Way back in the midsts of last year, I cast upon these waters one of my rare excursions into fiction. Several people were kind enough to make positive and/or constructive comments about it, and so enthused was I by this feedback that I completely forgot about the project for about nine months. But yesterday, I was making a smoothie for Small Boo, and the ingredients reminded me of the vaguely fruit-related emotional journey upon which I’d set the unsuspecting ukulele strummer Stanley Pidd, at which point I just had to dash off a few hundred more words. Newcomers may wish to pick up on Stanley’s back story at the above link. Old hands, read on:
...Stanley noticed that Ms Heggie had been staring at him intently, but still hadn’t said a word. While Mr Bland was asking about what exams he’d taken at school, Ms Heggie slowly stood up and came around the desk to where Stanley was sitting. Slowly, deliberately, she ran her right thumb down his cheek. Mr Bland stopped talking, and looked up at her expectantly. Stanley kept his eyes fixed on Mr Bland. This hadn’t happened when he gone for that job as a dog walker.
Miss Heggie nodded a little nod, and Mr Bland smiled a smile that was only slightly larger. “Raspberries are all very well,” he said. “But I wonder if you have any opinions on nectarines.”
Miss Heggie had returned to her seat, but she continued to gaze at Stanley’s face.
“Er… nectarines,” he said. He’d have preferred lychees. He’d done lychees. “They’re like peaches, right? But a bit like plums as well. A sort of plummy peach.” Ms Heggie and Mr Bland said nothing. “Peachy plum?”
Suddenly Mr Bland stood up, and proffered his hand. “Stanley,” he said, “I’d like to offer you a job here, starting tomorrow at twelve minutes past nine. I hope this is acceptable?”
Stanley was so startled by the offer that he accepted, without asking about pay or hours or gym membership or what the job actually involved. He just knew that it was something to do with fruit, and that Ms Heggie approved of his face.
That night, Stanley sat on his bed, strumming his ukulele. When he was in a band, Cuthbert the tuba player had written most of the songs. Now, for the first time, Stanley felt the urge to compose one of his own. He strummed a chord.
“Doreen,” he sang, and almost blushed as he did so, even though there was nobody else around. “Doreen… I’d give you my last nectarine…”
Quietly satisfied, he turned out the light.
Still keen to make an impression, Stanley arrived considerably ahead of time, at four minutes past nine. Mr Bland met him at reception, and guided him down a corridor, in the opposite direction from his office. At the end was a heavy steel door, which he opened by tapping a combination into a keypad. Stanley was impressed, and more than a little nervous.
On the other side of the door was a long table, with several sealed crates on it. Mr Bland took a knife from his suit pocket, and Stanley became even more nervous.
“Don’t worry, Stanley,” smiled Mr Bland. “I just want to show you something.” He sliced through the seals on one of the crates. “We were talking about nectarines, remember.”
Stanley nodded. He noticed that Mr Bland’s knife was a Stanley knife. Stanley. Knife. Was this a big joke? Stanley wasn’t very good with jokes.
Mr Bland began to open the lid of the crate, but seemed to change his mind. “You said that nectarines are a sort of plummy peach,” he said. “And that’s about right. It’s a peach with a smooth skin. But do you know how they get that way?”
Stanley thought back to his biology lessons at school. He hadn’t paid much attention in biology; he’d spent much of the time drawing spaceships and thinking about the ukuleles he’d seen in the music shop window. But he did remember something about genes and evolution, although for some reason he thought that had more to do with peas than peaches.
“Is it in their genes?” he asked, trying to sound like a contestant on a TV quiz show who is absolutely sure of the answer, but wants to sound a little bit unsure so he doesn’t seem too arrogant.
“Well, that’s the story we tell people,” said Mr Bland. “That’s what we’d like them to think. As you said, Stanley, it’s in their genes. Without going into too much detail, nectarines get their smooth skins as the result of a recessive gene. Or at least they did.
“Unfortunately, about 30 years ago, things started going wrong. There were a number of unexplained accidents, deaths even, that seemed to have no connection whatsoever, except for one thing. All the victims had recently bought or eaten nectarines.”
“What sort of accidents were they?” asked Stanley. Mr Bland waved his hand theatrically, and a photograph appeared, projected on the far wall. Stanley was aghast. His mother was a doctor, remember, and even as a child he’d become quite used to images of injury and deformity in various books and magazines that she’d leave around the house. But this was something rather worse.
The photograph was of a young man, his head and limbs intact, but his torso replaced by a pulpy orange mass. The transformation appeared to have occurred suddenly: his face had a look of mild annoyance about it, as if the doorbell had rung just as he’d got into a hot bath.
Mr Bland waved his hand again, and another picture appeared. This was of a middle-aged woman, with a small, brown, ridged, oval stone lodged between her eyes. She seemed to have a similarly disgruntled expression to the exploded man, although it was hard to tell as the force of the stone’s impact had apparently dragged the rest of her face in on itself.
“The nectarines had mutated,” said Mr Bland, solemnly. “They had started exploding at inopportune moments.” Several more images flickered across the wall, each depicting a scene of violent mutilation and death. The last picture was of a man in a white coat, a look of glum resignation on what was left of his face.
We tried to isolate the problem,” continued Mr Bland, “but if any of our people got close to working it out, the fruit would react. That picture is of my own father.”
Stanley wasn’t very good at moments like this. When he was in the band, Wilbur the melodica player had an aunt who had died, and Stanley had gone to the funeral and not spoken to anyone, even at the bit back at the house where they ate ham sandwiches. He knew he was supposed to express his condolences, but “I’m sorry” always sounded like an apology. He hadn’t killed Mr Bland’s father; this thing had happened before he was even born. So he just looked a bit sad and waited for Mr Bland to continue.
But Mr Bland was still gazing at the image of his father. “I was the one that found him, Stanley,” he said, softly. “I was about the same age you are now. I knew there was only one way we could stop this.” He tossed the knife into the air, so it turned a full circle before he caught it. “I ordered that every nectarine in the world had to be destroyed...”