Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit


Evie could see the trees from the bridge that carried the East Park Road traffic over Willow Brook.  She would stand on the bridge or else at the railings fencing off the bit of waste ground on the side of the brook between the road and the wall of the garden where the trees were, the apple trees.

There were two of them and even on a still day their branches seemed to beckon her.  In winter they poked up above the wall: witches’ fingers, arthritic, knobbled, cauldron black.  Silvered by frost some mornings, sporting a fine shading of snow on others, they always beguiled.  “Come near.  Come here,” they seemed to tell her.  In the spring a swelling of buds, and then the bursting blossom turned the next two weeks into one long Saturday with a wedding every hour.  When the confetti cleared, swept up by some housewife wind, Evie would watch for the arrival of the little apples and then watch the more as the fruit swelled slowly to ripeness.

“Come near. Come here,” the trees teased.

“I can’t,” Evie’s thoughts would answer them.  “I’m too little.”

Time passed, the seasons flowed brook-like and Evie also took to growing.  The summer she turned ten she reckoned she was ready to follow the siren calls.  But there were obstacles.

The railings were the least of these because someone, sometime, had bent one of the spiked metal bars to make a space she could squeeze through – and she could, she already had.  But the waste ground the railings were meant to guard was the same size as the plot occupied by the flour warehouse next to it and she would be in plain view for some of the time as she made her way to the garden wall.  In winter it appeared a dank, dying place: the grass and dock all weather weary and foul with soot.  There were potholes filled with water, dog muck everywhere and, once or twice, Evie had watched fat grey rats come out of the brook, scuttle up the brickwork securing the bank, and race over to the warehouse wall.  In summer the place became a jungle lush with deep stands of nettles as high as Evie herself, and she knew they were stingers.  She’d seen kids come out onto the road rubbing themselves with dock leaves, legs and arms aglow, white blisters already rising.  But the nettles would serve to hide her as she made her run, at least for part of the way, and she had a plan to keep from being stung.

The back wall of the garden in which the two trees stood was not impossibly high, but it had a topping of broken glass set in cement that sat there like so much wicked icing on the thin slab of red brick cake.  Again, Evie thought she could manage the wall and the glass.  Again, she had a plan. What she didn’t have a plan for was the boy.

She had not known about the boy until one spring day the year before when she saw him in the garden for the first time. The trees and bushes were showing green, but their foliage could not quite conceal the sickly face that watched her.  Embarrassed but above all confused, she waved.  The boy did not return her greeting and he seemed always to be there after that. 

Evie thought he might be about her own age.  She thought as well he could be an Only like her because she never saw him with any other kids.  When he wasn’t on his own in the garden, he was with an old man, his grandfather perhaps.  So there again they were similar.  She was an Only living with her Nan.  He was an Only living with his granddad.  But for the apples they might have been friends.  If they’d been friends the boy would probably have given her the apples she was set on thieving.

August and already kids had been at the trees.  Evie had stood and watched one lot having a go.  She heard the boy shout for the old man the minute the first kid got up on the wall and then she saw the pot of hot tea emptied over him and his two pals after he jumped back down.  They thought they’d been crafty, these lads, putting on gumboots and paddling upstream in the brook so as to come out of the water at the foot of the wall.  Well, they went back into the water a lot quicker than they’d come out of it, one of them falling full length.  He stood up wet and wailing about what his mam would do to him for getting soaked.  The lad who had been up on the wall wailed about how his school blazer had snagged on the glass so that he couldn’t get it down without the cloth tearing.  His mam would do for him if he went home without it.

Evie decided to try for her share of the apples half-way through the August Bank Holiday fortnight when it seemed like the entire town, including the boy and his grandpa, had gone away on holiday.  She wore her corduroy trousers and a thick sweater, as well as a pair of gloves, for the weather denied the season.  She had with her a bag for the apples and two sacks she’d begged from a greengrocer.  One of these had holes cut in it: two small ones so she could see, two larger ones for her arms.  Wearing this would get her through the nettles.  The other sack was for the glass that topped the wall.

Evie’s heart raced as she stood outside the railings.  A wind blew, the nettles shimmied, derisively, she thought, but the apple trees, their branches heavy with fruit, called to her more urgently than ever.  She eased through the gap in the railings. 

Not wanting to be seen from the road, she went down the bank and then a little way underneath the bridge meaning to put on the first of her sacks, but then she felt the need to wee and so, stuffing them and her bag behind a stanchion, undid her trousers, tugged them down with her panties and squatted on a big flat stone close by the chuckling water.

She did these things unaware the boy watched her, his face whitening with excitement at the twin moons her buttocks made in the darkness beneath the bridge.  He watched as she righted her clothing again and as she struggled into the sack.  He watched her come swiftly through the nettles.  Moving along his side of the wall, he watched the second sack come up on to the top of it and then Evie’s gloved hands as they sought for purchase so she might begin her climb.  He watched her head appear and then her shoulders.  He watched as she got her elbows up onto the sacking and swung a leg over to straddle the top of the wall.  Evie stopped there, her mind fixed on scanning the ground immediately below her before jumping down into the garden.  When the boy showed himself, she rocked backwards, all but falling onto the glass beyond the edge of her sacking saddle.

“If you want an apple, you can have this one,” the boy shouted.  He had a high-pitched squeak of a voice that, even in her present predicament, struck Evie as funny.  But the apple he let fly at her with wasn’t funny.  An early falling, it might as well have been a rock.  He couldn’t throw though, this boy, and the apple went well wide.  Still, Evie was off the wall before he could find another and she tugged the sack she had been sitting on down after her, yanking some of the glass out of the concrete like loose teeth.  The apple the boy had thrown lay on the ground not six inches from where she stood and, determined to have something to show for her daring, Evie picked it up.

“I know you,” the boy shouted.  He must have climbed up on something – Evie had seen an upturned bucket like the one her Nan used to force the rhubarb in their bit of a garden - because his head and shoulders were above that part of the wall she had just abandoned.  She ignored him and began the trip back through the nettles to the railings, the road and freedom.

“You live round here,” the boy kept on.  “My father’ll have the police on you.”

Evie stopped, turned and yelled, “That old bloke’s your dad?  You must be joking!”

“He’s not old.  He isn’t.  It’s just – well, he was in the war.”

“What war was that then?  The Boer War?” Evie was laughing.

The boy fell silent, but for no more than a moment, after which he threw something at Evie more hurtful than any apple. “I saw what you did under the bridge.  I saw your bum and your widdle and - and everything!”  He began to chant, “ I saw England, I saw France, I saw your dirty underpants.”

At this, Evie let fly herself and being a much better aim than the boy, returned the apple he had thrown at her with such force and accuracy he did not know what hit him, or even where what hit him might have come from.  Evie knew.  Evie threw. Evie saw the apple catch him smack on the mouth, knocking him down like a ninepin.  And then she ran, imagining all the way home how it would be when the old man who might or might not be his father found him among the other fallings in the dirt.  He’d have a split lip that boy; more likely than not a tooth or two missing as well, and in his mouth would be the taste of blood - and apples.

Clive Collins 

Born in Leicester, England, Clive Collins has spent the greater part of his life working as a teacher in Ireland, Sierra Leone, and Japan. He is the author of two novels, The Foreign Husband (Marion Boyars) and Sachiko’s Wedding (Marion Boyars/ Penguin Books). Misunderstandings, a collection of short stories, was joint-winner of the Macmillan Silver PEN Award in 1994. He was a short-listed finalist in the 2009 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. More recently his work has appeared in online journals such as Penny, Cecile’s Writers, and Carried Away & Other Stories is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks

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