The Day of the Blackberries

In the annals of my boyhood memories there is a treasured page I call: ‘The Day of the Blackberries’. Another name for it might be: ‘Dad’s Final Birthday’ – for even at the age of eight I understood that he was dying.
On that morning, I lay in bed, almost happy – for Dad was coming home. Mom was due to drive to the hospital and pick him up at 2pm. The doctors had agreed to let him spend a few days with his family and return to his ward when it all became too much.
For those few precious days I would have a dad again.
As I lay in bed that morning, anticipating his return, I wanted to give him a special present, something more meaningful than the book about penguins I had already bought. Although I knew he liked penguins, suddenly it just didn’t seem enough.
And then I remembered Dad’s previous birthday, when the whole family went blackberry-picking on the edge of Lowhill Woods.
“Freshly picked blackberries with cream,” Dad had said, as we carried them home, “There’s nothing I like more!” And how delicious those blackberries tasted as we sat at the old round table in the kitchen: Mom and Dad and Rachel and little Tony and I, ladling into our mouths spoonfuls of sweet berries swimming in cream. It was a shared and silent joy – silent, that is, save for the symphony of slurping and the tinkle of spoons on bowls. How vividly it comes back to me, all these years later.
And, on the morning of Dad’s last birthday, I also remembered. Having hours to fill before his arrival, and keeping it secret even from Mom, I borrowed a container from the kitchen and ran all the way to Lowhill Woods. The blackberries were out, plump with autumnal goodness, dark with the promise of a scrumptious feast. As I busily filled my makeshift punnet, it almost seemed those blackberries had ripened just for me. And then the Sun came out and shone in every gloomy corner, as if to say: Here’s another big one – look!
I worked at great speed, for there would have to be enough for the whole family. When I had finished, I found I had so many that the lid wouldn’t fit, so I took a risk and ate an unwashed handful to make more room. One by one, I merged them with the juices of my mouth; one by one they slid into my rumbling tummy. Dad would soon be home, I thought,  and how much he would enjoy these gifts of Nature, collected and shared by his eldest son. Then I knew for sure that this was better, so much better, than a book about penguins!
I carried my prize before me, feeling the joy all children feel when they’ve done something very good. My eagerness to see Dad’s face as he gazed upon these blackberries was as heady as the sweetness I had tasted. Even the timing was perfect: I’d be home just in time for the ride to the hospital.
As I walked along Lowhill Lane, I was suddenly surrounded by boys on bicycles. It was Gary Dixon and his gang. Dixon was the biggest, meanest and stupidest boy in my year at school.
“What’s that you’re carrying?” Dixon asked, pointlessly  – the contents of the punnet were clearly visible through the plastic. “Blackberries!” He said, answering his own question. He smirked and the others obeyed with smirks of their own. “We like blackberries too, don’t we lads?” Predictably, the others agreed.
I knew, of course, they were going to take the punnet. Enraged at the injustice of it all, I told them exactly what I thought of them, using references to every taboo body part and sexual practice I was aware of. As they tried to grab the punnet I attempted to leap the wall of bicycles. Blows landed on me from every direction. I found myself prone on the pavement, watching Dixon’s gang receding into the distance.
When I returned home, without the blackberries, I knocked on the front door but received no response. It was almost as if Mom had somehow known about my secret mission, knew I’d failed, and was ignoring me. In reality, she had simply left for the hospital, taking Rachel and Tony with her. My journey home after my encounter with Dixon had taken longer than strictly necessary. A broken heart, after all, breaks no records.
I had never felt so wretched and alone as I did for that half-an-hour, waiting for their return. I resolved to tell no one about the blackberries, for I was ashamed that I had lost them and I did not want to upset Dad on this day of all days. The knowledge of it, the pain of it, would be my burden and mine alone.
Mom was angry with me when they returned. She said I was a selfish little boy who’d rather be out playing all day instead of thinking about others. She sent me to my room. Dad said nothing while Mom was giving me the roasting of my life. He just eased himself into his favourite chair with a grunt, a grunt exacerbated by the discovery of one of my toy space monsters behind a cushion. My guilt felt bottomless.
Hours later, when I smelled food being prepared, I crept downstairs. Tony was in the back garden, collecting worms as usual. Rachel was helping Mom in the kitchen. Dad was still in his chair, watching TV.
Looking at the floor, I give him his birthday present.
He did not seem to share Mom’s anger. Instead, his voice was kindly. He unwrapped his present, a task he performed very slowly; I was shocked by how weak he was.
“I wonder what this is!” He said in a voice at once familiar and strange.
And suddenly there it was. A book about penguins. He smiled. He gasped with wonder. He thanked me and tousled my hair. But I knew – I knew he was disappointed. I could almost hear him thinking: Penguins, bloody penguins. I felt so miserable it was all I could do to smile in response to his heroic kindness.
But then my misery deepened.
“Your hands!” Dad said. “And your tongue! Have you been picking blackberries?”
I suppose I imagined this question was rhetorical and functioned as a rebuke. It was an innocent inquiry.
But it did the trick.
The shame, the guilt, the anger, the ineffable sadness – it all came pouring out in a torrent of explanation between great gulping sobs. I hugged him, begging forgiveness.
I don’t know what I expected – but I didn’t expect him to laugh. I could feel his chest chugging away like a steam engine, making my teeth rattle.
Then he held my face before his and wiped away my tears.
“Blackberries; you’re worried about blackberries.” He chuckled some more. “Can’t you see, you little sausage, that blackberries weren’t the point? Don’t get me wrong: blackberries are delicious. And blackberries with cream – what could be more scrumptious? But when they’re eaten, the memory of them is not the same as having them. No, son, blackberries weren’t your gift; your gift to me is written in my mind as memories: the memory that you picked those blackberries just for me; the memory that you spent hours, alone and vulnerable, filling that punnet to the top; the memory that you did not cower before bullies but told them exactly what you thought; the memory of the love that gave you that courage; the memory that you endured your mother’s harsh words in silence, to spare me from what you thought would make me sad; the memory of the shame you felt, your confession, your tears, your need for forgiveness – when all I feel is overwhelming pride; yes, all these memories are the gifts you’ve given me, and for the rest of my life I’ll have them, for always will I see you carrying those blackberries, and always in my heart you brought them safely home, my son; you brought them safely home.”

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