The long, hot summer was over and autumn had come at last to Wandin Valley. Golden willows lined the creeks; in the paddocks, dotted amongst the ubiquitous gums, the reds and yellows of oak and elm and chestnut glowed brightly, while all along Mrs Harriet Eldershaw’s drive, her beeches blazed like a bushfire.
You had to give it to the early settlers, their nostalgia for distant climes had improved the landscape considerably – that is, if one overlooked the undergrowth, choked as it so often was with hawthorn and blackberries and Paterson’s Curse.
Terence Elliot was admiring the beeches now from Harriet’s shaded verandah where the two of them were having afternoon tea. The pot was silver, the scones were delicious, the sponge cake perfection. Were it not for the aforementioned gumtrees, and the rows of grapevines marching away in ordered rows before him, Terence felt he could have been at some English country house, albeit one in need of some repair. The effect was heightened every time Harriet spoke, for although she’d been in Victoria for nearly half a century, she had never quite lost those Home County vowels. Terence had known her for some time, though they weren’t close – she was far too healthy to often require the services of a doctor. He wished he’d had the chance to gain her friendship.
‘I’m glad autumn’s come at last,’ Harriet said. ‘I wanted to see my beech trees in all their glory one last time.’ She smiled. ‘Your beech trees now.’
‘Let’s share them, shall we?’ said Terence. ‘You know you’ll be welcome to visit any time. And they’re not really mine for another month.’
‘That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, Terence. The packers are coming in two days, I’m putting everything into storage and I’m taking off. I’ve booked a flight to England and I don’t know when I’ll be back.’
‘You’ve still got family there?’
‘A sister and several cousins. I haven’t seen them for ten years.’
‘Then it’s time you went.’
‘The thing is, the grapes are the best they’ve been for years – someone should keep an eye on them until vintage. Someone besides the silvereyes, that is, the wretched creatures have already had more than their fair share.’
‘Those beautiful fake owls you’ve got don’t work then?’
‘A minor deterrent only. You should think about netting next year, it’s really the only solution but it is hard work. Anyway, I thought perhaps we could come to some arrangement … you pay a peppercorn rent until settlement and take over straight away. What do you think?’
‘That you’re a far-sighted and generous woman, Harriet.’
‘I can’t abide waste. You agree then?’
‘I do. Though I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to make wine this year. I’ve got a lot to learn.’
‘Sell the grapes to Ian Jamieson, he makes a decent cabernet. And he’ll pay you in kind if you like.’
‘Sounds like a win-win.’
‘For all of us. I’m so glad you bought this place. I know it needs a lot of work and people will no doubt tell you you’re quite mad to take it on but I’m sure that in time you’ll bring it back to its former glory.’
‘I’ll certainly do my best, Harriet.’
‘And you’ll succeed. You’ll fall in love with the place, as I did all those years ago. A moment.’ She disappeared through the French doors and returned with a small tray holding an old bottle and two small crystal glasses. She uncorked the bottle and poured the amber liquid.
‘Lester’s last tokay.’ She passed one to Terence. ‘Shall we drink a toast, then? New beginnings for both of us.’
‘To new beginnings.’
The tokay was delicious, smooth and mellow. Terence hoped it was a harbinger of things to come. He hoped that Harriet’s trip back to the land of her birth would bring her much pleasure. And he hoped that he himself was not indeed quite mad in taking on this lovely but very rundown old vineyard.
While the grapes were not yet ready to be picked, Wandin Valley was gearing itself up for the apple harvest. This annual event divided the town into two camps. There were those who regarded it as a blessing – mainly, it must be said, on economic grounds. On the other side were those who – lacking a certain tolerance – would have all the pickers arrested on sight. Even while Terence Elliot was enjoying his tea with Harriet Eldershaw, the matter was being rehashed in the local post office. Esme Watson had the floor. Esme, it transpired, had passed a broken-down car on her way back from Burrigan and had failed to stop and render assistance.
‘I’m sure I know my Christian duty,’ she said, ‘but really, I was just too frightened to stop. If I’d had someone with me, then maybe – but I was all alone. A single woman. What if they’d attacked me?’
‘Attacked you, Miss Watson?’ Molly Jones sounded as though she could hardly imagine anything less probable.
‘There were three of them, Molly. Three pickers. Well, two I suppose. One was a child.’
‘And this child was going to attack you if you stopped to offer help?’
‘They looked like gypsies. They can’t be trusted. That’s all I’m saying.’
Molly rolled her eyes and paid for her stamps. ‘I’m sure the pickers bring quite a bit of money to the town, don’t they?’ she asked innocently.
‘They do indeed,’ said Ida Dugdale, the postmistress, who was very much in favour of the itinerants.
‘Don’t do you any harm either, do they, Andy?’ Andy Mackay owned the local bakery. His pies were legendary. He smiled agreement.
‘My profits go up by fifteen percent.’
‘There are more important things than money!’ snapped Esme. ‘You ask Sergeant Gilroy how he feels about this – this invasion. About the increase in crime! You just wait until some defenceless woman is violated in her bed!’ And much put out, Miss Watson left.
‘Poor love,’ Molly said, not entirely without sympathy. ‘She seems to have an absolute thing about the pickers, doesn’t she? I wonder why?’
Liz Anderson, the principal of the local primary school, decided it was time to have her say. ‘Well it’s not their fault, but they do cause a huge problem for the school.’
‘How, Liz? What do they do?’ Andy asked.
Liz laughed. ‘They turn up! Or the kids do. You said your profits go up by fifteen percent, Andy – well so do my class sizes. Trouble is, we don’t get any extra funding so I can’t employ another teacher. As well as that, the kids are from all over, from interstate, they’re all at different levels – it’s challenging, to say the least. But we’ve just got to make the best of it – the fruit has to be picked.’
‘Either that or we leave it to the cockatoos,’ said Andy. ‘I swear I’ve never seen such big flocks of them. Biding their time, just waiting to swoop.’
‘Tell me about it,’ Molly sighed. ‘They got all our plums, left me just enough for two small jars of jam. I’m for the pickers, they can be my avenging angels.’
A huge flock of those very cockatoos rose screeching from the nearby paddock as Bill Ferguson pulled his ute off the road. A battered old station-wagon had broken down; an elderly man, a young woman and a small boy stood beside it. They did not look like avenging angels. Poor sods, thought Bill and went to see if he could lend a hand. Unlike Esme Watson, Bill did not see every fruit-picker as a potential serial killer.
‘G’day,’ he said. ‘What seems to be the trouble?’
The man came forward to meet him. ‘Thank you so much for stopping. It is, I think, old age. Mine, that is. We have a flat tyre but I cannot get the nuts off to remove it.’
Bill sensed the old man’s discomfort in asking for help, or appearing vulnerable. He had quite a strong accent, middle European maybe, but his English was good, his manner self-deprecating. The woman seemed wary, she kept an arm around the child and watched intently. Bill smiled in sympathy, trying to put them all at ease.
‘Like me to have a go?’ he said. ‘They can be a bugger sometimes. Oh, I’m Bill, by the way. Bill Ferguson. Got a farm up the road a bit.’
‘Alex Popovich,’ the old man said. ‘This is my daughter-in-law … my grandson.’ But he did not give their names. He handed Bill the shifter and took him round to the passenger side. It was the rear wheel. The jack looked even older than the car and not fit to bear its weight. Bill was glad that he did not need to get underneath. The nuts were indeed tight and it took all his strength to get them off but eventually the job was done and the tyre, which was badly damaged, came off. Alex Popovich had the spare out, waiting. It was not, Bill noticed, in very good shape.
‘Where are you going to be picking?’ he asked as he got it into position.
‘Cameron’s,’ said Popovich.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Bill, non-committal but thinking, God help them. ‘Been there before?’ Popovich just nodded.
‘I guess you don’t get much say,’ Bill said.
‘You do not. But the boss – I mean the gang boss – he is a good man.’
‘Well I suppose that counts for a lot. There you go, then.’ He was about to leave it at that, he’d done his good deed, he thought he should probably go and let these people get on with their lives. But he could feel the little boy staring at him, he knew the child had watched his every move. He sensed too that this little family had known better times, they had not always had to drive a beaten-up Holden from job to job.
‘Tell you what,’ Bill said. ‘I used to have a wagon like this. Sold her a while back. But I reckon I’ve still got a couple of decent tyres. And you’re going to need a new spare. I’ll hunt them out, bring one out to you.’
Finally the young woman spoke up. ‘We couldn’t let you do that. Could we, Dad?’
But Alex didn’t get a chance to speak. ‘Just cluttering the place up,’ Bill said. He smiled again, a slow, conspiratorial smile. ‘Hey, I reckon anyone brave enough to work for Bruce Cameron deserves a break. See you in a day or two.’ He ambled back to his ute, gave them a wave and drove off. The little boy looked after him, awestruck, waving back till he was out of sight.
‘Do you reckon he meant it?’ the woman, Silvia, said.
Alex just shrugged. A long hard life had taught him not to count on anything. ‘We’d better get going, we don’t want Robbo to think we are not coming.’
They arrived at Bruce Cameron’s orchard half an hour later. Cameron was talking to Robbo, who had hired the gang of pickers as he did every year. Alex got out of the car to report their arrival. Robbo greeted him warmly; not so Bruce Cameron.
‘Not you again,’ was what he said. He turned to Robbo. ‘You never mentioned the Popoviches.’
‘On the list, Bruce. Good workers, too.’
Robbo gave him a long look, daring him to make an issue of it. ‘Can we just see how it goes?’
‘Got to fill their quota like everyone else,’ Cameron said and he walked off.
‘We won’t let you down, Robbo.’
‘I know, mate. Staying at the camp park?’ Alex nodded. Robbo went with him back to the wagon and stuck his head in the window to speak to Silvia. ‘Silvia.’
‘Hey, Lexy. Going to school this year?’ Lexy shook his head. Robbo glanced at Silvia, surprised.
‘He’s not been well. I might let him wait till next year.’
‘Won’t do any harm. See you tomorrow, then.’ He gave the little boy a Mintie he pulled from his pocket and went to meet some more arrivals.
Silvia let out a long breath. ‘Here we go again, Dad. One more apple harvest.’
But for Silvia, this would be a harvest like no other and several lives, her own included, would be changed forever before it ended.