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The games we played. COVID series 4. Fruit thieves.

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

I grew up in Dale Street, Lansdowne. We were not wealthy. Neither were we poor. By the standards of the day, we were comfortable and middle class. Dad was a teacher who dabbled in real estate sales in between his political work. Mom was a good seamstress who took on dressmaking at home. At Xmas and Eid, I attached dress buttons to help with the rush.

So why go and steal the neighbour’s fruit? It’s like climbing Mt Everest – because it was there. While at school, fruit-stealing missions targeted different houses for their mulberries, quinces, pomegranates, and loquats. Spice to these forays resulted from the inevitable watchdogs at all properties. Eating the ill-gotten fruit was secondary to the excitement of the planning and their acquisition. Often I was on my own, but there could be a few of us when mulberries were the target. It’s probably because the trees were bigger and the fruit was more plentiful.

The Goldsmiths all went to church on Sundays, so this guaranteed me pomegranates. I always first knocked at the door to check if anyone was home. If someone answered, I would ask if Cedric could play with me, which would have puzzled the youngster as I normally never came looking for him. Once home, I shared the fruit with my Mom when we ate it with condensed milk. At times she was my sleeping partner in crime! No wonder I loved her so much; she had other endearing qualities too. The last shot above has me drooling and once a year I eat a fruit like this drowned in condensed milk – no, not stolen, but it almost tastes as good!

Because of the real crime in the area, every house had a dog or two roaming the property. This added to the drama of a fruity foray. The most dangerous dog was at the house next door. Bismarck looked like a Rottweiler-Bull-Mastiff-German Shepherd cross. Like the people in our neighbourhood, he was a thoroughbred, mixed sample of his species. After all, hybrids are the best.

Despite his fearful countenance, Bismarck, about the same weight as I was, could not stop me – I loved quinces too much! I had to climb over the wire fence with a strand of barbed wire on top. Once over, like my war movie heroes, I wriggled my way on my belly across the sand towards my target, grab a fruit and then dash back to clear the fence to safety before Bismarck could get to me. Years later, the Erasmus’s told me how they watched me through the lace curtains during my raids on their quince trees. They were always poised to run out if Bismarck got close to me. He never did, but he got hold of me one day outside their property. He straddled me; imagine that growling, slobbering mouth inches away from my face. I still do not recall how that episode ended, but I survived unscathed, my good looks intact. By the way, quince jam with fleshy chunks is a favourite of mine on toast. I make it regularly with sugar and stick cinnamon – the recipe is in another blog.

I helped[had to?] my Dad erect the fence. It was about five-foot-high, with equally spaced star picket posts with a single strand of barbed wire across the top of the wide chicken wire mesh. The image below, still makes me cringe when I recall climbing over the fence from an empty property alongside ours where Harold eventually built his house.

We used to play ball games there, and I was the one who had to jump over the fence to retrieve the ball from our back yard. Ralph was there to help me. Instead I fell sideways onto the other side. I always blamed him for my falling over the top of the fence. In the process, I ripped a hole over the left calf muscle below my knee. It still gives me the horries when I recall the ragged bit of skin hanging from one of the barbs of the wire. I had a macabre interest in watching the skin shrivel away over the weeks.

A local GP-friend of my father stitched my leg. It was the only time I ever cried at a doctor’s surgery. I was about ten years old at the time and had six stitches inserted without local anaesthetic. I’ve still not forgiven that horse doctor 60+ years later. The through-the-legs selfie of my ragged scar is testimony to that event. Yes, that’s an upside-down me in the right-hand corner.

The one place that we could not tackle was the Stevens’ who had some of the best figs in the road, but they had a watchful pack of noisy geese roaming the property. I was more afraid of these territorial, hissing monsters than I was of their dog, so the fig tree was spared my forays.

To get mulberries, the gang got together when the Smiths were away. We had to clear a high[seven foot?] wooden fence with deterring nails which faced outward, but we managed our way over between the gaps in the nails. We ate the mulberries as we picked them. Our badly stained, purple feet and hands after these mulberry raids were a sure give-away as the stains remained for days after these illicit outings. Most parents would have known what we had done, but they turned a blind eye to it; I know Rita, my darling Mom, did! Maybe she regarded it as a rite of passage for my wild youthdom.

While there was no fruit at a distant neighbour’s place, they came around to every one’s door to ask the parents to tell us kids not to steal the firm reeds from their new front fence. We had discovered that the wonderfully straight reeds made perfect arrows and we had a Robin Hood season in progress with our handmade bows and arrows. It was easy to lift out a handful of the poorly secured reeds which would fill a sheaf for much needed straight arrows. I still wonder whose idea that was – maybe James, our 1950s street-gang leader? It was much more exciting than playing cowboys and crooks with toy guns or no guns at all except for a bent bit of wattle branch in hand. Despite parental concerns, no one in the street ever lost an eye.

My all-time favourite were loquats. If you haven’t eaten and enjoyed a sweet ripe loquat then you haven’t lived; honestly, you seriously missed out on your childhood! The Mehls had a tree close to their front door. There was almost always someone home which made fruit collection difficult. There was no protective fence or dog to worry about so one hopped over the little fence from the Marais’ side to access the tree. I’m not even sure how I managed, but I always obtained a few choice loquats from that tree.

Sneaky James reminded me recently that we also stole pears and guavas from the Whittaker’s while he stood on the other side of the fence while the gang stole the fruit. It takes a particular expertise to eat organic guavas that have not been sprayed for fruit fly. One learnt to bite, chew, enjoy and swallow without looking at the fruit in hand. The little fruit fly, wormy bits were only an issue when you could see them! A kind of chew don’t look policy, I suppose.

A one-off, episode involved Stanley and myself. My close buddy lived across the road from me and we decided to cycle to Paarl from Cape Town. We used to do an annual trip around the Cape peninsula a few times when we were in senior school. During my first year at Uni, we opted for the Paarl trip. On the way back we used the back route via the more scenic area of Pniel, famed for its fruit farms. It was summer and the yellow clingstone peaches were about ready for picking. Just look at the picture – the two of us could not resist the temptation and we “ended up” with a haversack full of these delights. Well, how disappointing it was to reach home and find that most of the ill-gotten fruit was inedibly bruised from the 65km bike ride. I still recall my mother’s disappointment. It was also the last time I went fruit-stealing.

I suppose if I had knocked on the door and requested to pick a fruit or two, then most of the neighbours would have obliged, but where was the fun in doing the right thing? I wonder how many kids still go fruit-stealing in their neighbourhoods these days? Probably not many in Cape Town with its “Armed response signs” posted on every second home. A sign like the one below may have made me give up my old fruit-thieving ways long ago. Then again, maybe not. Bismarck did not stop me!

I am often irritated by the hackneyed comment of “the good old days”; but when it comes to stealing fruit, I’d have to agree, those days were good.

For now, wear a mask when in public, wash those hands for 20 seconds with soap and water and avoid crowds until COVID-19 finds another planet to plague. Stay safe.


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