It was a Sunday and so I took my time getting up. I kissed my husband, who was at his computer as usual, and wandered around until I had located my glasses. Then I went in to the kitchen and selected three plump oranges from the fruit bowl. I didn’t even think about it. It’s just a thing I do on Sunday morning, because it’s the only day when I have time: I make myself a freshly squeezed orange juice.
I was holding the knife poised to cut one of the oranges in half when the doorbell rang. I was so taken aback that I put the knife down and went out to stare at the door. We don’t have a peephole, like we did in our old flat, so I couldn’t look out and check who was there.
My husband came up behind me.
“Aren’t you going to open it?” he said.
I replied, “But who could that possibly be on a Sunday morning?”
“It’s not really the morning,” he said, grinning. “You slept late.”
The doorbell rang again. I checked that my dressing gown was tied properly and ran a hand over my hair to smooth it, even though I knew I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t just stumbled out of bed. I opened the door anyway.
Outside were two policemen. They must have seen my astonishment because they exchanged a glance and then showed their ID cards to me and to my husband, who was still behind me. They didn’t flash their IDs at us the way they do on television, too quickly to see anything, but opened them quite slowly. I even had time to notice that they really did look like their photos.
One of them said, “Can we come in, Mrs…” he looked at his phone, “…K?”
I mumbled something and tried to step back, but my husband didn’t move in time and there was a moment of confusion when I almost stepped on his feet and he stumbled backward. The fact that I was in my dressing-gown made it even more embarrassing; thankfully my husband was dressed, at least.
Eventually we were all standing in the hall with the door closed. That was when I remembered that there were tea leaves all over the kitchen table, since my husband can’t make a cup of tea without scattering the leaves everywhere, and that the mess must have been visible through the doorway just behind me. Also, if the policemen went into the kitchen, they would see that the sink was full of the dirty dishes from the evening before. The sitting room was no better since there was a clothes horse in there loaded with half-dry underwear and socks. We obviously couldn’t receive them in our bedroom or the bathroom. Then again, I couldn’t begin to guess why they were there at all, and on a Sunday morning at that.
While I was second-guessing myself, the policemen’s eyes flicked to look behind me. Before I knew it, they were gliding rapidly around us, arriving at the kitchen table almost instantaneously. It was quite disconcerting.
“Mrs K,” said the first policeman, while the other one swung a backpack I hadn’t noticed off his back. He opened it and, to my astonishment, put into it the oranges I had been about to juice.
I stepped forward and opened my mouth to protest but, without pausing, the first policeman continued, “You need to give us all the oranges you have on the premises. You also need to give us any orange juice, orange marmalade, orange shower gel and anything else that may contain derivatives of oranges.” He paused and added, “We will give you a receipt detailing each item, of course.”
I gaped at him. He shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh.
“Doesn’t anyone watch the news anymore?” he said, looking up as if he were addressing the light fixture in the ceiling. His colleague had located the fruit bowl and was silently, methodically transferring the rest of the oranges to his backpack.
“What’s this about?” I asked. I was surprised to hear that my voice sounded tearful, and then I realised that in fact that was how I felt, as if I might cry. I was quite nervous, but also increasingly confused. I really had no idea what he was talking about.
The first policeman had started to look impatient. He made a hooking gesture with the first and second fingers of both hands, as if he was shaping quotation marks with them.
“‘The Love for Three Oranges’?” he said. I stared at him. He raised his eyebrows. I looked over at my husband and I was minutely glad to see that he appeared as confused as I was.
I looked back at the policeman and shook my head. The policeman sighed and said, “Prokofiev? The President? The girls inside the oranges?”
My husband said, “We don’t really watch the news… You never know what’s true anymore. There are so many hinky stories these days…”
The policeman said, “Mmm. We’ve been hearing a lot of that. Well, I guess I’d better explain. The President received a brief yesterday. Back when, a guy by the name of Prokofiev – double agent, obviously – wrote an opera in order to send a message back to his people, like a secret code. Pretty interesting ploy really. The opera’s about this scientific experiment in a hostile country, one of the ones that are always sending spies here, if you get my drift. Anyways, decoding the opera, it appears their scientists had – already back then! – created a new type of orange that they’ve been using ever since for the purposes of kidnapping and people-smuggling. In this so-called opera, a bunch of girls are stuck inside these oranges. As I say, that was quite a while back, so we suspect that by now it goes a lot further than that. At the very least, it’s probably a way of trafficking women. God knows what else they’ve been doing. Makes you sick.”
“Smuggling people in… oranges?” I said dubiously.
“Yeah, oranges, Mrs K. Apparently it’s impossible to tell the difference between normal oranges and the doctored ones. The President’s concerned for the safety of anyone, specially girls, who may have been imprisoned in these oranges, so there’s a nationwide seizure going on of all oranges. And orange-related products – they’ll have to be tested to see if they contain human remains. You’re lucky we got here before you cut that orange open, Mrs K… You might have been looking at a manslaughter charge right there.”
My husband said weakly, “This is ridiculous. You must see that.”
The second policeman, who hadn’t spoken until then, and had been going around our flat, shuffling about in cupboards and making various rattling noises as he moved things around, came back in just then. He had a totally blank look about him that was actually rather menacing when he turned it on you.
He stood beside his colleague, hefting the backpack in his hands as if to show us how full it was, and said, “I wouldn’t go saying things like that if I were you, sir. You have a lot of orange-derived products here: hand cream, furniture polish, deodorant, marmalade… You could find yourself under suspicion. A lot of suspicion. And your wife too. Not to speak of all the orange cushions on your couch and the orange sheets on the bed. Those are a grey area for now, but we’ll be making a note of them in our report. I’d advise you not to use them anymore until we have more information.”
My husband went pale and rigid, and I’m sure I did too. The first policeman continued seamlessly, as if the two of them were really just one.
“Our own scientists will be undertaking extensive testing to reveal whether or not this is a massive plot on the part of that particular hostile country suspected of putting this into practice. Could have serious consequences. Like my colleague said, you two should watch out…”
He stared at us stonily for a few moments. I could feel my husband bursting to say again how ridiculous it all was and I hoped he would manage to keep it in.
Finally, the first policeman turned abruptly, glanced at his colleague, snatched a notepad from his pocket and leaned over our kitchen table, disregarding the tea leaves, to scribble. The other policeman watched his writing hand and, at intervals, made incomprehensible interjections. After a few moments, the first policeman tore off the sheet and held it out to me. I hesitated and took it, and for some reason he looked very satisfied.
“Receipt,” he said.
To my relief, they both swung about then and opened the front door. As they went out, the second policeman swinging the bulging backpack onto his back, they said in unison, “You have a good day now.” When we closed the door, we heard our neighbour’s doorbell ringing through the wall.
Helen de Búrca was born in Ireland and lives in Geneva, Switzerland. Her prize-winning stories have been published in the Sunday Business Post, the Nivalis 2016 Anthology, the Aesthetica Creative Writing Anthology 2017, the Lakeview International Journal of Literature and the Arts, Bare Fiction Magazine, Occulum, Wasafiri, Number Eleven Magazine, the Highlands and Islands Short Story Association (HISSAC) and the Hysteria 6 Anthology. She tweets @helenlechat