We wait at the bottom of our street, last night’s sleep in our eyes and our bones. Other families stand, weary like ours, tired from yesterday’s labours. Mum was up even earlier than us – clothes laid out and lunches packed. She doesn’t yawn like the rest of us; her eyes are sharp, on the lookout for the bus that will take us to our task.
The double – decker appears, as pink as the roses that still bloom in Mrs Kay’s garden. We passed the garden on our way down the road, looked enviously up at the still-drawn curtains of the silent house and imagined the Kay children warm in their beds.
The bus draws up and now it’s a scrum – kids run for the best seats at the back of the bus, save a seat for their pals. Mum ushers us on, a look enough to keep us quiet. I feel too tired to shout anyway. I say hi to my pals but know it won’t be until dinner time that I can speak to them properly. I gulp and stretch, nervous for the day ahead.
Other families we don’t know so well board the bus at their designated pick– up. I envy them their five or ten minutes extra in bed. We are the first to be picked up at the Mayfield shops. Only the paper shop is open then – staff sorting out the morning editions while selling rolls and sweeties to those who can afford them for their noon dinner or mid-morning ‘piece’.
I coorie in to my eldest sister Jenny on the bus, savour her warmth and hope it’s enough to see me through the rest of the day. The bus takes us a few miles out of town, already here the air is softer and lighter but oh so cold. The wind bites at us as we disembark and make our way over the already half– picked field.
Here is our work for the day – the most enormous field in Angus – millions of tatties waiting to be picked. The shaws* of the unpicked veg wave mockingly in the wind, a prediction of the drudgery ahead.
And so we are off, a great line of mainly women and children each allocated their ‘bit’, rubber gloves on ready for the day. I share a bit with my middle sister Diane – we are already at war over which ‘half-bit’ seems the biggest.
The digger starts up for the first row and churns the earth to reveal the treasures within – these are Maris Pipers – destined for supermarkets and wholesalers. We don’t have time to admire their beauty, the purple– hued skin masked by the earth. Instead we shake shaws, hurl them off, scoop, scoop and scoop again, tattie after tattie into baskets.
The baskets are picked up by strong, older boys – teenagers and young farm hands – potatoes thrown effortlessly from basket to big wooden box. The boy who lifts our baskets swears while he does it, laughs at my shocked face. I feel small and shy.
No sooner are we done than the digger comes round again – this endless cycle only broken if someone ‘sticks the digger’. We’ve been warned by Mum not to do this but I envy the boy the next bit up, who has the cheek to throw stones under the wheels of the digger in the vain chance of a rest from the relentless toil.
On and on we go, it seems hours creak by until at last the foreman shouts “Piece Time!” – the refrain is taken up all along the line. The digger driver takes a break and we stop, never more grateful to sit down.
Mum pours soup from a large flask – we’ll have two breaks so can’t eat everything – I sip Oxtail out of a plastic cup. It tastes strange; the only time we have tinned soup is when we’re ‘at the tatties’.
Mum doesn’t have time to make homemade soup for this fortnight. Her days are spent in the field and her nights are a jumble of quick teas, laundry and snatched sleep.
We have minutes before the digger starts again; my brother Jimmy lights a fire with dried out shaws, puts tatties underneath so they will be baked and ready for our next break.
Boys find the nest of a mouse and chase the poor creature over the field. Brave Diane chases them and screams at them to stop. I could cry but I don’t really know why.
The sound of the digger brings the chase to a stop – we are back in line. We slog for pennies, for new winter coats, for dolls, books, science sets and whatever else we can buy with our meagre funds. This two-week’s worth of money buys us necessities and luxuries we could never otherwise afford – a welcome addition to Dad’s wages.
My daydreams of new Pippa dolls are temporarily halted and so is the harvest, for now, at last, it’s “Dinner Time!”
We sit in an upturned potato box, the five of us, eat a welcome meal of sandwiches and the remains of the soup. Jenny shouts “Here’s Granda” and here indeed he is, our hero of the day, a big grin on his face as he crosses the field. He’s walked the miles from town and will stay with us for an hour or so. He tells stories, makes Mum laugh and helps us pull shaws to lighten the afternoon’s workload.
Granda brings the best sweets from Bruno’s shop – Curly-Wurly’s, McEwans toffee, liquorice and chocolate drops. Jimmy retrieves the soot-blackened tatties from the fire he set earlier. Mum sprinkles them with salt. We eat them in big bites followed by a few of Granda’s chocolates – mouths too full to talk.
This is the sweetest time of the day.
*Shaws are the dried remains of the potato plant, leaves and stalk.