by John Nicholson

The Berlin Wall is down and my pension is in real marks. The notes feel good between finger and thumb, substantial. My shovel feels good too, balanced horizontally in my left hand, cold wood and colder steel. It gleams in the dull sun, low in the sky as the days grow short. Using it will give me pleasure.

I love this time of year, when I can see my breath, when I know the winter cleansing will soon start and that I will survive it. I can still double-dig, climb a ladder, and bite an apple with all my teeth. I don’t feel old, despite the changes.

Rich aromas fill the air: wood smoke, leaf mould, and apples ripening. Berlepsch for pancakes fried in butter, Gravenstein to make sweet jelly, Grauech for strong cider. All good stock, they will sustain me. Except for those, my ‘pig apples’, my yellow burden. They litter the grass, scabby, misshapen. Floury in the mouth. Insipid. I would fell the tree but Ursel will not let me.

‘It would burn really well,’ I plead.

‘No. The blossom is so lovely in spring.’

So I clear them up every year, and dump them. That’s what the shovel is for, to herd them and dispose of them.

‘Move.’ I order, sweeping them along the grass.’Out. Go.’

I toss them into my old barrow, with its wooden sides and steel wheel. I trundle them to the dump, and pause:

‘There must be some good in them.’

I hear Ursel’s lone protest echo from fifty years ago and look again at my burden. Nitrogen in the seeds perhaps? Humus from the skin? I could compost them.

But these apples are slow to rot. I have found them in spring, tough nodules of black leather that have survived the snow and the rats. They have staying power. They must be smashed.

I tip them onto the grass, take aim with cold steel and strike. Oh, they slice so easily! The smell rises, but I keep cutting. I enjoy this, this action. I shovel up the pieces and dump them in the compost bin. Now for another group.

In twenty minutes my compost is covered with pulp.

Then I see it.

One small apple lying at the back of the bin, smooth and untouched.

I lunge at it with my shovel and miss. And again. What is this? I cannot see the little apple now. I can only see the baby.

I see its mouth moving in silence.

I blink. The mouth dissolves. Now there are black spots. Eyes. They blink at me.

The old dream is seizing me. I throw my shovel down as once I threw my rifle, reach deep into the bin for the apple and lift it out. I wipe the wet pulp from its face and put it in my pocket. For Ursel. She’ll find something good in it.

John Nicholson completed diplomas in Creative Writing at UEA after a career in science education in the UK and overseas. He has published a few short stories including ‘The Ringing Stone’ in Unthology 3 (Unthank Books, 2010), and is working on a novel set in Uganda.

Photograph by Emily Devane.

An earlier, much longer version of ‘Compost’ appeared in print in the now-defunct Staple Magazine, Issue 72, 2010.