The Fall

By Caroline Coles.

We were collecting blackberries and had walked toward the docks alongside the railway track. Thick gorse bushes and brambles lined each side tumbling hither and thither, springing up high over the boundary and heading towards fields and sheds beyond.

This is my memory of home in the coastal town of Exmouth.

On my fifth birthday, armed with a walking cane nearly as big as myself, I commenced battle upon each bramble branch. My father, mother and two brothers were doing likewise. Everyone for themselves it seemed, although I am sure there was a watchfulness in case I needed help, as we grasped each cluster of berries. I’d dressed warmly and wore protective gloves and boots because May weather could be fickle and if I wasn’t careful the thorns would rip and hook into my skin and clothes. The walking cane wriggled in my arms and now started to extend and retract as the berries bent and squirmed before my eyes. Strength surged through my body from my magic cane.

During my childhood in the coastal town of Exmouth, Devon, these walking and foraging excursions gave us our cheapest entertainment and for my mother it was a gentle retreat from her domestic chores. It’s unbelievable how often and how far we walked, but we discovered plenty of fascinating things along the way and stopped for a picnic when we got hungry. I do recall, however, the excitement of travelling by car once with us three kids in the back of a small delivery van heading out to the forest for chestnuts. Our home, one of many in neat double storey rows in the centre of town, boasted an open fire in the sitting room, and generally we brought back pinecones and wood for burning, as well as the sought-after seeds. The challenge whilst bouncing along home was to break open each prickly outer case without piercing our fingers from the savage barbs or accidently sitting on one. Ouch! Inevitably, I went through some painful attempts to arrive at the object of my desire, a perfect chestnut. Although many were destined to be roasted on the grate in the evenings sitting around the hearth, a few had to be stored away to create the supreme champion of our conkers game.

Each chestnut selected was pierced through with a darning needle and strung securely with a strong twine to use in our play before months of being packed away to dry and harden. A prize conker had to survive the challenge of being smashed apart by another playmate’s conker. We each took turns to swing against one another’s and I learnt early on not to stand in harm’s way near either of my brothers during competition matches.

There was no such robust play when harvesting berries. When my magical cane came down on the last of the berries, we’d filled our buckets. My mother headed home with our wild fragrant berries ready to add to the promised pie. We in turn continued, and just like during many a weekend outing, off we scampered towards the moorings of fishing boats with seagulls wheeling overhead and a confusion of rubble, fish offal, and the rusty iron of a working harbour.

Sometimes, our outings ended far sooner at the sideshow alley instead, where the flapping canvas of carnival tents invited us to wander amongst the stalls. Everything exuded enticement to participate, even the cacophony of dinging, whirring, mechanical attractions and loud carnival music. Any one of the stalls promised a prize to be won. The treasure chest became my favourite because amongst the baubles and beads lay toys I was entreated to scoop up with the mechanical arm. My choice was either to insert a penny to play or use the lavatory, so wisely I always had at least one extra penny.  I took hold of the two wheels on the sides of the case to direct the inside armature towards the most attractive prize, sometimes chocolate, sometimes a stuffed toy. I don’t remember winning, not even once, because the carnival was geared to entertain and earn its penny profits in the end. Somehow, probably through lack of extra coins, I avoided being cajoled into gambling my last coin by simply enjoying the remaining glittering contraptions. Amongst these was the Nickelodeon machine. These tiny pictures flicked through my brain, engaging me in a further fiction of my imagination.

Whether at the harbour or at the sideshow alley, we enjoyed our young lives of excitement and freedom. Imagine, no safety barriers, no high-vis vests, no soft landings, yet we were happy children, carefree and well nourished by the watercress sandwiches my mother had packed. The watercress had been foraged from the stream in the Manor park only the day before. Many a family enjoyed this parkland for free and, on sunny days, we relished the chance to catch a double-decker bus to the village with its pretty thatched cottages and horse and cart rides. Our expedition never failed to provide a good supply of fresh cress. Often, whilst gathering the edible leaves, I was stung by the nettles that surrounded us along the path into the park and I quickly learnt to identify an antidote against red irritating rashes. Applied to bare skin, the broad cooling leaves of the dock plant would sooth the itching. Here, my magical cane was a useful aid to prod the vegetation around me.

None of the inconvenience ever put me off enjoying the prospect of being outdoors, not even the bumble bees buzzing close to the primroses as we picked them for harvest festival. Not even a mischance step onto cowpats whilst collecting field mushrooms for breakfast or even the threat of distant cattle. Every season seemed to bestow nature’s treasures and, with its annual repetition, evolved unbidden into a collection of the memories where I grew up.

Back then, my brothers created their own play and singled me out to run rings around me for the umpteenth time. Since I was much younger and shorter and I was a girl, I had no chance to compete, but I always seemed to be the target and it was inevitable I would end up in tears. This birthday was no exception and I still do not know how it started, but forward I fell with my head striking a broken piece of iron, protruding from the bitumen path.

At this point the world around me went black, my whole body closed down, except for my voice. I screamed out in pain. Only afterwards, was I conscious of lying face up towards the darkening sky in my father’s arms as he carried me all the way home. My forehead felt like a bloody mess, and it must have looked awful enough to scare everyone, even though I had escaped the worst. We arrived home in haste and the rain came down, but I had survived. Now all that remains to this day is a scar that reminds me of my misadventure. Thankfully the blackberry and apple pie was the best salve to all my woes, and today it is still my favourite dessert.

About the author:

She sailed to Australia in 1963 from Southampton docks, England. Now her home is amongst the rolling hills, surrounded by coastal waves and rugged landscapes similar to her childhood home in Devon. She worked with cameras in commercial News broadcasting and then Education before retirement. Her enjoyment is looking after friends’ dogs whilst she bides her time until a special dog comes along that can be her own. She has a passion to experience as much as possible, however on principle, definitely no dabbling in illicit drug production, weapons sales, or overseas indentured labour.

3 Responses

  1. Jenny Hurley

    What a great read, Caroline! Thoroughly enjoyed reading all your adventures, especially the seasonal foraging.

  2. Caroline E. Coles

    Thanks to the hard work of volunteers, I am thrilled to see the resultant display of all the memoirs.

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