I slept well, but I usually did in Tully – heavy sleeps to get over heavy days and dreams full of bananas. That night though, my dreams were fraught and naughty, Beata featuring highly. The insistent electronic alarm burst in at five forty-five. My awakening was met by a pungent spermy musk. I woke to find Davy asleep curled up in the middle of my own foetal curl. Revulsion bucked me out of bed, and I fell back, through the net, taking the sleeping bag with me.
The smell hung on me. I checked myself, but I was dry, my shorts dry, I was clean. Picking myself up, it was clear that the rich saltiness was strongest over the bed, over Davy. Davy remained curled, my old t-shirt bunched around him, one corner balled in a fist. His breath had a slow, contented rhythm and a very wee snore. His moustache blew out in feathers then sucked back in. I couldn’t bear the thought of waking him to check whether something unpleasant had happened in the night. In any case, the previous day had been a tough one. It was hard to believe after his spin in the washer, but I told myself, if nothing else that old fella is going to need another bath, and left him. I couldn’t see what else to do – I had fifteen minutes to get to the pick up or I’d miss my day at work and most likely lose my place on the gang.
Suffering the last prickly tingles of distaste, I gathered up my work gear. As I clomped out in untied boots, my brain was hoping that he would still be there when I got back so that I could try to find out who or what he really was; while something visceral was wishing that he would be gone and I’d never have to see him again.
* * * *
The gang gathered outside the bakery at the top of the town’s short main street, bought their morning cakes and tea and hunched in surly bunches around the pavement.
I sat on the kerb on my own, munching on a cinnamon twist. I was shunted with a boot. ‘Oi, Soft, move yer arse.’ The ute had pulled up and most of the gang were already on.
They all referred to me as Soft Jock. In the real ocker parts of Australia, any Scot is called Jock, Jocky or Jocko. They’d started calling me Soft on my first day when I struggled and trembled under the fifty kilo bunches we had to carry.
I squeezed into the last small space before the tailgate swung up, pressing hard against my thigh.
There was a dank smell to the press of us – the creeping moisture in the air against unwashed bodies, badly laundered clothes or boots that hadn’t been dried out properly. Some of the blokes nodded off, some took up murmured conversations, Aussie guys together, the English together. The rasp of the tyres was enough to let me phase out any talk. There didn’t seem to be any point in telling anyone about Davy, and how could I?
About a mile outside of town the ute stopped at Roy’s shack and honked. Every morning he came out at once like he was stood waiting with his hand on the doorknob.
I kept my head down pretending to sleep.
Roy said, ‘Roit, you, pommie, hoppit.’
The guy sitting opposite me, Steve or Simon or Stuart maybe, was forced to get out of the truck to let Roy on. After the tailgate was up, that guy had to stand on the rear step and hang on to the roof for the rest of the journey.
Roy’s knees pressed against mine. He jerked them. ‘Oi! Oi, Soft.’ Forcing me to look up. His shaven head and stubble blended. He looked pleased with himself.
‘You bastards are a roit miserable lot. What’s the matter with you cunts? Beersy, how’s you mate? Tonto, ya still hoppin, ey? Silly bastard. How bout you, Prick?’ Roy was the source of various nicknames in the crew. ‘Hey Beersy. Beersy mate. Ya never guess who I’ve left at moi place.’ Beersy down the other end was as thick-set as Roy was wiry. He always wore tight little footie shorts and a singlet that showed the tattooed tiger on his shoulder and the rolls of flesh at his gut. ‘That Bronwyn slut. Ya know the one with the fackin big norks.’
‘Na shit. She’s back at the shack, facked senseless. Tellin ya that little bitch was fackin screamin an buckin like a fackin wounded croc. Tell ya what though, I can’t be facked with all that writhin and squealin shit.’
Beersy beamed boyishly. ‘Ow’d ya sort er then Roy?’
‘Just fackin flipped her over and stuck it in her arse. Didn’t stop her screamin, but it stopped me fackin listenin.’
Other blokes hoofed and huffed in appreciation.
He caught my glance. ‘Whasammatter Soft? Ya don’t think that’s funny? You’re a bit of a fackin queer anyway, incha mate? Wouldn’t know a pair of bloody norks if they landed on ya fackin head.’
There was nothing I could say to stop him playing to his crowd.
‘So you thought you’d crack on to that Swedish Sheila, did ya Soft. She wasn’t havin none of it though, ey Soft, ey? Really gave you the flick, fa sure. Hey, you fellas remember that yesterday? Jeez that was funny. God ya were fackin screamin like a girl.’ They all laughed.
After the laughs had died, Roy leaned over. ‘Ya should realise that I’m poppin that bit of lolly. Ey? Diya not know I’m fackin given her the old fella, ey?’ With his meaty breath in my face, he growled, ‘So ya better leave er well enough alone, ey, ya soft bastard.’
We turned off the bitumen onto a rough road. Steve or Simon or Stuart Maybe clinging on tight as we rattled and hopped over the storm-channelled track.
Then Davy was there.
Davy was there squeezed into the tiny space between Roy and Don. Roy was caught up in some rant, trying to out-lewd Don with his sexual fairytales. Davy was there winking up at me and giving me a thumbs-up. His beard was fluffing in the breeze. No one else reacted. They all just continued nodding off or droning on, and all I could do was stare.
Davy winked again with a cheery nod, dead gallous. I failed to suppress my laugh.
‘What’s so fackin funny, Jocko?’
‘Eh, what, sorry?’
And Davy was gone.
‘I says what’s so fackin funny about moi brother’s woife?’
‘W… w… well, you guys were laughing, weren’t ye?’
A loud cackle came from the other end of the truck.
Roy snapped round. ‘So who the fack’s the funny bloke, ey?’ The truck bumped and heaved on the track; heads bobbed.
Someone called back, ‘What you talking about Roy?’
He squared up to me. ‘Who’s ya mate up there?’ And the guffaws came again, loud and rolling. Roy leaned forward and shouted up the truck, ‘Who the fack is laughin?’
‘Fack’s sakes Roy, what ya on about? Nobody’s laughing.’
‘Give it a fucking rest Roy.’
But I didn’t get it. Why hadn’t they heard?
And there he was again, round the back of Roy, hanging off the outside of the truck with my old t-shirt flapping and cracking in the breeze and his bottom poking out. His head was right by Roy’s ear, face split in a leering grin. Davy sucked on one of his fingers and stuck it deep into Roy’s ear.
‘Ah fack! Don ya dirty bastard!’
‘What the fack d’you stick in my fackin ear ya dirty bastard?’
‘What the fack you talkin about?’
‘What the fack just went in my fackin ear?’ Roy was screaming.
A voice came from behind me, Davy’s low brogue shouting, ‘Yer loosin it big man.’
Roy’s glare gave me the fear of God but Davy’s voice came soft in my ear. ‘Tell him tae gie it a break.’
‘Eh… Give it a break Roy.’
‘Tell him that he’s workin too hard.’
‘I think… You’re working too hard, mate.’
Roy was getting confused. ‘Soft, what the fack are you on about?’
So was I.
‘Tell him yer jist a wee bit concerned.’
‘I’m just a bit concerned for you Roy.’
‘Aboot the state ae his health.’
‘About the state of your health.’
‘Tell him he shouldnae be stayin up aw nicht when he’s got a hard day’s work tae be daein.’
‘Roy… you shouldn’t really be staying up all night. You know, when you’ve got a hard day’s work to do.’
‘Soft, are you takin the piss?’
The ute pulled to a halt.
‘Tell him no, yer jist a bitty worried that he isna fit for a day’s workin after a night like he’s had.’
The lads were starting to get up out their seats, hunching under the roof.
‘No Roy, I’m just a bit worried for you. I mean, are you fit for a hard day’s work after the wild night you’ve had?’
There were a few sniggers.
‘Aye, an tell the ugly gowk tae mind his manners and no talk aboot wimmen like that.’
‘And Roy…’ He stopped as he was about to step down from the truck, ‘…would you…’
Roy screwed his eyes up as he waited for what I had to say.
Davy climbed down and gave me a wink as he walked away from the truck.
‘Well, eh, you know, Roy… You can always have a wee rest if you… if ye find the strain is getting too much for you. I’m sure none of the lads here mind.’
Don slapped Roy on the back and another bloke said, ‘Yeah Roy. Don’t go straining yourself mate. You’re hearing things.’ The others laughed.
I was trembling. Why had Roy not smacked me in the face? I wanted to ask Davy how he’d done all that, but he was nowhere to be seen.
We started on a new field that morning. Night rains had left the ground super soft. Between the rows of trees, the troughs were a slurry of deep mud. I stumbled my way through most of the morning.
Within the first hour I was lagging behind. Old Graham kept a warning tally from the truck. ‘You won’t be on this gang much longer boy if ya don’t put it up a gear.’ It had been said so many times before that it blurred into the background like the smear of greenery, the bur of insects and the rattle of a sudden downpour.
After the rain, I didn’t slip but sunk and stuck, having to pull each footstep away from the ground.
Twice when I went after a tree with Roy under it, he cut at the wrong angle so that the bunch went off to the side and I had to lurch after it, trying to stay upright. He cackled and shouted abuse as I lumbered off.
Occasionally I thought I caught glimpses of Davy tracking along beside me, a few metres off, or once sitting in a tree, peeling back the skin of a banana, but I couldn’t give him attention for long against the fight to move, the deep aching in my back and thighs and the sharp pain at my knees from the number of jars and scrapes they took.
At lunch, I took my sandwiches and a cup of tea under an old passion fruit tree at the end of the field. Its bed was raised enough to be relatively dry under my bum, and its shade let me cool a little as I fanned myself with my cap. Several purple bulbs of passion fruit lay scattered around, some already squished or chewed by wildlife, many whole. I couldn’t summon the effort to split the soft husks and suck out the pearly seeds. I closed my eyes and hoped the tea could vitalize my limbs.
‘Wullie son, whit are ye daein this terrible job for?’
For the first time, Davy’s face was level with mine. Deep tracks of worry lines wound across his shiny brow.
‘Aw Davy, I wish I knew.’
‘Don’t yous youngsters come tae Australia for aw the action and adventure?’
‘Aye we do, but… but well, it never really worked out like that.’
‘I’m tellin ye son, ye cannae keep battlin awa like this.’
‘It’s got to be done.’
‘Does it? Could ye no jist jack it and heid tae a beach?’
‘I’ve done that, and it’s not much fun on yer own. At least here I’m making a bit of money. I’m hopin I can head home with some.’
‘Whit? Back tae Scotland?’
‘Aye. My year’s almost done.’
He fixed me with a look, eyes screwed up and half a smile, then his glance went to where the boys were slowly moving back to the field. ‘Right ma boy, dinna fash yer beard.’ Davy chucked me under the chin. ‘Better the day, better the deed that’s whit I awways say, an thur’s nae better day than this.’ He skipped off into the trees. The t-shirt I’d
given him seemed to have shrunk, fitting him better and affording me the disturbing sight of scrotum drooping below the bottom seam.
I had not a clue what Davy meant, but no time to figure it out. I pushed up to my feet, pulled my cap back on and walked over to the smoko truck to drop off my cup. Roy’s voice came out loud as he, Don, Beersy and Wobbo took their time climbing down. ‘Ya don’t wanna let these bastards think they can get away with it.’
The four English guys were waiting in the field. I let them pair off with a cutter and start, giving me a short lapse before the first bunch became available. Then I noticed Davy standing next to Beersy, waving me over. I trudged.
Roy shouted, ‘Ya better move a bit faster than that ya fackin lazy bastard.’
I readied myself under the bunch. When it hit, it seemed like I’d got one of the lightest bunches ever. Beersy slapped the nanas in a signal for me to move off. Davy ran out in front, waving me to follow. The path he picked was clear and I followed as close I could. As I stepped up to the truck, Davy’s hand was under the bunch and it lifted on with no effort at all.
Old Graham noticed the improvement in my pace. ‘Keep at it Soft.’
As I jogged back I saw Davy standing by Wobbo. I took his bunch, this one not as light as the last, but far from heavy, and followed the wee man back to the truck again.
With Davy there, the afternoon progressed swiftly. He showed me which bunch to take and lead me by the easiest path to the truck. When the bunch turned out heavy, Davy got under it and helped shift the burden. My pace stayed good and the cutters started to call, ‘Over here Soft.’ ‘Soft Jock, come on mate, ya ready for this one?’
Then Davy was stood next to Roy.
I realised that so far none of the afternoon’s bunches had been Roy’s.
‘Soft bastard,’ was what Roy said.
Then his bunch was on my back, and by god it was a heavy one. I waited for the stalk to be cut and for Davy’s helping hand but when I heard the knife hit, the bunch suddenly got heavier. Roy’s second blow had cut the trunk of the tree again, freeing it completely and leaving me under the weight of the bunch and the tree combined. My knees gave out and I collapsed under the lot.
‘Told ya, ya soft bloody bastard.’ Then he cut the stalk.
Lifting a full bunch on your own is seriously hard, and I knew I would get no help from the nasty nutter but Davy was with me. He pulled me up and tossed the bunch onto my back. ‘On ye go Wullie.’
And we set off.
This time, it felt like he was holding me and the bunch from above, a seven-foot midget lifting me into flight. I can still picture Roy’s gaping face as we toted the bunch lightly to the truck.
Roy waited with his machete crossed over his chest. ‘Oi, Soft, over ere.’ He waved away another humper. I could see that he had chosen the biggest bunch he could find.
I jogged over. ‘Keep them coming Roy.’
When his knife hit, I saw a black something spring away from the tree. It bounced from the ground onto my chest at the same moment the bunch hit my back. A spider. A dirty great spindly-legged stripy banana spider as big as my palm leapt from the tree to the ground and up on to my chest. I jumped and let the bunch fall. With the back of my hand, I brushed the spider off. The touch of it gave me shivers.
Roy was buckled with laughter.
This time he helped me get the bunch onto my back. It was heavy and Davy didn’t come to help my stagger over the yards to the truck.
‘C’mon Soft, back over ere. What you fackin hangin about for? Scared of little fackin spiders, are ya?’
I got myself under the bunch and waited for the thump. I heard Roy’s knife hit the tree, then Roy’s scream. I spun round to see him doing a St Vitus dance, twitching and flicking at himself. A spider was on his neck, but he was swiping at his leg. Then I realised there was a spider on the top of his head, a spider on his chest, on his arm. Roy was covered in spiders.
His curses and thrashing had stopped the other guys working.
‘Whassamatter wiv you, Roy?’
‘Ants in yer pants?’
‘Nah, he’s got fackin spiders in em.’
‘Ah hah hah hah.’
Above our heads, I spotted Davy hopping from tree to tree, a crazed little monkey, flicking spiders at Roy. Most of them hit, others landed on the ground then crawled or jumped at him. The blokes laughed.
I stepped closer. ‘Roy. Roy, hold on. Stop jumpin. Hold on Roy, hold it.’ I reached out and flicked a small spider from his shoulder, the touch making me tremble. Roy managed to grab the one out from his neck and hurl it away. I flicked another and between us we cleared them off. The spiders skittered into the undergrowth.
Beersy slapped Roy on the back. ‘Jeez Roy, ya know they’re harmless, don’t ya?’
Don stood back in disgust. ‘Jumpin around and squealin like a friggin girl.’
‘Fack off you lot. There’s nothin the fackin matter with me. Ga on, fack off. Get back to ya work.’ He pulled himself to his full height, several inches over me, pinned his shoulders back but at the same time his eyes widened as he stared at me. He turned swiftly and paced away up the row.
Two of the English guys stopped by me. ‘Nice work Jock.’
‘How’d he get all them spiders on him?’
‘I dunno.’ Davy’s musky scent dropped through the air. ‘Must be his fragrance.’
‘Ha, yeah, he don’t half stink. Would’ve freaked me out though, all them spiders.’
‘Yeah, it would’ve freaked anyone out.’
Someone else came over to cut the tree. The bunch turned out to be not nearly as heavy as I’d thought. In fact, for the rest of the day, it seemed like I was getting the easy part of the job. If I looked Davy would be there above me swinging through the trees or running next to me, but when I stopped moving he didn’t come close enough to talk.
Roy gave me a wide berth.
* * * *
We were heading back to the ute at five when Don stopped and dived into a bush. ‘Ere, ya buggers, have a look at this.’ He came out backwards, tugging at something. He leaned on both heels and pulled hard on the tail of a snake that emerged long and thick. Not deep brown, this one was striped white, black and tan. ‘He’s a fackin beaut. Lookit this lazy bastard, thinks he can have a kip while we’re doing all the bloody work.’ Seven foot of snake emerged, then Davy came out, sitting on the snake’s back near to its head where it whipped and lashed. He was riding it like a cowboy, waving an imaginary Stetson and calling, ‘Yeeeeehaw’.
The other fellas around joined us, laughing at the site of Don with a riled snake trying to whip round and get him.
Even with Davy fooling, the sight of it gave me the jitters.
Don started to pass the tail of the snake through his hands, hand over hand, slowly letting the snake smooth through, working further up its body. As he did so, the snake began to settle; its lashing eased and its head lowered to the ground. In the short gap between Don’s hands and where the snake’s head touched the ground, Davy slipped off.
Don said, ‘Allroit, which one of you pommies wants to hold this big bastard then?’
The four other Brits backed off.
Davy pushed me forward. ‘Yer awright, Wullie. Burnt bairns may dread the fire, but no you, ma lad. Go ahead.’
I stepped up.
Don said, ‘Ya sure Soft. Didn think ya loik snakes much.’
Davy said, ‘Go on yersel, Wullie.’
‘Go on, I’ll take it.’
And I held out my hands.
‘Ya sure Soft? It’ll know if yar afraid.’
Don let the weight of it softly fall into my hands. The skin was smooth like hard burnished leather. Its body glided through my hands; its muscles moved under the skin as though independent from it.
Davy stood beside me. ‘Nae bother tae ma laddie.’
* * * *
On the journey home, I was at the tailgate again. Roy was at the other end. Three of the English guys were bunched up near me – Mark, Paul and Gary they were, not Prick, Tonto or Shitbeak – and Steve again hung on the outside. They were in high spirits, but I feigned exhaustion and zoned out because I knew Davy was at my shoulder. I waited until we hit the tarmac and then under the drone I took my chance.
‘Davy, what was going on today?’
‘Och, I telt ye son, you done me a service and I will no soon forget it.’
‘Noh, no. What I mean is… I mean, am I losing it?’
‘Dinna be daft son.’
‘But how can you… How come one minute, I’m squashed under a bunch of bananas and the next, you’ve picked me up and I’m… we’re sprinting like we’re carrying feathers? Or what about, I mean… there’s you messing Roy up, and then… How come you’re on my shoulder giving me the right things to say?’
‘Och, it’s jist a wee bitty magic fae the hameland. We canna let oor ain be treated the way they bampots were carryin on.’
‘It was brilliant. You were…’
‘Ach, Wullie, son, ye didna really need me. You could sort that Roy eejit onyday.’
‘No Davy, I couldn’t. One thing but. How is it that nobody else can see you? I mean, it seems like I’m the only one’
‘Eh, have ye no seen me talkin tae other folk? I’m daein it aw the time.’
‘No… Davy, I’ve not.’
‘Ach, enough ae these blethers. Listen, there’s something I’ve been meanin tae ask you. Whit’s aw this aboot a Swedish lassie?’