Apples and Neighbors
“Are you stealing my neighbor’s apples?”
I squinted up at the two pairs of tip-toed legs that teetered on the wobbling ladder. Why did Phil’s apples matter anyway? From my living room window, I’d watched the guys set up their apple-stealing shop under Phil’s tree next door. They’d been suspiciously quiet about unhinging the ladder, and the foggy early morning had worked in their favor. My train wasn’t for another 20 minutes — not quite time to leave — but I reasoned that potential apple thieves warranted neighborly nosiness. I went downstairs to reason with the robbers up high in the blossoming Discovery tree. With their top halves masked by still-leafy branches, I was forced to confront their stretched ankles and calves. But my question was answered only by the thuds of the ruby fruits that landed in an oversized picnic basket emblazoned with the Fortnum & Mason logo. The plucking continued.
Seriously, I asked again: “Are you stealing my neighbor’s apples?”
I couldn’t make sense of my reasons for caring what these four legs did in my neighbor’s tree. Phil was a loud drunk who made offensive clicks with his mouth whenever I walked past his front door in my gym clothes.
“Princess! Hey Preencesss,” he’d shout and start to follow if I ignored his calls. “Are-uh-you-uh goin’ to dee shop? Pick-a-me-up someteeng, yea? Or just come back here.”
“Forget it,” I’d yell from my safe place across the street. But Phil never heard me. It didn’t matter what time of day it was — his eyes glowed like hazy red beams.
Besides the half-dozen-strong gang of cats that operated some kind of feline cartel down our road, Phil provided ample entertainment. But unlike the calicos who provided thrillingly easy drama, the action around our Rasta neighbor was underscored by our attempts to understand his own anguished character. Phil might joke, but his late-night walks (we guessed to the pub) were marked by slumped shoulders and a dark Caribbean face that furrowed down hard to battle inner demons.
“I heard he’s terminally ill,” we heard.
“No, his wife left him when he started getting drunk. He can’t see his kid anymore.”
“Whatever, mate. He’s just a waste of bloody space.”
“You-za just-a blood clot,” yelled Phil’s alleged son as he beat our neighbor into the sidewalk one morning. From the second story window, we watched blood from Phil’s face hit the pavement as he fell backwards, into his fence. “Wort-less blood-uh-cloth. Wort-less fuck.” No one stopped or questioned the kid. We kind of had to agree with him. Phil’s music had been a problem for months. He’d get drunk, stoned out of his head, turn up the stereo and put one reggae song on repeat for hours. We guessed he was too wasted to be stirred by his own blaring Marley. Unfortunately, no one on Lulworth Road had the luxury of being lulled to sweet slumber — or drunken stupor — by reggae lullabies. In an attempt to wake our neighbor up, the new parents across the road threw stones at his window. It worked. Phil did wake up, and as he stumbled outside, yelling at the poor tired mom and dad who dared disturb the beast, he locked himself out of the house. We spent the night listening to a skipping reggae record and Phil’s druken howls. Even the mafia cats cried. Besides sharing a hatred for the music that thumped through our houses and heads, the rest of Lulworth Road cultivated a mutual carnal urge, prompted by sleeplessness, to murder Phil.
When the fire brigade broke into his house and climbed through his windows, we thought our worst fears (and secret prayers) had been answered. The music that night had been especially bad. Tom and I lay awake and pondered what we heard.
“It sounds like a stabbing scene in a horror film.”
“No. Not quite. This sounds more real, don’t you think? Like actual recordings of people dying.”
“Yeah, like genocide on repeat.”
Muffled, skipping screams echoed like sinister ghosts through our walls, down and across our old wooden floorboards. We were desperate for the murderous sounds to stop, but also interested in the record itself. Eventually, though, the firefighters found the stereo and put us out of our misery. But the next evening, Lulworth Road gathered outside Phil’s broken-down door to determine what happened.
“I heard he was out of town.”
“No, he was definitely here. We saw him this morning.”
The evening rush-hour trains whooned behind our block of Victorians, filling an otherwise silent gathering with thick whistles.
“Well. Maybe the bloody bastard finally kipped off.”
It was clear most of us felt guilty joking about the idea, but a dead Phil was entirely possible. So possible that the next day, I was a little shocked to hear the Rasta man’s yells from the street.
“Dey broke tru my door-uh. Dee firemeen. Dey broke een.”
But no one felt sorry for Phil or his door. No one said a word.
And from where i now stood, under his tree, the image of Phil picking his own Discovery apples didn’t matter. Still, there was no explanation from the boys in the branches.
“Are you stealing my neighbor’s apples?” I asked for the third time.
“No, of course we’re not stealing these apples!” The Oxbridge accents oozed from smiles practiced at charming.
“Then what are you doing?” I asked.
“These are for a commission,” said the taller one.
“A commission,” I repeated.
“Yes, that’s right. An art commission,” said the shorter accomplice.
“And will there be an exhibition of apples?”
I started towards the train station.
“Look, we’re not stealing these,” the taller one interjected. For a moment that smarmy façade lifted to reveal a tipple of impish fear.
“Oh, were you worried I’d tell the neighbor?” I asked. Whatever smarm-charm was left on their faces disappeared. “Hope they taste good,” I yelled over my shoulder and wondered what would happen if Phil walked under their ladder.