Local Third Place, ‘The Last Apple’ by Jo Kirk

She closed her book and put it aside, to watch the bird on the ledge of the feeder. As the December days had contracted, its garden visits had become much earlier in the evening but it followed the same routine. It flew over the fence, tweeted its arrival at the feeding station, and took a cautious look around before pecking at the mealworm. After it had eaten, it retreated to a sheltered tree branch, from which it sang. It was the first time this winter she’d heard a robin’s more upbeat spring song, and from the volume, knew it was the male. She liked to think it was proudly claiming the garden as its own, though it wasn’t at its best this time of year, dominated by plants hardy enough to survive the frosty winds and rain.

The bleak midwinter was not yet upon them, but as the light crept away, it drained the colour, reducing the palette of greens, ochres and browns to shades of grey. In the far left-hand corner, the shadowy evergreen drooped like a head at a graveside. Raindrops lined up along its branches, slowly dripping in silent grief. Ivy stretched across the back wall, with its many hairy fingers reaching into the cracks in the mortar, compromising the stonework. She remembered how many times she’d thought to pull it down, but the leaves formed plush green curtains that she imagined concealed the door to a secret garden. She didn’t want to pull them back and shatter her dream, fearful of the rats she might reveal.

It will be someone else’s dilemma tomorrow, she thought as the robin took off. It flew over the greenhouse and settled onto the paving slabs in front, pecking between the cracks to get at the worms. The slabs were darkened with moss, and she suddenly remembered when Michael had fallen and cut his knee, the mossy memory of his blood like an indelible tattoo. How his uncharacteristic silence echoed off the glass and the gravel shrieked beneath their feet as they’d run up the path. His dad reached him first, and scooped their precious toddler into his arms. He pushed the hair from his streaming eyes, kissed his forehead, and pulled him close, soothing with gentle words, whilst stemming the blood and frantically scanning for broken bones. There were none, and she’d looked at how his face had paled, as if their child’s blood had drained straight from him. And now it crossed her mind that she’d clung onto this memory as tightly as he had held their son, because it proved it wasn’t all a lie.

Beyond the greenhouse, at the centre of the garden, stood a single apple tree. Having shed its leaves, it seemed self-conscious and vulnerable, yet she knew it as an old friend, the branches reaching protective arms to embrace the garden. She had spent many hours at this window seat, like now, with a cup of tea and a book. That first autumn she felt sure there was something growing in her belly, but didn’t say anything until she was certain. Michael was born in the glory of spring and she nursed him surrounded by blossom. She looked out, appreciating the times that she had watched him play, seen the sparrows splashing in the water bath and laughed at the butterflies frolicking in the honeysuckle. The tree was there through it all: sometimes in the foreground, when they hung the rope swing from the upper branches, and other times a backdrop, a place to hang the bunting or shelter from the showers.

With her entire body protesting, she raised herself from the window seat and took the envelope from the sideboard. It smelled faintly of the scented drawer liner under which it had been lost for so many years. She’d rediscovered it, and the familiar lurch it brought to her stomach, whilst clearing out the hosiery drawer. The first time she saw it, she was making Michael’s breakfast. A stark white envelope propped up between the cruet set. Her hands had turned the envelope over, sliced it open with a knife from the table and eased the letter out, half-knowing and not-knowing what it would say. Now, she stared at her name, and wondered if it was the last thing he wrote. Queasiness started to overcome her and she watched her arm stretch out, whilst the rest of her drifted a hundred miles away. She’d read the words many times before, and didn’t need to remove the letter again to relive the pain folded within it. Nevertheless, she couldn’t stop her fingers from fumbling it open. The ink had faded considerably over the years but his handwriting remained neat and legible. Dear Mags it began, formally. He had left them.

And when she read it again sixty years on, it was still his voice. He was dead, but he’d never quite left their home. It was the home he had built when they were married. The home to which they’d brought the wedding gifts from their parents; an apple tree sapling and an oak framed bed. They’d planted the tree together, and in the years before it bore fruit, made a child and what she considered a happy home. His abandonment set everything spinning out of control, and for a long time the apple tree seemed the only thing that kept her rooted. That September, and every year after, the branches would bow under the weight of fruit. She and Michael would pick them straight from the tree. They’d sink their teeth deep into the fleshy core, crunching as the sweet juice dribbled down their chins. They’d gather up the windfall to make pies, crumble, jelly and chutney. Then they would watch for the final apple. Their annual passage from autumn into winter, curled up on the window seat under a blanket waiting to see which would fall last. There was never anything special about the last apples, they simply clung on tighter than the rest. It seemed that they told the secret of life.

‘It isn’t for any of us to question when we might fall,’ she’d said sagely, ‘but just to keep hanging on.’

Over time the tree became gnarled like her hands, and speckled like her liver spots, with green lichen. Yet it seemed to get more fertile, whilst she became more wizened. Fruit fell faster, or she picked slower, and apples rotted on the ground. Others hung, like little parcels of guilt. Every few days she’d wade through the stinky apple mulch, rescuing all fit for the carboard box at the end of the drive. Free apples, she’d scrawled across the front in hope that the neighbours would take them. They didn’t, and the sagging, soggy box, overflowing with browning fruit and flies, helped tip the balance for her son.

The house had been too much to manage for years, but the garden kept her fighting to stay. Although nowadays she spent more time in the window seat, the scents of the flowers and the songs of the birds were just as pleasurable from there. When the apples finally drew the rats from behind the ivy curtain, Michael pressed her to visit the room in the residential home he had found. She would have a communal lounge for company, they’d said, and the privacy of her own room. She was almost wounded by the view from that window. With an uninterrupted lawn bound by wooden fences and generic shrubs, it might generously be described as subdued. Without a bird, flower or tree in sight, she’d felt it was soulless and feared it would make her privacy a prison.

She curled the envelope in her hand and pulled open the back door. Reaching outside she tugged the trowel from the herb planter. The rosemary had scented the handle, and she brought it to her nose to inhale the woody-earthy mix. She stepped cautiously onto the path, thinking that rosemary supposedly aided the memory. It’s not my memory I need help with, she sighed. She looked at where she placed her feet as she steadied herself with the handrail. The path glistened with forming frost and snail trails, as if scattered with diamonds. She slowly shuffled along it, observed by the robin at the far fence. As it sang, her shoulders loosened, and the walk seemed easier. She stooped in front of the apple tree, and nudged the rotting leaf layer with her foot, revealing a patch of soil. She reached for the trunk for balance, and leant over and dug a little hole with the trowel. She started to feel weary, and let it fall. She held the envelope in both hands, and without a word, tore it into pieces. Light from the house cast her shadow over the hole, into which she started to drop the pieces of paper, remembering the soil dropping on his casket. Dizziness came over her and she gripped the trunk. A tear coursed down her cheek but she felt strong, as if the tree provided life support through its bark.

She took a deep breath, and spoke. ‘Michael and I visited your grave every year. His wonderful daddy.’ She winced as if in physical pain. ‘I couldn’t take that from him but, oh, how it hurt me to hold onto your secret’. Her dewy eyes looked over the darkened garden, then to the house, before returning to the tree. ‘We came here full of hope, but you left and cast a shadow over this home,’ she said in a whisper. She swept her eyes up the strong trunk, and to the branches extending their arms. ‘This tree always made me feel protected, but I don’t need it any more,’ she said boldly.

With a long sigh she opened her hand and let the final pieces fall. She nudged them into the hole and replaced the soil with her foot. She stepped back, and looked at the skeletal tree. It had been in such joyful blossom the spring that he had died. She had seen it as she’d dropped the letter, still reeling from his words and shocked by the knock at the door. She had rushed to open it, thinking he had changed his mind, not questioning why he would be knocking. She opened the door to discover something was irretrievably broken. Two police officers formally informed her that his car had been hit on the dark wet roads, just five miles from the house. He’d died instantly, they said. Yet she kept hearing his words in the letter, spinning her further and further from the life she’d felt safe in. So, she pretended it had never been written.

How would anyone know? She thought at first. Then later. How do I tell anyone now? She was supported in her role of grieving widow, but alone in the knowledge of all that she’d lost. Somehow, she’d found the strength to preserve Michael’s image of his father, but she could never throw the letter away. Shame buried it beneath the lining of the hosiery drawer, where it was lost, but never entirely forgotten, for so many years.

Noises came from the house and she turned to see faces at the window. Knowing them to be her granddaughter and great-grandchildren, and imagining their looks of concern for Great Granny standing out in the cold, she waved. The robin chirped from the fence post behind, and she turned again to see him fly from the garden. With the wind piercing like needles on her face she stepped carefully back onto the path and towards the warmth of the house. It was hers until tomorrow, when the removal company would descend and pack up all her things. She was staying with her granddaughter tonight, so she wouldn’t have to witness her life reduced to a lorry-load of boxes. The fear that Michael would find the letter had waned as he’d grown up, but she felt relief to know that now he never could.

From the back door her eyes peered through the darkness for the outline of the last apple. It seemed lonely amongst the bare, shadowy branches, but she reminded herself of the canopy of blossom that would soon fill the space. Pink and white flowers, alive with the sound of bees and the subtle scent of hope amongst the glossy green leaves. They exploded into life each May, but were fragile, just as suddenly reduced to a fragrant pink carpet by the slightest wind. ‘Lonely, but still hanging on’, she muttered absently about the apple, turning away from the garden.

When they were ready to go, she stood at the doorway and gently reached her hand to touch her youngest great-grandchild’s face. Her arthritic fingers stroked the child’s velvety forehead, and pushed the hair from her eyes. ‘You have your grandaddy’s eyes’, she said smiling. She pulled the front door shut and turned the key. As they walked to the car, she wrapped her coat tightly against the northern wind that rattled through to the back garden. There, the tree swayed, and the last apple dropped to the ground.

Jo Kirk is a writer who lives in Frome.

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