HomeStoriesApple Picking by Sarah Hopkinson

Apple Picking by Sarah Hopkinson

This story is to remember Cecilia Wolseley Haig whose tree was planted 14 January 1912

My mum calls when I’m on the motorway. Her voice is pale and reedy, as though she’s only a figment of my imagination. She asks me to please be patient with my grandmother, and I wonder why she’s added the word please. I think she’s about to repeat the list of tasks which need to be accomplished but, instead, she falls silent at the end of the stringy wire. She doesn’t ask if I’m alright, even though I know she wants to. She’s wondering if this was the right decision – sending me to pack up my grandmother’s house alone. But there was no-one else to do it. After a long, awkward pause, in which I try to communicate – without words – that it’s fine and that I will be fine, she says goodbye and hangs up. I let the line buzz in my ear for a few minutes before putting it down. Outside, the blue fingers of dawn paw the horizon. The motorway is empty, nothing more than a loose seam drawing the land together. The green hills look tired and bruised beneath the thin morning light. Soon, familiar smokestacks appear in the distance – now just ghosts of themselves – and houses begin to emerge, crawling up and down the hillsides in tighter and tighter formations.

I pull into a service station – a squat, plastic building hemmed in by oddly shaped grass islands and a sleek water feature. Inside, elderly couples graze silently on slabs of carrot cake and chicken chow mein, the green fluorescent light transforming the atrium into a fishbowl. I’m here to buy a cake but find that, for just a moment, I’m unable to move – my whole body frozen and shaking. Now, when I walk into a building, I expect to find myself in one particular cafeteria, a place which smells of cooked meat and antiseptic, with linoleum running from wall to wall, alive with familiar voices, and am shocked when I find myself somewhere else.

Later, I park outside of my grandmother’s house – a small nineteen-fifties semi-detached whose front cladding resembles a ploughed field, thick, brocade curtains pulled across the front window. I used to spend hours inside this tiny house, wheeling my Grandmother’s tortoise shell tea tray through the well-carpeted rooms, the house awash with icy stares and angry voices. Staring at it now, somehow it looks wrong. As though it’s a cardboard version of her house and, in one gust of wind, the front will fall away to reveal nothing but empty space behind. Further along the street, a man in an oversized jacket walks a tiny dog on a pink leash. A teenager stumbles by carrying a pint of pineapple juice under his arm. The house opposite my grandmother’s is boarded up, blackened streaks dappling the red brick like a rash, while next door’s front garden has become a rubbish heap, the grass piled with broken electrical equipment, dirty clothes and nappies. My grandmother’s house is the only one who’s escaped the economic decline and flagrant poverty of a suburban apocalypse, still perfectly preserved in Memoriam to life as it used to be.

My grandmother isn’t a good person. This is the sort of thing I know intuitively, like how I know when someone else is upset, or when the milk has soured. It’s also the sort of thing that my mum and aunts used to whisper to one another when I was little, crowded around sticky, linoleum tables, gnawing old tea biscuits and cursing the woman who raised them. My grandmother is tiny, so small that, from first glance, she might be a pre-pubescent child. But then you see the bouffant hair dyed a rich mahogany, and the various shades of eyeshadow always paired to her cashmere cardigan. As far as I can tell, she subsists off a diet of cold sausage rolls, satsumas and cake. She laughs like a hyena. She asks all the girls in the family how much weight they’ve gained since the last time she saw them, as though bodily expansion is always an irrefutable fact. She loves to regale anyone who’ll listen with tales of the trip she took to southern France when she was seventeen, living in a car and wearing her second-hand Burberry every night.

Her husband, and my grandfather, died in the Falklands War – run over by one of his own trucks – and so she was left to raise my mum and her three sisters alone. My grandmother supported them by way of various short stints in secretarial positions, jobs which always ended unexpectedly and often without explanation. My mum and her sisters soon learnt to make a single piece of gammon last a week, to fashion underwear from old curtains, and to sleep four a bed in winter to stay warm. From time to time, my grandmother would come home clutching a new pair of silk stockings or a tiny glass bottle of perfume; items which didn’t fit with their lifestyle or monetary means. She never explained how she’d come across these items, and never brought home anything useful. She was, in general, cold, uneasy and quick to fly off the handle. She never had any female friends, the other housewives treating her with polite caution, treading lightly around her shadow like it might burn them. Sometimes, my mum thought she’d heard my grandmother crying at night, sobbing into a pillow downstairs, but my mum never really believed it. My grandmother so rarely demonstrated any sort of emotion, particularly towards her children, that the idea of her sobbing seemed utterly impossible. She never spoke about her dead husband, dead parents, forgotten relatives. Their home was a place of secrets, strange absences in shadowed corners, only holes where there should have been a past.

I knock for five minutes but no-one comes to the door. When I try the door handle, it swings easily inwards. Inside, the house is tropical, heating turned up so high the furniture has started to perspire. I feel sweat already lathering my underarms and the back of my neck. I pick my way through the hallway and into the kitchen where crockery is stacked across the countertops and empty M&S packets are wedged inside the sink. The television set, turned on, emits grey static – the sound of unfilled television channels, or an unpaid bill. Finally, I spot her in the garden – a minute figure sitting on a branch in the tree, giant, unripe apples framing her space-helmet hair. For a moment, I’m not sure what to do. I consider calling my mum, but immediately dismiss it. Then, I think about the fire brigade – aren’t situations like this, rescuing the dementia-ridden elderly from untenable positions, included in their job specification? But, she’s a tiny, eighty-year-old woman, I reason. Surely there’s an easy way to scale that tree.

Outside, I stand below my grandmother’s miniature feet. She notices me and wafts down a thick, toothy grin. She’s wearing a tropical-print blouse and flannel pyjamas, a pair of gilt sandals on her feet. I don’t find this outfit strange and turn to inspect the tree trunk. Gnarled lesions cling to the bark like molluscs, their protrusions providing ample hand and foot holds. I sigh, clamber up the trunk and then drag myself down the branch. Suddenly, the ground seems very far away and I stare at the branch warily, hoping it can sustain us both. Eventually, I reach my grandmother and drop my legs either side of the branch so I’m straddling it. She doesn’t say anything but turns her wide gaze to rest on me. After a moment, she reaches out a wrinkled hand and places it, very gently, on my cheek. It’s the most tender gesture I’ve ever witnessed her perform. The closest we’ve come to contact in the past is a dry, puckered kiss, her lips usually missing my cheek entirely.

‘Grandmother,’ I say quietly, and she blinks twice. She doesn’t know who I am, and I wonder who she thinks she’s touching.

‘Grandmother,’ I say again. ‘Mum has sent me up instead of her.’

She blinks again but doesn’t speak. Finally, her hand drifts from my face and she turns her gaze back to the garden – a small patch of grass so unkempt it’s almost a foot off the ground, a drainpipe blocked by leaves and a back door cracked all the way up its frosted Perspex.

I manage to coax her down with the promise of cake. Once inside, I tuck her up in a big armchair in front of the TV, its rotten fabric emitting puffs of dust as she sits. I hand her a slice of service station cake and go back to the kitchen where I survey the mess and try to decide what to pack and what to throw away. I fill three huge rubbish bags and then begin stacking her delicate crockery into boxes, the chipped porcelain rippling with rose tendrils and butterflies. I notice my grandmother has fallen asleep and turn the empty TV off. I’m just starting on the bookshelves in the living room when I hear her grassy voice, parched from years of cigarettes, pipe up behind me.

‘So, they let you out of that place?’ she asks.

I turn slowly on one foot, pink porcelain dog in one hand.

‘What place?’ I ask slowly.

Her green eyes are bright and her eyebrows raised in some kind of expression. Toenails painted a bright coral peek from the bottom of the blanket draped across her lap.

‘That place they sent you. To get better,’ she says.

I nod.

‘So, did it work?’ she asks. While she waits for me to respond, she pulls a packet of cigarettes from her pyjama bottoms and lights one with a thin gold lighter.

‘In a way,’ I say, remembering I’m holding a pink porcelain dog and beginning to cover it with bubble wrap.

‘Not that thing,’ she says sharply, gesturing towards its long neck. ‘Hideous. Belonged to Larry’s sister. Despicable woman. Not sure why I’ve kept it all these years.’

I gaze at the dog and then drop it into the rubbish bag before reaching to the bookshelf where the rest of the dog’s compatriots sit in years of dust.

‘What do they do to you there?’ she asks, sucking deeply on the cigarette.

‘I can’t believe you still smoke,’ I say.

‘Why would I quit now?’ she asks. ‘Come on, what do they do?’

‘They don’t do anything,’ I say after a moment. ‘You go to therapy, do some activities, read, talk about yourself.’

I glance up at her but she’s no longer focused on me. She stubs the cigarette out in a glass dish at her elbow.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ she asks.

‘Wrong with me?’

‘What makes you such a loony? You don’t seem like a loony to me.’

I smack the box shut and begin to close it with thick electrical tape. ‘You’d have to ask my doctors that,’ I say and, at this, she laughs. A long, drawn-out laugh which takes me entirely by surprise.

That night, I check into the hotel and go straight to my room. I lock the door then sit on the edge of the bed and stare out through the cracked curtains, yellow street light casting strange shadows across the carpeted floor. I know I should call my mum but don’t. I’m shaking, the whole bed rocking back and forth beneath me. I close my eyes and think of nothing.

When I let myself into the house the next morning, I find my grandmother in the garden again, except this time she’s sitting on a plastic chair in one slim triangle of sunlight. She’s wearing an enormous straw hat and holding a can of Pepsi in her hand. I ask how she’s feeling and she only smiles and guzzles down a foaming mouthful. I go inside and start on the bedroom. Her closet is stuffed full of silk pantsuits, fur boleros, glittering shoes and snakeskin handbags. I wonder how or when she acquired all of this stuff. I begin sorting the clothes into a pile for her to take to the home, a pile for charity, and another for my mum and aunts. I’m about halfway through the closet when I hear a polite cough at the door and look up to see my grandmother standing on one foot, her straw hat in one hand and a Christmas selection box in the other. She offers me a chocolate twirl and, when I shake my head, takes a seat on the bed and watches me in silence.

‘You know, my sister was in one of those places,’ she says suddenly.

I glance over my shoulder, but don’t stop what I’m doing. ‘You don’t have a sister,’ I say.

She narrows her brow and gives her head a little shake, as though she’s a horse shaking off flies. ‘I did,’ she says, correcting me. ‘Dorian.’

‘Dorian? Isn’t that a boys’ name?’ She laughs the same drawn-out laugh I heard the night before. ‘Doris, originally. She hated it though, so everyone called her Dorian.’

Dorian. The name itches, although I’m sure I’ve never heard it before. I gather up some clothes for my grandmother to take with her and begin folding them into a suitcase.

‘She was like you,’ she says. ‘A loony.’

‘Oh,’ I say, concentrating on folding the clothes, aware she’s watching me, her face carefully made up even though there’s nowhere for her to go – not anymore.

‘Went to one of those places too, although she never came out.’ She stops speaking when something strange happens to her voice, as though she’s choked on a mint, or her smoking habit has finally caught up with her. ‘You know,’ she continues after a moment, ‘I didn’t even know she was there until it was all over.’ ‘Until what was all over?’

I ask, curious now, even though I don’t want to be, even though I don’t know which is more untrustworthy – my grandmother’s mind, or my grandmother herself. ‘Whatever they did to her. Electric shock, I think. Something about an ice bath,’ she says. ‘Of course, it took me years to find out that much. They wouldn’t tell me anything at the time. Only that she’d died – suicide, they said. But, who knows? It was all very hush hush back then. Hush hush hush. As though I’d be speaking to anyone about it anyway. I was ashamed of her. Letting herself go like that, then letting herself be caught and locked up. Idiotic.’

When I look up, my grandmother’s face is twisted in a way I’ve never seen it before. Eyes screwed together like lips pouting, mouth open, chin pushed out to a strange angle. I don’t know what to do. I feel like a child again.

‘Of course, it’s what put her there in the first place. One morning, she stepped out in front of a truck and left the pram on the side of the pavement. The child started screaming which, of course, attracted attention. Everyone saw, including the truck which swerved to avoid her. I wish it hadn’t though; I wish it had run her down there and then. It would have saved a lot of trouble. Also, there would have been some beautiful symmetry to it – don’t you think? To have had the only two people I ever loved both run down by trucks.’

She’s smiling at me through a clenched jaw, tears running down her face. I’ve never seen her look such a mess – blue eyeshadow pooling along her cheekbone and above her top lip, mascara trapped between brow and wrinkle.

‘I went to it years later, the asylum they put her in. She’s buried in the graveyard there – unmarked, of course. A horrible place, the sort that gives you the shivers. Crows everywhere, cackling on the rooftop, perched in the windows, turning the lawn black. For some reason, that’s the worst part of it for me – that she died with the sound of crows cawing in her ears.’

‘What happened to the baby?’ I ask after a long moment’s pause.

She tries to laugh but ends up choking and quickly has to stop. ‘Took it in. What else could I do?’

I swallow. Outside, clouds hang like starched collars above the burnt-out houses. We sit for a while without speaking and, soon, my grandmother is asleep, her face a blue, swollen mess.

I meet the moving company early the next morning. In the chaos of dismantling furniture, directing boxes to various locations and feeding tea to rotating groups of men, I lose sight of my grandmother. When everything is finally carted away, I call my mum. Her voice is, at once, alien and familiar, as though she’s a part of my body I don’t normally see. When I hang up, I go into the garden and find my grandmother sitting on a branch in the tree. I clamber up the trunk and sidle down the branch until we are side by side, our legs and arms touching all down one side of our bodies. She doesn’t flinch. After a moment, her cold, dry hand curls around mine. I listen to the rattle of her rotten lungs and think about nothing at all.  

This story is partially inspired by the life of Theresa Garnett. Although not herself insane, Theresa Garnett was born in the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum, where her mother was an inmate. It is also partially inspired by the stories of women in my own family who were committed to insane asylums and subjected to enormous mistreatment – including procedures which would now be considered methods of torture – and who, upon their release, went on to become subjects of social stigma and alienation. It’s also a response to the way in which families often attempt to silence the lives of their female members, particularly those women whose stories might besmirch or tarnish the family name.

Sarah Hopkinson was born in Gloucestershire in 1991. After graduating from Harvard University with a degree in English Literature, she worked for an academic think tank before training and working as an English teacher in London. She has recently graduated with an MFA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia, and is working on a novel.