I grow blackberries in my garden now.
Perhaps it is a reminder. Or perhaps I just like the sweet tang of them, the soft purple sheen dissolving into blood red on my tongue.
I pass the poorhouse every day. I often see the children there, staring out of the windows with hollow, hungry eyes. Sometimes it hurts me, the way they look. Other times I remember that they’ll be grateful for what they have when they’re older. When they see how fortunate they really are.
I am standing at the gate now. There is a cruel autumn wind, and the children are in the courtyard, huddling in groups to keep warm. I am grateful for my cloak, my hat, my gloved hands, as I stare at them trying to warm their bare arms with bony fingers.
I can almost feel the frost biting their scantily covered feet, the biting chill pervading their bodies. I remember that feeling very well.
My fingers are tingling now. I know that the boy in the corner of the courtyard has lost all feeling in his, and yet a well-fed looking woman calls to him to pick up some chopped wood. Her sharp voice pervades my mind, threatening to unlock the door that leads to a darker time in my life that took me years to bury.
I step away from the gate as if it burns me. Perhaps it does - the cold is seeping through the gloves, bleeding through my layers.
Uncovering the past.
I saw what they wrote about me.
Lydia Portsmith. Ten years old. Offence for which convicted: Stealing a quarter of blackberries. I had tried to run of course, but the fence I had climbed over seemed suddenly too high, my legs too short, my hands too numb, and the blackberries bumped inside the pocket of my dirty apron, weighing me down like lead.
The hand was tight on my collar, large, heavy fingers clamping down and pulling me to a halt. Blackberries spilled out, their glossy, inky skin glinting as they thudded on the hard ground.
My hand lurched towards them, but the hand on my collar yanked me back.
“I’ve got it!” the voice yelled. He turned me towards him so I could see his cruel eyes, the way his mouth curled as he hissed, “Little thief.”
My eyes fluttered, his face shifting and wavering. Black spots danced in front of him, as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope. I found myself wondering what he would have looked like if he hadn’t eaten for three days. Would he be thinner, weaker, more desperate? Would he have felt a prickle of pity?
I cried as they led me away. Not because I knew what lay ahead of me; every person in my position knew the stakes when they became so desperate that they resorted to snatching and stealing for their dinner. You knew what would happen if they caught you.
I cried, because as they took me through grimy London streets, I realised I hadn’t had a chance to eat a blackberry.
Some of the children have noticed me as they are pushed inside to eat. Supper won’t be much, but at least it’ll be hot. The light is fading - it will be dark soon.
I walk away from my past in my new shoes and warm cloak.
My house is very small, because I cannot afford any bigger. It doesn’t bother me much; I like to be enclosed, warm, safe.
There is blackberry pie waiting for me in the larder. I baked it last night.
I cut myself a slice and sit down in my chair by the window, looking out onto my little garden. Tips of factory spires can be seen just over the fence, misty in the distance, smoke spiralling and dissolving into grey air. I often realise how fortunate I am to be a maid working at a house in Kensington Gardens instead of a factory girl. I remind myself of it every day, even when the mistress is shouting at me, when the blisters show on my hands again, when my bones are weary from working.
I settle back, digging a spoon into the pastry, the dark red fruit.
Taking a bite, the blackberries seem to kick, like they’ve gone bitter.
And it’s then that I see the little girl.
She’s by my blackberry bushes, pulling off the ripe fruit with dirty fingers and stuffing them into her pockets. Her hands tremble from hunger. The skin on her legs and arms seem to stick to her bones.
Somehow the blackberry pie makes it to my table, the enamel bowl clattering on wood. I am out of the garden door and running towards her. She sees me, turns to run, but I am too close, she is too weak.
“Thief!” I scream. I reach out as she goes to climb my wall, and my fingers catch her collar. She is too weak to struggle. The blackberries spill out of her pockets and land on the ground - wasted. She starts to cry.
For a few seconds understanding prickles on my skin. I’m sure I’ve seen this girl somewhere - I just can’t remember where.
I realise I’ve seen her in me.
She’ll thank me for it eventually. She’ll realise, when her bones ache, her stomach moans, her fingers start to bleed from teasing old rope and turn raw from washing and ironing clothes that don’t belong to her - she’ll realise she is being trained for a better life. She will not be the victim of destitution.
I am doing her a favour as I lead her away to the poorhouse, emptying her pockets of the blackberries.
They squash in my hands, red juice covering my skin and dripping to the frozen ground.