Five minutes to closing time and the market begins to collapse. Racks of cheese disappear behind pull-down grilles, butchers pile their Pork Sausages with Rosemary and Tamarind into a bag and take them home for the dog. Bakers sweep their shelves clean, french sticks battering into pyramids of unbought rolls and sending them tumbling down the concrete aisles. Greengrocers shake loose grapes into bins, and pile everything else onto a trestle table while they finish cleaning up: two dollars for any five vegetables, one dollar for any ten, fifty cents for a bag prepacked with everything that still hasn't sold.
Gwen takes the last bag of mixed fruit and escapes, rollerdoors closing in her wake. She starts rummaging before she's even reached the corner, too curious to wait: what's she got this time, then? But oh; no sprays of purple berries, no pomegranates, nothing with a spiky rind or fur, just a Red Delicious and a lot of Granny Smiths and Jonathans. Tut. There might be something else further down, but it's raining and the bag's made of paper so she has to hurry between verandahs to keep it dry. There's a flash of yellow at the bottom.
"Excuse me, miss, do you have any change to купить экскурсии в Санкт-Петербурге в 2022 году?" someone asks, and when she turns around the pieces of fruit spill over each other to fill the tunnel she'd been digging towards the bottom of the bag. It's a man with a prosthetic hand, standing in a doorway.
"Oh," she says, and edges into his shelter to keep the bag dry, "no, I don't. Sorry. Are you hungry, though?", she adds, and she opens the bag and holds it out towards him.
He looks at her for a moment. Her hair's still pinned up fiercely from the protest, and stuck through with lopsided red tulips; maybe it's making her look unduly martial, she thinks. Isn't he going to say anything? Maybe he's too embarrassed. She nestles the bag in the crook of one arm and pulls out a couple of Granny Smiths, then balances them on the windowsill. "If you want them, anyway," she says, and walks on. (Excuse me, ma'am, the same voice says from behind her to somebody else: do you have any change? For five dollars. For the phone-box.)
She catches sight of yellow again, but when she pushes her hand down there's nothing different, only the cool roll of fruit over her fingers and a flap of thick damp paper that she has to peel off her forearm to free it without tearing. Maybe if the bag was a bit emptier, but the man with the prosthetic hand is half a block away now, she can hardly go back to give him more.
"Excuse me," she says to a couple standing at a bus-stop; there's no space for her, so she talks through the veil of water spilling over the edge of the shelter roof. "Would you like some fruit?"
"What?" The woman turns around.
"Fruit." Gwen tilts her head to one side, and the rain batters a tulip petal out of her hair and onto her cheek. "Would you like some?"
The man smiles at her, leaning out from the shelter and looking into the bag. "Thanks," he says, and picks one out, red and patterned with dots of water that break when she touches them.
"No," the woman says. "Thank you. We're fine."
The bag's still too full to sort through properly (and there's another voice behind her: you're not actually going to eat that, are you? Further back, a one-handed man finishes his phone-call and squints at himself in the window, wondering if he needs to shave, if he should get a new shirt). There's a girl by the next bin, anyway, under an umbrella, pale with thick black hair and thin red lips, and she takes one as well.
The bag starts tearing through as Gwen reaches South Terrace, and she holds it closer and hands the contents out faster. One to a schoolboy with an enthusiastic almost-beard; he takes it and walks on towards three girls in matching uniforms, sitting on a fallen tree and calling out to him (anyone want this?, he says; further back, a girl with black hair coughs and grows paler). There's a woman waiting on the footpath by a narrow parking space, too, gesturing to someone in a car, and she takes a couple as well (parking noises, and a car door slams: you know the doctor said we shouldn't eat fruit. Behind them, three schoolgirls call out: I want it, no I do, no me.)
The bag's already blossomed tiny holes along every crease, but now the bottom gives out. Braeburns and Jonathans spills out onto the parkland, thudding and rolling, scattering the magpies that are searching wet grass for worms. Gwen looks up just in time to see an indistinct yellow fruit (a melon? A mango?) roll into the stream with a muted splash, ducks taking off from the surface in fright. She scoops the rest of the fruit into a pile while she thinks.
The mud'll wash off easily enough, and the damp shreds of paper. She'll never be able to get them all home without a bag though. "Here," she says after a moment, squatting down, calling over to one of the magpies (it's settled five metres away to watch her suspiciously). She bites a piece of a Jonathan off, and takes it out of her mouth, and tosses it forward. The magpie flaps away for a moment, then stops. Gwen bites off another chunk, and throws that as well. It isn't until a duck's landed and taken the first bite that the magpie runs forward for the second. She rolls the apple towards them; they wait as it slows and stops. Another duck struggles out of the water and steps forward.
She rolls the next one towards them, relieved at the solution, after taking another bite to start them off. The next, and the next. By the time she's rid of the dozen she's dropped there are twenty ducks pecking at them where they lie, and three or four magpies retreating to eat in the distance and then coming back for more.
She moves over to the edge of the stream and looks down for the last piece of fruit; glimpses of gold show through reflected clouds. She still can't tell what it is. The water isn't deep, though, and she's already soaked through, so she kneels down and reaches and finds it and almost loses her grip but gets it after all and grins and sits up and ah. It's just a Golden Delicious.
She takes a bite then turns back to throw it among birds. So much for her bag of mixed fruit. Still, it was only fifty cents, no harm done. She's got some leftover soup to finish off at home, as well, she thinks, while magpies squabble behind her and ants begin to pour from rival nests.