The Haul | Brian Lewis

Sunday 23 August, 6.45am. I scrabble at the back of a kitchen cupboard and separate three margarine tubs from the stack in which they were stuck. The lids are loose, somewhere in the unit, I count out three and close the door. Then I stuff everything into a threadbare rucksack and leave the house. I think that I am putting the thoughts behind me as I head east along Holme Lane, there is very little traffic in either direction, no tailbacks at the intersection. I pass Subway and Wilko and Lloyds and make a diagonal crossing of the garage forecourt. I bend to the newspaper stand, then realise that my face is uncovered, I unbend and unpocket a fabric mask and attach it to the front of my head. As I bend for the second time, another man leans into the newspaper stand, he is perhaps 60, 65, his face is uncovered, he pauses, mid-lean, then takes two or three newspapers from their plastic compartments, pauses again, then walks through the door of the kiosk. I take a newspaper and follow him into the kiosk and stand behind him in the queue. I make judgments about his character while I wait. When I am called forward by the cashier I discard the judgments and present the newspaper for payment. I ask the cashier how she is, she is concerned about the scaremongering in the newspapers, this is the word she uses, scaremongering, she points at a headline, it warns of food shortages, a winter crisis, worse to come. ‘People will start panic buying again’, she says. I nod, half-heartedly, it is a weak gesture, I have nothing to say. I leave the kiosk and leave the forecourt. I have stopped keeping proper records in the last few months, the accounts are full of holes, but I remember that Emma and I came this way a month ago, we met our friend, Helen, in the avenue that was still an avenue, we walked to the park, the three of us, the park at the end of the street. We made a slow circuit of the paths, north, east, west, south. We passed the lake and Helen was talking of the Canada geese that live on the lake, its small islands, she hears them from her house, yes, we said, we hear them from our house. As Helen was talking I was thinking that we hadn’t seen her for months, we had seen very few friends in months, yet the time that had passed had been marked by the geese. I would look up from the back garden and see the overhead formation, a few minutes after Helen, or a few minutes before, east to west, west to east. She said something else, that they were in training, that they were practicing flight. A long journey ahead. I don’t know if the geese are migratory or sedentary. We couldn’t imagine it, or I couldn’t, not really, the thought of the Labrador Sea, the long haul.

A blight in the palm,
a season without colour,
a field without work.

I am still heading east but the impetus is broken, I will have to start from somewhere else, I think back to where I left off. There is a wide empty stretch between the garage and the casino and I let my thoughts slow to almost nothing. The images, too, are slower, smaller, fewer, I sort through them as they come, I set all of them aside but one. It is a photograph of my father, which I saw for the first time only recently. It is a photograph of a photograph. The original photograph sits in a silver frame, the edges of which are visible in the photograph of the photograph, the photograph of the photograph was taken by one of my two brothers. I don’t know who took the original photograph. I don’t know when it was taken, or where. I know that this is my father, at some point in his National Service, which dates it to the early 1950s. I think that the setting is somewhere in south-west England. The image is sepia-toned, I can’t be certain of the colours of my father’s clothes, the trousers are dark, the shirt is a lighter shade, khaki, olive, sage, I remember that my father was colour-blind. The shirt has two pockets, buttoned on the right, unbuttoned on the left, and the sleeves are neatly rolled to the biceps. In the photograph he stands with his left hand on his hip and his right hand on his knee, the knee is bent, he is bracing his right foot on a boulder or a tree stump. There is light at his back. Perhaps it is summer, late spring, early autumn. He has a fine, pencil-thin moustache, it is partially obscured by shadow, as are his eyes. This makes it hard to read his mood. Is he at ease, is he distracted, is he impatient to get back to work. His work, as I recall, was the renovation of dilapidated army accommodation, he was a carpenter, assigned to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, this was the use they put him to, that and the lorries, the fleet repairs. On my left, the casino car park, then the casino, five months closed, it reopened a week ago. I count six or seven cars in the car park, there is no-one in the parking booth, there is no-one at the entrance, there are waves of distorted sound thudding into the rear of the building, like bad cabling, like wires shorting out. On my right, Hillsborough Fencing and its frayed union flags. I remember the wrong turn I took some years back. I crossed the street and took a right at the flags, a short walk to the dead end of a trading estate, the concrete yards and padlocked gates of suppliers and dealers, no through road. I had no business there and so I turned back. I think of Roy, my father’s cousin, who died earlier this month. He would have seen no end of estates like this, or perhaps the same few, repeatedly, he worked in haulage, I don’t know where his work took him. After he retired he spent much of his time helping to restore the waterways near his home in Oxfordshire. He was a volunteer with the East Vale branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust and, for many years, the Branch Work Party Organiser. I can picture him there, in his element, the van, the gear, everything at hand, pressing on, he is cheerful, pragmatic, resourceful. It is a time out of season and the picture is in colour.

It is not finished,
the work is never finished
or left unfinished.

Here are the first bramble bushes, the road turning left at the power station. It is so quiet, the hum is low, level, unbroken. I could stop here and pick blackberries, that would be enough, but I did that last week. I want to see the slopes. I pass through the last section of Livesey Street, the greyhound track behind a concrete fence, the power station behind a metal fence, and somewhere the greyhound track meets the Cadbury Trebor Bassett site, I can’t see the join. The road ends in a bridge and the bridge unlocks the River Don. I look the water up and down, north-west, south-east, it takes a moment for the eyes to adjust. On the north-east bank I see a man asleep. He is seated on a bench, overlooking the river, fully dressed and approximately upright, his stance aslant to the left. I imagine him waking, at intervals, he starts, he sets himself right, then falls back into a tilt. The bench was installed earlier in the year by the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery. I walk up the cemetery’s steps, into the cemetery’s shade, the path is clear, the place feels cared for, it is more than just maintenance, upkeep. The stones have been set right, as far as possible, the ground is tended. The Friends have spent years mapping this site, clearing the knotweed, helping to make inscriptions legible, putting names to unmarked burials, guiding descendants to the graves of their ancestors. The dead are remembered in each act of care. The path and the shade and the graves run up against the railway bridge, a steep climb and a fast drop, a scattering of graves on the north-east side of the railway line. I forget that this is also part of the cemetery, the railway came first, the churchyard was full, the new acres are the overspill. I cross the bridge and turn left, away from the cemetery and the railway, it is uphill sharply. I stop at the foot of the steps cut into the slope and take one of the margarine tubs from my rucksack. Do I start at the top of the ridge, then work my way down, or ascend gradually, harvesting as I go. I decide to start from where I am. There are some brambles just up ahead, the ridge path straightening after the turn, I slow down and take a look. I see the flattened grass, the bent branches, someone got here first, before the storm. What’s left is rotted or unready. I look again, beyond the outer branches, I turn the leaves back, there are ripe blackberries on the underside, a good size. Still they are few and the bushes are strung out along the ridge. This will take time, I say to myself, but I have time. As I go, I think of Roy, of my last visit to his house in Oxfordshire, four years ago. He wasn’t well even then, but he was no less himself, gentle, kind, good-humoured. After a few hours I said goodbye and turned left at the gate, then took the footbridge over the A420. It was late August, the blackberry season nearing its end, it comes earlier in the south. I stopped in a field near the dual carriageway and filled two boxes in twenty minutes. It rained. It rained on the rolling farmland and it rained on Harrowdown Hill. It rained on the Thames Path and on the sections where the path ran out. I cut the walk short on the outskirts of Oxford and caught a bus back to Swindon. I looked out from the top deck at the land I must have looked out at from childhood, all those Sunday afternoons, and I recognised almost none of it. I thought of the miles that my father must have clocked up in South Oxfordshire, the visits to the Mattingleys, the Murrells, the building work that ran on for weeks, there were no blank spaces in the Vale of the White Horse, he could read it back to front. In half an hour I have filled half a box.

Another harvest.
You wouldn’t see it, and yet
you prepared the ground.

I step back from the edge of the slope and stare out at the bushes that skew from the hillside. The best are out of reach. There was rain in the night, it gets into everything, I am soaked when I lean in. I climb the slope, crossing from left to right, from bramble to bramble, there is very little for the taking. The path forks in two, one track on the level, another on a gradient, I see brambles in the fork. I poke around in the brambles and set my rucksack down. Roy was the best man at my parents’ wedding, I know this because my mother told me, two weeks ago, it is something that I think that I thought that I knew, but I didn’t, not really, I have to be reminded. I remember that he was there at the end, though, for my father, at or near the end, perhaps a week or so before he died. There was a suddenness, things were moving very quickly, and there was Roy, with his easy, familiar manner, there was no awkwardness or reserve. I remember that it cheered my father. I saw the years fall away. I pick up my rucksack and move on from the brambles in the fork, I settle on the upper track, the gradient. I can hear the machinery at the Bassett site, I can see the white clouds assembling. One or two emergency vehicles on Penistone Road. I can’t tell if they’re southbound or northbound, they slip through earshot in seconds. The ground levels out to a grassy plateau between Owlerton and Shirecliffe, there are more brambles ahead, a bank of allotments somewhere behind me. I set the rucksack down again. I am thinking of the last journey I made with my father. It was a Tuesday afternoon in early August, I had arranged an early departure from the office, I had agreed to meet him at his allotment. I don’t remember if he asked for help or if I volunteered. It was my first visit to the allotment in two decades and possibly his last. He was there ahead of me, I saw the car parked at the end of Barnfield Close, I knew that he’d paced himself accordingly, spared his energy for the labour, the short drive there and back. I opened the gate and walked through. I couldn’t remember which allotment was his, then I spotted him at the far end of the plot, the third one along, or the fourth, they were numbered, I’d forgotten how large the plots were, it was a job of work in the summer. I waved, then made my way to the end of the plot, was he retrieving something from the shed, was he filling a bucket with water. He told me that he had walked over to the new B&Q across the road, it had opened that summer, he thought he would take a look. He overheard a conversation between a customer and a manager, neither of them was getting anywhere, neither of them had an answer for the other, the thing, what was the thing, where would you find the thing. He intervened, gently, he was able to show the customer what they needed, what it was, where it was, the manager offered him a job, so he said, he joked about this, he was still making jokes. We spent an hour or two there, on the plot, working separately, then working side by side. I picked the blackberries, it was all I knew, what else was there, runner beans, broad beans, carrots, much of it under nets, I don’t recall. I was there to keep an eye on him. I was there to help out, I wanted to make myself useful, but I was also there to keep an eye on him. I think he understood this. He understood what was happening, that the days were shortening, though none of us knew how many days were left. It was important to him, the plot, I knew that, but I didn’t know that it would be important to me. I didn’t know how difficult it would be to hand the allotment keys back to the council, the plot that he had tended for over 30 years. I carried them around for a week before giving them up. I make a circuit of the plateau, the second margarine tub fills slowly, here is another clump of brambles. The white clouds lose their shape in the valley. Once or twice, in my father’s last weeks, I paused at the threshold of his room. An open door. I wanted to ask him how he was, how do you start a conversation like that, what would I have said, what would he have said. I can’t fill in the blanks. That afternoon at the allotment, we harvested twelve kilos of blackberries. It didn’t seem to matter that he could no longer taste them. We carried them to the car and stacked them in the boot. Just before he closed the door, he surveyed the haul, then glanced back at the plot. ‘Good job’, he said.

 

i.m. Raymond Lewis (d. 23.08.2007) and Roy Murrell (d. 06.08.2020)

Photograph taken in Owlerton, north Sheffield, 28 August 2020.

 



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