The trees were loaded with fruit, and the peaches were colouring up well. Pallets of packing boxes waited in the shed, the coolroom scrubbed out, everything ready to go. But where Roza should have been able to see four or more pickers working in the orchard, there were just two people slogging away.
The regular picking team had failed to show. The team boss, Roy, was usually reliable – even if that man’s breath was sour enough to pickle your eyeballs – but already it had been three days with no pickers. And so, Celia and Zoe, mother and daughter, were bringing in some of the peaches until things were sorted out.
The two of them had been working since five a.m. and now, mid-afternoon, the sun was fierce and their shirts were soaked with sweat, shoulders slumped from the weight of the picking bags.
Roza’s job as fruit packer meant she could take refuge in the luxurious shade of the packing shed. This was just as well – she was in her seventies now and although she accepted her status as a wrinkled crone, it was better that the sun didn’t shrivel her up any further, like an over-dried prune.
This was mid-December, at the tail end of 1976. The events Roza was about to witness were – well, maybe they weren’t inevitable. She had always endeavoured not to judge other people’s behaviour. She tried instead to observe with clear eyes, to imagine why a person would do this or that thing, to decipher what might be going on in their mind and in their body (yes, of course the body too, because so many beautiful and dangerous impulses arise there). Roza didn’t always succeed in her attempt to suspend judgement – especially when it came to certain individuals in this story – but mostly what she observed was people doing their best, flailing about, trying to avoid the necessary losses.
From inside the shed, Roza had to squint against the glare outside to see Celia and Zoe in the orchard. She was often struck by the physical resemblance between the two – a similarity not obvious to some stranger who might wander past. Celia, the mother, was forty-two, with springy dark curls and olive skin. Zoe – sixteen now – had fine blonde hair and a complexion so pale that if she was upset or excited about something, the veins became faintly visible under the skin. Even her eyelashes were fair. When she was little, Roza used to call her Our Milk Princess.
Celia had always been vigilant about hats and sun-creams for her fair-skinned daughter. Wise, if you considered the desiccated faces of so many of the adults in this country, faces crusted with scabs where doctors had burned off their dangerous blotches.
But even if Zoe had inherited the colouring of the father, her mannerisms, her eyes, her strong jawline, were all the mother. And if an observant person watched them working there side by side, and saw the way they moved their limbs in the swing of the task, the rhythm of their bodies, that person would acknowledge the resemblance.
Roza had always thought Celia’s farm was one of the most beautiful properties in the district. The orchard radiated out from the packing-shed yard like chunky slices of a pie, bordered by windbreak rows of conifers. The gravel road continued from the shed for another two hundred yards up to Celia’s small weatherboard house with its deep verandahs, chicken coop and vegie garden all tucked in, almost hidden, inside a boundary of hedges and old, generously proportioned trees. The ground fell away behind the house paddock, sloping down to a pretty creek that ran strongly even in the driest summer.
At this time of the year, the comic-book green foliage of the fruit trees came from a different colour palette to the muted olive green of the surrounding wedges of bushland and the hazy grey-blue shape of the hills beyond that. Some people might think this mix of colours was incongruous or unnatural, but Roza found it lovely.
When Roza looked out into the orchard again, she saw that Celia and Zoe were emptying their picking bags into the bins on the trailer and climbing onto the small tractor they used to ferry the fruit. Celia drove along the track that looped around to the far end of the orchard, where there would be some blessed shade by this time of the day. Leaving Zoe down there to keep picking, Celia then brought the tractor up to the packing shed.
‘How are you going in here, Roza?’ asked Celia. She scooped up a peach from the bin and inhaled its scent. ‘The Red Havens are perfect. A day over, if anything.’
Red Havens were always the first variety of the season on this farm and, as it happened, Roza’s favourite.
The strident ring of the telephone made Roza wince, as it always did, the sound bouncing around the tin walls of the shed. In the corner, a wooden desk and a small filing cabinet served as the farm office. Celia had run an extension line down here from her home phone, with a robust ringer aimed out into the orchard so she wouldn’t miss important calls.
As soon as Celia picked up the phone, Roza could tell from her tone, without needing to hear the words, that the news was disappointing. Celia covered the receiver with her hand to explain, ‘Roy’s in hospital. Poor guy cracked a couple of vertebrae.’
This was why Roy and his pickers had failed to turn up as promised. And according to the series of phone calls Celia then made, it seemed the whole team of workers had scattered, leaving her without anyone to pull in the Red Havens.
‘Can you believe this? Best season for five years and the bloody fruit’s going to rot on the trees.’ Celia made an effort to laugh, even though Roza could see she was worried.
She flipped through the exercise book on the desk, looking for more phone numbers, and muttered half to herself and half to Roza, ‘I could maybe hire some students through the teachers’ college. But it’d take a few days to arrange that. Which doesn’t help with the fruit that won’t last until . . . Shit, shit, shit! Santino’s not answering his phone. I should try ringing the guy down at the . . . Not to worry, not to worry. We’ll be fine.’
Celia stuck at it, making call after call to dredge up experienced pickers from somewhere. She had installed an extra-long cord on the handset so she could move around, getting other tasks done whenever she was on the phone. Meanwhile, Roza got on with the job of packing the peaches from the bins.
Sometimes people expressed surprise that Roza, at the age of seventy-two, was still working in the packing shed for her neighbour. In fact, many growers preferred to have the older women working in the sheds because they were steady and careful with the stone fruit. But it would be fair to say Roza was one of the oldest packers, and it would be true to say she allowed herself to be a little bit vain about that.
People were also surprised that Roza’s accent was still strong, considering she left Hungary before the war and came to Australia decades ago. But because she had always spoken Hungarian with her husband Sandor when they were home together, the old accent got itself cemented in.
For days in the packing shed, Roza twisted her long hair up into a bun to keep her neck cool. She wore comfortable sneakers under her favourite Indian skirt – a flowing ankle-length garment made from red, gold and purple fabric with tiny mirrors sewn onto it. There would be people who considered this skirt too fancy and overdressed for the packing shed, but Roza wasn’t fussed. The Indian skirt was snug but not too tight on the belly and offered good airflow around the haunches on a hot day. She saw no reason not to combine comfort with bright colours. There was plenty of misery in the world – why not wear something bright with tiny mirrors sewn onto it if there was no one to stop you?
It was half an hour later when Celia and Roza heard a vehicle on the gravel and both headed outside. Hit by the full sun of the yard after the deep shade of the packing shed, they could not immediately make out the occupants of the Holden pulling up next to the trailer.
‘Hello!’ Celia called out as Joe swung open the driver’s door, rolling up the sleeves of his business shirt.
Even adjusting for her bias as his mother, Roza had no doubt her son Josef was a good-looking man. From his father, there were cheekbones, broad shoulders and an abundance of lovely wavy hair. So it counted as even more of a shame that Josef had allowed himself to accumulate a little pudge around his middle. Roza would have liked to blame Heather, the wife. But in fact it was Josef’s drinking that had lodged itself round his belly. Then again, he drank too much because he wasn’t happy with the woman he was married to – even if he himself was refusing to face that – so Roza decided she could in fact blame her son’s belly on Heather.
‘Do you want a cold beer on this stinking day?’ Celia asked him.
‘Nah, I’m fine, thanks.’
‘Of course he’s fine,’ said Roza. ‘All he’s done is drive here in his air-conditioned car from his air-conditioned office.’ Josef worked as a solicitor, with his own practice in town. A safe but very boring job, Roza would have said, if anyone were to ask for her opinion of this career choice.
Joe leaned down to kiss his mother on both cheeks, sliding his face away from her questioning gaze. ‘How are you, Mum?’
‘Why do you come out here to check on me? I’m okay.’
‘No checking going on. I’m here to do Celia a favour, hopefully. I tried to ring, but the line was busy.’
‘Yeah, sorry,’ said Celia. ‘I’ve been giving the phone a walloping. Trawling for pickers.’
‘Well, I might have found you some. These guys had a bit of car trouble just outside town.’
Joe turned round and noticed that his two passengers had not followed him from the car. He signalled up here to the young woman, who was hanging back, waiting for permission. The woman pressed her mouth into an awkward smile of greeting as she approached.
Roza watched Celia assessing the new arrival. She was only in her twenties but appeared to have done a lot of mileage. Small, sinewy, with too much dark eyeliner and long hair dyed too harshly black for her pale, freckled complexion. She wore a black tank top over tight jeans and bristled with metallic jewellery – several ear studs, rings on every finger and silver bangles lining her forearms like armour. This one was a spiky creature, ready to defend herself against whatever the world might throw in her face.
Celia smiled warmly and offered her hand. ‘G’day. I’m Celia.’
‘Oh – right – Sheena.’ She darted forward to shake Celia’s hand.
The other newcomer, the young man, had wandered towards the row of peach trees that grew close to the yard. He was reaching up to touch the spot where the fruit attached to the branch, enchanted by the sight. Roza glanced at Celia to see if she also was wondering whether this young man might be damaged in his head.
Sheena hissed to him, ‘Kieran!’ and he swung round with a smile so huge and vibrant, it was like some natural power source. He then slapped himself in the head with jokey self-reproach, aware that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.
Kieran bounded up towards the shed. He was tall, with long loose limbs, wearing board shorts, a singlet and sneakers without socks. Down his right arm, dragons and sea animals and tendrils of vegetation curled together in a tattoo that enveloped his arm – well, it would have enveloped it if the process had not been left unfinished, leaving gaps in the design and the bodies of some creatures only half formed. His hair must once have been cut in a mohawk with shaved sections and a longer strip on the top but it had been left to grow out so now it looked like a lopsided mistake. Even so, he was still beautiful in the way well-proportioned young bodies can shine no matter what ill-advised and ridiculous things have been inflicted upon them.
Roza assumed Celia would be uneasy about this strange couple arriving at her door. Then again, you could never be sure how a person might respond. And the young man, this Kieran, was undeniably winning in his handsome puppy-dog way.
‘Hi! You must be Celia! This place is mad. The trees right down to the road – they’re all yours?’
‘Oh . . . yes.’
‘Dead-set? All this excellent fruit!’
He grinned at her with such unguarded and exuberant good-will, Celia couldn’t help but smile back. But her cautious brain was still ticking away and she was flustered for a moment. ‘Uh – oh, excuse me, I should introduce – this is Roza. Joe’s mum.’
Kieran swung his body around to offer Roza a flamboyant salute of greeting.
‘She helps with the fruit grading and packing for us at this time of year,’ Celia explained.
‘An old lady with the sharpest eyes and the softest hands in the fruit bowl of New South Wales,’ said Roza, dancing her hands in the air.
Kieran barked a laugh, delighted by this idea.
The woman, Sheena, was abrupt as she asked Celia, ‘I heard you could have some work going – is that right?’
‘Yeah,’ said Celia, but there was a cautious thread in her voice. ‘Any experience picking stone fruit?’
Sheena shook her head.
‘Any kind of fruit?’
Celia nodded slowly. ‘Okay. I guess . . . that’s teachable. And you guys have your own car?’
‘Yeah, except it’s stuffed. We had to leave it with the mechanic.’
‘But when the car’s fixed, you’ll have transport out here from town every day?’
‘Well, no . . . We can’t get the car back till we earn the money to pay for the parts.’
‘Oh, right,’ Celia said. ‘We’re not set up to have pickers stay on-site.’
She was about to send these two away when the phone rang, relayed to the large bell on the corrugated-iron wall, a sound so sudden and piercing it made the young woman jerk with fright.
Joe followed Celia inside and waited while she took the call. When she hung up, she puffed out a weary breath. ‘Bugger. Santino can’t spare me any of his guys either.’
‘Is there a chance these two could camp on your place?’ asked Joe.
‘I decided years ago not to go that way.’ From the start, Celia had employed pickers who lived off-site, not liking the idea of strangers staying on the farm. ‘And the thing is, Joe, you don’t know these people.’
‘That’s true,’ he conceded. He had only met them a couple of hours before, when he’d arranged for their car to be towed into the garage. ‘They seemed a bit desperate, and I knew you were looking for people and I thought —’
‘Oh, I know and I really am grateful, Joe. Thank you. But, y’know . . .’
‘But you feel uncomfortable. I get that. Why don’t I just give them a lift back into town.’
‘I’m sure they’re perfectly decent people,’ said Celia, pressing the palm of one hand against her temple as if shoving thoughts back into her skull. ‘I mean, I don’t want to be some suspicious, purse-lipped, anxious creature . . .’