By Sarah Chapman
‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away,’ is how the saying goes. Maybe that’s why Fiona’s brought him dozens.
“What am I meant to do with all these?” Charlie had asked in frustration, limping around his minute kitchen table, his mobile pinned to his ear.
“Eat them? Freeze them? Throw them around? They’re apples. You were complaining about not having enough fresh food around the place.”
“Yeah, I was thinking more like vegetables. Not umpteen-billion sodding pounds of apples!”
“Oh piss off,” Fiona had snapped, and hung up.
There are apples everywhere; in his one spare bowl, balancing precariously. In a Tupperware denuded of its lid on top of the microwave. A bag of them shoved to the back of the fridge. Two placed temptingly by the side of his bed. They are baubles of colour dotted around his grey existence.
The apples are red; a waxy, 1940′s lipstick red, and flawless. But they don’t make Charlie feel hungry. Not much does these days.
Eventually, he peels one. He sits on the edge of his bed and does it with a penknife, using his mother’s trick of rolling the apple in his palm so that the peel comes off in one long strip. The flesh is pale as a church candle, and the smell of apple fills the room.
The peel drops to the floor in a twist and Charlie bends to pick it up as a matter of course. In the old days people tossed it over their shoulder as a charm to find out the name of their lover.
Staring, Charlie wonders.
The peel, unmistakably spells a word.
‘Help’, it reads.
Never superstitious, he scrapes it into an illegible ball in his hand and throws it in the bin. He eats the apple; it’s crisp and sour, and the taste lingers on his breath for hours afterwards.
The second apple, taken from the bag in the fridge, is damp and cold. Charlie breaks it apart with his bare hands, like his father used to, using the heels of his thumbs for leverage. It cracks apart and the juice goes everywhere.
He eats it, hesitating. Perhaps the chill of refrigeration has done something to the apple; changed its chemical composition.
Maybe something (though he doesn’t know what- there’s nothing else in the fridge) spilt on it. The taste is salty, and as the flesh of the fruit warms in his hand, it trickles ever more steadily.
‘Like sweat’, he thinks at first.
Later, after nightmares, when he’s wiping his face, his mouth is full of tears and it reminds him of the apple, but he cannot acknowledge it more than that.
The third apple is dry. It rasps under the knife as he cuts it into quarters, cutting out the core and the hard brown seeds. His mouth puckers on the first bite. It is bitter.
The forth apple, taken hesitantly, is the darkest red Charlie’s ever seen an apple be. It seems to sit forlornly, sagging a little to one side. He digs into it with his knife.
Under the dark red peel is dark red fruit; cherry black, in fact, and before his eyes it begins to ooze a thick red juice.
Charlie heart pounds. The little trickle spreads out in a puddle over the kitchen counter. Strawberry juice is red, though brighter than this. Cherry juice or cranberry sauce is nearer the mark; or old, old port wine.
‘Think of food,’ he tells himself firmly, sweeping it into the bin, untasted. ‘Beetroot bleed. Blackberries stain everything. Some fruits have naturally thick juice.’
He pushes all the rest into the fridge and leaves them there.
The last is a test and a hope. Charlie can’t take his mind off of the bag of apples. Three days pass, and he can’t forget them. He opens the fridge and stares at the bag. The apples have yet to vanish or go off.
An apple is fairy-tale, Charlie thinks. He’s eaten one and lived. He’s bitten into two others, and yet lived still. Another might be different.
‘Poison,’ Charlie thinks, contemplating. In some tales, it kills you. In others, you fall into a deep, deep sleep that you never wake from. Charlie’s tired. The idea of it is a tempting one. He’d like to sleep, dreamlessly, and wake only when things are good again. The risk, that it could kill him, that it might not kill him, is even more of a temptation. Once, twice, he takes an apple out and looks at it.
It looks so normal.
It smells so much like any other apple.
On the third time, he bites it, suddenly, before his thoughts can stop him.
The apple screams.
It spills from his hand, and Charlie spits, his ears ringing. He has no idea if the scream was just in his head or somewhere else, or if anyone else could hear it, but it has all but deafened him.
Curves in the peel, salt, bitterness, bleeding- he can convince himself to explain it all away so prosaically. It’s a fluke, a contamination. It’s a bad apple. It’s a strange and unpopular variety. It’s one of Fiona’s little jokes.
But even Fiona can’t make an apple scream.
Charlie calls her, the broken apple still spinning on the linoleum where he’d dropped it.
“Those apples- where the hell did you get them?”
“Tell me where you bought them!”
And she does.
Charlie limps out of his house, his pockets full of apples. He won’t leave them behind. He daren’t. He has to know. If the madness of the apples is real or if it’s his own personal madness - either way he wants proof. He wants to see someone else see it, smell it, taste it, hear it. Or he’ll never be sure.
He walks. It’s a pilgrimage, carrying the apples home in the pockets of his plastic raincoat. He walks through neighbourhoods, past the tube stops, into the city. He walks to the British Museum and then around the back, into a road lined with huge terraced houses. Between two banks of houses, there is, as Fiona had told him, a gate. It’s taller than a man, and black cast iron, tipped with gold detailing. Charlie stares.
It should be locked. There is a lock, but the gate is slightly ajar.
Beyond it, against a garden wall, is a table, and the table is piled with apples. “Free” says a sign propped against it. Charlie approaches it.
There are trees poking their heads above the wall. Charlie walks the line of the red brick, hand on the stone, until at last he finds another gate. This one is smaller, iron-railed again, to keep all but a peep of the gardens private. Inside, there’s a lawn and a shrubbery, and a solitary apple tree.
And under the apple tree, there she is, reading a book.
“Hello,” Charlie calls.
The woman looks up and scowls. Charlie takes an apple from his pocket.
“They’re free, just take as many as you want.”
“I did,” Charlie says. “I brought them back.”
The woman slightly lowers his book to look at him. She’s thin, the stranger, and shabby somehow, even though her clothing is nicer than Charlie’s. “I don’t want them.”
“I know, I just... wanted to ask,” Charlie says. The leaves of the apple tree rustle, and with a soft thump, one of it fruits drops to the grass.
The apple in Charlie’s hand beats and aches in a way that to Charlie is deeply familiar. Suddenly he understands why he’s come here.
“Why are you so lonely?” he asks. He cradles the apple in the palm of his hand. It shows him hours sat under its mother tree, reading alone the words of dead men because the living seem so incomprehensible. It tells him of a child planting a seed- not this child, just another long lost lonely one. It whispers, ‘help’ in it’s peel. It whispers lovingness for its human.
The woman stares.
“I got your message,” Charlie says. He holds the apple out through the bars of the gate. “So I came.”
Slowly the book lolls closed. Charlie catches a glimpse of something arcane before it closes, the black leather falling forgotten to the grass. She stands, caught between curious and shy. “I don’t know what you mean,” she says, though she does. Her gaze does the inevitable flick to the cane and the limp. “And that must not have been convenient.”
Charlie smiles. To the stranger, his eyes are autumn blue, and there are apples in his cheeks. She holds out his hand and Charlie places the apple there without letting go. It’s heavy. She looks down. In the places where their fingers have met, the apple is ripening to gold.
“I came anyway,” Charlie says.