They think warm days will never cease
Thursday, 13 September 2012
Blackberry picking in Cumbria in the 1970s was an endurance sport. The cliffs from which we harvested once held a Roman amphitheatre; occasionally, your welly would encounter the russet stone remains of something ancient and you could follow the curved line of centurion's seating through the huge ancient thorns. If you slipped, there would be a split second to decide between saving yourself from slithering down spiky perilous falls or saving your precious berries. If they fell, black beauty winking heartbreakingly in the gorse and coarse grass, the Northern Socialist would be unsympathetic. "Aye. Bad luck. Start again."
The sun would always be out, lighting up the usually murky Solway Firth, and the bucket would fill with a satisfying blue-black heft. I loved it, though of course we kids moaned like mad. I loved the tiny thorns that would catch in my ink-stained fingers; the thrill of silently finding a great cache of huge fat blackberries hidden from view and quickly, greedily eating the biggest one of all in an act of breathtaking defiance. I loved the depths of sweetness that would explode with mellow lusciousness; the shock of the occasional badly-judged blackberry which puckered the mouth and sent me quickly into the damp depths of the bucket for another to take away the taste.
We would come home that week to a saccharine fug in the kitchen; the huge old windows running with condensation; the battered jam pan rattling fiercely, hissing clouds of sugary steam; glossy amethyst smears on cold saucers. Blackberry jam is my Proust's madeleine - one lick of the knife and I am eight years old again, devouring slightly burnt toast with a slab of cold butter and a seed-flecked puddle of complete heaven.
When we moved our little family out of London eleven years ago this week, I went first, staying with my parents in their mad old house. Edward stayed on to downsize our conference company from over twenty down to four, and supervise the house and office moves. I put Rose into nursery school and went with my parents and Freddie up the downs to pick blackberries and fight the feelings stirred up by my little girl's first big steps.
I sobbed silently a little bit, stealing comforting sun-warmed handfuls of perfectly ripe blackberries; the absolute silence we have up the downs throbbing a little in my ears. My Ma and I picked and talked about the stoicism we need in the face of motherhood. The NS had stayed in the car to listen to the lunchtime news and when we climbed back in, eyes red and mouths and fingers stained magenta, he told us how the world had changed in a very new and final way.
Even watching the news, as we all did, all over the world, over and over, that strange and awful day, it didn't make sense. One of our competitors lost 16 employees and 65 delegates, doing exactly what we did every day. And yet, I had to get Rose from nursery school and shrink my world to match her life and somehow, we all stumbled through, as did everyone else - the heroic, the brave and the terrified alike and here we are, eleven years later. I sometimes think of the girls I knew who had never become mothers, whose lives had ended in sudden nothingness on that sunny New York day eleven years ago.
I have just been up the downs with an old colleague, who has become a dearly loved friend. Our girls are teenagers now and are taking even bigger steps. We need the same maternal stoicism as we did for the first ones. I craved the comfort of toast and blackberry jam; we unpacked buckets and dogs from the car.
But the brambles have all been cleared so ramblers can see the sea. I don't understand the role of pectin, and anyway, the bots hate blackberries. We walked for miles instead, under a bright azure sky, watching the buzzards hover and the sun dazzling on the sea. We followed the curve of the downs, emerald patchwork fields falling away below us, fat highland cattle watching lazily through silly long fringes. We talked about being mothers. We cried a little bit but we laughed a lot more. It was just as good as jam and toast.