My great-uncle Gerry grew it from seed. He liked to eat apples, must have eaten a particularly nice one on the day he decided to plant the pip and grow his own, which, they say, is a hard thing to do. But he had no knowledge that to propagate an apple tree from seed is no mean feat, and so, undaunted, he tucked it into some soil in a pot and wished it well. I wonder did he check on it often, there on the windowsill above the kitchen sink that looked out onto the uninspiring back yard, grey concrete with an old coal bunker? Or did he just go about his business and ignore it? Was it down to the luck of neglect that it slowly came to life?
Gerry was a man to delight in small things. He had the ability to experience great excitement in that which others placed no value. To possess such a mindset is a gift. To see the potential in something tiny that appears inert and promise-less, to dare imagine that something seemingly lifeless might transform, in time, into a fruit bearing tree, is more than an act of faith: it is visionary, art, poetry. It is an enduring metaphor written everywhere we look, and most of us look through it. We ignore the gift of the everyday. Gerry had great enthusiasm for creation, you see, and if you are someone who shares that enthusiasm, then you will never be dissatisfied, even if you are living in a back street in Derry and your only view is a coal bunker, a tabby cat stalking a wall, and a pair of women wearing floured aprons having taken a moment away from their baking to gossip on the doorstep while the scones rise.
Should the seed even grow into a sapling, there was nowhere to plant it, but the lack of a garden did not stop him from trying. Nor did it stop him from moving the little wisp of growth to a bigger pot when it sprouted, moving it to the light, figuring out when was best to water it. This project, slow in taking root, suited his temperament. He’d been an amateur cyclist in his youth, lungs spent in old age, polluted through his career as a steel worker, exposure to metalworking fluids leading to lung disease which took him in the end. He neither drank nor smoked and his body was lean even into his eighth decade, by which time his breath was failing him. He told me about powering up the Limavady mountain to train, and about the sprint finish into Moville at the end of the ‘Inishowen 100’ where they raced and traced the coastline of Donegal’s largest peninsula. But it was the slow bike races I wanted to hear about, where balance and strength and endurance and patience were rolled into one as they competed to see who could advance slowest, no moving backwards, no feet on the ground. I see it now as an exercise in waiting for the pip to grow. It was literally a case of slow and steady wins the race, and he smiled and told me how sweat would break on his brow as he balanced on his bike, barely moving, creeping towards the line.
Waiting was his forte. He waited, and it grew. Three inches, then six, then ten, until it was put into the yard to withstand the winter. It passed the test, thrived, reached a couple of feet in height. Until one year it bloomed, and I can see him laughing at the sight of couple of white starry blossoms, his eyes dancing like he’d scored a full house at the bingo down the Strand Road. All fuelled by enthusiasm for creation. And the blossom signalled it was time to let it go. It was not going to do in a concreted back yard. Like an extra child being loaded into the car, it was set on my knee one Sunday afternoon at the end of our visit. It was Hallowe’en, and mum had brought an apple tart, and Gerry said that in a few years, the tart would be filled with his apples. Dad, who had carefully carried the pot to the car, said there was no doubt about that. And someone asked what classification of apple tree this was, was it a Cox’s? Bramley? McIntosh? But Gerry didn’t know. Grown from something tasty, was all he could venture. That’s when we agreed upon the name: Gerry Macs, the apples grown on this tree would be known as Gerry Macs.
Their celebrity extended only as far as our back garden, but the Gerry Macs grew in profusion after a few years. It stepped up production into the eighties, was fighting fit in the nineties, which was the time of Gerry’s last ever visit. He said he was there to see us, but he bypassed all hellos and headed straight for the back garden where he reverently stroked its bark. She’s a great shape, he said. Indeed she was. Arms held aloft, elegant, balletic, bent at the elbows as though to meet something bending down from the sky. Well pruned, good space between the branches for air, for new growth. And he picked one and rolled it in his hand, taking in the warmth and texture, then he lifted it to his nose and closed his eyes. It’s a better way to smell: to cut off other senses, heighten one’s olfactory nerves. And he looked content. Neither proud nor pleased with himself, both of which can detract from contentment, he was content in the moment. He was very old at this stage, thin as the greyhounds he used to keep as a boy, the ones he raced at the Brandywell. By now he ate little, breathed lightly, and only wanted a small bag to take home with him – to give to the neighbours, he said.
For the best part of forty years the Gerry Macs would ripen and fall, be shaken and picked. Small and sweet and hardy, they grew in profusion, until a few years ago when a white fungus appeared. To begin with, a few of the lower branches were stricken at the joints, little hairy white patches sprouted like bits of an old man’s chin that had been missed in the morning shave. Apple Woolly Aphid was the diagnosis, and each year it spread further into old cracks, new shoots, opening the tree up to other cankers, weakening it so that there were fewer and fewer blossoms each year with smaller and smaller apples. We tried remedies – chemical and organic, conventional and witchcraft – but the Gerry Mac was telling us its time was up. Its breathing was becoming lighter and lighter, but we all ignored it, turned away, because it was much more than an apple tree, and no one could take the axe to it.
This summer, it looked like something that had been decorated early for Hallowe’en, draped in a white webbed gossamer. It bore no apples. There were hardly any blooms all this spring, mum said. I think it’s time, she said.
The Song of the Wandering Aengus, W.B. Yeats
I went out to the hazel wood, Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand, And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, I dropped the berry in a stream And caught a little silver trout. When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire a-flame, But something rustled on the floor, And someone called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl With apple blossom in her hair Who called me by my name and ran And faded through the brightening air. Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.