I’m on the hunt for the orange, the ‘Queen of the Orchard‘, on the outskirts of a Portuguese town. However, a three-legged dog is after me. It fixes me with an amber-eyed gaze and its muscled form jumps when it barks.
It may want to run with me, or it may want to bite. Friend or foe, I ease my stride and keep my head down.
The three-legged dog’s home is somewhere beyond a road called Trás dos Muros (‘Behind the Walls’). Beyond and behind in the margins of Silves. A place disconnected due to an unfinished road, and somewhere new to explore. Especially the orange grove I’ve spied from high on the castle walls. It’s off the beaten track, not on the official Rota da Laranja (Orange Route), and I’d like to see it up close.
I’m double-lucky. The three-legged dog is bored by my sluggish jog and canters away. And when I turn the corner I find oranges.
I stop to admire the trees and notice how heavy their fruit is, and how some oranges lie rotting on the earth … musings yanked from me by the yap, yap, yap of a grey-haired dog, hot on my tail (how do dogs appear from nowhere?). This time, however, there is a fence between us.
I withdraw and inspect lemon trees in the field opposite. Beautiful, but I’m keen to get back to the oranges. I jog further along, past the house and gate and battered car out front. The yaps continue to chase, yet the dog cannot, and when I reach the upper part of the grove, it’s quiet.
An elderly man emerges from the gate and walks towards me. He’s as wizened as a dried date. I want to explain why I’m eyeing his oranges – I try to say how beautiful they are in Portuguese, but I don’t speak Portuguese, so it doesn’t work.
The man smiles, puts a mask on, and takes out a knife. He says something I don’t understand and reaches over his fence. He cuts me one, two, three, four oranges and turns to hand them to me, one by one. I say the only Portuguese word I’m sure of: Obrigada (thank you). Again I try to say how beautiful his orange grove is, and again it doesn’t work. The man replies to my nonsense and from his gestures I glean that he has plenty of oranges and they will fall to the ground if left unpicked. He walks up the road and takes off his mask. I run up the hill to Rua da Misericórdia (Road of Mercy), my home for two nights, oranges in each hand.
Later, I’m eating lunch in the centre of town. A British couple sit down next to me. I try not to eavesdrop, but it’s hard to not note things down when you have a paper and pencil in front of you. The woman looks and sounds like Alison Steadman; the man isn’t Larry Lamb, but he does order wine. In between pauses when they watch passers-by, they discuss the trials and tribulations of someone called Tony. Further silences ensue before they conclude that “Life is a series of anti-climaxes.”
I return to my tiny one-bedroomed house and see my oranges on the kitchen table.
Back home in Cambridge, I can still see them. Whole and perfect, and not rotten yet.