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Lockdown letters #11, Ashleigh Young: Reaching for the cherries

‘When you reach for the exact same thing day after day, your grasp on everything else in the world loosens.’

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At the end of 2001, my brother JP and I picked cherries and thinned apples at an orchard just outside Blenheim. It was hot and tiring work and it took only a few days for the fruit to start haunting us. The cherries were the worst. When we closed our eyes we could still see them, drifting towards us like asteroids. In my dreams I pawed through leaves and fell off ladders. In the orchard, JP pointed out that there was a bird that sounded like it was calling the name of one of the cherry varieties. “Rainier. Rainier!” Then I heard it all the time too. “Rainier, rainier!” the birds cried sadly through the netting. The rainier cherry was a ghoulish-looking thing, half white, half pink, with a sort of marzipan flavour. Every so often, as we picked and thinned, there would be a loud gunshot as the bird-scarer did his rounds and the birds would lift up irritably before settling back down.

We were staying with my mum in her small flat in town. Sometimes my mum wore a necklace with little red glass stones threaded along it, and at one point JP lunged towards her, his fingers outstretched for the stones, a crazed grin on his face – just as a joke, about how we were going crazy for cherries, but also it was real. Every time I glimpsed that necklace I wanted to pluck those gleaming, export-quality jewels. When you reach for the exact same thing day after day, your grasp on everything else in the world loosens.

Then we heard that George Harrison had died. We put on All Things Must Pass, the one with the photo of George sitting on his lawn among four decrepit garden gnomes. Even the bad songs on the album, like ‘Thanks for the Pepperoni’ and ‘It’s Johnny’s Birthday’, seemed suddenly quite good, and to impart a special message we hadn’t heard before. I couldn’t accept George Harrison’s death. George Harrison dying – that wasn’t a thing. It had been a year of trying to come to terms with things that had really happened but that also weren’t really possible. And thinking just made it worse: the more you thought about it, the less possible it seemed.

We were too tired for thinking though, and bickered sometimes. One morning, JP saw me eating only one Weetbix for breakfast and got angry. ‘One Weetbix,’ he said, in disbelief. ‘One Weetbix.’ After that, it was a bad day’s picking. Everything small became huge.

In the orchard, you were allowed to eat as many cherries as you wanted. “Makes no difference to me,” said the orchardist, which I couldn’t figure out; surely it made a difference, I thought as I gorged myself. If you picked an especially high-quality bucketful, he would say, “Good pickin, good pickin.” He’d hold up a cherry and say, “Beautiful fruit.” I became hungry for this praise, and I became known as a quality picker. But he wasn’t really praising me. He was praising his cherries. His cherries were his children. There was a night when it rained heavily, and the next morning he drove a little cart grimly up and down with an industrial fan on the front to dry out the fruit. He was a good boss, really – he wouldn’t let you go below ten dollars an hour, even if you’d barely picked three dollars’ worth. But, you know, obviously you didn’t want to get on his wrong side. I’d encountered this with farmers before – on calm days their wrong side would still lap gently at the edges of their right side, drawing in and out with the rhythms of the moon. Some of the cherry pickers also worked at nearby factories, getting by on just a few hours of sleep, and one night a group of workers finished their shift at the lolly factory and then broke into the orchard and picked cherries for hours before dawn. The orchardist heard them rustling about, and came out with a torch and found them in the orchard, and they were all fired.

A guy who lived in a tent on the orchard confided in me that he thought the orchardist was sexist because of the way he spoke to me. “It’s so insidious!” he said, about the sexism. I’d never noticed a problem. But I agreed with him because I wanted him to think I knew what “insidious” meant. When he wasn’t picking cherries, the guy who lived in the tent was reading the classics – Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Woolf. Once, when we were picking in the same grove, he beckoned me over urgently. He had headphones on, and he stretched the headphones over my head too so that we could listen together. It was Bill Manhire reading a poem on National Radio. I can’t remember which poem, because I was overwhelmed by the romance of the moment. Poetry in the cherry grove! Months later I bumped into that guy on a bus in Wellington, and he talked bitterly about how much he hated the orchardist, and then I never saw him again.

I realise I probably sound like Grandpa Simpson talking about making himself a piece of toast in 1957 and setting the toaster to medium-brown. I was thinking about the cherries, because the past few days I’ve been pulling weeds. The focus is similar – you have to be a bit haunted. Weed vision. The focus is punishingly narrow, but at intervals it widens to take in the garden’s overall progress. This is not a metaphor – it’s just weeding. My secret shame is that I don’t really know anything about gardening, except for weeding. I love the feeling of give as the roots come away, and the vigorous, triumphant look of the plants that are left behind. I have taken a quiz on weedbusters.org.nz, and it says I am a Weed Expert. As I weeded, focusing for now on the easy, shallower weeds, I listened to a live stream of Eamonn Marra reading the entirety of his novel 2000ft Above Worry Level on YouTube. He was reading the title story – an incredible, tightly woven saga about groups of kids and swarms of wasps one summer in Naseby – and every so often you could hear a door opening or closing in the background. I don’t know why but the weeding, the story, and the door opening and closing, were just what I needed.

Tomorrow: Morgan Godfery




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