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Monday, 29 October 2018

One day in Wedderburn

It was the second Sunday in October and it had been raining in Sydney for two weeks. The eastern states of Australia had been in drought. I got up at the usual time that morning and logged into social media then drank my coffee and watched it until, just before 10am, I got in the car and drove to Alexandria. I parked on Botany Road and went to a house on the street and pressed the buzzer. When nothing happened I used Facebook Messenger to send a message to my friend and he came around the corner behind me carrying two bags.

He crossed the road during a break in the traffic and used the hand that held a set of car keys to shake my hand, then he went to a blue car parked off the street in a marked bay and unlocked the hatch at its rear. From inside the vehicle, he took out some other bags and we then crossed the road and put all the bags in the boot of my car. I got in the driver’s seat and did a U-turn so that we could pick up some pastries at a bakery nearby. We did that then picked up three other people so that by the end of the process in addition to bags filled with the cut halves of almond croissants and a baguette of white French bread there were three men and two women in the car. It was a bit sluggish, somewhat like a marshmallow might be if it had a steering wheel attached to it, as I drove down the curving access ramp to the traffic-filled carriageway of the M5, heading southeast. I stayed under the speed limit for most of the trip, which in all took about an hour, and drove defensively. It rained from time to time and the traffic was moderate; due to variable weather most people had chosen to stay at home.

We took the first available exit on the north side of Campbelltown and drove past a number of fast-food restaurants and car dealerships, turning into different streets from time to time until we were winding down a steep hillside through untouched forest, the big eucalypts creating depth and mystery where they stood as still as sentinels. One curve had a sign before it that recommended a speed of 35km per hour; it was a left turn and then there was a delicate right turn and then the road plunged into a gully where was a bridge across a stream then untroubled but that would, given enough rain, flood and stop traffic. On the other side of the dip the car crawled up the incline at 20km per hour and a string of cars banked up behind us as we climbed the twisty hill with its trees and its gorgeous silence.

Soon we were driving through farmland where native trees had been thinned out to make way for grassy swards. Gates delivered driveways to the road we were travelling on and the cars that had accumulated behind me took off ahead, one by one, crossing the broken white line and accelerating down the road to their destinations. We took one more left and soon turned in at the gate of a farm where a big house stood. A dog, chained near a doghouse near the front of the building, barked demonstratively. To our right stood rows of peach trees each of which had many small, unripe fruit attached to their branches. The leaves were bright green and looped in graceful curves. Each tree was less than the height of a man and had spreading branches. Beneath the canopy they made lay dark topsoil and between each row of trees grew weeds.

The five of us unloaded the car and walked to the house’s back entrance. Inside, there was a large space with terrazzo floors made up of pieces of different-coloured stone that had been set in polished white cement. Ornate carpets that were mainly pink and had a design that looked Persian had been placed over the floor covering part of the room. Leather couches and comfortable leather chairs were set along two walls that met at a corner, and near them was a large dining table with eight chairs set around it. Above the southern end of the table was a framed picture of a man that was intended to portray Jesus. On top of a coffee table in the middle of the carpet was a large bowl filled with artificial fruit that was so realistic that one of our party said she might eat a piece. People laughed and were soon sitting at the dining table eating food that had been prepared by my friend’s sister. There was a lentil dish, a cabbage salad, a Greek-style salad made with tomatoes and onions and asparagus and tiny bocconcini each of which was the size of the tip of your thumb, a Mexican salsa made with black beans and tomatoes which was not particularly spicy, and a quiche made with spinach.

After eating, three of us went for a walk past the orchards to a dam partially filled with water that lay at the end of the property. Kangaroo scats dotted the grass and we placed our feet gingerly between them. One of our number was a Frenchman who lived part of the year in Spain and we talked about Salvador Dali. Later, the five of us walked across the public road to an orchard that was completely covered by netting strung on poles that had been set in the ground, to protect the fruit from hail. The orchard was situated next to a dam, this one also partially filled with water. Among the trees, the weeds growing between the rows were wet with rain and lush with new growth. We left the orchard and walked past another dam, which was empty and which had been dug out recently, exposing pink clayey earth.

We sat in chairs on the verandah of the house of my friend’s brother and talked. There was a digital clock on the wall of the house that had a design featuring the emblem and colours of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the rugby league football team.

My friend’s parents had migrated from Lebanon and their children mostly still lived on the same section of land the couple had settled more than a generation earlier. My friend went off to go back to the other house to use the lavatory and after it had started raining another one of his brothers drove up. We all got into his small white car and he took us on a circuitous route through the orchards on both sides of the road as he explained the work of the farmer. I asked about pollination and he said that in the spring the bees just come from the forest, where they also feed on the nectar produced by eucalypts, which also reproduce by flowering. He told us about the age at which trees need to grow before they will produce fruit, and the age at which a tree is first used to grow a crop. When crossing the public road he stopped the car and looked both ways before continuing to the orchards on the other side of it.

He showed us young trees that had had the fruit taken from the ends of their branches so that they would grow straight in the absence of a burden. Grey rotten fruit sat on the ground around the bases of their trunks. He told us that different varieties of peach are grown in order to stagger the ripening on the farm to enable a limited number of pickers to harvest the fruit so that it can be successfully taken to market. He showed us the shed where machinery had been set up to defuzz the fruit and to allow it to be graded before it was put into boxes ready for transportation. He told us that farmers are mainly price takers and that they are often at the mercy of wholesalers, who give a price at the time the produce is delivered, which is a long time after it has started to grow.

He parked the car at the front of the house on his property, which was located beside the house we had had lunch in, and showed us the structures covered in thick plastic where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. Picking up a length of white plastic pipe, he demonstrated how he pollinates the tomato plants, which were ranked in rows along the entire length of the plastic enclosure, and which had black cords functioning as vertical supports to hold up their delicate stems. By knocking on the horizontal wires these cords were attached to, vibrations were transmitted to the plants which performed the function that bees usually perform, loosening the pollen and spreading it to the small yellow flowers’ female parts. We left the growing area and sat in a covered structure which had a concrete floor that had been built over a water tank that could contain 130,000 litres. None of the houses were connected to a town water supply and sewage was held in septic tanks, one of which was located near where we sat.


In the moisture-laden atmosphere, from the hill the Blue Mountains loomed on the horizon to the northwest. I drank a sweet beer that had a delicate flavour and some of the party tried unsuccessfully to set up an internet connection for the brother’s TV, which was mounted on a wall of the enclosure. From time to time he consulted with another person using his mobile phone. He closed the curtains on the south side of the building after some of our party complained about the temperature but soon we all got up from where we were sitting around a circular table, took off our shoes, and entered his house.

Inside at the top of one wall, which faced north, near the ceiling, which was clad in cedar, was a round, stained-glass window. The floor of the large room we were in was also wooden and in the corner were two green plaid couches and some chairs that had the same cloth covering. Near them was a clean kitchen and the house looked as though it had been constructed much later than the other house we had been in, possibly even as recently as the last 10 years. We sat down and some of us ate raw broad beans, which had a fresh, uncomplicated flavour. Some of them had small sprouts that had started to grow out of the top of the seeds, ready to germinate if put in the soil and watered. The brother told us the story of the coloured window, which he had commissioned from an elderly man who worked in the area. He had paid $220 for the work. The man had at first apologised about the sum he would ask for the thing and the brother was concerned that it might have been an amount in the thousands, and when he learned the asking price he was dumbfounded and paid immediately.

The story about the manufacture and purchase of the object was as important as its design and I would think about it the next day as I was writing the account you are now reading. The window showed a scene with a brown flower in the centre of the design and variously-shaped, roughly-rectangular pieces set around it making up a pond of water on which the flower sat, its petals thrusting into the air. Pieces of green glass that were set in the design were meant to represent the plant’s leaves. A ring of curved glass strips made a frame for the whole, which was set in the wall along with a regular glass window that had been installed outside it to keep out the weather.

The window had a purely decorative function but it enabled the sharing of stories that helped to create community for people who saw it and talked about it. It’s lines and planes were abstract and when considered in isolation they were limited in their ability to create meaning, but put together will talent and skill they formed a harmonious whole. I would think while writing this about society’s current preoccupation with authenticity and with the origins of things, a need that is fed by stories like the one my friend’s brother told. You see this kind of storytelling all the time on social media and in the mainstream media, and it forms the basis, in some cases, for entire businesses, for example food retailers and restaurants. The episode also spoke of our need to create meaning, often secondary meaning, when we talk about specific things in the world, and how in all spheres of our lives we imbue the things around us with special significance. One of our party, who was Chinese, spoke on more than one occasion during the day about fairy tales that are told to children in her native country and that feature the peach, a fruit that had been burdened with mystical significance in the millennia during which it had been cultivated there before being exported, via Persia, to arrive in Europe at that latest by the 1st century CE.

After a period of time talking while seated in a corner of the house’s living area, we walked out of it, put on our shoes, went past rows of vegetables, some of which had died but had not yet been replaced, and reentered the first house we had been in. Here, we sat around the table and took plates which we filled in the kitchen with leftovers from lunch. My friend put a lasagne in the oven and turned on the appliance, and when the dish was ready we ate pieces of it which were very hot. His other sister arrived and told us about her daughter’s planned wedding and about how the young woman had lost her job at an accounting firm just before the event was scheduled to take place. Luckily, she had quickly found another job. My friend’s brother was also there and with the sister whose daughter was getting married, he ate food that was gluten-free because of a health condition they both shared. His wife arrived later and the conversation in the room became lively. Seated at one end of the table, three of us talked about Tang-era Chinese poetry and forgiveness while the family sat on the couches and talked animatedly about the impending wedding and other things that they shared. It was soon time to go and the foot massages had all been finished so we put the bags of unused food in the car, along with a large cooking pot, that was clean, and did a U-turn to leave the property.

It was raining lightly as I drove along the dark road, decelerating from time to time in order to negotiate the curves. There were no street lights for most of this part of the journey and as we approached the dreaded gully a car came up on the road behind us, sitting right on my bumper and tailgating me as I manoeuvred our car down across the bridge and then up the steep incline on its other side. My car struggled to make progress, as it had done before when we had arrived in the forest, and when we reached a place where the road had a shoulder I pulled onto it to let the car behind us pass. Before long we were back on lit streets with houses and traffic lights and restaurants and car dealerships. Beyond that, we hit the motorway and as I had done earlier I kept to the left lane except where the interchange to the M7 makes it necessary to move to one of the right-hand lanes to avoid going on the wrong road.

I had asked my friend if the peach crop would be good this year and he had said it would be if the rain continued, although he had mentioned while we were in a nectarine orchard that too much water at the wrong time can cause the purple fruit to split. Now I mentioned that they had had hail in southeast Queensland that had damaged peach trees the fruit of which was ready to pick. We drove on and exited the tunnel at the Princes Highway and soon we were dropping people off at their homes. The Frenchman was dropped off at his hotel and I said “Salut” to him as he got out of the car. “Salut,” he replied, before adding, “Au revoir!” When I got home I found a water bottle on the floor in front of the back seat that was partly made from pink plastic. In the container’s transparent middle, visible in the clear liquid, were a thick pebble about the size of a dollar coin that was the colour of lapis lazuli, and what appeared to be a milky white crystal, one end of which was shaped like a pyramid. Its flat sides terminated in a point.

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