Over the course of perhaps two weeks, blackberry season has pretty much approached, arrived, dawdled and is packing up its bags to leave. The sheer quantity of fruit dangling off hedgerows in the Cotswolds is startling, and it’s difficult to resist forever stopping to pick the blackest, ripest berries. Many a branch will yield almost all of its berries simply by running your hand over it; that’s also, I’ve found, an easy way to acquire splinters (I didn’t realise until K. looked blankly at me that nobody down south calls them “spells”.)
A few days ago I was picking berries on a steep, sharpish bend—albeit in a 30mph zone, and on an otherwise quiet-for-Cotswolds road—and so leant my bike on its stand in a short reservation near a cottage, a rocky space that might have been a passing place were the road not already more or less wide enough for two. It shared the area with a handful of red traffic cones, to which I didn’t give much thought. I started picking, almost exactly opposite the road from my bike.
The late September sun was out, sheep and village kids were alternately bleating and waheying in the distance, and I was marvelling at the sheer quantity of fruit I’d be able to bring home to K. once I was finished, when the calm of the evening was broken by someone calling: “Excuse me. Excuse me.” The statement, though hollered, had that dying fall that suggested that whoever was calling it wasn’t interested in being excused at all.
I turned round, looking back at the cottage and my bike, to find that the picture had been augmented by a gangling, straggle-haired old man with a black look where his upper incisors might have been. “Hi, yes?” I said back, as cheerily as I could manage.
“Is that your bike?”
“… Yes. Sorry, is it in the way?”
[ignoring] “Well, what a bloody stupid place to bloody put it. It’s in my bloody driveway. What were you bloody thinking of?”
“I was just keeping it off the road, to be safe.”
“That’s a bloody silly idea, isn’t it? What if I wanted to get my bloody car out? What then? What would I bloody do then?”
[Going over to move my bike, and talking as though I were gamely suggesting a possible solution] “Well, you could have done what you’re doing now, and just come over and ask me to move it, and I’d have moved it. No problem!”
[pause] “And what are you bloody thinking of, picking that bloody rubbish?”
[looking at berries, looking back at shouting man] “They’re free!”
“They’re bloody rubbish! They’re bloody dirty rubbish! This is a commuter road!”
By this point, I’d been stood more or less in the middle of the lane, being shouted at by a madman, for some two or three minutes. No cars had gone past. Some birds had flown overhead, but that was it.
[once again, as though offering advice] “No, I think… [points at main road to Witney] that’s the commuter road, over there. That’s the busy one!”
[pause] “This is a bloody commuter road! I’ve been here thirty years. Traffic goes up and down this bloody road all bloody day. We get bloody big trucks up and down here…! [rhetorically] Where the bloody hell are you from?”
[pause] “… What?”
“Blackburn. It’s in Lancashire.”
[wanders off, muttering] “Bloody idiot, picking that bloody… parking his bloody….”
I turned back to the hedge and carried on picking, ignoring him. I think he was sufficiently bemused not to go and get his shotgun, but I still can’t work out why he was so incensed. Perhaps I didn’t react contritely enough to his first complaint, and like anyone who really wants a good shout he had to move onto something else. Perhaps he thought that if he berated me enough then I’d give up and go away, and leave him with a load of berries that he had his eye on. Or perhaps he’d grown accustomed to considering the road outside his house as toxic and threatening, and the thought that all these years he’d discounted what others considered to be rich pickings made him annoyed with himself as much as with me.
My feeling was that it was best to pick as much as I could, there and then, but not come back to the same hedgerow the day after. There were other places to pick berries on my journey home: plenty of brambles were, after all, bent low with them. Not just that, but the sort of person who lives on one of the quietest roads in Oxfordshire—yet marks off their almost nonexistent driveway with traffic cones and stands at the window waiting to pounce on people propping their bike up there—is just the sort of person to see someone else having fun picking blackberries, wait for them to move on, and then reach for the paraquat.