Sam had never thought much about rhubarb. It was just there. He’d grown up with it and been in and out of the growing sheds since he was a little lad. His family were known for rhubarb. Being a Henderson tied you to it. He was the fourth generation and not much had changed in there. Rhubarb didn’t allow for change. You had to give it care, plant it without damaging it, and let it be, alone in the darkness to grow, till the right day. A picking day when the candles were lit and they went in mob handed. It had been a picking day when he’d first gone in there with his granddad. He was three years old and he’d cried, even holding his granddad’s hand he’d still cried. It was dark and the candles made flickering shadows that frightened him. The rhubarb looked like it might be coming to get him, long thin ghost sticks waiting to pounce that had to be cut down and conquered. It was like something out of a fairy tale. He had stood very still, clutching his granddads hand with his finger over his lips to hear it pop. A deep pink forest topped with yellow leaves that disappeared into the darkness. Anything might be hiding. His granddad had just told him to watch where he was putting his feet and laughed at him. He hadn’t known why.
That had been nearly twenty years ago now. His granddad had passed on three years back and his dad had taken over. People dafter than him had gone off to university but he’d never seen any need. His dad knew more about growing rhubarb than any university could teach him and he never thought about doing anything else. You didn’t if you were a Henderson. Your blood ran deep pink like the rhubarb itself. He’d have called you a silly sod if you’d said that to his face but it was true all the same. Anyway, there’d have been nobody to sort out the packing and the bar coding if he hadn’t been there. His dad would have been lost. His dad was good at negotiating with the supermarkets and there was nobody alive who knew more about growing but sit him in front of a computer and he was lost. So Sam had just mucked in. He didn’t mind. He would have his inheritance in knowledge from his dad and he could take on the new things on that his dad couldn’t get his head round. He’d found his place, and it fitted him like a glove. It was one reason why Henderson’s had survived when a lot of others had gone under. It never occurred to him to want more. Why would you?
When Sally said she wanted to see what he did he thought at first that she was making fun of him. Sally was the sort of lass who he’d never have expected to notice him. She had long brown hair and kind dark eyes, was never more than a couple of feet away from her kindle and she had just finished university. English literature of all things. Sam never even read Farmer’s Weekly from beginning to end. There were no jobs so she was thinking about carrying on studying and helping out with the packing while it was their busy time to earn a bit of cash. He’d started teasing her because she had pale blue nails with tiny stars on them and when she said she wanted to see inside the sheds he hadn’t believed her. All the same he wasn’t going to pass up a chance to be almost in the dark with a pretty girl so he said he’d take her in with him. He chose a time when he knew they would be on their own and went to find her.
“Are you right then?”
Sam often spoke in shorthand. You had to work out what he meant from what he didn’t say. Sally could do that. She was a Yorkshire woman so she was born to it.
“What, now? I’ve not finished my shift.”
“Never mind that. You’re all right. I’m the boss aren’t I?”
“I suppose you are.”
“Let’s get cracking then.”
He fetched two candles on sticks and lit them by the door of the largest shed while she watched. She took one gently when he held it out to her and watched as he opened the large shed door just a crack.
“In you go. Mind where you’re putting your feet.”
He let her walk past him, waiting for the gasp. Everybody gasped the first time they went inside a rhubarb shed in the dark. He could hear her eyes widening as she spoke.
“Oh. My. God.”
He followed her in and closed the door. A pale forest of rhubarb stalks glowed in the flickering candlelight. Sally looked around her entranced.
“Sam, it’s beautiful.”
Now that she mentioned it he supposed it was.
He explained it all to her as they walked down the middle of the shed, through the candlelight. How it was the soot and sulphur in the soil that the rhubarb wanted to help it grow, how it had to be handled gently and pulled in the right place at the right time, how it was that desperate for a bit of light that it would push its way up towards even a single candle. It had to be starved of light but cosseted in other ways to get the best results. He went on a bit, but she listened and stared- she didn’t get bored.
“So all that filth and poison going into the soil from the factories turned out to be good for something. It’s a shame Dickens didn’t know that.”
“I reckon it did.”
“It’s a funny old world.”
“It is that.”
He thought about putting his hand on her cheek as she leaned closer in the dim light, but he didn’t. He wasn’t one for rushing things.
“Show me how you pick it.”
“You don’t pick it. You pull it.”
Sam bent down and found a stem that was long enough and ready to pick. She leaned down to watch what he was doing.
“Get hold as low down as you can, pull gently and twist it as you pull. See?”
He showed her, and presented her with a single stalk of rhubarb as they straightened up, smiling.
“Can I have a go?”
He nodded. She bent down, chose her stalk carefully, and did exactly as she had seen him do while he watched the curve of her back proudly.
She picked a few more without asking and he didn’t mind. He watched the rhythm of her working and held each one for her in turn until there was a small bunch. Finally she stopped and held out her hands towards him.
“I can make something of that.”
“Who says you’re taking it home?”
“I do. You’ll be pleased when I bring it back.”
This time he did touch her face as he gave her the rhubarb and she didn’t mind.
“Is that a promise?”
She laughed up at him and he gave her the tiniest of kisses. He was well pleased.
The following day she came in to do her shift carrying a tupperware container. When she had finished her shift she came to find him and put it down in front of him.
“This is for you.”
He lifted up the lid and looked inside. She watched anxiously.
“Rhubarb fool. It’s James Martin’s recipe and I used really good ginger biscuits.”
Sam was more used to the pies and crumbles his mother made than fool, but he took the spoon she was waving at him and tried it. It was bloody good and he told her so. When he took her in his arms to thank her without using words she made no objection and it was the first of many rhubarb recipes that she made for the new farm grocery business both before and after they were married. He never did work out how he had managed to catch her and she never told him. He thought enough of himself as it was.