Srawberry fields forever… my gypsy’s childhood

The best time of the year was when we’d pull down to the strawberry fields for the picking.

Me uncle’d drop off our cousins and we’d all stop together. We pulled to the same place every year. Mr Dawes, the farmer, even had a tap for us, behind the trailer, so we never had to run off and fill the churns with water. Other places, me and me sister would have to take a churn, on pram wheels, into the houses to get it filled. We’d pull right on the fields. You could see the trailers from where the strawberry rows were.

Each day, Mam would ask us how many rows we wanted. We had to decide how many we thought we could do in the day. It was back breaking, but it was like a holiday to us and it always seemed to be sunny, then.

Me Mam’d be sat with one leg cocked over the row. She had fingers like a machine and was by far the fastest picker! I’d be the slacker and then the man’d go mad because colour-blind eyes here, couldn’t see the difference between green and red and I’d pick them wrong.

The best bit of the day was when Mam’d call that it was docky time! She never had to pack it up, first thing, and bring it with her because it was such a short walk back to the trailers. She’d go back and make it while we carried on picking. She’d bring a big old enamel pot, ready made with tea, milk and sugar. Always peanut butter sandwiches. She’d have sent us to the shop to get what we wanted to put in them and we always got that. She never minded, she wanted to fill our bellies and get them made quick so she could get back to the rows.

There’d be girls there too! One reminded me of a little Victorian girl, like a dolly, with a ribbon in her hair. I gave her a big kiss behind the tree. I must have only been about eight or nine years old. She never knew my name, she called me Boy. I knew hers though and years later when I was growed, I saw her again. She didn’t know me, but I remembered her. I never spoke to her though. There was another girl, too. She had a big old plait right down her back, that her Mam would pull that tight, it would pull her eyes back.

There was a big conker tree just where we pulled. One year I climbed about five million miles up it to make a swing out of an old pallet. We’d play on that after the picking was done for the day, until Mam’d shout us back for food. What we having for bread Mam? Breast of mutton, always the breast of mutton! I’m sick of it now I’ve eaten that much of it in my life!

This place was where I kotch my first duck and one year I found a baby pigeon and Mam let me keep it, in a box, in the trailer. But I think I fed it too many strawberries, because it died. Me Dad kept shouting, “Don’t be giving that bird all them strawberries!” So I gave it some bacon, instead. What did I know, I was just a child.

Me uncle used to drop down and see us in his big old Ford lorry. Him and me dad used to lean up the wooden body and talk. Me Dad would call “Make a drop of tea my wife!”

On the weekend, when Dad would get his few quid, he’d take us all down the town and buy us something. If we were really lucky, he’d take us all to the coast in his Transit van, so we could go cockle picking. Us children rode in the back, swinging around like chimps. We’d get as many cockles as we possibly could, then bring them back to the trailers and boil them up in a big pot over the fire. We’d chuck the shells under a big tree and when I went back, as a man, there they were! Still there!

It was a beautiful place, lovely fields as far as your eye could see.
The strawberry picking.
It was like our holiday each year.
Always warm, always sunny.
The best of times.

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