JUNE 2021 (Fathers’ Day)
Picking Apples With My Father
It was a fixture like Christmas Day. Each year the same. As the summer came to an end and the garden became older and damper, the weekend would be nominated. The crop was judged to be ready, or perhaps there was a concern that a strong early autumn wind would spoil things; either way there was a chosen Saturday. It was time to pick the apples.
Christmas came with its own trappings and traditions; simple annual preparations. December’s cold earth packed into the green container to support our tree. The cardboard box of decorations bound by string, brought down from the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard; objects ignored for months finding their meaning.
Apple picking had its equivalents and you Dad were quietly in charge of proceedings, flat-capped, garden-booted and quite possibly wearing a shirt and tie. I’d wait impatiently as you went through the annual motions. Slatted dusty boxes extracted from the stick shed, piled high in the wheelbarrow and carted across the road to the back garden. There they were turned upside down and slapped to send the spiders scuttling, before being lined with the recent weeks’ newspapers.
The other tools of the trade were unearthed and systematically set out by the garden bench, like equipment for a hospital operation. The long handled pruner, the yellow bucket and the S-shaped hook; I would hold this piece of bent metal and clutch my cuff at the same time, pretending to be hook-handed while the final preparations were made. The extending ladder, pulled out from its resting place alongside the brick wall with its yellowing heap of summer grass cuttings. It was given a test run – one ladder pushed through the grooves of the other with an acceptable metallic scrape.
Everything was in place. The work could begin and I could be unleashed – finally given permission to climb.
There were two trees but only one accommodated small boys. The cooking apple tree obliged with a perfectly positioned step of a low branch; an easy way in and up. From various vantage points I could fill a bucket or toss the apples down, where your safe hands brushed them round and placed them in the box. As I worked I could sneak a look into the neighbour’s garden somehow justified in doing so as I went about the business of the day.
Once the climbing had achieved all that it could, the ladder was pressed into action. You’d carefully choose the best location for a safe footing, push the inner ladder up to the right length and crunching the whole length of it through the smaller twigs high up in the tree before it came to rest. Then you’d lean onto it, bouncing to check there was enough support from the branches about to be breached.
Armed with the bucket and the hook I’d start to climb, up, up and up again reaching all that I could on each step of the way. I’d fill the bucket and then descend partway to pass it back. You’d carefully remove the spoils, and the boxes covering the garden bench would slowly fill. I’d climb some more, and when everything I could stretch for had been picked, I’d go a final rung or two further, just because I could. By now I’d be squeezing under branches, leaf debris in my hair, dusty green marks on my clothes, and the ground and you at the base of the ladder mostly obscured by the canopy I had worked my way through. From the highest point my chin would then be level with the top of the trees, and I could see well over the top of every garden wall, all of the way up the road and beyond to Smart’s field with its greenhouses and horses.
“I think I can get one or two more,” I’d call down. That may or may not have been true. Sometimes I just wanted to pause, feeling some heady mix of doing an important job which only a lightweight boy could do, and of being in a familiar yet unfamiliar world up in the sky.
When that last climb was over, the ladder would come down, and you would make it short again and lay it aside; its annual outing over in an hour.
Just when it seemed that it was all over, there was a coda to these afternoons, complete with its own excitement. Those apples which remained, might yet be captured. With the long handled pruner, you would stretch up hooking it over the twig end of an unsuspecting apple; one which thought it had escaped the trawl. A pull down on the yellow handle, and with a slicing slapping sound the blade chopped and the apple dropped. Sometimes there were false alarms; the noise and no movement as the wrong twig was targeted, with the apple we were after momentarily reprieved. But with a good run we could fill another whole box as you cut and I caught.
I would stand alongside you craning my neck, the sky suddenly too bright even on a dull day, as I looked up fearing to blink as I waited for a hint of movement, hands poised and ready for the catch. At this age I fancied myself as a bit of a goalie. Realistically with the size of the apples and with your heritage, I was really in the slips. When it worked it was a triumph, as my hands closed around perfectly around the falling fruit. When it didn’t, the apples would smack on the path splitting juice, or dent and later bruise in the spotted pattern of the concrete slab.
When it was all over we’d look at the harvest; perhaps fifteen boxes of cookers and eaters of all shapes and sizes, greasy to touch in the way no shop-bought apple would be, and with a promise of weeks of crumbles and pies to come. Then everything would be packed away once more and the apple boxes stacked in the study bringing a pleasantly musty smell of a damp garden to that cold room.
Autumn no longer has that day at the heart of it. The cycle has stopped. The last apple picked, caught, stored, cooked and eaten.
I’d like to see those trees again, although they’d seem smaller now I’m sure. What I once saw as exciting branches to climb would no doubt be viewed differently through adult eyes.
But I’d like that moment again; to stand beside you at the base looking up, assessing the situation. Perhaps like in the old days we wouldn’t say much. We might only talk of what the crop was like and how we should tackle it, but it would be comfortable doing what was easy to do together.
A Moment in Time
I sat there. Two metres away from the nearest chair. Face mask on. Holding a laminated sheet that said ‘WIPE THIS SEAT’. It would replace me when I stood up.
It was 9am. Staff bustled by briskly, getting things organised, plastic aprons rustling. They’re carrying small trays of items I can’t make out, the gubbins for the day, and a steaming mug to see them through a shift. Each person preparing their place – getting their station ready before announcing the first name to kick things off.
The phone call prompting my vaccination had come out of the blue two days before. “Can you come to the practice at 9 on Saturday morning?”
Here I was.
It was February 13th 2021.
Twelve months before, ‘COVID’ was a story from another country or two – China, Italy…maybe another one or two. I can’t now recall.
It was in the news, but it wasn’t THE news.
We were all oblivious to the whole new lexicon that was looming, almost ready to be unrolled – a dictionary for a new age; lockdown (full and partial), social distancing, self-isolation, key workers, Zoom meetings, home schooling, blended learning, shielding, sanitising stations, Eat Out to Help Out, bubbles, take away only, following the science, levels 1-4, Pfizer, Oxford Zeneca, teacher assessments, variant strains, lateral flow test, track and trace, you’re on mute…each one the mostly unwanted offspring of a global pandemic.
In that moment, on that chair, waiting for my jab, I thought of just how much had changed in such a short time. Planes grounded. Shop shutters rolled down. School doors closed. Exam papers unprinted. Football matches in empty echoing stadia.
And I thought of the decision-makers and the researchers who had got me to this point and felt fortunate for the speck of intimacy that was about to take place. My upcoming moment, one of millions that might begin to bring hope out of the hurt in a fear-filled world littered with plans on hold, where separated families have been reduced to communicating love through the closed windows of care homes. The beginning of an end to people being denied a goodbye or whose connection in the final minutes of life is through an i-pad held by a stranger. The curtain slowly coming down on all of the lives being lost and the sparsely attended face-masked funerals. And at the same time, I thought of the COVID-deniers and the vaccine refusers who would choose not to sit where I sat. I thought of them too.
Twelve months before, whoever we were, whatever we think now…no-one was aware of what was about to sweep over us – the young, the old, the ‘soon to be marrieds’, the about to be born, those heading to high school, the graduates, the business owners, the travellers, the grandparents – each one about to be affected in some way – no-one left untouched. Some knocked off their feet. Some finding new direction. Each one with pieces picked up and put back together in some form, but the shape all different.
I unbuttoned my shirt and pulled it off my shoulder. The marks of jabs from years gone by still there if you search hard enough, and a few inches away the two inch scar left by the line used during my chemo. Evidence that in some ways, despite everything, I had been here before.
And as the needle entered, I did all that I could do – exactly what I had done in the past when aspects of life were outwith my control – I prayed thankfulness and placed my grateful trust in others once again.