His mother had mentioned blackberries some days before. It was at teatime. The boy’s father had been speaking with some eloquence on the subject of his wife’s baking skills. In fact, anyone arriving at that moment might easily have been forgiven for thinking he was composing a eulogy for someone recently departed, and not merely singing the praises of his wife’s rhubarb tart.
“That was a marvellous tart,” the father said.
“Not bad,” replied his wife, who was known to be something of a tyrant when it came to shortcrust pastry, “A bit short on lard today I was.”
The boy’s father shook his head in vigorous disagreement. It was his custom to always deny any culinary shortcomings his wife confessed to.
The boy looked down with regret at his scraped-clean dish and wished he’d eaten slower. He closed one eye and began to secretly conjure a rhubarb tart island partially submerged under an ocean of evaporated milk, wishing his bowl to magically refill.
His mother went on with her blistering analysis and self-appraisal, “Perhaps a bit more sugar on the rhubarb ... thought it was a bit on the sharp side.”
“Well, I thought it was very nice. What about you?” said the father, prompting the boy to voice an opinion.
“Lovely,” said the boy.
“Mmm ... maybe it’s me then,” his Mam said, “Mind, I’ve never been a big one for rhubarb,” she continued, “Blackberries are my favourite.”
The seed was sown. A day or two later the boy noticed how the berries were ripening in the hedgerows. On his way home from school he was walking alongside another boy, a sometime ally by the name of John. They lived in the same direction. John was a year above the boy in school but they went to the same chapel and were in the same Sunday school class.
“I’m comin’ back out when I gets in,” said the boy, “I’m going to pick some blackberries for my Mam.”
John considered the premise a moment. “Me an' all,” he said, “I’ll come round for you.”
“Alright,” said the boy.
Mam was delighted when the boy told her his intention. She supplied him with an enamel bowl. “I’d better get on and make a bit of pastry then,” she said. The boy changed into his play clothes, but now they were the clothes of a great hunter, and before leaving the house on his intrepid search for blackberries he took a glass of milk and a digestive biscuit to sustain him on his safari.
John came as arranged, although he wasn’t alone, he’d brought a friend with him who the boy only knew by sight. There were no introductions. John had one of his mother’s bowls tucked under an arm, the other boy had no visible container.
“What you going to collect yours in?” the boy inquired of the friend.
“I’m just comin’along to help,” he replied.
“Alright. Where to then?” asked John, “The rec ... back of the cricket pitch ... round by the old works?”
The boy knew where the very best blackberries always were. There was a large patch of wasteground behind the bus shelter, it was overgrown with bramble bushes half as high as a house, or at least that was how they seemed to him. The boy spoke with such conviction on the subject of location that his companions went along with it.
The boy had chosen well, the brambles behind the bus shelter were richly adorned with the purplish-black jewels, big, plump, luscious blackberries, ripe and lovely, just begging to be plucked. The boy took his sizeable enamel dish to be a challenge and began to pick with much diligence. He was determined to fill it until it overflowed. His family would feast on the finest blackberry tart ever tasted in the whole of Wales! A tart that would be talked of for years to come!
The boy was only vaguely aware of the other two, who were messing around a lot and not getting much picking done. The boy intrepidly leaned and stretched into the bramble bushes, acquiring multiple scratches along his arms and hands but not caring much, for his eye was clearly set on its goal.
The boy’s dish was well above the halfway point when John’s friend suddenly voiced an idea, “Tell you what, let’s pool ‘em!”
The boy was horrified at the thought, “But I’ve got loads more than you!” he responded.
“True,” agreed John’s friend, who almost certainly went on to become a politician in later life, “But what I’m suggesting is pooling together so as to help each other. You give what you’ve picked to John, then afterwards we’ll help fill up your dish.”
“I think things is alright the way they is,” said the boy.
“Don’t you trust us?” John’s friend asked, sounding rather offended by the younger boy’s lack of trust.
“It’s just that I’ve got some really big juicy ones.”
John’s friend shook his head as if exasperated by the dimness of some people. “That’s the whole point! We’ll help you get tons more ... the biggest, fattest most juiciest ones. We’re taller than you, so we can reach and get the very best,” he said, then demonstrated by stretching out to reach a massive fat berry well beyond the boy’s reach. He popped the picked fruit into his mouth then displayed his tongue dyed dark purple from its flesh and juice. “Go on. You help John, then we can help you.”
“Yes,” agreed John, holding his bowl out towards the boy in expectation.
“It makes more sense. We’ll pick a lot more if we all work together ... like during the war,” added John’s friend after a philosophical pause.
“Promise if I give you mine, you’ll help me back?”
“I give you my word,” said the future politician.
“Alright,” said the boy, tipping his hard-earned blackberries into John’s bowl, which made it instantly very nearly full.
“Great stuff,” said John’s friend,”We’ll help you now.”
But it turned out as the boy had first feared. John and his friend continued to mess about and almost all the berries that made their way into his now sparsely-populated dish were generally picked by himself. After a time he became acutely aware of some whispering and sniggering coming from the other two.
When the village clock was heard striking five o’clock, John said, “Five. My Mam told me I was to be home by five.”
“Mine too,” said his friend.
“But you said you was going to stay and help me!”
“I could come back later on,” said John’s friend, adopting a conciliatory note, “After tea ... no wait a minute, sorry, no can do ... ‘cos I’m goin’ to the Roxy tonight to see John Wayne with my sister and her boyfriend.”
“I never promised!” said John forcefully.
“You’re right, I did say I’d help you,” said the friend, “But I didn’t say I’d stay right this minute an’ do it. I already said why I can’t come back after tea tonight, but we could arrange for another day?”
“But you said!” screamed the boy, unable to prevent the tears springing from the corners of his eyes.
“Don’t shout at me!” said John’s friend aggressively. He pushed the boy in the chest, it sent him flying along with his dish of blackberries. The attacker struck a pose that spoke of moral indignation, “I was going to stay and help even though I’m wanted back home ... but seein’ as you’ve taken that tone of voice with me, now I’m definitely not!”
The two bigger boys turned and began to walk away, laughing as they went.
“Stupid bloody cry baby!” John called back at the weeping boy who was sat on the ground surrounded by his spilled blackberries. As they disappeared from view, the boy, though still sobbing, began to wipe his face. These tears, as they mingled with the sticky sweet blackberry juice on his fingers, had a taste and smell he could recall years later.
After a time the boy stopped crying and got what blackberries he could salvage from the grass. Then he set off picking once again, but the best fruit had either been taken before and were now in John’s bowl or out of his reach. He guessed it must be getting late and that he’d soon be expected at home for his tea. He managed to fill about a quarter of the dish then shuffled off home, head down and dejected.
His mother looked surprised and somewhat disappointed by the number of berries the boy had managed to collect in the amount of time he’d been away; but then she’d come to accept that there was never any telling with boys. He never told her what had happened, about how he’d trusted and been tricked; he felt a fool about it.
His mother augmented the blackberries with some cooking apples she had in the pantry cupboard. There was apple and blackberry tart for two days. His father was of course very complimentary about these. And they were fine tasting tarts indeed; yet somehow, apple and blackberry wasn’t quite as good as blackberry by itself.
The boy continued to pick blackberries for his mother every year, but he never forgot how he’d been diddled out of his share that time.