Mind my back

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
How four people solve unemployment problems.

Submitted: September 01, 2013

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Submitted: September 01, 2013

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MIND MY BACK

The fields lay on either side of the long straight road that went on for kilometres and kilometres. There was no end to the fields as they continued to the horizon. The land was flat and if it hadn’t been for agriculture would have appeared boring to the eye. As it was, the area on both sides of the road was fascinating. Those who were working the land were not all that visible because the area was so extensive. There were large baskets lying on the ground where the pickings were loaded, when they were full then a lorry stopped by and the contents of the baskets went into an enormous container. When the lorry was full it was driven off to a co-operative and the goods were mixed with the proceeds from other farms. This system guaranteed that all the products of any one region received more or less similar payment, independent of whether they were inferior or better. The sun shines and it sets on this land, the rain pours down, and the mists come in the early morning or evening. Nothing is ever the same. It’s forever changing.

 

Ellis and his friend Fenton had made the decision to spend the warm half of the year picking potatoes, grapes, and any kind of vegetable they were able to find. The two men, both on the wrong side of thirty, had been given the sack at the end of winter. Now it was spring, although there was still some winter vegetables to be picked, there wasn’t much to do yet. Nevertheless, both of them thought they had nothing to lose by going down to the farms before the schools and colleges finished, setting free youngsters who were also hard up, and getting themselves known. Work in the city was now very hard to come by, and neither had had any misgivings about packing their bags and moving off. As they were without girlfriends or wives at that moment in their lives they had no problems or worries about money, except for maintaining themselves.

 

Ellis’ mother said to her son, “Just you be careful and don’t get caught by some country girl. Anyhow, I don’t think you’ll stick it out for long. Work on the land is very hard and you’ve lived a soft life. Here’s a packet of food for you and Fenton to eat on the way. See you soon. Bye, Son.” Ellis’ mother reached up and kissed her tall son on both cheeks.

 

Fenton’s situation was different, his parents were divorced, and before setting out he had to make a visit to his mother and her second husband. Neither Fenton nor Barney, his mother’s new husband, could stand the sight of each other. Barney was always hanging around Eileen, his mother, and Fenton found it difficult to get her alone for a chat. She however, didn’t seem to notice Barney’s intrusion. “Mum, I’m off to work in the fields picking fruit and vegetables till the work runs out. There’s no point in trying to get a job now in the city, there’s a scarcity of work. The big companies prefer young blood they can work to death and pay less money as well, and put them on three-month contracts. Ellis and I have seen the writing on the wall, and until we see other possibilities, we’re going off to see what we can earn on the farms.”

Eileen gave Fenton a look of incredulity, “Fenton, I don’t understand how you can go and work on the land, you’re not a rustic.”

“I knew you’d feel this way, but now everyone’s trying to get any work they can so that they can pay their way. Please try and understand my position and give me your blessing. I’ll see you when I get back.”

At this juncture Barney tried to butt in, “Now look here, Fenton, your mother is not to be worried about your carryings on. I won’t permit it.”

Fenton, more than tired of this interloper in his family, turned and said, “My mother is my mother, and I had her long before you arrived on the scene breaking up a happy home. So keep out of what doesn’t concern you. Goodbye, Mum, and look after yourself. I don’t see Barney looking after anyone apart from himself.” Fenton bent down and kissed his mother and without a second glance at Barney left the house.

The second call was to say goodbye to his father, Norman, who was living in a small house with two cats and dogs. “Dad, I’m off to work on the land picking fruit and vegetables till the work runs out. I’ve got your mobile number, so I’ll keep in touch with you on a regular basis. OK?”

Norman said, “Have you told your mother? I don’t suppose for one minute she approves. She won’t be able to boast about her son with the glamorous job in the city, working on the land. Well if there’s no other way of earning money, good luck to you. Here, give your old man a hug. Bye, Son, look forward to your calls.”

“Bye, Dad. Thanks for your positive attitude.”

 

On the day Ellis and Fenton had started out for the farm on the other side of the Channel, two women were arriving at the farm. They were Jobeth and Roxie, who had had nothing but a long series of very bad jobs due to the shortage of decent work. As department stores were cutting down on staff in the offices as well as the shop floor, and pubs and restaurants were also cutting back, things were getting desperate for the vast majority of the general public.

 

 Jobeth and Roxie had held various jobs, before working for a food processing company. The first year half of the staff had been laid off and ten moths later another twenty-five per cent, which had included the two friends. Both of them, unable to afford a holiday, had thought it might not be such bad idea to go and pick fruit and vegetables in the country. The shortage of work had brought about a shortage of men who wanted a girl-friend. So Jobeth and Roxie had nothing and no one to lose by shoving a few clothes into a rucksack, saying goodbye to their mothers, and setting out.

 

The field organiser surveyed the group in front of him and gave out the orders. “There are two dormitories, one for women and the other for men. The food is simple but wholesome, no one will die of starvation. Everyone is paid at the end of their stay. The wages are based on how much work you do, so the harder you work the more money you make. While out in the fields you all wear a straw hat and espadrilles so as not to damage any of the plants. Those picking the grapes will be given special clippers. When the sun goes down work is over for the day. Any questions?”

No questions were asked, this would come later when they were all aching all over. As it was spring, there was not so much to do, but the late citrus fruits were still hanging on the trees. Ellis and Fenton had seen that the male dormitory was empty apart from them and another man.

 

Jobeth and Roxie sat down on their beds and unpacked their rucksacks.

“Don’t think we’ve made a mistake, do you?” Roxie asked.

“No, I don’t. We had no job prospects. When we get back everyone will think we’ve been on holiday for the summer as we’ll be so tanned,” Jobeth answered her friend.

 

The organiser was waiting for them, “You two go and help in that field over there, and with those two men get cracking on the oranges. They must all be picked and sent off. It’s the end of the season for them.”

Ellis and Fenton were busy filling baskets with the lovely golden fruit. They didn’t take any notice of the two women. The grove was deep and dark and the orange colour of the fruit was a pleasing sight to the four city dwellers. The sun wasn’t too hot, that would happen in a few weeks, in summer time.

 

During the day some other pickers arrived from the local villages and the orange grove was soon dotted with people.

That evening the pickers sat around and ate their dinner, which was in a rough wooden shed-like building.

Fenton spoke to Jobeth and Roxie. “Hello, I’m Fenton, and that one sitting over there rubbing his back is Ellis, my friend. Where are you from?”

“We’re from Liverpool and are down here for the picking while it lasts. There’s no work up there,” Roxie said.

“We’re here for the same reason. This work is really for youngsters, but the organiser told us that they get families here as well. It’s like a working holiday for them,” Fenton replied.

“It’ll be the only holiday we get this year, so we have to make the most of it however hard the work,” Jobeth added.

“I’d better go back to Ellis, he says his back is killing him. See you tomorrow.” And Fenton made his way over to where Ellis was moaning and groaning.

 

Jobeth and Roxie had each promised themselves not to make too much of the physical problems and concentrate on why they were there – to get some money together, nothing else. In their dormitory they had a shower, rubbed anti-inflammatory cream into their aching parts, and got into bed.

 

The following days turned into a week and now the four novices were well into things. Every day newcomers were seen on the land, and from their accents and languages it was more like living on a polyglot landscape.

 Fenton and Ellis now shared their dormitory with more men. The women were luckier and only had one other woman, who seemed friendly enough, but was with her boyfriend most of the time.

 

The late oranges had been picked and now there was planting to be done. The bending over was bad but there was no shrinking, even though Ellis and a few others complained.

 

At the end of June the students appeared, and with them, problems. They weren’t used to work of any sort and thought it was going to be easy.

The first signs of discord was when Jobeth and Roxie returned to their dormitory to find their rucksacks had been tampered with.

“Jobeth, have you seen my yellow t-shirt? I need it for tomorrow,” Roxie asked.

Jobeth looked up from her own rucksack and replied, “No I haven’t. But one thing I know is that our room has been searched and stuff has been taken from my rucksack. Good job we left the money we brought with us in the bank in the village. We should report this to the organiser.”

“He’ll probably say it’s our fault. He’s only interested in getting the work on the farm done in record time, not in any petty pilfering, as he’ll no doubt say,” Roxie said.

Jobeth sat down on her bed and loosened her long brown plait and began brushing it. This simple action was a way of calming herself down. She didn’t like the idea of having had her things looked over and being worn by strangers. Theft is bad in any situation, but in a restricted place like the farm, it creates an even worse atmosphere, making everyone a suspect in the eyes of the victims.

 

The new arrivals, three boys and two girls, who were all friends and had thought that it would be cool to stay on a farm in a warm climate for a month, and then clear off to spend the rest of the summer partying around the Mediterranean. None of them had ever done anything physical in their lives, and would skive off at the first opportunity to the village.

 

Ellis and Fenton had bought padlocks before entering the farm and had their rucksacks well and truly locked up. Jobeth and Roxie had never given it a thought that they might be robbed, but they had been. On their next free day they went into the village. There was a hardware store in the centre near a fountain. “This is it. We ought to be able to get what we want here,” Roxie said, still annoyed about her missing yellow T-shirt.

The owner of the hardware store knew what they wanted, and he always had quite a few in stock, after many years of summer field workers having their bags unlawfully opened, and in some cases entirely emptied. He showed them how to put them on, and that each padlock had two keys.

“I’ll give you an attachment so that the keys can be hung round your necks under your clothes. That should confound the most dedicated thief,” he advised.

“Thank you so much for your kind advice and we’ll be more careful in future,” Jobeth responded.

 

The area near the fountain was now a scene of laughter and shrieking and general misbehaviour. Waiters and clients of the bars objected to those noisy and misbehaving young people but when they were told to behave or go, their reactions were to knock the waiters flying and grab drinks and food off the tables. The police hove into view and then, seeing things could get serious, the students shrugged their shoulders and moved off.

Jobeth and Roxie saw all that as they left the hardware store. Roxie nudged Jobeth and said, “See that girl over there. She’s wearing my yellow T-shirt!”

“Are you sure. It’s dangerous to accuse someone of stealing, unless you can prove it or catch them in the act.”

“That’s Millie, one of the new girls, who is work shy. I can’t just let her get away with it.”

By now, the said Millie her friend Sandie and their other friends, Brian, Larry and Darren, had climbed aboard a local bus. Jobeth felt bad for Roxie, but she didn’t know what to do, and the students were a lot younger than them, and stronger too in spite of their drinking.

 

Ellis and Fenton were standing at a bar having a sandwich and a drink. The quintet of Brian, Larry, Darren, Millie, and Sandie were getting drunker and drunker and noisier and noisier. The manager told them to leave and not to go back. Some of the waiters surrounded them and escorted the unpleasant group to the main entrance. As they passed by Ellis, one of them, recognising him as being from the farm, hit him in the back, and said, “Get out of my way!”

Ellis felt a sharp pain in the middle of his back and gasped. Fenton and Ellis moved to a table where they could sit down till Ellis felt capable of moving out to get a taxi.

 

For some weeks after that disagreeable incident Ellis was in constant pain. At times worse than others. Jobeth and Roxie saw him walking badly and asked him, “What’s the matter with you?”

Ellis leaning peculiarly against the wall said, “I was punched in the back by one of the students when they were being escorted out of the village bar the last time we went there. Now I’m in pain and have problems trying to keep up with the work.”

“I’ve got just the right stuff for you, come to our dorm and I’ll give it to you there,” Jobeth told him.

 

Inside the women’s room, Ellis sat down on Jobeth’s bed and Fenton sat on a rickety chair.

Roxie opened a small cupboard where they kept the anti-inflammatory cream saying, “This should make things more bearable for you.” Very gently she rubbed the spot that he indicated. After a couple of minutes she told Ellis, “Lie down and have a sleep, you should feel more relaxed with that stuff warming your back up.”

Ellis fell asleep on Jobeth’s bed, and the other three played cards.

At eleven Ellis woke up. “Gosh, that cream really works. Thanks a lot.”

“Here, take it with you. We’ll get some more from the village. Meanwhile this’ll do you fine,” Roxie said.

They all walked to the door and said goodnight.

 

The next morning after breakfast the two women were walking to the fields. “Jobeth, look over there. That’s my yellow T-shirt. I’m sure of it,” Roxie was pointing to what was nothing more than a filthy oily rag that had once been a bright yellow.

They went to where one of the farm hands was cleaning his hands after having worked on the engine of the lorry that carried the day’s pickings to the co-operative.

“May I see that rag, please,” Roxie asked the man, who held it out for her to see. “It’s someone’s old T-shirt.”

Roxie took it from him and looked at the label. “Look, Jobeth, it is mine. I told you that Millie was wearing it. If she didn’t want it any more, why didn’t she leave it where I could find it and wash it out. She’ll get her comeuppance, mark my words!” Roxie said in a prophetic voice.

 

Jobeth and Roxie told Ellis and Fenton about the yellow T-shirt’s sad end.

Ellis said to Fenton, “I’d prefer to go back home now, if that’s all right with you.”

Fenton turned to his friend, and said, “We have to hang on till the end of September when all the harvesting is over and get the full amount we came for. What do you two think?”

Jobeth said, “Many times we’ve had this conversation, Roxie and me, and then we remind ourselves why we’ve spent the summer getting our fingers cut with the grape cutters, and backache with all the bending over picking up potatoes and other vegetables, and we say, one day nearer the end.”

 

The farmer was forever staring at the sky and praying it wouldn’t rain before all the grapes had been picked. Every evening, when all the pickers had finished for the day, he’d say, “We’ll wait one more day, and then go in there and pick the lot, and any other fruit that’s ripe enough to be sent to the co-operative to be boxed.”

 

The first leaves turning red was the day when the harvest took place. As quickly and as carefully as they could, the pickers got all the work done in record time. The fields were now bare of the juicy fruit.

 

That night the farmer let them have a party, and laid out large cheeses, hams and sausages, with bread and wine for all the workers who had stuck it out. Ellis, Fenton, Jobeth and Roxie enjoyed themselves, but felt they were too tired to do the food justice.

 That night, the first of the autumn rains fell on the land that had only felt a blazing sun pouring down on it for four months. The water was greedily soaked up by the parched earth.

 

“Goodbye, thank you for staying all season. It’s most unusual. I’m very grateful. You’ve done a good job, unlike others I could name,” the farmer said the next morning as he gave each one a big fat envelope with enough money to get them through the incipient winter.

 

Ellis and Fenton with faces burnt by the sun, in spite of using the sun protection cream recommended by the farmer, did look as if they had spent the summer in some tropical paradise – till you saw the scarred hands. Ellis’ back was still feeling rather uncomfortable, but now with the money in his hands he was a lot happier and wanted nothing more than to get home and have a long hot bath.

“How are you getting back?” Roxie asked the two men as they were getting into a taxi that would take them to the railway station in the village.

“We’re going on the ferry from Calais back to Dover and then home,” Fenton said.

“Have a nice trip. Bye,” Jobeth said to them as the taxi drove off on the first step of Ellis and Fenton’s journey home.

 

Jobeth and Roxie were driven into the village by the farmer, where they caught a train to Brittany, and after two days of getting themselves back into feeling human again, they took the ferry to Plymouth.

They really did look much better for the brief stay in a decent hotel and good food. That money was not going to be spent or frittered away as their previous salaries had been. It really had been – blood money.

 

The five students had stolen what they could and then they had gone on riotous living. Many mornings they woke up and had no idea where they were. The girls couldn’t even remember who they had gone to bed with. In one of the seedy Mediterranean hotels they had gone to, they had got into a drugged and drunken fight. They were accused of thieving, and evidence was found in their rooms. The police were called, but that was no deterrent, the five kept on fighting and punches were exchanged with whoever got in their way. One policeman managed to get Brian down onto his face, put his foot in his back to handcuff him.

“Hey you! Mind my back,” Brian said indignantly.

“You mind your manners. You’re a visitor here, so behave yourself and stop complaining about your back. We’ve got some nice hard beds for you and your friends to rest on,” the policeman told him, as he got Brian onto his feet, and walked him to a waiting police van, which was already occupied by the rest of the group – including Millie, who would never be a responsible adult.

 


© Copyright 2019 Georgina V Solly. All rights reserved.

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