DOWN THE LINE

The Sound of Peeling Apples

From: Stories from Other Places by Graham Bathgate

My mother-in-law, Elena came through to the main living area at 10.30 tonight from her separate part of the house, to join me watching BBC World News. At this hour I guessed there must have been a mighty mission; I noticed she was awkwardly carrying a plastic bag of utensils and several green apples. She wanted to boil them for breakfast.

I was sharply reminded of my grandmother who used to do the same thing, and would take a long time to prepare the fruit, producing beautiful sweet soft apple compote. One difference between my grandmother and my mother-in-law was the way they cut the apples: as a young teen watching my grandmother labouring over her Granny Smiths, I never registered the sound of peeling apples.

Perhaps because my desire to listen to the BBC News was being thwarted I keenly noticed the sound of Elena scraping away at the crunchy skin. Furthermore on this particular night I had decided to go to bed early, and since I slept Japanese style in the living-room, my “futon” was all ready. Anyway, as she settled herself into the big chair, I doubted she had noticed my bedding. She took out the necessary implements for apple peeling, and got started quite vigorously.

“Scrush ... scrush ... scrush”.

The peeling went smoothly and I became absorbed in Hard Talk, the participants dealing with the terrible possibility of another Rwanda / Congo war – would there be a genocide like in 1994?

“Scrush ... scrush”.

The superb Stephen Sackur was interviewing Clare Short, ex-Cabinet minister in the Blair government until 2003, when she resigned over Iraq. They were discussing how the war could be prevented, how the deaths of thousands could be avoided ... when I became aware of silence, no sound of peeling. Elena had fallen asleep in mid-peel. I could see half a twirly bit sitting up over the knife. I waited hoping she was all right. An eerie feeling invaded the room.

I was reminded of what my sister-in-law, Sarah had told me that same day about her mum’s Chi Gong class – the rest of the group had come to a stop in the middle of their exercises and gathered round Elena’s wheelchair where she was slumped forward – fortunately, she was simply napping and I had suggested to Sarah perhaps they were doing revival energy or get-up-and-go exercises in a circle round her mother. Was it the same now with the apple peeling? I was gripped by imaginings of unconsciousness, illness and how to rescue the apples and utensils...

“Scrush, scrush, scrush”.

I realised I’d been holding my breath as I let out a puff of relief.

The peeling had resumed after 30 seconds, an eternity under the circumstances. It was strangely louder than before. Suddenly it stopped again. She was in a greater state of slump than before. I resumed the breath holding and started thinking if I should call ambulance services even at that late hour.

Clare Short was expounding earnestly how the UN could ward off another genocide in the DR of Congo when, after longer than before, Elena resumed peeling. This caused me to feel foolish because I had started to think the cessation of peeling sounds was as serious as the Congo crisis. I didn’t dare look round just in case the sight of the peeler would provoke needless panic stations. I made a mighty effort to involve myself in the Congo discussion, as if intellectual and heart-felt consideration of serious world events would diminish Elena’s inactivity beside me. It was difficult though, because distant genocide doesn’t hold a candle to the possibility of demise in one’s own living room, in the next armchair; the terrible silence of no more scrunching continued unnervingly. The weighty discussion and advice about what to do in the Congo continued too, Stephen Sackur asking probing questions; Clare Short was adamant that the killing had to be stopped, the forces of good had to intervene, history must not repeat itself ...

“Scrush ... scrush ... scrush”.

I resumed normal breathing and saw that only one apple remained; perhaps both Elena and I would survive.

The sound of peeling apples is a sound similar to my mother-in-law’s slippered shuffle along the wooden floor. It was 11.20 when I escorted Elena back to her room to boil the apples. This task would keep her occupied until 1.00 in the morning, by which time I would be hearing in my dreams the sound of monkeys picking rotten apples from branches in the jungles of the Congo.

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