As I lowered myself into the old metal-backed seat and took hold of the massive steering wheel, I had the oddly familiar feeling, of not being quite in control. “Watch the brakes, they’re a bit dodgy” my husband shouted, as he reversed the David Brown back up between the apple trees with the assurance of one who had leapt straight from the crib onto a large piece of agricultural machinery.
I slowly released the clutch of the Zetor and the old tractor juddered in protest, trying to decide whether to stall or not, before it gathered up speed and headed down the slope. I belatedly recognised that feeling as the one that I had experienced as a teenager, when I had first climbed onto a pony. I knew how to get it to go but not how to stop.
The tractor started to lurch alarmingly towards the left, branches from the trees snapping against the big wheels. I looked down at my feet, cursing, searching for the brake. I hadn’t calculated that the weight of the trailer behind would propel us down so fast. Behind me I could hear the noises of boxes of apples sliding and shouts to stop.
I had always refused to drive a tractor. I was an average car driver and didn’t think that my skills would extend to machines that were twice as big as my little Renault. But it had seemed silly today, not to learn how to move the tractor forward a dozen or so metres at a time, so that we could reach the higher branches of the trees from the trailer behind. It was Saturday afternoon and we had decided to innovate to try and get ahead of the picking over the weekend. The team of pickers had been replaced by my parents who had offered to give me a hand for a few hours. I was about to kill them I thought.
I finally found the brake and stamped on it. The tractor, which had been built in the year I was born, obviously had reflexes that were as rapid as mine. There was a delay, before the front wheels, which looked as solid as slices of lemon on cocktail sticks, veered in one direction, then the other. The tractor careened another few yards and after a life-long hesitation, ground to a halt with its nose in the trees.
I looked around; my parents were still on the trailer, hanging onto the apple bin and muttering. I climbed out of the seat and strolled nonchalantly up the plank that linked the tractor to the trailer. I put the empty boxes back into place and started to pick apples; trying to look as though I did this sort of thing every day and that a runaway tractor was all part of the job.