Sandy wound the car window down. Shutting her eyes, she let her head rest back in the seat.
“It’s so beautiful here.” She said, inhaling deeply. “I think we’re going to love it. What is that smell though?”
Andy pulled the car onto the narrow gravel track and they bumped slowly along, a cloud of dust rose into the hazy summer afternoon, drifting across the fields on the warm breeze.
“Apples . . . Its apples. Look around, the fields are full of apple trees.” Andy smiled. “I guess that’s why it’s called Apple Tree Farm? Sandy slapped him hard in the ribs.
“I guess so”. She said, leaning her head out of the window, drinking it in. Her mind carried her back to the small apple tree her Grandfather had in his tiny back garden. Somehow, he managed to get cardboard box’s full of apples from it, all individually wrapped in newspaper and stored under his stairs. His house always smelt of apples. It had been years since she had thought of it. Of him. She smiled.
Andy rounded a bend in the track and an old farmhouse emerged from between the trees. Its moss-covered thatched roof sprouting small shrubs, its crooked walls seemingly only just holding on. As they drew closer a red-faced old man appeared from a ridiculously low doorway. He stooped to get through. As he straightened up holding his back, he gestured Andy to pull the car into a space next to a broken tractor.
“look at the state of that?” Sandy said, forcing a smile.
"What the old man, or the house? He looks like an apple!” Andy replied, waving at the old man. Sandy slapped him in the ribs. Hard.
“Welcome, welcome.” Said the old man as he shuffled towards Sandy, rubbing his hands on his diesel stained overalls. He produced a crumpled piece of paper from his top pocket and squinted at it. “You must be Cindy.” He said, offering out a filthy, podgy hand. “And you must be Randy . . . Welcome. Welcome, to Apple Tree Farm.”
“It’s Sandy.” Replied Sandy, shaking his hand. “And this is my husband, Andy. He’s the one who booked our stay. It’s for my birthday.” She wiped her hand discreetly on the back of her jeans.
"Well, Cindy.” He said, putting his arm around her and pulling her close. “Happy birthday to you. You are in for a real treat my love, even if I do say so myself.” He scratched his stubbly chin and stopped as if he’d forgotten something. “And I do. Say so myself, that is. Oh, listen to me rambling on.” He glanced at his watch. “I expect you’re thirsty after your journey. Randy, you look thirsty, I’ll give Maud a shout and get her to put the kettle on. Make you both a nice pot of tea, eh?” He turned towards the house. “MAUD!” He sprayed. “MAUD! . . . TEA! . . . NOW! She’s a bit deaf these days, Silly old bat. HURRY UP! WE HAVE GUESTS!” He grabbed Sandy’s hand. “We only have one rule on the farm. Do. Not. Steal. The. Apples. You two stick to that, and we’ll all get along just fine my love.” He patted her backside firmly. “Right! Randy, you look like a nice strong fella. You grab your bags and I’ll show you and your lovely wife to your accommodation. You won’t be disappointed, even if I do say so myself, it’s the ol’ pig shed.”
He squeezed Sandy's hand in his sweaty palm and set off across the farmyard. Ancient rusty pieces of farm machinery lay around in various states of decay, like metal bones in an agricultural graveyard. A pile of slatted wooden storage boxes were stacked up outside a decrepit thatched barn. A manky ginger cat sat on a hay bale watching the newcomers with disdain. Rotten apples littered the ground where drunken wasps staggered between the fermenting fruit. The old man bent down and picked one up. Without hesitation he hurled it at the cat, missing it completely. The cat jumped and screamed as it fell unceremoniously from the hay bale. Not letting go of Sandy’s hand, he tugged at the rope that held his trousers up. Straightening himself, he licked his palm and carefully smoothed down the wisp of white hair that was combed across his bald head.
“Bah! bloody old cat . . . Stupid thing is nearly as deaf as Maud. You won’t see him again now for a couple of days my lovely. No, you won’t see him again.”
Sandy glanced back at Andy who was struggling to get the wheels of the suitcase to navigate the rough ground. She hung back and mouthed help. He shrugged and laughed, dragging the suitcase around the rotten apples.
“Tell you what my love. When Randy gets your case over here we’ll take a detour, I’ll introduce you to Vince.” Sandy tried her hardest to sound enthusiastic.
“Great . . . Who’s Vince?”
“He’s the farm pet. Lives just up here in the orchard, behind the barn.” The old man turned to wait for Andy.
“Come on Randy! In your own time. You young’uns have muscles like tiny crab apples. When I was your age, I would have carried Cindy on one shoulder and my suitcase on the other. And she’d have loved it!” He turned and winked at Sandy. “I’m more like a big fat cooking apple if you know what I mean Cindy?” He winked again. “Plenty of juice still left if you squeeze it hard enough.” Sandy wriggled free and ran over to help Andy.
“Leave it here, just leave it here.” She said taking Andy’s hand. “He wants to show us his pet. Probably been kicked out of the sty so we can sleep in it . . . He’s called Vince, apparently.”
“ITS JUST UP HERE!” The old man shouted as he disappeared through a broken gate and into the orchard.
“He gives me the creeps Andy.”
“Don’t worry, he seems harmless enough. Maybe they’ve not had any guests for a while and he’s a bit rusty. Don’t let him get on your pip!” Sandy grinned, and hit Andy hard in the ribs.
The old man had stopped at a barbed-wire fence. As the couple approached he was filling up a large bowl with rainwater from a metal trough.
“Poor ol’ Vince, must be thirsty, it’s been a warm’un. Bowl was completely empty.”
The old orchard was dark compared to the farmyard, the couple took a moment to let their eyes adjust. The pen contained a small corrugated shelter full of straw. Apple cores lay in little piles.
“He’s a very neat pet.” Said Sandy, pointing at the cores.
“He’s a bloody nuisance, that what he is . . . VINCE! Come on out we have visitors.” The old man picked up a stick and hurled it at the metal shelter. It missed. “Look, while we’re waiting for Vince to make an appearance I mustn’t forget to ask you what you would like for breakfast in the morning? We can offer you the full English or the continental.”
A movement in the shelter caught Sandy's eye. The couple watched as a filthy, pale-skinned animal emerged from the shadows. It dragged a thick chain swinging from its malnourished body. Squinting, it made its way into the light.
Sandy gasped and Grabbed Andy’s hand.
“It’s a . . . It’s a . . . It’s a—"
“It’s a bloody thief that’s what it is!” Spat the old man.
“Andy leaned in closer.” The colour draining from his face as he realised.
“It’s a person. Oh my god! it’s a person. What—”
“Oh, here we go.” The old man puffed out his chest. “Look, my family have been growing apples on this farm for over three hundred years. The reason we’ve been here for over three hundred years is that we follow one simple rule. You Do. Not. Steal. The. Apples.” He waved a fat finger. “Vince here stole an apple.”
Andy took a step back, pushing Sandy behind him.
“So, you locked him up?”
“No, I shot him. Then I locked him up.”
“YOU WHAT!” Andy glanced through the gate back towards the car.
“Only in the leg. Nothing serious. Just to stop him running away.” Said the old man.
Andy grabbed Sandy and ran for the gate. They sprinted across the farmyard squashing rotten apples as they went.
The old man called after them.
“So, should I put you down for two full English in the morning? IT COMES WITH FRESHLY SQUEEZED APPLE JUICE!”