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The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Picking Fruit (From Our Archives)

Daniel Cann

We arrived late, tired and dishevelled at the Prince of Wales Backpackers in Bundaberg. We trundled into this large courtyard/compound that had high wooden fences so that you could not see outside. Sat around a few tables were a few other backpackers who issued us friendly but slightly knowing and in some cases cautionary greetings. Enquiries like ‘So how is it here?’ were met with muted derision and raised eyebrows.

Unless they were winding us up these ‘veterans’ of the Prince of Wales did not exactly seem enthused about the place. We were too tired to stay and chat for very long, all of us just wanted a soft pillow and comfortable bed to get hopefully at least five or six hours sleep before our shift began the next morning at 4am!

After checking in with a less than friendly proprietor manning the reception we walked to our dormitory. We passed a wall that had a large painting of the famous Lord Kitchener image used to recruit soldiers in the First World War. The ‘Your Country Needs You’ one, a stern looking Edwardian soldier with his waxed moustache glaring at you is not the best of sights late at night. What significance Lord Kitchener had on the Prince of Wales was a mystery to me. Underneath his image was the legend painted in bold black letters ‘P.O.W.’ (Standing for Prince of Wales and not Prisoners of War) we exchanged amused looks but I was already wondering what I had let myself in for.

Once inside our dormitory I could not help but think of old war films like ‘Colditz,’ ‘The Great Escape’ and the plethora of Vietnam ones. It was packed with bunk beds and lots of passed out backpackers snoring and farting to their hearts content. Dirt was everywhere and the smell of about twenty pairs of sweaty boots, socks and T-shirts was not exactly what we had imagined or needed! I called the bottom bunk and tried to get some sleep.

A speaker in the dormitory waked us at 4am sharp. I later learned that there were speakers everywhere in the backpackers so that the owners could make announcements. They really were going all out for that Prisoner of War camp motif. Expecting jackbooted guards to burst through the door at any moment I wearily got out of bed and rubbed my eyes. I think I had managed maybe three hours sleep at most so was not feeling my best.

About half an hour later Ben and I were picked up by an obese middle-aged man with wild red hair and a gift to litter his every sentence with expletives. It was uncanny; he seemed incapable of saying something without swearing. Not exactly of a cheerful disposition (who is at that time of day) he dropped us off at this huge farm in the middle of nowhere (or so it seemed) so that Bubba and the boys could offer us both to their Gods as a sacrifice. Sorry, I made that last bit up. But the atmosphere did have an uneasy air about it.
Four local lads eventually joined us. Three who were mates and seemed to delight in saying things like:
‘And then he kicked him in the ‘ead!’
‘Nah, that’s nuthin’ mate, I saw Big Jim throw this (expletive deleted) through a window by his (expletive deleted), the (expletive deleted) deserved it!’
‘Yeah, but this other bloke he was a fakkin’ nutter, so Terry ‘ead butts ‘im and stomps on ‘is ‘ead whilst ‘e’s on the floor!’
‘Cool! Terry’s a fakkin legend mate!’

Delighted to be joined by such urbane and enlightened raconteurs Ben and I exchanged private looks that said ‘Great, what next?’

The fourth local seemed okay, he had brought his dog along with him, a small mongrel that seemed to be suffering with paranoia and schizophrenia. The slightest noise or maybe even a slight gust of wind would prompt the dog into fits of crazed and demented barking and whimpering.
‘Don’t mind her. She’s just a bit peculiar.’ He explained, spitting some sputum onto the ground.

Not long after these introductions and pleasantries were made one of the farm staff drove us off to our field of watermelons. The sun was soon glaring above us and we took our positions ready for a days work. The less said about the watermelon picking the better. It was debilitating work out in the heat. We would stand in a rugby line out and pass a watermelon to each other down the line where it was eventually thrown into a huge crate on the back of a trailer pulled by a tractor.

After a few hours one of the locals dropped out with some excuse or other, maybe he had a pressing engagement to regale the local pub’s clientele with stories of someone who got his ‘fakkin head kicked in.’ this made it tougher work for the rest of us. A few hours later and our water had ran out and we were all becoming dehydrated. Ben lost his hat and took a few hefty hits to his head from stray watermelons. He was lucky not to get sunstroke, later in the afternoon after several hours of learning why the Aussies are so good at rugby Ben muttered to me ‘I’ve had enough mate. This is crazy doing this in thirty five degrees with no water.’

I agreed and better sense prevailed and we called it a day. The others looked done in as well. Not a bad haul but we both decided that a sharp kick in the testicles was more welcome than another day picking watermelons so we were reassigned once back at the prison camp, sorry I mean the backpackers.

It was quite a dejected evening; Jon had fared much better than us. He had spent the day picking tomatoes, the lucky so and so! He had met Graeme a lad from Kent who was a witty raconteur with a broader vocabulary than the locals we had spent the day with. At this point humour was badly needed. The camaraderie at the table that evening gave us a much needed lift and within the space of less than 24 hours we had become just as cynical and sardonic as the backpackers that had greeted us off the bus the night before.

© Daniel Cann April 2009

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