In Devon, I used to embark on several projects in the summer time. Mum and I didn’t have our own garden until years later, so whilst we lived in that terrace house, the slice of terracotta-brick was all we owned. The hills beyond the house became ours too, but we didn’t own them in the same way that we owned the brickwork.
The summer of the foxes was the summer of learning. Mum was at home a lot, sauntering around the kitchen in white blouses and long dresses, making coffee or curled up reading. We continued to listen to our shows in the afternoon, when she’d sometimes take me under her arm and stroke my dark curls. She showed me how to feed the robins outside. We’d walk to the same spot, and hold our palms out with
mealworms. Mum told me to be quiet, and hold my hand flat and still; so I was the quietest and most still that a boy could be.
I learnt about frogspawn, and how baby frogs grow from tiny dots in white bubbles. Mum told me about the birds that flew in the sky and how they migrated south, in arrow formations. I began to identify them: pheasants that strutted red and gold in the grass, finches, sparrows, birds of prey, and wrens the size of small leaves. She pointed out nettles, and how they sat next to doc leaves; she showed me the dangers and the healers of the world.
My mum used to buy strawberry juice, from the local farm shop. It was a fifteen minute drive away, at the bottom of a deep valley. We’d only go there twice a month, if I was lucky: three times.
I was small, and it was large, the farm shop. The converted barn had red bricks and black panelling on the second floor. There were huge boughs of dried hops hanging from the beams, meticulous calligraphy signs upon the walls, and the ceiling felt non-existent. Sunlight flooded through the windows. The floor was vast and open, arranged with broad tables covered in pots, jars and hampers. The air smelt of hay and honey. I would dart from table to table, just about able to see over the top, to all the treats laid upon the surface. My mum called me her rocket.
Sweet jams were covered with cloth cutouts and small red ribbons. Handmade cookies jewelled with ruby cherries and cranberries were stacked next to the dark chocolate chips. Fudge was lined up in packets, and sticks of bread overflowed from woven baskets. There were bouquets of flowers by the entrance that struck you with the dizzying aroma of lilies, roses and tulips. My mum always walked straight past them, insisting flowers weren’t right if they weren’t growing.
I had loved the way fruit and vegetables spilled from their containers, shoulder to shoulder, open and unpackaged. I wanted to touch the vivid, coloured surfaces, but my mum said no, no touching.
At the back, there was a violent fish smell, that held your throat. The fish mongers exhibited a long stretch of ice, laden with creatures from another world. It was pungent, but I would inhale it for the kick: it was salt and sea. Haddock was lined up with salmon, sardines and cool blue swordfish. Their bellies were sliced in c-sections and
their mouths hung open. Their huge eyes saw nothing.
My mum would take her basket, with the three items, and go to the checkout. She’d seemingly float across the floor, in a white and blue gingham, dress, with her sandals that had the cork heel. Her mousy blonde hair was wrapped up in a swirl on the back of her head, held with a clasp. Small rings of baby hair sat on her neck.
My mum and dad were starting out, making their way in the world as ‘a couple with a kid’. I suppose it’s different when you’re responsible for someone else. My dad worked a lot, sometimes Saturdays.
‘We can get three things.’ Mum would say to me—she didn’t want us getting carried away. She’d crouch down to my level, holding up three fingers; she did this less, as I got older. There was a pick and mix, not your usual kind, near the checkout. It was a nice one. There were sugary cola bottles, long red laces, chocolate buttons, and jelly worms; lined up in tall, shiny mason jars, the lids open, mid-speech. The whole place, to me, was a sugar rush.
She wanted to buy a tea infusion, or a loaf of tiger bread. We might meet half-way and get grapes.
‘Healthy, and sweet,’ she would boast.
But she often caved to my infantile protests and would get both. My dad was irritated when we returned with sweets, bread, grapes and jams.
That overpriced farm shop, he tutted, what’s wrong with Tescos?
It’s the experience, my mother would argue, it’s like returning to nature.
No matter what the other items we selected were, we always got the juice she liked. Strawberry juice, it was always strawberry juice.