Friday, 22 May 2020
The ripening of the pods.
It was a glorious day, one redolent of impossible childhood memories. I took the old dog for a mutually laboured stroll on the heath, each of us wheezing, lungs rattling, ebb tide on shingle.
We stopped to rest on a well remembered bench, not one of the popular seats on the hill frequented by crowds but a shaded seat on the path to Ken wood beside a strand of enormous beeches with their elephant skin bark, pock marked with the initials of generations of lovers, the ground felted with a thick layer of beech-mast. A majestic stand of trees, one of nature's cathedrals.
As the old dog panted in the shade of the bench a man a little older than myself approached and seated himself. We traded good-days. He placed a blue and white canvas bag at his feet then opened it, removed a Tupperware box.
Opening the box he proffered it and said: 'Have a broad bean'.
The beans were peeled and coated in mint sauce. I told him thank you, took one and added: 'I can only eat them peeled'.
'Me also'. He said with a sigh. I sensed that there was more he wished to tell me so I presented the opportunity by saying: 'Go on'.
He looked at me, smiled then started his tale:
'In my youth my parents and I lived on a farm in Kent, an idyllic place, surrounded by oast-houses strawberry fields, cherry orchards and hop gardens. In a cottage beside the un-metalled lane to the village lived the farm manager, his wife and their daughter Tilly. Tilly was tall, as tall as I and had a jumble of perpetually errant golden hair. We became good friends, we went to the little primary school in the village and walked there together daily. We explored the surrounding countryside, sometimes walking miles, chattering away. I spent a good deal of time at her home, in the kitchen with Tilly and her parents or in the vegetable garden.
One summer, quite early in our friendship, she offered me some broad beans, the first of the season. She was sitting, podding them at the kitchen table. I told her, rather precociously, trying too hard to impress, that I could only eat broad beans that had been peeled by a virgin princess. She laughed, her parents eyebrows raised, then soon handed me a small bowl of peeled broad beans. She added a dollop of mint sauce.
This became something of a ritual each summer upon the ripening of the pods. My virginal peeler of beans. My accomplice in dreams.
Years passed, we moved on to different secondary schools but remained close friends. Met daily.
Just before my fifteenth birth day tragedy struck.
Tilly's mother was diagnosed with a tumour. It was savage, voracious and quick. She died three months later and everything changed.
Tilly's father became withdrawn and unwelcoming, his clothes dirty, he smelled of whisky and tobacco. He didn't actually chase me away but Tilly and I chose to meet elsewhere. In the barn when it rained; the beech hanger behind my house or her garden in good weather where she would innocently, knowingly, peel me broad beans. She changed too, less talkative, less unbridled. Sadness crept in.
The following summer we sat in the garden podding broad beans. She said my name, I looked up, she told me in a foreign voice and with full eyes that she could no longer peel my broad beans. She ran then, ran into the house and I walked the quarter mile home. Telling myself I was confused but I was not confused, just sad, angry and disappointed. I did not see Tilly again.
A few days later a rumour spread through the village quicker than the tumour that took Tilly's mother. Tilly and her father had done a moonlight flit. I went to the cottage, it was empty. The owner of the farm called in at our house to ask if we had seen them. Apparently they had left one night, left most of their belongings. Had vanished. No forwarding address. Someone from social services visited to ask if we knew where they had gone.
Since then I have had to live with my guilt. I knew what was going on but said nothing, did nothing. I was afraid of the grown up enormity of it all. I should have told someone, anyone, or confronted him, done something.
I have trawled telephone directories ever since.
All I have of her are memories of broad beans'. He pointed at the beeches. 'They remind me of those days'.
He proffered the Tupperware box again, I took one, then he closed it, placed it back in his bag, stood up, doffed his hat. We said goodbyes.
After a few steps he turned, stood for a moment as if deep in thought, then said:
'I should have killed him you know'.
Turned and walked away..