The Lost Art of Stealing Fruit
My Hungarian-Czech grandmother, an otherwise goodhearted and generous woman, had a notoriously lax attitude toward property rules: bank pens, ashtrays, and hospital slippers all were fair for the taking. One minute, she’d be giving a bus driver brooches “for his vife”; the next, she’d be stomping down a stranger’s front path to help herself to an enormous bough of blossom while my sister and I, technically her accomplices, hid behind parked cars, pretending not to know her.
I’ve tried to lead an honest life, in accordance with the 1968 Theft Act; also, I’m a conscientious elder child and easily embarrassed. But one’s fate is difficult to dodge; ask Oedipus. My own weakness, unlike Grandma’s, is limited to fruit. In the school fiction of yesteryear, “scrumping” was what schoolboys, primarily, did in orchards. Nowadays, with fried-chicken shops on every corner, the art of fruitnapping is lost. Not, however, by me.
There’s no English word for the frenzied state into which I’m thrown when I see a tree thick with crab apples, or greengages, or pears. Are you seriously expecting me, a greedy person, to ignore the deliciously bitter Morello cherries near the station, or the neglected grape vine by that garage, or the vast banks of blackberries that litter Britain’s parks and heaths, largely overlooked except by the occasional elderly Pole or Czech, similarly purple-stained, with whom I exchange a brief, competitive glance?
Although I enjoy the camaraderie, beware any fellow-foragers who happen to stray near me on one particular, sacred day. This is my annual secret visit to a forgotten damson tree, bearing concealed Tupperware, dark clothes, and an expression of barely suppressed excitement.
“I’ll just be half an hour,” I say to my picnicking family. Poor fools, they still believe me. They don’t realize that absolutely nothing compares to the thrill of fruit-hunting: the covert slipping through the foliage; the scanning for a telltale glisten of color; the way that—deep in the hedgerow, scratched and juice-streaked, breath held as one searches for another dusty bitter plum, then another—time stops.
When it comes to semi-legal harvesting, I am daring, virtually buccaneering: qualities we novelists usually lack. Whether snatching fat Spanish sweet chestnuts, glossy as horses’ flanks, from beneath the feet of walkers on Hampstead Heath, or wild strawberries from the urns outside the British Library, I stop at nothing and know no shame. Because, as they say in the London Metropolitan Police, I have previous.
My first victim was an ancient black-mulberry tree in the grounds of St. John’s College, Oxford. My father taught there, despite the fact that he was not a floppy-haired blond aristocrat but instead a poor widow’s only son, who had heaved himself from her dark London basement into a life of Latin prayers and the boundary disputes of minor nation states. Usually, despite the beard, he blended in with the port-drinkers and philosophers, but, once a year, he persuaded the college porter to allow his children, badly dressed even by Oxford standards, through the hallowed gates.
Mulberries don’t travel. They are too juicily fragile-skinned for shops to stock; to try them, one must pick one’s own. Their rich taste is unforgettable: like the best blackberry crossed with the sweetest raspberry—the platonic ideal of fruit. But picking them requires courage, and compliant children dressed in their most terrible clothes.
The berries grew high on gnarled branches, which our father forced us to climb and shake onto sheets spread below. Within five minutes, my sister and I would be splotched with pink; after ten we’d have frightened Lady Macbeth.
“Can we go home now?”
He was a man possessed, and this is the reason: mulberry gin. All you do is stuff the fruits into a gin bottle with sugar, and wait: ambrosia will follow. But at what cost? The cycle ride home, our tiny sweatshirts crimson-splashed, dripping juice from wobbling plastic bags, scarred us. My father got his gin; we kids got nothing but scratches and twiggy hair.
Which is perhaps why, the moment I heard that my daughter’s school contained a small mulberry tree, I did unto her precisely what was done unto me.