Richard Allardice recalls a season working in an kiwifruit orchard and ponders what it taught him about himself
"This is fruitless," I declare to my fellow pruners. They groan and move further away from me. We spend our days hacking the canopy to let in more sun, which will ripen the fruit. Later, after we're long gone, the fruit will be sweet enough for other people to eat. The beating of my heart is replaced with the rhythm of the loppers, cut and rusty scrape open, cut and rusty scrape open.
Maybe I could get behind this if I at least liked kiwifruit. But alas: They scratch my throat; they chafe and dissolve my skin. And these unholy, prickly balls claw their way into my dreams. Every night I'm lost in a tangle of vines and all I can hear is the leaves shushing and the chop chop o' the loppers. I wake in the dark dawn hours and hope for the pitter patter of rain.
I'll be honest: the gig's really too much for my nascent work ethic. I haven't developed the level of altruism required to prepare kiwifruit for future generations. Yes, I get paid (a little) for my efforts but to be honest, at this point in my life, meandering through uni, I'd sooner have the time and be dead skint. It's not that I'm lazy. Okay, maybe I am a little bit lazy. Aren't we all?
In the hazy heat, my mind wanders to books I read in high school. This is like Z for Zachariah, only instead of trying to escape the utopian valley to the safety of the radioactive wastelands (you'll need to read it for this to make sense), I'm trying to escape the valley of the kiwi, before their sandpapery surfaces grind away my will to live. It's like Day of the Triffids, only the kiwifruit are the marauders, not the murderous walking whippy plants (you'll need to read it – and tell me how it ends, okay?).
Kiwifruit aside, working outdoors is a pleasure. The sharp edges of the early morning. The glint of dew on fence wire. And most divine of all: rain. Rain means renewal. Growth. A reprieve from the heat. It also means stopping work and, if it's foretold early enough, the entire day off. Oh, the jubilation.
On this particular day, a squall drops, sudden as a slammed door. It's a sign, I think, confirming the hopelessness of our efforts to shed some light on these kiwi. You want sun? Take this: a wall of water.
"Keep going," grunts the foreman. He is a moustachioed man who seems to have only one dimension: the forward vector of the working day. If he was to have a motto, it would be not a moment sooner. Smoko? It's 10.15, and not a damn moment sooner.
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To the foreman, the ticking of the clock is progress. An accumulation of valuable moments. To me, the seconds unravel time: each is more pointless than the last, because they're not taking me anywhere. The time is literally wasting. I'm in the Pink Floyd song Time: "Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day / Fritter and waste the hours in an off hand way." Fritter is apt. Then, the bit that chills me: "No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun." Oh god. I'm definitely not hearing the starting gun out here.
A few days ago, the foreman exploded at another of the teenage workers, accusing him of stealing Viagra from his car. The teenager's dad was there, trying not to laugh at the unlikelihood of it; the foreman went purple in the face. I'm not the only one being driven mad by these evil little cacti.
The rain thickens. It runs down my wrists, pauses to well in my armpits, then waterfalls down the rest of my body until it's filling my boots. I am now a water feature. I wonder: does a work ethic require that you like the work? Or that you successfully inure yourself to it? I guess it has worth because at least you're doing something. But this doesn't seem enough. In conclusion, I dislike kiwifruit pruning and I am so lazy.
So what might become of me, after the vines? A long-term aversion to furriness. Suede is out. I'll be steering clear of velour. Even a merino singlet will be too close to the bone.
We're nearly up to our knees in water when the foreman relinquishes a grunt, admitting we may down tools for a time. We sidle up to some thick hedges, which offer no shelter from the rain – only the solace that if it lasts long enough the hedge may grow around us and root us to the spot, so that we have no option but to abandon the kiwifruit, because we ourselves have now become plants.