MR WIGG FONDLED a quince. Their golden roundness always conjured up images of old paintings: bowls of voluptuous fruit on dark timbered tables. He rubbed away the last of its woolly fuzz with his thumb and breathed the skin’s perfume. “They dined on mince and slices of quince”
“Which they ate with a runcible spoon.” The quince trees sang along, waving their long leaves. He and his wife had been married in autumn, as the Owl and the Pussycat must have been. They had not had quince or mince at their wedding, which was a shame. Dancing by the light of the moon would have been more romantic that all that church formality. Still, it had been the happiest day in his life, seeing her come down the aisle towards him, her white dress backlit by the morning sun, like some sort of angel.
According to his books, quince was a traditional offering at ancient Greek weddings. It was the fruit Paris gave Aphrodite, and Hippmenes caught the bear-suckled huntress, Atalanta, in a footrace (and marriage) by throwing her three quinces to slow her down. Some scholars even thought the apple from the Garden of Eden was actually a quince. If he could have his wedding over, he would have silver bowls of them on the tables, instead of flowers. “They sailed away for a year and a day.”
The neighbouring pears, distantly related to the quince, hummed, too. Their fruit would be the next ripe. An allegiance in the orchard was a good thing, protecting the quince from inevitable taunts about fruit that cannot be eaten unless cooked for hours and hours. Insults like ‘bootleather’ and ‘horsefodder’ had been tossed around.
Before the pears were fully grown, an orchard-wide argument had raged about marmalade, of all things. The oranges insisted marmalade had always been made from citrus. The wiser quince, albeit with obvious self-interest, felt obliged to point out that, in fact, marmalade is a bastardisation of the Portuguese word, marmelo, meaning quince, and all marmalade was made from quinces until the Scots invented orange marmalade in 1790. Mr Wigg much preferred orange marmalade, or cumquat, but tried not to let that thought even cross his mind while about the quince trees.
He hooked the bucket on the side of the ladder, put the first quince in, and reached for the top fruit. They were ready to fall, just needing a nudge to drop into his hand.
A cloud of dust at the top of the lane signalled a visitor coming down too fast. His wife had put up GO SLOW signs year ago to little effect. His son’s new white ute pulled up out the front. Mr Wigg frowned; it wasn’t Wednesdays.
Mr Wigg stretched for the last couple of quince from the tree’s crown. Heard his son come tramping across the furrows, imagined more dust flying up from his boots.
“What happened, Dad?”
“The doctor rang; he said you’ve lost your licence.”
Mr Wigg looked down from the ladder. “Yes, for driving too slow.”
“Was it your eyesight? Did you remember to take your glasses?”
“I think it was the whole package,” he said. “Being old.” He had tried to hide his fingerstump, and his tremor, but the new doctor from the city had sharp eyes and firm ideas about doing everything by the book. “Mind you, Harry bloody Needham still has his licence, and he’s ten years older than me.”
His son broke up a clod with his boot. Mr Wigg unhooked the bucket and handed it down. “I can get your groceries and stuff for you,” his son said.
Mr Wigg climbed down. “The supermarket will bring it out for me; I just have to ring up with what I want each week, they said.”
His son nodded. “What about bowls?”
“I haven’t been going for a while.”
“Okay. But please ask us if you need anything, or want to go anywhere.”
“Where would I go?” Mr Wigg shrugged.
They watched a hawk hovering above the orchard. There wasn’t even a wisp of cloud. The hawk dived, snared a mouse, and settled on a fence post to enjoy it.
Mr Wigg took the bucket from his son. “Come inside, I want to show you something.”
His son peered inside the drying machine, chewing on pieces of dried fig. “Huh.” He opened and shut the door, slid the trays in and out. Compared the drawings to the finished machine. “This is great.” He picked up a ring of dried apple, examined it and popped it in his mouth.
“I’ll put lemon on next time, to stop it going brown,” Mr Wigg said.
“You could sell these.” His son rubbed at his chin, spun the machine’s fan with his finger. He had grown a beard, as was the fashion. Somehow it made him look younger. “You should patent the design, Dad.”
Mr Wigg smiled.
His son picked up another apple ring. “I’ll find out how to do it,” he said. “I reckon there’d be a big demand for them.”
“You think so?”