Anna wanted to grow a blue apple. She didn’t ask for much.
“Why blue?” I asked.
“Everyone grows red and green ones. I want to be different, do something I’ll be remembered for.”
“No. Crisp and white and tangy in the middle, like a perfect, ordinary apple. The blue will only be skin-deep.”
We were swinging gently in the hammock-seat under the branches of the ancient Cox tree in the back garden, blossom falling like pink-white rain, and the swelling of Anna’s belly told me that blue apples wouldn’t be the weirdest craving she’d have that year.
It was a bad autumn for fruit. Maybe the summer was too hot and dry. The apples stayed small, hard, shrivelled, and fell before they were ripe.
Anna took more care the next year, spread fertilizer around the roots, watered it in with long secret hosepipes, planted buddleia nearby to encourage the bees and butterflies, but it was another poor harvest.
She tested the soil with paper strips, watching to see them turn blue, added lime to the water to balance it. She climbed up into the tree at blossom time, and delicately spread the pollen from flower to flower with a fine squirrel-hair paintbrush.
I wasn’t so obsessive about the old tree. It looked great from the window, but I’d be fine without the brown slime of trodden blossom, sweeping up leaves, the thudding of windfalls, buzzing wasps. But there was something about this deep blue longing that was making Anna soft and sad; she was losing her bite, that crisp funniness that I loved. So I decided to help.
What kind of apple is bluest, I wondered, and I surfed the Internet, read up on root-stock, parasites, compatibility, importation laws. I decided on a Pippin from Guatemala, and we jumped through government hoops, forms, inspections till we could travel there together, and bring back one small branch that would never be missed from that vast South American tree.
I was busy then, learning how to graft. I trimmed the rough edges from the end of the cutting, scraped a gouge in the old trunk, peeled the bark, exposed living wood inside, raw, running with sap, then I set the new young branch against it, bound them tight together with webbing straps, buckled it firm, and left them to grow.
Anna sat on a blanket in the shade of the apple branches, and pushed little Miles in a padded swing. She sang and chuckled with him, and it was like the blue peel was pared away and my crisp, white, funny Anna was back.
When Miles was seven he decided to give his mummy something special for her birthday. She hadn’t been feeling well, tummy aches, and the painkillers were making her feel tired. He’d been doing it at school, Miles said, with carnations. Would it work on something that big? Could they try? It would make her so happy.
So we mixed discs of blue dye in buckets with lukewarm water, stirred them with a wooden spoon till the powder had dissolved. And Miles put on yellow rubber gloves and Wellingtons, and poured the blue water round the bottom of the tree through the early spring. We watched for the buds to open.
On Anna’s birthday Miles took her out into the garden, and there, on the lowest branches of the old Cox tree hung blossoms, and the edges of every flower were tinged like the sky, veined in deepest bruise-blue. And she held his hand and smiled into his deep brown eyes.
But the harvest that year was poor again. The apples ripened, but they were soft, flabby, pitted. They rotted early and fell on the ground. The wasps gathered, stung.
Anna lay in the high steel bed, small under sheets with indigo laundry marks. Doctors bombarded her with cobalt rays, dripped into her blood vincristine, distilled from the essence of periwinkle flowers, and where it leaked from the holes in her veins blue-black snake-burns coiled around her arm.
And I couldn’t bear to look at her like that.
So I took her home again and left the pain behind. And Miles and I took a plastic seaside bucket, and tipped into it Parker Quink and laundry blue, the squeeze of biros, food colouring, liquid polish from ancient dancing-shoes and poster-paint and we topped it up with water from the tap. And I propped the ladder up against the gnarled trunk, climbed, and where I saw the nubbin of a baby apple growing I rested it in the bucket, fed it with blueness day by day.
I watched those apples grow with heart-sickness, urging them to ripen, for I knew the time was running out. I took grapes up to Anna, clouded purple grapes, and held her milk-blue fingers in mine through those summer afternoons in her willow-patterned room, Janis Joplin pouring from the radio, white teeth smiling through oxygen-starved lips. We talked of floating through calm skies in a balloon, buying a boat and teaching Miles to sail. We talked as though this could be possible.
Then one day in late September I could feel freshness in the air, a hardness to the blue sky, a slight crackle of frost, crisping edges to the leaves, and I saw one apple was ready.
Miles stayed home from school, and he climbed the ladder himself and picked it, holding it with both hands, and I lifted him down. We examined it and could find no hole nor flaw. So Miles polished it with a tea-towel until it glowed with the blue of thunderstorms, airforce uniforms, Cornish seas. We brought it to Anna on a china plate.