The brief interregnum between Covid-19 Alert Levels 3 and 4 offered writer Steve Braunias an opportunity. He had to move fast to take it.
In those exciting, innocent days of Level 3, I thought: must steal some food. And so I walked to an abandoned orchard near my house. Abandoned, as in I never see anyone in it, and the trees are deformed. Level 3 lasted 48 hours. I had to be quick and act decisively. Those were the days: Level 4 is so slow that Matt Heath, legendary for his manic stunts on the TV series Back of the Y, has taken to writing columns in praise of meditation, that art of doing nothing.
Thou shalt not walk for any reason other than exercise or to queue at the supermarket. Thou shalt go home and stay home. These are very good commandments and even in Level 3 the word had gone around that you were to think not so much of other people having the virus as you having the virus, and to observe social distancing at all times. The walk to the orchard was about three kilometres and took around 45 minutes. I kept my distance and justified the trip as my contribution to the then-nationwide pursuit of hoarding.
The orchard is planted with apple trees and pear trees. There must be over 100 of them. I don’t know why the fruit isn’t harvested. But season after season the trees burst into fruity goodness, and the apples and the pears hang on the branches like glass baubles. The fat of the land, going to waste; I felt virtuous as I marched towards the sort of abandoned orchard. Sort of, as in the lawns are mowed, and the grass is kept down.
I filled two big shopping bags with fruit. They were quite heavy so I called an Uber. Home again, I filled the fridge and freezer, kept some aside to take to the neighbours, and waited for Level 4 to begin at 11:59pm. I stayed up to witness that precise moment in history. I thought there might be an announcement, or ship’s hooters.
My stockpile of fruit has since got low, especially the pears. I’d looked into the situation about how to freeze fruit – I also looked into the situation about how to freeze eggs; it sounded too dangerous to proceed – and followed instructions which called for wrapping the fruit in tinfoil to avoid the dreaded affliction of freezer burn. They looked so jolly in the bottom of the freezer compartment, wrapped up in their silver suits. But it was a failure. I took out a couple of the pears and defrosted one in the fridge, another at room temperature. The results were the same. The pears turned dark brown, and started to collapse. God they looked disgusting. I thought: I might look like that one day, mushy and rotten and drained.
That was a shame. But the apples kept their shape, their ripeness, and most importantly they kept their colour. Something other than free food had driven me to the orchard which may or may not have been abandoned: a memory of colour. I read a book at school about a young boy who is separated from his family and wanders across Europe during World War II. Nazis are close by, and there are constant references to trains. His hunger is great and so is his fear. But there is a day or wonder and happiness when he steps into a grove of fruit trees.
He doesn’t dare to linger. He’s there just long enough to pick an orange. He picks it and runs away. It’s the greatest orange of all times. The boy, and the book, goes on and on about this orange – its perfect, swelling roundness, its pockmarked skin, its tangy citrus scent. More pages are devoted to its taste and texture. In both descriptions – the look of the orange, and eating the orange – the boy and the book are captivated by its orangeness, its pulsating and sensual colour, its brightness and warmth.
God I loved that description of the orange. I held it within me all the rest of my life as a promise of something beautiful and good. It came back to me when I happened to walk past the orchard a couple of days before the announcement we were going into Level 3.
The orchard is beside a motorway and behind a very high wire fence. It’s obscured from the passing traffic by a tall row of poplar trees. The leaves shine in the sun, and sparkle with a silvery glint. Lycra’d fools whizz by on the cycle track and keep their pinched joyless faces set dead ahead. But the motorists and the cyclists would at least be aware of the orchard, like a kind of background music. I don’t drive. I don’t own a bike. I walk, which provides an intimacy with the world and its subtle variations in tone. This is a fancy way of saying I noticed that there was a small, discreet gap in the very high wire fence.
I climbed in and wandered around the deformed trees in sunlight and silence. It felt like I had stepped into an enchanted wood. It felt like I had stepped back into childhood: I was living the book I had loved and held close for all those years: the apples were so red, the reddest apples of all times, things of immense joy and amazing colour. I ate one. It was delicious. I scoffed a delicious pear, too. A few days later, when Level 3 was announced, I immediately thought of that al fresco supermarket fruit department, and acted fast to forage, to hoard, to steal. The virus was coming, I had to stock up.
There was competition: birds. When I returned, a flock of starlings took flight from the tops of the trees, and a band of pukekos were on foot patrol. Great mounds of fallen fruit lay around the trees. I watched a pukeko walk up to a mound, plant its scaly, ugly foot on a fallen apple, and bend its head to feast on the flesh. A particularly large apple, fire-engine red, was on a branch just above its head. I thought: mine. I approached the tree and advised the bird to scram. It scrammed, screeching.
It was a very happy half-hour. Fruit picking, a nature walk, hoarding – the brute force of the virus was about to take over the world, send it inside to close its doors and wash the car but not drive it. I was making my last grab at freedom. The apples were so red, so pulsating and sensual. They glowed in the trees, and then in my hands. It was as though I were holding the Sun.