“What would you do?” Mrs Arthur had asked me once. “What would you do if you could do anything you wanted to?”
Well the question stumped me for a minute, but then I said I’d like to bake cakes for a living instead of just a hobby, and maybe run a tea shop. It wouldn’t be so different to my job as a carer really, except that I would be baking and making tea for well people instead of just sick and dying ones. Not that I’ve got anything against those who are dying, the only two certainties in life are that we are all born and we all die, and I liked making a difference. Lucky I did really, as the job never paid me enough to do it for the money alone! But after fifteen years I was starting to struggle emotionally. I had done my bit, now I wanted to live a little more. Mrs Arthur knew that, it was why she asked the question. What I didn’t expect was for her to make it possible for me to turn my dream into reality.
This cottage, where I am now, it’s in a small, touristy village in North Derbyshire’s White Peak. Limestone of course, like the rest of the village, and needs a lot of work doing to it, but it’s just about the right size for me to live upstairs and turn the living room and garden into a teashop. I actually saw the cottage when I was at Mrs Arthur’s funeral, being just around the corner from the church. It looked such a sweet place, right on the main road where everyone has to walk past, but for some reason unloved and starting to deteriorate. It never occurred to me that it belonged to Mrs Arthur, or that she would leave it to me under such a strange clause in her will. Maybe she liked my cakes. I’ll never know. Anyway I have it rent free for a year, if I can make a go of it. If I can’t, or I fail within five years, the cats home gets it. How’s that for an incentive?
So I’m sitting here with my notebook and pen on my day off, trying to come up with firm plans for the place so that I can get started on it as soon as I finish working out my notice. I reckon fifteen people can be accommodated inside and a similar number outside when the weather is good. If I get that many at once I might need help, but hopefully the earnings will cover the wages. However it’s the first of August now, so there is no way I’ll be open before the summer season has gone.
Oh blimey, I’m looking out of the window, and this old chap has just come out into the garden next door with a ladder. Not that he doesn’t look sprightly, but he must be at least eighty if he’s a day, possibly nearer ninety. I don’t want to look! Not many people his age have their balance or judgement intact! There are a quite lot of trees next door, the garden fills a gap between houses and is mostly trees. Some have been pruned recently, others not. Okay, he has set the ladder against one that has not and is disappearing into the tree. No, there is his bald head, the sun reflecting off it as if he were an apple himself, and his spindly little legs must be somewhere underneath. I can’t help watching him and holding my breath; he doesn’t look steady enough. Broken hip? Cared for many of them. Concussion? Seen that too. Broken neck? Wouldn’t have seen that, would have bypassed my services and gone straight to the other side. Are they all crazy in this village?
It is two weeks later and I am relieved to be able to reassure you they are not all crazy here. I’ve lived here for a week now and most of the people I’ve met seem lovely, normal people like you might meet anywhere. Okay so the average age is a little older than in a city, young people not generally getting on the housing ladder, or wanting to be snowed in so far from work which I’m told happens most winters, but this seems like a happy community. The old chap has finished pruning his trees now, and is still in one piece. Unfortunately for my sanity he has now started picking the first apples, also from up a ladder. Why does he have to use an old fashioned step ladder? Can’t he use a scaffold tower and wheel it around the place? Or a truck with a lift, with a friend to watch over him?
No cut that thought, if his friends are his age they could be worse!
I’ve heard him whistling. He can whistle bird. I wasn’t sure at first, but I’m convinced it is him being a robin or a blackbird some days. At least, one of the birds is him. The others are birds. That’s how I know it is a robin or a blackbird. So long as they don’t try and mate with him!
I’m wondering what he is going to do with all the apples though. Make cider? A year’s supply of apple jelly? Or might he be persuaded to pass on some for the teashop?
There seems to be some mystery about these apples. I tried asking Helen, she’s the postmistress, if The Apple Man (as I privately call him) sells them or if I could ask him for any surplus, and she gave me a very strange look. “You’ll be lucky,” she said.
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Unless they’ve got your name on, of course.”
Now I was really confused. “I just wanted a few for cooking with. I’m opening a tea shop,” I told her. I hadn’t told anyone yet, but since I had to apply for the various permissions it would soon be common knowledge. Anyway she was very interested in the teashop, grasping the topic like a drowning man reaching for a lifering. Couldn’t get her to say anything more about the apples.
I went to talk to the Apple Man myself, one afternoon after I’d worn myself out scrubbing down walls ready for painting. Joe his name is. Turned me down flat, said none of them had my name on this year, and better luck next year. I asked again, but was told they were all taken already. Quite rude he was, wished I’d never asked.
There is a joke around here that he was born from a crab apple, and when he retires he’ll just turn back into a crab apple tree. He is by far the oldest resident in the village, although no one is exactly sure how old he is, but apparently apples can live a long time when they grow on their own roots.
As for the apples, it seems that he delivers them to various local people who don’t grow their own apples but like eating them, much like a veg box scheme except that you can’t sign up or order them in the normal way. Or maybe you can, but the waiting list is a few years long. I say local, but some apples are delivered several miles away to people in the surrounding farms or villages. Joe takes them on his bicycle. I’ve seem him go, and come back late in the evening with just an old-fashioned headlamp on his old boneshaker. Thought he was off to the pub. In fact I was glad to see him go out and be sociable, since he doesn’t strike me as one who has many friends, thanks to his inability or unwillingness to hold a conversation, but I found out that he doesn’t even stop to chat when he does deliver the apples. Just leaves them by the back step.
I had a really good idea this week, to plant some apple trees around the patio area, since there’s not much of a garden yet and the picnic tables I’ve put in are just exposed to the the hils and weather. I thought I could train some trees to be a bit of a wind break, and then they would look pretty all year for the customers to enjoy.
Yes I finally had my first customers last weekend! Having taken until now, late autumn, to get all the necessary permissions and certifications, I decided to open just on Saturdays and Sundays to begin with. Since this time of year it is quiet in the week there isn’t much point in me slaving away baking cakes and scones that aren’t going to be eaten, so I can see how I cope with things by myself.
Busy, but exciting! So different from working in a care home or in other people’s houses! Not only that, but I’ve got an order for a Christmas cake from one of the customers, and realised there could be a real opportunity here.
But I digress, if I’m trying to tell you about the apples! Well I took one of my many free days, now I’ve finally finished the redecorating, to head to a garden centre. Needless to say few people sell plants around here, so it was quite a long trip in terms of time down these narrow steep lanes, even if a crow could have beaten me there. I wanted some advice on what variety to grow, as well as the supports and training for the apples. I would have asked Joe, but he has been avoiding me, disappearing down footpaths if I approach, so I thought I’d better not. So there I am, in a smart, well-stocked plant centre, feeling decidedly scruffy, and I asked a knowledgeable-looking chap watering the plants for some advice about varieties. He was very helpful, until I told him where I lived. Apples need a good depth of soil, I was told. Some shelter from the wind, especially to get established. Don’t grow early flowering types if I’m in a frost pocket, and even then late snow or frost could damage the blossom. I need some insects to pollinate them, which don’t tend to proliferate in the Peak District especially if I have no other plants to attract them in. Yes an espalier would do what I wanted, but it would take a few years. But apples won’t grow well where I live, no matter what I try and do. Best I can hope for are a few crab apples to feed the birds. I told him about the orchard next door, and got a strange look. “Well it may have been well fertilised by the animals, but they’re strange apples up there,” was all he would say.
So now I’m completely confused. I came away with nothing, apart from a few bulbs to plant up some table displays, and bought some apples in a supermarket as I did my weekly shop. I have spotted a few crab apples growing in the hedgerows here about, so have been going out with a collecting bag and have gathered enough for two batches of crab apple jelly so far, and if I can get more I’ll try an apple curd recipe I found. It doesn’t keep as well as the jelly though.
Helen let slip that there is a rumour Joe planted the hedgerow crabs. Someone saw him once with a spade in the middle of the night.
No one else grows apples around here in their gardens, only Joe, and not for want of trying in some cases.
The apple orchard was apparently once a paddock, but that was so long ago no one remembers it for sure. I can’t believe any fertilising effects would have lasted this long, but I haven’t got any other explanation. Nor has anyone else.
I have so many orders for Christmas cakes, and one for a wedding, that I’m in danger of making a profit. I might have to take someone else on.
I discovered a new and even stranger rumour this morning at church. The vicar was reading the banns for a local farmer, who’s quite well known as an established bachelor. Good looking chap, but it’s probably not easy meeting new people in a place like this. Anyway, an apple tree apparently started flowering in his hedgerow about two years ago, he ate the first apples off it six months later, and now he’s getting married. The old gossipy ladies just nod, knowingly.
“What am I missing here?” I ask Helen, fast becoming my fount of all knowledge. She’s the nearest person to my age anyway.
I could feel her looking at me and weighing up whether to answer or not. “Well no one has proved it, but when apples appear, wedding bells follow,” was the reply. “It’s been happening for so long that Mavis started to notice a connection. And once, someone actually dug up an apple tree. They were divorced six months later.”
The other ladies around us sucked on their teeth and nodded sagely, but they didn’t add any more. I’m still too new here; even though the teashop is proving popular, I haven’t been here a full year and no doubt they are as familiar with the contents of Mrs Arthur’s will as I am. One or two of them are even cat owners.
I visited the one plant nursery that isn’t miles away today, and bought some alpines. That’s what they grow, and that’s what I finally decided would grow around my patio. I’ve got someone in to build me a drystone wall around the sitting area, they’re good at walls around here, survive better that hawthorn hedges and don’t need pruning. So I’ll add a few plants in crevices and around the base of the wall. Not apples, but at least they’ll brighten the place up when they flower.
Not sure if I want apples anyway, now that I’ve heard the stories. I’m actually quite happy being single.
I feel like I hardly have time to draw breath, these crazy summer months. Clearly the village has been crying out for a teashop and I’ve not only fallen on my feet, I’m rushed off them. Luckily there’s a young lass, Michelle, who likes baking cakes for people as much as I do, so I’ve now taken her on full time. We sell ice creams as well, and the new wall is proving ideal for the extra people to sit on. I try not to mind that the flowers get squashed any time we have a sunny day. It’s just grass beyond the wall, however, sloping upwards towards the orchard wall at the end of my small garden. I wish I could ignore it, but I can’t. I just keep thinking of all the things I could make with apples. Apple ice cream, Dutch apple cake, apple fudge cake, apple streusel, apple and cinnamon rings. Would I be causing romantic havoc by serving them in the shop though? After hearing about no less than six romances that started after an apple tree appeared in a hedge, I’m starting to wonder. Or maybe you only need to own a tree, the apples themselves might not have anything to do with it.
He’s started pruning those trees again. He’s a year older. I still don’t know how old he is, but I’m glad I won’t be watching him this time. Summer pruning, autumn picking, winter pruning, it seems a never ending cycle of ladder climbing. And mowing. He has this ancient push-along mower that he has been using through the summer, which looks seriously hard work. I would be tempted to just do the paths, and fill the grass areas with wildflowers and bulbs, if they’ll grow. They must grow! There are healthy, productive apple trees, after all!
I wish I knew his story. I’ve never seen anyone be such a loner, and yet so happy. Most loners I’ve met are miserable, depressing old codgers that I would run a mile from if it wasn’t my job to help them, but Joe’s always smiling when he works, whistling with the birds. He seems far friendlier to animals than to people. I’ve seen him several times sitting on a bench or a rock on the side of a hill, calm as anything, always some creature around to see what he is up to. Rabbits, sheep, a badger once rooting around in some undergrowth. I’ve learned to keep my distance, as I know if I approach too close he’ll just get up and continue his walk. Was he married? Does he have some need to see everyone else married?
There is a beautiful sunset this evening, which we need because there has been more than enough rain this week. I love the village and the hills around, especially in the evenings which is when I mostly get the chance for a walk, but some areas are so muddy that I am having to be quite careful where I go. Clocks will change soon, then it will be dark, but when that happens I’ll close the teashop most of the week and revert to winter hours.
Joe is out enjoying it too, I notice. He doesn’t stop, not when his apple trees need attention. I wish I could wave, or otherwise acknowledge him, but I don’t. I just watch as he heads out into the village with some apples he’s picked. No idea who they are for.
I hear him return an hour later, because there is a great crash coming from the garden area. Looking up, I see him on the ground. He is still for a moment, then stirs slightly. I don’t wait to see if he can get up by himself, I rush down the stairs and grab the first aid kit from behind the till, then head out of the front door and around to the passage that leads to his garden.
“Hello? Hello?” I call, trying to get to the bit of his garden I could see from my window. It’s by his tool shed, and even in the dark I can see that the noise was the sound of his ladder and his bicycle falling over. Typical that I worried so much about him falling off that ladder, and then it fell over without him. But it looks like it knocked him over when it went, because he is partly under it. “I heard a crash. Are you okay?”
“I’d be a lot better if some fool hadn’t moved the ladder! I don’t need you, but now you’re here I won’t refuse a hand up.”
I lifted the ladder off him and helped him into a sitting position. “I should have brought a torch, but I haven’t got one,” I say.
“Moon’ll be out soon, just past full. That’s all the torch we’ll need tonight. But there’s one on the shelf there if it helps you.”
I find it and turn it on, then realise his leg is bleeding. The ladder brought a few other things down with it, like pruners and collecting baskets, so I move them out of the way as best I can before squatting down to take a closer look at his leg. “May I?” I ask, tugging at his stained trouser leg. “I was a nurse before I came here.” Then seeing his unimpressed but resigned face, I add, “Might save you some hassle later.”
“Fuss, fuss, that’s all you women do,” he said, but after a bit I thought he was actually quite pleased to be looked after. And it was good to finally have a reason to talk to him and get to know him. There were no bones broken, but at that age the body can take a while to heal, so I determined to go round each day and check the dressing I had put on and see how he was doing. Of course he complained, but I threatened to tell the doctor and get the district nurse to come and take a look instead and at that he gave in ungracefully with a twinkle in his eye. I could see that he liked the idea of being a bit rebellious by avoiding the usual authorities.
“I wondered why these apples had my name on them,” he said a few days later. “I couldn’t work it out at the time.”
I tried not to show my surprise by the turn of this conversation. “And why would that be?” I asked him.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away, don’t you know,” he replied, winking.
I laughed, but later I started wondering if there was more too it. Maybe some apples had romantic connections, while others helped the old stay healthy, or the young grow up strong and tall. It didn’t surprise me that the apples would foresee an accident, if they could foresee a wedding. Well some people would say I was crazy for contemplating the possibility, but I’ve seen so much happen shortly before or after someone dies that I can’t explain, that I think there is much more to life than we realise. Or that most of us are aware of in the ordinary, every day sense anyway. But there was one thing that really puzzled me. “Where are the names written?” I asked him the next day, after I had changed the dressing in our usual silence. Then after realising by his expression that I hadn’t asked the right question, said, “Or rather, how did you know that sort were for you, and others for other people?”
He looked at me for a few long moments, then said, “Come with me.”
I was surprised, but quickly followed as he slipped on his boots and coat and headed out into the orchard. He still limped quite a bit, maybe always would if he didn’t trust his ankle to stay firm. He stopped at the first tree, still laden with apples.
“Blenheim Orange,” he said. “Been telling me for a while I need to find someone to take over soon. Been looking, ten, eleven years now, but not found anyone capable yet. Who are these apples for?”
I wasn’t sure at first if he was asking me, or asking the tree. Maybe both, because I started to get a picture of a doorway and a number, thirty nine, then a young and very harried looking woman. Blond hair, greying, tied loosely back. Her hands looked raw from something, no wedding ring. There were two children in the window, both around top end of Primary school, maybe start of Secondary. Clean but worn out clothing. They look cold. “Who is she?” I asked hoarsely.
“Someone in need. That’s all that matters. You know the house?”
I didn’t until he asked. “Yes.”
“This delivery’s yours then. Whatever’s ripe. Whatever comes off in your hand when you twist it gently, that is. Then ask again for the second picking.”
I gulped, feeling the enormity of the task ahead. Suddenly I understood why Joe did what he did.
“I planted the trees after the war,” he said. “My wife died, nursing fallen soldiers. I planted the first trees to remember her by. That was the Cox’s Orange Pippin over there, and the Arthur Turner next to it I got to pollinate it. They were hers and my favourites. Only trouble was, when I went to pick the apples, I was asked to give them away. So I planted another tree, so that I could have some. I just had more to give away. I kept planting, kept hoping I would plant enough, but there are so many people with much greater need than me and I’ve run out of space now. The crab apples are mainly for the birds, but I make a little bit of jelly from them when I can. And I get the windfalls, so I’m never completely without. They tell me what they need, pruning or fertiliser or whatever, and I’m never without. But it’s been a long time. I’m glad you’ll be taking over now.”
Was I glad? Terrified, more like! But he was quite right, the trees do always tell me what I need to do, I only need to ask. I’ve never yet found one with my name on, but there have been quite a few for the teashop. They reach more people that way.
Joe enjoyed his retirement, and I put a bench in the orchard for him so he could sit amongst his beloved trees once he could no longer manage longer walks. I nursed him to the end, and then when he left his house and land to me, I moved in and expanded the teashop to fill Mrs Arthur’s house.
Michelle has become the daily manager of what is now a thriving enterprise, while I chat to customers, oversee the business, develop new recipes, and look after the apple trees.
I still haven’t completely solved the mystery of how new trees appear, however, because there is a new tree in the corner of Mrs Arthur’s garden. I didn’t plant it, although I have now planted a few apples in hedges when the trees have asked me to, always cut in half for the two locations. Joe couldn’t have planted it, so who did? The birds? Anyway I’m now left wondering not only how it got there, but what it might mean for me. I really don’t want to get married any time soon, I’m far too busy with the teashop and all these apples to look after!
Unless whoever has the other half is a gardener with a particular liking for apples…?