The Loquat Tree

We moved to Northcliff, Johannesburg, when I was six. Again, I do not remember the interior of the house, probably because, when inside, I was always inside a book. But in the acre of garden, I was Bravery, the misunderstood Indian warrior alternately entreated for mercy or betrayed to noble death by the cap-gun wielding cowboys who were my younger brothers. The toy guns gave a loud report when fired and a tiny curl of smoke would rise from the gun with the burnt powder smell. I preferred a bow and arrow and liked to imagine that I could move silently through the bush, at one with nature and living off its bounty.

My explorations took me to a quince tree in a neglected corner behind the house. It was not an attractive climbing tree, more of a bush, really, but it was mysterious because we were unfamiliar with quinces—no one knew what to do with them. The light yellow fruit were enticingly large, but so inedible! Every year I would pick some and take them hopefully into the kitchen. They would sit abandoned on the window sill until they had deteriorated sufficiently for my mother to justify throwing my offering away. There was also a disappointing avocado tree which had too much shade from the side of the house and did not give much fruit.

Quince © Arthur Lee Jacobson

Quince © Arthur Lee Jacobson

Much more satisfying was the unusually large loquat tree in the front garden. Its white flowers brightened the garden through the winter months, giving off a strong oriental perfume that promised fruit to come. I could climb this tree, with effort. I liked the difficulty, feeling especially agile and clever when I overcame it. I knew the fruit was tasty when ripe, but awfully bitter when not, so I saved my endeavours for a day in late spring:

My hands slid around the loquat tree, seeking purchase. The bark was smooth, over the sinuous vertical ridges of separate boles that had grown together long ago to form this wide trunk, but split in places by small lumpy outcrops or the base of a broken-off twig. I loved this occasional harshness that pressed against my skin, and the smell of the tree dust my hands disturbed. As I found a handhold, then another, then a foothold, I entered the world of the tree, leaving sunshine and everything else behind. My goal was the sweet orange-yellow globes hanging amidst the shiny dark green leaves above me.

I heaved myself up, scraping my tummy against the cool wood as I stretched for branches small enough to hold securely. It was only when I had settled, breathless, into the sharp fork between two of these branches, that I noticed I had grazed my knee. It wasn’t sore. I studied the greenish-grey dirt around the broken skin. It must have rubbed off the tree bark as I climbed. Then a shaft of sunlight played across my shoulders and I lost interest in the wound and looked again towards the golden fruit. Placing my left foot uncomfortably into the fork beneath me and the right on a knot in a neighbouring branch, I seized the bole in front of me with both hands and stood up. From this position, I could reach up and break off a cluster of the fruit. I had done it! I noticed that I could now see through the leaves into the lower garden. Apart from the fact that the grass was fairly short, there was no sign of human habitation. Inside this tree, clutching my prize, I was king of my own wild world.

Loquats © Am Ang Zhang

Loquats © Am Ang Zhang

I sat down again in the fork of the branches to enjoy the fruit. One by one, I broke each away from the cluster, rubbed it clean on my shirt and sank my teeth through the slightly resistant peel into the firm flesh. I wriggled with pleasure as the tart-sweet juice burst into my mouth. The tip of my tongue caressed the mysterious smoothness of the large pips as I nibbled the thin flesh around them. The shiny brown pips felt special. They were so beautiful; they must have a purpose beyond their seed-bearing duty. Out of habit, I collected a small pile of them in the knot on the branch in front of me. Then I remembered that I had not yet found a use for the previous beauties that were lying on my bedside table. So I began throwing them through the opening in the leaves, as hard and far as I could. Some of them bounced once, but most disappeared straight into the grass.

Having finished the bunch, I stood up to relieve the stiffness my cramped perch had forced on my left leg. Shifting my weight carefully to my right foot, I spied, through another break in the leaves, the large swimming pool next to the house. This pool was firmly sealed with a sky-blue plastic cover. I loved the slightly musty smell of that tough plastic and its yielding support underfoot. It felt magical to walk on water this way, and very exciting, as we were not allowed to do it. There was no one about, so I guiltily decided that a little adventure on the high seas was good enough reason to leave my leafy vantage point. The tree king would swoop down to do some pirating today!

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