Pressure of a Ladder-Round

I wonder if it is smell that forges the subtle link between history and memory? That is, the sensory bond between significant moments of the collective past and a more personal recollection. It is said that everyone, (everyone?) is supposed to remember where they were, what they were doing, when certain events of historic import took place - or at least when they first heard of certain historical events. JFK, 9/11 are two of the seminal ones. The death of Princess Diana was another. I was too young for JFK, (one doesn’t even need to spell it out anymore). Too young also for the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, (another pivotal moment people talk of), though for 9/11 I was at home watching the television yelling at my three year old son to shutup so I could watch the news repeat its grisly images over and over again. If he remembers this event then it’s for other reasons. This phenomenon must be different for each generation, presumably each culture, or is this more universal. The Bataclan theatre for instance. One has to worry what similar events might lie ahead. I suppose I am therefore talking here to an audience of about my own age and experience and predilections, an increasingly narrow readership I am prepared to admit…

* * *

Once upon a time after working in the orchard all morning, picking fruit for old man Christesen, who was really a young man, we went into town for our lunch. In the orchard people would turn on their car radios for an hour or so, (so as not to flatten their batteries) to listen to music. The Stones and the Kinks, the Cars and the Cure would carve it up through the trees, allowing us to think that it wasn’t really like work at all.

Cherries were what we picked for the Christmas market, and I have written about the formative memory this experience has had for me elsewhere. It was one of my first adult jobs. Sometimes another picker at the far end of the orchard would play a different radio station. If you were working in between them different songs would compete for your attention, or rather distraction, supposedly making the hours go faster. Gloria, or Gimme Shelter shredding through the leaves. Fruit picking, to my young mind, was both physically gratifying and relaxing work which I have shamelessly romanticised in my nostalgia. Sometimes there was only silence, or relative silence, as the wind swayed the tree tops like a current through a forest of seaweed, a picker perched high on a ladder and the regular plunk plunk of cherries hitting the base of the picking tin. The noise was like the drumming of fingers on a particularly warm and contented piece of wood. Also the deep rumble of a full bucket upturned into a waxed case adding to the day’s tally with the satisfying sound of money.

After a solid morning my mate, R, and I would climb down from our ladders and drive into town where we would have pretty much the same for lunch every day. It was good to break the repetition of work with the routine of lunch. It was like a stolen hour. We would sit on the footpath over the road from the Newsagent, legs outstretched, eating our sandwiches. We felt dirty and hot, yet fulfilled with the physicality of exertion, crimson cherry stains on our pants. Sometimes we’d drive down to Lake Sambel, strip off and have a swim, wash the dust off, enough to pass for a bath. Then we’d cruise back to the orchard, begin the afternoon with a target in mind for how much we intended to pick before knocking off, a target we rarely ever achieved. The crusty old gun-pickers set the standard. They never stopped for lunch. They always reached their targets. At dusk we’d leave the orchard and go back to our hired caravan, which was our home for the season and, in the parlance of the day, punch cones and suck coldies until it was time for bed. There may have been a meal in there as well.

Being young I remember having an overdeveloped sense of confidence around ladders. Those three-pronged iron ladders specific to the cherry orchard, fourteen feet high, were an extension of our limbs. I could throw one up, tripod leg extended into the heart of a tree, and shimmy up like a gibbon to get the highest hanging fruit. Fourteen feet, plus me at the top, meant I could reach the most inaccessible branches, bend them down like overburdened fishing rods, and strip all the fruit off the buds. Like Sisyphus after the boulder has rolled down hill you could pause for a moment, look out over the orchard thick with birds in the summer breeze, and over the valley beyond. Perhaps Sisyphus is a tad grandiose. Fourteen feet plus me at the top, in case you can’t imagine, is a hell of a long way off the ground. One day I fell off the top rung of one of these ladders. High up in the stratosphere I felt it shift and slip. I had been too hasty throwing it up. I leaped before the whole thing toppled, crashed through the branches and hit the ground. My bucket spewed cherries everywhere. Cursed? Of course I cursed. Looking up the ladder swayed at its point of balance then breached the vertical and came down on top of me. I scurried on my bum out of the way as the ladder clattered down sounding like a sword fight between two Jacobean armies. More cursing.

Bugger those cherries. That did it. I was stopping for lunch. No OH&S in those days. The gun-pickers never fell off their ladders. So we pissed off and drove into town. Sandwiches and a drink outside the sandwich shop. Our legs stretched out on the cool footpath so that people had to walk around us. Well, what are you going to do about it? our legs seemed to say. My God those sandwiches tasted good. The beetroot fell on my shirt and I didn’t care. R was digging me in the ribs with his elbow. I didn’t know what he wanted. I looked down the street to see a woman on crutches hobbling towards us. Perhaps it was a man on crutches? I can’t remember that level of detail. I was still in some shock at the realisation as to how close that iron ladder had come to ending my fruit picking vocation, and everything else besides.

Again R dug me in the ribs. I didn’t know why he wanted me to look at the woman hobbling up the street, but I didn’t. I refused. He elbowed me again so I turned to him crankily. What? He was pointing across the road at the Newsagent. In the window was a poster shouting out the headline of the day: LENNON SHOT DEAD. That was it. The world stopped, and shifted, then jerked back to life and moved on in a changed form. I can’t remember if we went back to the orchard to continue working, or if we simply went and bought the paper and went back to our caravan to read all about it.

It was 1980. We were twenty-one.

Thereafter whenever I hear those old songs I think of cherry trees, of wind crepitating through the leaves, of the weight of a bucket full of cherries around my shoulders, the smell of cherry juice on my hands. I can also clearly recall the window of that Newsagent, and the font of the message. Cherries and the death of John Lennon is an association my mind has ingrained, and when the disaster strikes the looming ladder crashing down, me scurrying out of the way just in the nick of time. Or, sometimes in bad dreams, not. My son has a different memory to contend with. He is too young for Lennon, or JFK, or Princess Di. When he thinks of 9/11, for example, he recalls the emotion of a different generation: Daddy angry, Daddy angry, Daddy angry.

MARK O'FLYNN'S most recent collection of poems is Shared Breath, (Hope Street Press, 2017). His latest novel The Last Days of Ava Langdon (2016) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award.

[The title refers to a line by Robert Frost in 'After Apple Picking'].