Harper Collins Award Winning Short Story by Shirley Chalmers

The Onion Picker’s Daughter

 Gatton-onions-picking

 

The old green Ford Pilot is standing in the road like a patient elephant waiting for its load. The hot Queensland day is slowly dying, with a sighing breeze stirring dust from the leaves of the nearby gums. It will soon be getting dark and Dad is hurrying us, telling us to throw our belongings into the boot of the car. It has been a day of decisions; we are on our way to Grandma’s

It is in Dad’s nature to love the itinerant life, though he promised us that one day he’d buy a farm again and settle down. We’d have cows and pigs, we could ride horses and he would grow vegetables. Dad is a good gardener, and he’d once been a successful dairy farmer. The love of the land runs in our veins.

We pile our plastic bags of clothes into the boot of the car. The rest of our belongings had been packed into tea chests and sent off on the train to Caboolture.

‘What time will we get to Grandma’s Dad?’ I ask. He starts the motor and puts the Pilot into gear. We are off. ‘When we get there,’ he grins over his shoulder at me and Philip, ‘What’s the bet Aunty Dorrie will be waiting on the verandah when we turn up?’ We all laugh at that. Aunty Dorrie has some kind of sixth sense that tells her when her brother is on his way. When we get there she is standing on the verandah looking up the road, waiting for Arnie and the kids.

The newspapers are spread out on the table, opened at the jobs section. I watch as Dad looks intently through the columns of jobs. ‘Bugger all here.’ he tells Aunty Dorrie. ‘Don’t swear Arnie,’ she says ‘You know Mum doesn’t like it.’ ‘Yeah, sorry, I heard down at the pub last night they’re looking for onion pickers at Gatton. I think I’ll give it a go. Who wants to come with me?’

Early the next morning Dad and I set off for Gatton. It is a long drive but I love to be with Dad. I listen to his tales of life in the bush. He identifies birds and animals we see in the trees or on the side of the road, making the drive an adventure. He seems to know the name of every tree, type of grass and all the crops growing in the paddocks.

We arrive late afternoon and Dad decides to make camp by the Lockyer and look for work in the morning. The camp fire’s warmth is welcome; it is going to be cold by the water. We have to sleep in the car.

The night is quiet and as black as pitch. Dad sleeps in the front seat, it is a comfortable enough bench seat, and I have the whole back seat to myself. A bright light shines into the car in the middle of the night, waking me. I screw up my eyes and put my arm up over my face. The light sweeps around the inside of the car. I see that Dad is sitting up and winding down the window.

The policeman isn’t happy about the car being parked where it is, but he is kind enough and once satisfied that everything was in order left us to our sleep. I dig in my plastic bag of clothes and find an old raincoat. I am cold so I put it on and curl up.  Dad is already asleep again; I can hear his gentle snore. I wake up later and feel the rubber raincoat has all crinkled up and is sticking to me. I keep it on though; it is still cold.

Morning comes with the warble of magpies and butcher birds and before long we are driving past paddocks of dark chocolate coloured earth. There are paddocks with rows and rows of green onion tops and workers bent over filling kerosene tins with the big brown onions. Farmhouses and sheds dot the landscape.

Dad parks near a group of workers and walks over to talk to them. I watch him shake the hand of the man who must be the boss. Before long I am in the paddock picking onions beside Dad. I have been taught to be a good worker and I reckon I do a fair day’s work for a kid. The onions rattle into the kerosene tins and Dad carries mine as well as his over to the loading bins. Dinner time brings rice with onion gravy cooked on a spirit stove, and a place in the shed for us to sleep.

Saturday is the day for the workers to go to town. Most of them spend the day, and their earnings, at one of the pubs. Dad is as good a drinker as any of them, and a better fighter than most. I spend the day in town looking at the shops. The Newsagent has a good stock of girl’s magazines and I spend some of my pocket money on a couple of them.

By mid-afternoon the streets are almost empty. It is hot with not a cloud in the endless blue of the sky. The green Pilot stands to attention under a shady gum in the centre of the gravel street, ready for the command of the ignition key and the crunch of the gearbox, sharing the endless waiting for Dad with me.

I read the magazines while sitting in the car, but now I need to stretch my legs so I get out and walk around town. A group of girls around my age come out of a café and they look at me curiously. I had washed myself and combed my hair this morning before going to town but my floral dress is a little crumpled and I’m wearing my old lace up school shoes with a pair of grey-white socks. I look away when they point at me and snigger, toss their heads and walk off. I feel the pariah’s pain, again.

Someone in the farmhouse is playing a piano. Dad has a Sunday morning hangover and he is still lying on his bunk. I creep out of the shed and walk over to sit under a shady tree. I rest my head on my knees and listen. I yearn to be able to play the piano, and to be like other girls with nice clothes, and a real home.

Yesterday in town I had stopped in front of a children’s clothing store and looked in the window. That was when I saw the blue dress. I stood looking at it for ages. It was beautiful.  I can’t get it out of my mind, yet I can’t ask Dad for it. He’d just say I don’t need it. He’s like that. No idea about what girls need. I feel the anger burn in my chest. He doesn’t need that bloody beer, that’s what!

Day after day we work in the onion paddocks filling the tins, mounting up the wages we are earning. Saturday nights come and go. Tonight Dad goes with a group of men to their camp by the river. I am told to stay in the car and to lie down in the back seat and go to sleep. It is miserably cold, how am I supposed to sleep! I can hear that the men are drinking and arguing. I hate the times when we’ve had to wait in the car outside pubs and lodge halls for half the day and night. Now here I am in the car in the middle of the bush, beside a river and all by myself in the cold of night.

I lie here worrying. What if something happens to Dad? I can’t stand the thought.  The men’s voices are raised and I hear a fight break out, then a shot. I sit bolt upright and stare out into the darkness. Someone is coming through the trees and I slide behind the seat, knees on the floor. The car door opens and Dad gets in.

‘Stupid mongrels, they’ll have the copper out here next.’ he says, slamming the door.  ‘What’s happened Dad?’  I asked, ‘I heard a rifle shot!’

‘Argh, silly bugger’s drunk, showing off, shooting across the river.’

‘I was really scared, Dad. I thought one of the men was coming to get me or something. Or that you might have been shot.’ ‘Anyone who tries to touch you will be a dead duck!’  Then he said more softly, ‘Don’t worry. It’s alright love, let’s go home.’

Home! How I wished we were going home, wherever that is. There are nights when I lay awake thinking about a house with wood panelling on the walls, like the ones I read about in books. There’d be white sheets on the bed, and petticoats in my drawer.

Dad does his best for us and though it is far from perfect, it matters. We kids adore our father.  He stuck with us, even when others had urged him to put us in a children’s home after mum left us. He’d read Treasure Island and other stories to us at bedtime, a chapter a night, and he told us stories of his childhood, shared everything four ways.  Dad is what people think of as a good man. At least his kids do.

Though there was that time when they were at a Christmas dance at Oakey and some of the boys thought they’d catch Margaret when she went outside to the dunny.  I saw what was going on and tried to warn her; too late, Margaret was out the door.  Dad was drunk! I worried about what would happen, but Margaret came back unharmed. Then I saw a friend of Dad’s walking back inside. He was wrapping a handkerchief around his knuckles. He looked at me and smiled. Margaret was none the wiser, but Eddie Kelly will be a hero to me forever. After that I knew we would have to be able to look out for ourselves; Dad wasn’t always going to be there for us.

The Roberts are a nice couple and I am glad it is their property where Dad has found work. Mrs Roberts seems to like me and she occasionally invites me to the farmhouse at afternoon tea break. I am treated to home baked cake and milk and was always given a piece of fruit to take away with me.

At first I was shy about it, but Dad said it was alright, Mrs Roberts is a good woman and she likes to have my company. And there is the piano sitting in the corner.  How I wish I could play the piano.

‘The onion season is just about over and most of the onions picked and bagged. I reckon that Friday will see us on the road back to Caboolture.’ I look at Dad as he speaks, wondering if we’ll get another trip into town first. I want to see if the blue dress is still there in the shop window. I ask Dad, but he shakes his head. ‘No need to go into town, it’s not on the way back and we don’t need anything.’ I sigh, three more days work and we will leave.

Thursday night Dad is paid off with the rest of the men. They gather around a camp fire telling yarns and drinking. I stay up as long as I can, but eventually admit I have to go to sleep. ‘Goodnight Dad.’ I kiss him on the cheek, ‘See you in the morning.’  ‘Right love, sleep well.’ Someone throws another log on the fire and sparks fly in the air as I walk past, giving me a start. I give Bluey a glare, knowing he did it on purpose. Men can be stupid when they are drunk!

Dad is packing the gear into the boot of the old Pilot and I sit under the tree patting the Roberts’s dog. ‘Hey Buster,’ I say to him ‘Time to say good bye. I have to go back to Caboolture today.’ I rub the dog’s ears and he eyes me, mouth open with tongue lolling in a doggie smile. ‘I’ll miss you and your boss y’know. She makes great sponge cakes.’

All around the paddocks are bare and magpies hop among the brown clods of earth looking for worms. I watch a flock of galahs take flight and swoop over a stand of gums. Dad drives on past Lockyer Creek, where we’d camped the first night and I look down at the remains of the camp fire as we pass. Dad is being very quiet. I glance at him. He looks so good sitting behind the steering wheel, his shirt sleeves rolled up above his elbows showing his muscular sun tanned arms.

I am proud of my Dad, his knowledge of the land, his strength and his ability to work hard. He hasn’t spent all his money on beer, so we’d have enough to last while he looks for another job.

He sees me smiling.  ‘Glad to be going back to Grandma’s?’

‘Yes.  It’ll be good to be back, good to see Margaret and Philip again too.’

‘Miss them, did you?’

‘I suppose so, but I had a good time picking onions and I’m glad I came with you.’

‘Yeah, I’m glad you came too.  You could have stayed at Gatton, you know.’

I stare at him. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Mrs Roberts took a liking to you.  She wanted to keep you, and she offered me money.’

‘What!  What did you say to her?’

‘I told her no way of course. Then she offered me lots more money. You’re worth your weight in gold my girl!’

I am silent; stunned! How rich those people must be! But he wouldn’t do it. He’d told her no. The enormity of it was too much, nothing like that has ever happened to me before. But it feels good. Someone noticed me, valued me and wanted me enough to be ready to keep me forever! But Dad wants me more.

I shift closer to Dad on the bench seat and squeeze his arm. He looks down at me and grins. ‘Not enough money in the world to buy you, Shirley.’

The blue dress was left behind, forgotten, in the window of the children’s clothing shop in the township of Gatton.

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5 comments

  1. What a lovely story, Shirley! The closeness of father and daughter was touching and brought back personal memories of me and my dad. An interesting introduction to Australian culture was an added enjoyment. Thank you and congratulations on your award winning writing.

  2. Thank you Jeanne, I am glad you found it interesting.

  3. What a great story, seems as though you had a lot of adventure and moved around quite a lot as a kid. I’m not far from Caboolture, were you born there?

    1. Thanks Melinda. My grandparents loved there and we often visited them when we were children, a long time ago now. :-).

    2. No Melinda, my grandparents lived there and we visited often. A long time ago now.

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