Eight Short Stories
Set in a Tasmanian Apple Orchard
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.
He bit into the apple, felt his teeth tear into the firm flesh. A granny smith. Tart. Scrunch, scrunch. A dribble of juice runs down his chin. Scrunch, scrunch. He lets it, doesn’t try to wipe it away.
Is it good?
Hmmm He gulps as he swallows. Yep
How long have you bin workin here?
Aww, I dunno, some time.
Doya folla the pickn season?
No. I just work around here. Does me.
She nods, again. Where doya live?
scrunch, scrunch, scrunch, scrunch
I jus cum down from Mildura, hitched.
Hid in the back of a blokes van to cross the ferry.
He throws the apple core into some tall grass under the barbed wire fence. Then he stands up and stretches.
Better be gettin back to work.
She is already standing.
They pick up their bags and throw the straps over their shoulders. He adjusts the strap where it cuts into him. She watches him, and then does the same.
They walk down the row to their ladders.
Wots ya name?
They reach the ladders. He starts to climb his. She watches him and then turns to her ladder.
He doesn’t respond. She shrugs and steps onto her ladder and starts to pick apples.
The sounds of laughter drifts over to them. In the distance, the sound of a ride-on mower. Alex, the owner, is mowing grass between the rows of trees. The occasional shout from the pickers, broken by a staccato of laugher.
The air is cool, and fresh, and there aren’t too many clouds in the sky so the afternoon sun is a bit hot. But the humidity is low, so no-one really raises much of a sweat. Slow, steady picking: drop the apples into the bag; when the bag is full, climb down the ladder and walk to the nearest bin; empty the bag, the apples thumping softly and rolling about, finding a place; hitch the bag up and walk back to the ladder.
Then do it all over again.
Alex likes to mow the grass because it keeps the snakes away. One of the worker’s got bit two seasons ago and bloody nearly died. It was a copperhead. Nearly done the poor bugger in.
At the end of the day, the pickers walk back to the big shed. It’s a whopper. Gal steel frame, powder coated aluminium pressed metal panels erected on a concrete slab; tacky industrial green. The long industrial sorting machine is chugging away. The sorters look weary and ready to quit, they glance up at the clock more often. The pickers hang their bags on wooden pegs screwed into a frame on the wall. There is chatter and laughter and noise.
Then silence, blessed silence, someone has finally turned the bloody sorter motor off.
’Bout bloody time, gunna come down to the pub, Macka
nah, told the Mrs I’d be home early
rightho, see ya tamorra then.
I thought I might go the pub for a beer, would you like to come?
see you tomorrow then.
He smiles and walks out of the shed, then turns up the dirt track which heads west out of the farm, snaking its way into the low hills. She wonders where he lives. Doesn’t talk much. Might as well go to the pub, not much to do in the bloody caravan except stare at the walls. She goes back to the caravan, throws her work togs in a corner, grabs a towel and saunters over to the shower-block with it wrapped around her, then, after the shower, saunters back. The blokes try not to look, unsuccessfully. She chooses a white cotton dress, the one with the gold belt, slips on a pair of sandals and leaves; the caravan door left swinging open.
I’ll have a beer thanks
what would you like?
The clink of glass, then the swish of beer swirling into the glass. The barmaid flicks the handle with practiced skill and the flow stops abruptly. Two centimetres of perfect white head, condensation forming on the glass. She reaches over and places it on the bar in front of Eve.
Are you here for the picking season?
Yeah, just cum down from Mildura.
Where are you staying?
At the caravan park
there are lot of the pickers at the caravan park
that’s what I bin told
enjoy your beer.
Eve nods then picks up the glass of beer and sips it, enjoying the taste.
He walks up the track to his small hut beside the creek. Alex liked Adam from the start. At the end of the first season Adam just stayed. He started to do odd jobs around the property and it all sort of happened. Adam hadn’t asked, and Alex hadn’t offered. But there it was as if it had always been. After a couple of months, Alex asked Adam if he would like to move into an old hut at the back of the property. He could have it for free if he did it up and did some work around the place. Adam had thought about it for a couple of days, then said thanks. It had worked out well. Adam did the hut up better than Alex had expected. Adam seemed at peace in his hut. He would come down in the morning and ask Alex what he would like done for the day. Alex would tell him, then Adam would work quietly and efficiently till dusk. He’d knock off and walk back up the track, the gloomy late afternoon shadows stretching out like arthritic fingers, crooked and menacing; chook’s beak fingernails clawing at his insecurities.
As he nears the hut, a dog rushes out. Adam gives the blue heeler a scratch behind the ears and lets it take his arm in its jaws, a sign of affection from the dog, a sign of trust by Adam. Angus, the white sulphur-crested cockatoo, squawks at the top of his voice, his yellow comb up, alert, agitated.
Better go in, eh Harvey. Shut up Angus! I’ll give you a fly later.
Harvey let Adam take his arm away and then trots beside him to the front door, his tongue lolling out, a big idiot grin on his dial.
You know y’re not allowed in, mate.
Harvey eyed off the door with curiosity and longing. He was sure there was something mighty special inside. It was the holy grail for Harvey. Adam had decided never to let him in because he’d be "so bloody disappointed" if ever he found out what was in there.
Which wasn’t much.
A small pine table, unfinished, burred and furry from use; two wooden chairs, unpainted, unvarnished, bare; a combustion stove with a water heater in it; a battered stainless steel single sink; a heavy large green lounge chair with white stuffing coming out of one corner, the smoky-green dark and brooding; a bare hardwood floor. Over in the corner, under the window, a rusty old iron bed with a thin, hard mattress; three shelves made from slabs of timber and fire-bricks, the bricks were from the ancient fireplace out the back, the one which had the old copper in it; and three large wooden pegs screwed into the wall for his clothes.
The hut was spotlessly clean, the bedding neatly folded. His clothes were meticulously laid out on two open shelves. A single plate, knife, fork, spoon & cup were laid out beside the sink. The tea towel was hung out on the verandah to dry.
The food was in a small larder at the end of the verandah, there was no fridge. Adam had a few goats out the back and he milked one whenever he needed some. The she goats had been a real bitch to milk at first, then he slowly learned how. Now he had the knack. He could walk into the small paddock carrying his three-legged stool and the goats would take no notice. One of the she goats would stand while he scratched her head, then she would continue to eat, methodically chewing while he milked her, the milk spurting noisily into the old enamel bucket. It was a good arrangement, he got milk and she got her tits rubbed. Little black pellets of contentment would issue forth when the milking session was over.
Alex allowed Adam to keep his meat in one of the factory cool rooms. Adam would take a steak home with him most evenings and make a simple meal with the potatoes, pumpkin and a green vegetable he grew in the vegetable garden. He was good at growing things. It gave him great pleasure to spend time in the garden: weeding, sowing, harvesting, mulching, planting. Harvey would sit patiently at the fence, reaching around convulsively every so often to snap at a blowfly or chew a flea or lick his balls. There was also a fence up to keep out the "kangaroos and wallabies and every other furry bloody animal that ate me bloody vegetables."
Yeah, it wasn’t a bad life.
Eve finished her meal and pushed the desert plate away, tinned peaches and custard. The custard was home-made, she could taste the difference. She reached over and picked up the teacup, looked in it, shrugged as she swirled the last remaining dregs in the cup.
I’ll have another beer and then hit the sack. She wandered back to the main bar, looked around, didn’t see anyone she knew, walked over and took a seat at the bar.
I’ll have a middy please, Cascade.
You enjoyed your meal?
Yes, Mavis is a good cook
Mieke walked away to serve another customer. She was from Switzerland. She’d come over for a visit twelve years ago and stayed. Met a bloke, Hans, had a kid, Hans shot through. She didn’t really mind; he’d become a bloody nuisance, always planning but never doing. She had Heidi and for now that’s all she wanted. Yeah, Heidi, you wouldn’t read about it would you. He’d insisted, she hadn’t the energy to resist after a difficult birth, post-natal depression and him going on like a wet week. So Heidi it was. Meike and Heidi.
Eve drank her beer slowly, staring straight ahead, thinking. The blokes in the bar were acutely aware of her presence, and it distracted them; even the ones with their girlfriends or wives close by, which pissed them off. Eve was aware of it, but she was used to it. She’d always liked those lines from that blokes play, what’s his name, Shaw, nah, Oscar Wilde, that's right, howdiditgo, yeah something like, 'Some people cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go'. The men were pleased to see her come and the women were pleased to see her go. Eve smile to herself. It’d been a bloody long time since a bloke has seen me come, she thought.
Want a drink luv?
Got one, you blind
well, you ask’d, now piss off.
Tough one mate?
yeah, stuck up bitch, must be a lesso.
Eve finished her beer, then left the main bar without looking at anyone. The entire dynamic of the room changed after she walked out. The women relaxed and the men felt strangely jumpy, as if they’d missed an opportunity. Except for Baz, who she’d told to piss off.
It was good outside. Clean and fresh after the smoky, closed room. It was pretty well cloudless and stars festooned the sky like sugar scattered across an ebony floor. The huge yellow moon was sitting just on the horizon, balancing like a ball, deciding if it would surprise everyone and roll around the horizon rather than launch up into the sky on its familiar route. Then it detached itself with an almost audible sigh and traveled up to take it’s well worn path through the heavens. Eve looked up at it, stared at it, she squinted to see the craters. Geez that’s good she thought. It traveled surprisingly fast, and was soon well up in the sky, jostling and bullying its way through the stars. The night air was cool, with enough bite to bring out goose-pimples on her arms. She hugged herself and started to walk back to the caravan.
Another lonely night eh. She thought briefly of Gary, but shook her head to dislodge the thought. Piss off. But it sort of hung around, like him, the tenacious bastard. She’d learned the hard way. Let him into her life when she was in Perth; couldn’t get him out again. He’d become possessive, and a real pain in the arse after he’d had a few. He’d get jealous and try to pick a fight with anyone he thought was looking at her. She’d just shrug and walk away, back to the caravan.
Bloody caravans, spent most of me bloody life in caravans. Caravan at Perth, caravan parks hitching back to NSW, then a caravan at Mildura. At least now I don’t have to share it with that dickhead Gary.
She’d left Gary at Mildura, sprawled over the double bed in another drunken stupor. She’d had it. Another night on the booze, another fight, and then the slobbering, bulbous, sweaty insistence. Take ya fuckin’ finger out! Bloody had it. Put a few things in a bag, taken all the money and left. Kel had offered her a lift to Melbourne the day before. Got a job as a barmaid, slept at the local youth hostel and finally met Ian who was traveling across to Tasmania on the ferry in his 1974 Combi. Mind if I hide in the back, she’d asked. He hadn’t, so she did. Your own bloody lookout if you’re caught though. Yeah, OK.
She threw her clothes into the corner and curled up on the bed, naked. The mattress was hard and lumpy and smelt of sweat and copulation. She pulled her legs up further, into the fetal position, and lay there thinking. Thinking wasn’t so bad, but sometimes a stray thought would come out of nowhere and savage you. Probably better not to think, it had been a pretty O.K. night. The pub wasn’t so bad. Yeah, I’ll give think’n a miss tonight. She convulsed and gripped her legs tighter, straining and straining and straining, then it went. Her whole body sighed. She shook her head, her face expressionless. Yeah, I’ll give it a miss tonight. Wonder what Adam is doing? Jeez, where’d he come from? She lay there, huddled, naked, defenseless and waited for sleep. Just like most nights, it never came.
He could hear the birds outside and Harvey running around and Angus talking in his cage: the bleat of a goat, the cry of a currawong, the song of a magpie, the raucous laugh of a kookaburra. He stirred and farted, then he opened his eyes and looked out the window. He was instantly awake, he never dreamed, he only nightmared, but that was getting less now, at last, at bloody last. He swung out of bed, scratched his bum where a mozzie had bit him, leaving a small red welt, walked outside, gidday Harvey, SHUT UP ANGUS, walked out onto the grass, the early morning spidery gossamer of stark white frost crackled under his feet, had a long piss, walked over to check on the goats, let the chooks out. Breakfast was always Kellogs, cackleberries if the hens were laying, a tin of baked beans if they weren’t, toast and strong black coffee, no sugar.
The walk down the long dusty track was always good. Adam felt at home in the bush, felt a peace, the soft silence cushioning him, countering the prayer of anguish that was his own personal burden, his own personal halo. He enjoyed working at the orchard, enjoyed working for Alex who never intruded, enjoyed the friendly smile from Janice, Alex’s wife, and the cry of delight from Betty and Syd, their two children. He had made friends with them, diffidently at first, warily, then he slipped into a soft innocent friendship as he played with them, made toys out of bits of timber, helped Syd and Alex build a tree-house, taught Betty to swim in the creek. Yeah, it was pretty good, it was what he needed.
He was usually first. He walked into the gal shed, said hello to Alex, grabbed his bag and sauntered over to the tree where he had left the ladder, stretched, climbed the two steps, reached up and started picking; granny smiths, tart.
Gidday, you’re here early.
He recognised Eve’s voice but didn’t turn around.
Better get my things, nice day
She came back, placed the ladder under the tree opposite Adam’s, climbed up and started picking.
Went to the pub last night for tea
it was a good feed
yeah, I’d heard they did a good feed.
Not much, the occasional beer.
They picked in silence for the next half hour, then the other pickers started to arrive, then Alex started the sorting machine motor. It was as if the stillness of the early morning had never been.
Adam placed the last two apples into his bag and climbed off the ladder, he glanced over to Eve. Why’s she trying so hard? Walked over to the bin. Eve had noticed, she smiled. She waited until he was walking back, then got off her ladder and walked towards him. He smiled shyly, self-consciously. She smiled back and looked into his face, tried to look into his eyes, but he kept them hooded, protected, secreted away.
They didn’t speak that first time.
At lunchtime Eve walked over to where Adam was sitting by himself.
Mind if I have lunch with you?
I’m not having lunch today, ta. There was an awkward lull. Gonna take a leak, seeya later.
Adam stood up headed over to the toilets behind the big shed.
Jeez, whathaveyagottodo? Eve shook her head, and went over to sit with a group of pickers under the old Elm tree. Jack and Eva were comparing sandwiches. Loopy was offering to swap his cheese and lettuce for anything. Mrs knows I hate bloody cheese and lettuce, she’s still fucking sore cause I had a whinge about her mother. Old bag. Eve took her anchovy paste and chutney sandwiches out. I’ll swap ya loopy. Yeahwadhaveyagot? Anchovy and chutney. Nah. Piss off then. They all sat chewing their sandwiches, the rhythmic munching reminiscent of cows, interrupted occasionally by the noisy slurping of tea.
Adam ever had lunch with anyone?
Not that I know of, sticks to himself.
Eve nodded and took another bite from her sandwich, finished her tea, threw the dregs into the long grass and stood up.
Gunna take a walk.
No one responded, and she walked off.
That first spark of recognition had kindled a small but tenacious flame, it grew over the week, tentatively and hesitant, but it grew.
See ya next week
Yeah, have a good weekend
He smiled at her. For a brief instant there was a flicker of recognition, an unguarded moment; the first she had seen.
The weekend was unremarkable. Eve went into Signet on Saturday, had tea at the pub, had the same effect in the main bar, but she' d had a good talk with Clarry, one of the older pickers, spent Sunday doin’ nothin. Adam spend most of his time in the vegetable garden. He milked a goat, had cackleberries both mornings, de-fleaed Harvey, went for a long swim and lay in the sun, naked. Thought of Eve. Didn’t have a nightmare which was good, wondered why he was thinking of Eve so much, wished he wouldn’t, then was glad he did.
Didja have a good weekend? Adam looked at Eve and nodded, alright, ta.
I went into Signet on Saturday arvo, they had a good band playing at the pub.
Better get going. Adam shouldered his bag and walked over to his row.
One more bloody shot and that’s it. What is this? I’ve never chased a bloke before, usually pushing the randy bastards away. There’s something though, fucking somethin’s got me.
Eve shouldered her bag, walked over and adjusted her ladder then climbed up and started picking.
Once more, as it was that first time, she could feel a connection, could feel his presence even though he never said a word. Could hear his inner being speak to her, reach over to her, betray him, but for his own good, it knew him, knew his needs, knew that it was time. It reached out, despite the prayer of agony that tried to envelope him, shut him away from the world, pretend to protect him.
He started to talk to her, revealing small fragments of himself. He wouldn’t have lunch with her though, but he did talk to her. Minute glimpses into his world, like silver glinting, like a lost coin shining up from the bottom of a deep, slow-moving river.
Mind if I come up to see ya on Saturday?
Adam stood still, staring at Eve, then he reached, forced a decision.
Yeah, that' d be good.
I’ll come in the morning, eh?
Yeah, seeya then.
Adam turned and walked up the track, he didn’t look back, but, Eve thought, he didn’t look as dejected.
Maybe, maybe not.
She turned up just as he was finishing his coffee. Harvey scrambled off the verandah barking fit to kill. No one except Alex had ever visited, and he’d only come twice. Adam put on his shirt and walked out onto the verandah.
Angus was making a hellavaluya of a racket in his cage. A raw rasping squawking that could crack a pine cone.
Harvey was eyeing Eve off suspiciously, he let out a low growl to see what she would do. She growled back and stool still waiting for Harvey to come over and get acquainted. Stop it ya dopey mongrel. Harvey walked over the Eve, sniffed around her legs, had a lick of her ankle and then had a go at sniffing her crotch. She brushed him away. Piss off.
Wots their names?
The dog’s Harvey, and that’s Angus making a racket in the cage. I’ll let him out for a fly later. He likes the weekends. I usually let him fly most of the afternoon.
Eve gave Harvey a scratch behind the ears. He decided that he liked her, and indicated that she could continue.
Be there all bloody day if your not careful. Would you like a cup of coffee?
Eve laughed, gave Harvey a final scratch and looked up.
Yeah, that'd be good.
She walked up onto the verandah, turned and had a look out at the view down to the creek. Adam walked through the door and started to make another plunger of coffee. Eve followed him inside, Harvey tried to follow. Get out of it ya sneaky mongrel, Harvey slunk back outside. Adam grabbed the cup that was hanging on a peg, gave it a wipe with a tea-towel and placed it on the table. He pressed the plunger down and poured a stream of the rich, black coffee into each cup. He pushed one over to Eve.
Got any milk?
Not unless you milk a goat.
They sipped their coffee in silence for a while.
Coffee’s good, strong though.
Thanks, I’ll let Harvey out for a fly when we’ve finished. Then I’ll milk a goat.
Don’t do it because of me.
Was going to do it anyway.
Adam opened the cage door and carefully put his arm in. Angus hopped onto the arm and docilely let Adam withdraw it. He eyed Eve off out of one miss-trusting eye. Then he let out a loud squawk and flapped his wings in a threatening gesture. Adam put his hand over Angus’s head. Shh, mate, Shh, she’s OK, she’s OK. Harvey settled down, then he crab walked up Adam’s arm. Want to hold him?
Yeah, she said diffidently
Hold out your arm
Eve held out her arm, Adam put out his and gently turned it, coaxing Angus to step over. After a few dancing steps, trying to cling to his perch on Adam’s arm, Angus changed sides. He stood still on Eve’s arm, eyeing her off balefully, then he crab walked up to her shoulder, digging his claws in for grip.
Ouch, they’re bloody sharp
Adam took Harvey, then walked a little way into the paddock where threw Harvey into the air. Harvey flapped strongly and swooped up, squawking loudly all the time. He only climbed up a short way, circled and then swooped down to dive bomb Adam. Adam laughed and ducked. The game went on for a while, then Angus decided it was Eve’s turn. She cried out in surprise as he swooped at her, his claws brushing her hair, banking steeply then diving back, this time his beak cut into her head.
Ouch! You bastard, PISS OFF!
Adam ran over
you all right
yeah, heads a bit sore
come inside and I’ll put some tea-tree oil on it.
He checked her head, then applied the oil with a surprising tenderness, she liked that, felt she was right, had made the right decision.
They milked the goat, checked the eggs, had a play with Harvey, had a walk
Want to have a swim?
No, do you want lunch?
After lunch, Eve looked a bit embarrassed.
Where’s the dunny?
Under the campha, over near the stream. D'you need dunny paper? Its in that box just outside the door.
Eve walked out the door, leaving it open. She looked around, found the box, grabbed a roll of dunny paper and headed off over the paddock in the general direction of the stream. After a coupla minutes she was back
It’s in the bloody open! Sitting perched in the paddock like dirty great pimple onya forehead.
Yeah, so what?
Yeah, view’s good.
Eve nodded and headed out the door.
Adam walked over and shut the door. He looked over at her and in a quiet voice said, watch out for Angus.
The bastard swooped me on the can!! Bloody nearly fell off!
Adam suppressed a smile.
They had a quiet afternoon, resting, talking, comfortable in each others company.
Better be getting back
MONDAY, Monday arvo, just after work.
Eve came around the corner of the shed and found Adam with his shirt off, giving himself a sluice from the tap. He had burn scars on his arms and back. She stopped, and stood looking at him. He glanced up.
He could see the red glow a couple of blocks away. Must be near he thought. Then as he drove closer ..... shit! The house was burning with a furious and growing intensity. The flames leaping and twisting and contorting; a blazing glimpse of hell. It was evil and remorseless. Adam pulled up near the fire-truck, threw open the car door and scrambled out onto the road. He tripped on the gutter and sprawled onto the grass, then crawled in a demented, frantic rage towards the flames. Shit it’s Adam! Least he’s not in there, poor bastard. Adam had regained his feet and was sprinting towards the house. Mary! Mat! Mark! Luke! OH NO! OH FUCK NO!! His mate, John, one of the firemen, tackled him. If they’re in there its too late mate, too bloody late. Adam lashed out, punching and twisting. Jeez, give us a hand would youse, quick. Poor bastard, do you know where they are mate? THERE SUPPOSED TO BE IN THE FUCKING HOUSE, I DON’T KNOW, WHERE ARE THEY, OH JESUS, OH FUCK. Anyone know where the occupants are?! one of the fireman yelled out, to everyone and no-one in particular. People, neighbours, stood around sadly, shaking their heads, feeling useless, bloody useless, ashamed. Ashamed of themselves because inside, deep inside, they were gland it wasn’t them. Adam broke free and ran into the flames, his mate ran after him and tackled him, two other firemen ran in and dragged the two men out. Both men’s clothes were smoking, the firemen were protected by their clothes, Adam was not. Get an Ambo over here! I’m not fucking going anywhere. Yeah, she’s right mate, we’ll just wrap you up for now, OK? Later, much later, a fireman came out and shook his head. Adam was too drained, too bloody tired to react. He just sat there. He didn’t feel the pain, didn’t care. His dick was oozing and sticky, mocking him, reaching into his soul, flinging guilt into his face. Guilt on Guilt on Guilt. Susan was not even a memory. The long passionate evening smashed out of his consciousness. Should be getting back, Sooz. She’d smiled, and reached over, her naked, perfect breasts brushing against his face, the nipples taught and erect, he responded and pulled her down onto the bed. Oh well, just one more, his voice muffled in her breasts. Just one more. Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, my kids, Mary.
Eve opened her mouth to speak, but nothing ……….
Adam looked over to her, stood up and slowly put on his shirt. Then he turned and walked away.
Eve watched. She stood still and watched as Adam headed back up the track. She sensed it, could feel it envelope her and then pull away reluctantly, tendrils still clinging to her gentle but exquisitely damaged aura, the invisible prayer of sadness that would not let go. Then it was gone and she could breathe again. She watched. He disappeared into the trees. Watched. The gurgle of water running from the tap seeped into her consciousness, Adam had not turned it off. She stared at the track, at the trees, at the place where Adam had disappeared. Watched. Watched.