Charlie knocks on the door at 5am. Bastard! It’s the first of cold autumn mornings and I’m desperate to snuggle down till the last possible moment. I stumble to the front door. ‘Af pas five, the bus is going’, he says, cheekily smiling, pointing to his watch and shaking a set of keys. For a fraction of a second I wonder if I am going to regret my Sagittarian propensity for one up-manship, hare-brainedness and boy-scoutism that’s got me going on Charlie’s annual chestnut and fig picking trip to Orange.
Charlie’s my across-the-road neighbour (his name’s Carmine, but everyone, his wife and kids-in-law included, calls him Charlie). Over the last couple of years, we’ve swapped home grown or foraged produce – loaves of bread appear out of the boot of his car; I offer shoulders of pigs I’ve slaughtered in my back yard, we swap respective chilies. Over the course of exchanges, I’d learned that, since retirement, he’s taken to organizing annual fruit picking bus trips for the Mediterranean communities around Petersham, our inner-West Sydney suburb. This isn’t seasonal labour; it’s a deal where you pay low prices for fruit you harvest yourself. For the consumers, it’s a good day out and a chance to buy in bulk in season. For the orchardists, it’s a way to sell some produce without having to pay the overheads for storage and haulage to the Sydney markets. By the time I’d seen it this year’s trip advertised in the local Portuguese deli, it was fully booked; but a few more inquiries came in and Charlie put on a second, smaller bus.