Sport 24: Summer 2000
Carl Nixon — The Apple of His Eye
His name was Coutts and he owned a fruit shop famous for its displays of highly polished produce. Every morning at first light, Coutts emerged from his room above the shop and aligned the fruit on dimpled trays set on trestle-tables in the entranceway and outside on the swept footpath. He polished every item himself. People driving by on their way to and from work often felt compelled to pull over and admire the mirror-like sheen on a Granny Smith or gaze into the refulgent surfaces of the rows of Royal Galas. His persimmons were buffed the colour of the Australian outback. His oranges, mandarins and tangerines flared. His Splendours lived up to their name. Coutts did not stock kiwifruit, pears or pineapples—or any of the spiky, hairy or otherwise lacklustre fruits. And why should he? Admiring almost always led directly to buying. Business was booming.
Despite this loudness of trade, Coutts had two problems which occupied his mind. Firstly, he was unusually short, although it would be misleading for me to refer to him here as a dwarf. It would be an exaggeration for effect, a twisting of the facts. Or rather, a shrinking down, a compacting. He walked without the sea-swell roll of the true dwarf. His body was as lean as a nine-year-old's and his fingers would easily have allowed him to take up the piano should he have had the inclination. He did not.
Being so short was, however, a distinct disadvantage in the day to day dealings of a fruit shop. To stock as much as was required it was necessary to have numerous shelves both in the shop and out the back in the storeroom.
Shelves from the floor almost up to the ceiling.
An unnatural abundance of shelves.
A very short man.
Do I have to spell it out further?
The second problem would take more than a stepladder and page 144 stamina to overcome. Coutts had no children. He had been married but his wife had left him in circumstances that were painful to recall. So painful that, although she was still alive, he thought of himself as a widower. While still together they had tried to produce fruit from their loins. However, upon gazing down a microscope, a doctor, of the variety specialist, had informed Coutts that his sperm were short in the tail. ‘Poor swimmers, I'm afraid. Sorry.’ Coutts's chances of bearing a child to inherit the fruit shop were as slim as ladyfinger bananas.
Even without a family, the life of a fruit shop owner does not leave much time for leisure. True, Coutts liked to read in the evenings, biographies of shorter people mainly; Napoleon was a favourite, Isaac Newton was only five foot one. But on the whole his long working days consisted of innumerable tasks pegged out beginning and end by the jumping jangle of the old-fashioned bell above the door. On Sundays, however, Coutts indulged himself. He would close the shop early and spend the last hours before dark wandering the docks and the hills behind the small port town where he lived. All the climbing up and down ladders had made him very fit and being short is no impediment to walking.
Once, upon one of these walks (the time was about six thirty) Coutts came across a woman. Her body was long and thin, more like an elongated vegetable—a runner bean perhaps—than a fruit. But her stomach bulged out in front of her as big as a rockmelon. She was sitting on a porous stone wall that had been built to mark off the top of the old quarry. The woman's feet dangled and tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes. They dripped off the curve of her cheeks onto the dusty stone leaving small dark patches like watermelon seeds. When she leaned forward one of the tears splashed on the rocks far below.
In case you feel the need to label this bulging bean, this ripe woman, I will tell you now that her name was Eyelash. Unusual, yes, but not unprecedented. After all, there are Rainbows and Skys and even Zowies out there to be met. The name Eyelash had been chosen by her mother after mishearing a conversation on a bus. A man sitting in front of her had referred in passing—in both senses—to the well-known actress, Eilish Deveny. To the listening woman the name Eyelash seemed to page 145 belong with delicate things like lace and dandelions and powdered sherbet. Buses are loud. She was tired. It was an easy mistake to make.
But back to the wall. Eyelash was so preoccupied with her crying and sighing and leaning forward that she did not notice Coutts's approach. As she pushed off with her hands, Coutts was able to lunge forward and grasp one blue-veined spindle of a wrist, the last part of her to try and vanish beneath the lip of the wall. Shortness is no impediment to strength. Coutts was certainly strong enough to suspend the dangling wisp of a woman whose only claim to solidity was the bulge in her stomach.
You can be forgiven for your assumption that this is a love story, that Coutts and Eyelash were made for each other. It is not. They never were. In no way is this a story about the passion between a tall woman and a short man. In fact, once Coutts had dragged Eyelash back over the lip of the wall, they stood and studied each other and were mutually unimpressed. They were both panting, both somewhat shocked, both scraped red by the porous stone. Coutts observed that the woman he had saved had arms lined with very fine, slightly dark hairs and that sometimes they covered freckles that reminded him of the blemishes on inferior fruit. The skin on her shoulder near the sway of her long dark hair was fashionably pale but seemed to absorb the light rather than to reflect it. For Eyelash's part, she had never been attracted to short men. She observed that the man who had interrupted her only came to half way between her thrusting navel and the bottom of her slightly swollen and tender breasts. There was not what those who would reduce love to an exact science would call ‘chemistry’.
It had taken Eyelash some time to conjure up the courage to jump. She was unsure if she would be able to perform the same magic trick again any time soon, and after the events of the last six months she was in the mood for talking. A lifetime behind a counter had shaped Coutts into an accomplished listener. They sat on either end of a bench placed by the local council for its view of the roofs of the town and the bruise-blue sea beyond.
‘He was the most gorgeous man I had ever seen,’ began Eyelash.page 146
‘Yes,’ said Coutts, ‘I suppose he was.’
She looked across to see if he was mocking her. His small, but perfectly proportionate, face was turned towards her in diligent concentration. She continued.
The story she told was only original in some of its minor details. The man Eyelash was in love with was a sailor. Apparently his hair had been especially blond and curly, his jaw chiselled. The sailor had climbed up a garden ladder to Eyelash's bedroom and sung her folk songs from his native country in muted tones so that her parents, asleep in the next room, did not hear. While still outside on the ladder, he had whispered to Eyelash that his name was Lars and that her eyes were more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis. After several nights of such talk she had invited him in. It had been Lars who suggested that he sing to her beneath her duvet. Only to muffle the sound, you understand. For the sake of her sleeping parents. She agreed.
Once under the duvet one thing led to another. (Of course it did! thought Coutts but said nothing.) On the day that Lars's ship had sailed for Sydney, Eyelash discovered that she was pregnant.
‘My father reacted very badly,’ said Eyelash.
‘Yes,’ said Coutts, ‘I suppose he did.’
‘When I couldn't hide it any more, I told him. He yelled and screamed and threw all my clothes out of the house. My mother just watched. She didn't say a word.’
‘If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?’
‘I'm nineteen. In July.’
‘Yes,’ said Coutts, ‘I suppose you will be.’
When all Eyelash's words had gushed out and even the final sighs had dripped away, they sat and regarded the town and the sea beyond. The sun was not quite down and there was no breeze. The air was as warm as a sun-ripened tomato.
A last Coutts put forward a suggestion. Eyelash could come and stay with him in the fruit shop. He stressed that she would have her own room, her own key was mentioned several times, and that the only tasks expected of her in return for her room and board would be some light work around the shop. Mainly retrieving things from high shelves, perhaps serving customers during the rush hour.page 147
‘Just until you patch things up with your parents or are able to make some other arrangements.’
Eyelash took to the fruit trade right away. The orderliness of the shelves, the rows of shiny fruit, appealed to her. Her long limbs were ideally suited to the tasks of reaching, stretching, grasping and shifting. The till caused her some trepidation but Coutts was a patient, methodical teacher. In no time, Eyelash was ringing up sales with relish.
Weeks passed like a river—in rushes and eddies.
Eyelash made several attempts to glue together her shattered relationship with her parents. There was some softening from her pear of a mother. The father, however, remained as hard and unripe as a newly picked avocado. Even so, Eyelash was happy. She enjoyed living with Coutts. Despite his size, she found him pleasant company. She enjoyed her contact with the many satisfied customers. She even looked forward to polishing the fruit in the early hours—watching the sunrise while making something beautiful even more so.
Months passed like a smile in a crowd.
Eyelash had her baby and called him John. She knew what a blessing a plain, run-of-the-mill name would be in later life. The name's very plainness was her first gift to her son. Coutts also brought a gift to the maternity ward. A wooden apple made to order by a master carver (whose name you might recognise if it were dropped in passing) from heart rimu. Coutts had polished it himself until it was the colour of flowing manuka honey.
Years passed like the echo of a laugh.
John grew up happily in the fruit shop. By the time he was six he was as tall as Coutts. At seven he was taller. He was, in relative terms, an easy child—quick to giggle, snort and laugh, slow to cry even after a fall. As far as appearances go, his hair was curly and dark, his body all ribs and long muscles—genetically stretched by an Aryan seafarer and a runner bean.
Coutts taught John all that he knew about the fruit business. How to display the fruit to draw in the customers like moths. Where to search for the blemished fruit the suppliers sometimes tried to hide on the bottom trays. The correct way to give change—counting up page 148 like the rungs of a ladder from the price. John was happy to learn. Even when he was taller, he still looked up to Coutts.
There was a game that Coutts and John played when there were no customers in the shop. One of them would hide the rimu apple. And, not unpredictably, the other would have to find it. In a fruit shop there are an abundance of nooks in which to hide a wooden apple. A crop of suitable crannies. It was a game they had played even before John could walk. He would shuffle across the polished floor in the storeroom looking behind boxes and inside the drifts of shredded packing-paper gathered in the corners. He gurgled and frothed happily as he hunted.
‘I don't think you're ever going to find it,’ Coutts would say in later games.
‘I'll find it.’
‘No, I don't think so. Not this time.’
‘It's still inside the shop isn't it?’
‘Am I getting warmer?’
‘Now that would be telling, wouldn't it?’
John did always find it—eventually. And then it would be his turn to hide the apple for Coutts to find. Sometimes the game would take days. Once, when Coutts taped the apple to the top of the slowly turning wooden blade of the shop fan, it took John a whole week.
‘That's not fair,’ said John coming down the ladder, apple in hand. ‘You used tape.’
‘All's fair in love and war,’ said Coutts.
Nothing that seems perfect, truly is. Or if, by some forgetfulness of Fate, it is, then it cannot stay that way for very long. Thirteen years was a good stretch.
One Tuesday at three-fifteen in the afternoon. Eyelash was standing by the polished spears of yellow bananas when the bell jumped and twitched. Coutts was out and she was in charge of the shop. She looked up and there was Lars. He had come into the shop looking for some fresh fruit after a long voyage. He wore a white jersey with a roll neck under a dark sailor's pea-coat. Lars took a few seconds to recognise Eyelash. (She forgave him instantly. It had, after all, been thirteen page 149 years.) The reunion was not as awkward as you might expect. They talked. He smiled and joked. Eyelash laughed. He reached out and held her hand. Eyelash blushed and was thrilled.
‘John,’ she said shortly afterwards, ‘I would like you to meet your father.’
Lars took his new-found fatherhood in his stride. He embraced both the role and the boy. Lifting John off the ground he spun him around. Several highly glazed passion fruit fell to the ground but no one noticed.
Lars had a proposition. He had held the position of captain for several years and had saved enough money to retire back to Europe. He had always planned that this would be his last voyage. Why didn't Eyelash and John come with him? They would buy a small house on the edge of a wood and live happily. Eyelash thought about it. Several seconds later she agreed. For his part, John was delighted to find his real father. He asked if the house would be made of logs.
‘If you want. Whatever you want.’
To cut a short story even shorter, that night Eyelash and John told Coutts that they were leaving. They packed their bags.
‘I'll be sorry to see you go,’ said Coutts. That night he did not sleep.
It was the next morning. The wooden planks of the wharf were stained black. There were tears as John and Eyelash hugged him and then walked up the gangway to where Lars was waiting. Coutts watched as the thick rope was set free and the ship edged away. He stood and waved for a long time and then walked up the road to the place above the quarry where he could watch the ship move slowly out to sea. The wind was colder than he remembered it.
I would like to say that they all lived happily ever after.
Lars and Eyelash were married in a very traditional way but the house they bought was not by a wood. In fact, it was less of a house and much more of an apartment in the city. It was not, of course, made of logs. Years of being a ship's captain had made Lars quick to criticise. He was a man who felt he had a right to order others or to comment on the neglected corner of a newly mopped floor or the slightly burnt base of an anniversary meal. Other seafaring habits also page 150 remained. Married life had shrunk a woman in every port down to a woman in every road in the seedier districts of the city.
During the interminably long, dark days of winter, Eyelash found comfort in her adopted country's soft satisfying pastries. In a few years her thin frame was draped with fat. She became a pumpkin of a woman. Thus insulated, she started a day-care centre for young unmarried mothers in an empty apartment in her building. She had developed into a good listener and no matter how many times she heard the same story she always made it seem as though it were the first time.
‘Yes,’ she always said, ‘I suppose he was.’
Eyelash was not unhappy in her new garb, in her new life. Nor was she completely happy. Such is life.
As for John, he adapted well to his new homeland. Despite the peculiarity of the locals' pronunciation of his name, he went on to do well at school and eventually to study business at the university. After graduating he opened a vegan restaurant. It was so successful that one restaurant quickly grew into a chain, spanning continental borders and, later, whole continents. Despite his success, John still ordered all the fruit himself.
Meanwhile, in a fruit shop, in a street, in a town on the other side of the world, a very short man serves behind the counter. To his customers he seems happy enough. He's always ready to talk about the weather, although he no longer gets up and down the ladder the way he once did. He can still be seen polishing fruit in the early hours of the morning. But if you go and stand outside his shop on a Sunday evening, after he has closed early, you can look through the slightly frosted glass of the door. You will probably see him playing a game. As you watch, he will carefully hide a piece of wooden fruit.
‘I don't think you're ever going to find it,’ he says to himself. ‘Not this time.’
Sometimes he searches for days.