She’s in the distance, quiet, unassuming, a beauty, ripe and calm and fresh. Livid purple skin, gleaming in the autumn sun. One stretch away, one tug, one twist, one grip, one grasp. And she’s mine. The softest, roundest, darkest plum in the whole tree.
It always means a lot to me to get the best one. It’s a subjective thing, of course, but subjective notions can still be right. Only I know which is the best, and I know early on, from August, even July, just by looking at the buds, at their shape and distribution, at their shade from the leaves, proximity to the branches, to water, to feed. It is a mathematical puzzle played out in nature, calling for the elimination of every option, one by one, until I’m left with a single fruit, the fulcrum, the perfect specimen.
The year of the winds was traumatic. 1987. I still shiver. I was twelve, just learning my craft, learning to discern the perfect from the fine, the fine from the good, the good from the ordinary. I bought a ladder with money from my paper round and I climbed my tree every afternoon, settled on a different bough and studied its branches. From the ground trees look the same, just a mass of green and brown and rustling and noise. You don’t know what you’re missing.
Go up in a tree one day. I promise you, you won’t regret it. Sit in the shade and study, study its toothy leaves, its black bark, its little thorns, those darlings waiting to catch you. Sit and breathe, smell its life, smell the freshness of the world in motion, because only when something moves as slowly as a tree can you truly catch the moment.
I lost my perfect in 1987. The storm. The night, nightmare. I watched from the window, watched my tree swoon and sway and stretch, creaking and straining like it was trying to break free from its roots. Hundreds of trees were lost that night. Mine remained.
But none of its fruit.
They were all on the ground the next morning, battered and bruised, bewildered by the suddenness of their ejection. I had no way of telling which was mine, now that it was sundered and sullied, made ordinary like the rest. I cried for the rest of the day.
I had two more summers with that tree, two more summers at The Lawns and they were the best of my life. I was connected, rooted, I felt I had a purpose as long as the tree held its fruit. I felt close to beauty.
I was moved to a different home in 1990, in Swindon, in a housing estate with only a few scabby larches on the pavements. I asked if there were any plum trees, any fruit trees of any sort, but my foster parents looked at me blankly, already regretting their choice.
For three years in Swindon I didn’t seed, didn’t flower, didn’t bloom, didn’t grow. Three years of stagnation, waiting for my plums to ripen again. I know what’s perfect, you see.