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.