The grass scratches at Matthew’s shins as he crosses the yard and dumps the bucket on the ground. The mulberry tree is drooping and swollen berries leer at him, some already weeping. There are so many. He cups his hand under a low cluster before ducking under the branches, crouching against the trunk in the damp shade. It smells like fermented fruit. It was the first thing he noticed about Anna. A heavy sweetness battling the dirty erotica of rot. Red-stained fingers, scarlet soles, and that smell. From beneath the tree, Matthew can see through the gaps in the fence to Sam’s yard.
‘Why Robinson?’ he’d asked the boy that first day. He was uncomfortable around children.
‘For Robinson Crusoe,’ the boy replied. ‘He was lost.’ Then the boy took the gangly mongrel by the collar and dragged him back into his yard next door where empty beer bottles toppled from the porch.
‘Don’t forget to keep your gate shut,’ Matthew shouted after the boy as he disappeared into the battered house. ‘Lots of cannibals about,’ and immediately regretted it. Children did that to him. He became clumsy against the power of their surety, cobbled by a need to say something of value, something to remind them that there is still so much they needed to learn.
Robinson turned up in their kitchen the next day, tail slapping against Anna’s legs as they pasted labels on empty jam jars.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she said, but then she was down on the lino floor scratching at the dog’s ears, eyes scrunched as his huge tongue lapped at her face. Matthew reached for Robinson’s collar. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Let him stay a while. It gets lonely in here.’
Matthew sat back down on the other side of the table, screwing lids on jars of thick jam. Robinson lay beneath the sink, the sound of his wet panting enough for her.
‘What makes us stop loving something? And what makes us start again, if we ever do?’ she once asked.
It had taken Matthew several months to understand that Anna’s questions were usually rhetorical. As she slept he would lie awake constructing answers, the cattle train rumbling at the edges of town. And in the morning, as she steeped her tea, he would deliver his response with gritty eyes.
‘Oh that,’ she’d reply, ‘I was only thinking aloud.’ But she was always close to some truth.
Anna made gourmet preserves that sold well at local markets. Some of the bigger towns and even a chain of elegant Brisbane delicatessens had started stocking them, and from sales they made just enough for the two of them to live.
‘Just give them what they once loved,’ she said. ‘You can’t go wrong. They loved them for a reason.’ She nudged customer memories by using fruit their grandmothers had grown in their childhoods: cumquats, figs, apricots, custard apples, blackcurrants and mulberries, sourced in season from local growers or her own backyard. Then she would add a pinch of chilli, a sprinkle of cardamom, a splash of tequila. ‘To make the old feel new again,’ she reasoned. ‘People like to recycle the past. Everyone has memories of collecting berries in buckets or spooning fresh lemon butter straight from the jar,’ she said over the bubbling pots.
‘I don’t,’ he said.
‘Yes, you do. You just wish they had been true.’
Her feet were bare when they first met.
‘My shoes are in the car,’ she said. ‘I forgot to put them on. It’s been a long drive.’
He had smiled at this. Her toes left ghostly imprints on the stone floor of his office. ‘Do you want to get them now?’
‘Do I need to?’ ‘It’s probably a good idea. We’ve got other people to meet,’ he said.
He had walked her to the car and waited as she searched through a snarl of old mail, sarongs, jars, books, rolls of ribbon, loose notepaper covered in scribble, and swatches of bright fabric.
‘That’s quite a mess you’ve made there.’
‘Where?’ She looked up at him. And he smiled again and breathed in her heady smell.
Anna had not written anything since he first published her book, a curious little children’s tale about a girl who lived in a maze. It hadn’t sold as well as he’d expected.
‘Why is it so important to you that I write again?’ she asked after he’d left his job and moved into her cluttered little house, after he needled her to spend more time writing instead of cooking fruit.
‘I just think it’s a waste if you don’t.’
‘Feelings are wasted in words,’ she said, and he had no reply.
Robinson always found a way back in, claiming his spot at the base of their sink. They would reach over him to rinse saucepans, rubbing his stomach with their feet. Matthew had stopped wearing shoes at home. As he watered and pruned the trees, he grew to like the prick of dry grass under his soles, and the squelch of overripe berries between his toes.
Before long, the boy followed the dog. He never knocked. The first time he walked into their house, Matthew had been at the post office. When he returned, the boy was standing on a kitchen chair stirring hot, pulpy mangoes over the stove.
She came in then from the yard. ‘So you’ve met Sam,’ she said. ‘He’s our new apprentice. I’m teaching him the art of preservation.’ The rain hammered their tin roof until the water tank overflowed.
It had been nearly a year since he had quit his job and turned to making jams. He no longer cared about the writing of others, not since he met her. She was his work now, and that was enough.
‘You need me,’ he said, cupping her chin in the watery moonlight. She wrapped a leg over him.
‘Do you think?’ He heard the smile twitching her lips.
Such a twig of a thing with tiny hands and ragged nails, scaly patches of skin unapologetically exposed on her elbows and knees. Long skirts, bright scarves, berets and brooches. He slept soundly under the warm blanket of responsibility.
Sam’s parents never came over to check on him. Occasionally, Matthew and Anna watched them through the fence. Oily-haired and lanky limbed, they moved silently and separately inside the shadows of their house.
‘You should let them know he’s here,’ Matthew once said. ‘They must wonder where he is.’
‘I know,’ she replied. She returned within minutes. ‘All sorted,’ and she stroked Sam’s hair softly as the boy stirred over the stove.
‘Why do you always make jam?’ Sam raised his spoon and turned to Anna.
‘That’s our job, and we have to keep up with orders. Keep stirring.’
‘What else do you make?’
‘Nothing. We just make jam.’
‘What will you do when you finish making jam?’
Matthew looked up from his jars. Anna wiped her hands on a tea towel and tucked it into the back of her skirt.
‘Then I will make something else.’
‘You mean we will make something else,’ Matthew said.
He was an unusual child. My little Borogrove, Anna called him. His hair grew in unruly tufts and lent him a strange, chicken-like quality. His eyes were green and flinty, small stones pushed by thumbs into his face. His neck was thin and he spoke quietly, with unnatural authority, Matthew thought. After a while, she let Sam take over the labelling of the jars, pulling out Matthew’s chair for the boy at the kitchen table.
‘I don’t like you,’ Sam said to him once. The boy was placing embossed stickers on jar lids, placing the completed ones on top of each other in perfect towers of ten. Matthew could see a deep purple shadow above the collar of his thin shirt. The boy’s knobbly spine made the bruise bulge like a cluster of ripe mulberries.
‘You don’t see things properly.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. You’re nine,’ he snapped. ‘What do you know?’ And then he was ashamed and wanted to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, but Sam just kept sticking and placing and stacking, so Matthew went outside and sat against the water tank.
He knew there was another name for the boy beside Borogrove. There was a label that Matthew would find explaining Sam, naming him, containing him. Autistic? Asperger’s? He was reassured by the thought of this label out there, waiting to be found and brushed with paste. Something that would explain why she gave him so much time.
In the meantime, Anna taught Sam how to simmer the sugar and recognise when it was about to burn.
‘He should be in school.’
‘He shouldn’t be over here so much.’
‘He likes it here, and he’s useful.’
‘It’s just not right.’
‘Not right for who? You?’
That one was rhetorical, he was sure, so he rolled over and listened to the bats feast on the fruit trees, screeching drunkenly in the darkness.
Once, he heard their laughter tumbling in the backyard, and when he opened the screen door juicy bullets exploded on his chest and face and against the green timber walls. A red bucket under the dense boughs, two pairs of purple hands flashing in and out of the leaves.
‘Surrender!’ she cried.
He had laughed and shouted, ‘Never!’ Then he charged across the grass into a hail of berries.
That winter came early, icy winds stripping the trees of their foliage, spoiled fruit littering the ground.
‘This changes things, he said. ‘We’ won’t get anywhere near last year’s sales.’
‘We’ll be alright.’
He shook his head and returned to the computer, and he worked on fixing things for her as the frost slowly killed the grass.
Without fruit to boil, the kitchen was cold. Robinson shifted his scraggy frame to the carpet runner in the hall. He stayed there most days and Anna would take him for long walks at dawn, puffs of icy breath drifting behind her like speech bubbles filled with words too small for him to read.
‘I think we should have a baby,’ he said one morning as the walls shivered and the tin roof creaked.
‘Why?’ ‘Because it makes sense.’
‘That’s a silly reason. I love you. Isn’t that enough?’
He knew he could change her mind. He imagined her swollen breasts and ripe belly, her grateful murmur when he ran her a bath, the grip of her birdlike fingers cutting his skin as she sweated and yielded the greasy child into his world.
‘It will be good for us,’ he said.
She was silent.
‘You will be a wonderful mother.’
‘That’s beside the point.’
‘What is the point then? Tell me.’
‘I don’t need one.’
He was unsure what she was saying and was suddenly afraid to ask. Outside, the early morning sky was stretched thin and tight like the skin of a drum.
The shouting started that winter. They listened to terrible words smash against the walls of Sam’s house. Matthew would drag Anna back from the fence where she called the boy’s name over and over, her voice splintering in the bitter air. Matthew would pull her back to bed where she would fold herself away from him, and he would fall asleep to the young shrieks, the breaking glass, and he thought about moving.
When spring arrived, they threw themselves into making up for the loss over winter. Cumquats spilled from colanders and Anna feverishly sliced their orange skins while Sam silently wrapped the seeds in bundles of muslin, his little frame flinching at a touch. From his desk, Matthew watched them work.
‘I think I can get us some big Melbourne orders this year. Lots of interest there. We could even expand soon, get an investor and lease some factory facilities, develop the range. We could put some people on and you can get out of the kitchen. No more burnt hands. What do you think?’
Sam held the muslin over the boiling water, dropping it in gently on Anna’s nod.
‘Did you hear me?’
She wiped the back of her hands across her forehead. ‘The tank is almost empty. We could do with some rain.’
‘She doesn’t need you,’ the boy said.
‘Yes, she does.’
‘No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t need anyone. She just lets you think she does.’
Anna was collecting supplies and Sam sat at the table, his hands folded in front of him. Matthew wanted to hurt him, this scrawny man-child who had wormed his way into their home, had eaten away his share of Anna’s affections.
‘You are not our son,’ he said.
‘I know that,’ the boy replied, but his little eyes had darkened.
‘We don’t want you here anymore,’ he said. And immediately, he wanted to snatch it back, pluck it from the air so she wouldn’t find out. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’
Sam carefully turned his head to face him, a solemn little sideshow-alley clown. ‘I have work to do.’
Matthew was reconciling the accounts when she returned. He heard her bare feet pad over Robinson.
‘I got the new jars. The boxes are in the car,’ she called.
He paused. Let her ask again, he thought. Let her need me. Her bracelets jangled as she lowered a crate of fruit on the kitchen table.
‘It’s so green out there,’ she said. ‘Like a painting.’ And she clinked and jangled back down the hall to fetch the boxes.
He had grown used to the screaming and so that night it had not been the noise that woke him. There were no sirens, just strobes of blue and red lights that sliced through the curtains and tore him from sleep. Anna was not in bed. The front door was open, and from the hallway he saw her out on the road, squatting there on the bitumen in just a T-shirt and underpants, heaving in the sticky air with ragged sobs as she rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. He grabbed a towel from the floor and ran out, wrapping her and shielding her from the glaring lights, the uniforms, the hollow stare of the lanky man being led to a police van.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said as the ambulance wove around them and disappeared with Sam’s body into the dark. ‘But things like this happen. We can’t always see it coming.’
She left that night, as Sam’s house was enveloped in yellow tape. She left the towel on the road and put Robinson in her car and she drove away. He waited on the front steps for two days until it grew too hot to sit outside.
There are too many berries, he knows. He cannot pick them all and does not know what to do with them anyway. Dust coats the pots on the stove, jar lids stacked in towers of ten still teeter on the kitchen table. Clouds of tiny fruit flies swarm over crates of decomposing fruit, and the house is thick with the stench of rot.
He lies down on the damp earth and the big mulberry leaves fan out around him. His back is sticky with sweat and crushed fruit. He could stay like this, he thinks, just gradually break down and dissolve into the soil. He knows there must be something he needs to do.