Summer short story: The Apple Picker by Thomas Morris

A substitute teacher arrives and young Hywel falls a little in love with her

Hywel loved Mr Jones. He was the best teacher ever. He hardly ever shouted, he played football with them on the yard, and at the end of the day he’d sit them all down on the carpet and tell a joke. But one afternoon, Mr Jones sat the class down on the carpet and instead of telling a joke, he said: I’ve got something to say which makes me sad. He told the class he had a heart problem, something called angina. He assured them he was going to be okay, but he had to take time off and it might be two or three months before he could return. The class fell silent and then the last bell sounded. Cheer up, Mr Jones said. I’ll be back before you know it. On the bus on the way home, Hywel cried, and no one made fun of him. Everyone loved Mr Jones. He was the best teacher ever.

The supply who came in to cover Mr Jones was a young woman named Ms Probert. She had straight yellow hair and rosy cheeks and she was nice and everything, but she wasn’t Mr Jones. She laughed a lot, but she didn’t really tell any jokes and sometimes when Hywel looked up at her she was just staring out the window. One afternoon, as he was cleaning out the gerbil’s cage, Ms Probert came over to Hywel and said in the softest voice, You’re really very gentle with Ruby. I can tell you’re a kind young man. He nodded immodestly, and when he was finished with his chores he sat back down in his seat and his cheeks were warm, and his gaze kept going back to Ms Probert. With a soft, flowing dread, he realised he was in love.

In the weeks that followed he recounted to Ms Probert the various acts of gentleness and generosity that were his life, such as the £2.50 Forever Friends keyring he had bought his mother with his own pocket money, and the way that he always shared his choc-ice with his sister Eleanor, even when she already had one of her own. He proudly told Ms Probert about the job he had.

You’ve got a job? she said. And you’re only eight!


He explained how his father owned the newsagents in town, and he would go there after school to do his Perfects – bringing the crisps and sweets up from the stockroom and arranging them on the shelves so that they were all face out and perfectly aligned. With a matter-of-fact shrug, he told Ms Probert that his father called him his Right Hand Man.

We’ve extended the opening hours, he said, so my dad’s mad busy. He couldn’t run the shop without me.

Ms Probert blew out her cheeks. Well, he’s very lucky to have you, she said.

Hywel weighed this up and looked off into the distance.

Yeah, maybe, he said.

When his father wasn’t at the shop, he was asleep on the couch. Hywel and Eleanor would have to keep very quiet, so as not to wake him. He was like a beached whale with his deep grunts and snores. Their mother, when she wasn’t at the shop or cooking or cleaning the house or ironing their clothes, would sit at the kitchen table, a pen in her mouth, looking up at the dresser, as if staring deep enough into the row of miniature houses on the top shelf could solve the fact she had still, after a very long time, only written six good pages of her detective novel.

The rest of the pages are just no good, she said. I know it’s in me, but I just don’t know how to get it out.

The problem, she often said, was that she never had any time or headspace to think about her book.

Agatha Christie used to rent a room in a hotel for two weeks and write her books there, she said. Would you like it if mummy went to a hotel for two weeks?

Maybe we could come with you, Hywel said. I could help you with the story.

His mother took a cigarette from her packet and lit it.

If you were writing a detective story, what would you have happen?

Hywel grinned. I’d have Inspector Morse do the murder.

His mother puffed her cigarette and he watched the ring float up in the kitchen.

Yes, she said, you’ve said that one before. It is a good idea, but I don’t think I could write another one after it then. What I want is to make up the kind of detective book that could have a series and just go on and on.

Have him do the murder, Hywel said. Trust me, no one will see it coming.

It was hard for Hywel, being in love with Ms Probert. He was half her height, and when he was around the other kids, he must have seemed to her very young. But one-on-one, she knew he was her equal. He was sure of it. There was something very tangible between them. Though once those other kids were there, it all evaporated; she was a teacher again and he was just a child.

One Sunday night Hywel got struck down with mumps. Eleanor was feeling off as well.

I’m fine, Hywel said to his mother. I’ll be going to school.

Hywel, love, your neck is swollen like a cushion. It’s all right to be ill. And it’s all right to miss school. You’re not going to miss too much.

The next morning, when his mother was in his sister’s room, he crept out of the house and got on the bus. The kids were all asking what was wrong with him, and he replied, Nothing’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with you?

During registration, Ms Probert took one look at him and brought him immediately to reception.

Oh good, the receptionist said. We’ve just had your mam on the phone. She’s worried sick, wondering where you’ve got to.

She worries too much, Hywel said

The receptionist laughed.

Ms Probert said: Look Hywel, you’re very good to want to come to school, but you’re clearly not well enough.

At that moment he was 100 per cent convinced that she was about to offer to drive him home. He felt it in his entire body. And then she smiled and left him at reception and went back to the class.

He quickly made sense of it though: they were in front of others again; she couldn’t show how she really felt.

His father had taken the car for work, so one of the receptionists had to drive Hywel home. In the kitchen, he offered to help his mother with her novel, but she told him to just go to bed.

I’m livid, she said. For your own sake, I advise you to go up to room before I cause you any lasting damage.

He’d never noticed it before but his room was an orange cave, and there were stalactites in the corner. A low mist hung over his desk and the air made his eyes burn. It was very hard to swallow, and all he wanted was to be loved.

Dear Ms Probert, he wrote.

It is quite clear to me that we have a connection. I don’t want to presume anything on your behalf, but I likewise don’t want to let this flame die through lack of fanning. Things being what they are, I understand it is difficult for you to express your true feelings for me. I am a boy and you an adult and according to the laws of the land, we have to remain separated until I come of age; the only alternative is unlikely: and that is that you regress and become younger again. Then we would be permitted to join hands and kiss under the tree at the top of the field (as are the rites of those mock marriages the other kids conduct at dinner time).

How can it be fair that I should have to wait, when I know in my true soul, that you are the one for me? We are made of the same hunk of star dust, you and I. It is why we feel so at peace with one another.

Of course: this isn’t what he wrote. It’s what he felt – but he didn’t have the words to express it at the time. No, what he wrote instead was:

Dear Ms Probert,

Thank you for being a brilliant teacher. Please send me the homework home so I don’t miss out on anything.

Yours sincerely,

Hywel Miles.

The next day, writing her name on the envelope, he asked his mother what Ms meant.

It could mean anything, she said.

But it means she’s not married, right?

She might be, but she just doesn’t want people to know that.

Why wouldn’t she want people to know that?

Some people like to keep things private, his mother said.

For Santes Dwynwen, he left a card on Ms Probert’s desk. There was no need to sign it as she would definitely recognise his handwriting.

You really are the best teacher, it said. Lots and lots of love, Me. XXXXX


I should explain: I’m translating everything twice here. Hywel was schooled through the Welsh language and so the card he wrote was in Welsh. All his conversations with Ms Probert were in Welsh, all his conversations with his friends in school were in Welsh. But I’m also translating feelings from the past, the eternally complicated feelings of an eight-year-old. As hard as I try, I know that essential parts will be lost, misplaced, and missed or transformed. Here’s an example: Ms Probert was from North Wales, where English was her second language. When it came to the one hour of English she taught each week in class, she struggled. Teaching synonyms, she advised the students to enrich their language.

‘Don’t say, boring,’ she said. ‘Say instead distasteful.’

I can see how she arrived at that word: the Welsh for boring is diflasdi means ‘without’, blas means ‘taste’. But there is a gap between “boring” and “distasteful”. Later that week, for his English homework, Hywel wrote a review of Rolf Harris’s Animal Hospital.

‘I did not enjoy the show,’ he wrote. ‘I found it very distasteful.’


His parents’ arguing got worse. Have I mentioned they argued? It was bad to begin with and then it got worse. His father was coming home later and later and days would pass without Hywel seeing him at all.

Where’s Dad? he asked his mother one night.

How would I know? she replied. I’m only his wife.

But Hywel rather liked the extra space around the house. He and his sister especially enjoyed having the livingroom couch all to themselves.

This is the life, his sister said, sprawled and stretching out.


When the Eisteddfod came around, Hywel wrote a poem. Again, the below is a translation:

Children playing and one is up a tree picking apples.

He reaches and then he falls to the ground like a nut.

In the hospital he sleeps like a hedgehog.

Will he ever wake?

He called the poem “The Apple Picker”, but Ms Probert thought “Autumn” a better title. Hywel preferred his own, but he didn’t want to displease Ms Probert, so went with her suggestion. Autumn, of course, was more traditionally poetic — the seasons and all that — and it did seem to tie in with the hedgehog, an image he only arrived at because of her prompting. ‘He sleeps like a…?’ Ms Probert asked, and when Hywel suggested hedgehog she had enjoyed that a lot. If you want my opinion, “The Apple Picker” seems a better title to me today, richer for its plainness. And anyway – why would a boy pick apples in the autumn?

The day of the Eisteddfod, Hywel sat there, just waiting for his moment. The choir sung, Helen Jones played the harp, some kids from Year 5 danced over a flame, and the top class put on a show. But it all passed him by like trailers before the main event: the chairing ceremony, the moment when they’d call out the pseudonym of the winning poet and ask them to stand, and then the trumpet would sound, and a procession of children and teachers in cloaks would lead the victorious poet from down in the audience and up on to the stage, where Mr Jones would shout, “The truth against the world: is there peace?” And everyone would shout, “Peace!” And then they would bang the swords. “Heart to heart: is there peace?” And everyone again would shout, “Peace!” And bang, the swords would bash again. And then finally, “An echo above all others: is there peace?” And the crowd would chant peace one more time, and then swords would pass across the poet’s head and then they’d bid the poet to sit in their giant throne, all smug while everyone else clapped. Man, he couldn’t wait to sit in that chair,

But when the announcement came, someone else’s name was called out. And he watched with spite as a kid two years older than him was led up on to the stage. Afterwards, in the hallway on the bus, he went ballistic.

He said to Ms Probert, That’s your fault. Your title made no sense. If it was called “The Apple Picker” I’d have won.

Hywel, she said, what are you talking about? You know it’s only Year 6 who are entered for the prize. It’s the rules.

Rules! he shouted. All these rules!

He couldn’t handle Ms Probert anymore. She was prissy and distant and her accent annoyed him. He didn’t like that she drank coffee. It seemed affected, like she was just trying to fit in with the other teachers. And he couldn’t bear the way she acted like he was just another kid. She had changed the terms of their relationship and was acting like she hadn’t. It gave him an uneasy feeling in his stomach. He stopped putting much effort into his homework; he stopped going the extra mile. Then one day Jessica Evans came up to him and told him Kayley Roberts fancied him and did he want to go out with her?

Yeah, alright, he said.

So he started going out with Kayley. They hung out on the yard and they got married beneath the tree on the top field. One afternoon, sat on the carpet, he held Kayley’s hand. He wanted Ms Probert to see him holding Kayley’s hand. It was spite and it was awful but it felt really really good — until she did indeed notice the hand-holding and told them to stop.

It’s lovely that you want to hold holds, she said, but it’s not appropriate in class. You can hold hands during break, okay? But not in the classroom.

His face filled with blood, and his body flooded with heat.

Okay everyone, she said, slapping her lap. I have some news.

Mr Jones is feeling much, much better, she said, and you’ll be glad to know he’ll be coming back after half term.

Really really? the kids asked.

Really really, she replied. So this will be my last week.

He felt like he was vanishing. He felt very small and squashed. Something was being snatched from him. He sat there on the carpet, one of thirty kids, and his heart was full of conflict. He loved Mr Jones, he was a great teacher, he was funny and kind. But now that Ms Probert was leaving, he realised all over again the depth of his feelings for her. He wanted Ms Probert to always be their teacher. He wanted her to be his mother and his wife.

The rest of the week, he couldn’t look her in the eye. He didn’t believe that this was what she really wanted: to leave them all here, to leave him. On Friday afternoon, after the kids gave her presents, and she gave them each a little stationary set wrapped in green tissue paper, one by one they hugged her and walked out the door. He went to the back of the queue so that he could have some time to work out some things.

Well Hywel, she said, I will miss you and your funny stories.

A part of him hated her for the tone she was taking. Don’t patronise me, he wanted to say.

Instead, he wrapped him arms around her neck and kissed her on the lips.

Hywel! she said, pushing him off. What do you think you’re doing?

I… I thought, I just—

Never do that again, she said. To anyone.

He had never heard her voice sound like this before.

I’m sorry, he said. I’m sorry.

Go, she said, her hand on her mouth. Hurry now, or you’ll be late for the bus.

Later that evening, as Hywel lay on his bed, he felt as if he had a huge rock resting on his chest. His mother was out with his aunt, and Eleanor was staying over at a friend’s. It was just his father downstairs, asleep on the couch, and even if he was awake, Hywel knew he couldn’t say anything to him. It was the half-term now and he wouldn’t be back in school for two weeks and when he did go back, Ms Probert wouldn’t be there. He realised now he might never get the chance to properly apologise. He was pondering all this when there started a massive banging on the front door. He rushed out to the landing, to the top of the stairs, to see what was going on.

More banging.

Dad? he called down to his father. Dad?

But his father didn’t answer.

He took a few tentative steps down the stairs. Through the glass in the door he could see the figure of a man squatting down. Then the letterbox opened and a mouth appeared.

Leave my wife alone, the mouth shouted. I swear, if you come anywhere near her again, I will fucking kill you.

Hywel froze on the stairs, his hand gripping the banister tight. The garden gate clanked, and a car door slammed shut, then he heard the sound of the engine speeding away up the street. As he moved down the stairs, his legs were weak and trembling.

In the livingroom, his father lay on the couch, his hands covering his face.

Dad, Hywel said, his voice quivering. I didn’t mean to. It just—

Not now, his father said. His hands still covered his face.

But it’s my fault, Hywel said.

It’s not, his father answered.

It is, Hywel said. Because I kissed my teacher. On the lips. That’s why the man was here.

His father let his hands drop, then he sighed heavily, shaking his head.

Oh Hywel, he said, come here my son.

And he bid Hywel to lie down beside him on the couch.

For a long time they both lay like that, their eyes closed, his father holding him tight. He could feel his father’s chest rising and falling, rising and falling. With the curtains drawn and the lights off, the time passed gravely.

Thomas Morris’s debut story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber & Faber) was chosen as a Book of the Year by The Guardian, The Observer, The Spectator, and The Irish Times, and won Wales Book of the Year, The Rhys Davies Trust Fiction Award, and a Somerset Maugham Prize. He devised and edited Dubliners 100 (Tramp Press) and is editor at large at The Stinging Fly