‘Everything I look at reminds me of a sweet potato,’ Henry said. The two of us were sitting on the hostel balcony, our laps supporting plates laden with rice and stir fried vegetables. As usual, we ate watching the street; the asphalt shimmering in the heat, the occasional clapped-out Holden. We watched the Canadians walking to their van, furtively looking about before climbing in to smoke marijuana. Above all this was a perfect Queensland sky, a vast dome lined with crisp, symmetrical clouds.
It was at one of these clouds that Henry pointed. ‘There’s one,’ he said. ‘There’s another.’
He was right. That first cloud was a long and gnarled spud, the second a squat Beauregard.
‘That’ll be a grade two,’ he said, pointing to an especially skinny example.
Again, it was unmistakable. And now that he had mentioned it, I too saw that they really were everywhere. The clouds, the bushes, the rust patches on the Canadians’ van. I closed my eyes, but still I saw a few.
Each morning we drove down lonely roads that bisected plots of sugar cane. It grew thick and glossy, lurid green stalks out of the red earth. We worked on a farm out there, planting and gathering sweet potatoes from 6 to 2 with half an hour for lunch and a short break for smoko. In our first week we only planted. Empty fields had been ploughed and we pushed weedy shoots into the furrows. We bent over to push them in with our hands or stood to prod them into the dirt with a wooden paddle. A day with the paddle was enough for my palms to blister. Pushing them in by hand the next turned them into a festering mess and for the rest of my time there I would need to treat them in the evenings, dabbing away with cotton buds and iodine.
As we worked, Mel, the farm foreman walked up and down the rows. ‘I want to see backs bent and heads down,’ he would say. Like a guard with a chain gang he wore a ten galleon hat and sunglasses that meant we never saw his eyes. Although he also wore a miniature pair of ‘stubbies’. Sometimes he rode about the rows on a quad bike, inspecting the work we had done from the saddle. And it was in that first week of planting that he told us to store our water bottles in a milk crate on the back of the bike. He didn’t say why but we did as he said, all trudging down to the bike, bunching around it as we tried to fit our bottles in. Doing it quickly so he wouldn’t have reason to scold us. Once the last bottle was in, Mel climbed back onto the bike. It started with a jolt and he rode down the row, following the unplanted furrow and sending up dust clouds we could taste. He parked and walked back, a toy man gradually becoming life size. People around me began to grumble. An English voice said, ‘He can’t do that.’ Another said, ‘It’s our water.’ But by the time Mel came back the anger had worn off, evaporated. ‘When you get there you can have your water,’ he said. No one said anything. The complainers looked to their rows and warily shook their heads.
Working for Mel was the first time I had known hate, real hate, a feeling that wasn’t mad and raging but something like the days we were having: already warm in the mornings and dry and tiring by mid-afternoon. Henry felt it too and in the evenings the two of us compared our hatred, detailing Mel’s crimes as we cooked our stir fries and instant noodles in the hostel’s battered pots. We took turns to imitate his more annoying catchphrases, affecting a nasal drone to say, ‘Grab your smokos and get go-ing.’ Always that pause, ‘Get move-ing already.’
‘Why do we have to put up with that shit?’ Henry asked.
Neither of us answered. We had both come to Australia for the summer, to get rich before going back to university. In Australia work was plentiful and the pay terrific. Our friends, their friends, everyone said this. A man in a bar told me, ‘when you go for a job there, you interview them.’ But now we were there and aside from a few nights work as a waiter, I had nothing to show for it. Henry’s situation was even worse and when we finally arrived in Bundaberg, on the hostel’s promise of harvest work, he was almost broke, making do on the $50 his dad had sent him. He accepted the hostel’s credit and they – Jack, the rictus-grinning owner and Dave, the racist who manned the office – took back what he owed directly from his farm wages. There were other jobs in the area but none offered consistent work. People fired from the sweet potato farm had few options. They worked one or two days a week and spent the rest hoping for more, mooning about the hostel, playing Marco Polo in its plastic swimming pool and getting deeper and deeper into Jack and Dave’s debt.
In our second week, Peter, a British backpacker, and his German girlfriend, Sophie, moved into our stuffy dorm and came to work with us too – Peter arriving at the farm with his hair artfully dishevelled in a way that resembled a lion’s mane. He stopped often and would stand up to chat to whoever worked beside him. If they had been there a while they might nod along but keep their head down. Sometimes Peter would walk to where Sophie was planting, pat her on the back and ask her how she was going. Her own curly hair was tied back and she answered him without pause, carrying on with her planting. ‘What do you think of the boss man?’ Peter said, when Mel was at his ute. ‘Don’t you think he’s a bit 1950?’
Mel found Sophie working alone the next morning. ‘Where’s Peter?’ he said.
‘Peter hurt his foot yesterday,’ she told him. ‘He can’t come back until it’s better.’
‘Well I hope he’s ok.’ As he walked away he sniggered to himself.
I found myself smirking too. Peter had been strolling about the hostel quite happily the night before. He had the headphones of a discman plugged into his ears and was bobbing his head to the music as he walked.
Peter didn’t come back to the farm and Sophie left after about a week. Few people stayed longer than that so it didn’t take long for Henry and I to become two of the most experienced workers there. We were sun dark and skinny, planting and picking with quick, easy actions. My shirts were red from the earth, my shorts a ragged skirt after bursting at the crotch when I tried to lift a heavy crate of spuds. The Canadians, Joe, a slow-speaking beanpole, and Dan, the clown of the two, were the only others to have been there since we started. In our first week we had rarely spoken. Now the four of us ate lunch together every day. Sitting in the shade of the hostel van, we compared notes on our co-workers. ‘That Swedish girl in the hat is good,’ Dan said. ‘But the other one is as slow as molasses.’
Mel gave us a row each to plant. He had done this before. It meant he could see who was dragging behind. He would note their names and they wouldn’t be asked back to work the next day. I had worked hard then, straining and worrying to stay ahead. But still I was at the back of the pack although thankfully not the slowest. This time I had no such fear. I could poke a shoot in the ground then whisk the next from a bale under my arm in one fluid movement. Henry and I had our own race because the rest were no competition, we were a lap ahead. All that difficulty had vanished. Mel laughed as he walked by us. ‘If I had a few more like you I’d only need half the staff.’
We ignored him, intent on our work, but that evening, watching the street with plates on our lap again, I checked that Henry had heard Mel’s praise.
The planting finished, we moved on to picking. The potatoes had been dragged out of the earth by machine and in pairs we shuffled along, throwing them into plastic crates, one crate for the best, the plump and symmetrical grade ones, the other for the stringy, worm eaten grade twos. I was bent down, firing them into the crate when a shadow fell across the row. ‘Can you move the ute up?’ Mel said. When I stood he threw me the keys and walked off to some other task.
It was his own car, not the farm’s and he had never asked anyone to drive it before. Joe looked up from his work to grin and I smiled back before easing myself into the seat. The radio came on when I turned the key and I listened as I slowly drove along the row, the car smelling of the sun-warmed plastic dash. I stopped near the end. It was there we would get by midday and I left the keys in the ignition before walking back, not dawdling but not hurrying either. Everyone else, the Canadians, Henry and the new workers, stayed bent, still picking.
We left the crates where we filled them and so once the picking was done they lay in rows between the furrows. Mel was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared while we had our faces to the ground. We stood at the edge of the field, uneasy that we should be doing something but not knowing what it was. There was a low rumble and a tractor came trundling out of the sugar cane. One of the other farmhands drove and Mel stood on a trailer coupled to the back. He climbed off to explain our next job. As the farmhand manoeuvred the tractor along the rows, driving slowly, we would work in a chain to haul the crates up and on to the trailer. Two people stood on it to stack them. We worked fast to keep up with the tractor. It was hard but we had the satisfaction of feeling that our movements were completely efficient, from tractor back to the crates, spinning on our heels to turn. There was no time to feel tired or to think about anything but getting crates on to the trailer.
The tractor came to the end of a row and while it lined up with the next, we stood with hands on knees and caught our breath. ‘It’s going to rain,’ Mel said. He pointed to the horizon, to a grey smudge in the space between the land and clouds. ‘It’ll be here in about ten minutes.’
The smudge passed quickly over the plains. We felt the pressure change, a slight coolness, and Mel took off his boots, his shirt and hat, laying them on the passenger seat of the ute. Without them he looked smaller: shorter without the height of his hat and slim-chested too. His eyes were wide and brown, almost doe-like. It was as if he had been swapped for someone else. I found myself staring a little and when Mel looked to us I glanced back to the horizon.
The rain hit. Fat drops, heavier than any rain I had felt before. Everything was suddenly wet, the crates floated on a muddy soup. We followed Mel in taking off our shoes and our work continued, each step sinking us knee deep. Henry and I climbed onto the back of the trailer to stack the crates the others lifted to us. We made rows four wide and four high, working furiously in the rain, sliding them along the slick surface of the trailer. In our scramble, Henry dragged a crate over his bare foot. Blood pissed out, mingling with the rain and mud. He didn’t pause or even flinch but carried on stacking crates, four wide and four high.
When our last day came we were still picking, still humping crates onto the trailer. There hadn’t been any more rain so the soil was hard and dry again, the sun high and hot as always. We lifted our last crate up and jumped on for a ride back, arranging ourselves on the trailer deck, on plywood that was warm like the planks of a wharf. Mel climbed up too and sat near me and we watched the row moving by, the odd missed spud. ‘I’m going to lose two of my best workers,’ he said.
Henry was sitting at the tailgate and out of earshot. I nodded at Mel’s compliment. It was the second I had heard from him. ‘You’ll miss this place. You’ll miss all this won’t you?’ He said.
I went to reply but hesitated remembering that hate, those conversations Henry and I had had. So instead I tried to smirk a little and I said, ‘I don’t think so.’
Mel’s smile dropped and I looked away embarrassed. We sat in silence for the rest of the ride, the trailer rattling and jouncing as we drove out of that candy-cane scenery; red earth, green sugar and blue sky.