« I’ll give you a hand if you like », I said, trying to keep all signs of reluctance out of my voice. My husband, slouched opposite, looked the epitome of a modern day sweep. After a day on the combine harvester, his t-shirt and shorts were black with oil and grease from tinkering with the machine. The pores on his face were clogged with grime, and the dust from the barley had made his eyes swell and puff.
“I was hoping you might” he replied. “If we knew that the apples would do better this year, we could employ somebody, but…” his voice trailed off. “I don’t mind” I said, with what I hoped sounded like enthusiasm, already trying to work out how I could fit a week in the orchard, between my part-time job, the translation that had arrived that morning for my own business and the children who were now on school holidays.
Part of our orchard had recently been hit by hail. Not badly, but enough to put the apples there down a class when they are eventually sold. There was probably no point working on those, but the apple trees that were protected by netting were a different story. There were just too many apples on the branches and they needed thinning out, or come September we would have several tons of plum sized fruit, instead of large calibre, saleable apples. The trick was to pull off the smaller apples by hand, leaving space for the others to grow. It would be a long, hot job.
My husband studied me, probably trying to calculate exactly how many hours I would be able to spend in the orchard, knowing full well that despite my assurances; my time there would be limited. He looked tired and I knew that he was frustrated that he couldn’t be everywhere at once. Cereals needed harvesting, straw baled and the second cut of hay was now due to start. He didn’t have time either, and the weather of course waits for no man.
“It can wait another few days” he said finally, before heading out the door. I watched him go, and thought back to a friend of ours, also a farmer, who we had seen the day before. His parting words were still ringing in my ears with guilty insistence: “if the apples do badly again this year, pull the trees up and invest in real estate. You could do a lot worse…”