At The Hop-picking

Brickwall Farm consisted mostly of fruit and pasture: so few acres were under hops that Tom Iggulsden did not engage any professional pickers from London. He did the picking himself with the aid of his wife, his mother, his five children, and any of the neighbours who cared to lend a hand: which generally included the whole Miniver family.

This time the Minivers were enjoying it even more than usual. Before, they had always been mere casual helpers, doing it for fun and leaving off whenever they felt inclined. But this year they knew that Tom Iggulsden was really counting on them, for he was short of his three best workers. Both his sons had been called up, and his eldest daughter Ivy had gone off to try and get a job in a munition factory.

Old Mrs. Iggulsden, who was picking into the same bin as Mrs. Miniver, disapproved of Ivy's behaviour and was saying so with some force.

"She never 'ad naow sanse, diddn' Ive. Gooin' arf jus' 'fore de 'aapin', 'an leavin' 'er Dad short'anded. . . . Reckon I'd 've prin'nigh flawed 'er alive, if I'd 'a' bin Taam."

"Now den, Ma," said Tom Iggulsden with a grin, stretching up his long-poled knife to cut down a bine. He laid the thick twisted swag of greenery across the canvas bin and winked at Mrs. Miniver behind his mother's back.

"You git aan wid y'r owan jaab, Ma, an' leave Ivy be. If she rackoned she ought to goo, she 'ad to goo, diddn' she?"

"I don' see naow sort o' sanse in it," mumbled the old woman, quite unconvinced. "She'd be doin' more good a-pickin' o' dese 'ere 'aaps fer to goo into folk's bellies, dan a'makin' o' dem old bullets fer to goo into deir 'eads."

Tom Iggulsden's wife, overhearing this from the next bin, shot an apologetic glance at Mrs. Miniver. She had a light hand with pastry but was a little inclined to be genteel; and her mother-in-law's robustness of speech often made her uncomfortable, especially in front of "foreigners."

"Of course," put in Mrs. Miniver diplomatically, "some people would try to make out that hops were nearly as bad as bullets. Teetotallers, I mean."

"Oh -- dem!" said old Mrs. Iggulsden with royal scorn. She stripped off her next handful of cones almost vindictively: they fell into the half-full bin without a sound, light, soft and ghostly, a dozen little severed heads of teetotallers.

Presently there came the familiar cry of the bin-man, who walked round every so often to ladle the hops out into ten-bushel pokes.

"Git your 'aaps ready, please!"

Warned of his approach, they left off picking and set to work to clear out all the odd leaves and pieces of stalk which had dropped in by mistake. This was the part that the children enjoyed most, because it meant leaning right over the edge and plunging one's arms elbow-deep into the feathery goldy-green mass.

The role of bin-man, this year, was played by Tom Iggulsden himself, in the intervals of cutting down bines; and his assistant, who held the mouth of the poke open, was Vin. When the two of them arrived everybody stopped working and tried to guess how many measures there would be in the bin.

"Twalve, I rackon," said old Mrs. Iggulsden.

"Fifteen," said Judy hopefully. But Tom, taking the first scoop with his wicker basket, said "Thirteen." And thirteen it turned out to be.

It was certainly a relief to knock off for a bit, to straighten one's back and stretch out one's fingers. They had been going hard at it ever since lunch-time, with the effortless industry which is born of working with good company, in pleasant surroundings, at a perceptibly progressing task. It was like knitting: you couldn't bear to stop until you had done one more row, one more bine. But it was also like watching the sea come in on a calm day, as the soft green tide crept steadily up the brown cliffs of the bin.

Old Mrs. Iggulsden reached under her stool for a bottle and took a generous swig.

"Ma . . . !" said her daughter-in-law, going through hell.

"'Aaps outside needs 'aaps inside," said the old woman cheerfully. "Ain't that right, Mrs. Miniver?" She wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Her briar-root fingers, which could still strip a bine more quickly than most people's, were stained black with juice and covered with scratches from the rough clinging stems. So indeed were everybody's, except for those who were not too proud to wear gloves. But though gloves could protect one from stains and scratches, nothing could protect one from the drowsiness, the nearly irresistible drowsiness, which comes over all but the most hardened towards the end of a long day's picking. It seems to be more than a scent that emanates from the hops: it is almost a visible miasma, sweet yet agreeably acrid, soothing yet tonic, which blurs the edges of one's thoughts with a greenish-gold glow.

"Where's Toby?" said Mrs. Miniver suddenly. Nobody knew.

"I 'a'n't seen nothin' of 'im since dinner-time," said Mrs. Iggulsden. "Ver' like 'e'll be down at the fur bin along o' Molly."

But he was not at the far bin, nor at any of the others. Mrs. Miniver, always a little uneasy about the main road, went off to look for him. It was extraordinary how soon, wandering through the narrow leafy aisles, one got out of sight of the others. For a short time their voices followed her: the broad vowels, the clipped consonants, the unvarying parabolas of the Kentish speech. But from a few rows further on she could neither see nor hear them. She was alone in the heart of a silent, orderly jungle; a jungle which was like one of the most advanced patterns in a gigantic game of cat's cradle. Wherever she stopped to call or listen for Toby, she found herself at the converging point of eight green alleys; and from the root of every plant four strings stretched upwards and outwards to the wire trellis overhead, each with two bines climbing round it the way of the sun. (And why, in the name of an inscrutable providence, should hops always twine with the sun, while scarlet runners invariably went a-widdershin?)

Getting no answer to her cries, she walked back towards the pickers. And there, just out of sight of the last bin, lay Toby, fast asleep on a pile of pokes, with a leafy bine trailing right across him: a small rosy Bacchus with juice-stained hands. She smiled, and covered him up with an empty sack. There was no need to wake him until it was time to go home.


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