A Funeral of Apples

The long and unusually hot Summer lead to an early Autumn of abundance. By September the trees in the Orchard were groaning under their weight of apples. Ned watched the pupils returning to the school and the school year begin with all its usual dramas about short staffing, challenging behaviour and unsupportive management. By mid-September the apples were beginning to fall from the trees and when Storm Dora hit, the high winds resulted in a third of the apples lying bruised and broken on the ground. It seemed the fallen apples called out for attention and Stephen’s class were seen collecting them in wheelbarrows. Ned hoped it was to make apple juice or even distribute the less bruised and damaged apples around the School. Instead when he walked past the following day he saw rows and rows of apples lying along the raspberry canes. Left to rot and turn to mulch. The trees, despite the storm, were still full of apples and it was clear to Ned that nothing was going to be done about them. Remembering a past where he would have ordered all the classes and their teachers outside and made the picking, storing and juicing of apples a priority, only saddened him further. Stephen encountering Ned standing by a tree known for its tart, sweet apples and filling one small bag for Ned’s daughter Esther, told him that they had done as much as they could: ‘One class has made apple rings and Judith’s class made apple juice one day.’ Ned snorted and shook his head: ‘apple rings and one day of juicing, rubbish! That won’t solve it.’ His gaze went to the long and ever increasing pile of apples rotting on the ground. Stephen felt Ned’s censure but as his primary concern was removing apples from the grass so that it could be mown, he offered his usual irresolute smile and moved on.

 

Walking down a baking hill in Southern Germany in July, Esther passed a plum tree, boughs breaking under its fruit and the plums lying rotting and burst on the pavement. She stood in front of the tree, picking plums and eating them, their hot sweet juice running down her throat and pondered why nobody was collecting the fruit. The tree it seemed ‘belonged’ to no-one. It stood on the no man’s land of earth bordering the pavement and separated from the neatly demarcated fences of neighbouring suburban houses. Presumably the council ‘owned’ the tree but its plum abundance was the province of nobody but wasps and beetles and the worms that were beginning to writhe amongst the crushed fruit. ‘This is a sign of decadence and wealth’ she thought. ‘A country can let fruit rot and spoil because it simply has too much.’ She asked her children and husband to collect some of the plums and even suggested coming back with buckets, but nobody was really that interested. It was just too hot and there was always so much fruit to eat, why should they really concern themselves with one lone, over-abundant plum tree?

 

At the Michaelmas Festival that year, Martha spoke about the Glories of Nature and the Hard Work and Dedicated Labour that had gone into growing all the beautiful fruit, vegetables and flowers that were to be placed on the harvest altar. The pupils, teachers and staff placed wreaths of sunflowers and rosehips, bushels of potatoes, beetroots, swedes, and oversized marrows on the altar.  They sang about Blessing the Harvest and Gratitude to Nature and listened to poems extolling the ‘Bountiful month of September.’ At the Harvest meal they ate soup made with the vegetables from the garden and sang more songs that told of Michaelic victories over a Dragon from long ago. Esther sitting at the table noticed that the usual apples and grapes, offered after cake and before the ending of the meal, were absent. Everyone was so busy, there was so much else to worry about and do: classes to teach, pupils to manage, new staff to train – it was awful that the apples were rotting but nobody had any time and ‘somebody’ else should really do it. This was the gist of the conversation at the table. At the end of the meal, Simon, the new School Manager spoke to her. Esther mentioned the apples dying in the Orchard. She joked that he could have made a little side economy in selling apples in the town or even bringing them home to his family. He acknowledged that they hadn’t ‘managed’ the apples well this year. As if the apples were unruly children or disobedient pets. They had enquired into getting the apples made into cider by a local firm, Simon said, but they too had been too busy and after that well, life carried on and the apples were left to their own devices. Esther did not point out that rotting apples and the inability to get them properly stored, juiced or even eaten at the Michaelmas meal, might be taken by the less generous as a sign of ineffectual leadership. Simon she knew, was already harassed and under pressure. He did not need Esther to make some pointed symbolic comment about the state of the apples equalling the state of the School. There were others who were saying that already, and they had recourse to more powerful and practical arguments than spoiled apples and wasted fruit.

 

In the following weeks, Esther cycled down to the school and picked apples from the Orchard. Ned had told her which tree gave the best fruit and she scrambled amongst its boughs, assessed the fallen fruit for bruises and waded into nettles by the pond where more apples had fallen, to try and salvage what she could. She was aware all the time she collected the apples, that she could easily be observed from any number of the houses near the Orchard. Nobody ever came out to talk to her, or even to commiserate over the apples. It was peaceful, the autumn sun gentle on her skin and when her cloth bag could take no more, she walked back to her bicycle and cycled home. Her children did not really appreciate the organic goodness that lay in the fruit bowl. Her eldest son had a passionate love of apples, but they had to be Granny Smiths. When Esther pointed out that Granny Smiths were flown all the way from Chile, whereas these apples came from just down the road; he ate the apples but not with his usual zeal. Esther’s husband suggested they take more bags down to the Orchard and collect as many apples as possible. He had colleagues who would love and appreciate the apples. Esther wondered why he cared about the apples but not about the German plums.

 

By the time October arrived and with it more storms and rain, most of the apples had fallen to the ground, been duly collected by Stephen’s class and left to rot in piles on the compost heap or to mulch the raspberries. There were still a few stragglers clinging to the boughs of the trees and Esther picked those on her way to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. The School had broken for the holidays and very few people were around. Ned had asked Esther to take care of the geese and hens in the School whilst he was away, though Esther doubted Simon knew anything about this informal arrangement. She wondered if she should walk into Simon’s office and offer him eggs to take home? Somehow that act seemed a little presumptuous. Anyway Stephen was taking some eggs for his family and Victor went egg collecting with his young son, who loved the sounds the chickens and geese made and would clap his hands with glee. Eggs, it seemed, were a more precious commodity than apples. People actually collected and ate them.

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