John Bowman crunched across the paddock of wheat stubble until he got to the first of the stooking sheaves. If someone had told him ten years ago he’d be employed in an agricultural process long since abandoned he’d have questioned their sanity. But that was before The Changes. And come to think of it, was it really ten years ago that things seemed normal? If he was to be perfectly honest with himself, he didn’t know; he just didn’t know. And neither did most anyone else…
So many things seemed to be ‘Before the Changes’. So much time had gone by, or had it? It certainly seemed that way, but he couldn’t be sure if that was reality or just the trick that time seemed to have played on Dyall’s Ford. Like lava flowing into sea, time was folding away somewhere, somewhere beyond scrutiny or understanding.
There’d been a flash, or something. Maybe in the sky, no one could quite remember. And there’d been plenty more since, though they’d gotten used to them. Even if they hadn’t quite come to terms with the other disasters that followed, or The Changes that came with them.
So here he was, picking up the bundled sheaves of scythed wheat and arranging them in a conical stack resembling a tipi – a ‘stook’. “Just do ten or so to a stook,” the boss had told him, “although Archie says we used to do twelve, so who knows what it was.” The boss frowned trying to recall, obviously embarrassed by his failure to get it right. “Anyhow, it’s been so long since we did it this way I guess we can’t blame ourselves for forgetting.”
All had changed. All was unsteady.
But it was going to be okay, Bowman reassured himself. Everyone had made the adjustment to low-tech living, quicker than they’d ever thought possible. Or so it seemed. Truth was, almost no one remembered how they felt or thought before. They only knew how to survive now.
So they went about their business as best as they could remember their business to have actually been, and weaving out of that a life that put food on the table. If people appeared to be in a dream or act like automatons, was that new behaviour or was it the way things had always been?
Still, it was enough, he told himself. They were putting together a life and so would he. He was going to marry his childhood sweetheart, that’s what he was going to do! And he was getting the money for an engagement ring (where he would actually buy one would be a problem for another day) right now working this field of mowed wheat. Working it into something that had the appearance of something rightly made, as opposed to all the broken things around them. And it would be useful.
Yes, it was going to be okay. He reassured himself a lot lately. Or so it seemed, maybe he’d always done that…
“What, slacking off already?” The boss had come up behind him. Bowman wondered if Terry Osborn had a knack for silent walking; he certainly hadn’t heard him.
“Only just got here and you’re having second thoughts?” Osborn laughed. “You want to be getting on, once that sun gets high you really won’t want to be out here.”
“No, just sizing up the job,” Bowman lied. “Don’t worry, I’ll have this lot finished before it gets too hot.”
Osborn scrutinised the younger man. A bit of a dreamer but a good worker once you got him going. And he was honest, that meant something, especially in these days of desperation. But like all the young ones, too soft for this work generally. Too soft for everything these days. No more offices to work in, everything came hard now. Terry Osborn wondered how they were going to cope.
“Well, when you’re finished come up to the house and get some lunch before you go.”
Bowman smiled. “I will certainly do that!”
Osborn crunched off noisily in his size 14 farmer boots. Bowman laughed to himself, how on earth didn’t I hear him? Then he turned back to the work.
The boss had been right about the heat. It always had been hot work in these parts, but it seemed to be a damn sight hotter these days. Though that could get you an argument in town, depending on who you spoke to. Still, temperatures in the high forties centigrade made life uncomfortable at the best of times, and Bowman was sure – at least he thought he was sure – he’d always found that to be the case.
The wheat had been laid straight on the ground to dry for a day or so, then another team had come the day before scooping it into sheaves and tying it. Now it was John’s turn to pick up the sheaves in bundles of three or four at a time and balance them into the little tipis. If you got it right, the first two sheaves leaning against one another meshed and held tight. The rest was easy. He liked this work. It was simple, it was constructive, it was helpful.
And it got his mind off shit.
Lunch was simple. Lunch was tasty. Lunch was even nutritious, no canned crap out on the farms. Bowman ate the meat stew with relish and mopped up the sauce with home-made bread. Lunch was free, too. It was all part of the labour exchange. Someday Terry Osborn would do him a favour in return.
He pushed the empty plate away and nodded appreciatively to Thelma Osborn. A traditional farmer’s wife had served a traditional farm meal. At least, that’s what he remembered the tradition to be. Fuck it, there he was again, second guessing things.
“Thanks, Thelma, that was great.”
“My pleasure, John. Always good to see you.” Thelma Osborn paused a moment. “So, what’s next, what will you do this afternoon?”
It seemed everyone kept wondering what they were going to do next. Especially in the afternoons when the sun got up.
“I’ll just go back into town and kick about the house I suppose.”
It was pretty lame, he knew that. He was letting the team down, not having a plan. They all looked down at the table a moment before he attempted to recover the situation.
“Nice calendar!” He nodded at the wall behind them. It was one of those perpetual sixteen months calendars, with no year on it. No one was really sure what year it was now, anyway. He kept seeing calendars with different years pasted to different walls in different houses, but no one was sure – really sure – which one was accurate, if any were.
Stumbling to be a little more eloquent he went on, “I mean, great pics, very artistic!”
Thelma turned around to look.
“Glad you like them, I’ve always loved art. At least, I think so.” She laughed and then blushed. But she was still beaming, despite embarrassment at her moment of confusion. After all, calendars were a topic of conversation. There was always something to be said about them in relation to The Troubles people were going through. Sometimes it was just to make a joke of things, at least that’s the way it looked on the surface. And most people didn’t even have a calendar these days, so it was something of a minor triumph to have one AND have someone compliment you on it.
“It’s a sixteen month calendar, too. Very practical!”
“Yes, well let’s face it, what point is there having the year on a calendar now?”
For a moment the air froze, but laughter cracked through its ice like lightning. They all overdid the mirth, then just as suddenly stopped on realising no one present was really fooled.
Bowman picked up his car keys.
“Oh well, better get back to that doing nothing I have to do at home.”
“Yes, well there’s always something not to be done, isn’t there?” Terry Osborn said, laughing again.
It seemed an appropriate place in the conversation for Bowman to make his escape. He raised his keys and rattled them, smiled once more and turned in the direction of the merciful exit.