Peter Quartermain

APPLES
PETER QUARTERMAIN

In the War we did a lot of counting and stock-taking, eggs, apples, pears, plums, chickens, pigs, churns of milk, potatoes, sacks of grain, how full the granary bins were, the farm had quotas to meet to send stuff to market and there was a lot of paper work to do, sometimes the Ministry of Food or someone would send a bloke round to inspect the premises to make sure you weren’t cheating, all the food you grew belonged to the government, except what you grew in your garden, but of course everybody cheated, especially when there was a big crop of something, and farmers swopped lots of things with each other to get round the rationing, cheese if they made any, or a bit of bacon if you’d managed to kill a pig without the Ministry noticing, fruit. You were allowed to kill one pig a year, some people managed to get away with two, but the Ministry was very strict about it, fined you a lot of money, you might even go to jail. If fruit was spoiled or badly bruised you couldn’t send it to market so you had to eat it, and one of us kids’ jobs was to go up to the top floor of the farmhouse and right up under the roof, and look for rotten apples and take them off the racks. They’d once been bedrooms, two of them still had wallpaper, but now they were the apple store, there was no heat up there but it was dry and the rooms were filled with row after row of open wooden racks running from the floor almost to the ceiling, the shelves were slats with gaps between them. This was where we stored the winter apples, Cox’s Orange Pippins were the best, in the middle of winter you’d pick up this wizened little apple slightly soft and spongy it wasn’t much to look at it was wrinkly all over and felt dry, when you bit into it the skin dimpled away from your teeth little ridges in the skin opening up a little bit as they pressed against your tongue your lick tasted of apple you’d bite harder the apple yielding underneath the skin stretching and suddenly your teeth broke through firm slightly doughy flesh underneath a quick little rush of juice tasting of orange and apple and as you chewed it tasted better and better, stronger and stronger, we thought they were better to eat then than when just off the tree all fresh.

Once there was just me and the Land Girl in the kitchen, everyone else off doing their chores, and I was standing by the table eating an apple, Daphne’d got one too, and she took a bite of hers and said “This one’s no good, it’s full of worms,” and she chucked it in the coal scuttle as I said “Mine’s alright, just a bit bruised” She took a look and said “Eeeuw! You’re eating all those maggot eggs!” and she laughed and laughed, she said “That’s not bruise! Don’t you know the difference?” pointing her finger at me, I could feel myself going red and I told her “I know that,” her still laughing at me, “I don’t mind maggot eggs, I always eat them,” I felt all righteous in front of her jeering, I wasn’t going to let on I didn’t know the difference, I’d always thought the brown grainy firm bits of apple were just a different sort of bruise than the soft squishy brown ones, they were more sort of tasteless than they were anything else, a bit grainy, those bits didn’t taste bad, they were alright, there was just no juice in them. I took another big bite of my apple her watching me and laughing, I didn’t dare not eat it now, but it didn’t taste the same, we all carefully ate our way round the really worm-holey bits, deep little holes winding their way down into the apple with a dark black rim, or we broke’em off with our teeth and threw them away, and Daphne just stood there she watched me and watched me a superior grin on her face till I turned away and went outside, holding the apple carefully so I could miss the maggotty bits as I bit into it, and when I got out to the back of the scullery I threw the whole thing into the pig-swill bucket just outside the door, hating her for what she’d done, not knowing really whether it was rubbish or not what she’d said.

After apple picking we’d take baskets and buckets of apples up to the storerooms and lay them out carefully on the racks, making sure they didn’t touch each other because if one went bad it would make the ones it was touching bad too, bruised apples would go bad quite quickly and so would some apples that had borers or other insects in them. I could just about reach the middle of each rack, the lower ones anyway, without standing on a chair or leaning over too far, and you’d be in this cold room, cold even in the summer, surrounded by the smell of hundreds and hundreds of apples, as you opened the door to the attic stairs and started up you’d take a sniff, the scent of the apples getting stronger and stronger as you got higher and higher, sometimes quite a few of the apples would all start to go at once a penetrating fermenting smell heady and delicious and you’d tell Uncle Tom and he’d come up and say yes, these’ll have to be cider, they’d be pressed into juice somewhere else, there was always five barrels of cider fermenting and aging away in the cellars, they were about three feet across, and every year one of them would slowly get emptied over the summer, taken out jugful after jugful at midday to the men bringing in the harvest. When we were older we’d get to drink it too, and those rooms upstairs smelled just the same as good aged cider, there was always a rotten apple or two somewhere in a corner, wizened and brown and smelly to flavour the air, and it was a precious weekly ritual, going up to inspect the apples, I remember doing the same thing when I stayed at Robin Salmon’s after the War or was it Tom White’s and my memories of the apples there and at Uncle Tom’s are all mingled up together, it’s a memory that really sticks, the savour of it. I was cutting up an apple for lunch just the other day, a little glow of pleasure as I saw insect prints round the stem, black borehole down to the core dark shadows and cobwebby lace round the seeds when I cut it open, if the insects like it it must taste good, so much better than those Disneyfied apples that fill the shops their bland perfection. All the farms that had orchards had old rooms at the top of the house for fruit, and we were all very very careful not to bruise the apples and pears or to mark them so they’d keep through the winter.

Peter Quartermain¬†retired from teaching at the University of British Columbia some years ago. He lives in Vancouver. “Apples” is a section of his memoir¬†Where I Lived and What I Learned For. Part 1: Growing Dumb.