My family lives in a dilapidated lodge next to a large pond. During the winter our lives become intolerable because the lodge becomes flooded with water.
My parents drink and have become addicted to liquor. In the evenings they often invite friends over to play poker.
Our lodge was once part of the estate of a large manor house. The worker’s cottage, the horse stalls, and the cowsheds of the manor house have long since been sold. The manor house itself was split up and sold off as two separate houses. A girl, a year younger than me lives in the left-side house.
I frequently escape to Jody’s house. My parents are happy to have me out of their hair. Jody’s house feels warm and welcoming like a cozy hug. I’m in awe of their billiard room in their basement. I marvel at their beautiful garden with its perfect lawns and flower beds in which the flowers interweave like a dancing rainbow. They also have a cute, white poodle. Jody is a tom-boy. Together we climb trees, scramble across roofs, make bonfires, build dams in woodland streams, ride our bikes and generally behave as children are inclined to do. The years slip over the horizon. Jody changes and begins to wear dresses and skirts instead of trousers which had always been her garb. She highlights her long hair and spends hours sitting on the floor in her room moodily listening to disks about love. Sometimes I join her on the floor and together we listen to her disks until I become bored of hearing the same songs over and over again. One evening I am stirred by a new sensation, I feel as if I’d like to kiss her. I snuggle up to her and kiss her gently on her mouth. The wave that runs through me is intoxicating and makes my head reel. I wrap my arms around her, and in response, she rests her head on my chest and listens to the wild throbbing of my heart. We remained cuddled for a long time.
As fate will have it, this is the last time Jody and I spend time together. My father had turned up at work tipsy too many times and as a result, he had been fired. Luckily, he has succeeded in procuring new employment as an ironworker in San Diego America. A few days after that kiss my family is on their way to a new destination. My father has wangled a passage for us on a cargo ship. During the ocean crossing the sea is calm. For seven days as the ship sails calmly under a sky that extends into the bluest horizon and at night under a starry sky, I feel hope for a better future.
In San Diego, we manage to find crummy living quarters to rent and as soon as we are settled in my expectations are shattered. My parents inform me that since money is tight I’ll not be returning to school and that from now on I’ll have to find a job to support myself. I’m only fifteen, I feel scared and sad. My father asks some men who work with him on the building site if they know of a job for his fifteen-year-old boy.
“Si amigo, there is work in the orange groves, my children work in the orange groves,” a Mexican worker answers.
Sadness drains through me during the joggling three-hour bus journey to the Orange Orchard Farm where my father has procured work for me. Upon arrival, I make my way to the free squalid dwellings provided by the owners for their workers and eventually manage to bunk down in a hut with two Spanish-speaking boys, Pedro and Carlos. It’s a wooden shack, inside there are mattresses on the floor in the back of the hut and in the front there’s a kitchen of sorts but the fridge is broken and the stove doesn’t work. In the morning we are woken up at 6 a.m. by an alarm clock which we had put in a saucepan so it’ll make a dreadful racket. I quickly don my work clothes, a crumpled T-shirt, shorts, and a cap, swallow down some tepid tea leftover from the previous evening, and munch on some biscochitos. Then I run with all the rest of the workers like stampeding horses to a rickety, dust-covered bus. The bus starts up with loud clunks, its wheels churn plumes of dust into the air, and it belches out stinky fumes. During the drive to the orchard, everyone looks glum and tired, the smell inside the bus is awful, a mixture of sweat, grease, and dirt. Nobody speaks.
I find orange picking to be physically demanding, boring, and I suffer from the relentless blazing sun. The only pleasure is the wonderful fragrance of the orange blossoms which lace the air. All day long we climb ladders, to reach and clip oranges which we then place into canvas sacks worn over our torso. When the sacks are full we climb back down again and empty the oranges into large containers. After four hours we are allowed to take a break. There is only water from the irrigation system to drink, it’s warm and tastes disgusting.
“It’s Coca-Cola,” someone sometimes calls out.
We all laugh; it’s a relief to have something to laugh about. In the beginning, I gorge on oranges in my breaks but the citric acid from the fruit lingering in my mouth causes some of my teeth to ache. I soon learned to stop that habit. On the journey back the bus stops at a shop so that we can buy food. Copying Pedro and Carlos I also buy tortillas, we order tacos filled with beans and salad because they are the cheapest. We also bought a bag of biscochitos, which are biscuits made with anise seeds and sprinkled with cinnamon, and a bottle of Coca-Cola. On the rest of the bus journey, we gulp down our food. Arriving back at our shack we slump down onto the mattresses and fall into a deep sleep. The well-deserved sleep of exhausted, unskilled laborers. Sometimes I dream I’m a superhero and can achieve impossible things. The evenings are cooler. We sit outside on battered canvas chairs under a starlit sky and a silvery moon, cracking and eating sunflower seeds and spitting out their shells. Pedro and Carlos chat away in Spanish. I don’t understand them but I don’t mind, it’s pleasant chilling out with them.
The rainy season is from October to April. The occasional shower doesn’t hinder us from harvesting the citrus fruit. Sometimes when the orchards are flooded and we have to wade through water up to our thighs the overseer simply puts the orange containers on a trailer above the water level. The rain pelting down from grey, swollen clouds makes the ladders wet so that invariably one of the pickers loses his grip and falls.
At long last June has arrived, eight months have passed by since we arrived and the orange picking season has come to an end. We queue up to be given our wages from the overseer. Today the farmer’s wife is standing next to him.
“What’s your name?” she asks as I approach them.
“Johnny Jones,” I answered bashfully.
“Johnny Jones,” the farmer’s wife repeats.
Then she continues, “Johnny, would you like to remain here and work for us as an odd job man?”
“Yes, I’d like that very much.”
“Like that very much,” she repeats.
‘It’s strange how she repeats what I say rather like a parrot,’ I think to myself.
“Well that’s settled then; my husband will come and collect you at roundabout seven o’clock.”
For me, her request is too good to be true since I know my parents won’t let me come home to live. The thought that I’ll have to forever be traveling from one farm to another searching for work had been weighing heavily on my mind.
After a late siesta, Pedro, Carlos, and I pack our few meager possessions into plastic carrier bags. Both the boys hug me in turn and say, “Adios amigo,” before they rush off to catch the bus. They are happy because soon they will be reunited with their families.
“Adios mi amigos,” I call after them.
I stand outside the hut and wait for the farmer. The sun is low in the sky and the heat of the day has broken, there is a whisper of a breeze in the air. The silence feels strange. All the pickers in the adjacent huts have already left. The farmer arrives a few minutes after seven in a large black jeep.
He opens the front door of the car on the opposite side of him.
“Come on lad, jump in,” he calls out.
I clamber up into the jeep, pull the door shut after me, and as the car pulls away my heart flutters in excitement.
The farmhouse is old and cozy; it has beams and a large hearth. Anya receives me warmly and ferries me upstairs to a small, simple, inviting bedroom of my own. A place where my spirit will be able to rest. The couple treats me as if I am part of their family. Anya is a nervous woman and has the strange habit of continually repeating one’s last sentence. Igor is a quiet, smiling man; he is in charge of the chicken coop. He reminds me of a bird because he has a beak-like nose, a tuft of hair like a chicken’s crest, and every afternoon he practices on a flute. There is also a farmhand named Ned, he’s an old crony of about fifty, his face looks like a wrinkled, dried up prune as the result of toiling under the sun for so many years. He’s responsible for the upkeep of the orange orchard, spraying, fertilizing, irrigation, crafting, and protecting the trees from meadow voles. Aside from the orange orchard on the farm tomatoes, green peppers, and zucchini are grown. I work where ever I am needed. My favorite chore is collecting the chicken’s eggs which are often still warm from the chicken’s bodies.
The years roll by peacefully and every year the orange pickers come to harvest the oranges. Whenever Pedro and Carlos are among the pickers I am delighted to see them. My life at the Orange Orchard Farm is good until a deadly pandemic the Corona-virus ravages the world. The pickers aren’t allowed to come and harvest because gatherings are restricted. The oranges fall off the trees and rot on the ground. These are challenging times. There are so many restrictions, isolation, wearing masks, social distancing. Igor develops a fever, has a dry cough, and headaches. Anya looks after him lovingly until a few days later she also falls sick and she is forced to join him in their bed. I do my best to nurse them. When to my dismay I see their temperatures are soaring, their coughing comes thick and fast and they have difficulty breathing, I urgently call for an ambulance. The ambulance drives them off to Kindred Hospital. I am unable to visit them at the hospital because of all the restrictions. On the telephone, I am informed they are being given respiratory care. A few days later I receive the dreadful news that they have passed away and will be buried in a communal grave. The Corona is upending the rituals of death. It’s so depressing I feel as if a force is pushing me down. I feel empty and tired, I don’t want to get out of bed or move at all. The telephone constantly rings, neighbors and friends, send their condolences.
A couple of days later Ned bursts into my bedroom.
“You have to get up. The farm is going to rack and ruin. I can’t do everything on my own,” he snaps at me.
That does the trick, I pull myself together and in frenzy, I throw myself into doing the various chores on the farm. My evenings clattering around in the big, empty house alone are lonely. I began to search for companionship on the internet. It is at this point that I remember Jody, my neighbor in England. I even found her on Facebook. I fantasize that somehow we will meet up again and continue where we left off after our innocent kiss. But realistically I understand that my future is uncertain, any day now I might be thrown off the farm and I won’t have anything to offer her.
One evening when I answer the telephone my fears are quelled.
“Johnny Jones, I’m Lawrence Morgan, Igor, and Anya Smirnoff’s lawyer, I’m calling to inform you that in their last will and testimony they bequeathed you their farm, and to Ned, Edmond their farmhand they bequeathed their jeep and various other items. I’ve sent a copy of the will onto you by post.”
“Aww really? Thank you so much,” I say feeling stunned.
After I replace the receiver into its cradle it takes time for this information to completely sink in.
Thoughts swirl around inside my head, “How kind of Igor and Anya. It’s a big responsibility, but I’ve been living on the farm for ten years now. I’m sure I’ll manage to run it together with Ned’s help.”
When I inform Ned about the lawyer’s call he isn’t the least bit surprised.
“That’s the way it should be, they loved you as if you were their son. All their relatives live in Russia. Don’t worry; we’ll manage if you hire extra help.”
Now that I am the owner of a farm I feel more confident and I send a message to Jody. A couple of days later I am ecstatic when she replies. I discover she is working as a nurse on a ward where patients suffering from the Coronavirus are being treated. Subsequently, we communicate almost daily for we delight in recalling our various childhood escapades together, and in doing so we travel back in time. It feels so comforting. Jody is a person who knows where I came from, what my childhood was like. We find the bond from our past remains strong and we feel like family. I beseech her to come and visit me on my orange farm. Jody finally agrees. As soon as a vaccination against the Coronavirus is discovered she will come. We’ll try living together and see how things work out. I am deliriously happy. I’m sure everything will be alright.
The author is paralyzed as the result of a car accident. She has two boys and six grandchildren. Lives in Jerusalem. The author has had 80 short stories and poems published in on-line publishers and anthologies.