A place where hope goes to die

“AARRRGGGHHHHH!” The ceiling fan had batted another big black bug onto my face. I brushed it off. “GODDAMN BUGS! I’m not dead yet!”
The bugs were everywhere, in the kitchen, in the shitter, in bed, like a biblical plague. And it was hot, so hot. I had been stretched out on my bed staring up at the ceiling for a while. Nothing but ceiling up there.
“Holy mother,” I said, “I’ve woken up in some flops but this is probably the worst of the lot”
Ratface made some unintelligible noise in response. “ZXVHGBSFUHOUUAJGABEYB”
“I hear ya Ratface, what the hell are we doing here?”

What we were doing there was hoping to pick some fruit-picking work to tide us over for a few weeks. That’s right; we were suffering all this and the big prize at the end of it all was some hard labour.
Sweat soaked a dark patch into my pillow underneath my head. It ran in braids down the sides of my face. And I was simply lying there. The unbearable life of a backpacker. Another bug came my way.
I had enjoyed Melbourne a lot. The coffee and böreks filled with spinach and cheese and lamb and vegetables from the Queen Victoria Market, mmmm fresh sweet cherries, watching the Australian Open tennis on the big screen in Federation Square, being very popular in the hostel despite being very boring (natural charisma, I suppose), the pleasanter climate…
I thought about the air-con in the supermarket down the road. “Mmmmm oh baby”
We’d made a day-trip to Shepparton a week earlier, to register with an employment agency. They told us to return in a week when there would be some work for us. We did and there wasn’t. So in our desperation we’d come to Shepparton Backpackers in – well, Shepparton, Victoria… Australia. On the highway outside of town, tucked behind a car wash. We paid a hundred bucks for the week figuring we’d be there for a while.
On the wall next to the door was a great white board on which available jobs had been listed. We signed up for one strip-picking pears the following morning. Whatever the hell that was. I didn’t know and I didn’t care; whatever it was I was prepared to do it because I didn’t want the whole jaunt to be a waste of time. We were to be picked up at 6am.
And so there we were.
Nothing to do but wait for the morning.
A girl called Lauren walked into the room. “You guys arrive today?”
“Yes, what about you?”
“Five days ago.”
“Have you found work yet?”
“Not yet. I’ve been waiting for days. But we’re all waiting here, waiting for a job or for the next day’s work, the unemployed and employed, because the jobs don’t last long, everybody waiting for some undetermined fate…”
“Like purgatory…” I said
“…And the work is really shit. Apparently strip-picking is the worst.”
“Oh, Jesus”, I said.
Another girl arrived then, crying and sniffing. Her name was also Lauren.
“I know how you feel, love, don’t be embarrassed; you should have seen the state Boxhead was in when we got here.”
“N-n-n-n-no… it’s that my boyfriend has gone back to Melbourne…”
The next morning we sat on the front steps in the almost-dawn waiting for our ride to work. Other people waited with us. I figured they’d been at Shepparton Backpackers for a while because looking at their faces I detected the mark of suffering, all pain and despair. Minibuses stopped in front of us and carried people away in small groups. 6 o’clock came and went. People continued to climb into jeeps and minibuses.
Then it was 6.30 and it was just us and a French guy waiting. He had to be. Most of the guests in the hostel were French. Sitting on the front steps in the almost-light, squinting ahead at the joggers running laps of the field across the road. We didn’t talk. There was nothing to say. We just watched the French guy run after the jeeps and buses desperate as if pure enthusiasm was going to get him a job. Well, there’s always a first time, right?
Then there weren’t any more minibuses and it was the four of us alone, Boxhead, Ratface, myself and Frenchy, and all that bug-splattered concrete, and not even the sun was there with us because it was still somewhere under the horizon.
7 o’clock. Finally, like everything, the Frenchman was defeated and with a sad slump in his shoulders he walked back inside and it was just nothing and us, waiting for this prick that we knew in our hearts wasn’t coming.
A few hours later we all awakened with sweat popping out of the pinholes of our foreheads. On the wall next to me somebody had written ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’.
“Urrrgggghhhh…,” I muttered, running a hand through my wet hair, “it wasn’t a terrible nightmare…”
Ratface was angry. “What the hell was that about!?”
“Easy, Boxhead, maybe his mother is sick. You can’t hold that against a man.”
We had gone straight to bed after giving up waiting. Now what the fuck were we supposed to do – just wait for tomorrow and hope we get picked up then?
The first Lauren had been picked up, but she had left us a phone number for a farm that she had been in touch with. I called the number. No response. Then a text message came through telling me that we can only communicate by text.
Well, I’m so clever that I got us an offer of a steady job on this farm (There has to be a better way of saying that?) However, the accommodation arrangement was camping, camping in the sweating-hot Australian summer, sweet mother, but even this had to be better than Shepparton Backpackers, so we prepared ourselves to leave.
Then as we were doing so, the second Lauren gave us another phone number, this one for Turnball Brothers Orchards. I called it. This time someone picked up.
Straightaway I felt better, hearing this voice, because at least this woman had an identity.
“Listen, we’re three Brits looking for some fruit-picking work”
“Will you be staying more than 6 weeks?”
“Then come along! We have work for you, it’s steady and you’ll have a room with a proper bed and mattress”
“When can we start?”
“The picking starts in two days but you can arrive today”
I don’t recall what I said. I came up blank. I think I cried.
“So we’ll see you later?”
“Yes…” I sobbed into the phone. I got the address and hung up. I broke the news to the others and we all fell together, hugging, the tears rolled out of us, the relief of survivors, as if we’d just been rescued after days trapped under an avalanche and there had been six of us to begin with.
“BOLLOCKS!” I shouted
“The other job, I’m going to have to let her down. Lucky I can only text her, eh?” I said, “I don’t look like such a bastard then.”
The reply came: “YOU BASTARD!”
Then another message. She wanted to know why. I told her that we had friends at the other job. She wanted the details of where we were going because she was concerned for our welfare…
I was scared. At the very least she knew where we were in that moment in time.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!”
(Clearly there is a lot of work around, but the best thing to do is contact farms directly. The jobs to be had in the backpackers are all through contractors and might last a week if you’re lucky).
A cab waited for us outside and we put our things in the back. We’d left a note for First Lauren on her bed. Second Lauren had gone on ahead of us. And as we drove away from that no-place and it grew smaller and smaller in the rear window, I felt better, I felt great, it didn’t matter that we’d paid $100 apiece for a single night and the m.f. owner wouldn’t give us a refund, I was smiling, when I should have been worried…

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