A List of Oranges, prompted by Deborah Levy’s, ‘Things I Don’t Want to Know’

The season of oranges is beginning.

Thinking about oranges began in Sicily in September, detailed in A Varied List of Sicily, where green orange trees were all around us with green oranges, that while looking unripe and inedible, were sometimes edible, and with the Don Corleone, The Godfather’s preoccupation with the Sicilian oranges of his childhood, of which he could not let go. He wanted to handle an orange, to peel it, to taste it, to follow an orange to his death: to live for oranges.

 Facts about oranges 

One of my worst food memories is of oranges. In Berlin ten years ago, a confusing year of drinking and drinking every night and insisting on drinking until there was nothing left in the house and dancing and then walking around feeling awful, and then of the orange. The orange that I bought from Lidl in orange season, when it got really cold, it was an orange against the drinking and against the lost feeling I couldn’t shake: I bought the bag of oranges as a tonic to all that, as a way of following advice that had not been given recently or for years, it was a way of following my mother’s advice even if it had never been given, but my fantasy of good advice, which I would absorb with each segment. I peeled it like it was a doctor, like an oracle, like a mentor, like a mother, like a restorative and when I gazed full of hope into the orange flesh it moved. The orange flesh moved, wriggled and was alive and I was not hallucinating: the orange had not come alive, the orange was full of maggot larvae, the oranges the birthplace of a colony of decay whose life was evidence against mine and I screamed and threw it against the wall in the kitchen without thinking and it splatted and sprayed orange juice and larvae all over, orange drips and larvae running down the wall indiscernible from each other I have never been more shocked. I think of it quite often. I ate no more oranges that winter.

Oranges at the end of a sock every Christmas Eve, which I always kept I didn’t eat. I saved it somehow until I would need it, like the amulet of medicine round the neck of that girl in the lion the witch and the wardrobe, but usually it dried out or rotted before I would eat it. I would find it months later, sad and brown under a pile of discarded wrapping or unpaired socks. I was saving it until the moment I needed it, but by that point it would be too late for the orange. 

I try to eat an orange straight away now, force myself not to pause, thinking of the larvae. I always have to do it consciously and it doesn’t come naturally. I think of friends who casually eat lots of oranges in wonder. It’s hard still. I ate one recently, a week ago, and I have been carrying the peelings round in my rucksack ever since as evidence that I ate it and when I forget it’s there and put my hand in, looking for a pen or my house keys my hand emerges smelling of fragrant orange oil, and not covered with larvae. I ate the orange and I prove it to myself with its beautifully drying peel, not rotting. The peelings are still there.

 If another person is present, it is essential to offer them segments of an orange (satsumas, clementines and tangerines are included here). I have never knowingly not shared an orange that I have peeled in the company of someone I know, or at least offered it. 

My mother would peel oranges with a knife and wrap them in cling film for my packed lunches as a child in an act of kindness and care that is almost to much to contemplate without welling up. Sometimes now I peel oranges with a knife for those I love and think of my mother.

I am obsessed with segmenting oranges if I serve them in a salad or for a pudding. I cut off all of the external pith with a knife, and then I carefully insert the knife into each segment to extract the fruit from the pithy membrane flawless and pith-free. I take great joy in doing this. My mum learned to do this in a kitchen in Woodbridge, Suffolk or the hotel in Wales where she worked as a teenager. I don’t remember which, but she is meticulous about it and now, so am I. 

And then, now, Deborah Levy in Things I don’t want to know, on oranges.

 For some reason I remembered the way I used to eat oranges as a child in Johannesburg. First I had to find one that would fit into the palm of my hand. So I searched the sack in the pantry for a small orange because the small ones were the juiciest. Then I rolled the orange under my bare foot to make it soft. It took a long time and the point was to get the fruit to yield its juice and not to split. This had to be sensed entirely though the sole of the foot.. My legs were brown and strong. I felt so powerful when I figured out how to use my strength on something as small as an orange. When it was ready I made a hole in the peel with my thumb and sucked out the sweet juice. This strange memory in turn reminded me of a line from a poem by Apollinaire. I had written down this line in the Polish notebook, twenty years ago: ‘The window opens like an orange.’


I did not know how to get the work, my writing, into the world. I did not know how to open the window like an orange. If anything, the window had closed like an axe on my tongue. If this was to be my reality, I did not know what to do with it.


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