I don’t believe in luck or fate or destiny. I believe in choices mostly. I believe I’m still alive at 87 because I chose to eat right after 50 and stop smoking. I also go for a walk everyday to keep my legs going for as long as they can. I’m not supposed to be here still because of some incredible providence that is laid out for me. I’m old. Hell, I’m almost dead… so people should stop saying that I’m still around for a reason. I’ve loved before. I’ve hated. I’ve made mistakes, taken risks, accomplished what I could. Now, I’m stuck in Open Glen Retirement Village, watching sport or soapies, reading the paper and scrutinising headlines. I play Scrabble, Bingo, Suduko and do some crosswords. At night I lie in bed with some strong tea and watch the news, flick through to some fanatical reality show where people in plastic cry far too much and read a few pages in my Bible. I’ve had my Bible since I was 14. My ma gave it to me. Now, its crumbling, the pages thin and yellow. The words: still beating to today’s flaws and hopelessness. Avant-garde wisdom that’s resilient but vanishing in today’s mind. Stupid kids. Anna bought me a new Bible about ten years ago but I lost it somewhere.
My daughter Gemma visits once a week with my grandson Grant who turns five next week. My son Henry is in Australia. I wonder why people always go there when things turn to shit. I wouldn’t pick that desert.
“Lyle, what you think about the conference?” It was Alice pointing at the news man. It was some piece on the government spending millions on a conference for the environment. They were going to discuss ‘going green’. They were also going to this conference on their twenty jets. Irony. Alice looked a little disheartened about this because she loved her plants. Had little cactus plants in her room. She was the one who would plant little trees once a month. The Village let her have the happiness.
“It’s a little sad…” I told her. Alice nodded and frowned at the TV set, squinting through her thick glasses.
“You know, July hasn’t had a tree yet,” she remarked, “we’ll get one tomorrow. Come to the store with me, Lyle?”
My name isn’t Lyle by the way. It’s Paul. Lyle was Alice’s husband who she forgot about. Lyle came over a few times a week but visits less now that Alice’s condition has worsened. She has forgotten her past like it was scrubbed away with disinfectant. She thought I was Lyle. She clearly was losing it. Real Lyle was angry the first time Alice called me his name. One day, Lyle just shrugged it off and put his hand on my shoulder, pulling me away from the small group that were playing poker.
“Be Lyle. Don’t cross what she says,” Real Lyle told me.
“I’ll go with you Alice.”
Alice smiled softly.
Janice, the half-deaf woman who knitted a jersey a day, chuckled nearby.
“Paul, you’re a saint.”
I gave Janice a look. A look that said she must shut it. She ignored me and rolled up her blue wool with a grin. Alice looked up at Janice a little perplexed, wondering who the Paul character in the room was.
“Alice, what tree do you think we should get?” I asked, trying to diffuse Janice’s stupidity.
“I don’t think the store-“
“Apple then. I miss green apples. And red.”
“Alright, we might need to ask Fran for permission.”
“Fran needs to make room for apples.”
“We get an apple at lunch everyday.”
“Lyle, you remember the day we met?”
I stopped and looked at Janice’s smile disappear.
“Back in Athlone Street? There was an apple tree!”
I nodded, smiling at Alice’s naïve delight.
“Guess I’ve always had a soft spot for apples then! Apple pie, apple crust, apple lollipops!”
“So we’ll get an apple tree,” she whispered to me, grabbing my hand and stroking it softly like she had known my hand lines for a lifetime, “then it’ll be like when we were young.”
I hated it. Real Lyle asked me. Janice and Fran and everyone else let it go.
Alice came in six months ago. She thought we’ve been together for over fifty years.
Even though Alice wanted a room with me, Real Lyle had told me to tell her that it’s The Village’s rules that everyone needs their own room. Alice complied. Sometimes, around once a month, Alice knew me as Paul. Then her mind went and I was Lyle. I was her only love, the man who could play her Elvis and remember days with her trying to surf. Sometimes, I had to remember Real Lyle’s history. Sometimes I missed being Paul.
I retired to my own room as much as I could. Also when Gemma came around, I made Alice didn’t see. That would surely muddle everything.
Gemma came on Saturday mornings and she usually brought snacks, a movie and some gifts. Last week she brought me a Sinatra album with the hits and some nougat because that was my favourite. I told Gemma about my week and she spoke about hers, her work deadlines, driving Grant to school and working through her divorce. I told her about Alice sometimes and she teared up sometimes and told me how horrible it was. Gem told me she was glad she wasn’t me. Then she left.
It was like she came to visit this weird and wonderful world only to leave an hour or two later. Sometimes Grant would come and watch some cricket with me. Then he’d try and sing his songs at school and show me his drawings. Sometimes he drew me with a walking stick even though I can walk perfectly. I can walk briskly, too. Grant explained it to me one day like I was the child, “Every old person has a stick.”
I liked the visits but felt too sad when they left. I cried because Gem seemed to have a life now, away from me helping her out. I cried because Grant was handsome and clever. I cried because Henry still thought of me and also called twice a week. I cried because I was in this old-age bubble where Life was in limbo. What can I do now? Be Alice’s counterfeit lover? The Village Saint? The man who takes morning walks and watches TV most of the day? Sometimes I wonder why I was here. Why didn’t I buy a great beach cottage and old Ferrari? Because, that’s impractical. I have a beat-up bakkie and a small room with a single bed, small TV set and microwave. Practical.
That night, after spending my day hoping Gem would come keep me company and then getting a call from her apologising because Grant was sick with flu, I was beat. I turned on the news and saw the eco thing on TV again. Then I remembered going with Alice to get a tree tomorrow. Then I forgot about asking Fran if we could. Fran was our caretaker – middle-aged, desperate thing that treated us like her own. Fran was around 40 and I’ve never seen her with a man or with family. I think we were all she had, really.
After the weather, I would usually read the paper’s cartoons and the sport columns I liked. I was bored with puzzles and games now. Instead, after the weatherman told lies about sunny weather, the TV broke to a shiny man in a shinier suit with puffy hair and a groomed moustache. It looked like it was from the 70’s but that’s what today is like. The kids wear old gear as if they invented it and play songs that were done around three decades ago. The music today. I give up. Anyway, this shiny man was in front of this big audience who were clapping on cue, like preset robot things. They even smiled on cue.
“After our season break, the Lotto Draw is back!”
There were coloured balls with numbers on dancing around in those see-through machines.
“Have you got your lucky ticket out? Are you ready for your life to be changed? Are you ready to win 20 million? Your time is now!”
I switched the TV off. Last time I played was five years ago because Gemma had played and told me to. Gemma was getting separated then and had an optimistic mindset about entering competitions. Gemma got three numbers and won a small amount. I didn’t get one. I don’t believe in luck. Choices. Winning the lottery? That’s a little silly. No one just picks out numbers because they’re lucky. It happens. Like comets and making an impossible basketball shot. It just happens.
Ten years ago, Anna died. Her heart just gave out. When she entered a room, everyone smiled. When she was with you, she was electric and nothing else mattered. I mattered. With Anna, nothing worried me, nothing made me sad and I was afraid of nothing.
It was ten years ago and Anna fell over in the grocery store. I got the call that ended my inclusive happiness. When Alice brought up the apples yesterday, I tried to get the image of Anna out of my head.
Fifty years ago, Anna sat on the picnic blanket on my lawn having just made us sandwiches. She didn’t know this but I was going to propose. It was the easiest decision but one that made me anxious and sweaty and edgy – so much so that Anna fixed her sharp blue eyes on me when I sat on the blanket, offering a cut sandwich. No crust.
“Work has been a little crazy of late,” I said, biting into my sandwich. The ring was in my top right pocket. It felt heavier and hot, burning my skin.
“Well, there’s lunch here and now we can relax.”
“Anna, what’s your greatest desire?”
Anna chuckled at me and bit into a sandwich, scrutinising me, looking at my blazer. She knew. I’m sure she knew.
“Right here with you…except its warmer, there’s hot toffee apples and good wine.”
I picked up the bottle that stuck out of her old basket. Cheap.
“This will do. Any wine will do with you.”
About ten minutes later, after kissing Anna far too much, I grabbed both her hands, kissed her forehead and felt trapped in the best moment. I looked down at her and asked her to marry me. She kissed me back, nodding, unable to grab a hold of secure words. She was happy.
“With cheap wine and all…”
She smelled like vanilla and strawberry juice. She chewed too loudly. In the mornings, she need her coffee. She hated her hair standing up and hated putting on make-up. She was grouchy on Sunday nights when she knew Monday was coming. She hated cupcakes but made them for me. She loved wine. She liked orange lollipops and the green jelly babies. She couldn’t dance. She was mine. She had amazing morning breath. She had a great way of telling white lies to make people feel better. She could also swear like a sailor watching sport.
And then she just died one day.
It just happens.
Alice knew her plants like I knew about cricket. She knew what could brighten her room. The plant place didn’t have anything apple so Alice cried a little while I tried to calm her down. I told her we can get anything else but she didn’t want to.
“I wanted the apples, Lyle.”
“We’ll go to the diner and get some apple crust.”
It kind of cheered her up for a while but she was tearing up again when we approached the diner. We settled for buying Alice a small cactus she would keep in her room.
“Lyle, do you remember when we used to go here Fridays?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“You always had the cheese burger. I had the spaghetti.”
We found a table and I could see from Alice’s small smile, that she had memories of the booth that suddenly came to her like a knife got stuck in her temple.
The diner stank of cheese and chocolate. I imagined younger Alice slurping spaghetti and a younger Real Lyle biting into his greasy burger. Alice sure kept the weirder memories. She probably thought she was forty years younger now.
“What’ll be?” asked the twenty-something blonde waitress.
“Lyle’ll have the cheese burger. I’ll have the spaghetti.”
The blonde shook her head, bored, “No spaghetti. We have some noodles.”
Alice stared at her.
“You sure no spaghetti?” I asked, as Alice’s face drowned in confusion.
The waitress shook her head, “Noodles or lasagna. That’s our pasta menu.”
Alice shook her head in silence, staring at the waitress’ features. Blondie looked at me for an answer.
“She’ll have the lasagne…beef if you have?”
Blondie nodded and left as soon as she could.
“Lyle, what happened to the spaghetti?”
“Things change. Menus change.”
Alice slammed her fist on the table, and then ran her palm over her mouth, her eyes tearing up again.
“Careful Alice! things-“
“This isn’t the diner…”
“This is the diner. We’ve come here all these years…remember?”
Alice stared at me like I was hiding a birthday present. Like I was a stranger. Like I was a foreigner. Like I was a terrorist. I could feel the clogs in her head doing overtime. Or sparking in failure.
“No, you’re not Lyle…”
Blondie brought the order and walked briskly back to the kitchen to avoid Alice.
“Lyle has darker hair. Lyle and I had spaghetti and burgers at this place-“
“This. This isn’t it.”
“Alice, it’s the place. They just don’t have spaghetti. Here’s your lasagna.”
Alice looked at her plate, shoved it to my side and shook her head, looking around the diner, startled, looked around the near-empty diner, its jukebox, pay phone, Blondie and the open kitchen that steamed away.
”Take me to Lyle…”
I took her hand and led her out. Blondie cursed behind us. Alice started crying again.
They thought I was at the library. My mother even said, “Learn hard, Alice.”
Instead, I couldn’t focus on anything and let myself stroll around town. It was hot out anyway and I needed time to think properly. I needed to know if there was any use in learning anyway when I wanted to travel. London in summer. Scotland in winter. Anywhere but here. Anywhere but a place where everyone knew about me, what was happening and where I’d work one day. Dad wanted me in the fabric shop, taking orders down and getting the payments down right. I knew my way around but realised that this wasn’t what I desired. And from books and magazines, I’ve learnt there’s a universe to explore and I have no need to be trapped inside this iron bubble, scrutinised by society for being me. Independence is an attitude not meant for young ladies. Independence is for the young boy, the soldier in waiting, the boy who plays in mud while the girl cooks, cleans and wears skirts over the knee.
Athlone street was quiet at midday, the sprinkler was buzzing down at Mr. Cathe’s little cottage and Mer, the little girl who shouted for no reasons, was outside on her garden bench playing with a yo-yo that stuck. She looked forlorn but I decided against befriending her. I wanted to walk and not play saviour of the children and doting mother-like hen. I had enough of it.
“The thing’s dead.” Came a voice across the road. The young man was under the apple tree, picking some apples like we were in another time. By his feet was a brown sack. He smiled at me and picked another apple, smelling it, staring and rubbing the surface before biting into the side.
“What did you say?” I was supposed to walk on but the man intrigued. I didn’t know his face. I knew everyone’s face.
”Her yo-yo. String is broken so she’s been moaning for an hour.”
I looked at Mer who had our attention on me now. I waved at her and she waved back but still looked like she was about to stab someone.
“You should go over and-“
“Who are you?” I asked. He was chewing loudly and smiled again.
“Who are you?”
“I’m Lyle. Got here yesterday.”
“From where exactly?”
“You’re hiding something?”
Lyle laughed and picked up the sack, threw it over his shoulder and walked over to me with a smug look.
“We just moved from Kerton. Folks got a job so. Want an apple?”
“No. I have to go.” I turned away and he grabbed my arm, not forceful but something he shouldn’t have done. He was slim, his dark hair too long, falling over his eyes a little. His skin was tanned with freckles. He smiled again and I waited for him to say something important for me to stay but all he said was that I should stay, that I needed an apple.
“I don’t want your apples.”
He picked one out for me, a small one that shined as the sun hit it.
“You got something against fruit?”
I took it to shut him up, bit into it and nodded at him, “Nice…”
Lyle looked satisfied I took one. He still had my arm and let go.
“Won’t you help me pick apples?”
I laughed. What a complete weird stranger. Dimwit stranger. But something in my chest told me to let go of what my head was saying. My head said I should just go and leave him be. But that walk down Athlone was my time. It was supposed to be for a reason. I followed him to the tree.
“And then Lyle and I sat around the tree, eating apples and talking about Paris.”Alice told me as we walked up Athlone Street.
“We pretended we were on a farm in France,” she laughed, “under the apple tree. Then Lyle just started talking French. It wasn’t really French but it seemed like it.”
“And then you two were together?”
“We spent about two hours under the tree. After that, I saw him everyday. Everyday for decades. Lyle and I always spoke about the apple tree on Athlone and Lyle always said ‘Apples have magic, Alice. It was all just magic.’”
It was pleasant memory. I remember Anne and I meeting at a friend’s party and I had to speak to her. I spilled a drink on her skirt, she was laughing and the rest was history. It might seem stupid now and it was a small memory but no one ever forgets how they met their true love. You will never forget.Alice didn’t.
“That’s a great story…”
Alice looked at her feet on the tar. Athlone wasn’t as perfect as Alice painted it. Barely any trees. No benches like that Mer girl sat on. The grass was stained with winter’s yellow, leaves floating over the street, plastic bags on the lawns, a line of unordered garbage bins on the street ready for pick up. I could see from Alice’s complete sullen expression that Athlone wasn’t supposed to look like this. But that’s what happened. Life happened and your picture perfect memories swabbed in happiness and cleanliness, colour and health, die away to modern-day filth. The world isn’t lucky enough to be trapped in a moment. There was this chill in the air; the silence grew so my ears felt like it was ringing. Alice was looking at her feet, watching the way they stepped.
And then, as if the world wanted us to both look up, we did. And we stopped in front of the apple tree.
Iðunn, the goddess, would give out apples to the gods and they would attain eternal youthfulness, smiling, rejoicing in their energy and wit and enjoying moments that were full of drinking, love and happiness. I wonder if the sparkle of youth ever died. I wonder if everything around them stayed as youthful as they did?
There in Athlone, the apple tree stood metres away from Alice and I; lush, youthful, bright as if someone had painted the fruit in a sharp red and shine. Alice grabbed my arm in silence. The picture didn’t fit in the picture. This was a tree that came from another time. While Athlone stood desolate and stagnant, washed of jovial air, the apples shone and I squinted.
“This isn’t real.”
Alice smiled, staring, “Apples, they have magic.”
Out of nowhere, a young man walked to the tree. He was wearing faded trousers, a simple blue shirt. He was barefoot, neat, his hair gelled to the back. He was slim and tall, smiling at Alice and I.
“Like my tree?”
Alice grabbed my arm tighter this time.
The man picked an apple and bit into it, “Been amazing for years. I don’t even water it a lot, you know! Juiciest apples I’ve ever had. Want one?” He stretched out his hand with the one he took a bite out of.
“No, no. My friend and I are just passing,” I said.
I was about to step forward but Alice pulled me to a stop, smiling at the man.
He was peculiar. Young people wore black things nowadays and lots of metal and neon.
“Lyle…?”Alice whispered. She looked at me instantly and laughed, “It’s Lyle.”
I was so glad Anne didn’t lose her memories. It’s the saddest. The dementia. The blind hope. Child.
The man looked confused.
“Sorry, my friend and I were just leaving-“
“I’m Lyle, yes…” The man interrupted.
Alice nodded and let me go, walking to the man, “Yes, you’re Lyle.”
The man frowned at Alice.
“How do you know me?” the man asked.
Alice was in front of him now. I looked around. Athlone was still working. Some leaves blew. There was a modern-day car, a beat-up Ford, parked across the road. Athlone was dead, it was chilly, the sky miserable, the houses locked up and fenced up except the house with the apples.
I looked back, “Alice? Who is this?”
Alice took the man’s hand, “I’m Alice…”
The man smiled immediately. He looked at Alice’s hand and stroked it, wondering if this was real. I wondered.
“I knew you’d come.”
Alice nodded, looked back at me and smiled. Lyle took her other hand and laughed.
“Les pommes ont magic…” the man whispered but it carried to my ears as if he was shouting.
Alice laughed, “Paris! Let’s go to Paris!”
Gem came next week. She was more relaxed this time around and she brought a packet of things to eat. I loved that because sometimes the home didn’t cater sweet things.
“I’m finally a little carefree this week. Took a long weekend so we could go to that new lodge outside town tomorrow.” Gem was making me tea while I was looking through the newspaper she got me.
Gem looked up, “Dad, you’re quiet…had any friends over?Alice?”
“Aliceisn’t here anymore.”
“No?” Gem looked up with a worried face. Say that in the home and it brought up things like death.
“No, no, no, she’s alive. I think she’s alive.”
“Think? Where did she go, Dad?”
I shrugged, “Lyle took her.”
Gem stirred my tea, “You mean they moved out? Didn’t she have a soft spot for you?”
“We went out a few days ago to buy plants. We just bought a cactus. Anyway, we stopped to eat and then Alice and I walked down Athlone-“
“Athlone’s dangerous now, Dad. You can’t go that side of town.”
“Well, it was quiet. And there was this apple tree fromAlice’s story.”
“About how she met Lyle when she was young. They met in Athlone by the tree. Anyway, we stopped walking cause the tree was there. Gem, it was bright and fresh. And there was a young man there and Alice recognised him and called him Lyle.”
Gem passed me my tea and sipped hers, “You mean her son? She has a son?”
I shook my head, “It was Real Lyle. It was Lyle by the tree. It was Lyle like he was when Alice met him forever ago!”
“Dad, Lyle is as old as you are now.”
“No! It was Real Lyle I couldn’t believe it either but there were apples and they held hands and it was magic. You don’t know what it was like. They walked off, with the sack of apples and I felt I had to let her go.Alice had to let go.”
Gem stared at me for a while and looked at her watch.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Dad, I got to go. I have to get food done. I’ll leave the packet in here for you and I’ll see you on Monday? Then we can chat for long.” She kissed my forehead and I let her go. I dug in my packet, taking out biscuits, full-cream milk and a pie.
I read the label: apple crust.
I opened it, cut a slice and put the rest in my little fridge.
The fresh apple pieces were in toffee, a caramel and cream with nuts.
Alice met Lyle again by the apples and she ran away.
I took a bite and there was a knock at the door.
An old woman walked in with a walking stick. Her face was bright, smiling, her eyes a dark blue. Never saw her before.
“Can I help?”
The woman laughed, “Oh, I must be wrong. I thought this was my room.”
“Are you new here? What room you looking for?”
“This is thirteen.”
The woman looked embarrassed and smiled at me, her white, cropped hair moving quickly to see my plate of pie, my small TV set, some crayon drawings and tea.
“Well, I’ll leave you be. I must’ve seen the 3 on the door and just got excited.”
“Want some apple pie?”
“Well, isn’t that nice.”
I opened my fridge, cut her some and put the kettle on again. She sat down on my other chair, bending slowly and putting her walking stick on my dresser. She wore a red skirt and white jersey. Her eyes were too bright, too big, too youthful. Her gaze was familiar.
“Well, you know when your kids start looking after you and just don’t want to anymore, they find something for you.”
“I know the feeling.”
“And when I came here, The Village told me this was the right place and something told me it was. It seems nice. It’s like I’m supposed to be here”
No one is meant to be somewhere. Maybe Alice was. When people told me it was Anne’s “time to go”, I fell silent with anger. I don’t believe in all that. I also don’t think someone is meant to be somewhere at some time in their lives. Delusional.
“I’ll cut myself another, would you like one?” I asked.
“Oh no, this will be alright. One’s enough for me. I’m not the biggest apple fan. Hot toffee apples are great but won’t invest in more than one slice of pie.”
Toffee apples. Hot, sticky toffee apples.
I took a bite into the apple, cinnamon, the oozing cream and small nut.
“I didn’t get your name?”
I don’t believe in luck.