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When toffee-apples turn to juice

A short story by Martin John Goodman

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Books by Martin John Goodman

[‘Bonfire Night’: 5 November, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot (1605), on which large fires are built and effigies of the conspirator Guy Fawkes are burnt. ‘Bonefire’: a large open-air fire in which bones are burnt – The OED]

The boy picked his nose to clear it then rubbed his knuckles across his eyes. From the landing he stood and looked at how a cleanliness had blasted his room.

"Oh Malcolm," his mother said. She had come up the stairs. Her index finger pressed down on the nozzle of a large pink can and a fragrant cloud squirted towards the ceiling, like exhaust fumes. She motored on past him. "We didn’t expect you back so soon."

A gasmask muffled her voice. He had been given it to play with years ago, but had never seen it worn in anger before.

His mother put down the spray can and snapped the elastic of her yellow Marigold gloves against her wrists. Her legs bent and she bowed forwards from the waist, the knuckles of her hands scraping the floor. The shuffle of her walk gathered momentum as she approached the window, where her body sprang to its height. All she had scooped up on the way, the rags and scraps of his existence, took life for a moment against the sky. The sleeves of a shirt ghosted wide before it fell.

"Well done, love," he heard his father say.

Malcolm went to the window and looked down but his father didn’t see him. The man’s head was bowed, the long strands that normally covered his scalp flopping down across his face. He balanced a good half of the bundle on the tines of his garden fork then walked it off between the rosebeds to the far end of the lawn.

Malcolm watched his father screw the cap off a can of petrol.

"Out of the way," his mother mumbled, and as she spoke the boy’s body was flipped from its feet and his head thumped against the wall.

"It’s your own fault," his mother told him, before he could start to cry. "You should have moved. I couldn’t aim with you in the way."

She looked down to see the mattress on the path below.

The boy was lucky. The mattress could have carried him with it instead of pushing him to one side. That was the trouble with Malcolm. He never knew when he was lucky. She left him crumpled on the floor and went back to the doorway. With just a few more of her runs the carpet was scooped down to its stains.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

It was a mild question. She ignored it.

She was on her hands and knees, hooking her broom under his bed to pull more debris into the glare. Her broom rattled away till it could reach all round the walls and under-the-bed was cleared, then she swept the load across the room and heaped it out of the window.

Her face was just a silhouette against the backdrop of blue light as she turned to him, her white hair pushed high by the straps of the gas mask to flower like smoke.

She pulled the mask off and reached a packet of cigarettes out of her apron pocket.

"This is my last," she said.

The words were clear now the mask had gone, but the years of smoking had left her voice with a rasp. She peeled the gloves from her hands. A cigarette trembled in her fingers as she lifted it to her lips and lit it with her old gold lighter.

"Do you know why I’ve smoked?"

She bent close so he could see her face. The rubber mask had suctioned a large red ring around it like a second mouth. The face was pale so the ring was striking, and seemed to be yelling messages of its own.

"All these years? Since your first nappy after solids? I bought your father a pipe and some Sobranie and he’s done his bit, but it wasn’t enough. I needed my own smells about me. Needed my own stink so I wouldn’t get mixed up in yours. Now it’s gone. Your smell’s nearly gone. We’re learning to breathe, your father and me. We won’t need to smoke any more."

She left the cigarette in her mouth and placed the lighter on the windowsill so her hands were free to screw the top off the small can of lighter fuel she was holding. The drops that touched his skin didn’t burn; they were cool like water and their smell revived him. Most of the drops fell on his clothes. She shook the can till it was empty. His shirt and trousers darkened as the spots of liquid spread into patches. As she stood up ash flecked from the tip of her cigarette and floated down. He watched it turn from red to black before it hit his sleeve.

She saw it too. He was blessed, her Malcolm. He could have gone up in flames. Instead he was just a little moistened and fuming a new smell. He didn’t know how lucky he was.

She looked out of the window and planned the rest of the day. She had hoped for a swirling fog like in the Novembers of her childhood, but found comfort in this sky of blue. It was as though they had already cleared the air with their work.

Her husband was struggling with the mattress. She tapped a fingernail on the glass of the window and hissed him over.

"Get the shears," she mouthed when he stood below, and scissored her arms when he gaped back. "The shears."

"Shears? You mean the shears? What good would they do? It’d just bulge between ’em."

"Then take a knife." She looked as though she were screaming but only a breath of voice dropped down. "Slit it open. Pull it apart with your hands."

She felt her backbone shudder and gripped on to the window ledge. She had these spasms, these revolts of her gentler nature. They had started with morning sickness and grown apace with her son, from fetus to baby to infant to boy. Now the boy was turning yet again. He had gone sexual on her. His smell was noxious and he oozed in the night. His mattress would be clotted.

She couldn’t answer for a while when her husband spoke back. The thought of his words choked her.

"It’d be like snow," he said. "Snow in November. What’d the neighbours say, having all the mattress stuffing float around their lawns?"

The sick caught in her throat, and she swallowed it back. Blood danced beneath her eyelids as she screwed her eyes tight. The red splashes soothed her like a vision and gave her the answer.

"Coil it," she said. "Bind it with garden twine. Put it at the centre. It will hold up the pole."

Her husband stopped gaping as he understood. She watched him close his mouth and amble off to the garden shed, then she collected a lungful of outdoor air before turning back into the room.

"Stop shivering." It wasn’t decent, the way the boy trembled, eyes wide open like wounds. "There’s no use exciting yourself. It’s hours yet till dark. Did you get what I sent you for?’

He scrambled for the carrier bag he had dropped. She took it from him and looked inside.

"You got them then," she said.

She’d given him the money and he’d just set off, like shopping was part of his every day. It wasn’t natural. A boy like that, one who’d never been out of the house before, he should have got lost. They’d never have traced him back. Yet here he was, not only back home but with exactly what she’d asked for. He picked stuff up from that telly of his, blaring through the day and glowing in the night, but this wasn’t the telly’s fault. A homing instinct was a special curse of God

She took the selection box out of the bag.

"They’re Standard," Malcolm said, and started to sing. "Light up the sky with Standard fireworks."

"This isn’t Christmas," she told him. "It isn’t Happy Birthday time. It’s Bonfire Night. There are no songs."

She walked past him to the bathroom as he started his advertising ditty again, and turned on the taps to drown the noise.

She made him splash up bubbles to hide himself, then left him to soak. Hot baths were a mixed blessing. They soothed him, but scum and hairs coated the plughole after he got out.

It was dark in the bathroom. Malcolm closed his eyes and watched the lights whizz inside his head. He pressed his feet on the bottom of the tub to make his body float, weightless and warm.

"He dressed himself," his father said. "Isn’t he a good boy?"

She heard the note of pleading, and curved her left nostril in a smile. They could both do with a pole stuck up their backs, this father and son. They both lacked spines.

Malcolm spotted his chair in the light that streamed out of the kitchen window. He pointed and laughed. It was a simple wooden chair and not normally funny, but he was used to seeing it in the corner of his bedroom. Now he had come out into the garden, the rest of his world was following.

"It’s so high!" he said.

"That’s right," his mother said. "You can sit on it. Be King of the castle."

They had agreed to do it this way, to turn the evening into a game.

The father led the boy up to the pile. The wood that was heaped over the mattress was the rest of his bedroom furniture, axed apart, but he didn’t recognise it. He looked instead at the chair, tied to a pole sticking out of the top.

"Up you go," his mother encouraged. "Up to your throne."

"I’ve laid the stepladder down, see?" His father bent to point out the rungs. "To make it easy."

There was a whistle in the sky, and a bang. Malcolm didn’t jump, but stood and watched the red streaks flower against the black.

"Like this, look."

The father crawled up a couple of steps, till he had touched the chair leg with his hand, then came down again, wiping his hands of the smear of petrol. Malcolm moved to follow. They watched the stepladder tremble as his legs shook.

"That’s it," his father said from behind him. "Well done."

"What do you mean well done?" Both man and boy heard the woman’s voice push up behind them, blocking the way back down. "Of course it’s not well done. Look at him, clinging to the chair leg. Get on it, Malcolm. Climb up and sit there. You can’t fall. Sit on your throne like a little king. Your father will tie you in place."

It wobbled as he stood, and seemed to spin as he sat down. He saw his bedroom up above him, but not so very far. He had never been so high. More of the screaming flowers burst themselves against the night, and now he was up there too, up in the same black night.

The rope was wound loosely around the bottom of the chair. His father wriggled it up over the boy’s legs, and tightened the coils around his chest.

"There," he said. "You’re a spaceman now. Nice and wrapped in your harness. You can fly dead fast and you won’t fall out. And your hands are nice and free."

Malcolm held his hands up and stretched his fingers wide.

"Good, Malcolm. Very good. You have to grip onto the controls. Here they are, look."

He pushed two sticks into the boy’s hands, one thin and of wood with a large red ball on the end, the other just a thin streak of metal.

"They’re special. For Bonfire Night. This…" He closed his hand over the boy’s hand and guided it up. "…. goes in your mouth. You suck it. It’s lovely. And this…"

Malcolm watched the light from a match tint his father’s face orange, glowing on the tears that wet his cheeks.

"This is beautiful, Malcolm. You wave it. Wave it at me."

She watched from the kitchen, through the window that was closed to keep out the smoke, watched the boy scribble his sparkler against the sky. Then the sparkler fell, as she had known it would. There was an ache in her heart, but that was the only surprise. The rest was as expected, as she had imagined all along. She heard the first crack as the man’s leg fell through the ladder, the snapping response as the fire burst through the wood, the whistles and screams of rockets that shot from the fire and over the lawn, flaring in slithers then dying.

Her heart grew harder then suddenly splintered. Fire makes brittle things splinter. She gasped at the obviousness of it all, as splinters stabbed her body and left her cold. This was funny. She hadn’t expected this. She believed she still sat rigid on the stool as her body slumped over the sink, and strained for the voices in the garden as her head roared into deafness.

The boy’s teeth bit through the toffee crust and sunk into the apple inside. It was cool, so cool, clamped fast against his mouth to pour its juice clean through his throat. He was soon too full to laugh as his chair began to soar. How wild it was, this world outside his room. How great it was to fly and be amazed. A rocket burst white far out in the blackness, then burst and burst and burst till all the sky was apple white.

Copyright © Martin John Goodman 1997

This article may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of When toffee-apples turn to juice is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Martin John Goodman was born in England in 1956 and now lives in Santa Fe and the South of France. His first novel, On Bended Knees, (Macmillan, London, 1992) examined the legacy of the Second World War in Britain and Germany (both West and East). It was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award.


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