Author: G. Jefferies
It was one of those crisp September mornings. The sort where early morning dew hangs from spider webs. Dangling on each strand of silk creating creating eerie artwork that only nature can produce with unabashed genius.
Back in the day of single paned windows condensation dabbed the glass next to the side jambs in an inverted arc that carried toward the sill. Asking mould to grow if no-one exercised the leathers to dry them off. Outside, the sun was rising and the view from my west facing bedroom overlooked a dairy farm rich in hedgerows of hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. These being interspersed with deciduous trees – sycamore, horse-chestnut, oak, elder, ash, hazels and willow down by the stream in the distance. The conkers were ripe and many had already found their way to the ground below, but these were not todays quarry.
Nature was producing her harvest and it was begging to be plundered. In particular there was a place lost in time that lay obscured four fields away and beyond the monster perch pool overhung in antiquity and ancient vegetation. There was some temptation to take up rod and line and see if a three pounder could be eked from it’s lair. Thus far the largest had been two and a half, falling to a rod propped against barbed wire that prevented adventurous Friesians from untimely aquatic demise.
Today was not about perch, or the ability of Steve to catch with enchanted good fortune whenever his gear rested unattended whilst John and I deployed watercraft failing to bewitch our underwater adversaries. Nature was outside basking in autumnal sun and beckoning the onset of the first batches of seasonal vintage home-brews, clarets, whites and a variety of reds ranging from rosé to deep ruby hues imbibed with bananas and other mystical ingredients hidden in the pages of an old school exercise book liberated from the school store room for just this purpose.
Fountain pen ink daubed the pages with recipes tweaked over the years under the guidance of the aged lady next door whose hedgerow wine lore was sacrosanct. We were convinced she was secretly a witch for she also had a cat that was black and, no doubt, a broomstick hiding inside the garage with no windows. For those paying attention it is prudent to point out that amidst the English countryside bananas and grape juice concentrate were not familiar plunder au naturel. These required a pilgrimage into town. Witch lore to complete the finer points nestled within the pages of the wallpaper covered tome.
At ten o’clock an orange trim phone at the bottom of the stairs and anchored to a socket by several metres of cable, declared incoming.
“Hello, Steve?” It was the designated time for confirmation.
“Yes Jeffs. Still on for scrumping?”
“Too right. The old cottage is dripping with fruit. I took a look yesterday.”
“Would that be whilst dabbling a line for the giant perch?”
“Git! See you in half an hour.”
I recall packing a small rucksack with bags of all shapes and sizes during the wait. Then standing by the gate in the back garden that led into the field beyond. Being a dairy farm the grass pasture stretched outwards to greet the enclosing hedgerows. There was a gate and bridged area at the bottom to my right leading directly up to the farm. The chap there was amiable enough, but I rather think that was because we knew his children from school. No doubt without that connection it would be salt pellets in the 12 bore with shouts of “get orf my land” with a liberal sprinkling of expletives.
Between me and the farm the land drifted into a small dip, the bottom of which was marked by a stream. Standing gracefully by this in the far right corner was an aged horse-chestnut whose leaves were on the verge of turning. On it lived bulbous conkers resting inside prickly green duvets and beneath the canopies shadow no doubt there would be a sprinkling of dislodged residents. Some whole and some losing the green lustre and split exposing the brown nuts inside.
Health and safety had not yet banned them from the school grounds so some would soon find themselves hanging off knotted strings, chemically modified with secret processes to ensure victory in the seasonal playground championships. An ever open gate next to this led into the field beyond. Further up the hedgerow a decrepit style crossed a ditch on a public right of way. An informal bridge that enabled the enthusiast to walk a more official path toward the old coach road that was close to our intended destination. This relic of a thoroughfare from a bygone era holds as many memories as the perch pit itself. Straight it ran between two hedge boundaries and filled with the growth of centuries and, like perca fluviatilis and the Ghost Carp, part of another tale steeped in hauntings and monsters.
Mums voice from down the garden brought reality back.
The long haired school football team right back appeared by the large green oil tank from the side passage between our house and next door. A similar rucksack to mine strapped to his back and equally converted from mobile angling backpack to portable whatever was required. In this case Natures harvest.
“How do Jeffs, I brought a few bags just in case you didn’t have enough.”
“All right mate, somehow I think we might have a few too many…unless yours is filled with covert perch tackle.”
The returned shocked look drew some mirth and ten minutes later we were enroot toward the gate by the horse-chestnut tree. Mindful of the nefarious deposits left behind by the herd of Friesians that had ambled up toward the farm ready for milking. Once upon a time a tractor had appeared to round them up and push them over the stream bridge. Now a loud voice bellowed from the farm and the herd walked. Pavlov’s Cows sprang to mind. Either that or salt pellets and expletives.
At one time our walk was made by myself everyday and formed the exercise route of two generations of dogs. Each tree and bush an old colleague. Initials of friends carved in the barks of trees like an elegy of those that grew up here and moved on.
A stream bed that had once run dry in a drought leaving isolated pools teaming with gasping minnows and sticklebacks was now in full flow. Not that that was particularly vast, but it breathed life into the bankside ecosystem. In places the verges were trod down by thirsty bovines, in others dilapidated wood fences defined the field boundaries preventing access to steeper areas that unwary dairy cattle might stumble or fall. Elsewhere tress stretched like wooden fingers following the meanders whose branches overhung the water. Protective arms spread out and reaching over forming tunnels, beneath which the flow went unseen. Babbling ever onwards in darkness, secrecy and mystery.
Half an hour later and we were skirting the edge of the perch pit. It was sacrilege not to pause and pay silent homage to the piscatorial challenges that lay hidden under a mirror surface reflecting the trees curled around the banks. Here and there small rudd broke the surface. It was a travesty not to be creeping through the trees to dap a line on the edge of an old collapsed willow, or popping a float against the reeds, or send a more weighty rig to ledger into the one of the deep holes. Reluctantly our eyes were forced from the pool and to an archaic fence emerging from a thick hedge and nailed to the trunk of an oak marking the boundary to the adjoining field.
One word from Steve stayed movement. The hedge was blackthorn, unkempt and waiting to be unburdened. Whether it was the opportune bounty or the hold of the pool that plotted to tease us with today was the day, not just the three pounder was moving but also a four. Come look boys, you missed us. Time slowed and four bags of sloes were soon resting under a willow before we managed to break the spell. Each year there was the brief tasting and repeating banter trying to unlock why sloes ever became popular. Raw they made your tongue shrivel and tasted bitter, dry and sour.
Who was the first to convert this fruit into preserve or ferment them? Why would you when far sweeter bounties were everywhere? Next doors witch said they were good and as acolytes we accepted this. Although the results of sloe wine were now known and as a home brew ranked particularly highly. The sorceress also claimed laying it down for several years improved the taste. Alas this was not yet confirmed and it would be many years later before an old forgotten bottle was uncorked and the benefits of quick quaffing were usurped with more learned lore.
The oak’s fence was scaled leaving one more field to cross to where things turned still. To a place time lay heavy upon an old farm cottage whose garden and orchard were the source of today’s plunder. A quiet respect settled as we neared the perimeter. Rather like the old Hall in another tale our minds filled with empathic connection to the past.
It was not that this cottage was abandoned through the end of some grandfather farmer whose final custodial days were also the last days before the dwelling was retired. It was more like an old toy cast aside with the arrival of a new manse some half a mile away. Everything that was, left to ancestral ghosts and gardeners that once maintained a fabulous range of fruit trees; apple, pear, cherry and plums. Now the spaces between were interspersed with secondary scrub; nettles, brambles with the odd damson deposited by birds that gladly took opportunity of the derelict feast.
Over the years these seeds had fledged and added to the bounty, joined by more blackthorn, wild roses and more than a few small oak trees spawned from the lost winter hoards of acorns laid down by squirrels long ago. It was a place that brought the transience of man’s dominion deep into the conscious. For those able to feel this it will draw a wry smile. Such places ooze nostalgia, decay and ghosts. They provide an imaginary link to lives that once played out. Life, growth and death. Such relics have memories.
This year the weeds were up to the outer walls and high as the windows. Only two now retained full panes of glass and the pale blue door was hanging drunkenly off one hinge. A paved path ran toward what used to be the expired lane at the foot of the garden. It was still mostly defined, but the joints between stones were ever weakening and had begun yielding. Dandelions and plantains were forcing themselves up through ever widening cracks. Purple headed thistles and nettles leaned over it and soon it would be gone. Interred by nature and erased from the world.
Inside it was damp and the atmosphere closed in, dark and unloved. The door opened into what once was a kitchen. Old linoleum was curling in places and covered in leaves and the humus of time. It’s colour was spent now, although the cupboard doors under the white porcelain apron sink still clung to their duck egg blue hues. Some still held pots and pans. Here and there the odd fork or knife or nameless tin.
I remember bottles being everywhere suggesting at some time someone came back in homage. Perhaps to drink to the past offering a toast of remembrance to days gone by. There had been no new ones for many, many years though and none since we had begun to raid the orchard. It was likely that, apart from us, visitors had not been here for decades and entirely possible the bones of the cottage wanted to be left alone.
Peeling floral wallpaper dripped from the back wall. It was a bewitching experience and one could feel a hushed silence race past until images of the stove came to mind in halcyon days where children played on the broken swing that now found sparrow and thrush sitting upon a rusting frame. When the revenant orchard yielded fruits for puddings and not bounty for the invaders.
Of a time when laughter blew through the windows whose glass now lay felled on the floor. It suddenly felt wrong to be in this place. Abandoned to nature and yet still filled with the past, replaying days gone by over and over again. Steve opened up the screwdriver tool on his red Swiss army knife and pointlessly drove the screws back into the back door hinge. The frame was rotted and would let go again if wind blew in this direction. It didn’t matter though. It felt right to leave the door closed.
We both stood looking down the garden. Orchard to the right and what must have been lawn and playground for children once upon a time to the left.
“It’s not ours to take is it?”
Steve was silent for several minutes, but he felt it too.
“No, not anymore.”
Not that it mattered greatly. The perch pit held the sloe store and many of the trees to the rear of it offered damsons. On the way back were blackberries, wild plums, bullace, rose hips and elderberry. The spoils of Nature once again ready to ferment under the commands of the secret recipes in the spell book and the watchful eye of the witch next door whose annual tithe of six bottles sufficed as payment in kind.
We never again went back to the cottage although respectful glances were offered at each visit to the farm pool lying a field away and home to memories of giant man eating perch. There was also the haunted coach road lying a field away in the opposite direction. Our time in this area was not yet ended. The tree barks were not ready to receive carved initials and a date saying we too had moved on.
© G Jefferies and Fictionisfood, 2016. All rights reserved.