‘What’s happening to the fruit,’ Eve wailed to her husband.
The new season’s apples she’d bought were a big disappointment — luscious-looking but floury and tasteless.
Eve loved them straight from the tree, fragrant, crisp and juicy, but a decade of drought and a typically Melbourne overnight gale had toppled their ancient apple tree. These shop-bought posers must have been sitting too long in some interstate cold-store.
Eve had purposely avoided the pyramid of red, wax-polished apples at the local supermarket yesterday and chosen some she thought looked fresher. Now she felt deceived — and for her husband too. If Eve hadn’t tasted one herself she would have innocently put one in Adam’s lunchbox tomorrow. It would have been a hostile act, knowing what she knew. It made her want to force feed all three rotten kilos on whoever was responsible.
But Adam was blissfully unaware of her quality control on his behalf. For him, Sunday mornings in their North Carlton cul-de-sac were for quiet contemplation of the cryptic crossword, with a mug of coffee and a thick wedge of Eve’s boiled fruitcake.
Just seeing him so contented when the world was obviously getting out of control was beginning to irritate her. It wasn’t just the apples. The nectarines in the cut-glass fruit bowl winking by the window had looked red and ready last week, but they were still resisting a squeeze.
Eve sighed and reached for a golden-pink, velvety peach, leaning over the kitchen sink to catch the drips of juice. She sank her teeth into its luscious flesh – and grimaced.
‘Ugh! These peaches are still hard!’ she exclaimed over her shoulder to Adam. ‘But they look ripe on the outside. Why?’ She began peeling off the strangely rubbery skin. ‘This one’s like chewing an old potato.’
‘What?’ Eve could feel Adam’s brown eyes, blinking for an unfocused moment in her direction.
‘It’s the same with the plums. And the tomatoes. They’re as hard as capsicums even after a fortnight. The skins don’t peel off in boiling water any more. ‘
He must have heard her but Eve knew he’d deny she’d ever mentioned tomatoes. He’d got an invitation for a hearing test a few days after applying for his Seniors card, and laughed about mystical rites of passage that came few and far between for the white man.
‘It used to be that you got your driving licence at 18 or so and the next rite of passage was when they take it off you. No right of passage then.’ At least he could get a free weekend ride on train, tram or bus now – if he finished the crossword. He’d puzzle over those cunning clues until every white square was grey against the black. The morale boost the victory gave him would last him all the week.
Eve said she thought a hearing test might be a good idea because he didn’t seem to hear her lately. No, not at all, he’d said. It was the cryptic crosswords and online brain games he was getting better at. They helped him concentrate on the task in hand to the exclusion of all things unrelated. He had made Eve laugh.
‘That doesn’t explain why you’re excluding me,’ she’d pointed out. ‘I’m your wife. I’m never unrelated.’
It was all getting her down, the weather, the water restrictions, the inedible fruit and nobody to talk to, nobody listening. The other peaches were equally firm and unyielding.
Eve raised her voice above the rustle of turning pages.
‘How can they be any good when they’re that old?’ she called. ‘They’re not even wrinkled.’
She looked across to Adam sitting at the little glass-topped table in the window niche. He was frowning slightly, the late morning sun glinting on his reading glasses.
‘Who?’ he said. ‘Which channel? Doesn’t seem to matter how old the chaps get. They’re embalmed before they’re dead these days. Look at this guy.’ Adam pointed to a taut-faced game show host on the cover of the TV guide.
Eve sighed and turned around to face her husband. He held up his empty coffee mug and smiled.
‘Adam, I’m trying to talk to you,’ Eve said. ‘About apples and tomatoes, not facelifts! Even Jean in New Zealand says she doesn’t know what’s wrong with the fruit this season. She thinks the growers picked them early to save money.’
The mention of money had recalled his wandering attention, Eve observed. His eyebrows always went up like that when he tuned in. He must have read something about it.
He wagged his index finger. ‘Modified atmosphere packaging. M-A-P. It’s a good idea. They put a chemical in the plastic wrapping round the fruit that reacts with the gas and stops the ripening. Then they can send fruit and flowers by sea instead of air and store them longer. Much cheaper.’ He rummaged among the newspaper sections for the business pages. ‘It’s a breakthrough. We might get some shares in it.’
It was Eve’s turn to look blank. ‘What?’ she said, with a dismayed frown.
If MAP was what was taking the taste out of everything, keeping the fruit tough, she and Adam had some serious communicating to do. Eve wasn’t even going to eat fruit like that, never mind invest in it.
Adam was peering at her over his glasses. ‘Say you’ve got a box of tomatoes. If one ripens first it gives off a gas that starts all the others ripening.’
He spoke slowly and musically, the way grown-ups talk to their grandchildren. Why do we do that? Eve thought. As if once the kids leave home people think their parents have passed their mental use-by date. Like dried up empty seed pods hanging on the stem.
Adam was still playing teacher. ‘So the chemicals in the packaging stop the fruit gassing to each other.’ He chuckled at his pun.
‘No, Adam, that’s not what I don’t understand,’ Eve said. ‘I know what ‘one bad apple in the barrel’ is all about, but I don’t want to be eating last season’s apples. I can see how hydroponic strawberries can be huge and tasteless, and hybrid roses can have no smell or thorns and die before they open, but I don’t think stopping ripening will make oranges peel as easily as mandarines and take the seeds out of cucumbers and bananas. It’s something else they’re doing to them.’
Eve turned back to the sink to fill the kettle, thinking how both their boys had been weaned onto soft mashed banana. It was always a baby’s first solid food, but her daughter-in-law wouldn’t be able to do that now if this kept up.
‘Look at this,’ Eve said, taking an immaculate banana from the fruit bowl. She held it out to her husband. ‘Feel that. It’s beautiful, but it’s two weeks old. How come there’s not even a freckle on it? How am I supposed to know when it’s ripe? Normally by now they would be black and squishy. I can’t make a banana cake or a smoothie any more. They just stay hard.’
Adam took off his glasses and focused admiringly on the firm yellow fruit.
‘Once upon a time you couldn’t put bananas in the fridge – they’d go black overnight. Now it makes no difference.’
‘GM, then,’ Adam said. ‘Genetic modification.’ He paused, and nodded slowly, eyeing the banana. ‘Yeah. . .’
Eve turned back to the window that framed their drought-dry garden, wistfully imagining a pioneer settler’s orchard of proper, natural fruit, and fragrant roses round the door. What strength of mind and body those pioneer women had to transform both self and rugged bush, perspiring in all those heavy clothes in a hot north wind like today, or freezing in a calico tent in the rain and mud of the goldfields, striving to keep their little ones alive.
A movement at the bottom of the garden caught Eve’s eye. A black cat was stealing along the top of the fence, its eyes fixed on two starlings splashing in the birdbath that she filled religiously each day. Whose cat was that? What fond owner fed and cuddled it to death?
Eve carried Adam’s second mug of coffee to his corner with another slice of cake. It was too hot to think about lunch yet. The sun was high in a sky of budgerigar blue, beating on the windows. She closed the venetians slightly though the relief from blocking out the light was mostly wishful thinking. It would be evening before the sun dropped behind Mrs Flannery’s roof and cast a cooling shadow on their house. Then she’d carry the plastic buckets of washing-up water to the vegie patch, to that remaining, scorch-leafed tomato plant and straggling pumpkin. Barefoot was out of the question, on a brown crackling lawn full of bindis. It was going to take a lot of work to get the garden back the way it was. There was a sudden chitter-chit-chit and a flurry of wings from the birdbath.
Behind her the Sunday newspaper rustled again.
‘Why did no-one see this drought coming?’ Eve demanded, out loud to herself, since Adam wasn’t listening. She wiped the dusty kitchen windowsill for the second time that day. ‘We know cows sit down when it’s going to rain. Surely someone could have asked the Aborigines how dingos or koalas, or whatever there used to be, act before a heatwave? They’ve survived here 60,000 years. How did they look after their bush tucker then?’
Eve stared out of the window. She couldn’t see the cat, but the birds were gone.
‘Have you noticed that tomatoes have flat seeds and odd-shaped segments these days?” she said. ‘They used to be so pretty.’
‘They used to call tomatoes love apples once,’ Adam said.
‘Mmm. They probably were lovely back then,’ Eve sighed. ‘I can remember when tomatoes had a taste. Soon we won’t remember how anything used to be.’
She was watching an Indian minah bird diving repeatedly at a sparrow on the clothes line but the cheeky little bird kept coming back. Where were the tiny blue finches and the silver eyes these days?
Eve picked up the disappointing peach from the bench, then gasped as two strong hands behind her clamped her waist.
‘Cling peach,’ Adam murmured, nuzzling her neck.
‘Sling peach, more like,’ Eve retorted, tossing the offending fruit in the compost can.
‘Look, Eve,’ he said, turning her around to face him. Eve removed his glasses and watched the sunbeams dancing in his eyes. Sunlight turned his eyes to amber, like melting honey.
‘Yes, Adam?’ She noticed the deepening smile-lines round his eyes. He’s still a catch, she thought.
‘You’ve got to move with the times,’ he said. ‘We don’t know what any fruit or vegetable was like at first.’
His hands were sliding round her waist. Eve loved to feel his arms around her, whispers warming her cheek and ear.
His voice was gently coaxing. ‘Peaches could have been hard like apples once upon a time. Bananas and apples could have been soft. Hmm?’ He nuzzled again.
He must have battered that crossword into its crypt, Eve thought. He was coming on all alpha male and silverback: she could hear his beating chest.
‘Now apples are crunchy and juicy,’ he murmured. ‘And that’s the way we like ’em.’
Oh, boy, was she going to change his mind! It was just too tempting. Eve reached for a deceitfully luscious-looking apple and put it to his lips.
© Christina Crossley Ratcliffe 2012