Let’s go, he would say, as we held our toppling stacks of blue ice cream containers, arms wrapped round the warping plastic. We’d pile into the car, fighting over the front seat, doors slamming and then settle into the seats as dad swung the car out and around, down through the trees flickered in shadow, past the hydrangeas spilling out in waves of froth, and up the driveway onto the rim of the road. He’d turn right.
The month was summer’s Sunday, before it all began again—when the edges of the leaves were curling into gold, and a thrill of chill hung around the morning, but was burnt off by the afternoon’s heat, when the tar melted on the road, bubbled black sticking to our feet as we quickly crossed. Getting ready for bed, we’d peel the tar from our skin, and with it the debris of the day—sand, dirt, blades of grass. Sometimes I liked to inspect the midday melt, touching the dark iridescent film that then fused to my fingertips. It was like the melted beeswax we dipped our fingers into and then gently peeled away once set, inspecting the whorls of our prints within the honeyed gold.
The road eventually turned into dirt, wheels kicking up dust, and we’d pull over and clamber out. We only ever wore shorts once. Never again. Better to sweat.
Dragging the planks from the car’s boot, Dad would give us instructions, ones he learnt from his own father, our Popski. Use the wood to create an island to stand on. Place them end-to-end. You’ll slowly, slowly, move to the middle of the thicket, that’s where the best berries will be.
Watch to see where the birds go.
And so we did. Gently moving away from one another in a sea of blackberries. Filling up the ice cream containers, hands stained to purple. Inked up. Arms scraped the same colour if we weren’t careful. There were knots of green and pink, best left alone, or ones that were thick black, like the road’s tar, soft and falling apart in my hands, gone to rot. The rest, firm and dark, plucked straight off and fell an easy drop into the container between my legs. Sometimes I’d find a nest abandoned in the bracken, empty but for a few feathers.
Once, I placed the two pieces of wood side-by-side and sat cross legged, shaded from the sun, the sounds of my siblings’ shouts muffled by thorns. I looked up and watched the blue wash of the sky framed in shadowy thicket. I held my hand to my face, closed one eye at a time and watched the berries fade in and out of focus. Making myself dizzy.
Popski would have picked blackberries in Poland before the war, before he became a refugee. When he arrived in Pahīatua, with seven hundred and thirty-two other Polish children in November 1944, he was around the same age I was, among those brambles.
We hardly ever heard him talk about it, not really, but ever since I can remember, Mumsie has been writing it down. Interviewing others, piecing the narrative together. She’s putting it all into a book. It’s almost done. In her last email she wrote I hope to be able to give everyone in the family a copy when I finally finish.
She rolled out a map once, and with shaky hands Popski sat down and showed me where he began, the whorls of blue green topography he walked across, and where he arrived at the edge of the ocean, to be put on a boat. He shuffled through the piles of maps, looking for the one holding New Zealand. And this is where I found myself, months later, he said, pointing to the bottom of the North Island. I was alone and could only hope that my family would find me, oceans away, at the bottom of the world—I didn’t even know if they were alive.
Once sweated and stung and scratched, we return to the kitchen with our berried bounty. Carefully picking leaf and insect off each berry and pouring them into pots on the stove: one part sugar / one part blackberry. The sugar grits along the copper bottom but then softens to slush and the windows blanch as the steam rises. Tired, we traipse off in boredom as dad watches over each batch, and carefully distils it into jars. A pooling red sea rising. When cool, we return to place the brass disc on top and screw it tight with a matching ring.
Dad sends us down to the orchard to harvest the end of season fruits and he shows me how to bottle those up too. Green gold apples, sunset peaches. Plums a dark wine.
The next morning the table would be laden in glass. Stick slicked away. An overnight magic trick that was really just neverending fatherhood.
As I write this my friend posts a photograph of blackberries held in hand, gently glowing in the forest.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep I look at what dad’s selling on TradeMe:
length of perspex
I remember him bent over his workbench, air thick with sawdust and furniture polish. While he put the hive boxes together, I painted them yellow and white, and stacked them, ready to thread with wire and wax.
Popski’s father, my great-grandfather, was a beekeeper too. He died when I was a baby, and I don’t remember him, but when I slept over at Mumsie and Popski’s I would have his honey on toast for breakfast. These huge jars of gold, from summers long gone, had been harvested by the dead. Mumsie would tell me about him as I ate, silent and sticky-fingered.
One morning she popped the lid and said, This is the last jar.
When Popski died, my dad made his casket from kahikatea—white pine.
While the rest of the family gathered at Mumsie’s, I was in limbo at Amsterdam’s Airport, waiting for a flight that was four hours late. My brother Facetimed me, cushioned in a nest of William Morris’ green willow boughs. He frowned and said hey. Hey, I replied, and for once we just sat there in silence. He put down his phone to wipe his tears and suddenly I could see out to the garden. A flare of sun against the fluorescent blue of my face staring out. Staring in.
When I went home, two years after the fact, the floor of dad’s workshop was covered in sawdust. The remains of all the things he’s ever made.
When thinking about my family, I return to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in which he considers, “Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicentre only to return again, one circle removed.”
As the light fades, and the seasons shift, we consume what we’ve preserved—blackberry jam on toast, or by the spoon at night, stewed apples in pies, honey with lemon steaming to soothe a sore throat, plums and porridge. Peaches thick. Tamarillos.
It feels indulgent to consider what preserves hold, but they are an indulgence—children gorging on summer in the middle of winter. Preserves are time sealed in sugar, a time warp at the breakfast table, alchemy and magic before our eyes, in our mouths, sliding down into our guts.
One winter morning, Dad and I are the only ones awake. Up early for work and uni. We’re usually quiet on these mornings, at ease in our routines. I’m making coffee and I see him open the fridge; he reaches around the door to put the blackberry jam on the table, but the table has shifted slightly—a few inches to the left. As he opens his hand the jar drops and smashes. My shout of laughter wakes him up and he sees what’s happened. Pass me a cloth he says, shaking his head, smiling in disbelief. I do, and we crouch down, pulling shards from summer’s seeds.