When Stephen moved into the house at the bend in the lane he was told that, in Victorian times, it had been a cider house. Not that he had really paid too much attention at the time. He had never really been interested in local history. It did not look like a cider house now, although Stephen would have been the first to admit that he did not actually know what an old cider house was supposed to look like. He presumed that it was the place where cider was made. The only real trace which he could see was the fact that there were still apple trees in the garden.
He didn’t particularly like apples, anyway. Not that he intended to chop the trees down, or anything like that. But he probably would not bother to collect any apples which fell to earth. Which was a little funny, perhaps, because he had gone scrumping as a kid with one of his mates. But that had been as much about adrenaline excitement as getting his hands on some apples.
Everything went fine with Stephen for exactly seventeen days after he moved into his new home. It was on the seventeenth night that Stephen encountered the ghost.
Nobody had told him that the house was haunted. And Stephen had not bothered to ask. But it is not the sort of thing which you ask about when you are purchasing a house, is it?
Stephen was getting ready for bed; an early night, as he had work in the morning. He was off to the bathroom to brush his teeth, when he saw somebody walking along the upstairs hall towards him. The figure came out of the bathroom, walked along to the room which Stephen had designated as the spare bedroom, and walked into there. But the thing was, though, the figure managed to exit the bathroom and enter the spare bedroom without opening either of the doors.
The figure was white, and blurry. It was distinctly humanoid in shape. But Stephen had not really been able to make out more details than that.
Stephen stood, and stared. He could not believe his eyes. He tried to tell himself that it had been a trick of his life. But he had definitely seen a ghost. There could not be any other explanation for it.
Stephen walked to the door leading to the spare bedroom. He paused outside the door, though. He felt nervous.
He grasped the handle to the door, and flung it open, expecting to see some glowing white figure in the room. But there was nothing in there.
Stephen flicked on the light switch, illuminating the room. The room was empty. There was no sign of any ghost.
He breathed a big sigh of relief. He told himself that he must have imagined it. But he was still a little bit nervous when he opened the door to the bathroom. That too, though, was empty of any unquiet spirits.
The next morning, when he got up, Stephen told himself that he must have imagined it all. There were no such things as ghosts. It had only been a trick of the light. So he went off to work, not even considering such a thing as contacting the estate agent and complaining.
When he got back that evening everything was fine. There was no sign of any ghosts in the house. Everything was just as Stephen had left it, apart from some begging letter from a charity which had been thrust through his letterbox.
He went upstairs, into the hall. But there were no signs of a ghost there, either. Stephen told himself that he had imagined the thing which he had seen. He had been tired. It had been a trick of the light.
Three days later he saw the ghost again.
Once more it was while he was getting ready for bed. He had his pyjamas on, and he was going to go and brush his teeth. Dental hygiene was important.
Again he saw the ghost come out of the bathroom without first bothering to open the bathroom door. The ghost seemed to be a little bit clearer, this time. Stephen did not really want to stare at it, but he found that he could not tear his gaze away.
The ghost looked like an old man; or that he had been an old man, back when he had been alive. He wore white clothing, and had white hair, and wore white slippers on his feet… well, actually, the entire ghost was some kind of white, ectoplasmic entity. It was entirely monochromatic.
Stephen told himself that ghosts were only an electro-magnetic phenomenon, and that there was nothing really to be scared about. It was not actually the spirit of a dead person, and that, therefore, he should not be fearful. It was just some recording on reality, just like some old magnetic tape. Eventually it would wear itself out, and the ghost would never be seen again.
The ghost stopped. It turned, and looked directly at Stephen. Stephen was sure that the ghost could see him. That was when Stephen turned and ran down the stairs.
It was a long time before Stephen had the nerve to go back upstairs and to continue getting ready for bed. When he finally did venture up the stairs there was no sign of the ghost, of course. He brushed his teeth and he got into bed, bolting his bedroom door – although, as the ghost could walk through doors, that was not actually much of a protection.
The next day Stephen tried to tell himself that the ghost had not actually turned its head to look at him. It had just been a trick of the light. There was no way that the ghost could have known that he was there.
He wondered if he should try to get rid of the ghost. But he was not actually sure how you would go about doing that. There was no such thing, as far as he knew, as real life Ghostbusters. He thought about trying to have the ghost exorcised. But he was pretty sure that the only people who did exorcisms were Catholic priests, and he had never been a Roman Catholic (and he did not intend to start now).
He could always look up stuff on the internet on how to get rid of ghosts. But the trouble with the internet was that you could never be sure of the information. There would be no point in him throwing salt around if it didn’t actually do anything.
Instead, that night, he tried to avoid meeting the ghost by going to bed early. Stephen reasoned that if the ghost only walked around at a particular time, on the upstairs hall, then all that he would have to do to avoid this restless spirit is not be on the upstairs landing at that particular time of night. And if he did not see the ghost then he could try to convince himself that the house wasn’t actually haunted, after all. All he would have to do is to either have early nights, or late ones. It did occur to him that, by doing such a thing, he was actually conceding territory to the ghost. But Stephen tried to push that thought away.
For over a month Stephen did not encounter the ghost. It appeared that his plan was actually working. He even managed, occasionally, to forget that his house was haunted. But all good things, as they say, must come to an end.
One night Stephen woke up in the middle of the night. As soon as he opened his eyes he could tell that he was not alone in the room. He could see the glowing figure of some old man standing next to his bed. The ghost was paying him a little night-time visit.
“Wh-what do you want?” Stephen asked, pulling the duvet up to his nose (exposing the tips of his toes). He could not prevent there being a tremulous quality in his voice.
If ghosts were nothing but some sort of electro-magnetic phenomena then there should have been no way that Stephen should have got an answer.
“Apples.” the ghost said. The mouth of the ghost moved, but Stephen did not hear the voice with his ears. How could he, as the ghost had no solid voice box with which to make sound. No, Stephen heard the voice inside his mind.
“Apples?” Stephen asked, staring at the ghost. He could not comprehend why the ghost might want some apples. Was the ghost hungry, or something? Did people still have to eat in the afterlife? “Look, I’m sorry, I don’t have any apples, but I could probably do you a cheese sandwich.”
“Fool!” the ghost said (again, speaking straight into the mind of the hapless Stephen). “I do not need to eat! The apples are not for food. But I am a cider maker, and cider must be made.”
“There are some apple trees in the garden.” Stephen said. He did not really want to get out from under the duvet, not with the ghost standing right next to his bed. But he supposed that might get him away from the ghost, though.
Still, though, Stephen could not help but wonder why the ghost was waking him up to ask for apples when there were those trees in the garden. Couldn’t the ghost simply go and help himself, and leave the living to get a good night’s rest. Stephen had work in the morning, whereas, obviously, the ghost did not.
Hadn’t the ghost had enough of making cider when he had been alive, if he had actually been the person who had run the cider house? Perhaps people, in the afterlife, really did continue doing what they had done while they had been alive.
“No… ordinary apples.” the voice in Stephen’s mind said. “No good. Need something greater than that, now I am dead. Need the apples of the Hesperides. Find those apples for me, and I will make the greatest cider of all time.”
The ghost faded away just then, from the outside in, like switching off an old TV. Stephen did not turn over and go back to sleep, although he was still feeling pretty tired. He stayed where he was, with the duvet pulled up to his nose, just in case the ghost was about to reappear.
It was another hour before he finally released and got back to sleep. Which was hardly worth it, really, considering what time he had to get up for work in the morning.
At work the next day he was not at his best, constantly yawning and OD’ing on caffeine. He remembered the fact that he had been woken up by a ghost – a most rude awakening – and that the ghost had muttered something about special apples. But, for the life of him, he could not recall what the word was which the spectre had used.
He tried to tell himself that it had been nothing more than a bad dream. Yes, that was what it had been – he had dreamt that he had woken up to be interrogated by a ghost. It had not really happened at all.
When he got home that night he was so tired that he went to bed at nine o’clock and he swept the whole night through. No spectres disturbed him.
It was another two nights before Stephen was disturbed by the ghost again.
Stephen’s eyes flickered open. It could not be time for work, yet, as it was still dark outside. Besides, the alarm clock wasn’t ringing.
His left shoulder felt could, as though it was encased in ice. It was a strange feeling. He looked up, to see the ghost of the old man standing there. The ghost was trying to shake Stephen awake by the shoulder. But the ghost, being insubstantial, could not actually make physical contact with Stephen. The ghost’s hand, instead, had gone through the shoulder of Stephen. It was the sensation of the hand inside his shoulder which had woken Stephen up.
“Oh, no.” Stephen groaned. Couldn’t the ghost leave him alone?
“You have not begun to look for the apples.” the ghost informed Stephen. “You must find the apples of the Hesperides. I must have those apples. I cannot rest until I have made the perfect cider.”
The ghost faded away then, having made his point. But it was some time before Stephen was able to go back to sleep.
The next day he recalled the fact that he had suffered a visitation by the ghost. He also recalled the fact that the ghost had gone on about something called the Hesperides. At work, in a break, he decided to look up just what these Hesperides were. If it was just some foreign variety of apple then he could always pop out to Waitrose and see if they had any. He’d never heard of a variety called Hesperides, but the only apple varieties which he could name were Granny Smith and Golden Delicious.
Doing a search on his computer, though, he discovered that the Hesperides were a group of young women from Ancient Greek mythology. Their task had been to guard an apple tree which had belonged to the goddess Gaea.
The apple tree was not a normal one, though. It was supposed to have produced golden apples. Those apples had been a wedding gift from Gaea to Hera, when she had married Zeus.
The sister called the Hesperides had different parents, depending on the writer. According to the writer Hesiod, they had been the daughters of Night and Erebus. Other writers said that their parents were Phorcys and Ceto; or Atlas and Hesperis. Stephen, considering the name given to this group of sisters, thought that surely the most likely parentage should have been Hesperis and Atlas (not that these sisters had ever lived in the first place, of course).
The Greek myths did not even agree on how many sisters there were supposed to be. Some accounts said that there were only three; but other accounts said that there were as many as seven. Names given for the sisters included Hespera, Aegle and Erytheia.
Some legends said that the sisters lived among the Hyperboreans, who lived in a mythical land beyond where the North Wind came from. As some ancient Greeks believed that Boreas lived in Thrace, that meant that Hyperborea could be just about anywhere.
The golden apples were supposed to be guarded by a dragon called Ladon. The dragon, according to what Stephen said, was supposed to be the offspring of Phorcys and Ceto. That meant that the dragon was the brother of the sisters, effectively, if you believed these myths. Weird.
There were more myths concerning these golden myths. Another tale said that the golden apples were stolen by Heracles. And yet another tale described how Aphrodite gave some of these apples to Hippomenes before a race against Atalanta.
It was obvious to Stephen that these apples did not exist. They were fictional. No golden apples could possibly exist. Which meant that his ghost would end up being disappointed.
That evening Stephen actually went looking for his ghost. Stephen was more than a little bit annoyed at being asked to look for something which didn’t exist. Stephen recalling the time when he had seen the ghost in the upstairs hall, made sure that he was waiting there at the correct time. And, right on schedule, the ghost of the old cider maker walked out through the wood of the bathroom door.
Stephen was still very nervous, even though he had seen the ghost several times before. This was the spirit of a dead person, walking along as though he still owned the house. But Stephen told himself that there was nothing to be scared about, and that there was no way in which the ghost could harm him.
Stephen had interested to shout Oi! You! at the ghost, but he could not quite bring himself to do so.
“I would like a word with you.” Stephen said, his voice little more than a whisper. The spectre carried on walking along as though he had not heard Stephen.
“I said, I would like a word with you.” Stephen said, a little louder. The ghost turned and approached him.
“Where are the apples of the Hesperides?” the ghost asked. His voice sounded even hollower than before, if that was even possible. It sent chills down Stephen’s spine. They met ones coming the other way somewhere around the base of his spine. “You have not found the apples of the Hesperides.”
“No, and I’m not going to.” Stephen said. “The apples are mythological. They don’t exist!”
“The apples are true.” the ghost said, with his insubstantial mouth, the voice yet again being heard by the mind of Stephen, rather than his mind. “They can be found, I know it; and I charge you by all that is holy to discover them, or I will haunt you for all of your remaining days. This I swear.”
The ghost then faded from view. Stephen was left standing on the upstairs hall, wondering what he was going to do now. That conversation had not gone the way that he had rehearsed it in his mind.
He went to bed. He did not think that he was going to see the ghost again that night. He should have been able to get to sleep, knowing that he would not be woken up in the middle of the night. But Stephen found it very hard to get to sleep.
All he could think about was the fact that the only way that he could stop himself from being tormented by a ghost was to find some golden apples which didn’t exist.
The next day, when he got up, and got ready for work, the problem of a ghost wanting apples which did not resist returned to plague his mind. Yet he could not see any possible resolution to the matter. He could not get something which did not exist.
In his lunch break he used his computer to, once more, search for information concerning those fabled apples. He found pretty much the same information as before – the legends had not changed in the interim.
According to Wikipedia the Garden of the Hesperides was in the far western corner of the world, where the garden was guarded by that monstrous Ladon. Reading down, though, he found that ‘golden apples’ to the Ancient Greeks, sometimes referred to ranges or the quince.
He thought about just presenting the ghost with some oranges from Waitrose. But, somehow, he did not think that would be enough.
He had to do something, though. He could not continue to be harangued by some ruddy ghost. And, despite the fact that his house was haunted, he did not really want to have to sell it, not so soon after moving in. He really hated moving house, and he did not want to have to go through all that again unless he really had to.
But the other option was to find the apples – or something which might pass for the golden apples of the Hesperides. He seriously began to consider actually doing the ghost’s quest.
First of all he thought about whether he could simply buy some apples, get some gold paint, and get some golden apples in that way. But he was scared that the ghost would see through that straight away, and be angry with him. You did not really want to have to live with an angry ghost.
His mind returned to where it said the far western corner of the world. That was, of course, the far western corner of the world as far as the Ancient Greeks had been concerned. And their knowledge of the world had been rather limited, hadn’t it? They had not known anything about the Americas. To them the western world had ended with Iberia.
The most western part of Iberia was Portugal. So was that it? Go to Portugal and come back with some golden-skinned apples? There were plenty of apples which looked yellow now, not just the Golden Delicious.
Was he really considering going all of the way to Portugal just to get some apples? He supposed that he was. But he could do with a holiday, anyway. He had holiday which he could take. And while he was in Portugal he wouldn’t have to deal with the ghost, anyway.
He decided there and then, on his lunch break, that a holiday in Portugal was just what the doctor ordered. He asked for his holiday, telling his boss that he was knackered from having to move house, and that he really needed a break. The earliest he could take his break was in two weeks time. He hoped that would be soon enough for the ghost.
Two nights later, when he was again disturbed by the spirit of the dead cider-maker, he discovered that it was.
He booked a flight to Lisbon. it was fairly westerly, and, when he looked at a map, it looked like it was not that far from the actual most westerly bit of Portugal. His plan was to try and find some orchard near Portugal that had yellowish apples, buy a couple, stick them in his luggage, and then return home. Hopefully that would be enough to satisfy the ghost.
So he went off on holiday. And he enjoyed his few days in Portugal. He discovered that, once he was abroad, that he had really needed a holiday after all. He had a whole day of just looking around the city before even turning his mind to looking for apples.
Stephen discovered that Lisbon was a really ancient city, something which he had not realised before coming to the place. According to one bit of tourist information it had once been called Ulyssipo, and one tale concerning its founding was that it had been founded by the legendary Ulysses – Ulysses having been the Roman name for the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus. The city had certainly been kicking around in the time of the Ancient Greeks. Which was one thing, he supposed. The people in the ancient Lisbon might even have had apple orchards, as far as he knew. Or maybe orange orchards, as well. And he understood that quinces grew in Portugal. Quinces, according to that Wikipedia entry, had been another fruit which ‘golden apple’ might have referred to.
Perhaps he should take some oranges and quinces back with him, as well. Just to be on the safe side. And if that didn’t work, then he was definitely getting the gold paint out.
On day two of his three fays in Lisbon he acquired apples, oranges and quinces, making sure that they were all local. And he hid them in his luggage, as he was not sure just what he could take back through customs.
On his third and final full day in Lisbon he really relaxed. He felt that all of his ghost troubles should be over (and the ghost was currently a long way away).
He saw what sights he had not got around to, so far during his stay in the city, having a look at some of the ancient Roman walls, such as still remained extant. He had a look around some of the museums, taking in some of the Phoenician remains and artefacts which had been unearthed by archaeologists over the years.
On the next day he caught his flight back to Britain.
The evening that he was back in Britain he carefully laid out all of the fruit beside his bed, ready for any visitation by the ghost of the old cider-maker. As soon as the ghost appeared he would offer up some of the Portuguese apples to him. If they did not pass muster, then he would offer up the oranges. And if those did not work, either, then he would try offering the quinces.
He waited until one in the morning for the ghost to appear. But the ghost of the cider-maker did not appear that night, and Stephen slowly drifted off to sleep. Typical – there was never a ghost around when you wanted one.
The next day, at work, he spent a lot of the day working, which got people asking if he had enjoyed his holiday, or whether he needed a holiday from the holiday. He had to grin and bear it. He could hardly say that he had been up to at least one o’clock in the morning intending to offer Portuguese apples to a ghost.
When he got home he hoped that the ghost would make an appearance that night. He did not want the fruit to stay around so long that it went mouldy and he had to throw it away. That would just be a waste.
There was also the fact that every time that he looked at the apples and the oranges he began to get peckish. He wasn’t sure about the quinces, though – he understood that they were not eaten raw, but usually made into preserves. He thought that the word ‘marmalade’ came from the Portuguese for quince.
That night, though, Stephen was woken up by the ghost trying to shake him awake, and the cold, spectral hand going down into his shoulder. Stephen really wished that the ghost would stop doing that, as it was not a particularly pleasant sensation.
“Where are the apples of the Hesperides?” the ghost asked. This time Stephen was prepared for the ghost, despite the fact that he had just had a most rude awakening.
“They are right here!” Stephen said, reaching across and picking up the apples, and offering them to the ghost.
“Fool! Those are not golden!” the ghost declared. “Where are the golden apples of the Hesperides?”
Felling a sinking feeling Stephen reached for the oranges.
“Here?” he offered.
“Those are oranges.” the ghost declared. “You cannot make cider out of oranges.”
Yes, well, but you can’t make cider anyway, because you are dead, Stephen thought. But he did not say that out loud. You don’t want to go around offending the undead. It is generally not a very good idea.
Stephen offered the quinces to the ghost. But those were rejected again; and, again, the ghost abused Stephen, calling him a fool, and accusing him of not knowing what an apple was.
Right, I’ve had enough of this, the poor, benighted hauntee thought.
“I will have your golden apples for you tomorrow!” Stephen suddenly shouted out at the ghost, at the top of his voice. Surprisingly the ghost accepted that, and floated out of the room.
Stephen ate an orange, wondered what he was going to do with the quinces, and went to sleep.
The next day, on the way back from work, Stephen brought an aerosol of gold paint. Making sure that there was no ghost about, he put newspaper down on the floor of the kitchen, and he sprayed gold the apples which he had brought back from Portugal. When he was done, and the gold paint on the apples was dry, he took the apples and placed them on the table beside his bed. He then put the used newspaper in the bin, and the aerosol of gold point as well.
That night he was woken by a hollow cheer. He woke up to see the ghost standing there, staring at the apples which he had faked by painting them gold.
“I can make Hesperides cider.” the ghost said. “I can finally be at peace…”
Believing that his task in death was complete the ghost reached out for the apples, just as he faded away into nothingness, as his spirit went to wherever the restless dead go when they finally achieve whatever it was which caused them to hang around the world, littering up the land of the living.
“At bloody last.” Stephen said, thinking how stupid the ghost was to have been tricked so easily. But who was the most stupid there, the ghost who believed he would achieve his death’s ambition, or the person who had not thought of spray-painting apples gold in the first place?