Granny Smith's Homemade Damson Jam
Dear old Granny Smith. Sweet old Granny Smith. And don’t go poking fun at her name. Smith was her surname and she certainly was a grandmother, many times over. She and her husband Pops Smith (we always called him Pops, I’m not sure I ever heard anyone call him anything else – he died a few years back, bless him) had a total of 12 children, all of whom went on to have their own kids. They say that when the Smiths celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary at the village hall, there was a grandchild present for every year they’d been together.
Anyway, bringing up that large family during the Second World was a struggle, what with the rationing and all, and that’s when Granny Smith first caught the self-sufficiency bug. Waste not, want not, she’d say and she made sure nothing Pops grew in his garden or that she and the kids found growing in the hedgerows ever went to waste. If it could be turned into wholesome food, she’d do it.
Of course nowadays its all about having our five daily portions of fresh fruit and veg but back then we didn’t have freezers. So, anything that couldn’t be eaten while it was still fresh, Granny Smith would bottle and preserve rather than see it go to waste. She’d turn tomatoes into homemade chutneys and onions into pickles and as for jams… Well, there were strawberry and plum and cherry and raspberry and apricot jams. There was gooseberry conserve. There was redcurrant and bramble jelly. And then there was… well, I could go on all day about the different jams and preserves she made.
After the war, Granny Smith couldn’t get out of the habit of picking and pickling and preserving things. At first it all used to go to the kids but when they eventually grew up and left home, Granny Smith used to give any spare jars to her friends and neighbours in the village. And jolly grateful we were too.
But then, in later years… I think it became a bit of a mania. Pops died – cancer, he’d always been a heavy smoker – but that didn’t stop Granny Smith. She’d always be asking for any spare jam-jars and people would see her out till late in the evening picking berries off the hedgerows. Before long, we’d regularly be finding gifts of pots of jam or pickle tucked in with our morning newspapers and milk. Mrs Hillingdon – and you know what an old gossip that woman is – once told me she’d seen Granny Smith boiling up pans of the new season’s jams when she still had cupboards stacked with jars full of the previous year’s preserves.
I guess nowadays we’d say it was some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder – that or else she was just going a little bit batty, what with being on her own and having always made jams and pickles. But of course nobody liked to say anything because Granny Smith was such a dear old soul.
She also had this… I’d suppose you’d call it a winsome smile. Her teeth, even when she got older, were small, delicate, perfectly formed and pearly white. Beautiful, really. Mrs Hillingdon, in one of her bitchier moments, said that no doubt explained the 12 children. Anyway, none of us had the heart to turn away her increasingly generous – but unwanted – gifts of jam, so we’d just say a polite thank-you and tip the contents down the sink as soon as Granny Smith was safely out of sight. Then, we’d wash out the bottles and jam-jars and give them back to her to use in her next bottling session. I know, we were making a rod for our own backs.
Then came this last season – and you know what a good year it has been for fruit. The trees, the bushes and the hedgerows were groaning with berries. This autumn scarcely a day went by we didn’t see Granny Smith bustling around the village with carrier bags full of freshly picked fruit or else pulling her little wheelie shopping basket along behind her, as she hunted for more jam-jars.
Now the highpoint of our autumn is the harvest festival supper in the village hall and if was only after it was all finished and we were doing the washing-up that the thought suddenly struck me: we hadn’t seen Granny Smith that evening. As we talked about it among ourselves, we realised none of us had seen her for at least two or three days.
I mentioned it the Vicar, he’s a big man, used to be in the army and play rugby. “Righto,” he said, “we’d better make sure she’s OK. I’ll go round there right now. Anyone else want to come?” Of course we all did, so we followed the Vicar out of the hall, across the village green and over to Granny Smith’s cottage.
“There’s something not right with that house,” said the Vicar, as we came around the high hedges that hid her cottage from the rest of the village.
He was not wrong. The walls looked like they were bulging. The roof was sagging in the middle. We could see a lot of clutter and furniture by one of the downstairs windows. And there was a trail of glistening green slime dribbling out from one the bedroom windows.
“Bloody hell,” said the Vicar. (I noticed Mrs Hillingdon take a sharp intake of breath, as if she’s never heard cussing before. The hypocrite, her old man swears like a sailor.) “It looks like the upper floor has collapsed,” continued the Vicar.
He moved across to take a closer look at the trail of slime. “Do you think that’s ectoplasm?” asked Mrs Hillingdon, who can sometimes be a very stupid woman. I watched as the Vicar sniffed at the slime, dabbed one of his fingers into it – and gingerly tasted it.
“Good Lord,” he said, “it’s gooseberry jam.” Then he and a couple of farmers, who’d also followed us over from the village hall, put their shoulders to the front door and pushed their way in.
“Better not come in here,” one of the men said, “far too dangerous, looks like some of this has collapsed into the cellar.” That didn’t stop me peering over his shoulder though. I was shocked. I’ll tell you what I saw.
For as far as the eye could see, there was an ocean of jam. In the beam of a torchlight I could make out the reds of strawberry and raspberry jams, mixing with an ooze of darker colours – damson, blackcurrant and blackberry jams I’d guess – that was flowing down the ruined staircase like a river. And everywhere there was broken glass, the remains of cracked and smashed jam-jars and bottles that were even now adding their contents to a sticky mire that was rapidly subsuming the cottage.
I looked at Mrs Hillingdon and Mrs Hillingdon looked at me. I could tell we were both thinking the same thing: Granny Smith’s obsession had finally got the better of her. She’d collected so many jars and stored so much bottled jam and preserves that the weight had caused the floor to collapse. But, where was Granny Smith?
“Hello, anyone at home?” I called out. There was no reply – but there was a sound that seemed to be coming up from the cellar. “What’s that noise?” I asked.
We all paused and listened. “It’s like the sound of a million tiny feet and the fluttering of thousands of little wings,” said Mrs Hillingdon. Sometimes I do worry about that woman.
“It’s insects. Probably wasps and bees attracted by all that jam,” said one of the farmers.
We shouted out Granny Smith’s name a few more times but there was still no reply. By now, it was pitch-black – there was no moon that night – and the Vicar said what we were all thinking. “It’s not safe for us to go scrabbling around there in this light, we’re going to have to get help.”
To give them their due, the emergency services arrived promptly enough but then they equally promptly realised they needed heavy lifting gear and that they’d have to shore-up the walls before they could clear any of the debris and start searching for Granny Smith. So, after some more fruitless shouting to attract Granny Smith’s attention, it was agreed the rescue attempt would resume at first light the following morning.
They said ‘rescue’ attempt but we all knew they really meant recovery attempt and that we’d probably never see Granny Smith alive again.
Good as their word, the emergency services were back at Granny Smith’s cottage just as dawn was breaking. And so were we – me and Mrs Hillingdon, that is – pushing an urn full of freshly-brewed tea for the workers, an urn that magically parted the plastic incident-tape that had been erected to cordon off the cottage from the rest of the village. Early reports, picked up as we circulated with top-ups of tea and biscuits, confirmed that Granny Smith had not been upstairs in her bedroom when the floor had collapsed.
One hour later we were back with tea and hot bacon sandwiches, our arrival conveniently coinciding with the removal of the rubble and debris of the fallen first floor and the start of the search of the ground floor. This time the reports indicated that Granny Smith had not been in either her kitchen or sitting room when the ceiling had collapsed.
Attention now turned to making the cottage walls safe before the cellar was cleared of debris and the search resumed. As we were making our way back to the village hall to replenish, we overheard one of the fireman talking about a massive column of ants he’d seen making their way in and out of the cellar. “It was the biggest column of ants I’ve ever seen. There must be the mother-of-all ants nests down there,” he said.
One hour later we were back, this time with a selection of homemade cakes to accompany the tea. We had plenty left over from the harvest supper (our villagers are always so kind and generous) and although we had planned to serve the cakes to the Over Sixties Friendly Club, which meets in the village hall every Thursday afternoon, Mrs Hillingdon and I both agreed the rescuers were a more deserving cause.
Once again we parked the tea urn where we could observe proceedings and so I was there and witnessed with my very own eyes the moment when they finally found Granny Smith. She was dead of course but I’d have recognised her smile anywhere, what with those delicate, little pearly-white teeth. Mind you, her teeth were the only part of poor old Granny Smith that were still recognisable.
Ants, attracted by the jam stored in the cellar had stripped clean every inch of flesh from her, leaving behind just the gleaming bare bones of her skeleton. A skeleton now welded to the floor by spilled jams and whose exposed ribs poked up like the pastry lattice-work of some goulish jam tart.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” said Mrs Hillingdon, “there are going to be pathologists and forensic scientists crawling over this place before the day is out.”
“I know,” I said, “we are going to have to brew some more tea.”
“But what shall we serve with it?” she asked.
“Scones,” I replied. “Scones with nice homemade jam. Granny Smith donated some wonderful damson to the village hall last month – and we’ve still got several jars of it left. I know that’s what she would have wanted.”
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