Thursday, April 15, 2021

Blackberry and Apple by Andrew Ball

There is some disagreement among the three of us over exactly where it happened -- which kitchen it was that needed redecorating afterwards -- but the event itself is beyond dispute, despite the seventy-some years that seem to have intervened. The plan was to surprise our parents, and in that we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. It was summertime, August probably, and we were alone in the house; but which house? Was it the gatehouse to the mansion where some remote and forbidding old woman lived in solitary splendor -- my first cousin twice removed, so Ancestry.com tells me, making us much closer in cyberspace than we ever were in reality -- or upstairs in my grandparents’ house, where I did the rest of my growing up? Whichever it was, one thing is certain: our parents made terrible choices about where to raise their three children.
I know it was summer because we’d been picking blackberries. This was England in the late 1940s, and the remnants of wartime rationing were still in effect. Candy rationing was the last to go; the last that a four-year-old boy cared about, anyway. I have long suspected that this was a deliberate government policy, designed to drag out the privations of that awful war to teach the new generation just how grueling life could be. And it worked: for seventy years, I have fought the lure of asceticism.
But summertime brought blackberries -- in a good year, anyway -- and every country road was lined with hedgerows bursting with bushes. This was before the hedgerows were sacrificed on the altar of capitalism, along with free blackberries, many song birds, and part of the soul of the English countryside. My brother, sister and I must have braved the brambles, the hidden roadside ditches and the stinging nettles -- Britain’s answer to poison ivy -- to collect our treasure trove. I imagine us picking into baskets, since the ubiquitous and indestructible plastic bag lay in the future. How quaint!
We would have carried our bounty back to one or other house, our mouths purple with blackberry juice. How easy it is to create memories! And once there... what?
“We’ll cook them! Let’s have blackberries and ice cream.”
“We don’t have any ice cream.”
Of course not; we didn’t even have a fridge, let alone a freezer.
“How ‘bout blackberry and apple?”
“Do we have any apples?”
Of course we did. One of the mysteries of my youth is where -- and why -- each year, my father found a bushel or more of Cox’s Orange Pippins. (Doubtless God could have created a better apple, but doubtless He never did.) Each apple was wrapped in tissue paper and reverently laid to rest in what we called -- inaccurately, I now discover -- the Wickeltisch. (Maybe winning the war gave us the right to subvert their language?) From its place of storage in the cold-water tank cupboard, the misnamed Wickeltisch nourished us with fresh apples throughout the winter, helping our daily spoonful of National Health Service orange juice keep the dreaded scurvy at bay. We limeys may have crooked teeth, but at least they don’t fall out.
In those long-ago days, before globalization of the food chain, fresh fruit was seasonal, so maybe we raided the remnants of this precious store if the new crop of apples hadn’t yet arrived. In case there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t already know this, blackberries and apples were made for each other. It’s the most convincing argument for the existence of God that I know of. Sex comes a close second, but that’s another story. They must be cooked together, of course, and in the right proportions. We knew this, my siblings and I, and moreover we had at our disposal the very latest culinary marvel: a pressure-cooker! A spin-off from the war -- the Department of Bomb Development, I suspect -- the pressure-cooker had taken the kitchens of Britain by storm. Before microwaves, before food-processors, before bread machines, there was the pressure-cooker. No late-1940s kitchen was complete without one.
‘Husbands, do you want the little woman to be the only one on your street without a pressure-cooker?’ Of course not!
It seemed easy enough: you just filled the saucepan to the very top with sliced apples and our precious blackberries, clamped down the air-tight lid with its innocent-looking little valve, and put it on the stove to heat. But ah, the impatience of youth!
“Did you put any water in?” my ten-year-old sister might have asked.
“I think so,” my brother, her senior by three years, would have replied.
“Well, is it boiling yet?
“How should I know?”
“Maybe it’ll change its tune, like a kettle.”
“I don’t think it’s working.”
None of us will admit to suggesting that we should check for progress by opening the pressure valve, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
The purple fountain was magnificent. I can see it to this day: a blinding eruption that seemed to fill the kitchen, instantly painting the walls and ceiling a fetching and indelible shade of purple. Wikipedia lists over twenty shades of the color, but none of them come close to the blackberry-and-apple of my youth.
I would like to remember that we danced around the spouting geyser like Macbeth’s three witches, chanting:
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Walls and ceiling shall be purple!
But I suspect the reality is we were so horrified by what we had done that running away from home seemed like the only option. We didn’t, of course.


© Andrew Ball

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