This week’s words for CAKE.shortandsweet’s Wednesday Write-In were:
strawberry :: tag :: code :: lower reaches :: hideaway
The Summer of Forever
Burton’s Berry Farm was the biggest in the county. All the kids from miles around, me included, blagged summer jobs there; it was hard work for rubbish pay, but it beat pulling ice-cream cones for screaming kids down at the seaside, hands down. At least you could eat as you worked, and Burton’s fields were big enough that you could do a certain amount of loafing without being spotted.
The sun was high, a tag or two of light wispy cloud just barely flecking the perfect blue of the sky, the day Joey was put in my drill. The air smelled like dry earth, and the hsss of the irrigation system was almost enough to lull you into mindlessness. I was lying on my side, using the strawberry plants like a hideaway as I rummaged through their lower reaches in search of the fattest fruit. It didn’t taste as good, but it weighed more, and that was all I cared about.
‘Hey,’ I heard. A shadow fell over me. Squinting, I looked up.
‘Oh – hey,’ I said, my head exploding with are you clean do you smell what’s your hair like did you brush your teeth this morning? He dropped to his knees beside me, making me squint as the sunlight flashed straight into my face. I gathered myself up, making space for him.
‘So. What’s the drill?’ he said, looking sideways at me, his eyebrows waggling. ‘Get it? Drill?’ He nudged me with the point of his elbow, shaking his long fringe out of his face. Is he speaking code, or something? I wondered, for a long, stupid minute, long enough for the smile to fall from his face and be replaced by awkward embarrassment.
‘Drill!’ I said, finally, bringing one dirt-encrusted hand up to my face. ‘Duh. Yeah. Good one.’ I laughed, but the moment had passed. I tried not to look at him as I showed him how to pick, demonstrating the quick twisting motion that helped the berry to roll softly into the palm of your hand.
‘Be careful not to just chuck them into the punnet,’ I said. ‘He checks for spoilage, and you don’t get paid for the mushy ones.’
‘Got it,’ he replied, setting to work. At least an hour passed in silence.
‘So, you’re in my maths class, yeah?’ His voice startled me.
‘Yeah?’ I said, shrugging, my heart pick-pocking in my neck.
‘Looking forward to final year?’ He squinted at me, his skin already reddening. His arms were bare, the sleeves of his t-shirt ripped off, raggedly, at the seam. I half-smiled at him.
‘Yeah, right,’ I said. ‘Hello, the big bad world.’
‘Tell me about it,’ he said, rolling his eyes. ‘What’s your plan? You know, for afterwards?’
‘I can’t even think about it,’ I said, trying not to hear my mother’s voice splitting my head in half. Get yourself down to that supermarket and apply for a job on the tills, do you hear me? It’s good work, and it’s steady work, and it’ll do you! Or are you too good for an honest job, you little madam?
‘You’re going to college though, aren’t you? You should, anyway,’ he said, turning back to the plants.
‘What?’ I propped myself up on one elbow. He was already pink across the cheeks, and a damp patch spread across his chest and down the hollow of his back. ‘Why d’you say that?’
‘Well – because! You’re good at English, right? You wrote that poem, for last year’s school magazine?’ I flushed, feeling sick.
‘You read it?’ I buried my face in the greenery.
‘It was good,’ he said.
‘It was!‘ He chuckled.
‘Shut up anyway!’ I laughed, but the rolling sickness was still there, underneath. He was silent, then, but a smile lingered on his face.
After a while I stretched into the hollow I’d dug in the soil, where I kept my stash of water. I took a long swallow, and was thoughtlessly sealing it back up again when I noticed him glancing over. He has no hat, I thought. No sun-cream. No water.
‘Want some?’ I said, offering him the sun-warmed bottle.
‘Thanks,’ he said, flashing me a grin. He licked his lips and flicked his hair out of his face again as he reached for it. I watched as he raised it to his mouth, and watched his lips move as he drank his fill, and watched his freckling skin while he was distracted with other things.
‘Sorry,’ he said, handing it back to me mostly empty. ‘I took too much.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I said, lifting it to my own mouth again before the touch of his skin faded from the plastic.
My pickings for that day were way down, and they didn’t come back up again at all that long, hot summer. Turned out, the fields at Burton’s were the perfect place for loafing.