JANUARY STARTS, THE FRUIT begins to soften, and we meet the backpacker pickers outside the store where the bus stops. Some of them have worked for us before and know what to expect. Others phone us on the off chance we need someone. They hear about us through friends who’ve worked a season for us maybe a year or two before them and have not forgotten us.
‘We come into town once a week on Saturday,’ I tell them, ‘so anything you need—sun lotion, books, smokes—get them now.’
A look of panic flushes their faces. Some of them have come halfway round the world seeking a life-defining experience. Getting to the shops once a week is the last wilderness to them. It’s not that our orchard is that far from town— twenty miles or so—but there’s no bus or taxi service. And at the height of the season we don’t have time to get to town more than once a week.
Pebbles batter the underside of our minivan as we drive to the orchard. Gorse and broom brush the doors. I’ve been driving the narrow road through the gorge since I was fifteen and can tell by the dust ahead if a car is coming the other way. The new pickers don’t know that, especially the ones who live in cities, where all the roads are sealed and the lanes are marked to stop everyone crashing into each other at speed.
Pop sorts the pickers into their rooms in the old cottage where they’ll be staying. The two Indian PhD students up from varsity in Dunedin, three Irish girls, and an English couple get the small rooms. The young guys from Auckland pile in together in the big room with the bunk beds nailed to the walls. We don’t even try to assign beds. Someone makes a rush for the single spring bed beneath the window. The rest of them choose their bunks warily. It’s hard to know who snores like a bear and who whiffs and scratches all night long.
Everyone is hungry and tired from travelling so we make dinner for them on the first night. There’s a seven-day menu plan and Pop assigns everyone a cooking day for the next week so no one can escape the roster. Someone asks why there’s no puddings and Pop answers them by saying they can eat as many cherries as they want, but to mind the stones because we want them to leave with the teeth they came with. The Indian students laugh and show us their even white teeth. Indian mangoes have stones like cuttlefish bones, they say, don’t worry about us. The English couple talk about the orchards in Kent where they grow apples and pears, which don’t have any stones, just pips. Before the Irish women can make claim to any fruit Pop jumps in and says that he’s from Ireland too, originally. From a farm, where they grew fields of potatoes, which shone like wet stones when they were turned.
It’s not hard to like Pop. He has the knack of treating everyone as if they’re equal and special at the same time. He wobbles around the orchard on a creaking old bicycle, stopping to show the new pickers how to pick the fruit to include the stalk but not a whole limb of leaves and twigs. The pickers quickly get the knack of moving the ladders around the trees. They learn how to position themselves to reach the ripe cherries and how to handle the weight of the basket around their necks as they fill it up. Each picker has a bin they empty the fruit they’ve picked into which is marked with their initials. That way we know how much they’ve picked and can see if they pull off too many leaves and small or bad fruit. A full basket is too heavy for some of the women, and they have to empty their baskets more often than the men. Pop tells them not to worry. It’s not how much they pick but the quality of the fruit that matters. Besides, if the men fill their baskets too full, they end up spilling it when they’re climbing up and down the ladder.
Everyone gathers at the packing shed for smoke break. The packers in the shed have all worked here before and started off as pickers. They know how to sort out the best cherries on the conveyor belt to go to America and Japan where people pay ten times the price New Zealanders can afford. Fruit for Japan goes in cardboard boxes lined with tissue paper and picture writing that looks pretty even though we can’t be entirely sure what it says about our cherries. We put the boxes of fruit on a pallet and shrink-wrap them and put loads of ‘fragile’ stickers all over them, so when the refrigerated truck arrives and takes them to the airport we hope the cargo-handlers treat them gently.
All the new pickers get purple lips from eating cherries and they dash to the toilet a lot because they’ve done exactly what we said they could and eaten as much as they liked. There are purple stains on their shorts and T-shirts from throwing cherries at each other. The English couple are practically purple with sunburn and talk about quitting. Pop has a chat with them to see if there’s anything we can do to make them happier. They are scratched and sunburnt and sore. We give them a day off and cream for their skin. Cherry-picking is not for them. They plan to leave at the end of the week and we are sorry to hear that.
When the cherries are finished we move on to picking apricots and peaches. Like every summer, the pickers moan about the heat in the orchard. The packers bitch about the heat in the shed. Everyone in the old cottage whinges about everything and everybody. The Indian students get up really early to pray and shower and have breakfast. The Kiwi guys roll out of bed at the last minute and get angry because the shower is cold. Others complain about the food, the volume of the radio in the kitchen and the station it is tuned into. Some can’t handle no TV. Some stay up late and talk. Others tend to their tired muscles and go to bed when it gets dark. At night everyone wants the windows open except the guy who grabbed the single bed, who complains that the window above him doesn’t close. No one quite believes his story that a possum drunk on fermenting fruit staggered over his pillow one night, but no one will swap beds with him either. By the time the season is over in six weeks they might have worked it out.
On Saturday we go into town. Some of the pickers come with us in the minibus to wave off the English couple. They have a list of things people want like shampoo and deodorant, and things they need like cigarettes and beer and wine. Everyone gets Sunday off work so they’re having a barbecue on Saturday evening. We’re invited along and we go up to the old cottage with steak and salad and beer.
The Kiwi guys do all the cooking on the barbecue. They pretend fight each other with the long-handled utensils. Fish-slice batters the tongs. Fork pins down fish-slice. Tongs restrain fork. They fight to flip the steak, to turn the sausages and skewer the chicken. But really they are fighting over the prettiest of the three young Irish women who has an accent which makes them forget about the barbecue completely, so they end up burning the meat.
After the barbecue the young Irish women decide to go back to their room. The young men joke that maybe the girls are more interested in each other than in them. The women roll their eyes up in the air. They are tired after their first week picking and want to rest.
It’s still light at ten o’clock at night and the Indian students go into the packing shed and one of them finds an old wooden fruit crate and shapes a bat from its loose boards. The other bends a cardboard box into a set of wickets. They collect up a pile of discarded apricot and peach stones from around the shed and start batting them away. The Kiwi guys join in and the Indian students hit the Kiwi bowlers all over the show. There’s no scoring system, just targets to hit and high-spirited hoots when a stone hits the safety notice on the packing shed door or the stove pipe sticking out of the roof.
And then play comes to an abrupt halt. The opus of stones pinging off the fruit crate bat and bouncing off the corrugated iron roof stirs the snoozing Irish women. The pretty one sticks her heads out of the bedroom window.
‘Feck off and play some place else,’ she shouts.
‘Hey, grumpy boots,’ one of the kiwi guys shouts back, ‘you look even prettier when you’re half asleep.’
Her scowl does little to dampen his interest in her. The sight of her has him full of juice. Determined to give her an impressive performance, he picks up a whole peach from one of the bins and bowls it at the Indian student who instinctively plays it away. Soft peach flesh flies off in all directions. The hard stone flies across the yard and shatters the bedroom window.
The Irish women emerge from the cottage and everyone gathers around to inspect the broken window. The Indian student keeps apologising to us and to the Irish women. Everyone insists it’s not his fault. Blame, they say, lies with the Kiwi guy who tossed the whole peach. He defends himself by saying he only meant it as a joke. We know he was showing off in front of the pretty Irish woman. He knows he’s behaved like a prick. With his chances of getting the girl dead in the swamp, he decides he’ll ride the twenty miles into town to check out the local talent. But before he can find Pop’s old bicycle, the Indian student who batted the peach jumps on the seat.
‘Just a joke,’ he laughs.
The Kiwi guy runs after Indian student, who pedals off easily, just fast enough to keep ahead. We all know the guy chasing the bike is hardly fit enough to cycle as far as the cattle-grid at the gate. Just running after the Indian student makes him gasp.
‘Fucking curry-muncher,’ he yells.
The two of them are too deep into the orchard for us to see them clearly, but the words shake the shadows in the trees. We hear the bicycle brakes chafe on the wheel rims. The stamp of angry feet running. Grunts indicate a struggle. The other pickers run into the orchard to break up the fight and the second Indian student flies in after them.
When they emerge from the orchard the Indian student has a chipped front tooth. The Kiwi guy claims he’s lost his wallet though no one really believes him.
‘How much is in it?’ someone asks.
‘Only a few bucks. Driver’s License. Credit cards.’
‘We don’t have much need of those things here,’ Pop says to him.
Over a lifetime Pop has developed the knack of handling the pickers in a way they don’t find threatening. Everyone may be running out of goodwill. We have not yet run out of tea or coffee. The kettle is put on and a pavlova dug out of the freezer. Pop makes the peace between everyone because the crop still has to be picked and we all have to live with each other for a few more weeks. We all sit on the lawn and watch the Irish women unpack their musical instruments. One girl has a tiny accordion in an expanding box. She unclips the strap and begins to squeeze out lovely music. The girl with a soft round drum she calls her ‘boweron’ beats time with a stumpy wooden drumstick which she twiddles between her fingers. And when the third girl opens her lips to sing Pop’s eyes turn wet and he puts his hands in his trouser pocket to pull out his big white handkerchief.
The music relaxes everyone and it isn’t long before the Indian students are up dancing and showing everyone how to makes waves with their arms. Then the Irish girls take a break and some of the Kiwi guys start singing rugby songs and doing the haka. They get the Indian students to stand in a line and teach them to stamp the ground and slap their thighs and stick out their tongues. Showing foreigners the haka is a great way to make friends even if it is a Maori war dance.
‘Your orchard,’ the Irish women say, ‘is paradise found.’
Long after the pickers are gone and the trees are bare we continue to think about them. In July when the hoarfrost descends and shuts out the sunlight for days on end. At pruning time in August when, stuck in the branches of a peach tree, we find a wallet containing a little stash of hash. At blossom time in September, when the bees explore the frost cracks in the trees for warm places to swarm to. And after the blossom falls when we’re up all night adjusting the sprinklers so the water chases off the frost from the tiny fruit as it starts to swell. Memories of pickers who’ve left their homes overloaded with optimism and come to us from as far as the other side of the world move with us through the seasons. Memories of them keep returning, stirred up by postcards from pickers as they continue backpacking around the world. From the cool temples and gardens of Kyoto, to the hot sands of the Mojave desert, their connection to us persists.
And in the orchard Pop, revived by a tape from the three Irish pickers, relives his own Irish story. Driving along the gorge road, he sings along to songs which we’ve never heard before in a language we don’t understand. At these moments he is lost in the recollections of a place he left as a child. Since the age of twelve he’s carried these lost songs in his head; songs of his birthplace. His wavering voice oozes out the old words and tunes, a near-cry for home.