In preparation for conquering the world – at least as far as book sales go – I’ve been reading a fantastic book by John Locke called ‘How I Sold A Million Ebooks’. In it he advises authors to get to know their audience, and to write what their audience wants to read. Good advice. So I started to think about that.
Who exactly are my readers?
Well, based on the feedback I’ve been getting they’re of all ages (eight to a hundred and eighty eight) and genders (male, female, other), from a wide variety of countries (even Ireland! Who knew?). But they all have this in common: they are intelligent, sophisticated, highly attractive people – who love to laugh at me making an idiot out of myself.
So with this in mind, I trawled my archives (What? I can’t have archives now?) and looked for examples of me doing stupid things. I found plenty.
The result is this: here for your enjoyment is a short piece I wrote for a competition which I didn’t win, probably because I wrote the piece after the deadline had already passed. I know, I know. Always read the small print! Or, you know, any of the print…
Anyway. This happened while I was in Australia for the first time. Enjoy!
“Tony, wake up! Gotta get ready for work!” My girlfriend Roo was prodding me insistently – with the butt-end of a torch. Outside of our tiny tent darkness reigned and the civilised world still slept; but we had a new job to go to, on a sandalwood plantation, and one thing all agricultural work had in common was an early start. Damn it.
In fairness, this was the height of the Australian summer and our camping ground was in the far north. Intellectually I knew that by 6am the inside of the tent would be like a blast furnace. But I still loathed and detested 5am.
Dawn found us sitting in a rapidly disintegrating minibus, bouncing along a knackered dirt track towards the plantation. The vehicle was in roughly the same state of repair as the road; there were holes in the roof; there were holes in the floor. It needed to be push-started every time, and was stopped by ‘natural breaking’ – ie, coasting until it either ran out of speed, or hit something. Or both.
Eight other workers were crammed into the torn vinyl-covered seats alongside Roo and myself, and every one of us was braced in position with arms legs and in a few cases, heads pressed against what was left of the dented metal roof.
“She’ll be right!” The boss had said, in true Aussie fashion, when I’d commented to him that only the paint was holding his van together.
After which he’d introduced himself as ‘Johno’.
Johno loved to drive that wreck of a van. He loved to drive it at speed. He prided himself on knowing exactly how to coax what he wanted from the ancient engine. He deftly slotted it between openings in the fence and shot across makeshift bridges over a network of irrigation ditches. He was grinning at me in the rear-view mirror, as if to say ‘See?’
When suddenly the world turned upside down and the seat in front of me took a swipe at my ribs. I twisted as I fell, and ended up lying on my face across the mud-encrusted windows.
Roo was lying on top of me. And at least three people were lying on top of her. The van was on it’s side, nose down in a ditch, and I was slowly being suffocated. This must be what it’s like to play the Aussies at rugby, I thought.
“I can get out the window!” someone called from the front.
“Yeah, me too!”
And one by one we squeezed out of whatever opening presented itself. After all, there were plenty of them.
Johno stood on the bank, counting heads as we crawled up to him.
“Sorry lads!” he said cheerily, ignoring the presence of several women. “It gets a bit narrow there.”
Apparently this satisfied him that the situation was back under control. He pulled out his cell phone and took a deep breath before punching a number in.
“Hey there Big Man! Yeah, we’ve, um, had a bit of a crash…”
He held the phone away from his ear for a few seconds while the swearing on the other end subsided. His mood deteriorated as the noise continued.
“Yeah… that narrow part, by the ditch… yeah, in the ditch. Upside down.”
There was a final blast of abuse from the speaker.
“Yes,” he agreed glumly. “Again.”
The voice did not sound impressed.
Luckily for us, the crash-site wasn’t far from the job-site.
Johno, eager to get back in the good books, led us straight into the field and got us started. ‘Weeding’ would be an accurate description of the job that ensued. Not that I was sure exactly what we were weeding and why, but the contrast with our last job picking pumpkins was unbelievable. It was just so… easy! After two weeks of straining, back-breaking toil hefting gigantic pumpkins into the back of a tractor moving at jogging pace, this wasn’t even work at all.
I strolled over to Roo, who was busily pulling a small leafy plant from the soil.
“This is incredible,” I commented.
“I know! Shh!” She was obviously thinking the same thing – we had to keep this job at all costs.
Another lazy hour drifted by. I wandered up another furrow, pulling up whatever came closest to hand. There was a certain dark green, very persistent weed that seemed to be everywhere. “Check this out!” I dropped a handful of the plants in front of Roo. These things are in every row!”
“That’s because they’re the support plants,” she hissed. “Don’t pull them out. okay? We’ll get in trouble.”
“Oh, really? Shit. Sorry!”
She herself was leaving a trail of remarkably similar looking plants uprooted.
“What’s the difference?”
She sighed. She always had to help me with stuff like this. I was never a particularly observant person. “These are weeds.”
I took the proffered plant and studied it.
“This is the support tree.” The fingers of her free hand gently lifted the leaves atop the stalk nearest to her.
To me, they looked identical.
“Of course,” I lied.
“And what about this one?” I held up another of my recent victims. “We pull these out too, right?”
“That’s the sandalwood tree!”
“Oh! Now I get it!”
In spite of herself, Roo was starting to giggle. “How many… how many of those have you… ripped up?”
“Um, well… all of them. I think.”
She burst out laughing, but caught herself – with effort – after one guffaw. “Shit!” she coughed out between suppressed giggles. “Don’t… pick… any more!”
It was all I could do not to crack up myself. We were halfway through the day and I must have divested about a quarter of the field of it’s primary raison d’etre.
We picked on in silence for the next half-hour.
“Woah! Careful there!” It was Johno, stomping up the furrow behind me. “Don’t be pulling that one out, mate!”
I froze mid-motion.
“That there’s a sandalwood – just looks a bit different ‘cause it ain’t grown as much,” he explained.
I released my grip on the immature specimen.
“Phew! Glad I stopped you there!” And he strode past me towards the next keen plucker.
I stopped for a few seconds and mopped sweat from my forehead with a bandanna. “So those ones too eh? This job is harder than I thought!”
As Johno drove us home I couldn’t resist asking; “Is this job real? There has to be a catch? Like, deep underground you’ve got some super-secret weapons lab, and we’re just here to make it look innocent on the satellite photos? And you pay us eighteen bucks an hour to pick weeds so no-one rocks the boat, right?”
“Not quite that exciting!” He replied. “See, these sandalwood trees will be producing oil in a couple of years and that oil is expensive stuff. Some trees will make loads, some not as much, but when they’re mature they’ll be worth between three and fifteen thousand dollars each.”
There was a stunned silence. I couldn’t have spoken even if I’d wanted to. My throat had suddenly gone dry.
“F-fifteen? Thousand?” I finally croaked.
“Jeez,” one of the other workers exclaimed, “that’s crazy man! What if someone steals one!”
“Security. Whole place is fenced all around. Got cctv cameras on the fence posts. And our own fire station on site, in case a bush fire gets too close! Yeah, this field is worth something like eighty-five million dollars. They go all out to protect these babies.”
I felt vaguely sick. Whilst at the same time I had the hideous feeling that deep inside me was welling up a great big belly laugh. I’d worked here for one day. By rough estimate I’d done at least a million dollars’ worth of damage…
Roo was nudging me with her foot. I glanced over at her. Her expression was unmistakable ‘Say Nothing!’ it read. I was inclined to agree.
Back at the camp site that evening we discussed our options. Well more accurately, Roo discussed them while I fell around the place laughing. “It’ll take them a long time to get it out of my salary!”
“Come on, seriously!” Roo chastised me. “What are we going to do?”
I took a few deep breaths to calm myself and sat on the scrubby grass next to her.
“If we don’t go back it’ll look really suspicious,” I pointed out. “On the other hand, if we do go back and they spot my little mistake, it’s quite possible they’ll drown us in a ditch.”
“Or they could just put us in a car with Johno driving…” Roo added.
“So what do you reckon? Shall we look for new jobs?”
With a theatrical sigh, Roo reached for our cell phone. “I put Johno’s number in here, I’ll send him a text.”
I watched over her shoulder as she typed.
‘From Tony and Roo. Thanks for an amazing experience.’
Which I thought was quite generous. She paused for a moment, then shrugged. “Not much else to say,” she said. And added ‘We Quit.’
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