Apples Never FallLiane Moriarty
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For my mother,
The bike lay on the side of the road beneath a gray oak, the handlebars at an odd, jutted angle, as if it had been thrown with angry force.
It was early on a Saturday morning, the fifth day of a heat wave. More than forty bushfires continued to blaze doggedly across the state. Six regional towns had “evacuate now” warnings in place, but here in suburban Sydney the only danger was to asthma sufferers, who were advised to stay indoors. The smoke haze that draped the city was a malicious yellow-gray, as thick as a London fog.
The empty streets were silent apart from the subterranean roar of cicadas. People slept after restless, hot nights of jangled dreams, while early risers yawned and thumb-scrolled their phone screens.
The discarded bike was shiny-new, advertised as a “vintage lady’s bike”: mint green, seven-speed, with a tan leather saddle and a white wicker basket. The sort of bike you were meant to imagine riding in the cool, crisp air of a European mountain village, wearing a soft beret rather than a safety helmet, a baguette tucked under one arm.
Four green apples lay scattered on the dry grass beneath the tree as if they had spilled and rolled from the bike’s basket.
A family of black blowflies sat poised at different points on the bike’s silver spokes, so still they looked dead.
The car, a Holden Commodore V8, vibrated with the beat of eighties rock as it approached from the intersection, inappropriately fast in this family neighborhood.
The brake lights flashed, and the car reversed with a squeal of tires until it was parked next to the bike. The music stopped. The driver emerged, smoking a cigarette. He was skinny, barefoot, and bare-chested, wearing nothing but blue football shorts. He left the driver’s door open and tiptoed with balletic, practiced grace across the already hot asphalt and onto the grass, where he hunkered down to study the bike. He caressed the bike’s punctured front tire as if it were the limb of a wounded animal. The flies buzzed, suddenly alive and worried.
The man looked up and down the empty street, took a narrow-eyed drag of his cigarette, shrugged, and then grabbed the bike with one hand and stood. He walked to his car and laid it in his trunk like a purchase, deftly popping off the front wheel with the quick-release lever to make it fit.
He got back in the car, slammed the door shut, and drove off, rapping the beat to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” on his steering wheel, pleased with himself. Yesterday had been Valentine’s Day, apparently, and he didn’t believe in that capitalist shit, but he was going to give the bike to his wife and say, Happy late Valentine’s Day, babe, with an ironic wink, and that would make up for the other day, and odds were he’d get lucky tonight.
He didn’t get lucky. He got very unlucky. Twenty minutes later he was dead, killed instantly in a head-on collision. A semitrailer driver from the interstate didn’t see a stop sign concealed by an overgrown liquidambar. Local residents had been complaining for months about that sign. It was an accident waiting to happen, they said, and now it had happened.
The apples rotted fast in the heat.
Two men and two women sat in the far corner of a café underneath the framed photo of sunflowers at dawn in Tuscany. They were basketball-player tall, and as they leaned forward over the mosaic-topped round table, their foreheads almost touched. They spoke in low, intense voices, as if their conversation involved international espionage, which was incongruous in this small suburban café on a pleasant summery Saturday morning, with freshly baked banana and pear bread scenting the air and soft rock drifting languidly from the stereo to the accompaniment of the espresso machine’s industrious hiss and grind.
“I think they’re brothers and sisters,” said the waitress to her boss. The waitress was an only child and intrigued by siblings. “They look really similar.”
“They’re taking too long to order,” said her boss, who was one of eight and found siblings not at all intriguing. After last week’s violent hailstorm, there had been blessed rain for nearly a week. Now the fires were under control, the smoke had cleared along with people’s faces, and customers were finally out and about again, cash in hand, so they needed to be turning over tables fast.
“They said they haven’t had a chance to look at the menus.”
“Ask them again.”
The waitress approached the table once more, noting how they each sat in the same distinctive way, with their ankles hooked around the front legs of their chairs, as if to prevent them from sliding away.
They didn’t hear her. They were all talking at once, their voices overlapping. They were definitely related. They even sounded similar: low, deep, husky-edged voices. People with sore throats and secrets.
“She’s not technically missing. She sent us that text.”
“I just can’t believe she’s not answering her phone. She always answers.”
“Dad mentioned her new bike is gone.”
“What? That’s bizarre.”
“So … she just cycled off down the street and into the sunset?”
“But she didn’t take her helmet. Which I find very weird.”
“I think it’s time we reported her missing.”
“It’s over a week now. That’s too long.”
“Like I said, she’s not technically—”
“She is the very definition of missing, because we don’t know where she is.”
The waitress raised her voice to a point that was perilously close to rude. “Are you ready to order yet?”
They didn’t hear her.
“Has anyone been over to the house yet?”
“Dad told me please don’t come over. He said he’s ‘very busy.’”
“Very busy? What’s he so busy doing?”
The waitress shuffled alongside them, in between the chairs and the wall, so that one of them might see her.
“You know what could happen if we reported her missing?” The better-looking of the two men spoke. He wore a long-sleeved linen shirt rolled up to the elbows, shorts, and shoes without socks. He was in his early thirties, the waitress guessed, with a goatee and the low-level charismatic charm of a reality star or a real estate agent. “They’d suspect Dad.”
“Suspect Dad of what?” asked the other man, a shabbier, chunkier, cheaper version of the first. Instead of a goatee, he just needed a shave.
“That he … you know.” The expensive-version brother drew his finger across his neck.
The waitress went very still. This was the best conversation she’d overheard since she’d started waitressing.
“Jesus, Troy.” The cheaper-version brother exhaled. “That’s not funny.”
The other man shrugged. “The police will ask if they argued. Dad said they did argue.”
“Maybe Dad did have something to do with it,” said the y
oungest of the four, a woman wearing flip-flops and a short orange dress dotted with white daisies over a swimsuit tied at the neck. Her hair was dyed blue (the waitress coveted that exact shade), and it was tied back in a sticky, wet, tangled knot at her neck. There was a fine sheen of sandy sunscreen on her arms as if she’d just that moment walked off the beach, even though they were at least a forty-minute drive from the coast. “Maybe he snapped. Maybe he finally snapped.”
“Stop it, both of you,” said the other woman, who the waitress realized now was a regular: extra-large, extra-hot soy flat white. Her name was Brooke. Brooke with an e. They wrote customers’ names on their coffee lids, and this woman had once pointed out, in a diffident but firm way, as if she couldn’t help herself, that there should be an e at the end of her name.
She was polite but not chatty and generally just a little stressed, like she already knew the day wasn’t going to go her way. She paid with a five-dollar note and always left the fifty-cent piece in the tip jar. She wore the same thing every day: a navy polo shirt, shorts, and sneakers with socks.
Today she was dressed for the weekend, in a skirt and top, but she still had the look of an off-duty member of the armed forces, or a PE teacher who wouldn’t fall for any of your excuses about cramps.
“Dad would never hurt Mum,” she said to her sister. “Never.”
“Oh my God, of course he wouldn’t. I’m not serious!” The blue-haired girl held up her hands, and the waitress saw the rumpled skin around her eyes and mouth and realized she wasn’t young at all, she was just dressed young. She was a middle-aged person in disguise. From a distance you’d guess twenty; from close up, you’d think maybe forty. It felt like a trick.
“Mum and Dad have a really strong marriage,” said Brooke with an e, and something about the resentfully deferential pitch of her voice made the waitress think that in spite of her sensible clothes, she might be the youngest of the four.
The better-looking brother gave her a quizzical look. “Did we grow up in the same house?”
“I don’t know. Did we? Because I never saw any signs of violence … I mean, God!”
“Anyway, I’m not the one suggesting it. I’m saying other people might suggest it.”
The blue-haired woman looked up and caught sight of the waitress. “Sorry! We still haven’t looked!” She picked up the laminated menu.
“That’s okay,” said the waitress. She wanted to hear more.
“Also, we’re all a bit distracted. Our mother is missing.”
“Oh no. That’s … worrying?” The waitress couldn’t quite work out how to react. They didn’t seem that worried. These people were, like, all a lot older than her—wouldn’t their mother therefore be properly old? Like a little old lady? How did a little old lady go missing? Dementia?
Brooke with an e winced. She said to her sister, “Don’t tell people that.”
“I apologize. Our mother is possibly missing,” amended the blue-haired woman. “We have temporarily mislaid our mother.”
“You need to retrace your steps.” The waitress went along with the joke. “Where did you see her last?”
There was an awkward pause. They all looked at her with identical liquid brown eyes and sober expressions. They all had the sort of eyelashes that were so dark they looked like they were wearing eyeliner.
“You know, you’re right. That’s exactly what we need to do.” The blue-haired woman nodded slowly as if she were taking the flippant remark seriously. “Retrace our steps.”
“We’ll all try the apple crumble with cream,” interrupted the expensive-version brother. “And then we’ll let you know what we think.”
“Good one.” The cheaper-version brother tapped the edge of his menu on the side of the table.
“For breakfast?” said Brooke with an e, but she smiled wryly as if at some private joke related to apple crumble, and they all handed over their menus in the relieved, “that’s sorted, then” way that people handed back menus, glad to be rid of them.
The waitress wrote 4 x App Crum on her notepad, and straightened the pile of menus.
“Listen,” said the cheaper-version brother. “Has anyone called her?”
“Coffees?” asked the waitress.
“We’ll all have long blacks,” said the expensive-version brother, and the waitress made eye contact with Brooke with an e to give her the chance to say, No, actually, that’s not my coffee, I always have an extra-large, extra-hot soy flat white, but she was busy turning on her brother. “Of course we’ve called her. A million times. I’ve texted. I’ve emailed. Haven’t you?”
“So four long blacks?” said the waitress.
No one responded.
“Okay, so four long blacks.”
“Not Mum. Her.” The cheaper-version brother put his elbows on the table and pressed his fingertips to his temples. “Savannah. Has anyone tried to get in contact with her?”
The waitress had no more excuses to linger and eavesdrop.
Was Savannah another sibling? Why wasn’t she here today? Was she the family outcast? The prodigal daughter? Is that why her name seemed to land between them with such portentousness? And had anyone called her?
The waitress walked to the counter, hit the bell with the flat of her hand, and slapped down their order.
It was close to eleven on a chilly, breezy Tuesday night. Pale pink cherry blossoms skittered and whirled as the taxi drove slowly past renovated period homes, each with a midrange luxury sedan in the driveway and an orderly trio of different-colored trash cans at the curb. A ring-tailed possum scuttled across a sandstone fence, caught in the taxi’s headlights. A small dog yelped once and went quiet. The air smelled of wood smoke, cut grass, and slow-cooked lamb. Most of the houses were dark except for the vigilant winking of security cameras.
Joy Delaney, at number nine, packed her dishwasher while she listened to the latest episode of The Migraine Guy Podcast on the fancy new wireless headphones her son had given her for her birthday.
Joy was a tiny, trim, energetic woman with shiny shoulder-length white hair. She could never remember if she was sixty-eight or sixty-nine, and sometimes she even allowed the possibility that she was sixty-seven. (She was sixty-nine.) Right now she wore jeans and a black cardigan over a striped T-shirt, with woolly socks. She supposedly looked “great for her age.” Young people in shops often told her this. She always wanted to say, “You don’t know my age, you darling idiot, so how do you know I look great for it?”
Her husband, Stan Delaney, sat in his recliner in the living room, an ice pack on each knee, watching a documentary about the world’s greatest bridges while he worked his way through a packet of sweet chili crackers, dipping each one into a tub of cream cheese.
Their elderly Staffordshire terrier, Steffi (named after Steffi Graf, because as a puppy she’d been quick on her feet), sat on the kitchen floor next to Joy, chewing surreptitiously on a fragment of newspaper. Over the last year Steffi had begun obsessively chewing on any paper she could find in the house, which was apparently a psychological condition in dogs, possibly brought on by stress, although no one knew what Steffi had to be stressed about.
At least Steffi’s paper habit was more acceptable than that of her neighbor Caro’s cat, Otis, who had begun pilfering clothing from homes in the cul-de-sac, including, mortifyingly, underwear, which Caro was too embarrassed to return, except to Joy, of course.
Joy knew her giant headphones made her resemble an alien, but she didn’t care. After years of begging her children for quiet, she now couldn’t endure it. The silence howled through her so-called empty nest. Her nest had been empty for many years, so she should have been used to it, but last year they’d sold their business, and it felt like everything ended, juddered to a stop. In her search for noise, she’d become addicted to podcasts. Often she went to bed with her headphones still on so she could be rocked to sleep by the lullaby of a chatty, authoritative voice.
She didn’t suffer from migraines herself, but her youngest daughter did, and Joy listened to The Migraine Guy Podcast both for informative tips she might be able to pass on to Brooke, and also as a kind of penance. Over recent years she had come to feel almost sick with regret for the dismissive, impatient way she’d first responded to Brooke’s childhood headaches, as they used to call them.
“Regret” can be my memoir’s theme, she thought, as she tried to shove the cheese grater into the dishwasher next to the frying pan. A Regretful Life, by Joy Delaney.
Last night she’d been to the first session of a “So You Want to Write a Memoir” course at the local evening college. Joy didn’t want to write a memoir but Caro did, so she was keeping her company. Caro was widowed and shy and didn’t want to go on her own. Joy would help Caro make a friend (she already had her eye on someone suitable) and then she’d drop out. Their teacher had explained that you began the process of writing a memoir by choosing a theme, and then it was simply a case of finding anecdotes to support the theme. “Maybe your theme is ‘I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks but look at me now,’” the teacher said, and all the ladies in their tailored pants and pearl earrings nodded solemnly and wrote wrong side of the tracks in their brand-new notebooks.
“Well, at least your memoir’s theme is obvious,” Caro told Joy on the way home.
“Is it?” said Joy.
“It’s tennis. Your theme is tennis.”
“That’s not a theme,” said Joy. “A theme is more like ‘revenge’ or ‘success against the odds’ or—”
“You could call it Game, Set, and Match: The Story of a Tennis Family.”
“But that’s … we’re not tennis stars,” said Joy. “We just ran a tennis school, and a local tennis club. We’re not the Williams family.” For some reason she found Caro’s comment annoying. Even upsetting.
Caro looked astonished. “What are you talking about? Tennis is your family’s passion. People are always saying, ‘Follow your passion!’ And I think to myself, Oh, if only I had a passion. Like Joy.”