The Fig Tree
I step onto the balcony. The first time today, although it’s getting late. I want to step outside at least once a day. Otherwise, I feel like a trapped man. It was your idea for us to move here. I’m getting used to it. I light my cigarette.
The view is all fig trees. No figs yet, but very soon. I can smell it when figs are on the trees.
A man stumbles out of the public house. I see that he is the gaslight man. Soon he will begin his shift.
The fig trees have spread so much just this summer alone. We’re in the middle of Camden but there are more leaves than sash windows. I can’t see Camden from this square at all, even from a second floor balcony.
Today, the sun is bright. It penetrates even the densest foliage. On a day like this, it feels warm. But you know that if you stand in the shade, you’d freeze. The intensity of the sun makes you look hard, the other way, towards the shade. Even the pavement is pink from the light.
I lean forward. Put my hands on the cast iron handrail, so black it’s blue. It’s warm from the sun, uneven as bread. It has been painted too many times. Landlord’s paint.
A horse clip-clops on the street. The carriage wheels squeak under strain. Methodically, three revolutions per minute. Nearby, I can hear church bells and the shuffly sounds of children playing hopscotch.
I wave but you don’t see me. You’re far away but I know it’s you. You don’t notice if someone close has put on weight, until they are far. I can see you’ve put on weight. I like the dress. Is it new? I’m going to ask you later but you won’t like it because you’d think I should’ve noticed before.
I’ve painted you before. Many times. But not this view of you. I haven’t sold many paintings this year. Across the garden wall and beyond the trees, cast iron drainpipes bounce light. Only on the darkest days, everything is clear. I blow cigarette smoke at the distant view. It smells acrid, crisp, like a rotten lemon. I cough, choked momentarily by the view. I seem to have developed a cough since the move.
You’ve seen me and you return my wave. When I met you, you were a dancing girl in Paris. You’re not dancing now. You hide your shopping parcels behind your skirt. Boxy. New shoes perhaps. You disappear from view as you enter the building.
In seconds I will open the door. I shut the glazed balcony doors. I look at the fig trees, not the door handle. I don’t need to look at it. It’s like shaking hands with someone. You never look at his hand.
I know you leave the shopping parcels on the stair landing outside the flat. I never ask where they go. When you come in your hands are empty, ready for embrace. You ask me the time. I take my father’s gold watch out from my pocket, its chain broken by a drunk in a music hall last year. I put the watch back carefully. My poor father, who had laboured all his life, had nothing to give me when he died but this watch. He drank everything else away. You want to know if I have been painting all day. Not artistically, I reply, only the walls and skirtings. I point vaguely at the air. You smile and nod. Your peachy skirt rustles as you enter the kitchen. What will we have tonight? You ask.
We’ll go out, I reply.
Where? You ask.
We’ll take a walk to Kentish Town. Find that bar we’ve been meaning to.
Meaning to? You ask.
Meaning to find, I say. When you say things like that I am reminded that you are foreign.
I glance around but I don’t see the shopping parcels on the landing as we depart. Perhaps they have been moved. Either by you, when I have been getting ready, or Mrs Phelps across the corridor. She doesn’t like things being left lying around. I don’t ask you about it.
We cross the shadows of the figs. The pinkish pavement is now a virginal blue from the gaslit street lamps. Birds flap by. I don’t see them, but I feel the gush of their quickness. The fig leaves move, above my head, under my feet.
Another cigarette. I offer you one as we walk, but you decline. The tip of my cigarette glows.
The bar is crowded although it is a Thursday night. There are lit oil lamps on each table. On the thick red wallpaper, the candelabras are unlit. The candles on them look like apple cores. We have some wine. I see an artist I don’t want to meet. He has a new studio in Hampstead.
Do you like our new flat? You ask.
The light is good, I say. Yes, I like it.
Are you going to start painting? You ask.
Darling, I haven’t stopped.
I want to say, ‘I will move back to Italy in six months.’ And there is more: if you will not come, I will still go. I paint much, much more there. Also I am ill with this cough. We are not married and all I wanted to do was paint you. And now I have. This is what I will tell you. I have thought about it.
But you have bigger news.
I sip wine while I think about what you’re saying. I look at the tablecloth. It’s white, but as we are sitting near the window, it looks lime green, from the reflection on the glass.
When is it due? I ask.
April, I think. I hope we are still living in Camden then, you say.
I shrug, or perhaps I shake my head like I have crumbs falling off me.
I want our child to grow up here, you say.
You nibble at the French bread. You cut a slice of cheese. You are thinking of something else now. You remind me that you used to paint too. And dance. And sing. You smile as you remember.
I cough, shaking my head.
I down the remainder of wine in my glass. You say you can see my teeth, just then, through the glass. I imagine it must look grotesque – a distorted view of lips spread, teeth all bared like an animal. The thought makes a little wine trickle down my chin. Instantly, you wipe it with a napkin, where it forms tiny red flower-shapes. I need to get some more canvasses, I say. I can paint small pieces on the balcony. Until the weather gets worse.
That’s good, you say, folding the napkin. I know you are not listening. Your eyes are sea-blue and they look as far away as China.
The other artist leaves the bar. He has not seen me.
You and I walk home. It is dark. Somewhere a tiny insect hums in monotone. I look side to side, watchful for urchins. We get to the square. There is light coming from only two windows. Mrs Phelps’ is dark. No streetlight penetrates the trees. My cigarette glows but doesn’t throw any light. The insect hum is louder under the trees. The sound of horses’ feet is muffled by the thickness of the trees.
I cough in spasms, as though the coughing lights our way. I kick around to feel my way through the leaves. They crunch and sigh underfoot. Your skirt sweeps an invisible path in the leaves. Even without any light, I can see that your skirt is peach-coloured. It is the one colour which looks the same whatever the time, wherever the place. Isn’t that strange? I ask you. Although I can’t see you, I know you are smiling.
Kick-kick-kick. We look down as we walk, as though looking for things. It still seems odd that we are in the middle of town.
I take hold of your hand and rub it as we walk. I can feel your pulse. Cigarette smoke forms white twirls, our eyes follow it until it disappears. You can only see it clearly in the dark, the genie of my lamp.
I feel a shove from my back. My cigarette drops. I turn around. It is a boy. He smells of vinegar and milk. He tries to put his hand in my pocket. It all happens quick as a grunt. I swivel away from him, tightening my hold on your hand. It’s like we’re drunken and dancing again, in Paris. The urchin runs away. His little feet are light but his heart is pounding.
You start to weep. We won’t cut through the square again, I say. My voice is not all right. I check my pockets surreptitiously, so that you don’t notice.
We walk fast. Under the fig trees, it’s so black, it’s blue.
The watch is gone.
Return to Journal
Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She holds an MA in Writing from Middlesex University, where she won the 2005 Middlesex University Literary Press Prize out of almost 1500 entrants worldwide. Her debut, Cry of the Flying Rhino (2017), was awarded the International Proverse Prize in Hong Kong. Her novels include Heart of Glass (2018), Overboard (2020) and White Crane Strikes (2022). She is the commissioning editor of the Asian Anthology New Writing series. The American Boyfriend, which will be published by Penguin, Southeast Asia in July 2023 was longlisted for the Avon x Mushens Entertainment Prize for Commercial Fiction Writers of Colour 2022. She lives in London.
WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.
Make a one-time donation
Make a monthly donation
Make a yearly donation
Choose an amount
Or enter a custom amount
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.
Your contribution is appreciated.DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
One thought on “The Fig Tree. fiction by Ivy Ngeow”
Interesting non-gender specific storytelling along with descriptive color metaphors. I like the way the images flow into each other and the time swap that’s so subtly introduced. Ms Ngeow has a very credible writing style.
LikeLiked by 1 person