Flash Fiction: Pollinators*

IMG_0938.JPG

The discharge payment and the compensation meant she could afford to buy a place, a tiny city apartment or a small suburban house. She made herself visit a few, standing in empty rooms, trying to look interested as sharply-dressed salespeople enthused over the view or the closet space. So many dead; it was hard to care. ‘Depression,’ said her sister-in-law, ‘post-traumatic stress’, as if a label from somewhere on the internet could somehow contain the whole thing.

Then one day driving the hills she saw a For Sale sign and for no good reason turned off and investigated. A small house, needing a few repairs, in a big empty garden.They told her it was an acre.

When, a few weeks later, the truck drove away and left her alone with her few bits of furniture, she sat in the garden as the light faded and listened. Country silence; here and there an owl or the rustle of a tiny creature in the grass, the creak of a tree in the surrounding woodland, but in between something she gradually realised was the gentle, neutral silence of peace. Six months out of a war zone, it felt like a miracle. She still woke at night hearing shouts and missiles, but less often as time went by.

City-raised, she knew nothing at all about gardening, but her instinct was to let the land alone. Mostly it was just grass, bumpy for lack of mowing, but over on one side was an apple tree, the grass around it dotted with fallen fruit. The apples were large and pale, almost square. When she cooked them, they turned instantly to a delicate mush. The tree had a gash, a fallen branch had left a jagged split in the bark of the trunk. This began to worry her. Should she intervene? Cut it away? Paint it with something?

In the window of the hardware store where she bought her paint she saw a poster for an Apple Day. Bring your apples for identification. It was at a specialist tree nursery, Runcie’s. Who knew there were specialist tree nurseries? So she went, with her pockets full of the pale apples. There in a marquee filled with their sweet scent, she found old Benjamin Runcie standing behind a table covered in neat rows of apples, each different, each labelled. Mr Runcie liked apples a lot more than he liked people. The Apple Day was not his idea, but he had to admit it brought the customers in. They came from all over. He took her apple and adjusting his glasses, inspected it, turning it over in his hand. ‘Lord Lambourne,’ he said, eventually. ‘Good for sauce. Won’t store, though.’
‘The tree’s split. A branch came off. What should I do?’ she asked.
He didn’t look at her, he was still examining the apple, taking his time.
‘They can look after themselves. Just tidy it up. They fruit best if there’s another apple nearby. If you have the space, that is.’
‘I have space, but how can I choose which variety?’ There were hundreds spread out there in front of them.
‘A Melrose or a Jewett Red. It doesn’t much matter, it’s for pollination.’ He looked at her for the first time. ‘We can deliver, if you want to order. Are you from round here?’
‘Kelsey,’ she said, ‘over beyond the river. I just bought a place over there.’
He focused on her properly now. This was home territory. ‘That wouldn’t be the old Hovey place, north of town?’
‘How’d you know?’
‘Not many places sold round here lately. I heard it was a veteran bought that place. Military man, invalided out.’
‘Well, that was half right. I just left the service myself.’
He looked at her steadily, then handed back her apple. ‘I believe we have a lot to thank you for,’ he said.
He came round the table, leaving a line of people to wonder who would identify their apples, and gestured to her, leading her from the tent out into the long lines of saplings of all sizes. He picked two pollinators, and handed them to her in their pots. ‘A housewarming,’ he said. ‘Just be sure to give them some water at first. They’ll be OK.’

They were skinny little things with just a few leaves. She planted them, by digging holes and stamping them in, apologising to them silently for not knowing any better. They grew anyway.

That was the beginning of the orchard. Whenever she passed Runcie’s she stopped in and bought another tree. By the time the nephew came, she already had fourteen of them, and more apples than she knew what do with.

The nephew was a bit of a revelation. He’d been a podgy baby and a whiney six-year-old. She wasn’t bad about birthday cards and so on, but they didn’t know each other. At seventeen the boy was tall and skinny. He arrived carrying a huge rucksack which mostly contained books: cookery books, on inspection.
‘Cookery books?’
‘I love to cook,’ he said, shrugging. ‘They want me to be a lawyer.’ They sat side by side outside her back door, drinking coffee. ‘I have a really good applecake recipe,’ he said.
‘Did you run away?’ she asked him. ‘Tell me.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s just a time out. They know where I am.’
‘And they agreed?’
‘They didn’t try to stop me, put it that way. Besides, they wanted a report on you.’
‘Oh yeah?’ she said.
‘They worry, I guess.’ He looked out in the darkness. ‘I thought, with all the apples and everything, you might need some help. I can cook with the apples. We might even sell some stuff. We could just try it for a few weeks. What do you say?’
She said yes.
——————————
* big debate in GWB household: pollinators or pollenators – Cambridge academic says ‘en’ – retro-educated hack writer says ‘in’ – take your pick!

This was written as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges: use the names of three apple varieties in a story of less than 1000 words.

Flash Fiction Entry

I admire the blog called Terrible Minds by Chuck Wendig. His advice for writers is pithy, brilliant and rude (really rude – watch out if you don’t like a swearword). This is my entry for one of his flash fiction competitions, written when I should have been doing other things…The challenge was to include one of the following randomly generated sentences: “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.” “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” and “The criminal disappears after the inventor.” Extra points for using all three.

Summarize this passage in English.

She’s tried everything. Everything. Bribery is no good – all she can offer is an early end to the class, something forbidden by the course director stalking the corridors in silenced footwear. Threats make no impact – they just groan, or don’t understand, or care. Actually taking the damned things out of their hands, which she has resorted to once or twice, results in such a massive collective strop that any sort of co-operation is snuffed out, leaving a roomful of gorgon-glaring teenagers frozen in only-just-contained fury. In revenge they tick the frowny face on the end-of-course feedback form; very bad news to a teacher hoping to keep her job.

The day they market the mobile phone that can be embedded into the body is the day these young people present themselves at the implant clinic. Until then their beloved iPhones must always, always be within reach. Suck it up, Teach (or its equivalent in Mandarin).

It wouldn’t be so bad if the translation software were anything like decent. It’s not. It’s crap. But it’s still a million times easier, in your English lesson, if you’re Chinese and a teenager and you have spent sixteen of the previous 24 hours playing World of Warfare, or whatever, to pick it up, punch in the first Chinese word that comes into your head and write down whatever garbled rubbish the translator offers you.

Factor in misreadings and typing mistakes and you end up with a sentence on climate change in Scotland rendered as “The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins.”

They are not just wrong, they are extreme wrong, don’t-know-where-to-start wrong, why-do-we-even-bother wrong, but sometimes, she had to admit, they are oddly haunting: “A poetic pattern retains inertia.” Now and then they even sound like the beginning of a short story,“The criminal disappears after the inventor.”

The teacher sighs and looks out of the window. The instructress respires and defenestrates.