The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 16, No. 2

The Plum Tree and the Hammock

by Janet Frame

The plum tree had its roots in our place and therefore belonged to us but two-thirds of it had chosen to grow into their place; and their side, as well as being free from blight, had the big, outstretched branch from which they strung a canvas hammock where on weekends and in the summer evenings one or other of the Connollys would lie reading the paper or comics or doing nothing, eyes closed, arms in neck-rest position, in an enviable luxury of relaxation, enjoying, so to speak, the auxiliary fruits of our tree. No one knew why so much of the tree leaned in their direction or why their side, grafted with big plums that hung like blue lamps from leaf-woven shades, had no blight while our small, mean, round plums oozed blobs of clear jelly between the stalk and the skin, with the crevices sometimes webbed white as if a nunlike creature lived there, and with a dark lump of bitterness inside, lying against the stone. When we ate the plums on our side we had to keep our eyes open, whereas the Connollys could swing in their hammock and reach up for the fruits and eat and relish them with their eyes closed.
     Truly, they enjoyed a backyard Eden—one that few knew of, for we were the only neighbors who could see into their garden. We could see into their kitchen window, too, for the house was high and the window, curtainless, made a strange frame with the light as a natural theater light, revealing the Connollys whenever they sat down to meals at the table, their silhouettes sharp, their movements precise, economical. The sound effects were also dramatic, especially on Friday nights, when Mr. Connolly came home drunk. Mrs. Connolly¬ís laughter carried across clearly—that is, when she laughed. Her face was more often glum and long, with a chin that waggled and had the appearance of being detachable. All the Connollys except the youngest had sandy-colored hair, freckles, and a wrinkled skin, tinted yellow, like old reptilian armor.
     Their life was primitive and violent, with its recurring payday drunkenness; and their voices were often what my parents described in disapproving tones as "raised." In our house the admonition about raising voices was severe, and my father always completed it with a reference to Thames Street.
     "Don't raise your voice. I don¬ít want to hear you all the way down Thames Street."
     "Every light in the house blazing. You can see them all the way down Thames Street."
     "Get another shovel of coal on the fire. Look lively. I'm not asking you to traipse down Thames Street."
     Thames Street was the main street with an Italian fish-and-chip shop at one end and a Greek fish-and-chip shop at the other. I remember an inexplicable feeling of alarm and loss the day I heard one of the Connollys use our special landmark as if it were their property: "I could even race you down to Thames Street."

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