Ghost Apples By Catherine Wilkinson

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‘Monty, climb down. This instant.’

The smooth blonde crown of his head visible through the dark spikes, Monty is halfway up the monkey puzzle tree that stands by the school pitch. From his look-out, he can see the mini red rugby shirts of his classmates, bulldozing about.

‘Sir, did you know that even a tap on the skull with a pencil kills loads and loads of brain cells?’

‘No. Fascinating. Now come down.’

‘My Grandpa told me Sir. Because I was tapping my noggin. As I was thinking.’

Monty peers at Mr Lederman’s scalp shining through the branches, cobwebs of hair waft around the ears and neck. If he leans right out on his perch, he can just see the flick of a muscle in the teacher’s jaw.

‘Monty, I do not wish to repeat myself. Get out of the … tree.’

‘Were you about to swear Sir? I thought you would find the cell destruction thing an interesting fact Sir. And have you seen the facts on rugby and concussion?

I don’t want brain damage. What do you think about touch rugby instead Sir? After all, Jack is pretty huge and … .’

‘Montgomery, I am not clambering up this tree. Get your … self … down, and onto the pitch, and join in.’

‘I do think it would be better use of my time to practise my piano. Before my fingers get squished. I think rugby is pointless Sir. And surprisingly complicated for such a rough game … .’

‘Monty, I refuse to negotiate. Or listen to your gabble. One more word out of you, and your name will be written – in capital letters, at this rate maybe even twice – in the detention book.’

‘Fish.’

Nasal inhale:

‘Book.’

»

Monday again. Monty’s mum leaves him at the crested iron gates. The school looms, a limestone rectangle, the old house of some earl. To Monty, it’s as if a giant had wrapped it in a handkerchief of lawn and then dropped it, plonk, into the woods. He checks the nurse’s fob-watch pinned to his grey pullover. Just time before the bell. He runs to the small water fountain in the centre of the grass circle in front of the school steps. He stirs the shallow water in which a few leaves float, faded yellow and orange. Cups water into his hands, splashes his face. And then pats the head of the stone sculpted mermaid curving the lip of the bowl. Secretly, he has named her Calypso. He loves all the Greek and Roman gods stuff. Also Biology, which is first lesson, hurray.

But later: ‘I am sad.’

‘What’s up?’ His friend, Pippa.

‘The glow worms are dying.’

‘What, all of them?’

‘Slowly, yes. I just read. They use their lights to attract mates. But now because of all our light pollution, they are not bright enough. So they are dying out.’

Mr Lederman lightly cuffs him as he passes: ‘buck up blossom’.

»

Monty dashes out before Thursday night choir. He snuffles the air, crispy frosty. Ripples the pool of water, pat-pats the mermaid. With his finger, he follows the pattern of the scales on her tail, and fixes upon Mr Lederman’s comments on his homework. He had written a short essay on reproduction. He thinks, looking back, straightforward breeding might have been the task. His was about the DNA soup that slops inside a chrysalis. He had always assumed that a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly was a dry, gradual process. How enchanting to learn that all was dissolved into a gloop from which an entirely new creature emerged. Well not entirely new, the best bit, the only actual structure in the soup: the wings. Magic. ‘Another tangent’, Mr Lederman had written in red. And seemed sceptical when tossing Monty’s exercise book onto his desk. Look it up then, Monty internally humph-ed, if you don’t believe me. Against Monty’s stated – ‘favourite animal’ – he had marked: ‘What?? Precious. And NB cursive writing’. Monty still prints, had printed: ‘tardigrades’. Microscopic animals that are virtually indestructible, can even survive in space. As Monty had noted in the margin, very cute and known also as ‘water bears’.

»

After Wednesday lunch, Monty skulks in the library, clutching ‘The Sword and the Stone’. He wriggles into a beanbag and starts to read. But he keeps having to repeat a page, begins to drift and twitch. It is a hardback book. He likes its weight, its dusty smell. Bluebell sap was, long ago, used to bind books … where had he dug up that titbit … .

Footsteps in the corridor. He bites his lip. Monty and Mr Lederman had not hit it off from day one. Monty had asked a question. The first of many. Mr Lederman had reminded him of the school rule that you must raise your hand if you wish to ask a question. Monty had replied that he had, actually, raised his hand. Indeed, he was still waving his arm. He had made the point that the hand-raising and the question-asking had been ‘simultaneous’, a word of which he was quite proud. Arguably then, not breaking the rule. Sir. It was a distinction, and a conversation, Mr Lederman had not appreciated. From then on, the whole class knew Mr Lederman was gunning for Monty. The girls tried to shield him, seeing Mr Lederman was harder on boys, but it made things worse. In addition, cardinal of sins, Monty made the class laugh and Mr Lederman said: ‘there’s only room for one clown in the circus’. Mr Lederman was funny sometimes, but generally when he mocked a pupil causing the others to snigger. Low tactics, Monty and Pippa agreed.

»

‘Ghost apples?’

In a nature-themed show-and-tell lesson, Monty wants to take his class to the orchard – to reveal the ghost apples he had seen that morning, having been dropped off very early by Mum who had a breakfast meeting.

‘Oh Montgomery, Halloween’s long gone. Another fairy story?’

‘I can prove it.’ Whilst still quite dark, he’d mooched around the scruffy orchard behind the walled garden of the headmaster’s house. Rushing earlier, he had wrapped his toast in a paper napkin and bent it into his pocket. He crunched as he wandered – seedy bread, butter soaked in, salty marmite – cold, but good enough. Scuffing, he had poked his toe into a frost-crusted brown apple mush. A vinegary waft. And then, at face level, two ice apples dangling from a branch. Casts of apple made of ice. Baubles proper.

After assembly, he had hurried to look it up on the class computer. It was real. ‘When freezing rain coats rotting apples before they fall, the flesh of the fruit inside turns to mush because the freezing point of the apples is lower than that of water. The pulped fruit slips out, leaving an icy shell still hanging on the tree.’ He had touched it gingerly, his finger tacky on the ice. The tiny burn. The clear case of the fruit, the tree distorted through a dappled wonky lens. Mesmerised, he was then, again, late and had run for the calling of the register, stamping his boots to dislodge mud and mulch, diverting quickly to crack the ice skin of Calypso’s pool.

‘It’s true, an actual phenomenon’, Monty stutters over the word, breaks it down into parts.

Mr Lederman refuses to permit a disruptive class excursion.

‘Away with the birds that boy’, Monty hears him mutter to another teacher.

At break, in the white sun, the ghost apples have gone.

The boys roll their eyes.

‘I believe you’, says Pippa.

»

‘I take it you are all safely past the Santa stage?’, Mr Lederman speaks to the class on the first day of Advent.

‘Any suckers left? No? Monty? Well, who’d have guessed.’

Monty is defiant as the discussion progresses.

‘I have evidence Sir.’

‘Do tell child. Entertain us all.’

‘Well, first, hang on, yes. Last year. There were sooty footprints on the carpet. And the fireguard had been knocked over. Yes, backwards from the chimney. And my mum was a bit cross about the soot because it was a new wheaten carpet.’

Monty lets the group laughter bounce off him. He cannot see Mr Lederman’s eyes because the light is catching his glasses. His thin smile is familiar though.

‘I’m not finished. I have more. The year before, we narrowed down Santa’s visit to between four and six o clock in the morning. Wait! Listen. Mamba, my black lab, had woken us up, barking, at about four, and Mum went downstairs and said there was a fox in the garden. By the wooden gate. Mamba was going berserk. And Mum said she was a bit worried Santa had been scared off and that he had not been by then. But by six o clock, when she was up again to feed the horses, he had been. My stocking was full. So, so there.’

‘Strong case so far Montgomery. Concluding argument?’

‘Right. Fine. Dropped carrot pieces outside, with teeth marks … . I always leave a mince pie for Santa, chocolate coins for the elves and carrots for the reindeer, sliced long-ways so they don’t choke.’

‘You know ‘Mummy’ is doing you no favours with such indulgence at this age.’

Minutely, Monty’s hackles rise.

‘I shall let your peers finish disabusing you at break. Onwards. The meaning of advent.’

Monty zones out. Sits still. He contemplates how he will confront his mother about this betrayal. Whilst also wondering about the tooth fairy, he begins to fear the death of magic.

»

‘Come on Monty’, they are heading into the woods to play forts. The tunnel of trees is so green Monty had needed to look up a word to capture its very green-ness. Verdant, he found. G-pa had given him a French clue. So many different shades and feels – fresh grass, ferns, luminous beech. An ash tree is choked by ivy, he traces the white veins of one dark lobed leaf, almost an arrowhead, then scoots down the path to catch up.

Mid-battle, he burrows under a rhododendron bush on the territory of his team’s fort. Damp, peaty. He can hear the rat-tat-tat of enemy fire. Huge buds are forming, tips of harsh pink against grasshopper-green sepals. They are solid, hand-size. Ha, grenades. Although, no, he doesn’t want to snap off new life. He’d skipped milk-and-bun at break and the watery stew at lunch, but in his blazer pocket he has a honey sandwich squashed in foil. It was lavender honey last week, rather like eating great-aunty Lily’s perfume. He disliked. Today he has dandelion, in white bread for a treat. The honey is clear and dark amber, deeply sweet but with sour notes. The lucky seashell in his pocket is now a bit sticky. A white ridged clam – he rubs it, counting. From the number of its calcified notches, its age can be calculated just like with the rings in a slice of tree.

He finishes his sandwich, re-joins the war.

»

Two more fights. With Mr Lederman of course. The other teachers are OK. He knows he can be annoying. It’s not on purpose. Monty talks through his mattress to Mamba, her tail wagging under the bed. Apparently, as well, he feels things too much – he’s a bit of a ‘heavy watermelon’. A Greek expression, G-pa told him. And, oh yes, he’s also too enthusiastic. Can’t win then. Seriously. The latest fights. The first is ridiculous: some of his teachers have told him to leave spaces in his work so he has room to add his extra thoughts instead of indecipherably tiny notes or lots of asterisked PS. Mr Lederman says this is wasting paper. Petty, petty man. That he should organise his thinking. ‘Plan boy.’ The second battle is more serious: Monty believes in alien life, or the possibility of it. Lederman does not. Refuses even to countenance it, he says. Monty is not to argue. No science allowed. It is taboo. Ace word. He curls up under his duvet. Now he’s an ammonite. His alarm went off ages ago.

»

After Tuesday rounders, Monty is the last one in the changing rooms. He needs to wash his hands. Has to. Just once more. To get it right. ‘Evil Ernie’, the germ poster says. Above every toilet in school. Wash your hands or Evil Ernie’s germs will get you.

Monty leans against the sink and looks in the mirror. White face, dark smudges under big eyes. He is standing in a puddle of splashes, his blue and red Spiderman socks all soggy.

He starts again. He begins high up his wrists, runs the column of water up and down his slender forearms, rotating and rubbing. He glances at his fob. Ten minutes. He returns to his palms. Next, the chapped backs of his hands.

He’s still contaminated. But if he can get it right this time, he might not be too late for English. If he focuses.

Must. Not. Panic.

He scrubs at each finger, each bitten nail. The tap is on full blast. The sink full and gurgling.

It actually hurts. Get it right. He’s stupid. Broken. Why is he broken? The doctor says he must not blame himself. Just his stupid Habit. The doctor says to treat the Habit as separate to him so he can be firm with it. Turn it into another thing even – a snake say. But Monty likes snakes. And if he turns the Habit into a monster, he feels sorry for it. As if everyone is bullying the monster. So stupid.

Twenty minutes. It’s not working. He needs to start again. He’s stuck. Mum says to think he has only stalled. Re-boot. He tries to apply a medical technique, a cunning trick. Don’t wait for it to feel right. Put a number on it. Tell himself on that number, eight maybe, it will feel right. Eight in total or eight more? He hates that technique. Doesn’t work. Not for him.

Mum. She has a special patient-not-worried face. At bedtime, she is not quite as patient. She says her stock runs out as she gets more tired and she is sorry, so sorry.

Contaminated.

Water runs, drains.

Minutes bleed.

One more time.

»

‘That’s it. You can kneel on the floor for the rest of the lesson.’

Mr Lederman yanks Monty by the arm from his chair, scrapes the chair aside.

‘I have warned you time and again about kneeling on the chair.’

‘But Sir, it’s comfy. I can lean over my work and really concentrate. How about, instead, you send me out again to count to one hundred backwards?’

‘No negotiation. No feet on the chair.’

Mr Lederman extends his fingers around Monty’s cranium, pushes down.

Monty sighs, kneels at his desk. Titters behind him. Bony knees on wooden floor. Mr Lederman teaches Religion too … perhaps he is expected to pray? Might help. If he stretches, he can just get his elbows on the desk to write. His handwriting will be even worse. And Lederman insists on a fountain pen, upon which Monty presses too hard, splays the nib.

Only paragraphs later, his shoulder joints burn. He slouches, rests his nose on the desk. It is engraved with pupils’ scribbles and fidgets: dates, initials, hearts. Squints underneath: a purple felt pen P & M? He flinches slightly as Mr Lederman walks past. His chalk-smudged navy groin.

At least it’s Friday. And this is Monty’s favourite classroom – a high domed ceiling, and on the top floor where the trees touch the window. Yes, a cavernous treehouse. Or perhaps a vault. But the sash is open and a ruffle of breeze reaches him. He twists to see a magpie on a branch. Clean white. Shiny black. Iridescent blue, which alters, shimmers, as Monty cocks his head. Smart matching black beak, legs and eyes. Such black eyes that drill into Monty’s. He holds the bird’s gaze, plays the staring game, he’s good at that. Unblinking, until tears of strain start to creep … .

A book smacks on the desk in front of him.

A quick peep, the magpie has gone.

And then: ‘susurrus’.

‘What Sir?’

Susurrus. The whispering of the leaves in the breeze. Also a word that sounds like what it is.’

‘I like that Sir.’

‘How gratifying. Back to your sonnets.’

Weird. He is woozy, hot and weird. Prickling.

The hum of the groundsman’s mower seeps into his head, blurring.

Rise, fall, drone … a mantra … .

Hints of sweet cut grass, too sweet … .

He nibbles the skin around his thumb nail, and is rewarded with the board rubber zipping past his ear.

His legs feel as if Mamba has chewed them.

A sway in his head.

Tummy churning, as if about to step on stage for the school play.

Dry mouth, tastes of pencil lead.

He taps his teeth onto his tongue.

‘Mont. Gomery. Knees. On. Floor.’ Exasperation oozes.

‘They are Sir’, but as he replies, Monty realises he is actually, huh, lifting a little. Hovering. The pages of his textbook flip as he experiments with flutter kicks, rises. Is he levitating? The power of his mind dominates at last …?  He tries a breaststroke action, and glides above the heads of the other pupils. Air-swimming, stupendous! Monty skims from blackboard to the tip-top bookshelves. His foot knocks the pendant light. Sets it swinging.

The class is stunned silent – tipping back on their chairs, necks whip-lashed.

Monty follows the contours of the arched ceiling, flies a little faster. Testing his wingspan, he swerves and dips. The class awake, their feet drumming as they chant: ‘go Monty go’. Giggles finally jolt the teacher from his trance. Simultaneously, Monty and Mr Lederman glance at the open window. The teacher lunges to slam it shut – but Monty dives, swoops through, his tie streaming over his shoulder, and with one hard kick at his teacher’s grasping claws, Monty flits into the blue, out and away.

###

glasses

Catherine Wilkinson

Ghost Apples is one of a collection of short stories loosely linked by brain wiring anomalies or neurodiversity. Another, Grey Wizard, features in Issue 11 of the literary magazine, the lonely crowd. Wilkinson’s current longer form work-in-progress, Botanicum, involves the restoration of a glasshouse, hyperacusis, and grief. Written in 2018, her Island Journal blends memoir, travel, frivolity, nature and pyscho-geography. The pandemic having both popped the bubble of an imminent MA and thwarted a nomadic existence, Wilkinson’s caravan has stopped by a vast lough in Tipperary – more precisely, in the garden yard of a ruined castle tower upon which nightly sits a big white barn owl.

Some publication details/links:

Grey Wizard Issue 11 of the lonely crowd – thelonelycrowd.org

& website article on its writing: Grey Wizard – the seeds:

https://thelonelycrowd.org/2019/09/18/grey-wizard-the-seeds-catherine-wilkinson/

Twitter: @CatherineWilk2

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay


pencil


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