Sweet things I ate

Image credit: Pixabay

As a child, I was bored and wanted sweet things all the time. I grew up in a small cottage in Devon, about half a mile from the closest farm, three miles away from a tiny hamlet and six miles from the nearest village. The hamlet had a pub, a church and a church hall, the village a few more pubs, two churches, shops, and a primary school. The Spar in the village was paradise, but I couldn’t get there without the help of my mum, and we had different ideas of what sweet things meant. She would buy bitter marmalade, black cones of liquorice, and rhubarb which she stewed on the Rayburn until it was thick and soft. Secretly I’d mix up butter and sugar in a bowl and eat it with a spoon. The dinner ladies at school gave me a jug of the condensed fruit syrup drained from tins of peaches as a reward for helping with the clean-up after lunch. We didn’t go to church often, but when we did the vicar would be standing by the door with a bowl of striped mints. I held mine on my tongue on the walk back home, not speaking until it had melted to nothing.

Summer came and I pulled down honeysuckle to sip on the walk back from the school bus, chandeliers of elderflower which our neighbour made into bottles of cordial and fizzy wine. After the summer holidays the hedges would ripen with blackberries, sloes and damsons, fastened like earrings under their leaves. I collected the blackberries in my yellow polo-shirt, pulled into a makeshift bowl, staining it black with inkblots of juice. The sloes were too bitter to eat, but at home I pricked them all over with needles and put them into bottles which mum would fill with sugar and gin and leave like mines in the cupboard.

There was a cherry tree in front of our cottage, and a few plum trees behind. The plum trees were dark and calloused, the cherry tree silver and smooth. At first there were as many fruits as there were pennies in a pig; later you had to root around for them, as if for something you’d dropped down the side of a sofa. The plums were ovals, the purple skin clouded and smooth as the back of a dolphin, the cherries small and sweet as lip gloss. Perched amongst the punch-drunk wasps I spat the stones into the grass, eating more and more until I tasted something like marmalade at the back of my throat. I’d carry handfuls down, leaving them in a bowl in the kitchen. For breakfast, I’d eat them on bread with sugar and butter and warm them in the oven.

I don’t climb trees anymore; I can get sweet things whenever I like. The furthest I go to forage these days is the Sainsbury’s reduced section at the end of the dairy aisle. Standing in front of a packet of courgetti, a mangled sweet & sour chicken curry and half-opened pot of egg mayo, shoddily resealed with its yellow reduction sticker, I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia for my childhood, when things had a place as surely as a bird has a nest, a fox a den.

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