New Zealand: Willowflat

The days blur into one. This is what happens when every day is the same. Time slips by, collapses in on itself. A week, a month, half the season gone. And still I am digging holes. Still I am planting trees. I walk my 4 meters away from the last line. In goes the spade, opening up the earth. In goes the tree before my boot closes the hole. I step forward, one, two, three. There or there abouts. Look right. Am I still 4 meters from the line? Close enough. Repeat. Onward, or at least try to move onward. The plants already living here try to stop me. The blackberry brambles are like creatures from the deep. Octopus red tentacles with razor sharp thorns instead of suckers. They wrap around my ankles, my thighs. I’ve already lost two pairs of trousers to ripped out crotches. A few days later, in shoulder high thorns, the peak of my cap ripped free. My hands are full of holes, some of them filled with thorns. I have a wonderful collection of bruises from my hips to my ankles from tripping and falling over the broken bones and branches of old trees. The tragedy being I can’t peel them off and keep them in a jar. In the shower after work I inspect my wounds closer. Pulling free the splinters that haven’t disappeared beneath my skin. There are scratches on my arms. Then I find something unexpected. A splinter in my stomach. How did I get that? It’s beneath where my harness would be. I don’t remember the waist high brambles. Did I fall? I seem to get stuck, somewhere at least once a day. The splinters that are too deep in my hands I leave alone. They’ll come out on their own when they’re ready. I hope the same for this one. A few days later the splinter has become something else. A swelling, a solid lump under the skin of my stomach. Likely infected. I power through for a few days, living in hope I won’t have to take anything beyond ibuprofen. On the third night I wake up drowning in sweat. I can’t not go to work but I also need someone to fix me.

I go to work again. There’s pain. The pressure of the harness belt pushing down on the swelling. I get through the day. I get 5 boxes planted. I’m hitting my own target. On my return to civilisation I make the call to Healthline. I need to know what to do, where to go. The nurse on the phone gets me to send a photo. She tells me to get to a professional in the next 12 hours. “I’m ready to go now,” I tll her. “Just tell me where.” There’s a 24 hour medical centre in Napier. I pack up the van and head on over. The receptionist thinks I’m taking the piss. “A splinter?” “Yep.” “It’s going to be a long wait.” “I’ve got time to get my book from the car then?” Two lies. The Kindle, from the van. “Should I get snacks as well?” After an hour I’m seen by a nurse. “Someone is going to have fun with you,” she tells me, impressed at the state of me. Which I’m sure, to someone, somewhere is reassuring. “Have you seen it discharge anything?” She asks. “Nope.” She checks my heart rate, which is high, which might be a fever. Then I’m moved on in to the next waiting room. After another hour a Doctor appears. “How are you feeling?” “I’m ok,” which is true. I’m tired, I’m hot, the left of my abdomen hurts but I’m in the right place to get this fixed. The Doctor gets me to lie down and pokes around with his fingers. I wince as he prods the tender areas. “Have you seen it discharge anything?” “Nope.” And I begin to wonder if this is the wrong answer to this question. He’s not convinced there’s anything still in there beyond the obvious infection. “I don’t think there’s any need to open you up. I’ll get you a ‘scrip for some antibiotics.” He even offers to sign me off work for a few days but I’m already three days in. How much worse can it get? And after two hours I’m on my way out. Feeling worse than I have in days despite nobody having done anything to me. I rush through the shower, have dinner and gamble on feeling better in the morning. I have to feel better in the morning.

I make it through until Friday. “Try keeping up with us,” Matt tells me. I know he wants to get out of here on time today. He’s been watching my slow, plodding, every step hurts pace. “You’ve got to push beyond your comfort zone.” I’m not in my comfort zone. I’m in a lot of pain. “Pain is just fear leaving the body,” he yells as he disappears over the next ridge. No chance. Then I hit the compacted soil and slash left over from the haulers. I can’t break through. Anial comes and takes my spade and works through the last of my trees. Even after a month I still don’t have the strength. I go back to the van. Take off my shirt to find the pit on my stomach now slowly dribbling pus. “Holy shit,” is everyone’s response who sees the state of me. Realising now why I now told them every step felt like one closer to death. I look a mess. I wipe down and slap on the only plaster in the first aid kit. I fall asleep in the back of the van, waking myself up snoring. Back at home, my holiday park, I stand in the shower for almost half an hour. Always feeding another 50 cent coin into the meter. Watching the relentless ooze pour out of me. I clean up again, apply a gauze patch and tape for a change. In less than an hour that too has turned damp and yellow. It doesn’t hurt as much anymore, but that might just be the ibuprofen.

The antibiotics do their job. The infection clears up. The swelling reduces. The pus stops oozing. I start to feel better. After a week I stop applying gauze patches. The tape seeming to have done as much damage as the original splinter. I begin to get stronger. By now I’m the only one of the new starts who still turn up to work. The rest have disappeared, quit, or told not to bother coming back. Even with my infection I’m the only crew member who has managed to turn up every day. Consistency counts for something. The rest of the crew accept me as one of the team. They presumably go through the same thing at the start of every season. An influx of new planters who slowly drift off over the opening weeks. Not worth investing the time in. I’m offered encouragement every time I have to jump up or get bumped down the line. The whole team checks in on me, how am I doing? How many boxes am I on now? Always telling me today’s the day I’ll hit 7. It never is. The 5th box comes comfortably. The challenge now is in picking up number 6. There are days when I’m tempted. I could definitely get it started but what’s the point? If everyone else is finishing up, they’ll be waiting an hour or more for me at the van. I don’t want to be anyone’s reason for being late home.

The morning pickup is chaos. Nobody communicates. One day Matt runs out of fuel and for whatever reason we all go to see where he dumped his car for the day. Another morning, an hour after I’m supposed to be picked up I call Anial. “Am I getting picked up this morning?” If I’m not, it would have been nice to know before my alarm went off. Ratu is sick, Roland overslept. The van is definitely still coming to get me. We don’t hit the bush until after sunrise. All day is spent playing catch up, from sleep in the van, to chasing trees, to getting home after dark. We drive past old planting. “We did that last year,” someone says from the back of the van. “I can still see my line.” I’m amazed. I can hardly remember where we were planting yesterday. A year from now I’ll have no idea which trees were mine. We park up for the day, ready to go again. I start early, slowly falling down the line as the crew catch me up and take over my line. I climb out of one gully and hear a wild scream. Nim launches into the chase like a four year old after sea gulls. Only, it’s a pig and he catches it. I just watched a man catch a wild pig with his bare hands. Matt packs it into an empty box and carries it up to the van for safe keeping. He knows a guy who can breed him a litter and serve the crew some decent pork for Christmas. Later on, coming up a soft soiled slope I finish box number 5. I watch Dave pick up another box. “There’s another one up here if you want it,” he tells me. And I do want it. Easy digging, plenty of hill left. The rest of the crew have gone over the ridge and on to the next face. I keep going, following Dave as he brings the tree line up the slope. By the time everyone else comes back to us I only have a handful of trees left. “Find some spots near the van to get rid of them,” Anial tells me. I close up a hole around the track we drove in on and head back to the van. Ratu is complaining to Matt that his new pig has used the van as a toilet. Matt moves the pig to another, bigger box. The van smells like the aftermath of Reading Festival. Caked on mud and stale cigarettes. Sweat and open pit toilets.

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