The Australian – Tales from Down Under

  • The Water Tank
  • That Cochrane Affair
  • Palmer Avenue
  • Kiss the dirt
  • The Australian

The Water Tank

Two weeks into the pear season, Clayton Jeffries arrived. He was the only American I ever worked with. Don’t think I’ll ever work with one again. He was flamin’ big. Stood taller than the rest of us. Mean looking, too. His hair was the colour of sand. His square chin with a dimple made you think he was an all right bloke. His eyes gave it away. Dark, they were. Black, I said, but the others reckon they were dark brown. I know they were black because I looked when he couldn’t see me.

Before he arrived there were thirty of us fruit pickers bunked in the two sleep-houses. Best bunks were next to the door. Plenty of fresh air at night. We drew straws for the best bunks. Couldn’t believe it when Bruce and Hammerhead got them. But they did. You gotta understand about Bruce. He wasn’t the full quid – sandwich short of a picnic. Had funny eyes and a sense of humour, but his kind are like that aren’t they? We called him Bruce the Goose, but we didn’t mean nothing by it. Everyone’s got a nickname on the orchard farms.

Clayton rolled up one night after dark. Most of us were lying on our bunks. Some were reading, some were just smoking. Hammerhead was strumming his guitar softly. Lewis was writing home again, the fourth time that week. I was just lying there counting the moths on the naked light bulb.

A canvas rucksack crashed on the floor of the bunkhouse. Hammerhead stopped strumming and Bruce looked up from his comic. The bunkhouse was quiet. Ever wondered how you can size someone up from your first impression? Well, I did. Fact is, I reckon we all did that night. Maybe he sized us up too. Suppose we won’t ever know. He stood near the door, thumbs hooked into his belt loops.

      ‘I’m Clayton Jeffries. Where’s the spare?’

Lewis crawled out from his bunk and pointed. ‘There’s one next to me.’

In one movement the big man swiped up his rucksack and strode towards the far end of the bunkhouse. He made his bed and loaded the makeshift cupboard beside his bed with the contents of his bag. Hammerhead started strumming again and we all watched the stranger without looking at him.

It started at breakfast. We were queuing for scrambled eggs, baked beans, sausages, tomatoes, toast and fresh tea. Clayton stood behind Bruce. Bruce was moving towards the tables with his breakfast. The next thing you know, his plate went flying through the air. His breakfast landed on Hammerhead. Someone yelped when the hot tea made contact.

      ‘Ah, F*** Goose!’

      ‘Strewth, mate!’

      ‘Watch it, would ya!’

      ‘Hey, Bruce, enjoy your trip?’

Clayton Jeffries laughed harder than anyone else. Bruce picked himself up and shook his head at the mess he’d made. His face crumpled and tears began. From behind the servery, Patch yelled and threw him a towel.

      ‘Here, kid! Use this!’

When Patch served Clayton Jeffries, his tone was low. ‘Do that again and I’ll beat the shit outta you!’

      ‘Yeah? You the babysitter?’

In reply, Patch slopped the beans and tomatoes on the plate so hard the juice spattered onto Clayton Jeffries.

Two days later, Clayton Jeffries was lying on Bruce’s bunk. Bruce stopped at the door and stared, open-mouthed.

      ‘You’re on my bunk.’

      ‘Wrong, kid.’

      ‘No, I’m not. That’s …’

      ‘My bunk now.’

      ‘But, we drew straws, and Hammerhead and me, we won. That’s why we get to sleep on these bunks.’

      ‘Not anymore.’

      ‘But…’

      ‘Piss off!’

Bruce noticed something else and his voice went higher again.

      ‘You’re smoking my tobacco!’

Clayton Jeffries swung down off his bunk. He stood a full head and shoulders above Bruce, who took a step backwards as Clayton Jeffries advanced.

         ‘You wanna make something of it, Bruce the Goose?’

He poked Bruce in the chest. All of us watching didn’t say nothing. It was Bruce’s fight. We just didn’t expect him to get back at Clayton Jeffries so quick. Coulda knocked us all over with a feather. Next day at breakfast, Clayton Jeffries lost his plate when Bruce returned the original favour. That time, there was no jeering or laughing. We was all watching. I reckon we all held our breath when Clayton Jeffries got up off the floor. Even Patch stopped serving when Bruce smiled and said, ‘Enjoy the trip?’

I’m not sure we heard a gunpowder explosion but I reckon that something went bang inside Clayton Jeffries. His face went red and I swear he looked fit to kill. Bruce noticed it too, and he started running. He ran out through the screen door and Clayton followed him.  For a split second nobody moved in the dining room. Then Patch threw down his ladle and bolted from the kitchen. Everyone followed.

We got to the water tank behind the dining room and they were going for it, blow for blow. I didn’t know Bruce could fight. Reckon none of us did. He once told me he worked in a boxing joint. I thought he was the towel boy! Bruce landed one that put Clayton Jeffries on his knees. We cheered. The fight was over.

But Clayton Jeffries got up again. We watched Bruce and Clayton Jeffries circle each other, close to the water tank. Bruce knocked him flying again. On his way down, his head passed awfully close to the wooden platform that supported the tank. Maybe Bruce noticed. Maybe he didn’t.  But his next swing sent Clayton Jeffries down for good. We all heard it. Kind of a dull thud, like ripe fruit falling on hard, dry grass. We was all silent and Clayton Jeffries watched us without looking at us.

         ‘You didn’t have to kill him, Bruce!’

         ‘What did you do that for?’

The rest of us watching didn’t say nothing. It was Bruce’s fight. Everyone went back to breakfast except me and Patch and Bruce. I checked Clay’s pulse … there was none. His eyes stared at the water tank. They were black.