The Apple Man



We argued again and this time he left. We argued about apples. He’d bought some apples and I cried when I saw them, swept my hand across the table throwing the ceramic fruit bowl to the floor, shattering the bowl, spilling the too shiny fruits everywhere… We argued and I couldn’t explain… I didn’t have the words to explain… 

No one’s left. Everything’s gone. The city is burning.

Memories; ash. The market place; ash and rubble. You know the place, a small square and a collection of cobbled side streets all lined with vendors, fruit and vegetable stalls, piles of second hand crap, rows upon rows of tacky plastic-y phone accessories, cheap chinese clothing… you know the place.

I would only ever buy apples. Everything else I bought at the supermarket. The supermarket was not necessarily easier or cheaper but it was less personal and I liked that, yet the apples never tasted the same. They never had the same weight. Something of their lustrous sheen I found always perturbing. I would buy them in their polythene bags, wash them, put them in the big ceramic bowl and watch them slowly, day by day, wrinkle and rot. Not once tempted to take a bite.

My mother would always buy from the same little man on the same little fruit stall on the same day, each week. The same order. The same mixed bag of apples. When I left home I always missed, the apples more than anything, the crunch, the freshness and, curiously, the tribulation of fetching them. After a few months of living alone I decided to find my way back to the market, I had to take a early bus to the edge of the city then coast down the hill on my bike. The coasting was easy, on a clear day the highlight of it. The ascent not so. My mother always said sweating was good for the skin.

My mother would always talk with the apple man, their ruddy faces twisting with laughter. I would watch, from a distance. Twirl and tug at my hair, cast my eyes around the market and imagine the streets empty.

Empty.

My mother never told me the name of the apple man, I never asked. When I found my way back to the market again I never questioned that he would be where he always had been. And he was. He looked no older, no smaller, no happier, no sadder. But, if I am honest, in all the years of my childhood, in all the days each month I was dragged along to the market I barely looked at his face, barely acknowledged him as anything more than “the apple man”. I wondered if I would find myself gladly accepting any man should he be in the right place and selling apples.

On my return to the market I gradually circled where I remembered him to be, like a flighty predatory animal circling the bins outside a fast food place night after night. I took my preys location for a given and moved slowly, surveying the surroundings. After several circumnavigations I moved in closer and imagined an awkward exchange, my having to introduce myself, explain how I knew him, why I had come back here for his apples, discuss my situation (anyone who knew my mother knew all the particulars of my situation), receive condolences for my mother… he might lay his hand on my shoulder, affect a sympathetic disposition.

Fortunately for me he recognised me, offered me the same mixed bag of apples for the same price, he smiled but did not impose on me any further. He did not ask about my mother. He did not ask why I was back. He smiled, apparently it was good to see me.

From then on I would try to make the journey weekly. Sometimes heavy work would not permit. But whenever I found the time he would greet me with the same smile, gentle inclination of the head. I never asked his name, and though I’m sure he knew mine he never used it. He never imposed on me in the way everyone does, in the ways they don’t realise they do because they are just… open. And I never was.

I didn’t realise until it was too late how much I appreciated and cared for the apple man. His smile and nod, his apples grown by his own hand. His distance.

When the fighting started I was at the market, early one morning.

I never felt comfortable at the market, I never felt comfortable anywhere with a crowd. Gathered people have always made me uneasy, restless. Even as a child, I still felt uneasy. I did not like it, I preferred the fields, but I felt safe. Free to wander, stare, touch and engage (or not) as I pleased. Safety in the mundane, despite the unease. I can’t adequately explain the way that dissonance shook me… everything I knew was gone in a instant. Everything that once was home became a shrieking fire in the body. Every memory a volatile chemical pulsing in the veins, rushing around in search or a spark. I can’t remember when I last felt safe since.

I heard shouts before the first shot. Somewhere at the end of street leading into the market a man falls to the ground. The commotion of people running to him. Crowd around the crumpled heap on the floor. The man was once a vendor and the congregation were once his colleagues, neighbours, friends, customers. They knelt with concern and many of them never stood back up. The shots begin to ring out. People run. People fall. People turn to each other confused and scared. The hills around city, now our urn, hiding our ashes.

I watch the apple vendors body torn apart, watch him slump against his stall and pitch the apples down on the cobbled square. The thud of each fruit against the stone louder than the gunshots reverberating around the square. Adrenaline and the urge to flee flooded my body but the apples somehow kept me rooted. My body rigid as I watch each one fall and spin in the air before colliding with the stone, some split spattering their innards asunder, some bounce, roll and tumble off down the streets. Kicked by running feet, smashed under screeching wheels.

I watch as the fruit bowl tumbles from the table, pitching its too shiny apples everywhere.

I tense my shoulders against the inevitable impact.

The fruit bowl shatters.

I stoop and begin picking up the pieces.


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A piece of short fiction and accompanying illustration featured in 99 Percent Invisible #2