Friday, 15 March 2013

The Mulberry Bush


Here we go round the mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush,
The mulberry bush.
Here we go round the mulberry bush,
So early in the morning.

Brings back memories of childhood, doesn’t it?  It’s a misnomer though, as mulberries don’t grow on a bush.  They grow on a tree.

This was brought to mind recently when I was sitting in a waiting room at Moorfields Eye Hospital.  I was chatting with a nice man and woman I’d never met before, about an idea I’ve been canvassing: which five fruits or vegetables would they bring with them onto a desert island if they were the only food to be had for many years; other than fish or animals caught in the wild.  A spin on the desert-island-discs theme, this gentleman was the first person to add avocado to the list.  Very sensible idea.  (In case you’re wondering, everyone wants grapes, olives or tomatoes so it’s after that things get interesting.)

In the course of this conversation I was surprised to discover neither the lady or the man, coming from different parts of England, had ever tasted a mulberry.  The lady had once seen a white one, which did not compute at all with my senses, for I know too well the deep purple, almost black, richness of a corrugated and plump mulberry as if it were an extension to my hand.

In an instant, vivid images of my childhood flooded back.  Eight Mullins kids running around the back-yard under a sprinkler, variously wrestling and throwing rocks at the black magpies which didn’t hesitate to swoop on us if they felt we were getting too close to the gum trees where their young were nesting. 

Clearly it’s hot in Australia. There were less water-shortages then so sprinklers were allowed, and it was a few years before we were to enjoy the advantages of an in-ground swimming pool and, much to our friend’s delight, a tennis court.  In these early years, the days of innocence and chaos, when our determined mother would leave oranges and cordial on the back verandah and then lock the back door so we couldn’t get in… the only way, I now understand, she had any hope of making dinner so it’d be ready for her hungry brood and our father when he came home from the hospital after rounds… we played for hours in the waning sunlight without a care in the world. 

Of course we often ran to the back door pleading for sympathy and to complain about one or other sibbling for “hitting me”, “teasing me” or some other exaggerated complaint.  But the stoic mother of eight, despite her mild exterior, was no push-over.  She needed that kid free hour for her own sanity, so she did not open that door until Mrs Gillies arrived to help bath us.  That’s right, how do you bath eight grubby kids in a reasonable time-frame and be sure not to miss one out?  You need help.  And Mrs Gillies, like the big magpies that hung over our large yard, didn’t hesitate to pick us up by the ears and drag us into the bath kicking and screaming if necessary.  Once in there the water-splashing was lots of fun of course, but I suspect we’d never have got clean if Mum or Mrs Gillies hadn’t been there to apply soap. 

One of my earliest memories is sitting in that deep yellow bath, my little knees up near my chest, with two sisters and one brother.  That’s right, four of us at once, for we were still small enough to sit facing across the bath.  We were each covered head to toe with purple mulberry juice.  It was our favourite pass-time, in fact, climbing that big old mulberry tree.  Positioned in the back left corner of the yard, adjacent to the fence delineating our yard from our neighbours, ‘the Desnicks’, a family with even more kids and infamously naughty… the mulberry tree’s branches were strong and kid friendly.  Some beams hung low to the ground, so it was easy to get right inside and climb up through the middle to reach the stash of juicy goodies at the top when lower stocks ran out.  Endlessly we munched on those mulberries, the rich purple juice running down our faces as we grabbed the next lot to throw at each other as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  

I loved that mulberry tree.  And as the lady and man at Moorfields Hospital mentioned the fruit I haven’t now eaten for decades, the smell, texture and richly-coloured stains on freckly Celtic skin came back to me like it was yesterday.   Our mulberry tree was a magical stash of entertainment and nourishment, particularly comforting when despite repeated efforts Mum still wouldn’t open that damn back door so I could complain about my brothers.  (Well, usually Damian, the sibbling who remains the biggest stirrer in the family... and, I’m happy to say, also very loving and full of life.)

Mum did open the sacred back door prematurely when Alison got bitten by an ugly red-back spider… and Sean (still in nappies) got stuck two metres in the air on barbed-wire as we tried (unsuccessfully) to pass him over the fence in an attempt to make The Great Escape… for I guess Mum sensed in our chorus of yells something more serious.  Indeed, looking back, I imagine our dear Mum developed a good ‘scream radar detector’ for how else could she have navigated the chaos to identify the genuinely needy from the melodramatic?  And of course she relied often, as you would, upon the threat of “wait ‘til your father gets home…” which usually sent us scurrying off the verandah and back into the depths of our huge yard in hopes of not being discovered.  Ever.  Or until depths of hunger banished fears of punishment.

Innocent days.  Innocent mad days.  As they should be. 

As we hope children still get to enjoy… despite the lure of more insular and lethargic options such as computer games and TV. 

It’s funny though, for remembering that mulberry tree now, I don’t ever recall opening the gate in subsequent years to pop behind the fence to pick mulberries to eat while lounging around the pool with our teenage friends.  The tree was still there.  Wasn’t it?  So why had it lost its amazing allure?

I feel sad to think we grew up that quickly.  So soon too worried about how we looked in our bikinis to risk being smothered in purple juice. 

There was no malice in it, of course, just dismissal… the way a doll or a football is suddenly left alone in the corner… not so much unloved as ignored or forgotten. 

As I sit now in London, hungering for the arrival of spring, I feel a mad urge to taste mulberries again.  To remind myself what all the fuss was about.  I know it won’t be the same.  But for a moment I want to feel again that total abandonment to the senses.  I want to climb up into the middle of a tall tree without a fear in the world – as if the tree, the yard, the air, the fruit, the birds, are a private and rich domain, the beginning and end of the universe as I know it. 

In the meantime I’m going to close my eyes and sing… here we go round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush