“Look, the lad should earn some money before he starts university and I need some work done,” his uncle said.
It was warm in the small kitchen despite the cold night. The lad’s uncle stood by the yellow enamel fuel stove that burned twenty four hours a day to heat the water, while his aunt sat at the kitchen table with his parents.
That table was the nerve centre of the house. Little happened that wasn’t discussed first around it.
“What type of work?” his father asked. “Thinning fruit”, his uncle replied “He can stay with us and go up to the orchard each morning”. “I’ll pay award wages”.
“What do you think, son?”
The lad wasn’t sure. The idea of earning some money sounded good, but he was also enjoying doing little, reading and seeing his friends round town. Still, he couldn’t really say that. So, in the absence of any objections on his part, it was decided.
It was cold that first morning when his aunt woke him at 6am. He dragged himself out of bed and went to have a quick bath to wake up. “No more than three inches, dear”, his aunt said. The house relied on tanks, and water was tight.
Just after seven, the lad and his uncle left the homestead flanked by the two sheep dogs and walked through the damp grass towards the orchard. This was about a mile away on a small hill overlooking the property. It was a bright, cool, morning with a promise of heat in the air. The lad carried a basket with a thermos full of milky tea plus his lunch and something for morning and afternoon tea, all packed by his aunt.
“I’ll introduce you to Jack”, his uncle said. “He’s done a fair bit of work for me and can show you the ropes” Jack turned out to be a small, somewhat wizened, man wearing old pants and an ancient khaki shirt with the makings stuck in one of its pockets. He and the lad looked somewhat suspiciously at each other. It was pretty clear that Jack wasn’t all that comfortable with the idea of the boss’s nephew working for him. But then, at 7.30 in the morning the nephew wasn’t too comfortable with the idea either when he could have been at home in bed or just getting up.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it”, said his uncle. “I have to shift the sheep in the top paddock, and then go into Uralla to pick up supplies.”
“Done this before, son?”, Jack asked. “No”, the lad replied. “Well, it’s not hard. C’mon, I’ll show you”.
They walked towards the first row. It had been a good season, and the apples trees were heavily laden with fruit. “We have to get rid of the smaller apples,” Jack explained, “otherwise the fruit will just be too small to sell. There’s not much money in apples; they’ve got to be the right size for people to buy”.
He showed the lad how to pinch off the fruit so as not to damage the branches. Together they worked their way down the first row, using step ladders to reach the higher branches. There was little conversation; Jack seemed disinclined to talk.
At the end of the first row, Jack paused and said “time for a smoke, son.” He squatted on his heel in that characteristically Australian way, and rolled a smoke. Plucking up his courage, the lad asked if he might roll one too. “Sure son, help yourself”. It wasn’t a very good rollie, thick in some spots, thin in others. Pushing the tobacco in at the end with a match, the two sat there and smoked.
“You going to uni, son?” Jack asked. “Yes”, replied the lad. “Start first year in a few weeks.” “That’s good. I left school at twelve. You can’t get anywhere without learning. Well, back to work.”
The two started work down the next row. Jack had clearly decide that the lad was okay, so started yarning about the district and his life. “Where do you live?” the lad asked. “Uralla,” Jack replied, “but I go where the work takes me.”
They yarned on, stopping for morning tea. The lad poured himself a cup of milky tea, Jack a thick black tea. “You don’t want to drink that stuff, son”, Jack said. “Black’s much better when it’s hot. I like mine with lots of sugar. Gives me energy”.
The two resumed worked. Jack proved to be a bit of a radical, a strong Labor Party man and unionist, not impressed with most bosses. “Your uncle’s okay”, he said. “Pays properly and leaves me alone.” The lad heard about Jack’s experiences shearing. He seemed to have done most farm jobs.
Over lunch, the conversation turned to mining and gold. This was a mining area, and a recent discovery of a nugget had aroused interest. The lad told Jack about a girlfriend who had a gully on her place near Inverell where sapphires could be found.
“Old Charlie”, Jack responded, “has a mine somewhere. We all know it, but we don’t know where. Goes bush every so often and then comes back with gold dust. Everybody’s curious, but he’s a silent bugger.”
As the lad walked back to the house, he felt that he had learned a lot. That night he asked his aunt if he could have black tea the next day, strong with lots of sugar. He drank it that way for several years.