Apple Juice and Other Short Stories by Raymond Hopkins - HTML preview
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I wish. Oh how I wish! But there, it’s no earthly use making wishes like that; no good trying to claw back the past in order to bite the cherry a second time. You can’t go back. Not ever. The tape of life winds only one way, and having wound to the end, stops. If it breaks in the process, it stops sooner than expected, but that is the only variation permitted.
I was offered the moon once, but like a spoilt child - was I spoilt? - probably, would satisfy with nothing less than the stars. And now? Now I had the tiny patch of earth underneath my feet, a patch that changed constantly with my footsteps, and all of it second hand. Still, the beach gave a spurious sense of ownership, washed constantly as it was to a smooth uniformness that gave the impression of being new and unused.
My feet sank into the soft, wet sand as I stared at the bottle drifting in with the tide. Retreating every now and then against the encroaching waters, I waited with what patience I could muster until the bottle was within reach, then stooped and picked it up, feeling slightly self conscious about the act. To be sure, there was nobody close enough to see, nobody even in sight at all, yet the feeling persisted just the same. Years ago I wouldn’t have felt the same self consciousness, but then years ago I wouldn’t have wandered along a deserted beach for company. Years ago I was a foreigner and did things differently.
I looked at the bottle with an artificial feeling of interest. It was green, a dark, deep colour that could only be described as bottle green. It was almost, but not quite opaque, though it was impossible to see what, if anything, might be inside. Without a label, there was only one way to find out. I removed the cork, half expecting a genie to swirl out and grant me my heart’s desire, but of course no such thing happened. I would even have settled for one wish, and anyone else could have had the other two. The contents of the bottle, whatever they had been in the past, had long since gone, only a faint musty smell remaining, a smell that aroused a vague memory in the pathways of my mind. It wasn’t apple, but that’s the memory that came.
* * *
I was just eighteen when I accompanied my mother on her retreat to the countryside. Not that I had any objection, as I had always liked rural life, so different from the busy, noisy, and above all, impersonal city we lived in. I never liked cities, but I cannot go back to the countryside now. There are too many memories of things that never happened for it to be comfortable. I live by the sea instead, close by the shore, on the boundary, which is where my mind is situated.
But in those days, it was interesting to stay for several weeks that summer surrounded by farmland and sheep, moorland and forest. Boundaries of a different sort. We had taken a cottage for the whole summer, just my mother and I. There were only the two of us then. I had no brothers or sisters, and my father - well, my father was the reason we were there. With the resilience of youth, I had come to terms with his loss, but mother had taken it hard. There never really was anyone else except him. Even I was a sort of adjunct, an addition to their happiness together. Not that I was unwanted, or unloved. Far from it, but the truth of the matter was that my parents had been so wrapped up in each other that I was free to go my own way even as a small child. For the same reason, though my father was no longer with us, I was not missed when I took to exploring the district we had chosen to live in for those few weeks. I think my mother was only too glad to see that I was not fretting.
There was an intense pleasure in walking along the roadside and getting a mental map of the area, and in deciding where my next walk should be. The ditches were full of waist high grasses and other plants, some with white umbrellas on top, others showing off clusters of tiny yellow flowers. Reds and pinks and blues mixed with the greenery and dusted with scintillating diamonds of early morning dew made each walk a new adventure every time. Daisies abounded. Those I knew, as well as buttercups and dandelions. What the small, scarlet painted flowers that were dotted about here and there could have been I never knew, nor did it seem to be important to find out. They were just things to look at and to wonder about, just as the rapid movement of small creatures was something to ponder over without feeling the need to know more. Insects for the most part, some sort of lizard perhaps, maybe mice. It didn’t seem important to go past the perhaps. It was enough that they were there. To have given them names wouldn’t have increased my understanding. I just knew what I liked.
It was on the third day that I found the neighbour. I say the neighbour, as he was the only one I ever really got to know. The house was set at the end of a narrow, overgrown lane, immediately after a sharp bend. Tall trees that I later learned were chestnuts grew in a somewhat straggly fashion, shadowing the entrance to the house, so that I came across it suddenly, and with a sense of surprise. There was a man in the garden, or what passed for a garden, since it wasn’t cultivated in any way, merely the taller weeds cut back roughly with a scythe in order to give light and air to an otherwise small and cramped area. I knew it was a scythe that had done the work, because the man was using it as I turned round the bend and came into view. I gave some sort of stammered apology.
‘I... I’m sorry. I didn’t know anyone lived here.’
He met my red cheeks with an amused smile, and stopped working, leaning on the tool with practised ease.
‘Not many people do,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit isolated, even for this area.’
He studied me with a sharp and penetrating eye.
‘You must be the new people. Or one of them, anyway. I heard someone had taken Rose Cottage. Two of you. Is that right?’
‘Yes. Just my mother and myself.’
‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘That’s what I heard. You can’t keep secrets round here very easily. Staying long?’
I shook my head. ‘A few weeks. Just for the summer really. Just until September.’
‘Then back to school I suppose?’
There was a question mark in his voice, but it wasn’t really a question at all.
‘Good heavens, no. I left school ages ago,’ I said with all the airy maturity I could muster. Three weeks ago to be precise, but it didn’t seem necessary to admit it. Such things take on an over inflated importance when you are just eighteen. There was a time when eight and a half, or even eight and three quarters had a much greater importance, but as an adult, I had long since put that sort of thing behind me. Besides, what could be made of eighteen and almost a week?
His smile didn’t exactly express disbelief, but I had the uncomfortable feeling that my ploy had been seen through.