WORDS OF THE WEEK – RASPBERRY PICKING – A SHORT STORY

 

black bird berry

RASPBERRY PICKING by Emma van Woerkom

 Between the ages of 10 and 14; too young to get a  summer holiday job in the kitchens of the local pubs, but old enough for that need of being away from home and the watchful eyes of parents, my friends and I would spend the first part of our days raspberry picking.

Around 7 o’clock on clear sunny mornings the five of us would cycle the two and a half miles out of the village and head for Lockwood Court. A small country estate very well passed its prime with the familiar flaking manor house and crumbling stone boundary walls randomly interspaced with illustrious beech, oak and spruce trees. Grassy pathways laced the lawned gardens and fields, creating highways for the pickers to tread between the grid-like rows of fruit beds and bushes .  Straw-cribbed strawberries, pendulous black and red currants, spikey green gooseberries (when in season), a couple of rows of almost exotic logan berries and a field filled with the contorted, semi-ordered chaos of raspberry canes.

Firstly, we would have ‘the talk’ from Mr Ashcombe, a retired Lieutenant Commander whose military stature was completely lost on us. Age had caused him to stoop a little and swept-back, white hair sprouted from underneath his beige canvas hat and horizontally out of his ears. He told us how to harvest, what to select, what to leave, and most importantly, how much we would receive per punnet picked!  Choosing our adjoining rows and armed with giant green trays holding fifteen plastic punnets each, we purposefully advanced into position and began.

Idle chatter and fruit lobbing soon died away and we focused on the task ahead, while above us the sound of birds singing rose on the warming air beyond the tree tops.

Plump raspberries; pink-red, fat, delicate and juicily-soft, covered in a down of whispy short hairs and lurking evasively beneath barbed canes and dark veined leaves.  Liturgies of minute scratches marked our small, negotiating hands and the reddy liquid of squashed over-rip berries dyed our fingertips. Sometimes, a snagging sound, followed by a yelpish “Ouch!” broke the morning murmuring as puckered skin pulled free from sharp snatching hooks.

If we were lucky, one of us would find a black bird tucked down tight on its nest among the stalks. Beaded black eyes encased in the unmistakeable orange corona watched the trespasser in silent suspicion, while along the skirts of the canes it’s mate hopped, picking up our mushy cast-aways. The lucky interloper would pretend not to notice the nest and with head-in-the-air, nonchalantly move on up the row, winking.

Of course, we ate like kings! Only the very best, biggest and sweetly tart berries would pass our discerning lips and we would scoff in a continuous motion of one for us and three for the punnet.  Marks and Spencer’s customers would never know and Mr Lockwood knew that without us lowly paid pickers the fruit would rot under the sun.  Anyway, we only took as many as the fat pigeons who coo’d watchfully from the shaded pine branches.

By half-past eleven, the sun would begin to burn the backs of our necks, shoulders and creep down the exposed calves for those foolish enough to pick thorny produce in shorts. Sick of eating fruit we appeared before Mr Lockwood as angelic models of dedicated pickers with full trays eager for our wages, trying very hard to not draw attention to our full stomachs and bright pink mouths.  £5.00 was smartly handed over and with cash in-hand, we would immediately head to the village shop to convert our money into the childhood currency of sweets, while the scratches on our hands slowly smarted into that itching irritating pain only raspberry pickers know.

Sadly, like most childhood memories, change has wrought a new perspective for my nostalgic daydreams.  The fruit fields have all gone, some years ago now.  Ripped up, ploughed under, expertly landscaped and formalised into the picturesque setting of a wedding venue, which old Mr Lockwood’s grandson manages with great success.

Victorian pathways meander effortlessly among the tall trees and magnificent flower borders heave under the weight of a thousand wanton blooms, buzzing and humming with the symphony of well fed bees.  The house has been patched, painted and polished, no longer exhibiting the decay of former years, but bright, pleasing and triumphant in sunny central position.

However, I harp back to those childhood memories of friends, bird song, warm summer mornings, fifteen clear plastic punnets, the long rows of raspberry canes dripping reddy-pink and a hidden nest full of broken eggs.

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