by Cath Barton

Axel and Jude are far down the field when I hear a noise like the crack of a gun. I straighten up and see smoke rising, a grey pencil line on the pale of the morning.

I bend down again, carry on picking. Time is money, so the foreman says. The peas are thick on the plants, but they grow low to the ground. My back hurts and I’d like to sit down, like the women do, stretching their long skirts over the crates. But men don’t sit.

I carry on picking, even though something has happened. Even though the woman nearest to me has stopped work, is standing, is raising a hand to her mouth.

We’ve been here a month, Axel, Jude and me. It was twenty five hours on the bus, two stops for the toilet and to fill our water bottles. I’d hoped for views of the mountains, but everything was flat. Axel said motorways always go through flat country. So that the traffic can go faster. So that people can get where they’re going more quickly.

It’s flat here too. One of the women told me there are hills further west, beautiful she said, with lakes. You boys should go there, she said, when the picking is done. See a bit more of the country than just these fields. At first I was excited, said to the others we should hitch a lift to these hills and lakes, buy a tent, camp in a green field. Axel said it would be raining in the hills. That a tent would let in the rain. That when the picking was done we should go straight back to our country. That we’d promised we would do that.

Axel was right.

Axel’s always right. I’ve known him since I was five. He’s a year older, always had the edge on me: smoking, girlfriends, everything first. Jude’s younger than both of us; he’s like Axel’s shadow. We rub along, the three of us. When we arrived here someone said we were like three peas in a pod. And laughed. In a friendly way though.

There’s a siren, but I can’t tell which direction it’s coming from and I don’t look up because I can hear the thud of the foreman’s boots, heavy but quick. Quicker than usual. Time to take a break, he says, though we’ve only been working for an hour.

We’re crowded into the shed, must be fifty of us, Poles, Lithuanians, locals. I’m looking for Axel and Jude but I can’t see them. My ears are filled with the sound of the foreman’s voice, but I can’t make out the words. He’s steering me through the crowd now, people are looking at me and one of the women puts out a hand and pats my arm.

We’re outside now, just me and the foreman and he’s asking me something, I can see his lips moving. He’s asking me if I understand, and I shake my head because the words are jumbling, too fast, too many. He opens the door of the shed and shouts something;  the noise of all the people in there rushes out at me. I lean against the wall and close my eyes. There’s a woman’s voice, close, saying to come. We walk past the place where the boxes of picked peas are stacked. The smell is like grass after rain.

There’s a mug. Steam rising. Drink it slowly, she’s saying. And eat a biscuit. A phone rings on the other side of the wall. I sip the tea, it’s sweet, she’s says she doesn’t know if I take sugar but she’s put it in anyway, I’ll need it right now. Eat the biscuit, she says again. Through the window I see the stream of workers going back to the fields, Poles, Lithuanians, locals, all mixed up, walking together, heads down.

They’re lying next to one another. They were always closer to one another than either was to me. The woman says she’ll leave us alone for a few minutes and the door clicks behind her, softly. I don’t know what to say, so I recite the prayer we said at school before lessons. Then I say a few more words, to them.

The woman’s waiting for me outside, puts her hand to my cheek. Am I alright to go back to work? I nod. When our shift is over I’m to come to her house, she says, no argument, I can have her son’s room, he’s away travelling, she’ll appreciate the company. I’m not arguing, I’ll do what I’m told. The harvest’s not done yet and the peas won’t pick themselves.

Cath Barton’s prize-winning novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Rarebyte. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, was published by Louise Walters Books in November 2020. Read more about her work on her website