1ST ISSUE LITERATURE

BLACKBERRY PICKING

 Leah Francis 

I walk along the lane. It is overgrown and I have to stoop under brambles that have stretched from one side to the other, bridging the gap to cling to the trees on the other side, even working their way into the cracks in the wall behind, which is starting to crumble in places, the uneven bricks cool and damp beneath the foliage. It’s a long time since I’ve been here but the smell is the same. Earthen, a sharp tang of the fallen leaves underfoot and a hint of salt air being blown in from the sea. I carry on along the path. When the sun comes out the warmth is heavy, hemmed in by the shrubbery rising above me on both sides. I take a few more steps and see the last of the year’s blackberries, a crowd of them in the hedgerow to my left. I stop, crouch down and reach out a hand, choosing from a few that catch the sun, that look the ripest. I pluck one easily off the stem and taste it.

My mother took me blackberry picking every year when the summer holidays were nearing an end and my school clothes had finally been washed and ironed after a month of sitting at the bottom of the basket, cast off after the glorious final day of term, shed like the skin of a snake, my summer skin waiting beneath to be tanned by long evenings picnicking on the clifftop fields, or the beach along the lane from our house.

The lane was filled with them, and we glanced at them on our walks to and from the sea, but never let our eyes linger too long on their too-pink unripe bodies, when they were too small yet to be picked. ‘The more we look at them the longer they’ll take to ripen,’ my mother always said. She knew when they would be ready without watching them, even if sometimes it seemed to happen overnight. Suddenly they would be perfect, rich purple-black and plump, dropping easily from their stems into our bowl as soon as our fingers brushed over them. We would eat them as we picked, the juices staining our lips and tongues, our teeth bruised black and the juice would get under my fingernails, be smeared across my summer clothes; long dresses one year, shorts the next, the cold year where they ripened early I ruined a pair of new jeans I’d borrowed from my sister and never heard the end of it.

We would fill as many bowls as we could, piling them high with the dark fruits and taking it in turns to carry them back to the house. Blackberry days, as I called them, never rained, and the sun dried the stains around my mouth until I could peel them away like dead skin.

At some point my mother would tie up her long hair, an almost invisible line of moisture above her eyebrows and I would watch her, with many questions forever sealed up in my blackberry mouth. She would turn then and grab me with strong arms and ask me what I was looking at, or force another blackberry into my mouth, her laugh rising up between the hedges, straight up into the late summer sky.

It was always just the two of us who picked them, my sister refused, terrified by some story she’d heard, but the evening was always the same. My grandmother on my father’s side would appear and install herself in the large kitchen, making blackberry jam, the sweet smell bubbling up through the house, while my mother, after throwing open the back doors, set to making blackberry wine. She would bring out a bottle from the year before, open it up and pour four glasses. We would stand for the first sip, together around the kitchen counter, an evening wind, still warm, but with the first coolness of autumn on the air, blowing in through the open doors. Then we would split off, my grandmother to her pot on the stove, my mother to the bucket where she was mashing blackberries to a pulp. My sister and I would help intermittently, eating dropped blackberries and refilling our grandmother’s wine until she was singing over the stove, her face a shade of purple pink we only saw on blackberry night.

The strange thing now is that those memories from all those blackberry nights merge into one. I am both five and nineteen and every age in-between in a moment that stretches across the years. Even the last time has no particular significance, because we didn’t know then that it would be the last time.

The taste is just as I remember it, rich and sun warmed, the flesh soft against my teeth. I straighten up. Surprised again that this is the first time I have been back here, to this spot, since my mother disappeared.

I was away when it happened. Nearly 200 miles away my phone on silent as I listened to a lecturer reading Waldon. I left the dim theatre and found I had three missed calls from my sister, another from my grandmother. Even one from a father who I hadn’t really spoken to in years. I returned the calls to the news that she had gone, was missing, hadn’t been seen for three days. I never understood why they didn’t tell me sooner.

I got the train home that day, and ignoring the darkness settling, came straight to the lane. I searched all along from our end to the beach, pulling the hedges, the undergrowth aside with my bare hands until they were bloody with scratches and my feet were sore from standing. I went back to the glowing house, light flooding from the ever open back doors, and shouted at my sister for not helping me. She was pale, wearing my mother’s favourite jumper, the arms wrapped around herself and said what I knew she would. ‘I was always afraid this would happen.’

The house was closed when I walked past. My sister doesn’t live there anymore. We speak occasionally but not often. We both do and don’t want to believe one another; both do and don’t want to find out the truth.

I look down the lane. I wonder then, have I ever seen anyone else here other than my mother? There is a much easier road to the beach which they put in before we moved into the house, when the old occupants got sick of people walking through their garden to get to the lane. It goes quiet, the familiar deadened feeling, that there is noise all around, the wind, the crash of waves, cars driving on the road nearby, but in this lane there is nothing, no sound penetrates this place. The air is still and heavy with the last of the summer sun.

I step closer to the hedgerow, working my feet through the overgrown plants near the ground and reach out for the last blackberry. It feels warm in my palm, plump and heavier than it should be. I watch as the juice runs out, following the thin lines of my hand to drip down onto my shoes, more juice than can possibly be contained in one blackberry, until it is flowing over my arm, reaching the crook at my elbow and blooming over my white shirt. I watch with interest as my body turns blue black, the juice defying all laws of nature to cover me completely. The last spot it reaches is my mouth and I taste blackberry wine, try to lick it from my lips with a sense of desperate urgency, before I feel myself disappear.

The last blackberry of the season, perfectly ripe, drops to the floor in the deserted lane.