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Sitting With Baskets

Sitting With Baskets

Once, in the early sixties, after a loud drive in second gear along a bumpy track tacked between thick trunks, Fedora Father steered Hillman straight through snapping shrubs. Suddenly, a high stone wall with six, skinny, blind windows blocked us, pushed me down into the red, leather seat. I wished that we were parked in front of our own house with next-doors’ neat driveways all in a row. Must’ve.

“The Pritchards occupy rooms around the front,” Father explained.

 “I’m not allowed to get muck on my shoes .”

“Just follow me, Niamh” Father said. “Fine. Frugal. Family. Quakers.”

Frugal meant sensible so I cheered up and hopped beneath the leaves, imagining a bright orchard and ponies beyond. Instead, we stepped into a barn with hay-sweet air, church-high shelves and what Father called ‘wooden press contraptions’. The Pritchards made their own Cidona.  Father flicked the dandruff from his overcoat collar, his fingers broad, not like my mother’s ruby-ringed and polished. He wiped the toe of each shoe on the back of the opposite trouser leg. I walked behind his black heels striking giant flags until we halted in a wide Aga kitchen, my mother didn’t have.

Then I saw Miss Pritchard. She was sitting on a stool swaying from side to side. She had faded black overalls on and, yes, a dull grey ponytail. Money tied up in land is no excuse for letting yourself go, I’d heard my mother say. But each time, Miss Pritchard picked an apple from one basket and placed it in one of three other baskets, apricot satin peeped out at her cuffs. Her hair swished from side to side too like a lively horse’s tail. I liked that. 

Father sat on a stool in front of her, his coat hem trailing the floor, his Fedora on one knee. After a while of their soft talk, and her gentle weaving, Father got up and poured himself a cup of tea from the pot on the range. Next, he reached up to the top of the giant sideboard that was carved with trailing leaves and cherubs biting apples and lifted the cake tin out from a clutter of jars, tea-towels and bottles my mother would’ve made me clear. Miss Pritchard didn’t bat an eye.

A cripple! Must be. Paralysed from the waist down.  

Father then placed the open blue tin on the floor beside his shoe; she didn’t pass any remarks about his dreadful Mayo manners. She and Father fitted together in some way that he and my cake-stand mother did not. I took against her a bit. I decided to call her, Sitting with Baskets.

I sat on my hands on a bench beside double doors like I’d been told. I scotched Madeira crumbs from my good tweed coat. I looked all around to see if I could see her wheelchair anywhere. It was probably behind the doors.

Suddenly those doors opened and a bowed-over man shuffled into the room. Father stood up, shook his hand. The man pulled some papers from his inside pocket, handed them to Father who tapped the man’s shoulder with them as they said things I couldn’t hear. My Father divided up big farms – like Pritchards – into smaller farms for more families. A kind of Robin Hood, he said. The frail man and my Father slipped out.

I promptly turned into an urge not to be noticed.

Sitting with Baskets smiled at me. Her smile was not a big person to a child smile at all.  Warm, silent minutes followed. I counted the tiny holes on my black patent shoes. Then she spoke.  

“There’s Cidona in the hallway through the double doors.”

I turned down her offer. Their Cidona was probably flat anyways.

“Come over here beside me, Niamh.”

I pretended not to hear. I mean, I knew I didn’t have to obey because she couldn’t come and get me. Also, her attention was on sorting the apples. Each time she remembered me, she’d smile and say, will you not over come here Niamh? When, eventually, I did smile back, she let out a whoop and I shot up and wove my way past tall, tangled fire irons that could’ve heavy-clattered on my foot and ripped piping that dripped from the back of a couch.

“Draw up that stool there.”

“Will I take off my Sunday coat?”

“Just spread a tea towel across your knees.”

“Watch. It’s easy peasy. Grip the stalk, use your left hand, turn the apple slowly with the fingers of your right hand and, at the same time, stroke the skin with the fingers. Gently. Like this. Rightio?” She breathed close to my ear. My mother’s words about her skittered away like dried leaves in autumn.

I picked up a firm red and yellow apple, twirled it by the stalk in front of her inspector eyes, gladly suffering the agony of, what if it falls before she nods at the correct basket. There I’d find a snug home for it, where it wouldn’t be wedged too tightly yet wouldn’t slip and upset the already settled apples. She explained that that she was sorting apples into perfects, seconds and imperfects. Apples with soft blotches were placed in seconds and apples with brown blotches went into imperfects. I tried to copy her swaying rhythm.  

Soon she stopped looking at the apples I held up for her approval. I worried about not being able to see a soft or rotten bit in the dim light. For a while, I was gripped by a feeling that whichever basket I chose for an apple, I’d be wrong. So when I’d settled each apple carefully in the basket I’d decided it should be in, I’d shift it about a bit to try and hide it. I was scared that Sitting with Baskets would pat me and say, it’s ok, well done and after we‘d gone home, sort all the apples again herself.

When Father returned, he looked into the baskets, moved two or three apples about, threw one from seconds into imperfects, said, good girl. I knew it wasn’t false praise, that I’d done a real job.

Sitting with Baskets picked up a pink and green apple, wiped it across her skirt and handed it to me. I took it, twirled it by the stalk, looking for the imperfection. There was none. We smiled at one another and then she stood up and walked towards the barn!

My cheeks flamed.  

After the ‘miracle cure!’ visit, I begged Father to take me back to Pritchards. I wanted to show-off how mammy had taught me to peel the apples they’d given us in one long, unbroken twirl of skin. But the truth was that I longed to sit close to Sitting With Baskets again and though I couldn’t articulate it, I yearned for the thrill of the strange freedom I’d enjoyed in her kitchen.   

“We’ll see, next week, maybe,” was all Father would say.

I counted the days.

But we never returned. Fedora Father was struck down with a heart attack and all promises went with him in his suitcase to hospital.

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