‘The Time Love Was Good to Me, or: How I Came to Grow Apples’

by Travis Inglis

Third Place


I lied at parties. It was an attempt to be anonymous, or perhaps interesting.

But that night I lied because I wanted her, wanted her to want me, not for some momentary blindness, but to connect and entangle with my soul. I lied because I was lonely. I lied because she spoke to me, and she was painfully beautiful. I lied because I was drunk. I panicked. I wanted to have her.

‘I’m an orchardist.’

I’m not sure why I said orchardist, but any lie was better than the truth: Twenty-four years old, university dropout, directionless, drinking leviathan, the truth was uninspiring. The truth was depressing.

‘That’s cool. You definitely look like an orchardist.’ Hana shaped her crimson lips. Her voice was full of confidence and youth. She talked to me. Me, lucky and drunk enough to feign confidence. Me, young enough to still fall in love.

‘Let me see your hands.’ She looked at me as she spoke. It was a spell, or magnets; the feeling of meant-to-be. The noise and savagery of the house party dissolved into irrelevance. ‘They look like hands that know the earth.’ And in a grubby flat, in a dismal student town, we sat on a never-cleaned couch as her hands explored mine.

It was morning. Hana lay beside me; we were in her room; it was tidy apart from the mess we had created. I can still see her body curled on its side, her olive skin warmed in the morning light, her back bent, her spine a chain of bony islands. She was skinny, almost too skinny. My body had never felt stronger, as though a primal sense of hope and adrenaline had mixed with my blood, I felt it kicking in my throat. As she woke, she rolled towards me, and as she breathed, her ribs shrink-wrapped in skin, played with the light. She smiled, as though she might be happy. She smiled and it was full of kindness and want and intelligence. It’s a memory that visits me more than it should, a memory vivid and visceral.

It was later, perhaps mid-morning, when I was made to remember I’d lied.

‘You said I could see your orchard today.’

I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what to say. I felt sick, as though I’d lied at a house party to get laid. But I hadn’t, had I? I was just bullshitting, right?

‘Did I? I…’ I tried to confess, but it didn’t come.

I tried to remember the details of the night before. Tried to remember how long I’d lied for, whether Hana had liked me for me, because I know we talked about a thousand different things after the lie had broken the ice.

‘I’ve not planted it yet.’ I felt sick.

‘Oh, I thought…’ She looked disappointed, or maybe I was projecting my disappointment onto her.

‘But one day soon. I just need to….’

‘Start?’ She spoke and half-laughed and curled the edges of her hibiscus mouth.

‘Yeah, I just need to start.’ I felt relief as I spoke; it wasn’t a lie, just something that hadn’t happened yet; it was impossible to lie about the future.

And I’m only guessing at how the conversation went, nearly two decades have passed. I remember feeling happy, contented. I remember how good I felt about myself, as though I was finally who I wanted to be. And it wasn’t me gaining happiness from being with somebody attractive and amazing; I know that trap. This was me being unashamed of who I was. Even though that morning it was still a lie.

My Grandfather had died the summer before; he’d left me some money. It sat in the bank, mocking me. Saying I didn’t deserve it, telling me how I was going to piss it all away. And it was true, I hadn’t known what to do with it, had been destined to blow it on booze and unemployment and youth. Until I met Hana and my fate had been twisted towards something good.

‘Cider apples, you should plant cider apples.’ Hana, naked and prophetic, blushed.

We left Hana’s bed in the afternoon, I walked her to Law School. She was in her final year. Her hand was in mine, she was not embarrassed of the world knowing who she’d met last night. And I loved her for that. As we parted, she looked so good, an oversized t-shirt hanging on her skinny frame; all I could think of were the secrets of her naked skin. And she turned back and said to me. ‘Cider apples, don’t forget, plant cider apples… one day.’ Her smile was everything.

And me? I kept walking, adrift in happiness, I didn’t go inside when I got home, but hopped in my car and drove, directionless and free. Perhaps I was guided by last night’s booze, perhaps I was guided by a love daze. I drove the backroads toward the coast, but never found the coast, each corner a distraction from my mind. Every chance I had, I took a turn I’d not before.

There was a battle inside me; I reeled from feelings of soul-changing-want and the blindness of lust. I wondered whether these things could exist together, companionship and the sexualisation of one’s companion; at the time I thought these the components of love.

Hours on gravel roads. I think I was looking for it when I found it. Thirty acres of gently undulating land, fertile and green and undeveloped and for sale by owner. I wasn’t sure where I was on a map. But I knew it was home.

I stood on the roadside surveying my future, planning my life. I foresaw an orchard and vegetable gardens and a modest house. I could see Hana and she and I were happy. I knew it was absurd, but I believed it at the time.

I felt eyes on me, questioning me. I turned around, and there was an old man, grizzled, timeworn and sagely.

He spoke, ‘Kia ora, my son.’ He looked weathered but strong, wiry and content. He had a dark suspicion in his eyes. I felt like an imposter.

‘Kia ora, Matua. Kei te pehea a koe?’

The gruffness in his face retreated, he looked thirty years younger as he launched into a monologue that was half memory and half powhiri; in that moment he was a great orator. He was magnificent.

I hated to let him down, so nodded and listened and lowered my eyes but I could only guess at what he was saying. When it came time to respond I couldn’t.

‘Sorry, but I don’t have the language.’ I felt ashamed, so I added, ‘Ko Tama ahau.’

‘I’m glad to meet you Tama. Ko Wiremu ahau, but they call me Bill.’

‘Nice to meet you, Wiremu.’

I wasn’t great at conversation; people kind of scared me; they still do. But friendship came easily between Wiremu and me, and we talked for hours until it was dark. We talked about rugby, and gardening, and played the two degrees of separation game to no avail, we spoke of colonialisation and pacifism and armed resistance and Maori sovereignty.

Wiremu had two sons, one had died in a caving accident, and the other was a playwright in London. He never said it, but I think loneliness is why he took me under his wing, why he chose to sell me the land.

The rising sun woke me on Wiremu’s front veranda.

By mid-morning we’d shook hands. It was done.

I spent the next two weeks fixing the holes and the rot in a small shed at the back of the property. It fit my double bed and a desk and a wardrobe. Next to the shed I built a lean-to for the tractor Wiremu gifted me, and I bought a small gas cooker which would be my kitchen for the next seven years.

I didn’t bother farewelling my old life with a party; there wasn’t much to say goodbye to.

I planted apple trees, cider apple trees.

My life was good.

Hana and I were growing strong. She would come stay most weekends, and most of the weekend, we’d stay in bed, inside the little shed; the energy of youth. Or we would sit under the moon and stars and talk about the cosmos and time and whether the reality we perceived was real. We always ignored the future. Tighter and tighter we bound.

Wiremu liked Hana too. He told me to never let her go.

January came. It was a lonely month.

‘I’ve decided I’m moving to London.’ Hana started to cry before the words escaped her mouth.

And although it hurt, all I said was, ‘I know you’ll do wonderful things.’

We cried so much and held each other completely.

‘When?’ And I didn’t want to know.

She left two weeks later; it was the same day Wiremu died.

I visit Wiremu often, keep the rabbits from his grave. He still speaks to me, reminds me how foolish I was not to fight for Hana. And I call him a silly old man. I never heard from Hana, never saw her again.

Until now.

She’s older, but still youthful, still skinny, still sun-kissed and warm. She is standing by the road and looking towards me. Me, chainsaw and grubby and no longer young.

‘What happened to Wiremu’s place?’ Her voice has aged too, her crimson lips still soft.

‘Oh, he died a long time ago.’

‘I’m sorry.’ She looks embarrassed. ‘The whole valley is apples now, you’re a trendsetter.’

‘Yeah, I suppose I am. I don’t know what to say. How are you, Hana?’

‘Nostalgic. Happy. Middle-aged. How about you? What are you doing these days?’ She looks sheepish, as though the answer is obvious.

‘Well, I have my apples, and…’ And I don’t tell her how I’ve not really loved since; twenty years on. Or that all the trees in the valley are mine. Or how angry I am at her for showing up here, or how much I want her. Or that my life was simple and full of little pleasures, but now that I’ve seen her, how empty and pointless it suddenly seems.

‘And?’ She softly compels.

‘And…did you do wonderful things?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Because I always thought when you left, that you’d do wonderful things. I always hoped you were happy.’

‘I did okay things. You never wrote me.’ Her voice is almost angry.

‘That’s true. You didn’t either. And besides, what could I say? Words are dangerous, and I didn’t want to hurt you.’

‘When we met, you told me a sweet little lie, do you remember?’

‘I remember. It changed my life.’

‘Well, I was wondering, hoping, maybe you’d tell me another.’

‘A lie?’

‘Yeah, a sweet little one.’ A smile softly creases her face. Olive skin and dark eyes.

‘I’m not sure I should.’

A chaos builds through the valley. Hana and I turn our heads towards the noise, the grinding of gravel beneath a heavy vehicle, dust swirling in its wake as it stops. The sound, a million decibels of two school children fleeing the bus. Two children too cool or oblivious to stop and chat to their old man. The chaos disappears along the valley, the kids towards the house, the dust softly settles. Quiet returns, and I am aware that everything I want to say I can’t.

‘I have a couple of kids too, about the same size.’ Hana speaks, her eyes look just below mine; they plead with me to still need her.

And I tell her my lie. ‘I never stopped wanting you.’ The words trip and tangle and I shouldn’t have said them. But I did.

I wonder whether Hana knows it’s a lie.

And her eyes move to meet mine. In their darkness, I feel alive.

Author Bio

Travis Inglis, Graduate at The Writers College

Travis Inglis is an award-winning New Zealand writer of literary fiction and poetry. His work is provocative and unique, guided by honesty and driven by the sledgehammer of grief. His stories have been described as beautifully subversive, brutal, honest, provocative and shocking, with the power to leave the reader wondering whether the thin line between fact and fiction has been crossed.

Travis won The Writers’ College Creative Writer of 2020 Award, and his stories have placed highly in multiple international competitions. He has also been published in the art magazine Artascent, and the literary journal Toasted Cheese.