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The Lost Art of Stealing Fruit ⋆ Epeak . Independent news and blogs

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My Hungarian-Czech grandmother, an otherwise goodhearted and generous
woman, had a notoriously lax attitude toward property rules: bank pens,
ashtrays, and hospital slippers all were fair for the taking. One
minute, she’d be giving a bus driver brooches “for his vife”; the next,
she’d be stomping down a stranger’s front path to help herself to an
enormous bough of blossom while my sister and I, technically her
accomplices, hid behind parked cars, pretending not to know her.

I’ve tried to lead an honest life, in accordance with the 1968 Theft
Act; also, I’m a conscientious elder child and easily embarrassed. But
one’s fate is difficult to dodge; ask Oedipus. My own weakness, unlike Grandma’s, is limited to fruit. In the school fiction of yesteryear,
“scrumping” was what schoolboys, primarily, did in orchards. Nowadays,
with fried-chicken shops on every corner, the art of fruitnapping is
lost. Not, however, by me.

There’s no English word for the frenzied state into which I’m thrown
when I see a tree thick with crab apples, or greengages, or pears. Are
you seriously expecting me, a greedy person, to ignore the deliciously
bitter Morello cherries near the station, or the neglected grape vine by
that garage, or the vast banks of blackberries that litter Britain’s
parks and heaths, largely overlooked except by the occasional elderly
Pole or Czech, similarly purple-stained, with whom I exchange a brief,
competitive glance?

Although I enjoy the camaraderie, beware any fellow-foragers who happen
to stray near me on one particular, sacred day. This is my annual
secret visit to a forgotten damson tree, bearing concealed Tupperware,
dark clothes, and an expression of barely suppressed excitement.

“I’ll just be half an hour,” I say to my picnicking family. Poor fools,
they still believe me. They don’t realize that absolutely nothing
compares to the thrill of fruit-hunting: the covert slipping through the
foliage; the scanning for a telltale glisten of color; the way
that—deep in the hedgerow, scratched and juice-streaked, breath held as
one searches for another dusty bitter plum, then another—time stops.

When it comes to semi-legal harvesting, I am daring, virtually
buccaneering: qualities we novelists usually lack. Whether snatching fat
Spanish sweet chestnuts, glossy as horses’ flanks, from beneath the feet
of walkers on Hampstead Heath, or wild strawberries from the urns
outside the British Library, I stop at nothing and know no shame.
Because, as they say in the London Metropolitan Police, I have previous.

My first victim was an ancient black-mulberry tree in the grounds of St.
John’s College, Oxford. My father taught there, despite the fact that he
was not a floppy-haired blond aristocrat but instead a poor widow’s only
son, who had heaved himself from her dark London basement into a life of
Latin prayers and the boundary disputes of minor nation states. Usually,
despite the beard, he blended in with the port-drinkers and
philosophers, but, once a year, he persuaded the college porter to allow
his children, badly dressed even by Oxford standards, through the
hallowed gates.

Mulberries don’t travel. They are too juicily fragile-skinned for shops
to stock; to try them, one must pick one’s own. Their rich taste is
unforgettable: like the best blackberry crossed with the sweetest
raspberry—the platonic ideal of fruit. But picking them requires
courage, and compliant children dressed in their most terrible clothes.

The berries grew high on gnarled branches, which our father forced us to
climb and shake onto sheets spread below. Within five minutes, my sister
and I would be splotched with pink; after ten we’d have frightened Lady
Macbeth.

“Can we go home now?”

“No.”

“Now?”

“No.”

He was a man possessed, and this is the reason: mulberry gin. All you do
is stuff the fruits into a gin bottle with sugar, and wait: ambrosia will
follow. But at what cost? The cycle ride home, our tiny sweatshirts
crimson-splashed, dripping juice from wobbling plastic bags, scarred us.
My father got his gin; we kids got nothing but scratches and twiggy
hair.

Which is perhaps why, the moment I heard that my daughter’s school
contained a small mulberry tree, I did unto her precisely what was done
unto me.



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