Mango Trees From Home
You stand at the front left corner of the building, smoking your third cigarette and looking at the faded signage of the long-shut garage across the road. On the far side of the building, you can see some of the men trying to clear out the gutter. Most of them are older men, several years past fighting age, and they are making a spectacle of the chore. One stands on a ladder that isn’t tall enough, two hold said ladder, three or four more circle them, trying to look involved.
They don’t need to clean the gutter, whoever manages the building takes care of things like that. What they need, you know, is to feel autonomous, useful. They talk over one another loudly to emphasise how important this task is and justify how long it’s taking them. They’ll stretch this job out all afternoon just to tell themselves they were productive. It makes you feel embarrassed for them.
On the road two local women walk by. They are middle aged, dressed in leggings and t-shirts with bright coloured rain jackets tied round their waists. As they pass they stare openly at the men. You’ve noticed a lot of local people do this, particularly when they hear the residents talk. They hear their foreign words and stare and stare and stare, as if not being able to speak English also renders them not able to see, or to notice they are being gawked at.
The women carry on and you remember a conversation you witnessed several years before. It was between two of the kitchen staff at the restaurant where you waitressed the summer before your first year at University. Neither of them had been from your country. Back then your country was somewhere other people came to, looking for better lives, not somewhere to be fled from. The kitchen staff were not from the same country as each other, but their homelands shared enough commonalities that they didn’t need to make a distinction. It was all just Back Home.
You had listened to them talk, lulled by their accents. One, white and tall and oozing doughy flesh spoke with a rolling, high, upward inflection. The other, dark and solid, spoke much deeper, hopping off consonants in a way that made each word sound angry and frustrated even when they weren’t. They spoke of mango trees back home and how small and sad their native fruits were here by comparison, in this corner of another continent.
Oh, you should see them! They told you, You wouldn’t believe it, you never see them so large and colourful here!
At the time you had been egocentric and unpleasant, but ashamed of it in the self-aware way of so many young women. You listened to them talk, these strange, imported, people, and entertained yourself with thoughts of how they must see you. You, who was young and pretty and without an accent. You, who belonged in this country and moved easily through it. You, who had your whole life ahead of you and were surely destined for great things. When they spoke to you, you imagined it was personal. That they really did wish for you to travel and see the mango trees and the wonderful fruit they bore. But you know now (and probably knew it then, too) that this was not the truth. They spoke just for the simple joy of remembering. Of sharing a warm slice of their homeland to help them forget, for a moment, all the reasons they had left it and all they had lost when they did so.
You have not spoken of home since you got on the bus.
You have named your country to the people that need to know. You have filled out their forms and answered their questions. Cited your oblast, your village, your townland, but that doesn’t count. That is not what home is.
The other women here, in this long low building where you’ve been told to live, do nothing but talk of your country. Right now they are gathered in the dayroom, the youngest of their children playing at their feet, exchanging stories of their lives before all this. Their work and leisure and daily habits, as if those lives still exist somewhere and they themselves have simply taken a hiatus from them. You know that in refusing to join in you are betraying this illusion, and it makes them dislike you. Distrust you, even. But you tell yourself that you don’t care. You think you would rather be disliked than involved in some kind of collective denial. A lot of these women have families around them. They will not have to return to their rooms, alone, as you will, to face the full weight of remembering that they aren’t going back, at least not to what they left behind.
You grind your cigarette butt into the moss edging the tarmacadam driveway, flick open the lid of the box as if you haven’t been keeping a meticulous count and know already that it’s empty. You check that your bank card is in your pocket and set off to buy more.
The building that you stay in lies at the top end of a long forgotten hamlet, its only shop is at the bottom end. On the way you pass hairdressers, bars, newsagents, all closed, all faded. There is the shell of a dancehall, burnt-out, the bones of a Protestant church, grown over. The only thing that anybody has bothered to maintain is a shrine to the Blessed Virgin. The Madonna’s robes are still a vibrant blue, her halo of stars is polished. You wonder why the people of this place look after an icon better than they do themselves.
The shop is a petrol station, built onto a house, it’s awning weathered and rusting. The only customers you have seen so far are pensioners in worn jumpers and greasy young men with eyebrow piercings and sweat patches on their t-shirts. There have been moments when you have been faced with one of these young men, feeling their hungry eyes on you as they dismount their too-large tractors, and have felt compelled to grab them by their belt buckles and drag them around to the back of the shop. They repulse you and yet it gives you a flash of desire to imagine the feel of them inside you, their hands on you, their breath on you. The feel of the rough wall grazing the skin of your back in time with their thrusts. The feel of something, anything at all in this featureless, colourless wasteland. But just as quickly as this desire fissions it dies and you rarely even meet the young mens eyes.
Inside the shop it smells of the cigarette smoke that seeps in from the shopkeepers adjoining living room. It is dark and dirty and you think that most of the stock must be decorative because the only things that look like they’ve been touched in years are the newspapers lined up along the counter and the ancient, humming ice cream freezer.
You approach the till and point to the cigarette cabinet behind it. The shopkeeper remembers you, knows to take down 20 Benson, though really you would buy anything. You did not smoke before you came to this country, to this village. Your first day here you just repeated the order of the man in front and kept repeating it, every day for four months now. The best thing about the shopkeeper is that she doesn’t speak. She stands behind the counter, hands you your cigarettes and expects nothing from you. The women who come to your building to serve the meals (vegetable soup with undercooked white rolls, bain-maries of tasteless mince-based dinners) always try to talk to you. They shout slow, patronising questions, enunciating each word with their eyes wide as if that would somehow help you to understand. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell them you speak English. It is your accent, you know. Just like you judged the kitchen staff all those years ago, so too do these people judge you. Here you are the imported one.
You pay and, cigarettes in hand, return to your building, ignoring the teenagers languishing on the donated swing sets outside and the younger children screaming and running at each other in the midst of some newly thought up game. The men who had been cleaning the gutters have given up and gone inside, leaving their ladder and various tools on the tarmac.
You avoid the common area and head down the hallway towards your room. The building carries a smell that you had once thought was unique to your grandmother but now realise is just the smell of old people. It is left over from the building’s prior use. Overlaying it there is something sour, the smell of children’s yoghurt pots thrown in bins that aren’t emptied often enough, and the musk of too many bodies, living and breathing and sweating in a space too small to hold them.
When you get to your room it is empty. The room was built for one person, yet two sets of bunk beds have been forced against the walls. The proximity to other people makes you feel like the underside of your skin is itching, so you are glad, this once, to have the space to yourself. You sit down on your bunk. Even though no-one is supposed to smoke inside, you do so, trying to override that smell and pretend that you are not like all the old people that inhabited this room before. That you have not been sent here to simply waste away and die, with no-one left to visit you.
In these moments you wish that you had a phone, but you lost it on the way here and don’t know how to go about sourcing a new one. You’ve thought of asking the people that bring the meals, you think that they surely don’t come everyday out of the goodness of their hearts but instead for the recognition of some wider cause. They’ll surely be connected to someone who can help. But everytime you try, the request just sticks in your throat. You’ve seen the way they look at people who’ve requested shoes and school uniforms and access to a doctor, as if lumps of undercooked carrots in broth and lasagne that’s cold in the middle is already more than they deserve. You can’t bear to be looked at like that, not now.
You know that, instead, you could just ask the other women, your neighbours and roommates, to use theirs. Ask them for forgiveness and their help, perhaps even their friendship, but that would mean having to join them in their conversations about home and you are not ready to do that.
The truth is you are jealous of them. Just like you are jealous of the kitchen staff from years ago, the ease with which they spoke about their mango trees. You cannot bring yourself to tell your own stories of home, not when you don’t even know if there is any of it left.
It lies behind you, unreachable. Ahead lies something unknowable. But for now you are here, in this in-between space of linoleum floors and batch-cooked meals and nothing beyond but faded remnants of what must have been a good place once. For now you sit, and smoke, and wait.
Ciara Broderick is a writer from east Galway, currently living and working in Dublin. She has been shortlisted in the Flash Fiction and Short Story categories of the 2023 Write By The Sea competition. Her work has also appeared in New Word Order journal.