Apples - Short Story

by John Thieme

Angela was on her way to take Mrs. Bayliss the apples. Now she was fourteen, but it was something she’d been doing every August since she was eight, apart from that one time when Mrs. Bayliss had sent Joanne to collect the apples from their house. That must have been two years ago, or was it three? Joanne had only come that once and after she’d left, Angela’s mother had said, “She’s so very wearing, though of course she can’t help it, poor thing.” Her mother decided that Joanne had an allergy to cats and so she’d told Mrs. Bayliss it “wasn’t fair” for her to be exposed to Thomas. Angela would bring the apples as usual next time. It would be no problem at all. Mrs. Bayliss understood.

She’d played with Joanne once in the Baylisses house. The first time she went there. It had been fun, but she was small then and now she’d outgrown the games they’d played. More recently she’d seen Joanne walking around the town several times and she’d always stopped to say “hello” and ask her how her mother was. Joanne was always very polite. “Thank you. She’s doing very nicely, thank you.” She had a quaint, old-fashioned way of talking. No one else that Angela knew spoke like her. Talking to Joanne was quite different from chatting to her friends. They were always very savvy about new expressions and the latest gadgets and they tried to pretend they were older than they were by swearing and being crude. That was OK, sometimes. She did it herself, but it was good to get away from it once in a while. Yes, Joanne was nice to talk to, just as long as you didn’t let her buttonhole you in the street and keep you for more than a minute. That could be embarrassing, especially if your friends saw you with Joanne.

She’d grown up since she first went to Mrs. Bayliss’s house and today she didn’t want to stay any longer than she had to, because she had to switch off her mobile while she was there. Her mother said it was rude to check one’s mobile in front of someone else. This wasn’t completely true, of course. Her friends did it all the time and she would do it when she was with them, but if her mother said it was rude, then it must be rude to do it in front of Mrs. Bayliss. There were different rules for older people. As she walked over to the Baylisses, she wondered if Mrs. Bayliss had a mobile and whether Joanne had one and could send texts. After all, it was hard to say if Joanne was young or old. Mrs. Bayliss must be over seventy, because she had been born before the war and she could remember rationing and the early days of the National Health Service.  So Joanne must be … thirty – or forty, or fifty. She could have been any of those ages really, though now Angela was in her teens, she found Joanne very young. It had been easy to talk to her three or four years ago, but now – her mother was right – Joanne had become “very wearing”.

Sometimes she thought it was strange how her attitude to Joanne had changed, when Joanne always seemed exactly the same, but then she was older now. Perhaps that explained it. She’d had a mobile when she first took apples to Mrs. Bayliss, but then it had just been a toy. Now she felt half of her was missing when she had to switch it off. It was vital to have it on, to see whether Trevor had texted her. She checked three times on the way to Mrs. Bayliss’s, but he hadn’t. Jill had texted “C U later. 4.30.” Anne had written, “I think he luvs me.” She meant Joe, of course. You didn’t have to be a mind-reader to work that out. But there was nothing from Trevor. Never mind! He’d send a sms soon.
Mrs. Bayliss always loved their apples. She said they were “better than any money could buy” and “so much better than what you find in the supermarkets these days”. Besides, “you never know what they’ve done to the supermarkets apples, do you? All those insecticides and pesticides and goodness only knows what other -cides they put on them to make them last longer”. And, “do you know what?” she lowered her voice in a conspiratorial way as she said this, she’d heard that “they select apples for their shape”. They would only take perfectly shaped round apples from their suppliers and “of course, very often the odd-shaped ones are the best”. This year there were lots of odd-shaped ones in the carrier bag that Angela was taking to her and so Mrs. Bayliss should be very pleased. Her father had picked them the day before. He said it would “be good to get rid of them”. It was “lucky” that someone liked them and he only hoped “old Mrs. Bayliss” didn’t bake one of her “famous apple pies” and bring it round to them. He said that he’d heard that even the Women’s Institute had rejected one of her pies and, although that was a “crying shame” when they’d asked her to bake it, you could understand their point of view. Her father didn’t seem to like Mrs. Bayliss as much as her mother did. It was a pity, because Mrs. Bayliss was such a nice lady, as well as being the only person they knew who “loved” their apples.

Angela checked her mobile again. There was still no text from Trevor. She thought of sending him a sms to say “Where R U”, but she didn’t want to seem too eager. He would text her before long. She switched the phone off and rang Mrs. Bayliss’s bell.

“Hello, my dear. You’ve brought me apples. What a lovely surprise!” Mrs. Bayliss had known she was coming and so it wasn’t really a surprise at all, but she was such a sweet old lady; she would always say something like this. Angela was glad that she had to take the apples to her and not Jill’s mother, Mrs. Wentworth, the “postmistress”. Her father called Mrs. Wentworth that, because she was “always distributing all the town’s gossip”. But now Mrs. Wentworth was the subject of gossip herself and the atmosphere in Jill’s house was more than a bit tense, because Mr. Wentworth had been away for some time. Her mother said “no one knew quite when he would be back”, but Jill who was worldly wise knew, of course. Her father had run away with Emily Smith, the dental nurse: “the one they call Em for short”. She remembered the day Jill had sent her the text: “Dial Em for Murder”. Angela thought she would dial “Em” to see what would happen, but then she realized it was a joke and, whatever it meant, she didn’t want to be involved with any kind of “murder”. Later Jill let her in on the whole secret, laughing about how “impossible the whole situation” had become. Jill could be very witty, but Angela knew that sometimes she joked to cover up being upset.

“Bless you for coming, my dear. Sit yourself down. Yes, that chair is fine and if you sit there I can see you without having to stare straight into the sunlight. It was Mr. Bayliss’s favourite. He always said it was the most comfortable one in the house. Now let’s have a look at these lovely apples.” Mrs. Bayliss opened the carrier bag and took two apples out to inspect them. She handled them gently, sniffed them, felt them for firmness and then turned them round and round in her hands to make sure there were no bruises or black spots. She did everything one could imagine a person might do to check on apples, except taste one. Then she said, “I do believe they are better than ever, though last year’s will be very hard to beat,” and they both smiled. It was so pleasant when giving and receiving made a perfect match.

“My Dad said he was only sending the best ones. He threw away the windfalls.”
“I know, dear. He’s very kind. Please be sure to thank him and your mother for me.” Then after a pause, “I hope you are all well?”

“Oh yes, we’re fine. Mum sends her regards. She says she’ll pop round to see you soon.”
Mrs. Bayliss nodded sagely. “And how old would Ronald be now?”

“He’s nine, Mrs. Bayliss. He’ll be ten in October. He’s getting really big.” It was true. Angela’s “little” brother, Ron, was nearly as tall as her now. He’d come with her once to deliver the apples to Mrs. Bayliss, but after that he hadn’t wanted to come again.

“My, my. How time flies! It seems like only yesterday he was a tiny baby.”

Angela’s mind was far away, thinking about Trevor, but when Mrs. Bayliss asked about Ron, it reminded her to be polite and ask about Joanne. “Thank you, Angela. She’s quite alright, thank you. She’s in her room just now, playing with the computer. She’s a dab hand with that computer, you know.” Mrs. Bayliss smiled. She was always very protective of Joanne. Angela’s mother said she put “a brave face on things, but then what else can she do, poor woman?”

And then Mrs. Bayliss launched into one of her monologues. Sometimes she repeated herself, but stories that might have been boring from another person could be quite mesmerizing when they came from her, especially when she told you about her early life. Listening to her was like reading a book that you couldn’t put down, or watching a favourite film over and over again. She had that gift, and she knew how to talk to young people. Not many old people could do that. And, as she spoke, she made Angela forget about Trevor for a few minutes.

“Sometimes I worry about her, spending so much time on the computer. We didn’t have any of that in my day, you know. We had to make our own entertainment and I think we were probably better off as a result, though I suppose that must make me seem like an old fuddy duddy.

“Of course, we didn’t always play nice games. We had our children’s parties and things, and the games we played then were nice enough. We played Ring a Ring a Roses and Blind Man’s Buff and there were jellies and blancmanges and cakes and candles. And, oh yes, we played The Farmer’s in His Den. My favourite bit was when we all patted the dog at the end, though I never wanted to be the dog myself.” She laughed quietly. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but I suppose our parents must have had trouble getting us things like birthday cakes and party hats. It was a hard time, just after the war. You know, the Germans dropped seven bombs right where I was living in London. All in one night. We could have been killed, because we were in the house and two bombs fell just a hundred yards away. One landed along our road and one down the hill at the side of our house. My grandfather had been taking us all down the tube when they first started the bombing, but after a few nights he said it was too much of “a palaver” and we should stay in the house. If our number was up, it was up, but he didn’t think it was quite yet. He made it sound like a lottery no one wanted to win and I suppose that’s what it was. Mr. and Mrs. Brian and their two boys were killed that night when the bombs fell – their number came up – but we were lucky. My aunt and uncle lived in the house across the road from the Brians and they were lucky too. My aunt was in their flat when the bomb exploded and my uncle was in the house with us. He used to say he did the four-minute mile before Roger Bannister, sprinting along the road to get to her, but that was silly really, because they only lived a hundred yards away. Nothing like a mile. My aunt was OK. All their windows were blown out, but she didn’t even have a scratch. We were all very lucky really.

“Of course, I was too small to understand any of this, but after a while when I was a bit bigger I used to go to the bombsites to play. I never really thought about the Germans, but if I had I think I would have been grateful to them because they gave us bombsites. Good places to play. Today they might even call them ‘green belt’!” She smiled. “Grass and weeds grew there very quickly. We had nowhere else to play, except for the school playground and the streets and you could skin your knees if you fell down there. It happened to me lots of times. I think I must have fallen down more often than other children.” She smiled again, at the thought of her clumsiness. “I was a bit of a tomboy, you know. I wasn’t a bit ladylike until I was about your age, dear. And once I banged my head hard on the corner of a brick wall. I still have the bump.” She touched the right side of her forehead. “I saw stars, but no one else was very bothered. My grandmother said to sit down for a while and have an orange squash and then I’d be right as rain, and I was, of course, though what was ever right about rain, I’m sure I don’t know. It was nice in those days, living in a big family, even if they didn’t care about head bumps!” And this time she laughed out loud.

“There were seven of those bombsites and I think we must have played on all of them, but the one I remember most is the one at the bottom of the hill, where they’d had the cinema before the war. Well, the cinema was still there after they dropped the bomb, but it was ruined and they said it needed to be demolished, though they left it like it was for years. We only went there from the bit we played on once, because we had to get over some barbed wire to get in and we’d heard that there were two devils inside: the Red Devil and the Yellow Devil. One was a real devil – I mean a bad devil – but the other one was a good devil and they said he managed to keep the bad one in check. It’s odd, but I can’t remember which was which now. We never saw them, though, that day we climbed over the barbed wire. I was very careful, but Christine Garrett tore her dress. Where we used to play was in the area on the left, the other side of the barbed wire. And you know what we liked to do most?”
Angela shook her head to indicate that she couldn’t imagine. She’d heard this bit of the story before, but she was eager to have it told again. “We liked to cut up worms. Someone said that it you cut a worm in half, the two halves would live on, and they would become two worms. I don’t remember whether that happened, though. All I remember is that we cut up worms with Terry Gardner’s pen-knife. I bet you’re thinking that that wasn’t a very nice thing for little girls to do. But back then, we didn’t give it a second thought. And I think we enjoyed ourselves more than children do today. We didn’t have a care in the world, even though we might have been killed by those bombs or the cinema falling down on us!” And she laughed again, at her blissful ignorance.

While she was in this talkative mood, Angela decided to ask her about Joanne. “Joanne didn’t know any of that, though, did she, Mrs. Bayliss? She must have had a very different childhood?”
“Yes, hers was different. She was born later, in the Swinging ’Sixties. I was still in London in the Swinging ’Sixties, though I never swung myself. Mr. Bayliss was alive then and he thought it would be better if we moved up here, because things would be quieter for Joanne away from London. So that’s what we did. I’ve been here for forty-five years now, you know, but sometimes I still think London is my home. I forgot to ask. Would you like to go up to see Joanne? I expect she’d be pleased to see you again.”

Before Angela could answer, she added, “And perhaps you could check she’s not getting into mischief, with her computer. I don’t know much about these new-fangled things myself.” She was still smiling, but Angela could tell that she was concerned. She sensed that Mrs. Bayliss wasn’t worried about Joanne being mischievous, but about her being the victim of “mischief”. She must have heard the news stories about Internet paedophiles too. Angela’s mother was always warning her. Now it seemed she was being enlisted to protect someone who was more vulnerable. It made her feel adult and responsible.

“Of course, I’ll go up. It’ll be nice to see how she is, Mrs. Bayliss, and from what you say I may pick up a few Internet tips myself.” Angela liked the person she became while she was with Mrs. Bayliss. Mrs. Bayliss’s politeness made her more polite.

She imagined Joanne sitting in her room playing Super Mario. They’d played that together when she’d first visited the Baylisses. She’d thought it was a bit childish, but Joanne had loved the game. Joanne had a Super Mario lunchbox that she took to her “special school”. Angela had told her she thought it was for boys, but Joanne shook her head and said, slowly, “No, it’s alright. Anyone can have any lunchbox they like.” She was the only person Angela knew who was thirty – or forty, or fifty – and still went to school, even if she only went once or twice a week.
Angela went upstairs to see Joanne. She was in her room, staring at her desktop. Angela decided she only needed to say “hello” and perhaps talk to her for two minutes and then she could leave without being impolite. The sooner she left, the sooner she could check her mobile again. As she entered the room, Joanne looked up for a second and gave her a look that told her she, too, was impatient. She wanted to be alone with the computer.

“Hello Joanne. Are you playing a good game?”

“Playing!” Joanne said scornfully and continued in her slow level voice, “I’m not playing. I do work on the computer.”

Joanne spotted her nervously fingering her mobile in her pocket. “It’s alright to put it on, you know. I don’t mind. I’m very busy.”

Angela checked. No new texts.

Joanne was busy with her keyboard. “I’m going to do skype. I like skype.”

Angela guessed that this was why she was impatient. It reminded her that Anne had said she should start using skype, but she liked sms better, especially if they were from Trevor. Of course, if Trevor was on skype that might be different, but he didn’t seem keen. She looked across at Joanne’s screen and there was a round-faced jolly-looking man of perhaps thirty-five, gazing out of it. It seemed as though Joanne’s mother’s intuition had been right. Now Joanne was busy talking, much more quickly than usual and clearly very much at home with the man on the screen.

Joanne turned to Angela again. “This is Harry. He’s my partner. Would you like to meet him?”
Angela nodded. She felt she must, so that she would know how to protect Joanne and warn her mother. Joanne gestured to her to sit beside her on her computer chair. There was barely room for both of them, but Joanne shifted to one side, so that Angela could be in front of the camera. To her surprise Harry turned out to be the nicest man imaginable. He had a beaming smile that spread from one ear to the other, a gentle Western American drawl and sparkling eyes that told you how much he was enjoying life. He was completely relaxed with Angela and she knew immediately that he was no threat to Joanne, or her, or anyone. He was “real pleased to speak to Joanne’s friend”. Angela asked him where he was and he said he was in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s early in the morning here. I get up early to be with Joanne, but I wouldn’t miss her for the world. We talk for hours, every day. Sometimes she comes here in the middle of your night-time to be with me, before they put me to bed.”

“Who’s that? Who puts you to bed?” Angela hoped she wasn’t being too forward.

“Oh, the nurses and the orderlies. All the folks here. They’re all real awesome. No one ever tells me I’m autistic, but I know I am. I used to have bad days sometimes, because I couldn’t seem to hold down a job, but then when things got worse and they put me in here, everything got better and now I’ve met Joanie I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and I don’t want to go to bed at night. She’s wonderful, isn’t she? The greatest woman in the world. I don’t suppose we’ll ever meet, but no man could ask for more.”

Joanne was smiling broadly too. The look of a woman who had found her perfect man.

“Shall I hand you back to her now?”

“Okey dokey. Nice to meet you, Angela. Just one thing.”


“Would you give Joanie a big smackerooney for me?”

“OK. Yes, of course. Bye.”

Angela gave Joanne the kiss, something she’d never done before, and Joanne’s smile became even broader. Angela moved towards the door to leave the two of them alone together. She felt like she was playing gooseberry to these two lovebirds. Joanne gestured to her to come back. “Please. Please don’t tell my Mum.”

“OK. See you soon, Joanne. Take care. Tell Harry to take care of himself too.” She felt very adult as she said this.

“I will.”

Angela went back downstairs. Mrs. Bayliss was a little more direct now. “It’s nice for her to see people. Thank you for talking to her. Sometimes she gets lonely, especially on days when she’s doesn’t go to school. Did she seem alright to you, Angela?”

“She seems absolutely fine, Mrs. Bayliss. No need to worry about her.”

“Well, that’s good. Will you stay a little longer? I have some lovely cherries. From Miss Cavendish.”
“Thank you, but I think I’d better be going. Mum said not to be out too long. I have to help her with the cooking today.” She didn’t mention she was meeting Jill.

“I expect you’ll be glad to get back to school, dear.”

“Well, in a way, yes.” At least she’d be seeing Trevor every day.

Mrs. Bayliss waited until Angela was out of sight, before going out to her green rubbish bin, the one the Council supplied for compostable waste, and dumping the apples into it. Perhaps she could get some better ones from the supermarket. And now she was going to have to eat all those cherries herself!

Angela was halfway home before she thought about Trevor again. She switched on her mobile. Just one text. From Anne: “He sez he luvs me.” Nothing from Trevor.