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‘Didn’t know you was called after an apple, did you? It’s a goodun, an American red apple. Plenty of taste. Got a young tree meself, back there.’ He jerked his head towards the back of the house. ‘But it’s not taken that well. I reckon it needs a sight more time to get comfortable.’ Jay continued to watch him with all the wary cynicism of his twelve years, alert for any sign of mockery.

‘You make it sound like they’ve got feelings.’

Joe looked at him.

‘Course they ave. Just like anythin else that grows.’

The boy watched the rotating blades of the vegetable-cutter in fascination. The funnel-shaped machine bucked and roared between Joe’s hands, spitting out chunks of white and pink and blue and yellow flesh.

‘What are you doing?’

‘What’s it look like?’ The old man jerked his chin at a cardboard box lying by the wall which separated them. ‘Pass us them jacks over there, will you?’


A slight gesture of impatience towards the box: ‘Jackapples.’

Jay glanced down. The drop was easy, five feet at the most, but the garden was enclosed, with only the scrub of waste ground and the railway line at his back, and his city upbringing had taught him wariness of strangers. Joe grinned.

‘I’ll not bite, lad,’ he said mildly.

Annoyed, Jay dropped down into the garden.

The jackapples were long and red and oddly pointed at one end. One or two had been cut open as Joe dug them up, showing flesh which looked tropically pink in the sun. The boy staggered a little under the weight of the box.

‘Watch your step,’ called Joe. ‘Don’t drop em. They’ll bruise.’

‘But these are just potatoes.’

‘Aye,’ said Joe, without taking his eyes from the vegetable-cutter.

‘I thought you said they were apples, or something.’

‘Jacks. Spuds. Taters. Jackapples,. Poms de tair.’

‘Don’t look like much to me,’ said Jay.

Joe shook his head and began to feed the roots into the vegetable-cutter. Their scent was sweetish, like papaya.

‘I brought these home from South America after the war,’ he said. ‘Grew em from seed right here in my back garden. Took me five years just to get the soil right. If you want roasters, you grow King Edwards. If you want salads, it’s your Charlottes or your Jerseys. If it’s chippers you’re after, then it’s your Maris Piper. But these’ – he reached down to pick one up, rubbing the blackened ball of his thumb lovingly across the pinkish skin – ‘Older than New York, so old it doesn’t even have an English name. Seed more precious than powdered gold. These aren’t just potatoes, lad. These are little nuggets of lost time, from when people still believed in magic and when half the world was still blank on the maps. You don’t make chips from these.’ He shook his head again, his eyes brimful of laughter under the thick grey brows. ‘These are me Specials.’

Jay watched him cautiously, unsure whether he was mad or simply making fun.

‘So what are you making?’ he asked at last.

Joe tossed the last jackapple into the cutter and grinned.

‘Wine, lad. Wine.’

That was the summer of ’75. Jay was nearly thirteen. Eyes narrow, mouth tight, face a white-knuckle fist closing over something too secret to be examined. Lately a resident of the Moorlands School in Leeds, now with eight weeks of holidays stretching strange and empty till the next term. He hated it here already. This place with its bleak and hazy skyline, its blue-black hills crawling with yellow loaders, its slums and pit houses and its people, with their sharp faces and flat Northern voices. It would be all right, his mother told him. He would like Kirby Monckton. He would enjoy the change. Everything would be sorted out. But Jay knew better. The gulf of his parents’ divorce opened up beneath him, and he hated them, hated the place to which they had sent him, hated the gleaming new five-speed Raleigh bike delivered that morning for his birthday – bribery as contemptible as the message which accompanied it – ‘With love from Mum and Dad’ – so falsely normal, as if the world wasn’t coming softly apart around him. His rage was cold, glassy, cutting him from the rest of the world so that sounds became muffled and people were walking trees. Rage was inside him, seething, waiting desperately for something to happen.

They had never been a close family. Until that summer he had only seen his grandparents half a dozen times, at Christmases or birthdays, and they treated him with dutiful, distant affection. His grandmother was frail and elegant, like the china she loved and which adorned every available surface. His grandfather was bluff and soldierly and shot grouse without a licence on the nearby moors. Both deplored the trade unions, the rise of the working class, rock music, men with long hair and the admission of women into Oxford. Jay soon understood that if he washed his hands before meals and seemed to listen to everything they said he could enjoy unlimited freedom. That was how he met Joe.

Kirby Monckton is a small Northern town similar to many others. Built on coal mining, it was in decline even then, with two of the four pits shut and the remaining two struggling. Where the pits have closed, the villages built to supply them with labour died, too, leaving rows of pit houses staggering towards dereliction, half of them empty, windows boarded up, gardens piled with refuse and weeds. The centre was little better – a row of shops, a few pubs, a mini-market, a police station with a grille across its window. To one side, the river, the railway, the old canal. To the other, a ridge of hills reaching towards the feet of the Pennines. This was Upper Kirby, where Jay’s grandparents lived.

Looking towards the hills, over fields and woodland, it is almost possible to imagine that there have never been any mines. This is the acceptable face of Kirby Monckton, where terraces are referred to as mews cottages. At its highest point you can see the town itself a few miles away, a smear of yellowish smoke across an uneven horizon, with pylons marching across the fields towards the slaty scar of the open-cast mine, but the hollow is relentlessly charming, shielded by the ridge. The houses are for the most part larger, more elaborate here. Deep Victorian terraces of mellow Yorkshire stone, with leaded panes and mock-Gothic doorways, and huge secluded gardens with fruit-trees en espalier and smooth, well-tended lawns.

Jay was impervious to these charms. To his London-accustomed eyes Upper Kirby looked precarious, balanced on the stony edge of the moor. The spaces – the distances between buildings – dizzied him. The scarred mess of Lower Monckton and Nether Edge looked deserted in its smoke, like something during the war. He missed London’s cinemas and theatres, the record shops, the galleries, the museums. He missed the people. He missed the familiar accents of London, the sound of traffic and the smells. He rode his bike for miles along the unfamiliar deserted roads, hating everything he saw.

His grandparents never interfered. They approved of outdoor pastimes, never noticing that he returned home trembling and exhausted with rage every afternoon. The boy was always polite, always well groomed. He listened intelligently and with interest to what they said. He cultivated a boyish cheeriness. He was the cleanest-cut comic-book schoolboy hero imaginable, and he revelled sourly in his deception.

Joe lived on Pog Hill Lane, one of a row of uneven terraces backing on to the railway half a mile from the station. Jay had already been there twice before, leaving his bike in a stand of bushes and climbing up the banking to reach the railway bridge. On the far side there were fields reaching down to the river, and beyond that lay the open-cast mine, the sound of its machinery a distant drone on the wind. For a couple of miles an old canal ran almost parallel to the railway, and there the stagnant air was green with flies and hot with the scent of ash and greenery. A bridle path ran between the canal and the railway, overhung with tree branches. Nether Edge to the townspeople, it was almost always deserted. That was why it first attracted him. He bought a packet of cigarettes and a copy of the Eagle from the station newspaper stand and cycled down towards the canal. Then, leaving his bike safely concealed in the undergrowth, he walked along the canal path, pushing his way through great drifts of ripe willowherb and sending clouds of white seeds into the air. When he reached the old lock, he sat down on the stones and smoked as he watched the railway, occasionally counting the coal trucks as they passed, or making faces at the passenger trains as they clattered to their distant, envied destinations. He threw stones into the clotted canal. A few times he walked all the way to the river and made dams with turf and the accumulated garbage it had brought with it: car tyres, branches, railway sleepers and once a whole mattress with the springs poking out of the ticking. That was really how it began; the place got a hold on him somehow. Perhaps because it was a secret place, an old, forbidden place. Jay began to explore; there were mysterious raised concrete-and-metal cylinders, which Joe later identified as capped pitheads and which gave out strange resonant breathing sounds if you went close. A flooded mineshaft, an abandoned coal truck, the remains of a barge. It was an ugly, perhaps a dangerous place, but it was a place of great sadness, too, and it attracted him in a way he could neither combat nor understand. His parents would have been horrified at his going there, and that, too, contributed to its appeal. So he explored; here an ash pit filled with ancient shards of crockery, there a spill of exotic, discarded treasures – bundles of comics and magazines, as yet unspoiled by rain; scrap metal; the hulk of a car, an old Ford Galaxie, a small elder tree growing out of its roof like a novelty aerial; a dead television. Living alongside a railway, Joe once told him, is like living on a beach; the tide brings new jetsam every day. At first he hated it. He couldn’t imagine why he went there at all. He would set out with the intention of taking a quite different route and still find himself in Nether Edge, between the railway and the canal, the sound of distant machinery droning in his ears and the whitish summer sky pushing down the top of his head like a hot cap. A lonely, derelict place. But his, nevertheless. Throughout all that long, strange summer, his. Or so he assumed.