangoes.
World without end, Miss Gentry continued. She told us where our Harvest Festival gifts would go. The man from the NSPCC would come in a van and collect them for the children. Poor Children. Orphans.
I wasn’t like them. I had a mum and dad.
My mum and dad had had a restaurant. The best restaurant in town. Indian, Chinese and European cuisine. Three chefs. The fanfare of an opening ceremony. Beauty queens and cigars. Salmon vol au vents. Me boasting to anyone who’d listen about the glass dance floor, and the bar stools you could twist around on. Bouquets of flowers and the basket of fruit from the mayor.
Miss Gentry stubbed her toe on a pumpkin, orangey-green and as large as Christine Tennant’s head.
Mrs. Booth had come to our restaurant once, just before it closed. I’d been too shy to say hello. Dad scolded me afterwards. Wasn’t that a teacher from your school? Why didn’t you talk to her? We can’t afford to lose customers.
The children started to walk out of the hall in single file. Harvest Festival was over.
Within two years of opening, Mum and Dad’s restaurant was over. Pride before a fall. It was in the papers. Everyone knew. People giggled and pointed. Mum caught me crying at night. When it came to Harvest Festival, she knew I couldn’t take a tin of pineapple or bag of apples. Mum put the basket together.
That Harvest Festival, just for a day, Natalia Gorczynski wasn’t someone to be laughed at. That day, I was the girl with the best basket, and no one could ever take that away from me.
Nod Ghosh lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. Published work can be found in: Love on the Road 2015 (Liberties Press), Landmarks (U.K. 2015 NFFD), Sleep is A Beautiful Colour (U.K. 2017 NFFD), Horizons2 (NZSA), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, N.Z.), and various online & print journals. Further details: http://www.nodghosh.com/about/