Malus

By PETER ARSCOTT

apple

This apple I have only just bitten into as I stand in the cool dank store room tastes of November, already old and fading, and my tongue, so often dulled by the anaesthetizing effect of regular wine drinking, red wine in fact, and never white which has always produced a low-level ache in what I assume is my liver and is thus to be avoided at all costs, my tongue, as I said, was ambushed by the apple’s unexpected weariness, yes, a tired and indecisive flavor that was perhaps on the turn, perhaps only a day away from being rotten, its wrinkled skin an obvious warning of what lay in wait as it pressed against the roof of my mouth. All the elements that make an apple taste good have fled, though there may have been a few stragglers on the threshold just tip-toeing out through the exit door as I bit into the soft blandness. The slight acidity, the yielding crunch, the scent of tree, have evaporated and left behind this sapless fraud, though the deception may not have been its but mine; after all, it made no pretense to be anything other than a two-month-old apple, whereas I should have known better. And to be fair, my nose did detect a fleeting whiff of sweetness, so fleeting that I wonder now whether it was the apple’s parting gift or wishful thinking on my part, lazily assuming that any apple that still managed to retain some resemblance to a recently picked fruit, in this case to a certain redness and roundness of shape, would satisfy my taste buds so long as allowances were made and any expectations lowered, though not too much, despite the fact that expectations are often the chief casualties of that cruel state we call reality, that state of things as they actually exist as opposed to a theoretical idea of them, the world of pain, and people, and cars, and worms and this pulpy fruit I hold in my hand, and not the world inside our heads, unless, on the other hand, we accept that reality is filtered through our consciousness and, thus, our dreams and fantasies become as real as the toolbox on this stone floor, an idea I quite accept and with which I have no problems, standing as I am in this dim windowless space and not sitting at some smart dinner table trying to explain the issue to incurious fellow guests in a manner both confident and witty. No, the more I think about it the less I blame the apple whose mission in life was to have dropped off its branch onto the sodden ground and, after a period of exposure to all the elements, quietly rotted and opened up its heart to reveal its core purpose as seed carrier, allowing the wind or a passing bird to make off with those seeds to faraway meadows and hedgerows where, in time, saplings would appear and grow fruitfully unless cut down for practical reasons by farmers or the highway authorities, an act that might be considered a form of vandalism by sentimentalists and by city dwellers but which those of us who live in the rural areas fully understand, and by rural areas I mean the landscapes peopled by those who live in villages and towns, plumbers, shopkeepers, electricians, computer technologists, escapees from urban life and suchlike, as much as those few, those very few, who live and work on the land itself, a dying breed now that the sophistications of farm management are in the ascendancy and a pair of hands is no longer required to even drive a tractor let alone stack hay bales or milk a cow. As for apple picking, here that is an activity that nowadays is no longer undertaken by local villagers and their children but by foreign workers, mostly East European, who often decide to linger after harvest and find other work, sometimes manual but often administrative, and even, I have heard it said, sexual in nature, and so gradually start to integrate, with the effect that Ukrainian or Latvian words brush past you on the High Street and young children rushing out of the primary school in the afternoons respond to names such as Milos or Jerzy, unaware of the discordant consequence of their music to some, so unlike their parents’ adult understanding of the ebb and flow of human antipathy and generosity towards others. I know my apple made no contact with anybody other than my own hands because it was I who pulled it off its branch, it was I who carefully stored it along with its over fifty peers harvested from the one tree in our garden, a Cox Orange Pippin planted twelve years ago and given to my husband and me by my only aunt, now dead, who visited us intermittently but always unannounced, and would spend whole weekends in the kitchen hunched over the sink as she peeled potatoes or stood at the Aga with her eyes fixed on the progress of a stew, an activity I have never been able to decipher—was it kindness or was it meant to be a subtle message about my own cooking? She was inscrutable in that old fashioned way, never kissing or hugging, in fact I hardly remember her ever touching me, and I would not have dreamt of doing so myself given her fastidiousness, but, still, I will never know why she insisted on visiting us or what she got out of it, though she did give us the tree. A fine tree as it turned out, bountiful from the word go, when even as a sapling it managed to produce half a dozen small red orangey apples that we did not store but ate in one sitting, as I remember, one late October afternoon when my aunt was on one of her sporadic stays and was able to witness the fruits of her gift being consumed by her niece and, I suppose, nephew-in-law, though I do not remember any sign of pleasure on her unsmiling face, only her slight but stiff stoop as she watched us crunching into the apples while at the same time we made those conventional grunts and noises of appreciation that politeness demands. As I said, my aunt is long dead but her gift keeps on giving of itself every autumn, as if afraid to disobey a command and suffer a horrible fate otherwise, and thus squeezing out as many pale pink buds as it can in spring so that the threat of the axe is staved off for another year come October, fanciful though this is since I am referring to a tree and not to a sentient being, even if I am beginning to realize how fond I am of its presence in the garden, of its pleasing shape and shifting colors and the way its glossy leaves shimmer with every passing zephyr, the way it harbors tiny birds, often goldfinch in the summer months, and its naked verdigris intricacy in winter. I have decided to finish eating this apple after making allowances for its time in storage and the possibility that I never spotted a rot-nurturing blemish when first picked or the fact that I may have bruised it when placing it on the dark shelf alongside its fellows, all three being possible excuses for its decay and thus confronting me with no other choice but to follow that first mouthful with another one, this time with a different outcome, surely, from the initial one of disappointment. I sincerely believe that presenting yourself with another option to consider is a first step towards a form of personal liberation and allows you to overcome those inevitable prejudices or instinctive first reactions to a perceived problem. I find that a firm but open and conscious approach to a challenge bears fruit more often than not, that if my husband, say, is looking at me in that particular way he adopts if thwarted by my refusal to see him eat a fourth bowl of ice cream, usually honeycomb or his other favorite damson and sloe gin, when his demeanor becomes aggrieved and resentful, I simply refuse to engage with him verbally. I relax in the armchair, close my eyes and imagine an axe splitting open his bald pate—a violent image, I accept, but one that washes through one and clears up residual and unhelpful emotional clutter leaving the spirit cleaner and happier. Again, my decision to view a colleague at the office in a more considered way, taking into account her possible childhood crises, she is, after all, undeniably obese and must have been so as a child, and ascribing her shrill and rather unattractive ways to a deeply felt vulnerability, means that I no longer suffer from any stress induced by revulsion but rather I experience a calming neutrality that settles over me and my work. “No,” I smile, “of course I don’t think another bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise will make any difference.” “Do go ahead, there’s only room for one more in the lift and I’m quite happy to take the stairs.” In this way everybody rubs along well enough, my husband with an axe in his head, my knowing that my colleague was undoubtedly teased on the playground, this apple with its blameless decomposition, and so on. You see, one makes allowances that can be either benevolent in spirit or, frankly, malicious, but the results are positive and lend to life the lubricating oil that allows the cogs and wheels operating society, and one’s role in it, the smooth working of a Rolls Royce engine, something I know about from the time, albeit short, when my husband’s salary allowed us such a luxury. As a result of this strategy the second bite of the apple yields a mellow flavor that hints, much as before, at days now gone when the garden smelled of leaf mold and mulch, but the melancholy is pleasing enough and there is a trace in the nostrils of cider, or the possibility of cider, and an intimation of vinegar too faint to be startling. However, this second bite has also revealed a small and legless wriggling form half jutting out of a tiny perforation, undoubtedly its den, and I will thus have to be flexible and change my strategy to one of immediate retreat. Allowances cannot be made for all eventualities, despite my father always saying that when it comes to food “what does not kill you fills you,” and so the rational decision would be to take the apple outside and throw it onto the compost where it will decompose and fulfill its assignment while I continue with mine and the reason I entered the store room in the first place, because like most rooms of this kind it is used for storing spare parts, light bulbs, jars of screws and nails, paints and brushes and so on and so forth, not just produce from the garden, and what I am looking for is not in the toolbox I placed on the floor and opened, but, as I now see, on one of the shelves at shoulder height where the larger implements such as the saws and mallets are kept. The crisp black lettering on the attractively curved handle tells me it is made in Sweden and my right hand closes comfortably around its hickory length then tightens and flexes as it lifts it and engages the weight and beautiful geometry of its steel blade. All the time my left hand holds the apple, which I shall get rid of first.

 

Peter Arscott was born in Lima, Peru in 1954. He went to boarding school in England and later studied Spanish at Bristol University before moving to Barcelona where he worked as a teacher. He later took up painting and had a number of solo and group shows. He returned to live in London, working as a Blue Badge tourist guide and exhibiting at various galleries. He now lives in Herefordshire and has an art and ceramics studio in Ledbury. He is a founding director of the Ledbury Poetry Festival and is involved in the arts locally. Read more at peterarscott.com.

Malus

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