Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The grapes of wrath - Chapter 13

I purchased an open bus ticket which was valid for a year to get me around Australia. This would take me as far south as Adelaide, then up through the red centre to Darwin, across to Cairns and eventually back to Sydney. I had enough time on my way to Dareton to stop off for a few days in Canberra, the nations little talked about capital. I'd only ever heard about how boring Canberra was and therefore I had little expectation of the place. Usually this is the best way because you can only ever be pleasantly surprised. I was pleasantly surprised.

It was in the youth hostel in Canberra that I met a guy that had worked on Crane Lake camp a few years earlier. Small world experiences were starting to become the norm for me by now. I'd been walking around the city with the guy all day before this amazing coincidence was revealed. We were drinking a beer in the common room later that evening when we started relaying our travel tales to each other. The conversation went as follows:

Me: I worked on a summer camp in America.

Boy: Yeah, me too, where were you?

Me: I was up in Massachusetts near to the New York state line border.

Boy: Yeah, me too. Hold on, what was the name of the town?

Me: It was a tiny place called West Stockbridge.

Boy: You're joking? Me too.

Both at once we shouted "It wasn't Crane Lake Camp was it?" and by crikey it was.

It turned out that this guy was one of the staff that had got thrown off the camp a few years earlier when Al had totally lost his mind and sacked the entire kitchen crew. Things were to get even spookier. In my small room on camp there was some graffiti on the roof of a character called Harry the Hood. This was apparently the emblem of a dairy in the area and Harry the Hood's face was printed on the side of all their milk cartons. From my top bunk I was literally face to face with Harry the Hood all summer long. I knew every marker line that made up his face.

We continued.....

Me: Which room did you sleep in?

Boy: It was the little one next to the veranda that looked over the small dining hall.

Me: You're fucking with me?

Boy: No, you went up the stairs from the kitchen and took a right at the top of the stairs, then you went down the corridor and then took a left by the veranda. It was the first door on the left.

Me: This is spooking me out are we in the Twilight Zone or something? That was my room as well. Which bed did you have?

Boy: The top bunk.

Me: I can't fucking believe it so did I.

We both shouted at exactly the same time "Harry the Hood".

Not only had we been on the same camp but we'd stayed in the same room and slept in the same bed, staring at the same graffiti of Harry the Hood all summer long. What were the chances of that? Talk about six degrees of separation.

Apart from this wonderful synchronicity not too much else happened in Canberra but I kind of liked it all the same. It was quiet and pretty chilled out; it didn't really feel like a city at all. The city only exists as a compromise after the dispute between Sydney and Melbourne over which city should be the capital. I'm sure that its main claim to fame is that it has caught more people out in the name the capital city game than any other city in the world.

The YHA hostel in Canberra is the only hostel that I have ever stayed in where I actually had to do chores as well as pay money for the privilege of staying there. I was assigned the job of sweeping leaves from the patio, it seemed like the easiest option. I was joined by Adam from Cheltenham who looked like a little scruffy gypsy. We got talking and it turned out that he was drifting his way across Australia, sleeping rough and bumming lifts. This was the first time he'd paid for accommodation for sometime. I later found out that he'd been breaking into houses along the way, where he'd cook meals and do his washing while the families were at work. If I'd known this first maybe I wouldn't have given him Tim Nunan's number and helped him to get a job with me in Dareton. As I was leaving Canberra on the bus later that day I saw Adam with his thumb out attempting to hitch.

On the bus to Mildura I met Mark. He took the only seat that was left on the bus and it happened to be next to me. Mark was a strange guy with a big booming posh voice. "Hello, old boy my name is Mark," he boomed at me as he extended his hand for me to shake. As I shook it he almost pulled my arm off because his grip was even stronger than his voice. He talked at me for the rest of the journey filling me in on his life story. He was in Australia to help fix his broken heart which had been shattered by a girl called Nicky, or darling Nicky as he liked to call her. I was never sure if this was in reference to the Prince song of the same name or just a coincidence. I guessed that it was a coincidence because he didn't seem like the type of guy that would be into Prince. I immediately had him down as a jazz and classical music lover. This turned out to be an accurate assumption.

Mark was 30 which I am ashamed to say felt incredibly old to me. He wasn't a young 30 though he seemed much more middle aged. He was a romantic at heart and liked to read poetry from the war poets like Siegfried Sassoon or Rupert Brooke. He believed that dying for his country was an incredibly romantic thing to do. As the bus hurtled through the night Mark's conversation hurtled with it but it always came back to darling Nicky. He too was on his way to Mildura to try and find work on in the vineyards. I told him that I had work lined up and maybe my farmer could point him the right direction. Little did I know that he would end up working with me. Me and my big mouth hey!

When we arrived in Mildura early the next morning John (my new employer) was already there waiting for me. Adam had called him to tell him that he would be there in an hour or so, so we hung around the city awaiting his arrival. In the meantime he fixed Mark up with a job at his brother's farm. John seemed like a really nice chap. He appeared to be in his mid 40s although working in the fields had sun baked his face so it was hard to tell how old he really was. He wore a cowboy hat and a pair of Blundstone boots. Pretty much the whole of Australia wore Blundstone boots back in 1993 so that came as no surprise. John drove an old battered pickup truck which we sat in the back of while we waited for Adam.

Adam arrived and we set off for our new home. I was very excited to see where we would be living and I was not disappointed. We were given a big wooden hut next to the farm, with a large kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. The dunny (toilet) was outside in the garden but that was okay my childhood had prepared me for this. I was just happy to have somewhere to call home again. John informed us that we would be getting two more pickers to help us harvest his grapes and that there was another Aussie guy called Dave living in the one of the bedrooms who would also be helping. This meant that the four new pickers would have to cram into one room whilst Dave would have a room of his own. At first this was a big disappointment to us but once we met the guy we were thankful that we didn't have to share a room with him. He was a total psycho.

Mark was then taken to John's brother’s farm about two miles down the road. After an hour or so Adam and I decided to walk there ourselves so that we could explore the area. We arrived about an hour later totally de-hydrated and fried from the intense temperature of the afternoon sun. Mark was elated to see us because he seemed to be the only picker on his farm and his accommodation was far inferior to ours. He looked as though he was going to cry. Fortunately for us Mark had been out into Dareton and bought some supplies. He got busy making a curry whilst Adam and I drank beers and chatted. Adam told me about his trip from Canberra to Mildura. He'd been picked up by a truck and then dumped in the middle of nowhere. Unable to walk any more he'd slept in a bush where he'd been woken up by a foraging emu. My god, I thought, I would have freaked out if that was me. My fear of birds was such that the bigger the bird, the bigger my fear. The sight of an emu would no doubt have sent me into cardiac arrest. Before I was to leave Australia I would have put this theory to the test.

It was our intention to go back to our own lovely hut that evening but we consumed so much beer that we ended up sleeping where we dropped. Luckily we had a almost a week off before the picking commenced which gave us time to acclimatise to our new surroundings and check out the sights. Little did we know that the town was so small that we only needed about 15 minutes to explore its entirety.

Dareton, as it turned out wasn't much more than few streets of shops, restaurants and pubs. It made Mildura look like a sprawling metropolis in comparison. The population of Dareton was around 550 people with quite a large number of Aboriginal people making up that number. The chief industry in the area was grape farming and everybody seemed to be connected to it in some way or another. During our time in Dareton we never really went to the bars in the town because they seemed a little red neck for our liking. Dave (Aussie psycho) would later tell us that all the bars in this area had two rooms, one room for whites and one room for blacks, and never the twain would meet. If blacks went into the white part of the bar they would be beaten up and vice versa. Then again, we were to find out that Dave spoke a lot of shit so maybe it was bollocks.

On the second night John made us a welcome barbeque and told us that the other two pickers would be turning up later. The first new picker turned out to be Mark who had begged John to change farms so that he could be with "the boys." By the time the second picker turned up I was already well and truly drunk and talking shite. Kev introduced himself to us and I immediately picked up on his cockney (London) accent. He informed me the next morning that I had shook his hand and told him " I hate cockney's I do." I apologised and gave myself zero out of ten for tact. Fortunately Kev found it hilarious and our North/South divide was to become a source of constant banter over our time together. Kev was an avid West Ham fan and he told me that back in the 80s West Ham fans would take their money from their pockets and shake it in the faces of any northern opposition to show them that the south was rich and the north was poor. Yes we were Thatcher's children.

Within the week the five of us had started work and I have to admit it came as a shock to the system. It's alarming how quickly a person can fall out of the habit of working. This was made even worse by the fact that we had to wake up at 5.30 am and be out in the fields by 6.00. The heat was far too intense to pick in the afternoon so we had to do as much as we could by 2 pm. We worked in pairs and got paid by the bucket so it was in our best interest to work hard. I always felt sorry for the person that ended up with me because I have an amazing knack of being able to get people to talk and this totally did not lend itself to the job.

The vines were very low to the ground which meant that we had to sort of sidle along on our hands and knees whilst cutting the bunches with a knife. I wouldn't say that it was a hard job but I can only ever concentrate on something for a short period of time so just like my orange picking days in Israel I would pick very fast in short bursts before drifting off into a fantasy world in my head. When I came back to the real world the others would be small figures in the distance.

At 11 am we would have a coffee break or smoko as John liked to call it. He'd bring us coffee and water and sit with us for a while chatting. I always liked these times because John would have some great stories for us about his time in Vietnam. I hadn't even realised that the Aussies had been to Nam until this point. He told us how the Aussies would be creeping through the jungle like snakes stalking their prey and then all of a sudden they'd hear the Americans in the distance with their rock music blaring and a full on party going on.

After work we'd usually just chill in the hut watching TV. It was during one of these TV sessions that we learnt of Jamie Bulger's murder back in Liverpool. Two young lads of ten years old had lured a two year old away from his mum and then brutally murdered him. Every time we put the TV on it seemed to be focussing on the murder. The eyes of the world were on Liverpool. The date, the 12th February 1993.

Dave seemed to come and go a lot but when he was in the hut with us he'd always have a bong under his arm. The area was known for its good weed which was super strong, consequently Dave's eyes were usually red and he was constantly raiding the fridge. I tried the bong myself a few times but it turned me into too much of an idiot to fully appreciate it.

John was really good to us and during the weekends he'd often take us down to the Murray River to swim. We were never quite sure if he was lying or not when he told us that it was crocodile infested so our time in the water was never without and element of fear. One Saturday afternoon at the river we met a bunch of Irish girls who were picking on a farm close to ours. They invited us to their farm the following Wednesday night and said they'd cook for us. In light of what happened that night I bet they wished they'd never bothered.

The big night came and we'd been talking about it all day to get ourselves in the mood. You know, taking bets on which of us were going to get laid and the likes. We were in the middle of the outback we had to take any opportunity that we could get. Even the kangaroos were starting to seem sexy. By the time we arrived we'd already drunk far too much beer for the girls liking and the situation soon got out of hand. By 9pm we had been warned twice about our boisterous behaviour and told to leave. Much to the annoyance of the girls we refused to leave until the beer had all been drunk and they were forced to get us ejected from the premises by the farmer and his farm hands. We decided to walk home although we had no idea where we were. We were having so much fun singing football chants that we didn't want the night to end. Any thoughts that we'd had about getting laid were already distant memories.

The next day were awoken by an angry John. It was already 7 am and we were still out for the count. To make matters we were all plastered and found his angry voice incredibly funny. Our laughter only infuriated him more. As soon as he left we fell back to sleep and he had to return a further three times. By the third time he was ready to kill us. For the rest of the day he refused to talk to us. This was remedied later on when we all went to apologise. He made us a barbie to show us that there were no hard feelings. It was during this barbeque that we were told that the World Trade Centre had been bombed and six people had been killed. In view of what happened eight years later people tend to have forgotten about this first Al-Qaeda attack on the building. The date, the February 26th 1993.

I'm not altogether sure when we left Dareton but it must have been some time around the middle of March. One day John gathered us together and said "lads, I've got some news for you, by Thursday we'll be picking our last vine. You can stay for a week or so after that but then you'll all have to go I'm afraid."  Once again something was coming to an end and it was time to move on to pastures new. The four of us had decided that we would leave together and head to Adelaide to party for a while before heading north.

On the Thursday of our last pick John went to the bottle shop and bought us a case of beer each which he placed at the end of our last vine. This was meant to spur us on and of course it worked. By lunch time we were back in the hut in the midst of a full on end of season party. By 1pm I had retired to bed and was officially out of commission. The Mittons have never been seasoned drinkers it's in our genes. I remember going to Ibiza with my parents back in 1984. We got to the hotel had a bottle of San Miguel each and then fell asleep until the next day. Alcohol simply sends us to sleep. By the time I woke up the party was almost over.

It was only six weeks since I'd left Sydney but my life could not have been any different. My time on John's farm had been very successful in my eyes. I'd left Sydney itching for a new direction and my time in Dareton had certainly given me this. Memories of those lazy days on the Murray River will stay with me forever; thankfully we lived to tell the tale. There's no denying that I'd got lucky in having a boss as kind and generous as John and his wife Lindy. In the years that followed I heard many horror stories from fellow pickers who had been shafted by their employers. I'd even managed to save a few thousand dollars while I had been picking, let's face it there's not much to spend your money on when you are in the middle of nowhere.

As the four of us were driven off in the back of John's pickup truck for the last time I turned around and took one last look at our hut. This would more than likely be the last time that I would ever see the place. What would be the chances of me ever finding myself in this remote part of New South Wales again? We rounded the bend at the bottom of our lane and a tear trickled down my cheek. In that moment it was if I could feel the passing of time, the presence of those that had stayed at John's farm before me seemed almost tangible. They'd had their times and now I'd had mine and it was time to move on. The sound of Adam shouting penetrated my thoughts and I was brought back to the now.

"Come on lads let's fucking have it, there's beers to be drunk and birds to be shagged." And he was right Adelaide lay 400 km to the west of us. It was time for the next stage.

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