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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Guest post ~ the grit at the heart of the pearl

If you have ever wondered how a book came to be written, this is my account of how one of mine did:

http://theaatkinson.wordpress.com/2011/05/16/mid-may-guest-blogger-at-gonzoink-vivienne-tuffnell/

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?”

Snag

 

Snag

By Vivienne Tuffnell

 

There was thunder in the air and a scent of coming rain, and as he went down the steps into the cool of the cellar bar, he had an odd sense of expectation, though he couldn’t have said why. It was just the usual post-work drink on a Friday, a couple of glasses of something cold before going home to shower and change ready for the night ahead, a demarcation point between the world of work and the real one. So he didn’t know quite why he had the feeling he might have had if he had been expecting to meet someone, when the chances were at this time, the bar would be deserted.

It wasn’t quite deserted. In the corner to one side of the door two women lurked, chatting in bored tones over white wine. He knew one of them slightly. They had history, but not the earth-shattering or even earth-moving sort, so he nodded to her curtly so she didn’t think he was ignoring her.

He was about to order a drink from the languid and damp-looking barman when the door swung open again and in a sweep of rain-scented air a woman walked in. A girl really, though as he glanced at her he realised he really couldn’t guess her age. She had the freshness of skin only the under twenties usually have but her eyes had a kind of self-aware intelligence he’d rarely seen in anyone under fifty. She was oddly dressed, and as she entered the bar, the woman in the corner said in a deliberately audible stage whisper,

“God, I hardly think wearing a sack is exactly the height of fashion.”

The girl paused, her arm nearly touching the bar. The dress was a bit odd, true enough; the fabric did indeed have the open irregular texture of hessian but as he looked at it he saw that the cloth had a shimmer and a gleam and a softness that could never come from sackcloth. Raw silk, or linen and silk mix maybe, cinched in with a wide, worn leather belt of burnished brown with a plain buckle of some dull metal.

He saw her brow contract and the girl bite her lip with hurt and on impulse he leaned over and said in an equally loud stage whisper,

“Ignore her, it’s a lovely dress.”

She gave him an uncertain smile.

“Do you think so?” she said, her voice soft and musical. “I made it myself. Excuse me, I should have a word with her.”

She turned away from him and went unhurriedly to where the other woman had now turned her back on her.

“A word?” said the girl, touching the woman’s shoulder gently.

“Well?” she demanded, staring up at her with undisguised contempt.

There was a definite pause and even the barman stopped polishing glasses to see if a fight was about to erupt. Then the girl leaned down and spoke directly into the woman’s ear. The woman’s face froze as she listened, and then went very red and finally so pale her blusher stood out on her face like the imprints of a slap. She seemed to gasp and then got unsteadily to her feet and rushed out. Her friend stayed still for a second or two and then rushed after her, shouting,

“What did she say? What did she say?”

The girl gave a small secret smile and walked back to the bar.

“What did you say to her?” he asked, impressed.

She smiled again, a pleased smile.

“I only tell people their own secrets,” she said and ordered a drink.

His curiosity was piqued.

“OK,” he said. “Tell me one of my secrets then.”

She sipped at her wine and shook her head.

“You won’t like it,” she said.

“You don’t know any,” he said, disappointed.

“Oh, I do,” she said. “But as you saw from the lady over there, usually people don’t like what I tell them.”

He was a little stung.

“How do you know these things anyway?” he asked. “Are you some sort of private detective or something?”

She shook her head.

“I just have a gift for it,” she said. “An instinct for knowing things if you like.”

“Bet you don’t know anything about me,” he said, a little galled.

“I know you’re getting married in a month,” she said.

“Anyone here might have told you that,” he said unconvinced. “She could have told you that.”

“I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I don’t even know your name.”

If it was a pick-up line, he wasn’t going to fall for it by telling her.

“But I do know you’re having serious doubts about it,” she went on and his certainty began to waver.

“Oh yeah, why is that then?” he asked, a touch aggressively now.

“That’s for you to know, not me,” she said.

“Lots of people have doubts. You’re not much cop as a psychic, you know. Bit of guesswork, that’s all that was, and maybe some local knowledge,” he said.

She shrugged unconcernedly and took another sip of her drink.

“As you say,” she agreed and it annoyed him that she wasn’t arguing. Then she raised her eyes to his and he saw for the first time that she wasn’t wearing any makeup. He’d so seldom seen a woman without makeup that her face seemed indecently naked and he found himself blushing at that thought. Her eyes were fringed with long thick fairish lashes and he found himself thinking how much nicer it looked than being caked with so much mascara raising the lids must be aerobic exercise. Despite virtually living with his fiancée he was certain he’d never seen her without makeup.

“You keep a photo of your dog from when you were a child in your wallet, under the one of your fiancée,” she said, her eyes looking deeply into his. “She hates dogs, most animals in fact. That’s one of the reasons you’re having second thoughts. You know the others.”

He was shaken, badly shaken but he tried to hide it.

“I take it back,” he said. “You are pretty good as a psychic. Nice trick. How’d you do it?”

“As I said,” she said. “I have a gift.”

There was an awkward silence.

“What did you tell her?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“That’s not for you to know,” she said. “I was going to remind her to get her Lottery ticket tomorrow, because her numbers will probably come up, but when she was so nasty, I thought, no. It’s not her time.”

“So you reckon her numbers will come up?”

Again she shrugged.

“Nothing is certain you know,” she said. “But when I came in here and saw her, the chances were those numbers would be coming up.”

“What numbers were they?”

She laughed out loud.

“Come on now!” she said. “I’m not telling you that. It’s not for you. You aren’t the one who dreams about leaving her highflying, highly paid and hardworking career to live a life of decadent luxury where she need never wear the same pair of knickers twice.”

This time he was shocked.

“How do you know about that?” he demanded. “There was no one else there.”

She smiled.

“I told you,” she said. “I have a gift.”

He was beginning to feel very unnerved now. He had had a fling with the woman who had left. It had been some years ago and it had ended almost as soon as it began. The evening had begun with a lot of drinks then back to her place for more drinks, leading to various confessions of their dreams and ambitions and finally to bed. Languishing in post coital bliss he had made the mistake of asking her how it had been for her.

“Not too bad,” she’d said. “But maybe next time I’ll draw you a map and a set of instructions.”

Understandably from his point of view, there had been no next time. But he had always thought bitterly of her every time he saw the Lottery draw on television. He’d never so much as bought a ticket himself. He’d almost decided to stop coming here on a Friday until he told himself sternly that he would not let her ruin something that he enjoyed. He enjoyed the few quiet drinks here in the dull quiet hiatus between Friday afternoon and the start of the weekend. He enjoyed them so much it was a real effort to go out again properly later in the evening.

“So what are my dreams then if you know hers?” he asked, feigning indifference by finishing his beer and signalling for another.

“You want to make a difference but you don’t know how,” she said and he found himself blushing again as if she had revealed his intimate dimensions to the world. “You worry that if you marry your fiancée you never will get the chance to make a difference anywhere, anytime, except maybe to the prosperity of the shoe and dress industry.”

He was speechless with shock. These were not things she could have found out from anywhere; these were thoughts he had never so much as given voice to. Even in that drunken game of truth or dare he had not revealed his true dreams and ambitions and he had never so much a breathed a whisper of concern about his intended’s taste for expensive shoes and designer clothes.

She finished her drink and set the glass down.

“I must be off,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting my sisters. We work together.”

“What do you do then?” he asked and she frowned slightly.

“It’s a bit difficult to explain,” she said. “You might call it human resources, I suppose. We have our own company.”

“Are you any good then?” he said. “I could put some work your way if you like.”

“We are good,” she said without any false modesty. “The best. We have sufficient business currently though, thank you. It was kind of you to offer though.”

She started to move away from the bar. The sleeve of the dress caught on something, a nail or a splinter and a tiny shred of fabric ripped away and hung on the edge of the bar. She grinned at his distraught face ruefully. He was clearly expecting the kind of tantrum most women were likely to throw at ripping their dress.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I’m pretty good with threads. And you’ll be all right too. Just listen to what your heart is really telling you and you can’t go far wrong. You’re a kind man, you know. Go make a difference.”

She walked away from the bar, her worn Greek sandals slapping softly on the smooth floor and her strange dress shimmering around her as she walked. He unfastened the shred of fabric from the nail it had caught on and held it up to the light. It felt like silk, so soft he could almost not feel it at all and through the oatmeal coloured fabric he could see finer threads of what looked like gold woven into the material. A faint and agreeable herbal scent seemed to cling to the scrap, a fragrance of bay and thyme so very unlike any of the power perfumes popular with city women but which really gave him a headache. He tucked the shred into his wallet with the picture of his dog and went home.

A week later he found himself in the bar again, listening to the music of rain and traffic outside and contemplating his coffee. He’d half hoped the girl would be there again, but inside he knew she wouldn’t be. Even so, when the door opened, his heart lifted. It was the woman he’d had the fling with years back. He got up and went over to join her, motivated by some curiosity he’d not have given in to before. Her face looked jaded and sour and her perfume had gone sour too with too hot a day and too little fresh air.

“Bad week?” he asked lightly.

She looked at him with the amused half contempt a woman reserves for an inadequate lover who still tries to be friends in the hope of a second try.

“Yes, actually,” she said acerbically. “First of all, I split up from Paul. He expected me to forgive him his little slip but when I told him about mine he blew up and dumped me. Then I was so upset I forgot to buy my Lottery ticket. And of course, guess what?”

“Your numbers came up,” he said quietly.

“Four and a half million quid lost just because that little bitch last week told me that if I didn’t tell Paul someone else would,” she said bitterly. “And you? Bad week?”

“No, actually,” he said. “I split up with Michelle.”

She looked at him with some interest.

“So that makes it a good week then does it?” she said sarcastically.

“Better that now than later,” he said.

“Why did you split up?”

“We want different things from life,” he said simply.

She gazed at her wine for a minute.

“Well, an ill wind and all that,” she said. “How about coming back to mine then and consoling each other? I bet after two years with her you won’t need a map any more, not with her experience after all.”

It might have stung once but not now.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m going out shortly.”

“You don’t hang around,” she said sharply. “Plenty more fish in the sea after all.”

He smiled.

“Not exactly,” he said, finishing his coffee. “I’ve got my first shift as a volunteer at the Night Shelter.”

He went out into the evening, sunshine showing through the grey clouds like gold thread through raw silk, and smiled at his second chance.