‘Pruned the raspberries, Cremton?’
…..‘Fuck ‘orf M’lady.’ Your delayed response after straightening yourself as best you could, leaning on your spade, tugging at your cap, me in the wheelbarrow, Lady Roseberry out of earshot. I was five, but old enough to know that fuck ‘orf was rude. But so was she. Your name was Crampton, not Cremton. Fred Crampton, my dad. You were always nice to her face though, for we needed the tied cottage, your job in his Lordship’s kitchen garden, and Mum’s as a cleaner. Lord and Lady Raspberry you called them. Of course you’d pruned the raspberries – which you called Roseberries – with care and skill, knowing just where to nick them with the secateurs so they’d make fruit in the summer. I loved that kitchen garden. And I loved you.
You were only thirty-six, but Mum said you’d come back oldened by the war. ‘But at least he made it ‘ome, not like some poor buggars,’ Mum told me one teatime, after I’d asked about the war and what you’d done. She told me that my birth had put the spring back in the crooked step that drove your wheelbarrow along the gravel paths, between the box hedges of the kitchen garden with the rows of beetroot, their maroon leaves shimmying in the breeze, and the carrots growing in powder fine earth. Earth that I helped you pick the stones from. ‘Why do we have to take the stones out of the dirt Daddy?’
…..‘The roots grow crooked if they hit a stone, Floss.’
…..‘Did your leg ever hit a stone Dad? Is that why you limp?’
…..‘Something like that Flossy. But you can’t keep a good bloke down,’ you’d joked, rolling a cigarette. I’d clung to your neck, laughing. You smelled of tobacco and grass. We planted potatoes too, spuds you called them, some earlies, some lates, but they all looked the same to me, chitting in their boxes, growing fat scabby shoots. You let me use the dibber, poking the broad stick into the ground. But my child’s hands could never push it in far enough. Every time I made a hole, lumps of earth fell in, just where the spud should go. Later – much later – after you’d told me what had happened, I knew that earthing them up in the funereal mounds that made their leaves struggle for the light, reminded you of the earthing up of your dead comrades.
When I was nine, you let me pull the cabbages and pick the dark green stuff that tasted of flannels. Kale. Then there were the knobbly Brussels sprouts that Mum would boil for half an hour. ‘Puts ‘airs on yer chest,’ you said.
…..‘What Dad, airs like you said M’lady had?’
…..‘No Floss, that’s hairs and graces.’ And you’d laughed, even though your leg hurt. I loved the runner beans, growing up their poles. Looking for them among the leaves, green on green, appearing like magic skinny grass snakes. They were M’lady’s beans, but you’d planted your lady’s beans – broad beans – in a line between the rows.
…..‘We need a Labour government,’ you’d said. ‘Till then I’ll plant our beans down the middle, an’ I don’t care what they think.’
…..‘What’s a Labour Government Dad?’
…..‘Nothing to do with Lord and Lady Raspberry, that’s for sure.’
Then there were the onions, throttled in dirt, their long green whiskers reaching for the sky, surrendering like defeated soldiers. We’d pull them in the autumn, make a knot in their whiskers and put them on a sieve to dry in the shed; a paradise of murk and surprise. There were nests of mice in there, woodlice, and cobwebs as thick as your socks.
I loved the greenhouse, the trailing hosepipes, its misty hissing air, that peaty smell, the sharp tang of tomato. It felt like another country. Your glasses would steam up, but your leg felt better in the warm, you said. Later, after you’d told me what had happened, I imagined you staunching the wounds of a comrade with the same care that you’d tied the tomato plants against their canes. I remember you rescuing a frog that had plopped into the water tank and couldn’t get out, falling back, and back, into the water, its useless arms with no purchase against the dank, black metal. Were you, in your mind, fishing that desperate man out of the sea? His mouth agape, eyes bloodshot. One of the men you finally told me about, who was so seasick he nearly drowned in his vomit.
…..Come autumn, we’d hear soft thuds as apples made their way through lattice works of leaves, and onto the ground. A gentle, reassuring sound, but sometimes you’d jump. I asked you why, but you’d lit another cigarette and, brightening, changed the subject. ‘It’s called scrumping, Floss, when you take an apple that no-one wants, to keep it from the maggots.’ And we’d put ripe ones in our pockets. ‘But don’t tell M’lady.’
…..‘I promise Dad.’
…..After most of the apples had fallen, the clocks went back. ‘Winter drawers on eh Floss?’ And I’d laugh, loving the smell of bonfires, the smoke curling into the evening air. We’d look up together, at the remaining apples hanging on like moons in the bare branches. Such happiness.
When I was thirteen, and you forty-four – getting on Flossy – I crunched a snail under my foot. I laughed, when once I’d have cried at such wanton murder. But it was dead already, like the rest of the snails that had manoeuvred round the flowerpots. You’d looked sombre. ‘They look like burned out tanks.’
…..‘You mean water tanks, Dad?’
…..‘No, the ones I saw in Normandy.’
…..‘Will you tell me about that?’
…..‘One day Floss, one day.’ And then we lobbed snails like hand grenades over the wall onto M’lady’s flowerbeds. Sometimes we’d fill a bucket with them. And chuck them into the compost, where they fell like shrapnel. You later told me about shrapnel, how poor old Len had caught some in the neck, dying in front of you on the beach. ‘He never even said goodbye Floss, nor passed on a message for his ma.’ But you’d gone to see her anyway, telling her that he never had any pain, and passing on his love before his eyes closed. Old Len was twenty-one.
We’d put horseshit on the rhubarb, its brown orbs reminding you of M’lady’s hairdo. It made their leaves flourish and spread. I picked them for umbrellas to keep off the rain. ‘You’d better wash your hands Floss, rhubarb leaves are bad for you.’
…..‘They just are.’
…..‘Dunno, but I want nothing, nothing in this world that is bad for you. It’s yours now, Flossy.’
…..‘Oh. Does your leg hurt today?’
The prickly Gooseberry bushes with their hairy fruit grew against the wall. You once told me, winking, that I was found underneath one. ‘Dad, I was never.’ For I was thirteen and, humouring him, beyond the birds and the bees by way of explanation. But I didn’t let on that I knew how I was made. He loved the innocence in me. We discovered strawberries together, their chins resting on the straw, like jewels. We could have as many as we liked because no-one, apart from us, knew they were there, behind the mint.
…..‘Why do you plant mint in buckets Dad?’
…..‘To stop it spreading.’
You’d looked stricken. ‘Terrible if it spreads.’
…..‘I don’t want any of that for you, Floss,’ you’d said, shaking your head.
…..‘What do you mean?’ I’d felt stones in my gut. For I knew that something was happening far away, in Cuba, to do with the Russians and Americans. And for the first time in the kitchen garden I saw your fear. I didn’t know what to do. Find you some raffia? A bucket? A dibber? I unscrewed your flask, pouring out the hot, sweet tea and you reassured me. ‘Don’t you worry Floss, nothing’s going to spread, we saved you from all that.’ And I felt safe again.
One summer evening, rinsed in birdsong, I came to see you in the kitchen garden, loving you as much as ever I did. You were forty-nine, I, a woman of eighteen wearing my striped tee shirt and white jeans. ‘Look at you Flossy, the bees knees, mind you don’t stain them trousers,’ you’d said, as I brushed by the raspberry canes, the fruit falling at a touch. ‘What’s in that letter love?’
…..‘From the university Dad, I got in.’
…..‘That’s my clever girl, let’s have some roseberries to celebrate.’
I picked and ate, picked and ate, then dropped one, the blotch of a stain – blood red against white – blooming on my thigh. You flinched, and wept – and then finally told – of the soldier who was your best friend, who’d died beside you, ‘shot to ruddy pieces’.
You dried your tears. ‘Sorry Floss, but better out than in, eh?’
…..‘University? Proud of you.’
We’d hooked arms, and looked together at the ancient apple trees, rooted like guardian angels by the stone arch of the kitchen garden. A wind set them dancing, and you’d raised your face to them, in homage to life, and in your eyes I thought I saw joy, and a defiance of what you knew.
Jan Woolf – for 75th anniversary of D Day
Illustration: Claire Palmer
A version of this story was published in the New River Press Year Book, 2017/18