Disaster struck last August. Storm Ellen, feeble as she was in London, brought down a third of the sole tree in the garden. Nobody was underneath it at the time, mercifully. Still, I was bereft. “I’m very sad about it, this loss that I cannot grow back,” I wrote in my gardening diary, somewhat dramatically. I was enamoured with our lonely tree, which kept itself company with two twists of its trunk. I also did not want to spend the afternoon hacking the branch to bits with a pruning saw, but these things must be done.
I was roundly told that the tree was a goner. No fewer than three landscape gardener friends told me as much within seconds of setting eyes on it, and as the autumn came, and I put its leaves in the compost, I made peace with the knowledge we’d have to fell it eventually. The blossom I’d waited nine months to witness arrived late and underwhelming. In its wake came the smallest green pellets, which I ignored until I recognised them: plums. This cankerous tree, sap still shining from the open wound where its branch used to be, was fruiting.
I didn’t entertain much hope. I grew up with several unpredictably fruiting trees and the gluts they inflicted upon us. Soft apples, waspy pears and months of plums, the abundance of which, in 2001, put me off them for life. Or so I thought.
It transpires it’s a Victoria that we’ve been bestowed. Infamously brittle branches (the one from my youth also snapped under the weight of its own yield), famously sweet fruit. In the midst of the June deluges the windfalls started, and I’d find them lingering on the patio, small and hard as hazelnuts. Honeydew clung to everything below: the foxgloves, the euphorbia; the little bird feeder bath was turned to syrup. I began to wonder if it was worth it. After all, I was not a fan of plums.
A hot weekend was all it took to turn those green bullets into soft, burnished treats. I reached out for one at eye-height and it twisted off in my palm, heavy and light at the same time, before proudly depositing two at the kitchen table. The words of my father came to mind: “Cut them in half to see if they’ve got any inhabitants.” Plum fruit moths lay their young in the fruit, leading to caterpillar discoveries without due care. They hadn’t got to this tree – yet.
Like the long-overdue heat, that first mouthful was a summer I’d not prepared for. All glut-grudges had been forgiven, I just wanted more. I ate two in swift succession from the tree and then went snuffling around for windfalls like a truffle pig (baby slugs share my appreciation for them, but I was not beyond brushing them off a relatively unscathed one). Knife in hand, carving off lumps of the good stuff, stone in the compost bin. Pleasantly tormented by the dozens I spotted hanging at the top of the tree, I started fantasising about hiring an enormous ladder. Perhaps a cherry-picker would do it. “Nets? Like Greek olive farmers?” suggested my dad, enviously, from a sunlounger in Corfu.
What a difference a year makes. I still find trees a mystery, these patient, centuries-old beasts that see so much change and yet continue to mark our seasons. I’m not sure what will become of the plum, whether it will bloom again, whether it will break once more in a late-summer storm. But how generous of it to have given fruit. What I didn’t eat I left to the earth – for the slugs, for the flies, for the soil beneath. Sweetness, in this strange and soggy summer.
Next week: Nina Caplan on drink