I’d been thinking about mum. Mum and home. Perhaps because I was towards the end of my year. It was so dull, so contrived, to be craving the hearth I had so badly wanted away from. But I knew comfort there, a bit of boring, quiet, unremarkable respite.
‘Oi, Soft! Stop fackin scratchin yar arse and get the fack over ere. These bastards won’t hump themselves.’
I slipped and stumbled across the rows. The treads in my boots were clogged with mud and offered no grip. I came down onto a knee and a hand deep in mud, shuddering at the thought of the excrement mixed in there.
Roy stood at my next tree, pushing on it so the bunch hung down.
‘What the fack ya doin here if ya can’t keep up, Soft Jock?’
I got under the bunch and readied myself, hands at my shoulder for the weight. Roy thwacked his machete into the tree, toppling it over. My right knee buckled to the ground. A second blow just above my head came as Roy cut the bunch away. Sap splattered and the tree dropped behind me, but I couldn’t heave to my feet.
Roy rumbled, ‘Jeez, I end up doin all the fackin work with you pricks,’ and he lifted the bunch allowing me to straighten then begin my stagger toward the trailer. ‘That’s only a little un as well.’
I’m pretty scrawny; my legs are spindly. I tripped and panted along the furrow, my back screaming. Sweat poured from my forehead, caught in my eyelashes and stung my eyes. Mentally, I tried to conjure the living room in Glasgow: the electric fire, mum, a blanket over her knee, the telly on; I’d be bundled up on the couch, deep in a book; the sky’s black outside; rain rattles the window; the wind sucks and blows the pane against its frame; the standing lamp warms the room’s browns and burgundies. The smells are all tea and fruit loaf.
I tried to keep my eye on the trailer, measuring the distance, but the sun glared behind it, the sky achingly blue, the green of the trees fluorescing.
Footwear always got wrecked in the fields; your trainers, your new pair of Blundstone boots, your best hiking gear bloated and split at the seams from day after day of saturation. Some fellas just went barefoot, letting the mud squish up like soft clay between their toes. But they were putting up with the risk of pig-itch. Wild pigs roamed the fields at night and their droppings mixed in with the mud unseen. The air was always heady with damp earth, ripening fruit and excrement.
Old Graham was sat in the tractor as I tried to lever my bunch onto the trailer. ‘Speed it up son.’
One of the English guys strode up, flipped his bunch on and bounded off, shirtless, bronzed. I walked back slowly, feeling the sun on the damp back of my t-shirt.
Any backpackers or Aussie drifters were generally made humpers while the locals gave themselves the job of cutter. They stood by the trees calling out, steadily getting nastier as the day wore on.
‘Come on ya slow bastard, I’m stood here waiting.’
‘Oi Soft, pick yar fackin feet up.’
‘Fack’s sake yar a slow cunt.’
Normally, we didn’t see anyone else in the field, but a ute with a stringing team parked up next to ours that morning. The stringers were women who tied the laden trees together to stop them toppling, and they were just a few rows away, all in shorts and vest tops. Our gang kept glancing over to see their shoulders tense and legs tighten as they reached to wrap a string around some high palms.
Roy had been on my case right through the morning, but as I trudged toward him, I heard him booming on another favourite subject. ‘I’m tellin yar, Beersy, that Emma, she’s a roit dirty little cow.’
‘You aint never been near er, mate.’
‘Fackin roit I have. Last Froiday noight, her and her mate were in Top, fackin pissed as. I took her back ta moin and saw er off proper.’
An English voice shouted, ‘Leave it out, Roy.’
‘What, ya think she’s yar fackin girlfriend? Fack off. They want a bit of Aussie cock. That’s why they’re here.’
‘Can’t be Emma, she’s sucking on me every night.’
A lot of the English guys felt the need to keep up with the leering and lechery. I craved again to be back in my own country, back among my own people, the ones I chose, ones that talk like me, think like me. I played with the thought that maybe I should bring my ticket forward, speed my exit from this working ‘holiday’.
But I wanted to see it out, my big adventure: off with my mates to Australia, finding the world, finding myself – that’s how it goes, isn’t it? Even my mum was proud. My passage. My severance.
I was fairly certain the English one, Rob or Paul or Nick or… I don’t think he had got anywhere with Emma. Not for want of trying; I’d heard him talking, seen him running. I hated him for not standing up to Roy properly over her.
The worst if it, chances were that Roy had been where the English guy couldn’t. Roy was that type, all bare chest and tattoos, work-hardened and rough, crass and nasty. It seemed that was the allure, the dark bit that girls, maybe it was just the girls on holiday, wanted to touch. Whatever; Roy went after it, and he got it.
Beersy hollered back, ‘Tell yar what mate, wouldn’t mind a piece of that myself. Pwoar, take a look at that.’
Roy was sitting on a felled tree, rolling a cigarette, glancing towards their bare legs and uncovered shoulders. ‘You can have er, mate. Dirty slag. Not enough foight in er. Tell yar what I’m havin, that Swedish bit.’
‘What that one there?’
No. That was just, too wrong.
‘That’s er,’ Roy husked, ‘She’s a fuckin piece, int she?’
‘Too noice fa you, mate.’
That was the truth. Beata was the difference. He couldn’t have her.
I had thought all Swedish women were big, blonde and fresh pale. Beata was auburn, dark tan, with the face of a pixie: everything gently pointed, large eyes that dominated and a mischievous curl to her lips. She was small and light, but not delicate; there was a firm line to her jaw that marked a definite profile, hinted determination, strength of will.
Roy licked the edge of his roll up. ‘You watch me at smoko.’
Beersy’s eyes widened. ‘Yeah, yeah. You do that Roy.’
Roy bellowed, ‘Oi, Graham! Aint it time far lunch yet?’
Everyone in the gang stopped for the response. ‘Yeah, alroit, go on fellas.’
The smoko truck was a big old wagon with a gas burner and a couple of benches. I got back there quick as I could, stuck my hand in the slatted side and grabbed my packed lunch. The women had taken the cue to down their strings. I was determined to distract Beata, get in the way, avoid them coming into contact.
But she didn’t know who I was.
Beata was with some friends, laughing, relaxed together. I’d never spoken to her before. My stomach lurched up under my ribcage, too tight.
Could I tell her that I had seen her first arrive three weeks before, approaching the morning trucks, looking for work? Or that I had once watched her coming down an outside staircase of the hostel, moving idly, caught in thought, and that she had seemed to me so serene?
Then Beata turned away from her friends and said, ‘Hey, I like you’re t-shirt.’
Blood rushed to my ears.
She came closer.
I said, ‘Aw… Thanks. I….’ I stared at my t-shirt. Not her. ‘Actually, I …’
She reached her hand out towards me, not quite touching my chest. ‘Is that… No, I’m not sure, what album is that with?’
‘Actually, I… ah… I bought this when I went to see them in Glasgow.’
‘You have seen the Cure? Wow, that’s cool. I don’t know if they ever come to Sweden. They was good?’
‘Yeah, really. It was like… just a couple of years ago.’
I found we were lowering down to sit next to each other on a hummock of grass. She started to unwrap a sandwich, glancing at me as I spoke.
I nearly choked. ‘Aw… it was… It was an amazin gig… You should really try and see them if you can.’
All of the bold adventure, taking chances, gaining experience, making new friends for life, all those reasons to travel, right there. Better times.
Beata said, ‘So, you’re from Glasgow? That’s Scotland, yes?’
I cracked a smile too; the homeland hadn’t been far from mind. ‘You’re right. Have you ever…’
Something cold, hard and moving dropped around my neck.
I screamed and leapt to my feet. My lunch fell to the floor as I wriggled and twisted and … I couldn’t help it, I squealed.
The snake was thin, brown, maybe three feet long and it wasn’t happy. Its tail whipped, slapping against my chest, and its head curved up towards my face, mouth spreading wide. I bent over and flicked it off my neck, practically crying by now.
Roy stood behind us, howling with laughter, doubling over, putting his hand on Beata’s shoulder to steady himself. Behind and around him were a group of the pickers, some of the girls among them.
‘What… What the…?’
Roy barked, ‘Ah, fackin noice one. See the look on yar stupid spotty face?’
It was hilarious, for everyone.
‘How… Why…’ I finally managed, ‘But, but, but what was that? Was that poisonous?’ The snake had glided out of the situation as quickly as it could.
‘Course it was ya fackin stupid pommie prick.’
‘But I’m not a…’
‘Ah fack, do I give a fack if yar fackin English or fackin Jockish. Yar still soft. Look at yar.’ He turned to his audience. ‘Did yars see him? Did yars see him? What a fackin idiot.’
All the faces closed in, curled in laughter. I couldn’t bear to look down and see Beata.
I took off, past the smoko truck and stumbled, ankle deep in mud, over some rows, far enough that their laughter became only a rattle among the trees.
My sandwiches were scattered where they fell, trampled now by the crowd that came to laugh at Roy’s goading and my cowardliness.
I wouldn’t have screamed. I’m sure I wouldn’t, if only I had been forewarned.
I hated it.
I pulled a couple of unripe bananas off a tree and forced them down before the lunch break was over.
* * * *
Everyone else climbed up onto the flatbed of the ute and lined up along the benches. The only space left for me was standing on the rear step, holding on to the roof bars. I hoped my bruised back and jellied knees wouldn’t give up on me and drop me on the freeway on the drive home.
My head was above the roof of the truck, separating me from all the faces and laughter, the manly banter.
The stringers were packing up and heading for their truck. I didn’t watch.
As we trundled over the rutted track leading to the road, I caught a snip of conversation from the English guys at the back.
‘Do you know what that snake was?’
‘Yeah, well, it looked like a brown snake… you know, it’s a… what is it… a king brown.’
‘Shit, yeah. Deadly.’
* * * *
We pulled up at the top of Butler Street.
Regular shouts went up. ‘Roit, who’s for the pub?’
‘Quick pint then back to the hostel, yeah?’
‘It’s a schooner, ya cunt.’
The other ute was there, dropping off the women.
‘C’mon, the girls’re in.’
I got away sharp.
The little supermarket was fluorescent bright and cool, prickling my skin after the steaming fields. I was grimy and foul. The old woman I let served in front of me curled her nose. I picked up beer, bread and chocolate but lingered long enough to let the street clear.
As I passed the Top Pub someone stepped in, swinging its doors saloon-like. Roy was at the bar giving full benefit, “…Roy’s the one that fackin knows how to take the…” Beata was standing next to him, propped against the high bar, elbow under her head. It was an impression of full attention.
Or it was full attention.
The door stopped swinging, holding their times inside.
I walked across town to the campsite, then picked between the tents to my hut. For my treat I could prepare a banana sandwich, have a tin of beer. If I had the energy I’d shower off the fields. Oh, and aye, though it was the last thing I felt like doing, I needed to scrub the banana sap out of my one good pair jeans.
* * * *