Night Drive from Ranges
I stood watching Frank pick gooseberries while he explained to me how he came to be doing it.
A few years ago Frank was a bank clerk, but the vocation did not appeal to him. He said that the sedentary life, the tedium, and the amount of "swank" at a low figure that the position involved were hardly indemnified by the privilege of appearing at Henley in a pair of white trousers. So Frank went on the land and got his hands dirty. He says that he has never regretted it; and to see the sun-tanned young man among his gooseberries, and raspberries, and strawberries, and currants on his thriving fruit farm, near the top of the Dandenong Ranges, is to feel a thrill of envy.
New Cure for Insomnia
Morning trains do not worry the fruit-grower of the Dandenongs; but an all-night trip to the Melbourne market twice, and somethimes thrice a week in the season is one of the most trying items in a pleasantly strenuous existence. Frank was to leave at 6 o'clock that evening to catch the 4 a.m. market the next day. It was a thirty miles trip, and would occupy nine hours, with a half-way halt for supper. I had been troubled by insomnia, and I accepted an invitation to accompany him. I can recommend the cure.
I have always been fond of fruit and vegetables; but I have since become almost exclusively a meat-eater. I must admit that I have not yet seen the Meat Market. I am afraid to: I don't want to have to confine my diet to nuts.
I helped Frank to grade the gooseberries. He used a clean canvas sheet to spread them upon, and was almost fastidious about the cleanliness of his buckets and bags.
We got away at 5.30. Pilot, the horse, with a shrewd knowledge of what was before him, took it quietly - or as quietly as he could, considering the road. To readers of experience I need merely mention that the first part of the journey was over Victorian country road; they will understand - and sympathise.
Weekender Extends Radius
Fruit farms and grazing lands stretched on either side of the road; but, even at this distance from town, it becomes increasingly evident that the city week-ender is gradually extending his radius and crowding out the farmer. Week-end cottages dotted the landscape everywhere, bearing testimony to the Melbournite's love of the open air and open spaces, which is one of his virtues. Australians will never become a race of city-dwellers, and the growing revolt against overcrowding becomes more evident each succeeding summer in every city of the continent.
By twilight we had reached the bottom of Wheeler's Hill, to motorists the hill of Sisyphus. Wise through experience, Pilot took a long, deep breath and, figuratively, spat on his hands, while we got out to walk. It is a long hill, and Pilot took it in instalments while we trudged behind and envied the gooseberries. During the halts, Pilot did deep breathing exercises.
At the top of the hill we spread rugs upon the ground and supped. We lit a fire, for the night had grown chill, and Frank produced - Oh, shades of the blackened "billy" of our forbears! - a vacuum flask filled with hot coffee. We ate, and talked of Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells, and Futurism in art, and the higher criticism. (I have mentioned that Frank was formerly a bank clerk.)
Then, swinging lights began to top the hill, and we heard the rattle of waggons.
Fire Cheers at Midnight
"We seem to be the only people on the road to-night," said Frank; "but this looks like one of our chaps."
It was, and his name was Bert. He greeted us with the time-honored query:-
"What have you got on to-night?"
"Gooseberries," said Frank.
"Ah," remarked the new-comer oracularly, "gooseberries is gooseberries."
Soon other waggoners arrived and I was introduced. But they were suspicious at first, mistaking me for a city tripper reeking with patronage. But the supper and the fire warmed them to talk presently, and the talk was of fruit; the growing of it, the marketing of it, the profit in it, the iniquity of buyers, and the rigor of everlasting toil.
"Hear the blokes in town talk about the joys of fruitgrowin'," said one. "Let 'em lose three nights' rest every week in the season cartin' the stuff down, an' they won't be howlin' with joy."
"But gooseberries is gooseberries," insisted Bert.
Then they spoke of the drowsiness that attacked them on the return trip, and of the best means of repelling it, for the Law deals sternly with the slumbering carter. To get out and walk by the team was voted the only remedy. But Bert demurred. Six-pennyworth of lollies chewed slowly was his antidote.
It was now well past midnight. Traps were packed and we moved onward.
Trees in Ghostly Silhouette
The swinging tail-lights of the waggons ahead glowed redly in the darkness, and vanished, to appear again as they topped a rise.
As the night grew colder, some climbed down from their waggons, and walked along in groups and talked still of fruit, the drone of their voices and the rattle of the vehicles sounding strangely through the darkness. Gaunt trees stood out in ghostly silhouette on either side, and, as roads converged, tail-lights multiplied in front and the grinding of unseen wheels grew louder.
I was dozing beneath the rugs when Frank's voice roused me.
"Melbourne," he said, pointing ahead to the right.
A cluster of myriad tiny lights twinkled on the horizon, and seemed to shed a glowing, nebulous mist that beat against the sky. Every light shone clearly, a steely point, cold, hard, and brilliant, eloquent of the city. I felt the city creeping into my blood; I sensed the glaring streets, the jostling crowds, the restlessness, the everlasting suspicion of towns. Then, as we dipped into a little valley, the lights disappeared, and once again the gentle country received us - the simple, honest, country, the home of plain men, and peace, and restfulness. We topped another rise, and the city gripped us again; and again we went down and lost it. I nodded, dreaming of it, and saw gooseberries parading Collins street and being jeered at by the supercilious crowd.
Chinese Buyers and Their Ways
I awoke in St. Kilda road, amid the rattle of traffic; but thought I must still be dreaming. Huge vans sped past bearing strange, unchristian names - scores of them. Hop Kee, I read, Wun Tung, Sam Foo, Sing Low; and still they came, a seeming endless stream of them.
"Where am I?" I gasped drowsily.
"The buyers," said the sleepless Frank, nodding toward the hastening vans.
"Are there any left in China?" I asked, as they still streamed past.
Frank explained. The middlemen in the fruit industry are nearly all Chinese, with a few Italians. These buy from the growers and sell to the public, in most cases netting a larger profit than the producer.
"But I thought they were all born gardeners," I said. "Have they no land?"
"Beneath their finger nails," said Frank; "as much as they can carry. You'll see directly."
I did see a little later, when we had drawn into the stall, leaving the horse, perforce, like hundreds of others, to pollute the surroundings. I saw things done to food - unholy, revolting things that made me sick, and I am not fastidious. I saw unclean, yellow hands plunging into piles of fruit, pawing it, dabbling in it. I saw vegetables flung out upon the grimy asphalt, to be fondled by grimier fists, and carted off on greasy backs, to the tables of epicures. I saw bags of fruit dumped into pools of filth, and left to lie there and soak. In that concourse of haggling, hawking, expectorating middlemen I saw the dirtiest crowd I ever want to see.
Market Sights Sicken Neophyte
All this I saw, and more, in a market controlled by the City Council. The inspectors do their duty as well as they can. They are not to blame. It is the system - the filthy system - that allows food to be flung upon a dirty pavement amid rubbish that neglects to provide stabling accommodation for the gardeners' animals; that sets on limit upon the personal griminess of the dealers.
For four hours I sat and watched this unholy desecration of food. As an advocate of municipal enterprise, it saddened me; as an omnivorous animal, it sickened me.
Frank sold out to half-a-dozen Chinese and an Italian - who had a penchant for dropping cigarette ash into the hearts of cabbages - and we drew out. On the way we passed Bert, looking sourer than his youngest gooseberry.
"How's business?" we asked.
"Gooseberries," said Bert, who had held on too long, and missed his market. "Gooseberries is - fair cow! an' the game's rotten!"
A passing Chinese, with a face like a dissolute Buddha, grinned at him cheerfully.
"Lotten," he chuckled. "All li', lotten."
"C. J. Dennis"
|Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2002-03|