The Old Block
Petra Fromm (University of Adelaide, Australia)
The family always got together twice a year, gathering at the old house next to the block. Christmas was alright. Lauren looked forward to the silly season when the kids ran riot under everyone’s feet and her dad fired up the Weber for a Christmas roast. Even though the paddocks were dry as toast on the drive up, the lush expanse of vines around the house let her imagine balmy, water-rich summers someplace cool but exotic. The newly formed grape berries were so small in December, like bunches of peas, shelled but uncooked. A March harvest still seemed a long time away.
At Christmas, Lauren would listen to her dad drone on about how he had been too smart to be lured by the big vine-pull in the 80s, and how you can’t have Old Block wine without old block grapes, and where would they be now without men like him, men of vision? As usual, her mum would sit there smiling and nodding at every second word, her nails ragged and dirt-encrusted from years of vineyard work. Lauren thought it was all somewhat pathetic but, soothed by the Christmas spirit, she nodded along with her mum.
It was the same every year. Her dad telling everyone he’d let them know what the winery said, when they could start picking. He couldn’t plan ahead because of the baumé levels, and they depended on the weather. Always, Lauren prayed for a cool summer to delay the harvest for as long as possible, or for late rain and downy mildew to wipe out the crop entirely so there’d be no grapes to pick. Then, as always, she felt mean and childish. Her parents relied on the money from the block. Without the income from the grapes, they’d have to sell up and move into town and she knew her dad would hate giving up the vineyard.
While they were growing up, Lauren, Mike and Louise had all been expected to help with the vines. There was pruning in winter then, from late February until early May, they picked grapes before and after school, and all weekend as well. Mike and Louise never seemed to mind the vineyard work. At school, they were considered members of the area’s elite – they were Growers, insiders looking down on townie kids who played no part in the district’s wine producing history. Of course, the townies would retaliate, calling the growers’ kids hicks and rednecks but it didn’t disguise the fact that they were outsiders.
Lauren had always wished she were an outsider, with the freedom to play tennis after school, or maybe just laze around all weekend and do nothing, anything but pick grapes. Of course, these days most of the grapes were machine harvested. All except the house block, the old Shiraz. The rows were too narrow for the mechanical harvester, it would damage the vines and anyway, her parents looked forward to getting everyone together for a whole weekend each year to handpick the block. It was another excuse for a family gathering, their idea of fun.
Lauren hated grapepicking. She hated the way her back ached from bending and crawling along on her knees, fighting the snarl of cobwebby vines to make sure they gave up every last berry. She hated the way her fingers froze to a blue numbness as she snipped grapes from sopping wet vines at 6.30 in the morning. And she hated the dirt, burning its way up through the soles of her shoes on 40-degree days as flies and hair, lank and slippery with sweat, got into her mouth and eyes. You couldn’t push them away either because hands clammy with grape juice stick to everything – you just have to put up with the itching. She hated the stickiness of grape juice most of all. It was years before she could come around to the idea of drinking wine.
Lauren got over her wine prejudice when she moved to the city. Working for a busy wine-export company made drinking the stuff inevitable. That was the price you paid for air-conditioned offices, galleries, theatres, restaurants, and a whole new crowd of friends to enjoy them with. Now, she was a townie. Discarding the hick facade with her first manicure, she had left the country girl behind with about as much regret as she felt for one of Louise’s hand-me-down dresses. Drinking wine was part of the city’s lifestyle, and she was pleased with her knowledge – knowing what to recommend on a wine list gave her a confident edge. She often found herself talking about her home amongst the vines, infusing the lifestyle with romanticised images she never felt when actually there. The metaphors conjured for her city friends didn’t touch on the sordid process of actually working the vineyard. Then, once each year, her dad’s phone call would drag her back to the reality of home.
‘We’re ready to get the grapes off, love. Can you get here Friday night for an early start on Saturday?’
In her imagination, Lauren would reply, No, I’m sorry Dad. This weekend doesn’t suit me at all. But of course, what she always said was, ‘No worries Dad, I’ll be there. Give my love to Mum.’
Lauren drove mechanically. Even with the air-conditioner on high her blouse clung damply to her skin. Clearing the last rise overlooking the valley she ignored the postcard sunset and turned into a rutted dirt driveway flanked by vines. It was an automatic response for her to check the grapes. With a professional eye, she noted the abundance of brownish berries, some of which were already beginning to split. Swarms of small, predatory insects hovered around the bunches, just waiting, Lauren thought, to supplement their diet of grape juice with human blood. Lauren stabbed the accelerator and the car’s rear-end swung right and left before finding traction in the sand, propelling her towards home.
Everyone else was already there. Louise and Will with their three kids, and Mike, Rachel and the twins. Rachel was full-bellied again, expecting their third in July. ‘Thank God, the ultrasound only found one this time,’ she told Lauren as they kissed hello.
The children rushed at Lauren in a pack, hands greedy for Auntie Lauren’s special lollies. Only John, Louise’s eldest, held back a little from the mob. ‘Poppa says I’m old enough to bucket-carry,’ he said, throwing his shoulders back to emphasise how much he had grown since the previous year.
‘My, how tall you are,’ she said, loud enough for everyone to hear. But, giving him a hug, she slipped a paper bag into the pocket of his shorts, whispering, ‘not too big for lollies though.’
Privately, she thought that not only John had aged in the last year. Her mum was looking particularly tired, so Lauren asked John to take the kids out to play on the swing for a while and give Nanna a rest. Bending to offer the nearest twin a piggyback, John herded his siblings and cousins into the back yard with a ‘Come on you lot, who’s first for a push?’
The adults sat around the warped pine kitchen table and Lauren’s dad poured everyone a thumb of port from the keg. Lauren asked her mum if anyone else was coming to help, hoping for a big crowd to lighten the job. Her mum told her they could expect a couple of Dad’s mates from the winery and that next-door’s would come over on Sunday. And of course, Nanny Gert would be there. She’d be asleep by now, down with the sun but she’d be out on the block first thing. Gert was Lauren’s 81 year-old grandmother. Lauren couldn’t understand why she kept coming out grapepicking every year. Tough as old boots, Lauren thought, just as her mum said, ‘I think she’ll only pick the morning though, it’s getting a bit much for her.’
Lauren put the kids to bed and read them a story. They wanted the one about “the little engine that could” but she chose a Dr Seuss book instead. By the time she got back to the kitchen, everyone was saying goodnight. Her bedroom was the same as she remembered and the old ceiling fan rattled faintly, just as it always had. Pulling all the covers off the bed, she draped the sheet over herself loosely and tried to sleep. To stop herself thinking about the weekend ahead she concentrated on the thub-clack-thub of the fan until eventually, she drifted off.
It was still dark when the magpies dragged her from sleep. Rolling over, she pulled the sheet up around her shoulders, determined to stay in bed just a little longer. She heard the children’s voices outside the bedroom door only seconds before they swung it wide to invade her bed, bouncing and squealing.
‘Come on Auntie Lauren, it’s time to get up. We have to pick grapes today.’
For their sake she tried not to be grumpy, letting them drag her out for breakfast. But after pouring coffee, she slumped at the kitchen table while her mum fried bacon and eggs and Louise buttered toast.
Even the children came out to the block, although the twins ran up and down between the rows, whining because they were not allowed to have snips. Rachel let them put the bunches in the bucket and they were happy enough after that. Lauren knew that even encumbered by her pregnancy and the twins’ help, Rachel’s bucket would fill faster than her own. And so would Nanny Gert’s. Lauren’s grandmother picked with machine-like efficiency, arthritic fingers snip, drop, snip, dropping bunches into the bucket in a continuous flow. It seemed to Lauren as if Nanny’s grapes jumped into the bucket of their own accord, whereas Lauren’s vine offered nothing but surly resistance.
The previous night’s forecast had said a maximum of 39 degrees and it was already 34 by morning smoko. Lauren refused sandwiches or tea from the thermos, crawled beneath the canopy of vines and sipped a mug of water. She shooed the flies away from her face and wanted to be somewhere else. It was always the same. On the drive up, she had tried to convince herself it wasn’t so bad, and then it was always worse than she remembered.
After ten minutes Nanny Gert got up, fixed her hat and recovered the snips from the front pocket of her apron. ‘Up you get girl,’ she said over her shoulder to Lauren as she resumed picking.
Lauren went back to the vine she had been working on. Most of the grapes were right in the middle of the bush with wiry, bright-green tendrils of vine hugging the bunches tightly to the stems. She had to snip each bunch in several places to get them free and foliage blocked her vision. Forcing her snips deeper into the vine, she felt the blades slip and pain shot up her arm. The snips had cut deeply into the fleshy part of her left hand, just beneath the thumb. Lauren felt sick as blood welled in her palm then dripped down the front of her jeans. ‘Mum,’ she called.
Her mum came over to see what was wrong. ‘That’s a nasty one,’ she said. ‘You’d better go back to the house and clean it up.’
‘No need for that,’ said Lauren’s dad, looking over her shoulder. ‘You’ll be right chook, we’ve got water and Band-Aids in the truck.’
Lauren turned to her dad in disbelief. ‘The bloody grapes – that’s all you care about, isn’t it! You just use us all – your wife, your kids, your own mother, and now you’re starting on your grandchildren, so Johnny has to be a Little Man. You don’t care about any of us. You don’t care that Mum just wears herself down year after year while you rave on about your damn block. I hate grapepicking, and I hate this place, and I bloody-well hate you!’
Lauren cried all the way back to the house: big, fat, ugly tears that washed rivers through the dirt on her face and soaked into the front of her shirt. ‘I’m never coming back,’ she swore aloud to the vines. ‘Never.’ She cleaned up her hand in the bathroom. The cut wasn’t wide but it was deep and she nearly threw up as she held it open under the cold-water tap to wash out the dirt. Once she had dressed the wound, she packed her bags and took them out to the car, meaning to drive off immediately, but she still felt a bit wobbly so instead, she sat on the old tyre swing.
After a while, she saw Nanny Gert wander in from the block. Lauren thought she should probably say goodbye, and found Gert in the kitchen making lunches.
‘How’s the hand?’ the old woman asked without looking up from buttering bread.
‘Sore. It could probably use a stitch,’ Lauren replied truthfully.
Nanny Gert nodded but changed the subject. ‘You know, my Bill planted these vines with his own hands.’ She waved a piece of bread and butter at the vineyard. ‘This vineyard was his whole life. When Bill passed on, your dad wanted to sell up, get a job at the winery and live in town. It was all decided. Your mum stopped him. Talked him round good and proper, saying how she wanted her babies to grow up here, just like him. Well, back then, your dad hated the bloody vineyard. But he hated saying no to your mum even more, and so we stayed.’
Lauren thought about what she had said to her dad. ‘I always believed it was the other way round – that Mum just stayed because well, you know … she had to. Nanny, you think I should go back, don’t you?’
‘But I can’t go back now, they’ll all think I’m stupid. They’ll be angry with me.’
‘Nah. They’re family, reckon they won’t mind. We all chuck a wobbly now and then. That was a nasty cut, must have given you a fright. You could talk to your dad later but. He misses you – brags to his mates all the time about his youngest girl and her great job in the city. But he misses you all the same.’
‘I meant what I said about grapepicking. I hate it.’
‘I know. We all do. You’ll take the lunches over then?’
Lauren nodded. ‘Alright. I will,’ she said.
‘Good,’ her grandmother sighed. ‘My back’s killing me. Think I’ll have a nice cup of tea and a lie-down.’
Petra Fromm is a non-fiction editor for Wet Ink: the magazine of new writing. She lives and writes in inner suburban Adelaide.