The Good Pickers

We would start at dawn and finish in the middle afternoon. We would pick the apples and the pears and you would yank at the apples and the pears trying for the ripe ones only. It was cold in the mornings. We were tired and we were thousands of miles from home in a foreign country and we only worked for lodging and a very small salary.

We arrived on the farm at the end of summer. We moved into our rooms and quickly made friends with everybody on our block. It was the type of conversations that are had when everybody is in it together, good people, bad people, marching toward the void.
A few days after we arrived, three kids turned up in a battered old estate. Two boys and a girl. Let’s call them Maddie, Luke, and Dylan. Young, young, 19 maybe, and they were all thin and happy. Luke was shorter than Dylan, and he and Maddie were together. The boys only ever wore singlets.
She had milky white skin and red hair that came down her back, red curly hair, and bounce. I remember watching her run barefoot through the mud to the water tank in the rain. It must have been during the cyclone because it was really coming down and the mud was like pudding. The mud got all over her, she didn’t wash it off but went straight back to the tent.
They all shared a tent and I thought what’s $56 a week? But I guess I’m privileged and we didn’t really need to be there. I’d see them in the kitchen and say hello but that’s all there was. That’s all there was with a lot of people. I figured I had their broken home trailer-park background down. It makes me feel shame even now, to have acquiesced to simple-minded prejudice like that. But the truth is I picked apples and worried about my belongings. I hadn’t proved worthy of the test.
We were out picking and I was talking to V.
“You know, whenever I visit my grandma, she offers me a pear, everytime without fail.”
“Yeah?”
“Next time she asks, I’m going to scream, NO, I DON’T WANT A FUCKING PEAR GRANDMA!”
One day, Dylan came over to our little group in its circle, hidden from the the rest of the camp by our block. It must have taken guts to do that. A couple of girls had already told me how much they disliked some of the girls in our group due to their we’re better than you, superior composure. How unapproachable we were. It bothered me but by then I had already lost all interest in everything.
Even surrounded by people I was bored, completely bored. Bored of the inane conversations, the repetitiveness of it all, the trees and apples and pears and mundanity. I couldn’t find anything to do. I couldn’t write with a pencil and paper. The apples didn’t care, the pears didn’t care.
“Hey”
“How you going?”
“We’re all right thanks” (speak for yourself, I thought). “What’s his name?”
“Bluey”
The dog was a German Shepherd that had been left behind by somebody. Dylan adopted him. He fed him and played with him. I would see them playing after work. He loved that dog and the dog loved him. Bluey would often come over to us, drop a tennis ball or Frisbee at your feet, pick it up, drop it, over and over, as if to say, “I know you can see me.”
I was only aware of the conversation as something happening in the background. He had come looking to see what the dog was doing.
After a while, he stood up and left.
They had their own friends and they would sit around a fire and play guitar. We sat in our circle. The weeks went by.
Then the three of them disappeared for a few days, a week maybe. Bluey slept in the kitchen and other pickers gave him leftovers and some may have even bought dog food. I worried for him. It wasn’t sustainable. What would happen when the season ended and all the pickers went home?
Saturdays were our day off. Fridays we would all get drunk, of course, in the great banquet hall drinking cheap boxed wine. We burned candles in there during the power outages of the cyclone. We were sat at a table with some others.
“And then Dennis came over and was like BAM! He got him right in the side of the neck, the bastard!”
A guy joined us where we were sitting, a new guy, British, everything about him milky, if you know what I mean, his skin like watered-down milk, his hair white blonde and his filmy eyes, a film like cataracts, milky, a completely colourless portrait. He called himself Frankie. He had one of the ugliest faces I had ever seen, a lump of dough that had been flayed by a thousand fists. He shouted his dialogue, to compensate for his almost non-existence, I figured.
“I THOUGHT I’D BETTER COME AND MAKE SOME MONEY OR I’LL BE GOING HOME IN NO TIME. IN TWO WEEKS I’VE SPENT £2000 ON DRUGS, BOOZE AND WHORES!”
“Oh shit! How long have you been in Australia?”
“Two weeks”
“God knows there’s no place to spend your money here”
He looked at Ratface. “SEE, YOU’RE A GOOD-LOOKING LAD, I’M NOT JEALOUS OF YOU, THOUGH.”
“Why?”
“BECAUSE I’VE GOT THE SILVER TONGUE ME…”
After a while I walked to the toilet block, the outhouse, a long row of toilet cubicles staring open-mouthed at their shower counterparts. It was dark but there was a very strange sound emanating from within. It wasn’t corporeal, something else.
A man sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor blowing into a didgeridoo. The end of the thing disappeared into one of the shower cubicles, for acoustic reasons I presume. I simply stood there and watched. Then V walked in, stopped, laughed, it was something like a shriek, a mad laugh, howled, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING, MAN!”
I liked V.
When I got back to the table one of our resident bullshit artists was at it again.
“Yeah, Slash was locked up for beating his wife,” she was saying, “But he had his sentence reduced because he showed the warden how to play the refrain to Back Off Bitch.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – what slander, lies! Those less well-informed were clinging to her every word.
But I didn’t jump to my feet, look her in the eyes, throw my slender finger in her face, all the while looking in her eyes, and roar “BULLSHIT!” Rather I sat there, silently, my righteous indignation bubbling away inside of me. How could she be saying such things about this man, only the greatest guitar player of all time, the man that shaped my adolescence, a man possessed of such rare style, who certainly hadn’t spent time in prison for anything more than possession of horse, or vagrancy, perhaps? Slash, you are my God, she may insult my family, my friends, but not the man who can make notes run off a guitar like sweet water. Yet this is exactly what she was doing and I, just sitting there – oh Slash, I would do anything for you, except defend your honour; otherwise, anything.
I looked across the table at Boxhead and Ratface who were looking at me for verification of the claims, and I shook my head no, and it pleased me that at least three people at the table knew the truth. O Slash! Forgive me, for I am not worthy.
The nights were getting freezing and in our cold concrete blocks we’d wear all of our clothes to bed, jackets, shirts, trousers, everything, because we didn’t have bedding to keep warm.
I had finished work later than the others for some reason or other. They had all gone back to camp and my usual ride had left too. I managed to catch a ride with some pickers from another camp to the main drag that cut through the flat landscape, the nothingness.
I started walking the two or three miles back to camp. The sky was a deep, pure crystal blue. A car stopped alongside of me. I stopped walking. Hanging out of the passenger window like a damp dishcloth was this redneck hillbilly. There might have been three of four of them in there altogether. The hick grinned at me.
“How you going mate? Where you headed?”
“Just over there” I said, pointing in the general direction of the camp.
“Want a ride?”
“No, it’s not far, thanks”
“Come on, we’ll take you”
“No, I’m fine, really”
“Come on”
“No, really, thanks”
“All right, suit yourself”
They drove off.
I thought about it. There was a feeling in my gut that something hadn’t been quite right.
When I got back to the camp I saw that Dylan had returned. He was with Bluey. It was a relief to see that he was going to be all right. I told the others what had happened to me, the reason for my being so late, even though they hadn’t asked.
“I almost got GANG RAPED today!”
They merely grunted over their books or outside of their conversations, completely unconcerned.
The next day Maddie, Dylan and Luke were gone again. It went on as before, with Bluey sleeping in the kitchen and everybody giving him scraps. The nights got colder still. Bluey didn’t seem to mind that he had been abandoned again. He just accepted the fact. I realised that a dog’s heart must be the must durable thing in the world.
Then I was done, we were done, and they still hadn’t returned.
Two taxis waited in the clearing at the end of our block, outside the office. We said goodbye and got in, waved to our friends through the glass. I could see the dog. We drove away from them all. The girls said that they would take care of him and call a rescue centre if necessary.
I don’t know if they did or not. I never asked.

 

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