Although, by the mid 1980s, our house was in desperate need of repair, my Mother, with some assistance from Mother Nature and me, kept the garden in good order.
The plum tree was very old and every year produced a huge amount of fruit. The best of the plums were to be found in the lofty heights of the tree. Having a fear of heights, I was never going to climb into the tree to recover them. And ladders were definitely off limits to Mum. Unless she could charm a man into her garden, the plums stayed firmly fixed to the tree. That is, of course, until early Autumn when a good shake of the trunk would result in a few dozen falling to the ground, every day, perhaps, for a week or two.
Mum made lots of jam with the plums, crumbles, too, pies and chutney. Some were frozen, but most were given away, especially to the agile men she charmed from over the garden gate. "You can keep a few, if you like," she'd say, enticingly.
Mum never gave to receive, but, dear reader, we watched the universal laws of karma in action as every bucket of plums seemed to return a jug of milk, a dozen eggs, cheese, apples, honey or the gas man offering a free service of the fire in the living room.
Of course, some of the plums were eaten, too. And with so many on the tree, one could, if you'll excuse the pun, cherry pick. The bruised and generally blemished articles were set aside for jam or chutney. The others were used in cooking or eaten. The ones with an amber like issue, Mum claimed, were fine to eat. "It's just sugar," she'd say as I picked it off. None were ever thrown away.
Mrs Lily was a very conservative woman living two doors along from us. We all thought she was posh. She didn't need our tree to accentuate her accent. A plum was always in her mouth. During the summers, she wore wide brimmed hats which, to me, looked like pieces of net curtain dipped in PVA glue to stiffen. And even in her sixties, she wore a bikini in her back garden, sunbathing, exacerbating her prune-like look.
Unlike our self made effort, Mrs Lily had a greenhouse bought from a horticultural supplier and put together by her very capable, very chauvinistic husband. Like a scene from The Sound Of Music, he had his children march to the sound of a drum every morning with the rising of the sun. Their back garden was a parade ground. The greenhouse was very productive and Mrs Lily proudly swapped a pound of her under-glass grapes for every three pounds of plums Mum gave her.
Mum usually made wine with them.
One Summer, perhaps 1985 or 1986, Mum left a bucket of plums on Mrs Lily's doorstep. She usually called Mum on the telephone ordering her to send me or my brother to her house. We were never allowed in, but would peer into her living room, through the kitchen from the back door with awe and astonishment. Very Versailles. We knew not to ring the door-bell at the front. She'd shoe us away. We knew our place - the tradesmen's entrance. On this occasion, the telephone did not ring. Five minutes passed, Mum scratched her head and drew the corners of her mouth down towards her chin. Puzzled. Well into the evening, Mum picked up the telephone to check for a dialling tone. All was well.
The next day, while pegging out the washing, Mum saw Patsy, a neighbour, passing along the back alley. Always inquisitive, I ran down to the garden gate to hear the conversation.
Mr Lily was dead. And two days since. Mrs Lily had woken up to find his toes had fallen off in the night. Gangrene. He was cool, though not cold, and definitely alive. The ambulance had been called and found him unconscious, though washed and dressed, propped up in his arm chair, supported by the back of a dining-room chair.
Patsy said, "Well, it's not proper, is it."
He was taken away to hospital and died later that afternoon. He'd not been taking his diabetes very seriously and, for want of a better expression, had killed himself by overdosing on sugar, all thanks to the grape must he'd been producing in his garage.
Mum went to Mrs Lily's back door to retrieve the bucket of plums, but they were gone. To this day, no-one knows who had taken them, though Mum speculated that Barbara, the stripper next door to Mrs Lily, took them for herself.
Mrs Lily went away to Torquay, even before her husband's funeral, not even returning for it. She was a drama queen who felt nothing for her husband. She'd not play second fiddle to him, not even at his burial.
Her son, on the day of the funeral, ripped the grape vine out of the greenhouse, made some kind of pyre in the back garden and burned it. Smoke billowed all around. Mum and Mrs Tiller both complained to one another, the two of them having washing on the line at the time.
Mrs Lily's son went on to join the army, though his career was short-lived. He had a thing for fire, you see, and tried buring some buildings down in Colchester, Essex.
Mrs Lily never returned from Torquay. Removal men came and one of her daughters was left to oversee the transference of her regal furniture to her new home in Devon.
Mum never made wine again.