“There are two types of apple. Those that you can eat and those you can’t.” Reuben's mother had intoned these words sagely, as if quoting one of the great wisdoms of the world. He was recovering from some extreme stomach cramps, brought on by the rather greedy consumption of half a dozen small, hard and very sour apples. Of course he knew he should never have eaten them, but he had been caught up in the joy of the moment.
He and his friends had happened upon the apple tree in the graveyard. They liked to play there after school, as it was usually empty of living souls and was a source of endless fascination. He noted the gradual change in the tree; from gnarled and twiggy, to softly green and covered with pale blossoms, until it became apparent that some kind of fruit was developing.
“Them’s apples,” one of the boys stated with some authority.
They didn’t look like apples, but he was no expert. Reuben's mother never bought apples; she had some sort of antipathy towards them.
“Aren’t apples bigger than that?”
“Give them time. In a couple of weeks they’ll be beautiful.”
The thought of beautiful apples was compelling. Reuben had never tried any sort of apple; it was an experience he was looking forward to.
Until one day, “Let’s have a go at them apples.”
The boys had shaken the tree, thrown sticks up into it, and finally climbed onto the stone wall to reach the tempting fruit. By the end of the afternoon they had quite a hoard; and so the gorging began.
None of them honestly enjoyed the taste or texture of the fruit, but they had found and gathered it themselves. They were like survivors on a desert island, making do with what was there.
“Mmm. Good food. Don’t worry about the odd worm, extra protein.” The boy who knew about apples nodded solemnly, and the others had nodded in return.
They had run home in exhilaration. They had fed themselves for nothing!
The pain arrived later; such squirmy, inescapable pain. There was no way he could disguise it and, in between spasms, he told his mother what had happened. She seemed remarkably sympathetic, given that he was unable to eat any of the food she had prepared for him. It was quite out of character.
When his father returned home he wondered what was wrong with the boy lying prone on the floor.
“He’s been scrumping apples.” The mother informed him. The two of them exchanged an inscrutable look.
“Not apples,” the boy’s father shook his head, “What is it with apples?”
Reuben wondered what it was with apples too. He knew the Adam and Eve story, but that couldn’t be it.
“Your father and I have had our ups and downs with apples,” his mother explained mysteriously.
His parents put him in an armchair, with a bowl on his lap, and sat down in unison opposite him. He feared they were about to recount the facts of life. And indeed they did. Well, some facts from their lives at any rate. His mother began:
“When I was a little older than you, I used to go skivvying with my mother. She used to clean in some of the posh houses on the hill. It was hard work, and, for all of their money, the people in the posh houses didn’t pay much. But I liked it. I had always wondered what it looked like in those houses. I couldn’t imagine who would live in those places or how they got to have them. So when my mother asked if I’d like to help her out with a bit of scrubbing and polishing, I leapt at the chance.
I was always especially good at polishing; strong arms you see. I could bring on a shine with a bit of elbow grease in a few minutes. There was one house that I loved to polish in. They had a dining room with a beautiful long wooden table. It was a lovely reddish colour, with all sorts of shades and patterns in it. But the best thing was, right in the middle of the table they had a lacy doily thing with a huge glass bowl on it. The amazing thing was the bowl was always full of the most perfect, beautiful fruit. You wouldn’t see fruit like that in any of the shops around here. I guessed that it must have been delivered from far away. They must have eaten a fair bit of fruit as you would never see it on the turn and every week there’d be a fresh bowlful. It made my mouth water. You know how it is when you’re young, you’re always thinking about food; what you’d like to eat, what you’re going to eat and when you’re going to get to eat it.“
Reuben nodded and gagged; but he did know that feeling so well.
“Well, every week I rubbed that table and stared at the beautiful fruit. The huge pineapple, the perfect bunch of grapes, the most orange of oranges, the most yellow of bananas and best of all, the biggest, reddest, juiciest looking apples I had ever seen. My tummy would rumble and I would have to concentrate on the beautiful grain of the wood to take my mind off it.
One week we went round to clean and the owners were home. I’d never seen them before but they were going to have a special dinner party and wanted to make sure that everything was just so before the preparations began.
“This is my helper,” my mother introduced me and waved me into the dining room, “You get an extra special shine on that table today,” she called. Though I didn’t see why, they were bound to put a tablecloth onto it.
I got polishing with all my might, and tried to keep my eyes off the fruit. All I could hear through the door was talk of the delicious things they were going to eat: foie gras with caramelised apples, fillet of sea bass, croquembouche. I didn’t really know what any of that stuff was but my mind conjured up the most delicious meal you could imagine.
I realised that I was starving. I couldn’t resist anymore. I had to have one. I took one of the smaller apples from the bowl; I really didn’t think they would miss it. I held it in my hands and looked at the most beautiful apple I had ever seen. I imagined the crunch and rush of sweet juice even before I put it to my mouth. If I was going to do this I was going to relish every moment. I put the apple to mouth and sank my teeth into it. It didn’t feel right at all. There was no crunch, and instead of juicy flesh, my mouth was full of an unpleasant, dry soapy textured substance. It was foul. I was in shock, and at a loss at what to do. I spat out the disgusting contents of my mouth and looked again at the apple. It was no apple. It was a fake. Wax made to look like an apple. Why on earth would anyone do such a thing?
I was now in a terrible dilemma. My mother was on the other side of the door, discussing flower arrangements and the menu with the posh woman. She would soon be in to inspect the room and I had the remnants of a forbidden manky apple to dispose of. I looked hurriedly around the room. This room was so clean and tidy that there was no corner I could drop it in, no ornament I could hide it behind. If I tried carrying it past my mother and the posh woman I was bound to be caught, it was still a pretty big apple. I realised the window was open to give the room a good airing, this was my only hope. My aim was good and my shot true. I threw that rotten apple with all my strength through the window. It flew right across the garden. I scraped the spat out bits into my pocket, I was safe. Then I heard a cry, a clatter and rushed to the window. My throw had been a little too powerful. A passing cyclist had been struck on the head by the offending apple and knocked to the ground. A body was lying in the road, still and silent. Surely I had killed him. I ran from the room and, although we were always supposed to use the back door, out through the front door and towards the road and the body.”
“Was he dead?” The boy gasped in horror. He imagined his mother in handcuffs and behind bars. Was this her terrible secret?
“He wasn’t dead,” his father boomed, “He was me. That’s how your mother caught me. Took me out with a piece of ornamental fruit.”
“Caught you?” his mother tut-tutted, “It was an accident, and you could have got away if you wanted to.”
“I couldn’t. Your mother had knocked me clean out. I had to take a week off work. When she came round to say sorry, she had a bag of fruit for me. Grapes mind, not apples.”
“Well, you should be grateful to the apple. If it hadn’t hit you on the head you might never have met Mum.” Then the unthinkable possibility dawned on him, “And I wouldn’t exist!”
His parents exchanged a look. His father took up the thread:
“Ah, you’re right. Although that apple gave me a right crack on the head, and some say I haven’t been quite the same since, I say I was struck by Cupid’s arrow and any change was for the better.” He stroked the woman’s hand and looked at her tenderly as he spoke. This seemed remarkably obsequious to Reuben’s mind, but his father continued.
“It wasn’t the form of the apple that caused my difficulties; it was more of a by-product.
After a while your mother and I got to know each other well and decided that we would get married. Personally I wasn’t that fussed about it, but your mother wanted a bit of pomp and circumstance so…” he stumbled to a halt as he became aware of his wife’s gaze. “Anyway, we decided to get married. There was planning and shopping going on for months. At last it was the week of the wedding. I was going to have a night out with my mates. I wasn’t fussed about that either, it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to see them again; but it was tradition you see. My mates had been making preparations, literally. They had been making their own version of cider. We’d had a great time, drinking the cider, it tasted quite good at first, laughing, telling stories; you know how it is.”
Reuben nodded, he knew how it was.
“After a while I was feeling pretty sick, that cider was a lot stronger than it tasted, I just wanted to lie down for a bit and rest. The boys found me a nice quiet place on a couple of hay bales. It was on the scratchy side, but it was more the dizzy feeling I’d got from the cider that was causing me problems. I swore that I would never drink again and spent, what I thought was the night, feeling sick as a dog, tossing and turning; the world around me spinning faster than my body could keep up with. It seemed to be going on forever. Eventually I was fully awake and able to sit up, but everything was still moving around me. I was moving. The boys had put me into the back of truck and I was bouncing around inside on the way to goodness knows where. There was nothing I could do but wait. I’ll never forget that taste of burning acid at the back of my throat.” The man shook his head.
“I’ll never forget turning up to our wedding with no groom.” His mother reflected gloomily.
“I got back home a few days later,” his father continued, “They’d all gone ahead with the wedding party and there were some nice snaps of the family and your mum in a frilly dress. It wasn’t really my fault, it was those apples again.” His parents nodded in unison.
It had all worked out in the end, as things generally do, but the pair had determined not to allow apples on the family menu.
Reuben felt much better during the night and, despite everything, could not help fantasising about how those caramelised apples, from the posh dinner party, might have tasted. He did think his parents rather foolish for condemning the apple as a consequence of their own poor judgements. Which was good; children always need some reason to feel superior to their parents.