Published in ‘Into the River’ An anthology, University of Nottingham, 2010
The Colours of Love
by Helena Durham
Of a morning Reg nods at Lil arranging her towels and bedding, and at Malcolm shunting his boxes of paperback books. During the day he might, of necessity, ask them to mind his stall.
Reg patterns his table with earthy freshness. Twenty-five years ago, with dovetail and box joints, he carpentered a stand to display peppers in rows – red above yellow above green. At the heart of the yellows he places beetroot with leaves to resemble a star. He never yells end of day bargains but packs his Transit at four, he puts wilted vegetables into the passenger foot well.
Occasionally an African woman dressed in vibrant yellows greens purples, some patterned with zigzags and diamonds, stops near his stall. Her matching headdress wobbles as she giggles at Reg, half-hiding her chuckle behind her hand. Lil notices this, and she clocks Reg’s winked reply. The woman never buys anything, not even a potato.
During Reg’s naval days, a butchering accident in the flagship’s galley boned three of his fingers down to the knuckle. Some children think his left thumb and finger resemble freak carrots, like the ones they pretend are legs. They say it out loud. Reg never replies, though sometimes he holds out his hand and offers them an apple.
The year passes through spring and summer into autumn, and now Reg’s clothes hang sack-like. His face, Lil suggests, has come to resemble celeriac. His hair has thinned to the wisps of a coconut and his eyes are inverted quails eggs – the whites have yellowed and the yolks are cataract grey. At lunchtimes he lays down his spoon and abandons his Thermos. His gusto has gone.
His right arm has weakened. In the early chill he struggles to open the brown paper bag. He ducks out of view and blows the bag open with his stale beery breath. He fills it with tomatoes, twists it and hands it to the woman. But his spittle, his spittle…
The fruits drop through. Their flesh bloodies the cobbles and splatters her pale tights and legs. This sight throws Reg back to the Normandy beaches, to the lads gunned down in the sand and the blood, the blood. Reg bows his head, refunds the woman her money and packs up his stall.
The next day his stall remains bare. A few days later its canopy flies at half-mast – here, the market-lore sign of respect for the dead. The gossip wonders: Who lowered it, who?
A week later, the African woman comes to the stall. She carries a basket, and in it are two food flasks.
My Reg, she says, he is gone. Cancer, it ate up his liver. Every day I made soup for his lunch from the leftovers. For a moment this morning I forgot he had died, so I have brought these for you, Lil and Malcolm.
Disquieted by the news and her knowing their names, they accept the offering and nod.
Mrs Reg lays a flag on the stall – red, yellow and green with a star at its centre.
That’s just how he laid out his peppers, says Lil.
Mrs Reg smoothes it and says: This is the flag of Ghana where I come from, where I fell in love with a sailor so long ago. Every day Reg flew his love for me here on his stall. How, but how, shall I sail on without him?