Blackberry canes. They are a weed here. Every autumn chums come and help me pull them out. Every spring, there they are again, pushing themselves through the lawn, emerging from fencelines, invading the vegetable patch. Primocanes soar over rooflines, bow down again and re-root as they touch the ground. I am torn between admiration and despair. Wanting them gone, but wanting their fruit.
I look at the canes and know I could, feel I should, put them to good use. I hear the voice of Old Felty rasping: ‘Waste not, want not!’, and remember with a shudder trying to hide from him during my holidays with Great Uncle Mole. It was futile. With leaden moleheart, I’d await his distinctive knock on the burrow door. Dahdidahdidah (he’d been in Signals during the Great War).
‘Where’s that young Moley?’ He’d demand of whoever opened the door. If it was Uncle Ratty there was a chance I’d have a short reprieve; Uncle Ratty was nothing if not inventive about my other commitments, but Great Uncle Mole had no guile and if I was out of luck, I’d be hauled into forced labour before I’d even unpacked my knapsack.
Old Felty was a papermaker of some renown but this was little comfort to me at the time. Take a moment to imagine the most horrible job a small mole might be told to do and you won’t go far wrong. Old Felty assigned me first to cutting down blackberry canes which was bad enough but not half as painful as the second stage: peeling off their prickly outer bark until my paws were like bleeding hedgehogs.
What hurt me most of all was that I was destroying the very canes that would have produced the most delectable fruit the following year – delectable fruit that might have been picked for Great Uncle Mole’s apple crumble. In those days I thought blackberry thickets were finite – although it barely seemed so when I was under Old Felty’s rule.
Now my twinges of guilt about not immediately harvesting the canes are overridden by greed. Those that by some oversight were not dug out the previous year, sprout blossom and before the petals have even thought about dropping, tight nascent fruit have begun to form in their centres.
I begin to feel myself salivating.
But blackberries – I wish I followed their example more often; they will not be hurried. Their drupelets may look dark and juicy but if they are not ready they will cling to their stems and bleed into your grasping claws. If you persist and eat them they will be sour. If, though, you wait until they drop willingly into your paw, you are blessed with sweet and juicy perfection. It is possible to wait too long. Never eat a blackberry after Old Michaelmas Day, they used to say in Great Uncle Mole’s neck of the woods. Puck spits on them.
There is a right time for all things.
And perhaps it is the right time to venture into the cellar where there is a parcel about the size of a very thick atlas wrapped, not in brown paper, but in something that is almost cloth. It is held together in a cat’s cradle of string held into place with globules of sealing wax. A rather cheap luggage label has been tied to it. Uncle Ratty has written in barely legible ball-point:
‘For Moley. Left on the doorstep by Old Felty shortly before his death, 2nd Oct 1959.
Uncle Ratty never sent it on. I found it decades later when I was clearing out his boatshed. I brought the parcel home to the Antipodes but couldn’t bring myself to open it.
And so now I carefully lift the globules of wax. I don’t cut the string but prise open the knots with my little claw. The paper is so thick it unfolds itself. There is a frame, no two. Cherry wood, I think, dovetailed to nestle into each other. One is meshed. It is an exquisite press, made, no doubt, by the master papermaker himself. There is a note attached. Old Felty’s words echo Uncle Ratty’s but they have been written neatly in thick black ink and with a calligraphy pen.
‘For Moley, who is to be my successor.’
Somewhere in my molegut I think I knew there would be strings attached to whatever Old Felty might have left for me, and I did not want to feel beholden.
But now I can see the press for what it is, admire the craftsmanship and the quality of the paper that it was wrapped in. Perhaps I feel a pang of guilt when I see a towering blackberry cane and don’t harvest it, but I know now that I am not obliged to be Old Felty’s successor, that my path is a different one.
And perhaps he knew, too. After all he hadn’t left me the cauldrons he boiled up the bast in, nor the mallets to pound the fibre with.