Fruits is a short story I wrote, on request, back in 2008, for Spinetingler. (It’s still online here). From what I remember, the deal was that it had to be under 1500 words, which I just about scraped. I suppose that limit helped me strip the story and its themes right back to their essence. Looking at it now, I want to put a lot of stuff in between the lines – but then, I already did that, as Black Flowers took the imagery and ideas here (real life influencing fiction; fiction influencing real life) and ran with them.
Anyway, Fruits ended up nominated for a Spinetingler award that year, and it was then reprinted in the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime Volume 7. You can read it below. Hope you like it.
This place is very different to the home we shared. My small cell is made of bare sandstone. The walls make the floor dusty: I think the breeze from the single, barred window is gradually eroding the surfaces, so that when I pace, my bare feet swipe the slabs, sounding like a broom across dry floorboards. If I shout through the window, my voice disappears across the field and into the trees, sounding like nothing.
I have a dirty mattress for a bed, and a hole in the floor for a toilet. The door is at the far side. I’ve never seen it open, but every day I wake up to find the man has somehow placed a tray just inside. He brings me a pitcher of water, several thin curls of ham, a chunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, and two bright green apples.
I focus on the apples. I don’t know why, but I do.
Today, he left me this pencil and scrap of paper too, presumably because he knows I used to be a writer. I think he expects me to write to him.
Instead, I’m writing to you. For you. Because I always did.
If I can, I’ll write more tomorrow.
Do you remember the evening I signed the contract, when we had champagne together? I think about that a lot: a pointless tatter of memory. It’s like studying a treasure map for a land I can’t visit anymore. But it keeps me occupied.
You’d always had faith in my fiction, through all the penniless years, and you forced us to mark the occasion. I wanted sparkling wine; you insisted on champagne. As we drank, I imagined its history: the transformation from the grapes on the sun-drenched vines into the liquid in the bottle before us, fizzing with a different kind of life. I thought about the things that had died to enable our celebration, and I felt guilty. But you were so proud of me, and I couldn’t tell you. Not then.
I know you’ll never read this, but I want you to know:
I’m sorry for what I did; we never had a reason to celebrate that night.
And I miss you more than I can ever say.
I had a revelation this morning. I focus on the apples he feeds me because I know they’re not poisoned.
My window faces out onto a patchy field. Over to the right, there’s a small rose garden, the blood-red flowers nodding lazily in the breeze, and at the far end, before the woods begin, there is a large apple tree. I’ve seen the man down there. He’s fat and pink and simple-faced, like a pig in overalls. I’ve called out to him, but he keeps his back to me and never replies. The only sounds I hear are the birds and the steady, delicate click as he clips apples from the lower branches.
So I know where they come from. I can turn them over, and check that the skin is clear and unbroken, that the fruit sealed inside is safe to eat.
But something must be poisoning me. Because how else does he get the tray in without disturbing me? Also, I remember … words. Things he must have said. We’re all made of stardust. Or perhaps I sleep too long and dream too much.
No, he has said that, I’m sure.
And also: Nothing dies.
But he knows that’s not true, doesn’t he?
I’m in a small tearoom. There are flowers on the wallpaper, wooden beams overhead and tassels on the curtains, and I keep hearing the elegant chink of teaspoons on china. A journalist is sitting opposite me, older and more austere than I’d been expecting. (Many of them were prettier than I told you). But this is Whitrow, Jane Ellis’s hometown, and I have no right to expect a warm welcome. Her name is almost sacred here.
“Why did you use the roses?” she says.
Jane Ellis’s body was never found, but a rose was delivered to her husband the year after her disappearance, with a note that said ‘She lives forever’. The families of his other victims had similar deliveries.
This is only one of the details I stole.
“I found it moving,” I say. “Poignant. It felt true.”
“Did you ever worry you were exploiting the victims?”
I think of those grapes again. Arrogantly, I think of the champagne that was made from them.
“I don’t see it that way,” I tell her. “Something terrible happened to those girls, and I wanted to tell their stories.” I spread my hands. “Carefully. Delicately, even. I hope I did them justice.”
She looks at me. I suppose she can see through that thin screen of noble intentions to the sales and nationwide tour behind. The expression on her face reminds me of the one you had, although yours was worse because of what it replaced.
She changes tack. “Nobody was ever caught. Does that concern you?”
It takes me a second, and then I almost smile. Am I frightened? It’s nothing to do with me. I’ve touched it from a safe distance, skimming the surface so gently my fingers came away clean.
The idea is absurd, and yet I don’t say I’m not.
The truth is, I almost like the idea of danger, so long as I’m safe.
She will live forever.
Last night, I opened my eyes and everything was still pitch-black. I didn’t know what had woken me … then I heard it again and my heart caught. A woman – out in the corridor. Sobbing and begging, although the words were incoherent. He had brought someone back and was dragging her past my cell.
Something thumped against the wall. She screamed.
The next thing I knew, I was hammering on the door, shouting out your name. Slurring it. Even after they’d moved away, I was still punching the wall. This morning, I came to my senses and found myself hugging my knees in the far corner of the room, the mattress overturned and flung aside.
On the ground by the door: my apples, my paper.
I’ve no idea how he got them in here but you can see that this time, at the top, he’s written something himself.
The controversy fed the attendance at the readings on my tour. I suppose he’ll have been in the audience at one of them. It’s possible he was just curious then, but perhaps he’d already felt a kinship. That seems most likely – that I was part of this from the moment I heard Jane Ellis’s name and noted it down in my pad.
My body juddered passively, strapped in the back seat of his truck. My mind was swirling, drifting. What had happened? Had someone drugged me? Attacked me? I could remember being in the bar, then outside smoking, then … then the fear arrived quickly – absurdly – like I’d fallen into icy water.
We’re the same. You understand.
He’s told me those other things since, while I’ve been half-dreaming. Nothing ever dies. He means it just becomes something else, like grapes become wine, and I think that’s why he killed those girls: to change them somehow. That’s why, in his mind, we’re the same: because I did something similar to them with my writing.
I hope I did them justice.
I’ve not heard the girl again.
She will live forever.
I saw him kill her. I heard the commotion outside, then watched through the bars. I didn’t want to, but it’s what I do, isn’t it?
The man dragged her across the field to the rose garden. Then he squatted awkwardly above her, reached round … and his elbow started sawing the air. I couldn’t see, but I could hear: her sobbing became a horrific, gargling cough for a few seconds, and then she fell shockingly silent. The man stood up and walked away. Her body was still for a moment, then rolled slowly onto its back, and a hand began lazily brushing at a flower. She died in her own time. I watched her blood soaking slowly into the earth beneath the roses, and I thought:
The next petals will be made of her stardust.
So she will live forever.
And then … all I could do immediately after what happened next was sit and stare at the apple in my hand. Finally, I understood. I’m eating it now, even though I realise every one of them was poisoned. The fruit sealed inside was exactly the problem. But it’s mine.
This is what happened.
An hour later, I saw the man return. I watched him pick up the body carefully and delicately. I watched him take it down to the bottom of the garden. And then I watched him bury it, with all the others, in the ground beneath the apple tree.