среда, января 19, 2011

planting roots

Dad always told us he put his apricot orchard in – ‘planted my roots’, as he liked to say – as soon as he got back from the war. It took me the better part of thirty years to figure out that it must have really been a few years after that. See, when we were young he used to say it was the best year of his life when he planted his roots and Johnny McDonald took the parliament. But I found out later that McDonald only got in 1950, so either Dad planted his roots before McDonald got in, or he was confused about his timeline.

Probably it wasn’t that important. Probably it was more important that good things happened, and in hindsight they all seemed to happen at once. He always said he wanted an orchard in Ky. It was his favourite story. He used to tell it to everybody who came to our house.

‘Before I went off to fight,’ he’d say, ‘I told everyone in town that when I came back, I’d plant my roots and grow the biggest damned orchard in Ky.’ Of course, he meant Kyabram. When he got back, times were pretty good, and lots of people were starting businesses. Dad missed out on the good land around Kyabram, and he wasn’t about to take bad land, so he went for the best land in the next best joint around – Kyvalley.

‘I thought I meant Kyabram before I left,’ he’d tell visitors. ‘But I found out later on I really meant Kyvalley!’

And then he’d laugh, and our visitors would laugh, and get distracted by the laughter, and look around them, especially at the apricot trees. But I didn’t get distracted. I kept looking at Dad. After the laughter, while everyone was looking around, he’d look bloody sad. Like a bloke who’s been kicked in the guts a few times but doesn’t want anybody to know it. I think that’s why it was his favourite story.

It was a good decision, anyway. Getting the good land in Kyvalley, I mean, and planting his roots in 1950, if that’s when he did plant them. The cannery was already there, but they joined on a can-making factory in 1950, and that’s when things really picked up. After a couple of years we were producing bumper crops of apricots – big, juicy ones, orange around with the red burnish on top and a few brown speckles just to let you know how good they really were – paying ginzos to harvest em and load up the trucks, and off to the factory. Dad would walk around – supervising, I guess – with a big shotgun. He said it was ‘to keep the cockies off me crop’, but it was never loaded.

If I could get a job where I could walk around all day with an unloaded shotgun, I’d probably do that too. Sometimes Dad let Shane carry the gun for him.

‘Just hold it carefully,’ he’d say. ‘Don’t put your finger on the trigger, and whatever you do, don’t drop the bloody thing. Cost a bloody fortune.’

He never let me hold it. I wasn’t old enough, he said – and then, by the time I was old enough, he didn’t carry it around no more. Said he’d grown out of it. Boy, I really wanted to hold that shotgun. Sometimes he’d break open the barrel and look down through the chamber and out the end. I asked him if I could have a shotgun for my birthday once, but he just laughed and said a man had to buy his own damned shotguns in this life. Shane said he’d let me hold it once, when Dad was out of sight. Boy, I really wanted to hold it. Shane let me look real close and told me to have a go, but I wouldn’t. I was too afraid of what Dad might do if he came back and saw me with the gun. Not just to me, but to Shane for giving it to me in the first place.

I was 14 and Shane was 16 and we were both at school when Dad died. He’d been helping Jack Allen with his ute, and they were on a slope in Jack’s backyard. The handbrake gave out, and the ute started to roll. Both Dad and Jack were at the front of the car, and they could hold it with the two of them, but that was all they could do.

Jack told the police – and then later, us – that Dad had told him to race around to the side, open the driver’s door, jump in, and put the footbrakes on, while Dad held the ute. But he couldn’t hold it. Or maybe Jack took too long to get around the side. There was another car down the slope, you see – a beat up old wreck, it was – and they were trying to stop the ute from smashing into it. So it smashed into Dad instead, and still smashed into the old wreck anyway. It’s funny. After all the trouble planting his roots in Ky, Dad bought it from an old ute for the sake of an old bomb.

The orchard was still going ok then. Not as good as the 50s, but still profitable. Shane and I were dead keen to take it over. We made some plans between us about how we could expand the business. People were talking of turning Ky – Kyabram, I mean, not Kyvalley – into a proper town. A recognised town, you know? And we thought we could get in real good if that happened, into politics maybe.

But they wouldn’t let us take over the orchard. Said we were too young. Shane was disgusted, he said he was as old then as Dad was when he went to fight in the war (which wasn’t true), so what made it right that a man could fight in a war at 16 but he couldn’t grow a few apricot trees? They told him it wasn’t just about apricot trees, or who can fight in wars and when. They told him hard times were coming. That there’d be no rain for a real long time, and the land was going into drought, and water would get real expensive to bring in, but without it the crops would die. And they told him it was a complex operation to keep a big orchard running in a bad drought, and that lots of men who’d been running orchards for a long time – longer even than Dad (which wasn’t all that long, in truth) had tried and failed, and that a young fella like him, no matter how strong and keen he was, well, he might have all the beans in the world to get him up early every morning, but it’s wisdom and experience and knowing when to invest and when not to invest which makes a successful orchard man.

In the end, it was mum who persuaded Shane. I think he knew they were right, and things weren’t going to go well with the orchard no matter what he did. But he had a lot of pride and wouldn’t back down to their faces.

I was happy we sold up, but if we hadn’t, and if Shane had’ve pressed ahead after he told everyone to get stuffed, and if he had’ve taken over the orchard, I would’ve supported him in that. We made a plan, and even if it went wrong, I would’ve supported him to see if we could make it come off or not.

It was a few years later that I moved up north. I came up and worked in the orchards, which is sort of funny, because I never meant to. I mean, I wasn’t following orchards or anything. I just heard it was sunny and hot and nice beaches, and nobody hassles you about stuff. Land is pretty cheap but pretty good. There was lots of acreage for crops inland a bit, but I’d had enough of farming by then. I didn’t mind working hard and I wasn’t afraid to start my own business, but I wanted something I could have more control over, you see. I didn’t want to put in years of work just to have a few blokes show up on my verandah down the track and say ‘sorry, we’ve done a study and your farm will fail – you can pack up and sell cheap now, or you can pack up and sell for next to nothing later.’ It’s understandable, I think. I think I wasn’t being unreasonable in that.

A lot of the new arrivals were working in the local orchards then. There were more orchards then than there are now, now most of the orchards have been replaced with – what do they call em? McMansions. Ha! That’s what my kids call them. They look alright to me, and I don’t really see why they should be McMansions. They were built around the same time that McDonalds and all those bloody American shops started showing up, but they were built by Australian builders. Unlike the orchards – they were built a bit by ginzos and mostly by kanakas. It was them I worked with in the orchards, as well as a bunch of other no-hopers from around the country who’d come up for the work. Most of em were working for the bottle, but I never did – I mean, I don’t mind a drink, but I’m not a slave to it – and after a while I managed to get some work helping out with the new suburbs they were building. I mostly helped with the gardens, and got pretty good at it, and pretty good at organising teams of three or four blokes to get into the scrub and clear it out, or else to clean up peoples yards for them.

I guess I can thank the snakes, really. Lots of people don’t know how to deal with snakes, especially the new arrivals. All they know is that snakes like long grass, so you have to keep your yard neat and tidy. But once a couple of snakes show up, they don’t want to go out there to mess with them, so the grass gets longer, and more snakes came, and before they know it they’ve got a backyard which grows all day and slithers all night. All you need is some work boots and a long shovel. One or two of my fellas got bit, but none of them died.

After I’d been here for a few years – maybe ten, I guess, so it was a fair few years – Shane showed up. It was out of the blue, but I wasn’t surprised to see him all the same. He said he’d been working in Melbourne but heard there was lots of money to be made up here, so he caught the next long hauler heading up this way. He looked ok. He was a big bloke and looked like he’d been getting into a few scraps after a few drinks. He hadn’t shaved for a while, and he smelled sour like alcohol, but so did most other blokes. I asked him if he wanted a job working on one of my teams, but he said no, he’d heard the good money was to be made further north, at the mines.

‘You’re bloody crazy,’ I said. ‘The reason they pay such good money at the mines is because every second bloke loses his arm or falls off a truck and breaks his back. They’re not paying you to do nothing, you know.’

‘Good,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to get paid to do nothing. I’ll make a packet up there for just three months work.’

We were drinking a few tinnies on somebody’s back verandah – the house had just been built and they hadn’t moved in yet. It was stinking hot, the kind of heat that just makes you sweat, no matter how much you drink. The house was right on the edge of the scrubland, and the cicadas were screaming up a ruckus in the trees behind the house, I can tell you. They always did scream up a ruckus on hot days like that, but I seemed to hear it more cos Shane was there and he probably hadn’t heard it before and I thought maybe he would notice it, but he didn’t seem to.

‘Then I might take a bit of a break and head over to Perth,’ he said.

‘You seen mum?’ I asked him. He shook his head and didn’t say anything.

‘I’m going back to Ky soon to see her. You should come.’

‘Oh yeah?’ he replied. ‘When are you going?’

‘In June. Middle of winter and all, I reckon that place she’s in isn’t too warm.’

Shane just looked at me.

‘So what are you going to do?’ he asked after a while.

‘I don’t know. Cut her bloody firewood for starters. Fix up the joint a bit. You should come.’

‘Think I’m busy in June,’ was all he said.

He cleared out the next day. I tried to persuade him to stay and work here – if not for me, then in one of the orchards. But when I suggested that he just looked at me like I was mad, and said he had a job he was going to up north, and he was scheduled to be there and start working in two days. And off he went.

When I went to see Mum, she said she hadn’t seen Shane for a while, although he dropped in sometimes.

‘He doesn’t stay long,’ she’d say. ‘I don’t think he likes it here. Not his type of place, Ky. He’s a big fella, he likes to be active and working.’

‘Plenty of activity and work in Ky,’ I said, then wondered why I’d said it.

‘No, he couldn’t settle in Ky,’ Mum replied. ‘Not his type of place at all.’

I managed to fix Mum up pretty good after a while, my business up north was going so well. She didn’t want to move out of Ky, which was fine with me, because it was fine with her. But I could make sure she didn’t freeze during winter, at least.

‘Selling that orchard was the best damned thing that ever happened to you boys,’ Mum would sometimes say. ‘Imagine if you had’ve taken it over. Look at what’s happened to everyone who tried to stay on and make a go of it. The land just won’t take it, and the river’s stuffed. I’ve always been very glad we got out when we did.’

‘Yeah,’ I’d reply. ‘Me too, Mum. Lucky, eh?’

And every now and then Shane would drop in on me up north, on his way to a job somewhere. He was always alone. As the years went by, it struck me that he didn’t look too flash, but then one day I realised that I wasn’t looking all that flash myself anymore. It was something else about him. I dunno what it was. It was like he was surly, but not deliberately so. He wasn’t angry or anything, he just wasn’t used to being around people that much, and he didn’t care for them. He seemed to spend a lot of time alone, or else working with other blokes who had big powerful hands like his, and who liked to drink, and drive trucks, and sometimes fight each other and sometimes go off with prostitutes. I sometimes wondered if he was angry at the world, which was really more a way of wondering if he had a right to be angry with the world, which always made me wonder if I’d be angry at the world if I was in his shoes. If it was me who’d had the guts to stand up to a group of men when I was 16 and tell them to get stuffed, I was taking over the orchard, and then not done so. Or me who’d worked at building sites in Melbourne, and gotten into fights and then decided to catch a truck up north because I didn’t have no family or woman around to make me stay. And was I angry because I did stay? Did I stay because I wanted to, or because was I made to? I wonder sometimes if I would have had the courage to pack it in and piss off to the mines – I mean, to do that and live with myself.

Maybe if I’d got to carry the shotgun I could’ve. Maybe the shotgun was all bullshit anyway.

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