‘From the wet grass beneath the largest tree, on a misty, drizzling day, you help collect the hardy red bite-sized cider apples, letting the handfuls fall into a metal bucket placed equidistant between you and Monsieur Drouet. The maggoty, the decayed, and the ones dabbed in sheep shit are all democratically added to the cider electorate. Leaves clinging to the fruits are enfranchised too.’
I’ve already written about the apple trees. They became part of the fictional landscaping of six months living alone in a storm-damaged thatched cottage in Normandy. I called it Kerplunk! because it sometimes felt like I was slowly losing my marbles, both in the living and in the subsequent writing. The trees and the sheep which grazed under them were my constant companions. They weren’t so old, the trees, but neither were they saplings, like I felt I was. Already they had gone a little gnarled, angling themselves so as to turn the other cheek from the wind. Perhaps I was more like them than I realised, though I certainly wasn’t going to let sheep munch at my fruit.
While in Normandy I wrote letter after letter, so desperate was I for contact, for a return on that letter-writing investment. Why then did I effectively isolate myself for so long? Because I wanted to work out who I was, and I thought the best way to do so was to be apart from all that I had known and all that had influenced me. And because I wanted to be a writer, and I knew that to write, more than anything else you must find time alone. Of course, I took that to the extreme, being the person I was. Am. Those letters, what I wrote in notebooks, what would become a first novel; that was the start of what I continue to do here, and elsewhere. To work out who I am and what I think through the written word. Back then I was both naïve and arrogant enough to assume that what I made of myself would be of interest to others. All that’s left of that notion now is a ghostly remnant, but the urge to turn life into art is still as strong as it ever was. And while it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone reads these words or any of the others I write, I still care what those who do take the trouble to read them think, and it may be this that makes me draft and redraft compulsively as much as my need to get to the heart of what I am writing about.
How did the fictional telling of that time in Normandy differ from reality? Not so very much. My character was not a writer but a photographer. The plot was a woman, or rather two women, one left behind and one encountered in France. In reality there were three women left behind and none found in France (which of course says much more about me than it does about French women). One of the three might have come, was persuaded to, but for very good reasons didn’t. And so on the surface of reality, not a lot happened, for all of my travels around France. But on the inside…
In the last third of Kerplunk! I grappled with the effect that depression has on love, or potential love at least. You won’t be surprised to hear that there was no happy ending. But then neither in the end was the ending sad. It was just an ending, pointing to another beginning.
In one of the letters I wrote – possibly in several, to a handful of recipients including those three women – I declared that I didn’t want these six months to become an island of time, one green emerald in a sea of blue. Perhaps I should have kept travelling, stayed away longer. But not for the first time and certainly not the last, I felt tugged and torn in two different directions. Waiting for me with outstretched arms was home and warmth and contact and touch, the pleasures of the familiar. Against that temptation stood being abroad and alone and seemingly always on the edge of life, in both the bad sense and the good; peripheral but every day something new. I guess ultimately I chose the comforts of home. And that time in France remains an emerald in a sea of blue.
But I stayed a writer, and I carry those apple trees within me still. Cider apple trees, from which Calvados was also made. It’s obviously a particular taste, by no means for everyone, but a snifter of my apple brandy will tell you that it’s nicely matured now. And it turns out that those sheep with whom I shared time and space have been munching away at my fruit all these years after all.
The magic apple tree by Samuel Palmer via Wikipedia.