Black Bryony #5

She filled two bags with an assortment of bilberries, crowberries, rosehip and even hawthorn, picking until her fingers would have been deeply tinged with their dye had she not been wearing the gloves she had bought with this trip in mind. She left the third bag empty. She had not yet seen the berry she needed. Black Bryony, her namesake. She knew it was here. She had read that it grew in and amongst the hedgerows on the south-facing slopes.

She searched for another half an hour. Each minute that passed increased her frustration, and with it, her desperation grew. She had been so sure that she would find it easily, too sure, and now time was passing and she had to hurry. The Three Bells was a good thirty-minute walk, and he would be waiting. He certainly would not be happy with her. She turned back. The track had branched off in different directions earlier, one of which, she was sure, led in the direction of the B & B. If she did not find what she needed there, other berries would work equally as well – the black-brown seed of the yew was very toxic, and only a few needed to slip down the gullet to be highly effective, or perhaps a few holly or ivy berries, but her concern there was that they were so easily identifiable. Perhaps a concoction, a medley of several, just to ensure that the outcome was a favourable one.

In her haste, she stumbled and felt a twinge of pain in her ankle. She stepped gingerly on it, testing it out. The stump of a tree lay a few yards away and she hobbled carefully towards it and sat down for a moment, feeling helpless and defeated. She circled her ankle. It did not hurt, there was no damage done, and she realised that it was no great loss if she did not find the elusive black Bryony here. She would simply devise a ruse to visit one of her daughters. Joan lived in Brighton and often asked if she would like to come down for a few days. Black Bryony preferred the south, just as she did.

As she lingered there resting her ankle, she spotted a ring ouzel, the blackbird that visited her home in early autumn. The white band of the bib on its chest did not stand out so prominently and it was of a slightly browner hue than the usual black, which meant it was a female. Bryony kept very still in the presence of the wary stranger. Like her, it had strayed far from home, and she wondered what its reasons were for coming here. It hopped closer to her and she held her breath as it fixed its dark, intelligent eyes on her. She knew what she was being asked.

Was she sure of what she was doing? Was she absolutely certain that this was the route she wanted to take? Once taken, there was no way back.

Bryony considered her position again. She could just as easily pack a bag while he was at work, and although he always came home for lunch, there was still ample time in which to get to the station and onto a train down to one of her children. It may take her some months to secret away enough money for the train, but it was not impossible. Once she was away, she could file for divorce. This had crossed her mind a thousand times before, and each time she had dismissed it. He kept such a tight rein on money that she would never be able to afford the cost of a solicitor. The bird dipped her head. Yes, it really was that bad, Bryony assured her. Each bill, each receipt was painstakingly scrutinised, each penny accounted for, each item needed to be justified. Her own personal allowance was so meagre that even her girls had noticed how rarely she bought anything new and had taken to buying her clothes and sending them up to her as gifts.

So, yes. She was sure.

The Ring Ouzel nodded and hopped away. It turned its head, checking to see if she was following, and turned and hopped several yards ahead. Bryony got to her feet and followed it as it spread its wings and took to the air. Her progress after it was less assured, less graceful. She limped along in its wake, worried she might lose sight of it, but although the bird dipped and soared and disappeared from sight now and then, it always came back for Bryony. Trees soon swallowed up the wild open heath as the terrain guided Bryony gently downwards towards the valley floor. The soothing gurgle of a stream kept pace beside her, while, above, the bird weaved a flight through the trees, and finally settled on the branch of a tree. It cocked its tail and dipped its head low. Bryony followed its beak. Below the tree, almost hidden from sight by foliage, she caught a glimpse of the bright scarlet berries hanging in magnificent grape-like clusters, ripe and ready for plucking.

The Ring Ouzel spread her wings, her farewell song a harsh cawing that made Bryony smile. Do not be alarmed for me, she told her. Already her hand was reaching into her pocket for the empty bag. She would fill it to the brim. The pockets of her old fleece were deep and accommodating.

They would return home tomorrow and the long four-hour drive would be nothing like the endless, interminable drive down had been. There was so much to look forward to she was sure it would pass by in a flash. Her daughters had promised to visit, bringing with them a feast to celebrate their parents’ anniversary. She would bake the puddings; she had insisted upon it despite their objections. She did not need a day off from the kitchen she had assured her girls.

She would make two puddings, she thought, as her fingers nimbly plucked the red berries and dropped them in the bag. One for her girls and their husbands, and a very special one for him, which she knew no one else would dare touch.

After that, she would never bake another pudding as long as she lived.

And she would not shed a tear. She was sure of it.

Illustrated by Kemi Athene Pennicott.

Savita Kalhan’s new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror, will be published by Troika Books on 1 May 2018.