I have always maintained or tried to maintain a garden. Some of my earliest memories are of being drenched in soggy wet Irish gardens. Especially my grandmothers garden. It was there I learned how to plant potatoes, onions and cabbage from my mother. It was also there I learned about composting, crop rotation and seed saving. As a youth,I was press-ganged into working in my uncle’s garden. I remember he had beets and celery. I still love beets as an adult but as a kid with a devious sense of humor, they were a thrill to eat because later they would stain your urine. As a kid out playing in the fields, it was a source of endless mirth, piss-taking and taking the piss.
There were other gardens and orchards in the area where I grew up too. It was a rite of passage growing up in my neighborhood to steal from those orchards. Not because my friends and I were hungry. It was more like because they were there. The orchards always seemed so daunting and off-limits. That’s what made them so tempting to steal from. It was from eying these fruits that made your mouth water. This, combined with bravado and peer pressure and no care for the aftermath whatsoever that it always seemed like a great idea, “Hey, let’s go rob an orchard. We have’nt robbed Case’s in over a week”.
Immediate to my range as a twelve year old boy was Mister Case’s orchard. Mister Case was an respected merchant in the area. He had apples and pears in his orchard. He was also of the Protestant persuasion. Ireland being what it was like to grow up in at the time, we made sure to raid his orchards. However, Mister Case had a dog. But I had an advantage. Mister Case was also my grand-mother’s next door neighbor. There was also Gill’s orchard. I remember my first damson plum, stolen from there. This orchard was up the scale of difficulty to raid because you had to climb down a tree to get into the orchard. Once in, it was not easy to climb back up the tree to get out. Cloonan’s had raspberry’s and gooseberries, an easy walk through. Shea’s had crab apple’s. These were down the pecking order of pillaging.
There was one other orchard in the area. It would have been held in the same esteem as Colditz Castle or Area 51. It was located on the property of the local Catholic church right behind the priests’ house. Yes, there was more than one priest. That was some orchard, let me tell you. And there was always a chill whenever it was suggested “Hey, let’s go rob the priests orchard”.
I remember I had just made my Confirmation, swore off alcohol for life and God knows what else. Thou Shalt Not Steal by rote. Bless me Father for I have sinned. Just don’t tell them you robbed any orchards. And right there was the fear of reprisal, the aftermath, what would happen next. I spent that summer looking at that orchard. My friends and I played football everyday and stole from orchards in between. Back then, there was a sense of seasonality and an innocent expectation that fruits would just grow and be there for our picking. But the priests orchard was off-limits. There were stories. And rumors of stories. Like, that’s the last place to go robbing.
Later on that summer, as the apple trees lost their blossoms, I moved into my aging grand-mothers house to help around and be near. Now, not only was I next door to Case’s orchard, my grand-mother lived across the street from the church. During the day, I helped out in the garden with plenty of time for adventure. My grand-mother, being the pious lady she was, would occasionally cook lunch for the priest’s. The same grand-mother, whose immortal words are scalded on my memory “Don’t give them anything”. On one of those occasion’s, I was helping out by serving the food. I remember I had just set down a pot of freshly dug boiled potatoes from our garden floating in country butter and parsley. I still remember the pepper on the potatoes making my nose itchy, wanting to sneeze. One of the priests reached over, patted me on the head and said, “Arra, shur you are a nice boy”.
Somehow, I felt humiliated. I was’nt a nice boy. I robbed orchards. I lied at confessions. I had thrown stones at windows. I was charging a levy to any kid that wanted to use my garden space in my grand-mothers plot to launch raids into Mister Case’s garden because I had made friends with the dog. I walked away from the table and promised myself that I was going to be the one would that steal all the priests’ apples. And tell no one.
I racked my brains. My grand-mother would send me out on errands and everyday I walked by the church scheming, looking for a way into the orchard. The apples were beginning to form and everyday they would grow just a little bit bigger. The temptation would not go away. I considered all sorts of hare-brained ideas, but none of them really seemed probable. It is one thing to think and fantasize about it, it is a whole other thing to do it. There was no easy way in. And if you were caught, why, there was mortification, the police on your door-step. And the guilt, of course. The never-ending, eternal flame of shame. You robbed the priests, whats wrong with you. “Are you fucked in the head, like” as my uncle used to say.
And then, one day in late August, the bishop kicked the bucket. The funeral was to be at the church across the street from my grand-mothers house.”The bishops dead. You have to go to Mass”, my grand-mother told me. I suppose I come from a generation where unquestioning obedience to the family matriarch is unquestionably obeyed. Off I went in my finest Confirmation clothing, fit for a dead bishop. But along the way I had to pass by the orchard again. Shiny red apples and lead us not into temptation. See no evil and pass by.
Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd. It seemed like every priest from a twenty mile radius showed up that morning to bury the bishop. And everybody else too. No one misses a bishops funeral. I confess, I am fucked in the head. Under the cloud of incense in the church, I excused myself feigning short-breathedness. God forgive me. I remember someone whispering, “Let him out, he looks pale”. “Is he overcome”, someone else said.
I walked back along the side of the church, by the railing towards the orchard. Ahead of me was the priests house. There was nobody around. I kept on walking. I passed by the entrance to the priests house and could see in through the windows and curtains to their dining area and kitchen. I ducked past the windows and opened the gate into the orchard. Forbidden fruit. Though I did’nt know it at the time, this would be my first encounter with Joe Monsanto.
I was busy pulling apples and stuffing them down my pants, in my pockets and forming a basket with my hoodie getting ready to bail with my booty when I heard the immortal words, ‘The fuck you doin’? They’re mine”. Here was this other kid. His pockets were jammed with apples too. He had the same idea as me. He was robbing the priests orchard too. Fuck, I thought to myself. He was older than me, he was bigger than me and he was pissed off. “The fuck you doin’?”. This time from another direction. The other kid and I turned around and saw the priest. Jesus Fuck, I thought, Holy God.
There go I for the love of ……….I got away. I don’t think the other kid was quite so lucky. I spent the rest of the day a nervous wreck. The apples did not taste so well with all that adrenaline. I tossed them over a wall near the church and they all rolled down the hill. And I walked away trembling with the fear of the aftermath.
A week or so later, I was sitting with my friends again. Orchard robbing season was ending now that we were all back in school, exchanging stories of our summer. But there were also rumors in the town. Something had happened during the bishops burial. That was all that was said. However, over time, one gets noticed for being conspicuous by their abscence. I stayed in the town, lived my life and never robbed an orchard again. It was not until many years afterwards that I heard about Joe Monsanto again. By that time, our lives had changed.
But I was in the orchard that day. I remember just running, grabbing my coat and running, petrified, apples falling everywhere,thinking please don’t let me be caught like this. I saw an opening through the gate and I ran. I heard yelling behind me, “c’mere, ya little fucker”. I had never ever heard a priest swear before. I think that’s what scared me the most.
Forty years later, there are still wild apple trees at the bottom of that hill. Occasionally, I look over the wall and I think about that day.