Lament for a Forgotten Fruit
NO ONE I KNOW HAS EVER HEARD OF THE BUMSTITCH, MUCH LESS tasted it. No encyclopedia mentions this rarest of fruits. Its name, which for me has such mystic overtones, provokes laughter and ridicule wherever I go.
At times I wonder, sadly, if my disbelievers are right. Am I indeed prey to some ancient delusion? Yet always, in such moments of self-doubt, that ambrosial flavor fills my mouth, and suddenly I am nine again, and in Kenya, and munching Bumstitches.
In those days, Kenya was still a quiet outpost of the British Empire: two hundred thousand square miles of grasslands, volcanic mountains, and flamingo-pink lakes, settled by fewer whites than would fill Wembley Stadium, and ruled by a fat Governor in a feathered helmet. His Excellency spent most of the year on safari, ostensibly in pursuit of elephant poachers. Every June, he would return to Nairobi (always with plenty of confiscated ivory) and hold a garden party in honor of King George VI’s birthday. My school abutted on the grounds of Government House, and if we behaved ourselves, we were allowed to sit around the great lawn and watch the festivities.
Open-mouthed, we admired a rich pageant of colonial society. Here were coffee farmers perspiring in cutaway coats and striped trousers; muscular missionary ladies in mail-order frocks; malaria-yellow Indian Army colonels (ret’d.); and occasionally, if we were lucky, a genuine Bishop in gaiters.
On one such King’s Day, I sat next to a pudgy classmate named Georgie Blowers, who had once hijacked a tractor and was confirmedly the Naughtiest Boy in the School. He was bored with the garden party, and proposed a visit to the Governor’s wattle plantation, on the far side of the lawn.
“But it’s out of bounds,” I said nervously. “We’ll get six of the best!”
“Who cares?” snorted Georgie Blowers, a veteran of many canings. “Come on, I’ll show you the Bumstitch Bush!”
I was strangely excited. “The what?”
Georgie Blowers made no reply. He jumped to his feet and dashed toward the wattle plantation, straight through the legs of the crowd. Women screamed. Champagne spilled. I shut my eyes in horror. When I opened them again, the garden party had regained its equilibrium. I went home convinced that Georgie Blowers had been seized by the Governor’s askaris and thrown into juvenile prison.
But next day at school, when the eight o’clock bell rang for arithmetic, he arrived in triumph, a bulging satchel on his back. He took his place in the extreme rear of the classroom, and as soon as the teacher turned to the blackboard, threw a pellet of paper at me.
I unscrewed it.
“HAVE 54 BUMSTITCHES,” it read. “WILL SWAP ONE FOR A GLASSY.”
Fascinated, I tossed over a marble. In exchange, I received a hard, leathery-skinned berry that looked like a desiccated walnut.
I suspected that I was a victim of a con job, and semaphored my disappointment.
“Watch me!” mouthed Georgie Blowers, extracting another Bumstitch from the satchel. He gripped its stalk between his teeth and twirled it until it broke free. Then he inserted the point of a drawing compass under the thick skin, pried off a strip, and began to chew it. I did likewise.
At first the skin seemed tough and tasteless, but soon it began to soften, and my mouth was filled with an indescribably delicious flavor, something like vintage apricot jam laced with Château d’Yquem. I masticated blissfully for several minutes, swallowed, and glanced over for further instructions.
Georgie Blowers peeled the rest of his Bumstitch, storing the strips of skin in a pocket for future reference. I followed suit, and laid bare a cluster of kerneled quarters, like the inside of a petrified kumquat. These fell apart easily under the sharp edge of my ruler: they were brown and hard, glazed with a sticky juice. I sucked one. It was, if anything, even more delicious than the skin, and to this day I am unable to remember the 7-times multiplication table, which we were being taught at the moment.
I became hooked on Bumstitches—if I may use so gross an expression for so exquisite an attachment—for the rest of the term. I squandered my entire marble collection before Georgie Blowers, relenting, led me to the Bumstitch Bush and told me to help myself. It stood about the height of a small apple tree, dropping its knobbly riches in the hot dust. Experiment proved that Bumstitches baked in this dust for a few days were tastier, though tougher, than fresh ones. We hoarded them jealously, Georgie Blowers and I. Life was sweeter for us than for other boys.
Eventually the term ended and the long holidays began. Bumstitches were forgotten in the excitement of flying bamboo kites, bicycling up the Ngong Hills, and swimming in tepid water holes. The seasonless sun blazed on, week after week. Then suddenly, climactically, the rains came, and it was time to go back to school.
At the first opportunity I returned to the Bumstitch Bush. Rain pounded down as I ran across the Governor’s lawn. The wattle plantation was bedraggled, and the Bush stood in a sea of mud. Not a fruit was to be seen on its gnarled branches. I knew there would be no more of its delights that year.
The vintage of ’50 was smaller than that of ’49 but equally good; ’51 was a bumper crop, although variable in quality. Then, on 3 October 1952, the world changed. Another of my classmates, Fatty Wright, went home and found his mother chopped into pieces. Within a week, Mau Mau terrorism engulfed Kenya. Policemen built a great wall around our school, erected a searchlight tower on the Governor’s lawn, and cut down the wattle plantation. There were no more garden parties. And no more Bumstitches.
Georgie Blowers and I grew up (he to six feet four), and went our separate ways. Many years ago, I heard that he had prospered briefly as a farmer in the White Highlands. Shortly after decolonization, however, he had thrown the new minister of agriculture into a sheep-dip and been deported. When last seen, informed sources said, Georgie Blowers was heading for Australia.
I wonder if he remembers the times we went Bumstitching together. It seems that he and I are the only people in the world who have eaten of that mysterious fruit. Perhaps we owe to it our knowledge of good and evil.
Copyright © 2012 by Edmund Morris. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.