Eight Short Stories
Set in a Tasmanian Apple Orchard
And I forgot Louise
Pick’n Season is an exploration of style. After writing the novel, Dance me, I was puffed with all the ‘she saids’, ‘he pondered’, ‘she exclaimed’. I wanted to try to write a story where there was none of that and little guide as to who was saying what except the context.
I hope you enjoy my experiment.
It’s never the same, is it?
No, never the same.
You try to re-capture the exquisitely painful, treacherously joyful thrill of youth.
But you can’t.
Then, after a while, you forget what it was like and fall into acceptance.
At least I did.
Funny how things turned out though.
I remember Louise as the little girl who flashed her pink knickers at me in primary school. Then as an unapproachable blonde beauty in high school. Then as someone completely out of my orbit at Uni. Then, well then like a comet that had traveled its distance slowly over my known universe, she disappeared from view.
And I forgot Louise.
Life, wife, kids, mortgage, career, midlife crisis, kids gone, wife gone, even the fucking dog gone, he died chocking on a bone.
At home, pretending to like being alone.
Wanking every so often in preference to forking out $200 to a prostitute.
Gazing at my fucking navel, picking out the lint and watching the ABC News.
Funny how things turned out.
Janice and I met at Uni. We were both doing a Dip Ed. She passed, I didn’t. We sort of fell into an easy relationship without really planning to. After a while it just became too much effort to leave I suppose. I followed her out to Dubbo for her first teaching job and got odd jobs on the sheep and wheat properties. Then she got pregnant and we decided to get married. You did that then. Even if it was just after the roaring 60’s. Naomi was born, then Gary, then Bridgette. Then we moved to the north coast of NSW and settled into Nimbin. I looked after the kids and Janice worked at the local two-teacher school. We bought a share of a commune and moved in. It was a fucking disaster. So we moved out. Kept the share because we couldn’t sell it. Then Janise remembered it for the property settlement, she would, the cow. It was worth a fucking fortune; all the hippies were retiring as wealthy landowners. What a turn out that was. The free love, anti-materialistic generation rolling in dosh.
I loved being with the kids and doing odd jobs around the district. Janice started to harp on about me getting a job. She didn’t seem to take Germaine Geer all that seriously. You know, the bit about work being non gender specific, or some such crap. Janice thought it was very bloody specific and I should get off my date and join the ranks of the employed.
Yeah, I liked being with the kids.
We had some great times when they were young. As a family, I mean. On Sundays Janice and I would pack a picnic and pile into the Holden and drive to a water hole, or a bush walk, or the beach, or a spot beside the river. We’d spend the day there and drive home happy and exhausted.
I remember one time in particular. We had driven to our favourite water hole at Byron Bay, it was just a little beach town then, before the big money came and changed it utterly, changed it terribly. The water hole was at the tea-tree lakes just to the south of Byron. The water was the colour of strong tea and it bristled on your skin, fresh and alive. We would park the Holden, walk in on a winding bush track then drop our gear and dive in. Yeah, before the tourists, the money and the monstrous 4 wheel drives. Yeah, before you had to pay to drive in. Pay to go to the tea-tree lakes! You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. We were like a family of seals slithering in an about the water, beaching ourselves, grabbing at each other and laughing. I remember the laughing. Particularly Gary’s huge belly laugh. The one where he let go, the one when he was completely happy. I miss that, I really do.
The smell was of tea tree oil, sharp, distinct, antiseptic, natural. You could feel it getting into your skin, cleansing. When I think of it, it was a cleansing of both the body and the spirit. There, at the tea-tree lakes, we were all present, living in the moment, living for each other. The past banished, the future irrelevant. No, we were living in the NOW. Other families would be there, all with the same joy of spontaneity, all at ease with themselves and with others. All of us naked with nothing to set us apart. The children would all play together and the adults would sit around in family groups talking. Funny, we seldom talked to other adults, I suppose we felt too exposed, too naked. The children were utterly unselfconscious. It’s a pity that awareness robs them of that innocence.
You would scoop the mud up from the bottom of the lake. Thick, gooey, black and sticky like tar. Smeared it over your body, you would soon be the colour of an aboriginal with the features of and anglo saxon. Dissonant. If you let the mud dry on your skin it was the very devil to get off. No matter how much you scrubbed , some would remain in the secret nooks and crannies. The children would come home smeared with grey stains and red from sunburn. And tired, their excited laughter gently subsiding as we drove the 50 miles back to home, back to the cool of the bush, back to another world. They would all be fast asleep when we reached home. The innocence of the day reflecting in their faces.
There was that one time.
That one time, the last time, when innocence was betrayed and we were no longer able to return to that spot.
It’s all about knowledge really, isn’t it.
Once you have bitten into the apple, you can’t go back.
I don’t suppose I have to fill in the details. One of the men approached Naomi and, through gentle persuasion, lured her into a place where they could not be seen. It was he who betrayed her innocence, betrayed her trust.
We knew as soon as she came back. You could see it in her face, in her eyes, in the way she had become self-conscious.
I raised the alarm and all the adults hurriedly dressed and tried to find the man.
But he had gone, of course.
One smear had changed everything and we could not go back.
Innocence should travel gently to self awareness and then to self discovery.
It should not be broken on the rock of someone else’s lust.
I think that was the first tiny flaw that was to eventually spread and shatter the crystal that was our family.
Oh, we had many other adventures, many other places to go, and we had many other great times together as a family. But that tiny flaw was there. The beginning, unseen by us all.
The second tiny flaw came when Gary entered into those turbulent teenage years. A spotty youth full of hormones and, to my surprise, aggression.
I’d started to take seasonal work, now that the children were old enough to care for themselves. Mostly pick’n apples in Tasmania. I suppose I left them alone a bit too early and Gary started to mix with some of the lesser elements in the town.
Janice picked it up first.
I was away in Tas pick’n apples and all she had to do was look after the children. She noticed that Gary had become withdrawn and sullen. He started to communicate in grunts and huffs. At first Janice put it down to his balls dropping. She’d been raised with three brothers. Then she felt she was loosing him, felt the delicate tendrils that bind a family slowly snapping until it seemed there was only the one tenuous thread holding them together. And I wasn’t there that first summer when he fell into the steel trap with the serrated maw. Janice noticed that money was going missing and then things about the house. She noticed that Gary had started to tell lies about where he was and were he was going. Particularly about where he was going. She started to hear rumours.
Then, Paul, the local cop, came to see her.
‘I’m a bit concerned about young Gary,’ was his opening remark as he eyed Janice with open lust. Gary had a reputation around the town for putting the hard word on women who were alone. Christ knows how many decided that a tumble would alleviate the boredom or the aching loneliness. Perhaps that was the beginning of Janice’s betrayal. It can only have been guilt that made her turn so savagely on me.
Why, what’s he been up to?
Hanging around with the wrong sort, starting to give cheek. He’ll be in trouble soon if he’s not careful.
Thank’s Paul, I’ll have a word with him.
You do that, said with his eyes firmly on the swell of her breasts.
But it didn’t work. Gary told her to mind her own business and to stop prying. It ended up in an argument and Gary stormed out and not returning for two days. Janice contacted Paul who came around and talked to her.
No need to worry just yet, he’s probably staying at a friends place. I’ll keep an eye out. Yeah, ta, a cup of coffee would be great. That’s a great dress you’re wearing.
Gary returned home disheveled, with dilated pupils and a shifty, sullen look. He grunted and slammed the door of his room and didn’t emerge until night. Janice knocked softly on the door, once, but there was no reply so she gently opened it. Gary had fallen onto his bed fully dressed and looked like a corpse. Janice crept in quietly to check if she could see a pulse in his neck, or some sign of life. It was there, subdued but it was there.
I don’t know what to do Paul, Mathew’s away working. Should I call him, get him to come home.
No, Janice, I’ll have a word with him. Send him around to see me tomorrow at the station.
Thank’s Paul. Would you like a cup of coffee before you go?
It hadn’t worked, and when I returned home Gary was a stranger.
That would be fucking right, hissed Janice. You do nothing for years and then when you get a decent job it’s on the other side of the county. He’s your son, do something. Christ knows, I can’t get through to him.
Fuck off Dad!
I thought fondly of the pick’n season. Of Peta, Mieke, Eve, Adam, Ishmael. Yeah, and even John, the poor loser. But she was right, he was my son and I loved him with a vengeance.
That was the year we lost him. The year he became a stranger. Why, I don’t know, I still don’t know. We tried talking to him, Paul tried, the teachers tried, Christ, even the local minister tried. But whatever the thread that held him in thrall we couldn' t break it. It wound him in each time, deliberately, remorselessly. It was tough, tough on us and tough on the girls. Gary took most of our time and nearly all of our energy. There wasn’t much left for the girls and before you knew it Naomi had left home and started University. Little Bridgette withdrew into herself and created her own world. At least, that is what I think she did. We were too busy you see, too busy saving the eldest son. Should we have sacrificed him for the sake of our daughters? Should we have?
I started to look forward to pick’n season.
Little Bridgette, with the pretty blonde curls and the innocent face. The arranger of rose petals into faery worlds of her own. The maker of long clover chains. The wistful teenager who wrote poems and lay in the garden for hours. The reader of poetry. Yes, she understood and lived the rhythm of the poems. From the arcadian landscapes of Wordsworth, to the spiky world of Frost, to the troubled worlds of Coleridge and Keats. She soared with them all above the rest of us. It was her escape, I know. After all, we weren’t offering her a home. Just endless squabbles with Gary, endless searching hours, endless pain. No, she escaped as a child and never came back. Then she grew up without us noticing and one day simply disappeared in a Kombi van. Disappeared while I was at the pick’n season. Paul was there to comfort Janice, I found out much later. Little Bridgette, my little girl. I was only to see her once again, but it didn’t work. She was in her own world and I was firmly on the ground. It still makes me sad.
Janice and I. We went on much as we had always done, with complacency and then with resignation, then out of habit. Gary distracted us and filled the void. I ran away to the pick’n season each year and Janice made her life at the school. Funny how twenty years can suddenly be a memory.
Each pick’n season I’d work at Alex’s place, pick’n apples. Granny Smith’s. Tart. I’d rent a caravan at the park and stay for about 3 months. Well, I started by staying for just a few weeks over the school holidays, and then it sort of grew out to 3 months. Janice didn’t say anything. I simply drifted out of her life for a while and then drifted back in as though nothing had happened in the mean time. Gary was still surly and threatening. Naomi was getting on with her study and hid behind the carapace she had built after the incident. Little Bridgette still lived in her faery world. Yeah, I guess I became invisible for most of the time. I’m sorry about that now, but life has a habit of taking its own path. Do we ever really get much say in it. I wonder. Yes, I wonder.
Gary’s death from an overdose killed whatever there was between Janice and myself. It was too much to bear. Luckly Naomi had just started Uni and little Bridgette. Well, she just retreated more into her feary world. Janice held up remarkably well and Paul was a tower of strength.
It wasn’t your fault mate, there was nothing you could have done. He made his choice when he started mixing with those bums.
Nothing I could have done.
Nothing I could have done!
I was his father!
And there was nothing I could have done.
I knew it was a lie. I could have stayed at home. I could have been there that first season instead of escaping.
Yes, I’ve said it now,
I admit it.
The marriage had drifted into a meaningless void and I simply ran off rather than face the reality of it. Ran off pretending I was doing it for Janice, for the family.
I was finally becoming the breadwinner.
Do you know what it is like when your wife makes all the income. Do you!?
You try to pretend that it doesn’t matter, that in these days of gender equality the women’s group on Tuesday mornings was all I wanted.
I tell you, it wasn’t all they wanted. They didn’t want a bar of me. And their husbands were suspicious of a randy male in the hen coup.
Fuck, I didn’t even see the relationship forming between her and Paul. Didn’t see that it was him she turned to for comfort when Gary died. No, I packed my bags, said seeya and moved to the caravan park.
That’s where I met Louise again.
Jack was full of life at Uni. So much so that he failed his Dip Ed. We thought it was funny at the time, cool. It wasn’t long before we realized that it was just plain stupid. By then, we had drifted into children and marriage and I was the breadwinner. Jack just minded the kids and bludged around the house. I told him to piss off for a year and get his Dip Ed, but he wouldn’t go. Said the kids needed him. Which was true I suppose. Still, I missed those early growing up years.
We had some terrific outings though. I used to love going to the mountain pools. Jack preferred the tea-tree lakes. I think he like the naked women. I went along with it until the incident with Naomi. She handled it well, but Jack was beside himself. Kept talking about the loss of innocence. I knew Naomi was made of tougher stuff and the sight of a sad old codger playing with his dick wouldn’t have worried her much. When I asked her about it, she held up her little finger and laughed. She thought that Dad was being a bit wet about it.
As she grew up she developed a toughness. Jack thought it was withdrawal. He thought that one incident had robbed her of innocence. I knew that she had no innocence to lose. She was a sensual creature of this world. Yes, she would put on that act for men. Her shy, innocent look that she knew galvanized men. She knew that from a young age and she liked to play games. She managed to fool Jack completely. As a teenager I knew that she had a succession of lovers. She was frighteningly intelligent and would play with both their minds and their bodies. And it never got in the road of her study. She was determined she was going to escape this hippy, non-directional, do-nothing existence. She wanted to go to Sydney and be a lawyer. I suppose she was the materialistic bastard child of the hazy, anti-materialistic 60’s generation. She is now a senior partner in a big city law firm with a career and family: husband a barrister, children in private school, expensive cars, expensive house. I don’t know her, but then again, I never did. She despises her father, despises him for coasting through life. Won’t acknowledge that her father picks apples for a living.
It was at the bush streams and waterholes that Bridgette lost herself. She loved to create her own fairy worlds. She would tell me with wide eyed excitement about the world she had discovered. I loved the way she discovered a world, she was adamant that she did not make it up. No, she discovered it. It was real. And who am I to say it wasn’t. And it was a world that only those with the special gift of insight could see. If anyone had that gift, it was Bridgette. She knew the world, she had been here before, of that I am certain. She was born wise, you could see it in her eyes from the very first. She would stare up from the breast and talk to me with those eyes. Eyes that said she knew me, knew the very soul of me, and that she forgave me.
Forgave a loveless marriage, forgave me not being there, forgave me handing over those precious years to Jack. Yes, she was special, she bought magic into my life.
But that wasn’t enough. It should have been. But it wasn’t.
I remember her chubby little hand holding onto my finger, holding so tight. She knew, even then, she knew.
Where did Gary go? Why wasn’t Jack there when we needed him?
Gary was always bewildered by the world. He simply did not understand it. Towards the end he would say that life crucified him. My poor lost son. I used to worry about him in primary school. He never seemed to fit in with the other children, never quite became part of a group. Sometimes he would come and quietly sit beside me when I was taking playground duty. I should have realized then that he needed enormous emotional support. Would always need emotional support. He was not born strong like Naomi or wise like Bridgette. He was the little lost boy. I suppose he was destined to cling to any group that allowed him in. Destined to be used. I was aware that he was hanging around with the less savoury elements of the town. Paul came around to speak to me about that I remember. That was the first time I had spoken to him. He couldn’t take his eyes off my breasts. Jack was off at his pick’n season and Gary just drifted those summer holidays. I didn’t realise it then but he had drifted way out of his depth and he would never be able to reach shore again. I tried to talk to him but he drew away. The little boy that used to sit beside me in the playground was now a rebellious teenager, shunning me, shunning his family. Naomi couldn’t care a jot and Bridgette was content in her world and didn’t really notice.
Jack handled it all wrong, of course.
I don’t think he realized just how vulnerable and insecure Gary was. When I think about it, he was a smaller version of Jack. To give him his due, Jack tried hard over the years, but essentially, he failed to recognize himself in his son. I tried everything I could think of, and everything everybody else told me I should think of. But it seems you can’t change the essence of character; a craving for acceptance, a need to belong.
Paul seemed to drift into my life. I hadn’t sought him out, but I didn’t push him away. We drifted into copulation. That' s the only word for it. It wasn’t love, it was copulation. I think Paul would have liked it to be more, but for me it wasn’t. I suppose I still loved Jack in a way. It was the love of two people who have spent most of their life together, had children together, had enjoyed the good times and endured the bad. To put it in Bridgette terms, our souls were intertwined.
But those gentle tendrils that had reached out to encircle and bind us were not strong enough to hold us after Gary’s death. Unreasonably, we blamed each other, sought to punish each other for something we could not have changed. The crystal goblet that was our marriage was smashed utterly.
Jack ran away to his pick’n season. I ran away to Paul. Naomi was indifferent and Bridgette drifted off.
I couldn’t believe it, the spark was still there. Like a faint ember, it had survived, buried beneath my feelings all these years, waiting for a breath of love to bring it back to life.
Louise, is that you? I’m Jack, Jack Mills, we went to school together.
Louise had just hitched the bag over her shoulder and was adjusting the strap. She looked up. Her face registered surprise, annoyance, puzzlement then a faint glimmer of recognition.
Yes, I remember. How are you?
Louise extended her hand toward me. Her grasp was surprising strong. Her features were now gaunt and defined. The soft pretty girl I remembered had been worn away by life.
We stood awkwardly for a while.
Better get going. Apples to pick, she said with a distant smile.
Yes, yes, I stumbled, muttering, clumsy.
Fuck! After all these years she still had the ability to knock me off my perch with a look.
She started walking down to the row where I had been working the day before, and I deliberately walked in the opposite direction. Then had to go back. I saw the faint smile on her face as I walked up to the tree opposite her.
Lose your way?
Nah, I had to check on something.
She nodded and reached up to pick another apple. I couldn’t help glancing at the swell of her breasts as they moved freely under her blouse. Still that faint flicker of electricity. I turned away and fumbled with my ladder.
We didn’t speak that day except for small pleasantries and the occasional smile. I was unduly aware of her presence and it irritated me, irritated that she could turn me into a clumsy child without any conscious effort. The little boy in me did not know how to respond, did not want to take the risk. I grunted a farewell that afternoon and was surprised that she gave me a warm smile in return.
Goodbye Jack, I’ll see you tomorrow.
I went back to my caravan. It had become a home for me over the years. I sat on my bunk and looked around me. Nearly 50 and my life fitted into a caravan. Nearly 50 and a girl from kindergarten can turn me into a stumbling idiot. FUCK! I snatched my towel from the bed, grabbed some fresh clothes and strode over to the shower block. Ed, Mike and Loopy were sitting in on the park bench between Peta’s caravan and the women’s ablution block. I smiled to myself, they seemed totally at ease with their lust. Peta seemed quite content that she was putting on a show each afternoon.
A beer, thanks Mieke, Boag
did you have a good day, Jack?
I let the beer glass sit on the cloth runner for a while, the froth foaming over the top and running down the icy sides.
Looks good, mind if I join you?
Louise stood beside me and smiled at Mieke.
The same as Jack, please.
Meike swiftly poured another glass and placed it on the runner to let the foam soak. I nodded in the direction of a high round table and Louse smile her acquiescence. The conversation was sparse and awkward to start with as we both made tentative forays into each other’s past, trying to find a point of connection and then teasing out the thread when we did so. I realized that I was hungry, that we had been talking for an hour.
Would you like to eat at the pub, I hear Mavis is on tonight, or would you rather a pizza at Luigi’s.
It’s a nice night, lets sit out on the street. Luigi has just bought those fancy fireplaces to sit beside the tables. A bottle of wine?
Yeah, red or white?
We had white bait tossed in olive oil and garlic cloves, followed by a huge vegan pizza with lashings of vegetables and a rich tomato sauce. I splurged and bought a good red, a 1995 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz.
It’s really good to see you after all these years, Jack.
I smiled. It was good to lay the ghosts and the insecurities to rest. She was just another human being trying to find her way through life, bumping into unexpected snags along the way. She had bought a little cottage on the coast was picking apples for the exercise. She told me she had two dogs, Clarry and Bunyip Pickles. Clarry was a huge Samoyed and Bunyip pickles was a Sussex Spaniel.
So, you decided to come down here after your husband died?
Loiuse thought for a moment, looking at me all the while. I couldn’t read her, couldn’t tell whether I had strayed into forbidden territory or whether she was simply collecting her thoughts.
Yes, that’s about it, I suppose. There were too many reminders, too many little hurts that couldn’t be avoided. Friends would say something, I would visit a place and remember, even a smell at a restaurant sometimes. Too many. We had always talked of coming to Tasmania to live, but never got around to it. Silly really, I am sure that Ian would have loved it here.
I poured some more wine into her glass.
Oh well, that’s life I suppose. And you’re here because your marriage imploded.
I snorted out my acquiescence to her analysis, but didn’t add anything.
She sipped her wine, her face registering satisfaction at the complex, rich taste.
So, you became a teacher, I always regretted not finishing my Dip Ed. Life intervened I guess and Janice was working so I couldn’t get away. Still, it meant I was there for the kids.
Yes, it is special being lucky enough to watch them grow up. I was lucky, Ian was a solicitor and I didn’t have to work. Being a parent is so much more fulfilling don’t you think?
Tell me about Janice.
We met at Uni, married far too young. She worked and eventually ran off with the local cop. That’s it really.
I’m sure it’s not.
No, your right, it’s not. I’m sorry, its too close for it not to hurt still. Tell me about Ian.
We met at Uni as well. He was very studious, and very shy. I really had to coax him out of his shell. I wasn’t used to that. He was tall and handsome in a rugged sort of way, had piercing blue eyes and soft auburn hair that would fall down over his eyes. When he smiled you were drawn in and became a part of it, included. He didn’t make friends easily, and in many ways, did not require friends, being content with his own company. He was lucky that way. I have always needed people around me, girlfriends I could confide in, men to enjoy life with…………………………………………… that is why I live alone now. I want that ability to be content within myself, content with being alone.
You miss him still?
And are you content being alone?
I poured out the last of the wine, then raised my glass.
Here’s to you being alone.
Louise raised her glass and clinked it against mine, then with a wry smile she took a long sip.
And you Jack, what do we raise our glasses to for you?
To Gary, for he is the one thing in my life that I need to come to terms with, and it is impossible.
Will I see you again?
Oh, yes, I will be working until the apples are picked.
I didn’t mean that.
She used the pink and white checked cloth to wipe her lips, and then stood up, collected her things and looked down on me.
Yes, Jack, I would like to see you again.
Was that the breath of love I had sort for all these years, or the chill wind of loneliness.
For now, either would be enough.