The Gardener and His Apples

The gardener and his apples

Behind the high walls of crumbling red brick a garden was tended with immense and loving care by a man who knew every plant and stone and loved them all. The garden was one he had tended much of his life and his father and his father’s father before him. The garden was what you would call a working garden, and a greater part of it was a market garden. Once his father had grown potatoes and carrots and the usual array of vegetables but only a small plot was used for that now, and its produce was for his own table.

The gardener mainly grew the things the supermarket buyers wanted him to grow: soft fruits like blueberries, raspberries, red currants, and unusual and fashionable vegetables. He grew enough of such premium food to make a quiet living on top of his other part time job, and he was content with his life but for one thing.

That one thing was the orchard.

Now the orchard was a beautiful place, half an acre of mature trees that had mainly been planted by his grandfather. The trees were a mixture of fruit trees and the majority of them were apple trees. Not just any old apple trees but the glorious old varieties that you hardly ever see any more. Every spring time a local bee-keeper came with hives and while the apples bloomed fragrantly the leaves were filled with the contented hum of a million bees. A few jars of honey always came his way for this and he always looked forward to it. The problem had become the apples themselves.

People had become accustomed to only certain types of apples being considered to be apples. The varieties he grew not only tasted quite different to normal apples, they looked different too. Some were smaller than usual and had a colour that seemed different to the shiny green or red that the shoppers preferred. Since he never used any pesticides, or anything unnatural, most of the crop had at least a tiny blemish or mark on their skin. The apples refused to grow perfectly round and to a specified size. And their taste was far stronger and richer than most shop-bought apples ever were. So little by little demand for his apples dropped away until the last two years he’d been unable to sell any apples at all. The previous year’s crop had gone to feed pigs.

Now this year, as the September sun ripened his apples, he stood watching his beautiful orchard and wondered if it was time to chainsaw the whole lot and replant with modern varieties that the public might want to buy. The song of the birds soothed him and as he watched both the birds and the busy insects and saw the thousands of faces of flowers looking up from the grass beneath the trees, and smelled the rich fruity smell of the first windfalls fermenting in hidden hollows in the grass, he thought, not this year.

Pondering it over a quiet beer with his old friends at the pub, one of them suggested that rather than let them all just rot or be composted, he ought to fill up crates with them and leave them at his front gate with a sign telling people to help themselves.

People love getting things for nothing,” said his friend. “It’ll encourage all those kids who walk past your place every morning and afternoon to eat some proper fruit.”

What a good idea, he thought, and when he got home, he hauled out a wooden crate and filled it with some of the first apples that had ripened. The smell rising from them made his mouth water, and he wrote out a sign saying Free Apples and put both out by the front gate and went to bed.

The next morning, he watched from an upstairs window as the usual parade of uniformed school children trooped past. He saw heads turn and glance at the sign before rushing onwards. Of course, first thing in the morning perhaps apples aren’t what you want, he thought and got on with his busy day. As evening came he went to refill the crate with more apples and when he got to the front gate he almost dropped his basket. The crate was empty.

Excellent, he thought. The children love my apples.

For the next two or three days he filled the crate up every morning but then he noticed something when he went for his usual Friday night pint at the pub. All along the road were smashed apples. They’d been kicked to pieces, used as footballs, as missiles to throw at the ducks in the duckpond. There was no evidence that anyone had ever set tooth to a single one.

Well, then suggest a donation and put out an honesty box,” suggested his friend. “But leave it a few days to let the kids forget they used to be free.”

The following Monday he began again with a fresh batch of apples, a new sign and a cash box with a slit chained to the gate. The sign read, “Please take an apple, and make a donation if you enjoy it.”

Again he watched from a distance as people passing, not just children, stopped and read the sign and at the end of the day he came back to find some of the apples gone, and only a few littering the road. A core had been placed on the cash-box, but when he opened it, it was empty. The following day, the same outcome, except for a badly spelled note in straggly handwriting pushed into the cash-box, which read, “Your appels tast like shit.” And on the third day, he went to pick up the crate only to discover the apples were all wet; someone had urinated on them.

Discouraged, he took the sign and the cash-box down and threw the remaining apples into the compost.

As the rich September sunshine ripened more and more apples, he decided to have one more shot at it and this time he filled a few bags up with apples, put out the cash-box again and wrote yet another sign. This one read simply, “Apples, 8 for 50p. Put money in box; I am watching YOU!”

At the end of the first day he came to find the crate empty and the cash-box rattling. When he added up the money and the number of bags, it didn’t tally exactly. Undoubtedly someone had taken a bag of apples and not paid for it. But the next day, he filled more bags and set them out and so it went on.

One morning as he was setting the crate of apples out a schoolboy stopped.

I don’t have fifty pee,” said the schoolboy, and the gardener looked at the boy curiously. His uniform was clearly second-hand, probably a hand-me-down from an older brother and his face looked pinched and a little pasty. Poor kid probably needed some decent food in him, thought the gardener.

Tell you what,” said the gardener. “I’ll let you have some for nothing if you do a bit of tidying up for me out here. Come by after school and we’ll see.”

The boy’s face brightened, and then brightened some more when the gardener opened one of the bags and popped an apple in his hand.

You munch on that on your way to school and the rest’ll be here waiting for you later,” he said and the boy bit into the apple and began running to catch up with the rest of the gang of kids.

That afternoon, the gardener waited near the gate, weeding the path, until the school boy came back.

Hey mister, that apple was lush,” came the voice and the gardener got up from his kneeler and came to the gate. “What do you want me to do?”

The gardener had thought about this. He produced a big bucket of water and some cloths and a fresh piece of white card with a packet of coloured pens. Then he brought round a new basket of apples and some clear plastic bags.

You can make my apple stall look a bit nicer,” he said.

So he watched for a while as the boy washed, dried and bagged up apples and he went inside for a cup of tea. When he came back, he found the boy had not only finished bagging the clean apples, he’d made a good start on a new sign. He’d sketched out new words and was busy making each letter a work of art. They were like the letters in an illuminated manuscript, with little drawings worked into them.

Can I finish it at home, please, mister, me mum’s going to go spare if I’m not home soon?” asked the boy and the gardener nodded and handed the boy his promised bag of apples and saw him scurry off down the street with school bag, sign and apples all clutched in his skinny arms. 

The following morning, as he watched from an upstairs window, the gardener saw the children rushing by and he saw a familiar mouse brown head pause at the little stall before rushing on. Curious, he went to see if the boy had brought the finished sign. People were stopping to read as he got to the gate and he waited till the rush of school kids was gone before going to see what the final version of the sign said.

The sign, among the drawings of apples and bees and butterflies, read:

These are not just apples; these are carefully tended, specially washed and utterly delicious apples. Eat one and never crave Golden Delicious again.”

In smaller letters it then read:

8 for 50p but feel free to pay more when you buy some more

and in smaller letters still it said: I bet you will, too!

By the first frosts, the gardener had sold every single apple but for the ones he’d set aside in his shed to save for the winter, for himself and his helpful young assistant.

  

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Snip

Tethered to machinery in a high dependency unit was probably not the best place to review the last couple of days, but what options did he have? It wasn’t as if he could even get out of bed unaided and go somewhere else. His mouth felt so dry; he could use a pint but all they did was give him sips of metallic tasting water. He had spent a few blank hours watching the level on his IV drip go down slowly, bringing him closer to someone coming in and changing it for a fresh full one and the chance for some human company. Once he might have despised the nurses here as not worth a second glance but now they had begun to look like angels to him and that, almost more than anything else, had begun to worry him.

Oh, he’d sent a few texts when he’d first become ill, but while his mates had replied with the usual ribald responses he’d expected, no one had actually rung. No one had visited. His so-called girlfriend had left him fresh clothes in a case at reception but hadn’t come in. The nurses said she seemed too upset and he’d been asleep anyway. That was three days ago. There was a row of brightly coloured cards on the window sill, and even a big bouquet of flowers. They’d started to fade and wilt now. Bit like him, really.

He had been glad when he’d found he was too weak to get out of bed to go to the bathroom because he hadn’t liked to look in the mirror. While the designer stubble look was one he cultivated anyway, the big black circles under his eyes and the rapid hollowing of cheekbones and the yellowing of both eye whites and his complexion made him reluctant to do what he usually did in front of a mirror. Right now, there wasn’t much to admire. Even he was forced to admit that. And not eating at all meant he was losing muscle mass; the six pack would take a lot of getting back.

It wasn’t as if any of this was his fault. He’d only been doing the responsible thing, after all.

Listen, babe,” he’d said. “The world is overcrowded enough as it is. If you want kids later, we can adopt an orphan from somewhere. You can have your pick of babies. And no stretch marks and saggy boobs, eh?”

She’d cried of course but it hadn’t really been her he’d been concerned about. It was the other three. He’d not told any of them about it, of course. And since he couldn’t have risked them turning up while she was here, he’d not sent any of them a text about what had happened. Only texts cancelling their dates. Treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen, he thought, but had a slight pang of concern about how long it might take him to recover his looks and his mojo enough to get them back on the hook. After all, he’d turned thirty and everyone knew it was downhill all the way if you didn’t watch it. A lengthy hospital stay for a severe post operative infection wasn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. Maybe it was worth cultivating one or two of the better looking nurses for a possible bit of bed-bath fun when he was on the mend. It didn’t do to lose the knack for too long.

Mind you, his consultant was a bit of all right if you liked that very severe blonde bombshell look. She had weird name too.

Atropos?” he asked. “Is that Polish, then?”

It might explain the very, very slight accent but then so many of the quacks and nurses weren’t British born.

Greek,” she’d replied quickly.

You don’t look Greek to me,” he’d said, expecting to hear her say it was her husband’s family.

Very old family,” she’d said. “True Hellenes. All the original families were my colouring. Cleopatra’s family too.”

She was Egyptian,” he’d said.

Queen of Egypt, certainly but the Ptolemies were Hellenes.”

He’d shaken his head at her ignorance. Everyone knew Cleopatra was Egyptian. Mind you, she might be ignorant of history but she knew her stuff here. He’d not been in pain at all. Uncomfortable certainly, but not in pain. She was due again soon and he relished the thought of seeing her again, even if he couldn’t do anything but try and look down her fitted blouse.

Drifting in an out of a light sleep, he wondered how much he might be able to claim in compensation when he threatened to sue the hospital. Might make a decent amount; enough for a good holiday at least. Shocking that you couldn’t have a simple routine operation without something going wrong these days; day surgery was meant to be just that. But by the time he’d got home that evening he was already feverish and the infection was clear. By midnight he’d called an ambulance and was back in a hospital gown and dosed to the eyeballs with morphine. It had been downhill from then on.

He opened his eyes and found the consultant was sitting there. He blinked at her but she didn’t seem to notice he’d woken up; she continued to study his chart and wrote a note here and there. After a second or two, she got up and went to inspect the level in the catheter bag. She frowned.

I am awake, you know,” he said, his voice sounding querulous and rough.

Oh good,” she said, but without enthusiasm.

She came and sat down on the bed and to his surprise, she took his hand. Hey, my luck is in, he thought.

Do you have any family we can contact?” she asked, her voice kind.

To his own surprise, he felt his eyes well up with tears at this.

No,” he said. “Plenty of mates but no family.”

She glanced at the row of bright cards and the wilting flowers.

Your girlfriend?” she asked.

Can’t stand seeing me like this,” he said. “I texted her to come when I’m feeling a bit better.”

The woman swallowed.

I’ve got some hard news for you to deal with alone,” she said. “The infection has spread and it’s causing a serious reaction in your whole body. Your kidneys appear to be shutting down. We’ve been giving you IV antibiotics but they have barely slowed the infection. I think it’d be fair to call it a super-bug.”

He gave her his cocky smile, the one he saved for the special ladies.

But I will be all right, won’t I, doc?” he said.

She shook her head.

That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” she said. “One by one, your organs are going to fail.”

But you can do something about that, can’t you?”

She shook her head again.

I’m so very, very sorry,” she said and took his other hand too. “You may not realise it because of the morphine, but you’re clinging to life by a tiny, tiny thread.”

He struggled to take in what she was saying.

You mean I’m going to die?” he said eventually. “All because of a stupid vasectomy? I’m going to die because of the snip?”

His voice rose with anger and outrage.

I’m afraid so,” she said gently. “It’s a million to one chance this has happened but it has. I am so sorry.”

He let the tears of self pity spill over and down his face, unconcerned for once about appearing unmanly.

It’s not fair,” he said at last.

She nodded.

Sometimes life simply isn’t fair,” she said. “You know this. Your girlfriend told me she did want children, you know.”

You’ve talked to her?” he asked astonished. “She’s been here and she didn’t come to see me? The bitch.”

No,” she said. “She’s not a bitch. She was just mistaken in you. She still cares but she can’t bear to see you this way because this was your choice. You denied her something important to her. She feels this is her fault entirely, that if she’d stood up to you, this wouldn’t have happened.”

What can I do?” he said, suddenly helpless. “I don’t want to die.”

Nothing you can do,” the consultant said. “It may take a few days or it may be a few hours. But you will die.”

Don’t let me die in pain, then,” he said.

That’s all I can do, now,” she said.

*

He lay very still, seeming deflated by death as he had been inflated by life. The consultant stood at one side of the bed, and watched the pale young woman rubbing her eyes with a scrap of tissue as she looked at him.

Was it peaceful?” she asked. “He didn’t suffer?”

No, it was very peaceful. I stayed with him to the end. He had plenty of pain relief and he just drifted off at the end.”

The girl sniffed and touched the whitening forehead.

He’d have hated how this made him look,” she said. “He was so vain, you know.”

She picked at a loose thread on the sheet that was pulled up to the dead man’s chin and broke it.

He never got to know he was going to be a daddy, either,” she said. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him you know. But at least I have something of him now to remember him by.”

She kissed the cold face and got up to leave.

What a senseless way to go, though,” she said as she slipped passed the consultant.

Miss Atropos patted the grieving girl on the shoulder.

I’m sure your baby will be a great comfort to you in the days to come,” she said.

The girl gave her a watery, red-eyed smile.

I’m sure he’d have got used to being a daddy very quickly,” she said. “He’d have made a great dad after all.”

Miss Atropos smiled. It was what they’d all said.

© Vivienne Tuffnell 14th June 2010

Stone soup

The following story is based on a dim memory of another story I read years ago and is written through my own personal filters since then.

Stone Soup

Once upon a time a large group of very different people began a long journey together. None of them were quite sure why they were making the journey but they all knew it was important; it may have been a pilgrimage, it may have been a holiday, it may even have been a diaspora. Who knows?

None of the people had had much time to pack or prepare for the journey and on the first evening as night fell, fires were lit and people settled down to rest. Tummies began to rumble and the question of food came up. No one had brought food, it seemed.

A little away from the main group of fires a man alone was tending his fire and to the surprise of everyone, he went to the stream nearby and filled a cooking pot to the brim with water and set it over the fire to heat. As the steam began to rise, he was heard muttering, “MMMmmm, soup!!”

Curious, a few people drifted over wondering what he might be cooking.

It’s stone soup,” he said when asked. “You see, I have here a stone that makes the most amazing soup. It’s an ancient magic from the time of Atlantis and I quested long and hard to find it. Anyone who owns this soup-stone will never go hungry. It’s time to put it in; the water’s about hot enough now.”

Out of his small knapsack he pulled a medium size round pebble, big enough that you could hold it in your hand but never close your fingers round it, and he dropped it with a plop into the steaming water. After a moment, he inhaled loudly.

Ooh, that smells SO good!” he said. “Doesn’t it, just? Hmm, but I do think it needs some thing else. Let me taste it. Yes, it needs a little onion.”

One of the bystanders suddenly rushed away and returned with an onion.

It was in the bottom of my bag,” she said, and the onion was duly chopped and added.

MMM,” said the man. “Smelling sooo fine now. But…” he breathed in the steam again. “I can’t help feeling it would benefit from a little bit of potato.”

Within moments another bystander had brought a large potato and was peeling it and adding it.

This is going to be such an awesome soup,” said the man. “Don’t you just smell the goodness now? Hmmm, I think it needs something….Yes, just as I thought, it needs bacon.”

Bacon was duly brought out of a bag and added.

Yummy,” said the man, tasting it. “It’s going to be superb. The stone magic never fails. I think it needs something though. Cabbage, and maybe some carrots.”

Bit by bit, the crowd grew and so too did the soup. Lentils, and beans and a host of other things were found to be lurking in people’s bags and before long the whole party were waiting and watching as the soup simmered away and the glade where they rested was filled with the savoury smell of delicious soup.

I think it’s ready,” said the man and began dishing up a few spoonfuls to each of the people in their bowls. When all had had a little, and had gone back to their own fires, he ate what remained in the pot. When he had finished, he patted his now very full tummy and sighed. The soup-covered stone waited in the bottom of the pot and he managed to get to his feet and stagger to the stream to wash it.

During the dark hours of the night, many of the travellers found they were unable to sleep well. The little soup had merely taken the edge off their hunger and most had the same thought going through their minds: If I owned that stone, I could make enough soup for me and my family and we’d never go hungry again.

Needless to say, the man with the soup-stone had little sleep that night as one by one many of the travellers crept to his bivouac and begged him to sell them the stone.

Well,” he said, in a whisper. “I might just part with it but….it will cost you all the money you have. You see, that stone would have fed me my whole life and if I sell it, I will always have to buy food again. So it’s only fair that I get a decent amount of money to compensate for it.”

Willingly, they gave him their money and in the morning, few travellers were left at the resting place and those were the ones who had not crept to the man’s bivouac. Hungry but ready to start the day, a man went to the stream to wash and ready himself for the new day ahead. As he splashed in the water, he noticed that the bed of the stream was made up of many rounded pebbles, though there seemed to be gaps where others might once have been.

That’s strange,” he said out loud. “Those stones look very like the soup-stone. I wonder where he got his from?”

The Fable of the Very Tall Woman

The Fable of the Very Tall Woman

 There was once a very tall woman. Even as a baby she was unusually long but it was only when she began walking that it became obvious she was far taller than other babies the same age. All through her school days, she was the tallest in her class. School photos showed the same thing each time; relegated to the back row and in the very middle to preserve symmetry, she stood out like a flagpole.

 As a child it didn’t seem to matter too much as there were advantages to being taller than the others, such as being able to see over adults at the cinema but as she grew up she grew taller each year until her mother had to have her school uniforms specially made.

By her teens it was becoming a problem. Not only would no nice fashionable clothes ever come in her size, but also no boy would go out with her. The few taller boys refused to go out with a girl as tall as they were; they preferred shorter girls who had to look up to them. When she left school she was the tallest in her year.

As a young adult, the woman began to feel lonely and depressed and utterly despairing of her height. She had to have her clothes specially made and even when the latest fashions could be scaled up to her height, they looked all wrong on her. Her few friends complained constantly that they had to tilt their heads to be able to speak to her, even when she was sitting down with them. Strangers in the street would shout things at her, such as, “What’s the weather like up there?” and maddeningly obvious things like, “Ooh, you’re very tall aren’t you?” She had to duck to get into most houses or she would bang her head on doorframes. She even had to get a special bed to sleep in because ordinary ones were just too short.

 One day, a friend said to her,

“Why don’t you bend down when you walk and then you wouldn’t look so tall?” and so she started to walk with a stoop and with her eyes looking always at the ground. This made her almost short enough to have a conversation without the other person getting a neck ache.

She found that if she walked with her knees bent, she would look even less tall. But people still stared at her in the street. She was very seldom asked out for a date and never for a second one, even though her face was as pretty as that of any young woman in the bloom of life. And one morning when she got up, every bone and joint in her body hurt her.

“I’m getting old without ever having been young,” she said to herself and miserable and in pain she went to the doctor, expecting him to diagnose arthritis.

After she had explained her symptoms, the doctor was silent for a long time. “Stand up for me, will you?” he said eventually and she did so, maintaining her usual posture.

 “Hmm,” said the doctor. “That’s very interesting.”

 He walked all round her, looking at her and then he put his hand on the curve where she bent her spine and gently made her straighten out.

 Then he put a hand to her knees and made her legs straighten out too. She stood there in an agony of anxiety, expecting him to comment on her immense height. She screwed her eyes shut to fight back the tears of humiliation at being discovered to be so very tall.

When she opened them again she saw the doctor was smiling at her and she noticed for the first time that the doctor was himself a very tall man and they were eye to eye. For the first time in her life she was able to look another person in the eye without having to bend or have them stand on a chair.

 “It’s not easy being tall,” said the doctor gently. “People think it must be but they don’t understand what it means. It’s not just being able to see over the heads of everyone else, or being able to change a light bulb without a chair. It’s very lonely being tall, isn’t it?”

Blinking back tears of relief the tall woman nodded.

 “But pretending to be shorter doesn’t solve it,” the doctor continued. “It makes your body hurt, and everyone can see you look strange and different. It makes you look deformed and weird if you keep hunching up just so people don’t see how tall you are. They just notice how strange you look. Better just to be tall and be proud of it.”

 As she left the doctor’s surgery, she caught a glimpse of herself in a window and immediately tried to minimise her height before remembering what the doctor said and then threw back her shoulders and walked tall for the first time in years. She may even have gone on to buy her first ever pair of elegant high-heeled shoes.

 Bespoke, of course.

 ©Vivienne Tuffnell December 5th 2008