Don’t shoot the mistletoebird!
OF THE Australian birds mythologised and demonised since European settlement – think of the wedge-tail eagle and the sulphur-crested cockatoo – perhaps the mistletoebird and its habits, too, are grossly misunderstood.
The eagle carried off lambs; the cockatoo ravaged crops. They were shot-gunned, poisoned and trapped. They are protected these days.
So too is the petite and elusive mistletoebird – a bush orchardist of sorts – whose fastidious bathroom etiquette lends quaint charm to its mystique.
Unlike any other bird, the mistletoebird roosts lengthwise on a branch – ideally a gum-tree limb, green and pencil-thin – so that its poop containing the sticky undigested seeds of the mistletoe fruit does not drop to the ground. It adheres to the limb. The parasitic mistletoe is thus affixed to its host in a dollop of Nature’s potting-mix. As the finishing touch to its toilette, the mistletoebird vigorously rubs its derriere on the branch to rid itself of any seed that might still cling to a downy nether feather.
The germinating mistletoe seed inserts a woods spur called an haustorium into the limb and the plant grows to blossom and fruit, siphoning water and nutrients from the host while generating its own energy from sunlight. The mistletoebird eats the ripe fruit and the seed must pass through its digestive tract before it will germinate . . . so the cycle goes on.
Today, in the hilly country in the southeast of the continent, mistletoe is condemned by certain landholders, shire luminaries and parish windbags as a pestilential destroyer of gum trees.
“Take a look at that mistletoe,” the blow-hard rustic exhorts. “See those big clumps hanging out of those trees? Another year and they’ll be good for nothing but firewood. It’s a little bird that does it. Something should be done about that bird, ’cause mistletoe’s killing more and more trees every year.”
Indeed, eucalypts stricken by mistletoe infestation present a joyless prospect: stark, leafless, forlorn, they fling knotted arthritic branches heavenward in apparent surrender to premature death. It’s a common spectacle on the grazing lands and roadsides of the New South Wales Central Tablelands, particularly in the Wyangala Dam-Hovell’s Creek area near Cowra.
The state of Victoria declared mistletoe a noxious weed in about 1904. For years thereafter foresters removed it by lopping or by pollarding (cutting away the canopy, leaving limbs and trunk), but the lush parasitic pendulums re-established among regenerating foliage. The practice lacked cost-effectiveness; it was abandoned in the 1950s. A proposal to begin lopping roadside mistletoe in Cowra Shire was at one time considered and rejected by the council.
Unlike local pundits, however, scientific researchers are loath to identify mistletoe infestation as the sole cause of host-tree mortality. Yes, they concede mistletoe has proliferated in some areas in the past decade or so – well, at least it’s become more conspicuous. And yes, the mistletoebird is largely responsible for dispersion and pollination – but then mistletoe, like the mistletoebird, should be viewed in an ecological context.
Land clearing (bulldozing the habitat of avid mistletoe-plant eaters like possums, gliders and even koalas), rising soil salinity and agricultural fertilisers and sprays affect tree well-being; likewise livestock that compact the earth, and whose excretions are absorbed into the soil, altering nutrient status. Alone and in combination such agents eventually weaken a tree’s natural defences against mistletoe-strike – shedding bark, exuding resin to push out the haustorium, and even dropping limbs.
Infestation, researchers submit, indicates pre-existing tree stress and health decline in dire need of remedy. So don’t blame the mistletoebird . . . or the painted honeyeater, or the olive-backed oriole for that matter, because they all eat little else but mistletoe year-round.
IF IN YOUR garden or out in the bush you hear a high-pitched “swit-wit” and glimpse a scarlet-breasted and iridescent dark-blue bird in swift and erratic flight, it just might be a male of the common nomadic species Diacaeum hirundinaceum. The mistletoebird, although difficult to sight with the inexperienced eye, ranges across timbered country Australia-wide and into Papua-New Guinea, cultivating mistletoe and snacking on spiders, beetles, and the bounty of introduced plants like Japanese pepper.
During the spring nesting season, with scant help from her flashy mate, the plainly plumed and practical Ms Mistletoebird builds a hanging, roofed nest with a narrow side door. It’s made of spider webs and plant down and shaped like a pear or a baby’s bootee. Ms Mistletoebird might even add a splash of colour by decorating the structure with some caterpillar droppings. After the nuptials, she incubates three or four white eggs.
Scientists thought until recently that the mistletoebird evolved over millions of years with Australia’s 90-odd species of mistletoe. Nowadays it’s believed this relative newcomer, a member of the flower-pecker family of birds, arrived from Asia and settled here when continental Australia formed part of ancient Gondwanaland.
“Contrary to popular opinion, mistletoe plants were not introduced to Australia,” says Dr David M. Watson, Associate Lecturer in Ornithology and Landscape Ecology at Charles Sturt University, Albury, New South Wales. “In fact they’ve been here longer than gum trees.”
Predominantly stem parasites, they are found in most habitats except the very driest deserts. Two species are root parasites and, one of these, the Western Australian Christmas tree, is the world’s largest mistletoe, growing to 10 metres. Oddly, there are no mistletoes in Tasmania, although fossilised pollen samples show they once grew there.
“Mistletoes are found world-wide, from the cold coniferous forests of Canada and Northern Europe, throughout the Americas and Africa, extending into cactus-dominated deserts and humid tropical rainforests,” says Dr Watson. “Almost 1500 different mistletoe species are known, in a huge range of sizes, shapes and colours. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, mistletoes are considered pests or weeds, thought to damage trees and poison livestock – generally a bad reputation.”
Dr Watson, who has studied mistletoe-animal interaction worldwide, says mistletoe occupies a valuable place in our ecosystems, and likens the plant to a one-stop shop for at least 57 species of Australian birds, 24 types of butterflies and other insects including beetles, grasshoppers and ants. Butterflies such as Jezebels, Azures, Whites and Coppers lay their eggs on mistletoe leaves exclusively.
“Mistletoe is a highly dependable food source for many animals,” he says. “Because it is parasitic, mistletoe is not limited by water and nutrients to the same extent as many other plants. This means the mistletoe flowering and fruiting season can be year-round in some areas, even during drought and other times of scarcity.”
Most Australian mistletoes rely on birds as both pollinators and fruit dispersers, and a wide variety of birds feed on the nectar and fruits, including honeyeaters, lorikeets, thornbills and bowerbirds, from emus and cassowaries to currawongs, crows, cuckoos and even cockatoos. Most of these birds do not disperse the fruit or pollinate the flowers – they just capitalise on an abundant food source.
“Mistletoe foliage is widely consumed as a source of scarce nutrients – notably phosphorus and many trace elements,” Dr Watson says. “The fruit is exceptionally nutritious – lipids, carbohydrates, and all ten essential amino acids have been isolated from their fruit. Doubtless many other birds take advantage of mistletoe flowers – particularly during droughts – exploiting the fructose- and glucose-rich nectar.
“Mistletoe leaves are highly nutritious . . . cattle, sheep and horses will eat them if they are within reach. While several unrelated European mistletoes are poisonous to livestock, Australian mistletoes are not; they present no danger to domestic animals. Indeed, mistletoes are used as fodder in many parts of the world.
“The dense, leafy clumps make ideal nest sites, protected from the elements and secure from predators. A broad range of Australian birds has been recorded nesting in mistletoes including goshawks, harriers, herons, honeyeaters, bowerbirds, wood-wallows, thornbills, cuckoo-shrikes and whistlers. The endangered regent honeyeater seems to prefer nesting in mistletoe clumps.
“Although it is thought to damage trees, mistletoe is not necessarily harmful,” says Dr Watson. “Once a mistletoe is established it effectively replaces a small branch. Other than leading to the death of the infected branch, mistletoe rarely has any lasting effect on the host tree.
“Mistletoe only becomes a serious threat to tree health when it is in very high numbers [more than seven plants per hectare] and, even then, it is only one factor involved in declining tree health. Sick or dying trees often have higher numbers of mistletoe plants, but research indicates that stressed trees are more prone to mistletoe infection in the first place. Hence soil compaction and nutrient overload will often affect a tree growing beside stockyards, factors which typically lead to reduced vigour, reduced defences to pathogens, and increased sensitivity to mistletoe infection.
“Mistletoe is highly sensitive to fire – as a plant, it’s a wimp – and occasional bushfires prevent it becoming more common. After a bushfire has burned through an area, mistletoe gradually moves back as birds transport seeds from nearby unburnt areas. It can take many years to re-populate an area once mistletoe has died out. Moreover, the seeds will only germinate and grow in well-lit areas like clearings and woodland edges. They have difficulty establishing in woodland with few clearings.
“Many of these natural controlling factors have been removed from or reduced in the Australian landscape. Fire is much less common and many of the native animals are rare or locally extinct. Tree density has been decreased, with remaining trees in small patches surrounded by cleared land.
“Little wonder there are more mistletoe plants! Thus, rather than regarding mistletoe as a problem or the cause of dieback, it should be considered a symptom of the health of the bush in general. Because it’s spread by animals, pollinated by animals, consumed by animals and killed by fire, it’s an extremely sensitive indicator of ecosystem health.”
Dr Watson says landholders can control mistletoe: “Try putting up some nest boxes or hollow logs in high gum-trees to encourage possums and gliders to come back. Brush- and ring-tailed possums and greater gliders can effectively control mistletoe in many areas – woodlands with unnaturally high levels of mistletoe are often missing these native herbivores because of hunting, poisoning or lack of suitable habitat. By ensuring there are enough hollows and minimising the use of poison – especially 1080 – possums will return and bring mistletoe back to normal levels.
“Controlled burn-offs in the understorey is an effective management tool – not just for mistletoe, but many other native plants. For trees containing more than five to ten mistletoe plants, try pruning the mistletoe. The tree will often respond with a flush of new growth.
“Interestingly, while mistletoe seems to have become more common in eastern Australia through changes to the landscape, the reverse has happened in the south-west of Western Australia. So unnaturally high or low numbers of mistletoe in an area indicate a stressed landscape in which the natural interactions and disturbances have been upset.”
THE Australian brush-tailed possum, an effective mistletoe-control agent in eastern Australia, numbers among introduced animals blamed for a worrying decline in New Zealand’s native mistletoes.
Laura A. Sessions, mistletoe researcher for the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, says New Zealand is home to eight unique species of mistletoe.
“The decline of our mistletoes is one of a series of ecological changes stemming from the introduction of land mammals into plant and animal communities that evolved without such creatures,” she says. “Rats, stoats, ferrets, cats and possums have decimated native animals that were accustomed to mammalian predators. Native birds, in particular, have drastically declined, and some have been forced to seek refuge on mammal-free offshore islands.
“The Australian brush-tailed possum harms mistletoe in a direct way by devouring it. But another cause of the gradual disappearance of mistletoes throughout New Zealand is the elimination of avian pollinators by mammals.
“This chain of ecological events may have already doomed the mistletoe known as Trilepidia adamsii, which has been extinct since the mid-1950s. New Zealand has risen to the challenge, however, and measures are being taken to control exotics and conserve native species.”
MISTLETOE has inspired rich folklore, superstitions and beliefs in many cultures. For pre-Roman England, mistletoe held mythological significance, and it still plays a traditional role in English Christmas celebrations – usually an excuse for a quick, boozy avuncular kiss.
Closer to home, however, Dr Watson urges us: “More than anything, take the time to observe mistletoes. Once you start looking you’ll find nests in them, and you’ll begin to appreciate them for the beautiful, interesting and ecologically essential native species they are.”
In the meantime, please don’t blame the mistletoebird – it’s doing exactly as Nature intended.
– Maurice Batcheldor.
Elegy for The Spook
HE LAY on his side in the mud and the weeds. A scrap of tarpaulin had been fetched from the machinery shed and thrown over his body to ward off the cold drizzle. The paramedic covered the thin bearded face with a corner of the tarp then rose slowly to his feet. “Massive heart attack, I reckon,” he said to the police officer. All around them grapevines, sauvignon-blanc, newly pruned and cruciform, extended row upon skeletal row across the bleak misty slope. “Dead before he hit the ground by the look of him,” the ambulanceman submitted with grim finality.
The policeman nodded. Presently they gathered up the corpse, a damp sack of twigs, and whisked it away to the morgue at Cowra District Hospital. Thus departed forever the Vine Doctor of Bellview Estate, one Peter David Elliott, at age fifty years and six months, on September 8, 2000.
From an initial thirty-five hectare planting of Chardonnay cuttings at Cowra in 1973, Elliott had seen the local grape industry grow into the two-thousand hectare multi-million-dollar money-spinner it became. Early on he had planted a few hectares on a block of his own ground near Darbys Falls. The venture failed; his vines drowned, planted in soil under which lay a clay basin that should have been deep-ripped before planting began. You live and you learn.
Just a few years later thirty-five regional vineyards produced, among a host of grape varieties, Chardonnay, sauvignon-blanc, cabernet-sauvignon, Semillon, Shiraz, Verdelho and merlot (the latest drop to titillate fashionable palates) for the domestic and export markets. More than three-hundred district workers, most of them casual day-labourers dependent on good weather for a tenuous livelihood, tended the blessed grapevine – a relative of the accursed blackberry, we are told.
To the majority of vineyard workers who got to know him over the years – the planters, the vine trainers, the pruners and the pickers – word of Elliott’s death came as a shock. True, most of them knew he had been ill for some time, profoundly more so than his gaunt frame and emaciated features indicated. Still they mourned the sudden loss of a considerate and humane supervisor, an amiable workmate and a mildly eccentric acquaintance. More poignantly, perhaps, they lost a man whose gentleness of nature and old-fashioned decency transcended the workaday world to embody the noble and ancient art of viticulture. By some arcane alchemy he actualised the very image vignerons are at pains to create of themselves through advertisements in the quality Press. Then again, Elliott had encountered then promptly shunned the nosing nobs, the quaffing snobs and the swilling slobs that throng the wine shows; and well he knew of the appalling conceit, the obscene and rapacious bastardry that thrived beyond the smooth gravel driveways in the paddocks of flourishing vines, hidden behind the welcoming smiles at the cellar doors.
Two months before his death I had sought Elliott in some urgency. I found him late in the afternoon ensconced in the back bar of Cowra’s Imperial Hotel, his favourite among the town’s better watering holes. Vine pruning was to begin soon across the district and I was out of work, flat broke – the usual story. I had gained a little experience in vineyard work, planting cuttings under remarkably similar financial straits some years earlier, but I had never ever pruned.
“No,” Elliott said flatly. “I will not give you a job.”
Well, that’s that, thought I. Still, it hadn’t hurt to ask.
“I most certainly won’t give you a job. However, I will give you an opportunity,” he continued somewhat pedantically. “Come out to Bellview Thursday and Friday. You could say we’re having a trial run before the main event begins on Monday. I’ll arrange your transport and provide secateurs and gloves. If it turns out you can’t hack the pace, then at least you’ll have earned a couple of days’ pay.”
I accepted, of course.
Friday afternoon at knock-off my right hand dangled at my side, swollen, throbbing, blistered, cramped. Elliott sidled up to me as we left the paddock. “Ah yes, well” – he looked me up and down then gave me a lazy snaggle-toothed smile – “I suppose you’d better come back Monday. While you’re working with me out here, at least I’ll know you’re off the streets and keeping out of trouble.”
MONDAY at daybreak Elliott’s Misfits, seven in number, all layered in thick winter work-wear, lumbered like Michelin men into the frosty vineyard. The faster pruners smartly set to their rows and were soon lost in the enveloping fog up ahead. The novices, of which I was the greenest, moved at the pace of frozen snails among the overgrown vines, leaving behind us knee-high windrows of tangled prunings, some as thick as a man’s wrist.
Bellview had fallen into abject neglect, according to Elliott, through an unnamed predecessor’s fondness for the beer-fridge over and above the rigours of sustained labour exacted by productive viticulture. Although the predecessor often had hosted his underlings to convivial discussion about what needed to be done out in the paddock – during extensive smoko and lunch breaks – alas, evidence of accomplishment, apart from empty bottles and cans, appeared scant on the ground.
The predecessor was “let go”, said Elliott who, meanwhile, was quietly poached from a vast district vineyard where he had toiled for twenty years. He had forewarned Bellview bigwigs that he would need at least three pruning seasons to knock their seventy-five thousand vines into shape. They instructed him to do as he saw fit.
In a rare moment of confidentiality, Elliott said later, “Bellview is a basket-case, a complete bloody shambles. In this, the first year, the vines have to be pretty well butchered. They’ve been badly trained on the wires – the uninformed call them trellises – and not so much pruned as mangled, and altogether in a state of damned near criminal neglect. Given the nature and the magnitude of the job, it’s vital it be done my way and my way alone – no interference, no exceptions.
“If I’d taken on a team comprised wholly of experienced pruners I’d have ended up with the viticultural equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Each man has his own sweet notion of how to prune; they tend to be very set in their ways. So I took on men with little or no experience, men who were willing to learn and apply my method of pruning and prepared to work bloody hard. I threw in a couple of old hands, though, fellows I’ve met around the traps, men I can trust implicitly.”
Elliott’s Misfits comprised Johnno, a short swarthy man of reserved nature; the Bandy Coot, a garrulous former jockey and practitioner of chronic ripping flatulence; Jock Strap, a nervous gent who gulped down handfuls of pills and capsules and girded his ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, fingers and lumbar region with braces, straps and elastic supports before he stepped into the paddock; the Orchardist (and so he was), with a keen eye for the main chance; his off-sider, the Sundance Kid, gangling, grubby, boastful, a former poacher of Tasmanian abalone and mutton-birds; the unfortunately monikered Brain, a wizened veteran of vineyards from the Hunter to the Riverina; Little Pedro, who drifted along in a marijuana-induced haze; yours truly, dubbed McSpatchen, for Lord knows what personal foible; and, of course, Elliott, christened The Spook, apparently for his unnerving ability to move silent and unseen from man to man across the rows to materialise like a spectre at your side at the precise moment you lopped off the wrong runner or left the wrong spur.
“No – no, my son,” he would admonish in a whisper low and priestly. He would produce his secateurs from a sheath on his belt – snickety-snip, your error was rectified. “Now, we’ll move on to the next vine and I’ll show you how I want it done.” The lesson proceeded. Elliott never raised his voice, never made a fool of you in front of the other men, no matter how outlandish your error. Out in the paddock, as elsewhere, he was equanimity incarnate.
ROLLING tiers of towering cloud began tumbling in from the southwest early Monday morning, our third and, officially, our first day on the job. Advance showers scudded over the distant hills on blasts of icy wind, then fanned across the broad expanse of the Lachlan Valley. When the first heavy raindrops of the pursuing front smacked like bullets into the vineyard, the Misfits bolted down the rows and jumped aboard the vineyard’s paddock-basher, an ill-tempered and fickle Ford utility.
The rain began to sheet down. After several tries Elliott got the motor to turn over then set off with a lurch to a ragged round of groans and derisive cheering from the men huddling in the back. The utility coughed, spluttered, it slithered and slewed down the greasy track leaving in its wake a smokescreen of blue exhaust fumes. Elliott wheeled it into the machinery shed and it stopped with a clunk behind a pair of tractors. Drenched, stiff and cold, we dismounted and shambled into the office-cum-lunchroom, a small section of the shed partitioned off, lined and insulated for the purpose. As we filed into the snug sanctuary within a bluff voice bawled over the pelting on the iron roof, “She’s certainly coming down, eh, boys!”
A robust fellow with bulbous features appended to a box-like head strode across the shed’s gravel floor. He wore a heavy jacket, drill trousers, stout boots and a beanie perched atop cropped grey hair. “Can’t blame you for coming in out of all that,” he boomed. “I was up the paddock myself, just before you got here, and I said to myself, ‘Better drag your arse back to the shed, Charlie. Stay out in this and you’ll end up with pneumonia – or worse!’”
He followed us into the room which accommodated a small desk with telephone, fax and answering machines, a kitchen table and some mismatched chairs, a sink, electric stove, refrigerator, toaster, a microwave oven and toilet and shower recesses. Bantering and jockeying for coffee occupied the men. Constrained by neither etiquette nor ceremony, the Bandy Coot and Brain elbowed to the front of the queue, squeezing between the sink and the desk at which a plump woman, bottle-blonde bob and shark’s-fin nose, sat reading The Women’s Weekly. She nibbled toast from manicured fingers, and bestowed a glance of haughty disdain upon the Bandy Coot and Brain when again they crammed past her, shuffling with their coffees to stoop huddling over an electric bar-heater aglow in the corner. Elliott leaned against the wall by the door until each man had filled his cup before he poured a coffee for himself. Charlie, meanwhile, had waded through the men and installed himself at the head of the table, sitting before a newspaper that lay spread over space enough for three men to sit down in relative comfort.
The Misfits, most of them now slumping in chairs backed against two walls, opened their tucker-bags and ate early smoko. The rain hammered down. Every few minutes Elliott sauntered outside and returned, a deepening anxiety scoring his haunted features. Almost an hour had passed when again he left the office and came inside, saying, “I think we’ll call it a day, men. Don’t get too pissed when you get back to town. I want you all on deck and ship-shape same place, same time tomorrow – unless it’s raining when you get up, in which case go straight back to bed.”
The Misfits packed up their tucker-bags, gathered up coats, jumpers, gloves and secateurs and crowded out the door. The Bandy Coot said over his shoulder as Johnno, Brain and I clambered into his car, “He’s a lying bludger that Charlie Smitheringham, isn’t he?”
“Why’s that?” said I from the back seat.
“He made a big cock-a-doodle-do about being up the paddock when it started to rain – remember, when we got back to the shed? Well, I can tell you there wasn’t a drop of rain on his coat, not a spot of mud on his boots. I know what he was doing: sitting on his big arse inside where it’s warm, reading the paper and feeding his face, and trying to get into Marina’s pants – wouldn’t that be right, Johnno?”
Sitting beside me in the back seat, Johnno grunted. Seated up front next to the Bandy Coot, Brain slouched brooding. Johnno produced two long-necks of beer, twisted off their tops and handed one to the Bandy Coot as the ex-jockey swung the car into the driveway and gunned it up the hill toward the main road.
“Charlie did the same thing when we were out here summer pruning just before Christmas, didn’t he Johnno,” said the Bandy Coot after a long pull on his bottle. “Every day him and Marina Pearon and her useless bloody daughter – she was supposed to be working here, too – all day they sat in that office, right under the air-conditioner. Oh yeah, real nice and cool they were, lounging around reading shielas’ magazines while the rest of us sweated our arses off out in the paddock. And they were meant to be working with us!”
“Charlie manages the place, does he?” I cut in, realising at once that the Bandy Coot’s observation about lack of moisture and mud on his apparel was correct; and, yes, Charlie’s forced bonhomie back at the shed had clanked like a cracked bell.
“Nah,” growled Johnno. “Elliott’s the only staff who’s permanent. He’s in charge of the vines. Charlie and Marina – you know that bitch that was sitting there when we got back to the office? – well, they’re just shit-kicking casuals like the rest of us. The only difference is Charlie sometimes drives the tractors and Marina does a bit of bookwork. They’re supposed to be out in the paddock working on the vines with us when there’s no tractor or bookwork to do. But they don’t – and they won’t.”
“Yeah, and both tractors are broken down, and Charlie busted both of them,” the Bandy Coot snorted. “Bastard couldn’t drive a nail into a plank of wood.”
“Why doesn’t Elliott crack the whip, pull them into line?” I said.
“Dunno,” Johnno belched. “You’d have to ask Elliott about that.”
The Bandy Coot dropped a tearing noisome fart and laughed uproariously. Brain, Johnno and I promptly wound down our windows and inhaled deep draughts of cold wind peppered with raindrops.
It was almost ten o’clock. The pubs would open shortly, but it mattered little. We all were stone-broke.
Brain sat up and moaned, “How am I gonna get a grog an’ have a punt if I ain’t got no money? An’ I can’t bite nobody now ’cause I already bitten everybody I know.”
TUESDAY dawned freezing, fog-bound and icy underfoot, as did Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The Misfits toiled in a nose-dripping, finger-numbing wilderness until the fog lifted and a mocking sun appeared about an hour or so before knock-off. Not once did Marina leave the office during those days, although Charlie stepped out briefly Friday after smoko when a mechanic came from town to replace an hydraulic seal in the bigger of the tractors.
Early the next Monday, the Misfits were again doing it hard, slogging down rows of overgrown Chardonnay vines. Several of the men had suffered cruel cuts to faces and ears from whip-lashing canes and runners. The collective mood was grim, in spite of the Bandy Coot’s diversions, namely the loosing of heaving, putrid farts.
Through the pea-souper we heard a tractor start up at the shed, about a hundred and fifty metres across the paddock. The motor revved and roared for fully five minutes.
“Give it to her, Charlie!” yelled the Bandy Coot, wrestling with vines in the row next to mine.
When the revving subsided, I said, “He’ll wreck that motor, Bandy, revving it like that on a cold start. It should be left to idle ’til it warms up, at least fifteen minutes in this sort of weather.”
“Bastard couldn’t drive a nail into a green tree,” the Bandy Coot snorted.
The revving resumed, and again he shouted toward the shed, “Don’t worry, Charlie. The company’s got plenty of money. If you wreck that one they’ll buy you a new toy. That one’s only done three-hundred hours – give it another blast, you useless bludging bastard!”
The Misfits could rally only a collective contemptuous chortle.
The tractor approached us presently, roaring as it crawled down the slope in low-range low-gear, its headlights blindly probing the fog. The Bandy Coot and I were obliged to back up against our vines so that it might pass without running us under the wheels. It drew to a stop a few metres down the row, right among the Misfits. Charlie stepped down from the cab.
“How’s it going, boys? Bloody, hell, she’s a cold one, isn’t she?” He stalked about the machine, feigning comprehensive inspection. We worked on in silence. Why couldn’t the Bandy Coot speak up and prick Charlie’s galling self-importance? He said not a word, instead assailing his vines with grim efficiency and cold indifference. Perhaps sensing the Misfits cheerless reaction to his unwelcome arrival, Charlie walked up the slope, hands on his hips, running a critical eye over the freshly pruned vines.
“Bloody top job you’re doing here, boys,” he bawled and returned at once to the tractor. He got into the cab, slammed the door, revved the motor and with a dreadful gnashing of gears, drove away.
Elliott drifted past and I said to him, “What was all that about?”
“It’s Charlie showing off,” he sniffed. “Don’t take any notice. He’ll get his just desserts – I’ll make sure he does.”
So saying, he vanished wraith-like into the fog.
MY PRUNING hand improved markedly. Cramp no longer kept me sleepless half the night. Now I could ply the secateurs all day without need to squeeze the handles with both hands as knock-off dragged painfully closer. I was holding my own.
Not so Jock Strap. One morning, three weeks into the job, he didn’t show up. Nor the next day, so Elliott phoned him at home that afternoon. Jock Strap had pulled the pin, Elliott recounted with a wry smile, because the Misfits had ostracised him, called him cruel names, and talked behind his back. We could all go and get stuffed, the reproachful Jock Strap had declared.
This was news to us, of course. Like every man in the team, Jock Strap had copped his share of raillery because it helped to pass the time – an accepted practice among gangs of men (and women, for that matter) who work in the paddock for their living. The Misfits never once subjected Jock Strap, or any fellow pruners, to spiteful or malicious treatment or name-calling. His departure didn’t faze Elliott. The pruning was marginally ahead of schedule, he said, and although the over-sensitive Jock Strap was something of a dab hand, he would not replace him. Jock Strap simply could not hack the pace.
Little Pedro kept his own counsel. I was surprised therefore when, working beside him on the heels of the main body of Misfits, he confided, “Not a bad bloke that Elliott, eh?”
“No, indeed not,” said I. “He did me a good turn, putting me on the team.”
“Yeah,” he replied laconically. “He could’ve sacked me this morning.”
“Yeah.” He produced a tobacco tin from his coat pocket. “I dropped this in the paddock yesterday.”
I did not need to ask; I knew what it contained.
“He’s not a user, you know. Likes his grog too much.”
Little Pedro spluttered, “Shit, don’t I know it! That’s why I thought he’d give me the arse.”
“Like I said, I lost it yesterday.” He pocketed the tin and returned to his pruning, speaking over his shoulder. “Couldn’t find it when I got home yesterday. Didn’t matter, though. I still had plenty in the house. Anyway, when I got out here this morning I went for a walk where I reckon must’ve I dropped it. Couldn’t find it. Elliott was waiting for me outside the shed when I got back. Must’ve been watching me while I was down the paddock. ‘Good morning, Pedro,’ he says, ‘Looks like you’ve lost something – wouldn’t be this, would it?’ and he held out my tin. I nearly shit myself! ‘We don’t condone the use of that stuff on the job,’ he says straight-faced. ‘Don’t bring it out here again’.”
“And will you?”
Little Pedro shrugged and smiled.
A few vines further on Pedro said, “That Marina’s really got it in for Elliott.”
“Yeah. In the crib-room, after smoko, I was the last to leave after Elliott and she says to me as I’m going, ‘Gosh Pedro, that Elliott’s an ugly man. Isn’t he an ugly man? Have you ever seen anyone as ugly man, Pedro? I swear I’ve never seen a man as ugly as him’.”
“What did you say?”
Pedro shrugged and shook his head. “Nothing. What could I say? I just walked out. But I thought to myself, you bloody bitch!”
“There’s no explaining a woman’s mind,” I said lamely.
“She won’t let him use the toilet in the office – do you know that? Everyone else can use it, but not Elliott. She says he’s gotta use the Porta-loo down the paddock. Must reckon he’s sick or something by the look of him. Maybe she reckons he’s a poofter and he’s got AIDS.”
“That’s absurd!” I laughed. “As long as I can remember – and I’m going back to the mid-Sixties – Elliott’s been as skinny as a rake. You could feed him rump steak and chocolate-cream cake all day, every day, for six months and he wouldn’t gain an ounce of condition. As for being gay, well that’s just bloody ludicrous. Peter Elliott a gay blade? God, you know he’d piss himself laughing if he knew someone thought that of him.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Pedro.
Elliott and Brain, who had been working with the main body of men ahead of Pedro and me, came walking slowly side-by-side down the row, evidently heading for the Ford parked under a yellow-box tree at the edge of the paddock. A snapped secateurs-blade, a broken spring, perhaps – Elliott kept spares in the utility. Brain stumbled and Elliott extended a steadying hand. They stopped. Elliott stooped and peered into Brain’s face. Brain nodded. Elliott put a hand on his shoulder and they walked on.
“Can’t be – surely Brain’s not pissed,” said I, sheathing my secateurs. “He didn’t seem pissed when we picked him up this morning.”
“He looks a bit crook,” said Pedro.
They drew nearer and Brain’s erstwhile leathery weather-beaten face looked like a plate of hot suet. Perspiration streamed down his forehead over glazed half-lidded eyes. His mouth hung slack.
“Our old mate’s taken a bit of a turn,” said Elliott, his voice tight.
“Can we help? Do you need a hand?”
“Argghh, piss orf you blokes,” croaked Brain. “Must’ve been something’ I ate fer smoko. I’m orright.”
“Keep pruning,” said Elliott to Pedro and me. “I’ll get him down the shed and get Marina or Charlie to run him into the hospital, then I’ll come back and take you all back to the shed for lunch.”
“I’m orright, fer Chrissake!” scowled Brain as Elliott ushered him down the row. “’Ow many times ’ave I gotta tell youse blokes, eh?”
The Bandy Coot drove to Brain’s house when we got back to town after work. He was home from the hospital and seemed quite recovered.
“They put me in a bed an’ the quack ’ad a bit of a gander at me. Took me pulse an’ blood pressure an’ all. The usual stuff. Reckons I’m okay, jest a bit wound up since me niece’s funeral. I mean, she’s the fourth one of our family to die this year.”
This was so, and his mentioning the extraordinary succession of mortalities among his relatives caused an awkward silence.
“Pick you up tomorrow morning?” said the Bandy Coot at last.
“Yeah. Ten-past six – I’ll be ready. See yer then.”
The Bandy Coot dropped Johnno and me at our homes.
Heavy showers developed overnight. It rained steadily all day Thursday and Friday. Hearing the rain on the roof when the alarm clock went off, I rolled over and went back to sleep. It was a luxury, but it came at a price. “No work, no pay,” is the rule of the vineyards. Around noon Saturday I encountered Elliott in the main street.
“Enjoy your days off?” I inquired. “I expect you curled up with a steamy novel – or an affectionate woman?”
He did not reply, but stood regarding me with a curious blend of wide-eyed pity and puzzlement. “Brain’s checked in his secateurs,” he said tersely.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s had a stroke. He’s paralysed down the right side. Happened at home this morning, around eight. He was getting dressed to come down town and his girlfriend heard a thump. She found him on the bedroom floor. Ambulance took him up the hospital. Doctors said they couldn’t do much for him there, so they transferred him to Orange Base for more tests. It doesn’t look good.”
I was thunderstruck.
“That’s all I know at this stage,” he said. “I’ll let you know if I hear anything more. I’ve got to go now.” He turned abruptly and walked away.
That evening I dropped into the Imperial Hotel. Elliott was drinking alone by the fireplace at the end of the bar. He acknowledged me with a nod. I ordered a beer.
“Silly bastard,” he hissed.
“Not specifically. But now that I think of it, yes – yes, you’re a silly bastard too. And so am I. In fact we’re all of us silly bastards, working out there in the cold and the mud and the fog and the rain day after day. Peons, wage-slaves, idiots!” He was drunk, yet he managed to maintain a dignified demeanour. He drained his beer, sighed then ordered another.
“Can you believe Brain signed himself out of hospital after he took that turn the other day?”
“Sounds plausible,” I said. “He’d have been breaking his neck to get to the pub.”
“Exactly,” Elliott replied emphatically. “Turns out the doctors wanted to keep him in overnight. They told him he’d had a cerebral haemorrhage, albeit a minor one, but a cerebral haemorrhage just the same. No, no – Brain wouldn’t have a bar of it. They argued and pleaded with him to stay, at least overnight. Naturally, he knew better. That eminent neurosurgeon, Professor Brain, signed himself out then went home spouting some cock-and-bull yarn about getting the all clear. Bloody ass!”
“He was a good worker, a very capable pruner. Will you replace him?”
“No,” Elliott breathed softly, his frustration momentarily spent. “We’ll go on without him.” He downed his beer. “I’ll see you later.” He marched listing away from the bar, straight into the glass swing-door. The impact threw him back on his heels, but he regained composure, pulled the door inward and high-stepped into the hallway.
THE weeks dragged on. With Jock Strap and Brain gone from the team, Elliott relinquished his strictly supervisory role and pruned with us. He worked swiftly, skilfully, goading us to higher tallies, although we were losing at least a day’s work to rain every week.
Charlie affected a practical presence about the shed. Just as the Misfits pulled up in the old paddock-basher for smoko, lunch or knock-off, he appeared round a corner, through a doorway or stepped from the bottom rung of a ladder, hammer or screwdriver in hand. His frowning countenance and abruptness of speech seemed always to signify timely completion of a protracted task of enormous significance. Oddly enough, his fingers, his work-clothes and his boots bore nary a trace of grease or grime, and in the kitchen might be found a still-warm coffee and part eaten pie or sandwich abandoned by the newspaper at the head of the table.
Marina drove to work each day in the company’s one-tonner. Always late by twenty to thirty minutes, she turned up when the tiny electric heater had suffused the office with acceptable warmth. All day she sat at the desk sipping tea, nibbling dainty biscuits, talking on the phone, flicking through the pages of glossy magazines. If the day were fine, she and Charlie might take a spin about the vineyard in a 4x4 runabout, or Charlie might hitch the slasher to a tractor and painstakingly shave the frost-stunted winter grass around the vineyard perimeter.
Outside the shed one rare sunny day, Charlie loaded a chainsaw and a block-splitter on to the one-tonner. “That bloody office bar-heater, it wouldn’t warm a cup of cold piss,” he proclaimed as we climbed aboard the Ford, heading back to the paddock after lunch. “You need real powerful heat when she comes in wet and cold, boys. I’m gonna knock down that old yellow-box down by the bore. It’ll only end up falling across the fence. Might as well block her up and burn her up here in the fire-drum. I’ll have a roarin’ fire goin’ when you get here tomorrow morning’.”
The Misfits deemed it a capital idea, perhaps too good to be true, given Charlie’s developing form.
The chainsaw snarled and whined throughout the afternoon, on the far side of the ridge straddled by sweeping rows of vines. Charlie and Marina were lost to sight, her role in the wood getting the subject of ribald conjecture. They had not returned to the shed when the Misfits knocked off and left for town.
Next morning just before daybreak, after a cold crystalline night, heavy cloud raced in from the south, congealing the fog, freezing the broad valley under a brutal black frost. At fifteen minutes to seven the Bandy Coot parked his car beside a utility unfamiliar to Johnno and me. “It’s Charlie’s,” said the Bandy Coot. The fire-drum lay on its side by the shed where Charlie had dumped it.
“That fire’s not lit!” the Bandy Coot yelped.
When we had climbed out of the car he barked, “Johnno, you and McSpatchen get some bricks to sit that drum on. I’ll rake up some kindling – I’m buggered if I’m going down the paddock ’til that fire’s going.”
Johnno and I found a few half-bricks in the grass behind the shed. We carried them back to the drum and stood it upright. The Bandy Coot threw some newspaper in the bottom, topped it with strips of bark, a handful of twigs and a few sticks.
“Have you seen the wood-heap?” he grinned, igniting a taper of twisted newspaper with his cigarette lighter.
“Where is it?”
“In there.” He lowered the sluggishly burning taper in to the drum.
I wandered into the shed. On the floor by a wall there lay perhaps a dozen lengths of stick, the spindly tops of the tree’s uppermost branches – rubbish, in anyone’s judgment.
“This fire’s stuffed,” the Bandy Coot spat as tiny flames expired in the bottom of the drum. He went into the shed, rummaged through the shelves and returned with an old jam tin. “We’ll give her a dose of goer.” He cantered across the yard to an overhead fuel tank, put the tin on the ground and reached for the nozzle.
“You won’t get any diesel out of that!” yelled Johnno. “The valve’s been padlocked.”
The Bandy Coot lowered the nozzle with one hand and held the hose aloft with the other. A trickle of fuel dribbled into the tin. He re-hitched the nozzle to the tank-stand and jogged back to the fire-bucket.
“There’s always a bit left in the line even if they do lock the bloody valve,” he smirked, sprinkling diesel over the kindling. He flicked his lighter. “Look out, McSpatchen – it’s gonna blow!”
He was kidding of course, but I stepped back. Just to be on the safe side.
Elliott and Little Pedro arrived in Pedro’s car, then the Orchardist in his pan-tech and the Sundance Kid in a newly acquired fourth-hand sedan battered and mud-spattered. They joined us at the fire-drum, wringing icy hands, stamping frozen feet, cursing the morning. Flames curled up through the kindling. The drum soon blazed, thawing fingers, warming numb bums, the flames producing some cheerful small talk.
Charlie marched out the office door. “Good on you, boys. Just as well we got that wood, eh?”
“Where’s the bloody rest of it?” the Bandy Coot demanded. “Where’s the stockpile? Why didn’t you light the fire-drum when you got here?”
“Give us a break!” Charlie blustered, rubbing his hands before the flames. “We ran outa time. It was bloody near dark when we finished cutting it up. I wasn’t gonna cart it up here by candlelight, I can tell you.”
“But what about the fire?” the Bandy Coot persisted. “This has gotta be the coldest morning we’ve had in a hundred years.”
“Hey, I’ve gotta open the office and check out the fax and the answering machine every morning. Important messages come in overnight, you know. A bloke can’t do everything.”
Someone sniggered. Charlie about-faced and stormed into the office.
Elliott shrugged and glanced at his wristwatch, murmuring through a lop-sided smile, “Well men, better grab yourselves a quick coffee. In precisely eight minutes and seven seconds we’re heading down the paddock.”
Contrary to established form, Charlie and Marina stayed on at the shed after knock-off that day. While the Misfits packed up and departed post-haste, Marina sat agonising over a sheaf of invoices, a glossy magazine lying open at her elbow. Charlie prowled round the tractors kicking their tyres.
Next morning the Bandy Coot drove into the vineyard via the bottom gate and followed the track by the fence. Where once had stood the yellow-box there remained only a stump, some sawdust and shattered debris under a mantle of frost – no sign whatever, here or at the shed, of the stout combustible blocks sawn from the trunk and the boughs.
The fire-drum stood black and cold.
Thereafter the Misfits were obliged to scavenge damp and mostly rotten windfall from under trackside trees when they rode to smoko and lunch on the Ford. Sprinklings of diesel on these scabrous sticks produced sputtering fires barely adequate to their needs.
Neither Charlie nor Marina, nor indeed the Misfits, spoke a word of the missing blocks of yellow-box. Charlie never again drove his truck to work.
THE 4x4 runabout came hurtling along the track, whizzed past the Misfits and skidded round the corner of a block of vines they had finished pruning that morning. Marina dismounted, buckled a pouch at her waist and began wrapping vine arms to the wires, securing them in place with plastic ties from the pouch.
Elliott looked up from his pruning.
“Interesting, very interesting,” he drawled in a mock-German accent.
The stocky diminutive figure worked at a truly commendable pace. When Elliott called the lunch break, the Misfits trudged to the paddock-basher. Marina had swung into her second row; still she worked as we set off for the shed.
A late-model Holden utility stood reversed into the tractor bay. Charlie and a short wiry fellow in grubby overalls were hitching a rusty hay-rake to the three-point linkage of his favourite tractor, the bigger of the two, the one with the fully enclosed air-conditioned cab, the tractor he had driven among the Misfits on that bleak and miserable morning some weeks ago.
A tall and fleshy man, evidently someone of importance, leaned against the Holden’s tailgate casually watching the procedure. He turned and smiled when Elliott pulled up.
“Here he is – the vine doctor of Bellview Estate. How’s it going, Pete?”
Elliott stepped out of the old Ford. “Emdee,” he beamed, baring fang-like canines. He pushed his stained and battered hat to the back of his head. “I’m not too bad for an old bloke – just overworked and underpaid.”
The big man loosed a belly laugh. “Get out! You look a million dollars.” They shook hands. “How goes the pruning, Pete?”
“Not too bad – in fact it’s going quite well.”
The Misfits seized on his comment.
The pair talked easily, affably and fell into step as they strolled away from the shed, out of earshot. Charlie and his skinny sidekick still tinkered with the rake. The Misfits scuffed the mud from their boots and trooped into the office.
“Did you see that Marina come belting down the paddock – I thought Charlie was on her tail wanting an urgent job done,” said the Bandy Coot with a leer. He gulped down a spoonful of stew. “Couldn’t let Emdee catch her bludging in here or she’d be out on her arse.”
“Who and what is Emdee,” I asked.
“Morgan Delancy,” replied the Orchardist promptly and primly. “He writes our cheques. Bellview’s just one of several vineyards under his control, most of them in the Hunter Valley. Morgan’s a very wealthy man,” he added, a shade too reverentially.
I said, “So Marina knew he was coming here today.”
“Of course she did,” said the Bandy Coot. “Emdee phones to say he’s coming down the day before he leaves the Hunter. Then he phones again when he gets to Cowra to see if there’s anything that needs bringing from town. And that includes a carton of beer – always brings a carton for us. Anyway, as soon as Marina gets the second call she bolts down the paddock and makes like she’s been working on the vines. You wait; you’ll see what I mean. Her and Charlie did it every time Emdee came down last summer, didn’t they Johnno.”
Johnno nodded and chomped into a thick sandwich.
The Orchardist took a quick double take at the Bandy Coot. He stood up. “I’ve got some nice cauliflowers in the van, gentlemen. Fifty cents each – any takers?”
Little Pedro ordered two; Johnno held up one finger. The Orchardist left the office, the Sundance Kid at his heels.
Little Pedro watched them leave, then leaned across the table and spoke in a near whisper, “I’d watch what I was saying around them two. They’re getting real cosy with Marina. They came back the other afternoon and took a load of that yellow-box to her place. So I wouldn’t be talking too much – get my drift?”
The Bandy Coot spluttered, “How the hell ––"
Elliott came through the door. Emdee followed.
“Just a minute of your time, men,” said Elliott. “Some of you already know our managing director, Morgan Delancy, and some of you don’t. He’d like a word with you before he heads back to the Hunter. Morgan?”
Heavily set, tending to flab, the managing director put a hand on the back of a chair to rest his weight. He stroked the end of his nose, a bulb of ruptured capillaries infusing waxen cheeks with glowing filaments. Watery eyes of indeterminate colour glistened in ashen sockets.
“G’day fellas. I won’t keep you long. I just want you to know how pleased I am with the work you’re doing under Pete’s stewardship. Top job. It’s tough going, I know, but you’ve proved yourselves more than equal to the task. I know we’ve had a couple of men drop out, one of them with a serious medical problem, and the other, well frankly I don’t know why he quit. It doesn’t really matter. But I will say this: if for one reason or another any one of you has a problem with the job, don’t hesitate to talk to Peter. He’ll pass it on to me and we’ll fix it between us. That’s about all I’ve got to say. I don’t want to cut into your lunch break. Keep up the good work, fellas.”
“Did you put the beer in the ’fridge, Emdee?” said the Bandy Coot. “Reckon we’ll be pretty dry when we knock-off. Nice cold beer will go down well.”
Emdee grinned. “Didn’t have time. It’s a flying trip, this one. We’ll be on our way home before you knock off. The important thing is that we had to get the rake down here and get it set up so Charlie can start raking the prunings out of the rows. If we were staying tonight then I’d shout you all a beer. But as I said, it’s a flying trip. Thanks fellas.”
He opened the door and Marina walked in. She wore a sky-blue parka over a white angora jumper and matching beanie, the bottoms of her pressed designer jeans tucked into mud-caked boots. The leather pouch hung like a sporran at her groin. She tossed her blonde bob, flashed a comely smile.
“Emdee! How nice to see you!”
“Marina. How goes it?” grinned Emdee. He glanced at the leather pouch. “Wrapping down arms I see. Good girl. Come outside and see me when you’re finished lunch, eh? I’d like a word with you.”
“Oh, certainly Emdee,” she purred.
Emdee went outside; Marina to the washroom. Elliott made a cup of coffee at the sink. The Orchardist dumped a box of cauliflowers on the table.
“Do you eat cauliflower, Peter?” he said. “Take one if you like.”
Elliott shook his head. He looked at his watch.
“Almost time to head back,” he said, and drained his coffee.
The Misfits got to their feet as Marina sank into her chair at the desk.
“Not eating lunch, Pete?” Johnno said casually for he, too, had noticed that Elliott appeared to work of late on little more than fresh air.
Elliott grimaced and shook his head. “Nah. I’m not hungry.”
“That coffee can’t have been too hot, the way you threw it down.”
“It’ll do Johnno. Come on men – back to the paddock.”
Emdee and his offsider drove away from the shed, leaving for the Hunter Valley, shortly before two o’clock. Marina did not return to the paddock to wrap down arms. Not ever.
FOUR days before he died in that dismal paddock I met Elliott after work at the Imperial Hotel. He sat alone at the end of the bar, stroking his silver van Dyke with delicate claw-like fingers. The fire blazed cheerfully in the grate and a beer stood untouched before him. He looked like an old-time Shakespearian actor down on his luck.
“Why so glum?” I asked, pulling up a stool.
He retrieved his focus from far off and turned it on me with a ferocious stare. The sodium rings intensified the soft brown irises, glowing now with a deep and melancholic fury.
“Don’t ask,” he said in a voice hoarse and remote. “Please, just don’t ask . . .”
Never before had I seen him so rattled. I ordered a beer. Elliott would talk when he chose and not before.
In the ensuing silence I summoned to mind the scant known details of kicks to the guts Life had given Elliott. He never spoke of them, of course. All that I knew of his personal tragedies I had winnowed from others of his acquaintance – both parents dead about the time he matriculated from one of Sydney’s better high schools; a decade or so later his wife, a nursing sister from whom he was separated, killed in a road smash on the eve of rumoured reconciliation. She left two toddlers, a boy and a girl. Maternal grandparents raised them with Elliott’s financial support. And on top of all this, just a year ago, surgeons had left him all but eviscerated in trying to remedy an acute intestinal problem.
Never did I hear Elliott rail or chafe against blows that would have felled a more robust man. During our twenty-odd year acquaintance he remained unfailingly courteous, respectful and considerate of all he met, especially women. He adored women, and they bestowed genuine affection upon his chivalrous attentions – indeed, the cause of resentment among some of the town’s bar-cruising Lotharios. In the Imperial Hotel’s back-bar, a workers’ watering hole – always convivial, often boisterous, occasionally disputatious without resort to violence – Elliott was looked upon as a quite sort of bloke, something of a loner, and absolutely nobody’s fool.
He read widely and voraciously, his passion for literature nourishing a formidable intellect that he never flaunted. On the rare occasion he felt obliged to remonstrate, it was to censure incivility or boorish behaviour directed against women. He spoke softly, savouring every syllable, fixing his target with a paralysing stare as his words drove home like harpoons. The hapless offender invariably withdrew in mute discomposure. Never a hand was raised in anger against Elliott.
Elliott slowly unfolded his spindly frame. He picked up his beer and took a sip. “They will not co-operate with me, not in any way, shape or form.”
“Charlie and Marina?” I ventured.
He nodded, “Yes, Charlie and Marina.”
“I’ve never seen such in-your-face insubordination. They’ve no shame whatsoever. And the men are angry, you know.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“It can’t be at all good for morale – it’s causing deepening resentment, downright hostility.”
A dark shadow flickered across his face. He ran a skeletal hand over the wisps of dark hair that lay across his polished, bony scalp.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said, “if on no account you breathe as word of it elsewhere.”
“Are you sure you want me to know?”
“Yes. I do.”
“I’m keeping a dossier of all the incidents involving Charlie and Marina. All the details, times, dates, circumstances, who said and did what – the lot. When the pruning’s over, when the time’s right, I’ll be calling a meeting between Emdee, Charlie, Marina and me. I’ll go through that dossier incident by incident. Moreover, I won’t stop. I’ll see them both hanged,” he said bitterly.
“You’re little black book, is it?”
“Exactly. My little black book of dastardly deeds.”
Elliott managed a grim smile; a glimmer of soulfulness had returned to his eyes.
WITH the pruning finished, the Misfits retraced their steps wrapping and tying vine arms to the wires. The lighter, speedier work lifted jaded spirits but marginally. Charlie drove the tractor, of course, raking the prunings into heaps at the ends of the rows. Splashed with diesel and set on fire, they burned quickly and fiercely, in spite of the weather, to low mounds of grey ash.
The Orchardist and the Sundance Kid both contracted the ’flu, so they claimed, and confined themselves to sickbeds for a week. The Misfits learned later that the pair had used the time to plant saplings in the Orchardist’s new citrus grove. An abscessed wisdom tooth drove Johnno pain-maddened to the dentist’s surgery. He returned to work the next morning, barely able to speak around the bulge in the muffler wrapped around his face and neck. Elliott advised a couple of days’ leave. Johnno gave a painful shake of his head; he suffered for days in pitiable silence.
The weather deteriorated even further. Cracking frosts, gloomy fog-bound days and intermittent showers gave way to freezing southerly winds, roiling tumults of cloud, sleet and then drizzling rain and saturating mists. With time lost to bad weather, and being undermanned, the Misfits’ wrapping and tying began to fall behind schedule.
At daybreak on Tuesday August 8, 2000, the Misfits plodded into the sodden vineyard. The cloud hung heavy, ominous. Ninety minutes later the men slouched wet and listless in the office. Elliott called it a day shortly after nine o’clock. The Misfits returned to town, leaving him at the shed with Charlie and Marina. He refused a lift, saying the weather might clear, in which case he would go wrapping and tying alone.
“IT’S for you,” said the barman proffering the phone.
“Speaking – what’s happening Bandy?”
“Are you sitting down?”
“Should I? What’s the matter?”
“Peter Elliott’s dead – dropped dead in the paddock. Couple of hours ago.”
“Jesus wept! What happened?”
“Charlie found him in one of the rows we were wrapping this morning. Stone dead, he was. I just got word. I knew you’d want to know.”
I groped for a coherent thought. “I don’t understand – God, I mean . . . well, he looked all right when we left the shed.”
“Yeah, well, apparently the rain cleared off a bit out there after we left and Pete went up the paddock to wrap and tie. It started raining again but he didn’t come back to the shed. So after a while Charlie ducked outside and took a look up the rows. Says he saw a green bundle in the grass way up the end. Thought it was just a bit of rag or plastic that’d blown into the paddock.
“They waited at the shed a bit longer – the rain was still bucketing down. Charlie finally jumped in the ute and went looking for him. That bit of rag in the row was Pete. It was his coat. He was lying beside the vines, almost underneath them. Charlie jumped out and checked his pulse, but he was gone. Stone dead. So he raced back to the shed and called the ambos and the cops.”
“Listen very carefully, Bandy: Did you pick up anything to suggest Peter might have argued with Charlie or Marina, that there may have been some sort of confrontation before he went up the paddock?”
“I know what you mean. I thought of that too – at first. But no, Charlie and Marina are upset. Real upset, they are. They’re up at the cop-shop now, making a statement. Anyway, I reckon Peter wouldn’t barney with them without someone else being there. Played his cards too close to let them bushwhack him like that. Anyway, he’d have known he’d be on the back foot, two against one – wouldn’t he? – if they went bitching to Emdee.”
“You’re right. He was sick. Wouldn’t eat. That’s all there is to it. I suppose we could have a yarn to the police, but I doubt they’d tell us much, not until they notify his next-of-kin.”
“Yeah. Well, I’ve got to go, McSpatchen. Got to ring Johnno. Will you ring Pedro and let him know?”
“Yes, of course. Get in touch if you learn anything more.”
I turned to the barman. “Give me a drink, will you. Something strong.”
He started to pour a beer.
“Top shelf!” I said, trying to suppress a rising wave of shock and nausea.
He poured a stiff brandy and I tossed it back. It was tasteless.
“Bad news?” he said cautiously.
“Peter Elliott. They found him dead in the vineyard. Just a while ago.”
“I wish I was, but it’d be a bloody poor joke. Give me another one of those – and make it a double!”
ELLIOTT lay dead in the morgue; Brain paralysed, strapped to his hospital bed in case he chose suicide over life in a wheelchair; Jock Strap quailing behind drawn curtains, tormented by his demons – the Misfits jinxed? How else could it be.
The men did not work Wednesday, declaring instead an unsanctioned holiday and a few beers as a mark of respect for the late lamented Elliott. It rained, anyway, and again on Thursday.
Friday morning broke crisp and clear. Gauzy pennons of rose-pink cloud unfurled against the eastern sky. Stars yet twinkled overhead as the sun crested the wooded ridge behind Bellview. Wisps of ground mist in the hollows and vales in the vast patchwork of vineyards and paddocks wafted aloft and melted away in the slanting sunlight. The Lachlan Valley shimmered in a golden dew-spangled haze, dazzling the eye with the promise of spring.
A pall of unreality hung over the Misfits when they mustered at the shed. They smoked, stared into space, gently rocked on heels and toes and exchanged a quiet word or the odd wistful smile. Elliott was gone, snuffed out, yet still we expected him – needed him – to saunter into our midst and declare, “All right men, better get aboard.” And we would clamber on to the old paddock-basher and head into the vineyard.
Around five minutes to seven Charlie poked his head out of the office door. “Emdee’s just phoned. Don’t start work ’til he gets here. He’ll be a few minutes.”
The Misfits went for more coffee. Elliott’s sweat-stained hat, grubby and frayed and weather-beaten, lay on a chair just inside the office door. Charlie sat at the head of the table, ostensibly reading his newspaper. A faint odour of suspicion and fear, with an underlying hint of rancour, rose behind the barricade of silence he had thrown up around himself. The Misfits returned with their coffees to yard. Marina arrived uncharacteristically early and smarmed into the office without a word to anyone.
Emdee pulled up ten minutes later.
“How’s it going, fellas?” he chimed, alighting from his utility. He rubbed his hands lustily and looked about smiling and nodding to this one and that. His jauntiness, his unfeeling insouciance I considered ill-befitting the moment.
The Misfits’ reaction was a barely audible mumbling and embarrassed shuffling of feet.
“We’re shell-shocked, losing Peter so suddenly,” I said, barely masking resentment. (I wanted to shout, “How else should we feel, you insensate piss-pot schmuck!”)
“Yes – yes, of course. Terrible business, terrible.” Emdee deplored Elliott’s demise with a vigorous shaking of veiny jowls. “We’d better have a word before you start work.”
Charlie and Marina stepped out of the office and stood off to the side of the men. Emdee acknowledged them with a nod.
“I was just telling the fellas,” he continued, “I was saying the company will pay for Wednesday’s unscheduled day off. He was a good man Peter Elliott. And I’m not going to quibble over a day’s pay. I understand his funeral’s at Forbes on Monday. Is that right, Charlie?”
Charlie responded with a stiff nod; the Misfits murmured affirmation.
“Okay then, the company will allow you Monday off so you can attend the service – I’ll be going, so any of you wanting a lift can come with me. Now, you can make up Monday’s lost time by working a Saturday or a Sunday down the line, whatever day you choose. Everyone agreed – is that fair enough?”
The Misfits muttered assent.
“Fellas, there’s just one other matter.” Emdee pulled at his pitted nose. “I understand there’s a rumour doing the rounds. Specifically, that Charlie did not try to find Pete when he hadn’t returned to the shed, and having found him later in the paddock, Charlie did not report the fact for at least an hour afterward. In other words – according to the rumour as it’s been related to me – in other words, Charlie deliberately left him out in the paddock, out in the rain. And by leaving Pete for that length of time, Charlie diminished any chance of the ambulance arriving in time with a chance of reviving him. Have you heard that rumour?”
To a man, the Misfits shook their heads. Charlie held his chin high, a monument of righteous dignity defiled, like a bold statue with a squirt of birdshit dribbling down its stony face.
“I don’t need to stress to you fellas that vicious, false rumours can have some pretty serious legal consequences,” Emdee said gravely. “The circumstances surrounding Pete’s death are in the hands of the police. In my conversation with them they said nothing, nothing at all to even hint at culpability or negligence on anyone’s behalf. Pete was a sick man. Sicker than we thought, I suspect. As far as the police are concerned, and as far as I’m concerned, he died of a suspected heart attack.”
Emdee paused, levelling a quizzical schoolmasterly eye.
“No one is suggesting the rumour was started by any of you fellas, but I know you’ll appreciate I had to raise it with you. Thanks fellas – grab yourselves another coffee and a smoke before you start work.”
“I reckon it’s a load of bullshit,” opined the Bandy Coot as the Misfits squelched into the sun-drenched paddock. “I haven’t heard any rumours like Emdee was talking about. Anyone hear it?”
No – the reply was unanimous.
The Bandy Coot hoicked and spat on the ground. “Blind Freddy can see what’s going on, for Chrissake! Charlie’s trying to drop us in the shit so he can go after Elliott’s job. He’s sucking up to Emdee, ‘Oooh, Emdee, I want to be paddock-boss, but those naughty pruners are saying awful things about me. Stick up for me, Emdee, because I’m a yellow-gutted backstabbing, lying arsehole who can’t even drive a tractor’. Ha-ha!”
I agreed with the essence of The Bandy Coot’s divination, but I voiced no endorsement.
Charlie and Emdee toyed with the tractor, trying in vain to stem another leak in the hydraulics. Marina drove the 4x4 spraying fungicide on the pruned and tied vines. Emdee left the vineyard shortly after two o’clock. Marina returned at once to the shed. Evidently Emdee was not expected to return that day.
IT WAS not a big funeral. Conducted in a distant town, at the start of the working week, the mourners nonetheless included a seemly representation of vineyard workers, including Charlie. They returned to Cowra for a modest pub wake – all but Charlie, that is. It was whispered that he had been unnerved by a curious incident back at the church. In mid-service a big black cat had sashayed right up the middle of the nave. It paused before the bier supporting Elliott’s coffin, surveyed the congregation through tawny languorous eyes, and began coiling itself in paroxysms of feline rapture around the chromium legs, one after the other.
When the mourners rose to their feet with a scaping of shoes and rustling of prayer sheets, the cat did not flinch. It yawned, arched its back, stretched front then hind legs and sauntered off whence it came. In a pew toward the back of the church stood Charlie. The cat sat down in the nave, looked up at Charlie and mewed softly, as if it had recognised him. Charlie tried to stare it down, but it mewed again. Louder. He ignored it, but the cat came slinking into his pew and buried its muzzle in a trouser leg. Charlie started and shook one leg, then the other, but the cat threw itself against his shins and calves, nuzzling and rubbing and purring throatily. Then it yawned and padded sedately out of the church, its departing tail raised in a perfect shepherd’s crook above the puckered fundament.
THE Misfits were at once confounded and suspicious when they mustered at the shed the morning after Elliott’s funeral – Charlie breezed out of the office sporting a pouch slung from his waist. He seemed chipper, buoyant, eager to join the men wrapping and tying in the block behind the shed where, only a week ago, he had come across Elliott’s body. Marina had taken the day off for reasons unknown and unexplained.
As the men tramped into the rows Johnno asked Charlie, “That tractor of yours still broken down?”
“Bastard of a thing needs peltin’ on the rubbish heap – then settin’ on fire!” he boomed. “Why the company bought that heap of shit I’ll never know. They should’ve asked me before they went ahead and got it. It’s not even a John Deere! One of those mongrel bastards they make in Russia or Belladonna – wherever the hell it is. They put shit motors and transmission in ’em, paint ’em green and sell ’em as John Deeres. I tell you they’re not worth a cup of cold piss. Emdee and me worked all day last Friday lookin’ for the oil leak in the hydraulics. Now the grease monkey in town says it’ll be three days before he can get out here to fix it. Can you believe it!”
The Bandy Coot loosed a substantial fart. “Must be them boiled eggs the missus gave me for breakfast,” he quipped. “I told her they were a bit green.”
Each of the men had wrapped and tied roughly five panels, fifteen vines per man, hardly ten minutes’ easy work, when Charlie stopped in the row and gazed off into space.
“I’ll bet that useless Marina didn’t empty out that spray in the runabout when she finished the other day. There’d have to be near a half bloody tank left over. It’d be just like her, silly bitch! I tell you, bloody sheilas shouldn’t be let within cooee of any machinery. I better go and check.”
He returned to the shed.
“Bet that’s the last we see of him today,” said the Bandy Coot, “any money you like.”
No one took him on.
Charlie rode round on the 4x4, stopping here and there to discharge a squirt or two of chemical on the vines.
“Biggest half-tank of spray I ever saw,” said Johnno when the Misfits went to the shed for smoko, almost three hours after Charlie had left the block.
Johnno picked up Elliott’s hat from the chair inside the office door and placed it on Marina’s desk. Little Pedro, pouring a coffee, watched Johnno and asked, “What d’you reckon we should do with Pete’s hat – and there’s his secateurs and stuff on the filing cabinet over there.” Johnno picked them up, too, and laid them next to the hat. He sat down and opened a wad of sandwiches.
“His son and daughter’ll pick them up,” said the Bandy Coot. “They said at the funeral they want to see the spot where he died, after work one afternoon, but first they were going to clean out his flat.” He took a slurp of coffee. “Sheesh! That’d be awful going through his things as he left them when he went to work and never came back. Wonder if they’ll find his book.”
“What book?” I asked casually.
“Oh, I think it was some sort of report, McSpatchen,” said the Bandy Coot. “We were talking out here one day when the summer pruning was on. Pete said he was keeping a record of the work we were doing – something to do with his contract, I think. Pete reckoned he was keeping it at home so Charlie and Marina couldn’t get a squiz at it.” He smiled and winked. “Must’ve wrote some pretty hot stuff about them, eh?”
“A progress report, was it?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
Little Pedro gathered Elliott’s effects from Marina’s desk. “You don’t mind if I find a hidey-hole for this stuff?” he said to Johnno. “If we leave it on Marina’s desk she’ll probably chuck it out altogether.”
“Fine by me,” said Johnno, “I didn’t want to see it lost, that’s all.”
Little Pedro stowed Elliott’s belongings on a ledge in a corner of the machinery bay.
Next morning, while the Misfits talked and drank coffee before work, Charlie, hunched over his newspaper, declared unprompted, “You know you’re not getting’ your money for the day you had off last week, the day after Elliott died. The company won’t authorise it.”
A ripple of dissent passed over the men.
“Emdee told us otherwise,” Little Pedro said at last. “Anyway, how do you know he’s not gonna pay us – has he told you so?”
Charlie sidestepped the question. “Look, you boys took an unauthorised day off – right? Now you can’t expect the company to pay for it. You’ve gotta be mad if you think they will. I tell you, I wouldn’t pay for work that wasn’t done – buggered if I’d pay you.”
“Seems to me the pot’s calling the kettle black,” flared Little Pedro. “I mean, you and Marina took the day off – are you going to pass up a day’s pay too?”
“At least we took the trouble to come to work! When you lot didn’t turn up we had to go home. We had no alternative. You never turned up!”
“You’ve never worked a day since we’ve been here!” Little Pedro accused point-blank.
Charlie’s square face turned bright red; his hands bunched into fists and he slammed them on the table, causing his coffee cup to jump.
“I’m tellin’ yer – yer not gettin’ paid!”
“Well, if they won’t pay us,” I said evenly, “we’ll lodge a complaint with the Department of Labour and Industry. I wonder how the company would react to that, not to mention the publicity in the media that proceedings would generate.”
Charlie looked up and glared.
The Bandy Coot interceded, “C’mon you blokes, let’s get to work. We’ll see what happens on payday.”
The Misfits left Charlie scowling and seething over his newspaper.
Marina arrived in the company’s one-tonner. She was an hour late. At smoko and again at lunch not a word passed between she and Charlie. The next morning Charlie drove into the vineyard in the one-tonner and Marina turned up, almost two hours late, in her own sedan. Thereafter Charlie took charge of the one-tonner, driving it home overnight and keeping it over the weekends.
Though Charlie and Marina until this time had made scant pretence of doing their share of the work, their inactivity plumbed new depths of indolence. Though the weather remained dry and sunny, they holed up at the shed, day after day, while the Misfits got on with the wrapping and tying. A mechanic had replaced the faulty oil seal in Charlie’s tractor, and yet it sat idle in the shed. At smoko and lunch Charlie and Marina held themselves coldly aloof from each other and the wisecracking stubble-jawed Misfits.
Payday came round and the Misfits got their money for their day off. Charlie snorted and buried his head in his newspaper when the Bandy Coot, cackling and hopping, fluttered his pay sheet in Charlie’s face. The Misfits worked the next Saturday to make up time lost through Elliott’s funeral service.
LATER in the week, shortly before smoko one morning, Charlie stomped down the track from the shed, head held high, shoulders squarely set. He wheeled into the outer row in the block where the Misfits were working. He scrutinised a few vines then whinnied at the men across the rows, “The vines are on the move, boys! The vines are on the move!” He turned and strode back toward the shed.
“Then why don’t you and Marina get off your butts and give us a hand, you bloody big jerk!”
The Bandy Coot’s counsel fell upon deaf ears.
Indeed, sunny days and milder nights had roused the sap in the vines. Winter dormancy had ended and budburst – tender pinheads of new growth – now speckled the spurs and runners. Wrapping and tying, evident to all but Charlie and Marina, had become critically exacting to the Misfits lest callused fingers spoil or dislodge the fragile growth betokening the advance of spring and a bountiful harvest.
“Charlie wouldn’t know budburst from a cloudburst,” growled Little Pedro. “He knows nothing about vineyards. He should’ve been sacked months ago.”
“Did you know he got the sack from two other vineyards before he turned up here?” said the Bandy Coot. “And before that they sacked him from the wool plant.”
“That’s right,” said Little Pedro.
“What was he doing at the plant?” I queried.
“He was the union rep,” laughed the Bandy Coot. “Can you believe it?”
“That’s the worst joke I’ve heard in a while – a brown nose going to bat for the workers! God, it’s a wonder they weren’t reduced to working for fresh air and all the river water they could drink! Why was he sacked?”
“For being a big bludging sponge,” said Little Pedro.
“How do you know,” I said.
“I should,” said Little Pedro. “He’s my uncle.”
The Misfits – Johnno, the Bandy Coot, the Orchardist, the Sundance Kid and I – we all looked up from our work.
“No I’m not,” he replied through a grin.
Marina had gone home and Charlie was talking on the phone when the Misfits got back to the shed at knock-off time.
“ . . . they’re stuffed, completely rooted,” Charlie howled.
The Bandy Coot put a finger to pursed lips and tiptoed across the shed and up to the office door. Charlie’s voice was clearly audible.
“ . . . yes, yes Emdee. There’s at least thirty panels in the Chardonnay – that’s ninety vines! – all pruned wrong, spurs and runners all cut off! I tell you, we won’t get a single berry off them. I dunno what Elliott was thinking. I told him they were pruned wrong. He wouldn’t listen, of course. What was that? No, I couldn’t tell him anything! He was the expert. Had all the answers – or reckoned he did. Always wanted to argue – anyway, you know what he was like. Yeah, he told me some bullshit yarn about your gang from the Hunter prunin’ ’em like that when they were down here last year. I tell you, he was never wrong that Elliott, a real pain in the arse. I’m sorry to have to say it, but really, Emdee, we’re better off without him. And that pack of bludgers, these so-called pruners he put on, they’re nothin’ but trouble. Always bitchin’ and whingin’ about somethin’. Can’t tell them to do anything, either. Yeah, okay . . . all right, I’ll talk to you again tomorrow. Talk to you again Emdee.”
He hung up and the Misfits, without a word to the plainly unnerved and watchful Charlie, in case they might yield to temptation and take a swing at him, collected their tucker-bags from the office. The Bandy Coot stormed and raged against Charlie’s treachery all the way back to town.
Johnno fronted Charlie straight up before the Misfits went into the vineyard next morning. “You’re trying to hang a dead man,” he said calmly, holding Charlie’s belligerent stare. “That’s a bloody low act by anyone’s standards. You’re no better than a gallows bird, you are. If I was you I’d be ashamed of myself. I’d hang my head in shame, so I would Charlie.”
Charlie’s eyebrows bristled. He opened and shut his mouth like a beached carp.
“Yeah, them Chardonnays were pruned by that mob of derelicts Emdee brought down from the Hunter last summer,” snarled The Bandy Coot. “You know that, and you know Peter had nothing to do with pruning them.” The Bandy Coot stood on his toes and bellowed, “You didn’t even know about them until Peter told you, and then you went down and had a look! You’re just trying to big-note y’self!”
Charlie began soothingly, “Hey, it’s all right, it’s all right –– ”
“No!” I snapped. “It’s not right. You’re completely out of order. Johnno’s right. You’re trying to hang a dead man – we all heard you! – Peter Elliott, the very man who got jobs here for you and Marina, as I understand it. Plonk-snobs and gallows birds – you make me sick!”
“I mean . . . I mean I made a second call to Emdee, honestly I did, right after you left here yesterday,” Charlie spluttered. “I only realised when I put the phone down the first time that it was Emdee’s pruners that stuffed up. I tell you it’s all right. I got back on the phone and I fixed it with him straight away. I did – honestly. You just ask him!”
The Misfits looked him up and down, scornful, disgusted, bitter and enraged, realising too late that they – and Elliott – had been systematically bushwhacked, sold out, emasculated and traduced. Charlie, conniving, mendacious, blackguardly idler and his simpering sidekick, the opportunistic Marina, exposed for insidious pimps-on-the-phone, twisting and perverting day-to-day communications with the office of the managing director – to what conceivable end?
BUDBURST rapidly took hold of the vineyard. The days grew warmer, so balmy that Marina and Charlie – they had buried their differences over Charlie’s commandeering of the one-tonner – spent an entire day washing, polishing and detailing their vehicles. With only ten-thousand vines to wrap and tie, give or take a few hundred, the Misfits, aghast and despairing, observed this cheerful frolic from the paddock.
The next day Charlie and Marina received notice of three tonnes of chemical awaiting transportation from a depot in town. Marina set off mid-morning and returned with a load four-and-a-half hours later. Over the next two workdays Marina took a total eight hours bringing the remaining two tonnes of chemical back to the vineyard – all of it on pallets loaded on and off the truck by forklift. All up a three-hour job, at most, including travelling to and from town.
“She must’ve stopped at Woolies to pick up a few things,” observed the Bandy Coot.
THE Strangers came shortly after the Misfits had started work. Ten of them, male and female, dirty-looking, unkempt even by the Misfits’ optimistic standards. They parked their cars at the far end of the block and worked toward the Misfits across the rows. The Strangers left the vineyard by the bottom gate at knock-off while the Misfits, as usual, left by the top driveway. Marina drove to town twice daily to buy smoko and lunch for the new arrivals. They ate in the paddock. They neither acknowledged nor circulated among the Misfits, these personable pruners from the Hunter Valley.
The wrapping and tying was finished in two-and-a-half days. Emdee arrived with his skinny offsider on the morning of the cutout. He rushed down the paddock in the 4x4 to greet the Strangers, leaving his helper to fiddle with some lengths of angle iron back at the shed. Emdee called by the Misfits at smoko, announcing in an offhand fashion that he would shout a few beers to mark the finish of work.
I sought a quiet word with him.
“I’m too busy at the moment, fella,” he said. “I’ll catch up with you later.” He waddled out of the shed to the 4x4 in which Charlie and Marina sat like children on a hayride. They took off down the track.
The last of the wrapping and tying was finished by noon. There was little jubilation among the Misfits; to a man, they faced the prospect of certain unemployment. The taciturn newcomers drove to the shed; the Misfits walked. Having cracked their beers, the Strangers were engaged in lively conversation with Emdee outside the shed when the Misfits straggled up. The Orchardist and the Sundance Kid got a beer from the fridge and joined the cheerful group. Johnno, the Bandy Coot, Little Pedro and I perched on the frame of the rotary slasher sipping our stubbies, observing formalities.
Charlie and Marina affected a diligence as remarkable as it was laughable. While the little helper, Emdee’s spare man of the greasy overalls, strained full height to drill some holes in a wall of the shed, Charlie peered rapt over his shoulder, watching the high-speed bit spinning round and round. The indispensable Marina stood by, stiff and attentive, holding a can of spray-paint. The strain of witnessing such a phenomenal procedure, the drilling of holes in a sheet of tin, inscribed their features with furrows of intense concentration.
Little Pedro went to get more beer.
“I’ve got bad news and worse news,” he said when he returned empty-handed. “The beer’s run out and Charlie’s got Peter’s job – and Marina’s his permanent assistant.”
The Bandy Coot jumped to his feet. “Bullshit!” he wailed.
“But wait, there’s more,” said Little Pedro sitting down. “The Orchardist and the Sundance Kid have got work here ’til Christmas running new wires down the rows. The Kid just told me.”
The Bandy Coot grimaced and scratched his head.
“Charlie and Marina! The bludgers got permanent jobs – well, screw me rotten! What about the Orchardist and the Kid? They sloped off when we really needed them on the wrapping and tying – they went planting trees when the pressure was on, fer Chrissake.” He spat on the grass. “Shit, this place is rooted! I’ll bet ol’ Pete’s fairly spinning in his grave. I’m never gonna work here again – ever!”
Emdee drifted over as we crossed the yard, on our way to the office to sign time sheets and pick up our gear for the last time. His darting irresolute eyes marred the avuncular greeting and easy-going chitchat.
“How’s it going, fellas?” Good to see the pruning’s all wrapped up, eh? Sorry we ran out of beer. Never mind, we’re going to the pub in about half an hour. The drinks are on me. You coming with us?”
“I’ve gotta exercise a horse for my dad this afternoon,” the Bandy Coot said coolly. “Thanks all the same.”
“Duty calls, eh? That can’t be helped, I suppose. What about you fellas?”
Little Pedro said he might. Johnno declined. Emdee turned to me.
“Is it true,” I said, arresting his glance. “Is it true that Peter Elliott bought in your pruning twenty-three thousand dollars under budget?”
Emdee hesitated, looked away, then rounded on me with a look of penetrating appraisal, almost suspicion.
“Yeah, that’s right. Bit over twenty-thousand.”
“Thank-you,” I said. “That’s what we needed to know.” – M.J.B.