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It was the summer term. Fruit picking time. After school, a double-decker bus would ferry pickers to and from Bowser’s strawberry fields in Frampton. It had to stop at countless corners before bouncing its screaming cargo of school children out of Boston on the marsh road through Wyberton. Jack’s plan was to beat the bus and get a head start on the fruit picking.

‘If we take the tandem, we’ll be there in no time.’

It was a family relic, belonging to a time when young couples would cement their relationship in the sharing of a single bike frame on vigorous cycling holidays. We had already been practising on the roads around Fishtoft. Taking up my position at the back, I had found it deeply frustrating that I had no influence over the steering (the handle-bars remained firmly immoveable) or the brakes (just hand-grips, rubbed smooth by severe squeezings). After a while, however, I got used to the back of Jack’s T-shirt and was soon confident enough to place my life in his hands. With your head lowered and eyes closed, you could get a feeling for the road and respond to the shifts of weight which flowed through the frame. Within a few days, we were hurtling round corners and startling a number of cautious motorists as we flashed by their wing mirrors in fourth gear.

On our first trip to the strawberry fields, we hardly broke into a sweat. Leaving the tandem at the side of the field, we grabbed the plastic baskets from the foreman at the weighing scales, and hurried to the rows where we could start our evening’s work. I looked about me. Ahead of us, the scarved heads of some of the regular women bobbed above slowly swaying rumps and some older lads lounged in a fag break to our right. Time to start.

I straddled the row and bent down. There was plenty of fruit on each plant which meant that you could pick two-handed and only needed to nudge the basket forwards with your foot every thirty seconds or so. At first, it was hard to resist eating some of the fatter strawberries, particularly the ones which filled the palm and shone with a teasing ripeness. Soon, however, we had established a purposeful rhythm and were well into our third basket by the time the bus arrived.

‘Heh up, the horde’s here.’

Jack stood up, his right fist pushing against his aching back. I straightened my legs and rubbed at my knees.

‘Say goodbye to peace and quiet.’

The field was suddenly home to a plague of locusts. Children as young as six or seven ran in all directions after older brothers and sisters. We could hear the foreman’s impotent shouts as he gesticulated wildly in what, from a distance, looked like a strangely balletic war-dance. Finally, temporary order was restored and we returned to the soil, eager to fill at least another three baskets before leaving the field to the pillaging army which had now descended upon it.

Unable to withstand an aching back for a second longer, I resorted to a crawl. A layer of mashed strawberries began to coat my knees, as I picked mechanically with one hand. I’d had about enough. Jack was above me, a few yards ahead, still picking with a passion and in the process of filling his fourth basket.

‘Need a breather?’

‘Yeah, I reckon so.’

As Jack straightened, a strawberry arced towards him and struck him squarely on the shoulder. Red pulpy streaks exploded across his face and juice dripped from his ear. He wiped himself with the cuff of his sleeve.

‘Shit! Who did that?’

A group of young boys had collapsed in a fit of giggles to our right.

‘Eh, knock it off, you little buggers.’

‘Piss off. Swivel on this.’

A ginger-haired lad from the middle of the group had cut short his hysterical thrashing and was now leaning back on his haunches, defiantly giving us the finger.

‘Right, let’s give it to ‘em.’

Our bombardment quickly scattered the group who took to hiding behind other pickers before bobbing up again to return our fire. Looking around, it soon became apparent that our minor skirmish had prompted similar exchanges in other parts of the field. A hail of strawberries dissected the sky and thudded into the mud. The foreman danced about in an apoplectic rage, cuffing heads and spitting out orders. He was joined by a couple of charge-hands and the tractor driver who galloped down the row, a lath of wood held menacingly above his head.

Time for one last throw. I was going to get that ginger-haired little runt. He had his back to me and was hopping from foot to foot, clearly enjoying the chaos and the foreman’s vehement outbursts. I drew my arm back and launched my strawberry towards his head.

To be continued.


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