Cherry picking

She must have been 12 or 13, a pupil at the local primary school when there was an opportunity to do a small summer job of fruit picking straight after school in mid-June. So, she put her name down on the list in the school office and turned up early on one Monday morning by the back gates of the school. There were about 15-20 pupils from different years and classes across the school, both boys and girls. They were all dressed in work clothes, a bag slung on their shoulders with their packed lunches and drinks inside.

She has a strong memory of ‘darkness’ as if it consumed her. She was not sure where this darkness came from but it was there, all around her, engulfing her. There was no escape. Her memories are not exact, they are more like impressions:

It was very early in the morning when all the pupils were picked up by one of those old tired looking trucks that had a tarpaulin type of material thrown over a metal frame covering the platform where they were all meant to sit. When they clambered up stepping onto the bumper and pulling themselves up over the edge, it was really dark inside, too. There were three rows of benches to sit on and they moved as the truck rattled along the road. She was sitting on the far side of the bench and she remembered thinking, “I must not let my fingers get trapped” as the edge of the bench knocked against the metal wall of the driver’s cabin. 

There were images of gloom faces flashing up: of other pupils from the various classes (nobody else from her class. Why? Did the others know better?), the weather-beaten face of the middle-aged short truck driver and the old woman whose group she was allocated to for the week. The old woman stooped. She had a headscarf on her head, tanned wrinkly face, and gave very little in terms of a welcome. She did not think she had found out what her name was in the course of the week. There was only one jolly face: it was the foreman’s or site manager’s. He was young(ish) tall and well-groomed, looked wealthier than the rest and had an air of authority about him. Although she only saw him once, when they all arrived at the cherry orchard and he allocated the tasks to the group, she felt sure she had a crush on him. The group of pupils were taken to pick Morello (sour) cherries. She was thinking she should have been happy about this because she loved (still loves) sour cherries but she didn’t remember being happy at all.

She cannot quite picture the orchard either: only that she was climbing the trees to reach the fruit at the end of the branches. Each group was given a ladder, which they had to carry themselves and all pupils were warned not to lose it, otherwise it would have been deducted off their wages. She had a fabric (flexible) bucket that had a hook on its handle so she could hang it on the branches while using one hand to support herself in the tree and the other to pick the cherries.

She can still feel the cold cherry juice running down the side of her hand and arm…

It was a messy job, her clothes got stained, there was black gunk under her nails every day and she could not scrub them clean. By the end of the day all that juice dried on her hands. It mixed with the dirt and there was nowhere to wash hands, she had to wait till she got home.

The week felt extremely long, she doesn’t remember talking to anyone, it felt a very solitary experience and she couldn’t wait for it to end. One would think that the little brown envelope that she was given with some cash inside would have cheered her up, but she doesn’t remember being happy about it at all. She was just glad it ended.