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The Singing Apple Trees

by Anna Swan

The Singing Apple Trees

This story was submitted to The LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2019

Not many people believed the story about the fruit trees in Roe Green Village. Some said it was myth, others that it was nonsense. Only the children – and Mr Mulholland – knew that each tree had its own particular voice. 

Every child in the village grew up knowing that pear trees laugh and cherry trees whisper, that plums are tone deaf and damsons grumble and sulk, which is probably why they make such a mess when they fall to the ground. And, of course, they all knew that apple trees sing in perfect harmony. 

Mr Mulholland was now eighty-five and had lived in the village his whole life. He’d taught maths and music at the primary school, and many of the grown-up residents were his former pupils, though somehow they had long forgotten the vocal abilities of the fruit trees. After he retired Mr Mulholland continued to teach a few music students privately. He’d spent his life surrounded by children, and perhaps this was the reason he had retained the secret knowledge about the trees. 

Rio played the clarinet and Lilu the flute. During the spring and summer their music lessons were held in Mr Mulholland’s garden. 

‘Did you know that musicians are often very good at maths?’ he asked them one day. 

‘Really?’ Rio said in surprise. Maths was his second favourite subject. 

‘For one thing, you need to be good at counting. And both disciplines are all about structure and patterns.’ 

‘So music is equations and formulas you can hear?’ Lilu said. 

‘Indeed it is,’ Mr Mulholland replied with a proud smile; he took great pleasure in his students’ imaginative perception. 

At the end of their lessons he often told them stories from his childhood during the war. They loved hearing about Mr Mulholland and his friends playing on bombsites and collecting shrapnel, the wailing of air-raid sirens and the misery of rationing. The children were astonished to learn that there were no sweets during the war, not until 1954, when fourteen years of rationing ended. This was probably why he always had a bag of toffees in the pocket of his tweed suit. 

Practising a duet in the garden one afternoon in late spring, Rio said, ‘I just heard the damsons shout “Rubbish!”’ 

‘Poor old damsons, always complaining,’ said Mr Mulholland. 

‘The pear tree next door is giggling again,’ said Lilu. ‘And the plum tree says we’re in the wrong key.’ 

‘Ignore the plums – they can’t tell the difference between treble and triad, let alone sharp or flat,’ he said, and they all laughed as loud as the pear tree. 

‘Don’t ever forget that laughter is one of life’s gifts,’ Mr Mulholland said. ‘And for musicians it’s as important as breathing.’ 

The children looked puzzled. 

‘Laughter exercises your facial muscles, and therefore helps your embouchure. Rio, your lips need to be in a straight line, like a sealed smile. Lilu, your embouchure is like blowing on a mug of very hot chocolate from a great height.’ 

‘Does chewing sweets help too?’ Rio asked, half-seriously. 

‘Of course, but always in moderation.’ And with that, their teacher handed each of them a toffee. Rio and Lilu didn’t know that this would be their last lesson with Mr Mulholland. 

When he died in early May the apple trees were in full bloom. Pink and white petals fell from their branches, their voices silenced in sorrow. 

On the day of his funeral, along with their parents and most of their neighbours, Rio and Lilu walked through the village towards Holy Innocents Church. Suddenly everyone, even the grown-ups, stopped to listen to the notes of an elegy caught on the breeze. 

The apple trees were singing for Mr Mulholland.

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