We climb up into the branches of the old tree, twist off the mandarins and launch them high into the air where they grow small and disappear. When the old man comes along the road on his bicycle we throw the fruit in his direction, watching as he pushes on, struggling to get out of the way.
His face is the colour of wax, screwed up like a thrown away page, silver hair smacked across his head. On each eyelid he has a protruding growth, like a tiny finger pointing, or a feeler of some kind testing the air. He’s in black and white, as if from an old movie; white shirt, black tie and waistcoat, black shoes and a clip to keep his trousers out of the chain. Unique.
He never says a word, never looks back, never complains about the fruit falling from the sky as he passes. He continues on his way.
Soon summer is drawing to an end and autumn is spreading up the valley like rust. A lilac haze envelopes the ridge as we look on, stuffing lunch sandwiches into our mouths. Then, one day, that old man gives us a surprise. He rides right on up into the schoolyard, sitting tall in the saddle, the way he does. He’s come for us, we are sure of it. He’s come at last to turn us in.
The headmaster appears and leads the old man across the playing field to where we are. He stands before us, stooping, head heavy with fatigue or shame, swaying from side to side as the headmaster says his name. Mr Oldman. A great joke. Of course, we laugh — can’t keep it in. He is here, the headmaster explains, to teach us his poems set to music, to make them songs.
We sit on the grass and watch dogs over by the fence taking turns to pump a bitch on heat. The music teacher struts back and forth in the background, a bundle of troubled pages tucked under her arm. She is too thin and nothing she wears will ever fit her well. She digs those knuckles of hers into your ribs when need be, sitting right beside you on the piano stool. And now, because of this old poet, lunchtime is cut short. We file into the music room to learn these poems, these poems that now want to be songs. The quarry siren wails. We wait for the thud of the explosion. The music room is just a hut really, with a piano and wooden benches to sit on.
‘Some of the poems are about the war,’ says the poet, unable to hide his dismay. ‘I suppose you learn about it in… history.’
The last word is a long time coming, like he’s had to search for it way back there where it lives. This will never work, and everybody knows it. He’ll be dead of old age before we get it right.
The poet stands there with the first poem, holding it at arm’s length to make it out. It’s not printed or typed, it’s scratched out in pencil and the paper is buckled and the colour of old teeth. The poet sings the lines to show us how the first one could go. As he sings, he reaches out and points to each word in the air, his hands as beautiful as roots. His voice is not strong, it struggles to get out, soon he won’t be able to sing at all.
And we are still not doing it right. There is shuffling and giggling in the middle and at the back. The music teacher twists on her stool and rolls her eyes.
‘You will practise it every day until you get it right,’ she hisses.
Outside, we can hear a ball being kicked up high into the dull autumn sky. It takes forever to fall back down, but never disappears entirely as the mandarins sometimes do. Soon there will be no mandarins left on the tree.
Dark purple, chased with sudden gloom and glory, we sing. Like waves in wild unrest.
The day of our performance draws near — the day of the school fete. Weather permitting, a skywriter will soar above the ridge and chalk a word on the sky, and it is the expectation of this that grips us now. We practise singing the poems each day, looking out the window, looking up at the sky.
The skywriter is a woman. Someone says that she could land on the football field, and of course we all believe it. She could sit on a wing of her plane and shake our hands if she wanted to. We each have the picture of this in our heads, shaking hands with the skywriter, as the hot plane engine hisses and clicks beside her. But when fete day comes — even though we have finally learnt the songs by heart — there is a thick fog and we can barely see the trees at the side of the field, let alone the sky, or the skywriter’s plane.
The piano is carried outdoors all the same in preparation. It stands pathetic and lost on the grass. As instructed, we get into a semicircle on the fogbound field and sing those poems; poems that we never understand at all and have no interest in. It’s history, that’s what it is. The old poet is looking up at the sky, his eyes full of tears, and we do not know why — if it is because of our singing, or because the skywriter is not on her way. All the same, he looks up and sings, reaching out and pointing a crooked finger at each word hanging in the air, or pointing to other times and other places since disappeared, as the mandarins we throw up there sometimes do. Soon there will be no mandarins left on the tree, and the old poet will be history, too.