Strawberry Stained Teeth
Back then, wars were far away.
We drove past the first two signs. From the back seat I watched my parents exchange looks, an eyebrow raised, a tiny shrug. Their faces were plastic in the dusty light, that peculiar, over-exposed 1970s light – you’ll know it if you were there – that streamed in through the windows of our coal-blue Vauxhall Viva. It’s odd to think now that things actually did look like that in the 1970s: bright, contrast jammed up high, perhaps a little blurring at the edges. As we neared the third sign they did it again. Something was going down. I sat forward and tried to join the dots. They were making a decision, or at least attempting to. If you know my parents, you’ll know that they would need some help. It had something to do with the signs. I looked. PYO, declared the third sign, 100 yds, and an arrow pointing obliquely off into the sky. The letters, daubed foot-high onto a whitewashed piece of ply, were formed in untutored clots. A clumsy childlike squish, red and heart-shaped, filled the space below. Garish green fronds sprouted from the top of the squish and a face – a smiling, spotty face – sat indecorously below, too far below to be compositionally correct.
“It’s a strawberry,” I whispered to my brother. PYOing, whatever that might be, was connected with strawberries. Clearly this was what my parents called a treat. It was now or never. He leaned in.
“Could we PYO one day?” he said as casually as he could. The ‘one day’ bit was the clincher. I watched my father compose his face for the benefit of us in the back seat and exchange a serious look with mother. She shrugged again, raised a brow, did something with the corner of her mouth, all signs that I had come to realise meant ‘I don’t mind if you don’t, dear’. My father locked eyes with my brother for a full three seconds in his rear view mirror.
“No,” he said. Father’s voice was gruff.
“Great!” said my brother. “Yes!” We celebrated, my big brother and I, with crooked arms, clenched fists batting at the cheap vinyl seats which released frantic coughs of dust. In the front, my father cracked a smile and indicated off the road.
“What’s going on?” I said to my brother. “Why are we going this way?”
“Just watch this!” he said imperiously, though I’m sure he didn’t really know himself. I nodded, complicit.
We pulled into a courtyard, hastily convened in a farmhouse garden by the imposition of a combine harvester and a battered caravan. There were no parking bays to speak of and we abandoned the car between a clutch of other sedans. In the back we spilled out, doors gaping and raced around the rough yard, pushing and yelling like indigents, at least that’s what mother called us. While we raced our parents collected a white cardboard box edged with blue and equipped with a folding metal handle. Instinctively, I knew it to be a punnet. Pun-net. I taste the word now. Delicious, Germanic. It formed itself in my head back then along with that fizzy feeling that told me I’ve lived a life before, and would again; that we all would live again someday. They called us over, my brother and I, and the farmer handed us a punnet to share.
“We usually weigh the children before and after picking,” she said “But these look like good kids.” My parents laughed. I looked at them, flexing backwards at the hip, scuffling shoe. My brother laughed too, pretending to take her meaning. After a while I joined in.
“Whatever you pick goes in here, understand?” said mother. She addressed this at my brother but then glanced sideways at me. “That goes for you, too. Clear?” We nodded. He grabbed the punnet and darted off. Moments later I screamed and ran after him.
We descended, he and I, deep into the interior of the field running side by side between the saw-toothed leaves that sprouted in clumps from the ridges. I had never seen so many berries, nor so big; some as big as apples sitting pretty on a rustic bed of straw. We ran past them all, evidently looking for something else, running even after we rounded the hill and were lost to the farmhouse. As we ran my brother jumped on top of the ridges, crushing plants and fruit beneath his shoes.
“Yah!” he said as his feet came down. “Yah! Yah!” My heart leapt. Wide eyed I gulped air and screamed it too “Yah!” The inside of my chest felt as though it were made of light.
When we reached the end of the field we stopped to catch our breath hanging from our armpits over the rail fence. We hung there forever. In the next field barley rippled like sunset on a perfect sea.
Later we peeled our rocking bodies off of the fence and walked as slowly as we dared. I stooped and twisted a berry free, putting it carefully into the punnet. My brother reached out and put it whole into his mouth. I watched, impressed. I picked another. He ate that too. We filled the punnet and empted it twice.
When we returned our parents were drinking tea at a wooden table. I kept my head down as the farmer weighed our harvest and my father paid. My brother though, was untouchable. This is how I know he is all right, that nothing can truly harm him. He held their amused eyes as they asked why we’d been so long and returned their smiles through strawberry stained teeth. He will live in that field forever.