Read The Scent of Apples Online
Authors: Jacquie McRae
First published in 2011 by Huia Publishers,
39 Pipitea Street, PO Box 17-335,
Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
Copyright Â© Jacquie McRae 2011
Use of MÄori Healing and Herbal by Murdoch Riley
(Viking Sevenseas, 1994) is gratefully acknowledged.
Ebook production 2011 by
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, including
photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher.
National Library of New Zealand Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
The scent of apples / Jacquie McRae.
[1. GrandfathersâDeathâFiction. 2. GriefâFiction. 3. Loss (Psychology)
âFiction. 4. EmotionsâFiction. 5. Family lifeâFiction. 6. Friendship
âFiction. 6. Interpersonal relationsâFiction.] 1. Title
Published with the assistance of
For my sister Sarah.
And Nanas Royale and Rukawai, Dad, Greg and Ms Mary. I still notice the empty spaces where you should be, but I am grateful that I can sense your presence every day.
A book is made up of many fingerprints, and I could go on for pages, but â¦ Thank you to James George (his writing course made me think I could write), Sue Emms (my first mentor), Alia Bloom for her editing skills and especially RenÃ©e for her impressions on this book.
Thank you to the Te Papa Tupu programme and its sponsors: the MÄori Literature Trust, Creative New Zealand, Te Puni KÅkiri and Huia Publishers.
A special thanks to Huia Publishers, who really do create writers.
Weeping willows, their skinny arms covered in ghostly green leaves, hang out over the riverbanks. I weave my way through them as I sneak along the dirt track to spy on my dad. He always comes to the same place. At the base of the rock where he sits down, someone has gouged out âPatrick' in small sharp letters. The P stands away from the other letters and looks more like a flag post and the r looks more like a y. But I know, even though no one talks about it, that someone made these marks for my dead brother Patrick.
I wait my turn in the undergrowth. I watch. Dad's face melts as he cries, and then, like a plastic surgeon, he rearranges it into the face I'm more familiar with. Eyes that tell you nothing and a mouth that only appears to smile when I come into the room. His hair is starting to march backwards on his head, leaving little footprints where it used to grow. At home on our mantelpiece is a photo of him at university with long curly hair. His chin is tilted skywards. The photographer has caught him midway through a laugh, his mouth open wide and his head of curls tossed backwards. Dad and Mum met at university. He was studying commerce and she was doing an arts degree, but Mum dropped out when she became pregnant.
Some days he looks down the river. Like he's waiting for a boat to come and pick him up. I know he'd jump on board if it did. Then he does that thing with his face, brushes twigs from his trousers and all goes back to normal.
I scramble behind a tree, and crouch down. Small stones dig into my knee as Dad passes by on his way back to our house. The sun rising in the sky tells me I better hurry. My offering is small. No one will know I've been here. Into a slender crack on the river side of the rock, I tuck the purple flower that grows wild around here. If you hold onto the stem and slowly strip the petals back, a small fluffy white head like a fairy's toothbrush shows itself. Patrick will like that.
Paspalum grass whips at my legs as I race back along the path and through the orchard to find Poppa. The sticky black seeds from the grass hitch a ride by clinging to the hairs on my arms and legs. My new boots, which are a size too big for me, slow me down and remind me of the lie I told my mother. That's the funny thing about lies. You tell one, but half of it stays behind to haunt you.
Yesterday, Mum had taken me to Munroe's, our local Four Square, to buy new gumboots. The shop has been owned by the same family for three generations and is the only store in Grahamtown. The hitching rail where the men used to tie up their horses stands out the front of the shop. You can still buy sacks of flour and sugar and get a bottle filled with whisky from out the back. They sell fencing wire, rat bait and grocery items, and their motto is âIf we don't have it, all you need to do is ask.' (I did ask for a guinea pig once. The next time I went in, they said they'd got them in but they'd already sold out.)
The original Mr Munroe still comes to the shop every day, and can usually be found by the potbelly at the back of the shop. I never see him in anything but a black suit, white shirt and tie. He can be relied on to sneak you a Fisherman's Friend lolly from a tin in his breast pocket. I hate the lollies, but love watching the new ways he finds to get one to me.
The boots are kept at the back of the shop. I saw Mum eye up some ugly yellow ones. I already had my sights set on the ones with a band of red running around the top, identical to my poppa's. I picked them up and saw the familiar pattern the boot would leave behind.
âThe yellow ones will look as cute as nuts on you,' Mum said, and ordered Mr Munroe the third to take them down from the shelf.
I had no desire to look anything like a nut, or cute, and once I had my feet in the red bands, they weren't coming off.
âThey're too big for you,' Mum said.
âThey're the perfect fit,' I lied, and marched out of the shop with them on before I chickened out. It was one of the only times that I had stood up to Mum. I knew I would pay, with a tongue-lashing all the way home in the car, but I could wriggle my toes in the end of my boots and know it was worth it.
A day later I regret my lie big-time. My feet flop around in my boots. I see Poppa's large silhouette disappear into the barn, and I waddle towards him.
Our barn is a derelict old church that Poppa fixed up with a lot of paint and love. It used to house the local God-botherers (at least that's what Poppa says), and then, when the God people found something grander, hay bales. It now holds everything we need to turn the apples we grow into cider.
The coloured arched windows on either side of the barn doors look like smiling eyes and the tall wooden doors, when they're flung wide open, are the mouth that gobbles me up as I enter. In the afternoon when the sun is high in the sky, the light shines through the red panes at the top of each window and drips matching red flowers onto the concrete floor below. I like to lie in this spot, with my eyes closed, and feel the sunshine on my face. I imagine that I'm inside a spring tulip, and I can feel its delicate petals tingling as they wait to open.
The hammer press, like an oversized cauldron, takes up most of the room inside the barn. The hammer breaks up the apples and the continuous screw press squashes the juice from them. The scent from the apples tickles my nose as it hovers in the air above.
âLibby,' Poppa yells out from his perch on top of a ladder. It's hooked onto the side of a metal vat that stores the liquid from the apples. âGlad you turned up. I think it's your turn to catch the rats today.'
I laugh at his silly old joke. âSure. Do you want the adults or the babies?'
âThe adults have more protein, so get me a dozen of them.' He winks at me as I head over to the cupboard where we keep the protein tablets.
The protein is what changes the mixture from apple wine into cider. I tip an apple crate over to stand on and pass him the tablets. He leans down and takes them, before lifting the lid on the vat and throwing them in. I love the way his nostrils flare out as he sniffs his brew. I tried for a whole week, once, to stick my thumbs up my nostrils and make them bigger like his. I ended up with two red patches on my face and a nose that was no bigger than when I started.
My poppa is six foot seven and tells stories to match his height. It's hard to tell what's made up and what's real. He said when he arrived in New Zealand, after rowing his boat over from England, where he was born, that all he wanted was a drink of cider.
âI couldn't find a decent cider anywhere,' I heard him say more than once, âso I thought bugger it, I'll make my own.'
His thirst had turned into a good business. Trucks rolled up our driveway and took crates of our cider all over the country. I was old enough to know that you can't row all the way from England, but I'm not sure about the rest of it. I definitely didn't believe him when he said he had to row back to get Nan and the trees we grow.
Sweet Coppin and Kingston Black are old varieties of cider apple trees. The fruit they bear are small and sweet like a crab apple. Last year Dad wanted to introduce some new varieties, but Poppa couldn't see why you'd bother, so they didn't.
Poppa closes the barn doors behind us as we head back to the house for breakfast. His warm hand coaxes me along as we traipse through the orchard. The last of the blossoms still cling to the trees. A month ago the whole orchard was covered in pink and white blossoms. It was like wading through a giant-sized bag of apple-scented marshmallows. I couldn't take a breath of air without the sweet smell marching right up my nose reminding me that it was spring. It won't be long before the buds of baby apples will grow in their place.
The morning sun lights up the back of the house. Shafts of sunshine have to be quick to land on Mum as she flits between the kitchen sink, fridge and pantry.
On the porch, as I bend down to take off my gumboots and line them up straight, I notice a huge spider sitting in his web. âSorry,' I say to him, âyou've got two days at the most.' Mum's the exterminator queen when it comes to things nesting in or around our house.
The fly screen door slams shut behind us as we come into the kitchen. Mum saw a picture in a
magazine a few years back, and made that exact kitchen appear in our house. The tongue and groove panelling is painted white. Cupboard doors slide across the white marble bench top to hide the toaster and kettle. Lights encased in the ceiling shine down on the breakfast bar. She ordered two barstools, designed by some Italian guy, online from a company in America. She fretted the whole month that it took for them to get here. She vows she'll never order anything over the internet again, but I think she should be banned, as she drove us all nuts by asking, each day, if anything had arrived.
Mum's got the same gift that Dad has. She can change the look on her face so fast that I often think I've imagined it. There's no mistaking her sigh though, when we come lumbering into her kitchen all at once.
âLook, it's Poppa and his shadow,' Nan says.
On my way to wash my hands, I pass Nan and kiss her on the cheek. Her skin is getting thinner by the day.
Poppa leans down to where Nan is sitting, and kisses the top of her hair. She has long hair that she wraps up in a gorgeous white bun, making her look like some Grecian goddess. To make it stay up she uses about a hundred hairclips. The clips just slide right out of her fine hair, but she picks them up all day long and sticks them back in. I'd trade hair with her any day. I have hair like baling twine. Coarse, frizzy and dull brown. As if that wasn't enough, I've got the sort of skin that goes red in summer, instead of golden.
Mum said looking good is all about highlighting my best points. I get the feeling that I'm not quite as beautiful as I should be in her eyes, but she does say I have a nice body shape. I'm not sure what shape she means, but she chases hers on a treadmill every day for an hour.
Before we've even got a chance to sit down, Mum dishes up our pancakes.
âThey've probably gone cold by now.' She bangs the frying pan back on the stove, making Nan jump.
âSorry we're late,' I say. âI didn't want to get my new boots dirty, so we had to come the long way round.'
I avoid looking at Poppa. He doesn't like me telling lies. But Mum hates people being late, so I figure I'm forced into it. She would have gone on about it, and ruined all of our breakfasts. In fact there are several things she hates, and dirt is right on top of the list. She is always cleaning, all just in case someone like the Pope drops by. Our house sparkles like sunshine caught in a lake.
I slide into my seat, take the serviette from its napkin ring and spread it over my lap.
âWhere's Dad?' I look at the empty chair at the head of the table.
âHe's eaten already and gone to work. Not everyone dawdles in when they feel like it,' Mum says.
Nan leans across the table, and pats Poppa's hand. He shoves a huge bit of pancake in his mouth. I try hard not to gobble down my pancakes, but the honey syrup Nan made to pour over them makes not gobbling impossible.
âElizabeth, you'll give yourself a stomach ache if you eat that fast.' Mum fixes me with one of her stares. âIn fact, it would be a good idea for you to sit for a moment, and give your food a chance of reaching your stomach before you run it off.'
Mum is the only one who uses my full name. She named me after some saint, no doubt hoping that I would inherit some of her good points. If Mum could chop off the bit of me that loves running around outside, she would. I want to explain to her that my legs have a life of their own, and that I spend a lot of time willing them to slow down but they take no notice. Mum isn't one of those people you explain things like that to.
I sit up straight in my chair and bite my tongue in case it gets me in more trouble. I swing my legs back and forth under the table while I wait for everyone to finish, before asking to be excused. Mum gives me a look that stops my legs from rocking. Every time I turn up at the table, it seems a new rule has been added.
I take a sip of my orange juice and note over the rim of my glass that Nan has forgotten to put her teeth in again, and that the buttons on her cardigan are done up wrong. I gather the plates from the table, rinse them and stack them on the bench. I clatter the plates around until Poppa looks my way. I give him my
Can we go now?
look. We're both really good at speaking without words.
âToby and I are going to make some fences for the veggie garden, out of the willow cuttings,' Poppa says, right on cue. âDo you think you could give us a hand, Libby?'
âSure.' I have to stop myself running for the door.
Toby, who works on our orchard, is on the list of my top ten favourite people. I say top ten, but other than Nan, Poppa and Toby, the rest of the spots are empty. I hope one day to fill them up, but it's hard to get on the list. You have to know interesting stuff, care about people and animals â more than things â and be able or willing (I put âwilling' in so Nan could make the list) to climb trees.
Toby's grandfather Jack used to be Poppa's best friend. They'd come to the orchard every week, as far back as I can remember. Jack raised Toby from a baby, because Toby's mum was only young when she had him. She used to forget to feed him, and then eventually she ran off with some guy on a motorbike. She didn't even come back for her dad's funeral last year.
Toby was only seventeen when his grandfather died, so Poppa brought him home and gave him a job, so he'd have some money, and the cottage down by the river, so he'd have somewhere to live. Poppa said that Toby may not have done very well at school, but he had more common sense than most people he's met.
I sit by the spider on the back porch and pull my boots on.
âDon't let her swing on those colonnades,' Mum says to Poppa. âThey're for roses to grow over, not for girls to act like monkeys on. Besides, she's likely to break an arm or something.'