It was late summer, and this was a jar of mulberries we couldn’t open, in an old house that once stood in front of the River Ouse in Seaford. The house was loaned to us for reasons of my mum’s 80th birthday party. In the garden was a spectacularly craggy mulberry tree that had to be held up under the arms – like an elderly person over potentially hazardous terrain. Huge sagging branches, mammoth trunk and mulberries now long gone, potted up in syrup in a jar with suction so intense it resisted every implement we could put to it. So I put it back in the cupboard along with jars of homemade jam. The cupboard made me envious – summer all potted, preserved, labelled, suctioned closed. No entry.
Because I was once in another house as a child, equally but differently imposing, where there was a mulberry tree, I know that there is nothing like them. There is nothing else out there that can touch a bowl of bleeding mulberries – my small hands covered in scarlet juice. Red jelly (probably strawberry) with mulberries suspended magically. And white ice cream (yes it was white). There was a partially blind poodle who we expected tricks from, which looking back was unkind, except I was about six and didn’t know any better. Round and round she’d pirouette for me, her dull white head of curls and milky eyes following my dancing hand as I conducted her and wore her out.
The poodle lived in a posh flat along with a family of four in Chelsea – Elm Park Gardens – with a communal garden out the back. Black railings kept out the riff raff. I was sent there to live with them while my parents – back in Devon – ‘finalised’ their divorce. I remember not understanding this; why was this necessary? I went to school locally – Bousfield Primary, still there with a Beatrix Potter blue plaque – and endured the weekly humiliation of doing PE in my vest and pants. I spent a considerable amount of time truanting in the toilet.
Nothing was as it should be: the mother of the family, Christina, wore high-heeled slippers with feathers that tickled your toes, bit her nails to the quick, had fierce black hair and a decisive temper and smoked properly. Not like my mother who smoked socially, with wine or in distress. Christina was a rampaging smoker and a hitter.
As if to herald my new urban status I was fitted with a grey coat and velvet collar and each morning had Oil of Ulay cream – pink and obscenely perfumed – slathered on my face, which gave me scales like an alligator. Christina was married to a man called Frank Weir, who was a clarinettist and a band leader. I adored him and threw myself into his arms whenever he walked through the door and folded myself into the gap he made for me in his armchair when he’d settled down to watch television. They had two daughters and it was the younger of the two who sat with me under the mulberry tree where we played with dolls. Just to say, Christina died young, and Frank followed a year or two later, and the two girls were sent to live with an aunt up in Worcester.
I’m not sure still what I feel about being sent away like this, except I remember my first bodily awareness of what it means to be homesick. The silence of the top bunk. What else…Christina’s nubby fingers holding the mulberries, the deep scarlet and the perfumed sweetness of them and the soft suck of the jelly prised from the bowl.
Mulberries, just so you know, come around late summer, early autumn and there is no point seeing if you can buy them, please don’t go to a bearded grocer in Hoxton. They must be pilfered. It might be a bit of a wait, or you can buy a small mulberry tree from a nursery now and grow your own. I have one planted in my allotment and I’ve had my first small rash of berries this year. Elizabeth David put mulberries in her summer pudding: cook them lightly with sugar until the juices flow and use good bread. But Jane Grigson believes – in her fruit book – that the best way to eat mulberries is with cream, completely unadorned. Her compote sounds nice, though. And if you can get hold of a branch of someone else’s tree, stick it in the ground, it will grow.