© NA Randall
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I remember the first morning when the transit van pulled up at the side of the road. There was Deano with his head hanging out the passenger window – a shock of ginger hair, a gormless grin plastered across his freckled face. He sat there staring at me with piercing blue eyes, mad eyes, dangerous eyes. He was one of those people you only need to look at once to be wary of.
When the gang-master got out, I could tell he was disappointed I wasn’t a strapping six-footer who would be of some practical use to him that summer. Regardless, he smiled, shook my hand, and welcomed me aboard.
As soon as I opened the door the smell hit me: twelve semi-conscious men still stinking of their beds and last night’s booze. It looked like a field hospital.
I clambered in and tried to sleep. But Deano’s incessant chatter, his jabbering stream of nonsense proved too distracting. Every so often, one of the men farted and he would shout:
‘I smell sperm, I smell sperm,’ then laugh himself silly.
The drive lasted nearly two hours.
Once out of the van, I followed after the other men. Without exchanging a word, dust rising from leaden footsteps, these barely human shapes cast reluctant shadows, heads hanging down, coughing and hawking. It felt like a march to the gallows. Everyone looked so beaten and weary, despite the fact the working day had yet to begin.
There was a half-mile trek across a desolate stretch of farm land. The early morning sunshine felt hot and oppressive. But it was the silence, an ominous quiet that struck me most. Even the birds seemed to make no sound.
When we got to the field the gang-master took me and a lad called Dimitri to one side. Handing us each a pair of rubber gloves, he explained that as we were the youngest we were going to be ‘riddling.’ I had no idea what he meant.
We climbed onto a covered trailer attached to a tractor, and stood either side of a mechanical conveyor belt. As the tractor moved, so did the belt, and on it, the potatoes. Spotted amongst the rolling harvest were all types of things – carcasses, stones, green or rotten potatoes. It was our job to remove them. Rotten potatoes were the worst. The stench is hard to describe – dog sick or curdled milk. Just thinking about it makes me retch.
It took less than thirty minutes for the boredom to really sink in. The mind numbing repetition, being shunted this way and that, the clunking belt and tubercular engine noise, the dirt and dust, hands working furiously, more often than not failing to grab something slippery and disgusting before it fell from the belt, destined for the bottom of some unsuspecting shopping bag.
Two hours passed, maybe three. I was lost in the nothingness when the engine and belt stopped. Then I heard someone shout ‘tea break.’ It sounded like a hymn to the Lord.
I glanced across at Dimitri. The look on his face needed no words.
Just as we were about to climb down, Deano leapt onto the side of the trailer armed with a rotten potato. It whistled just past my face. Dimitri wasn’t so lucky. It hit him square on the chest, exploding in a pulpy mush.
The rest of the workers were sitting in the middle of the field, smoking or drinking tea from thermos flasks. The sun was hotter still. Nobody said a word, until Deano came over, sprawling out on the ground with legs outstretched.
‘I screwed for England last night, boys,’ he said, absently groping his crotch. ‘She was a real cracker too, biggest tits I ever saw.’
The other men didn’t respond, react, show any sign of interest.
‘How old are you?’
Panicked, I feared Deano was talking to me. But when I looked up I saw him staring at Dimitri, who was still mopping the front of his T-shirt.
‘Bet you’re still a virgin, aren’t yer?’ Deano got to his feet. ‘Yeah, this one hasn’t had his cherry popped yet, boys. What’d you say about that, eh…eh?’
Deano walked right up to Dimitri, and pushed him to the floor.
‘Oi, I’m talking to you.’ Deano’s eyes flashed. ‘Don’t you understand English? I said -’
‘Boys!’ It was the gang-master. ‘Come on, back to work.’
That first day felt like it was never going to end. When it did, I had visions of whirling potatoes ingrained in my mind, like looking into the sun and seeing shapes flash behind your eyes.
As we trudged back to the van, Deano persuaded the gang-master to let him drive home. On the motorway, it was as if he was hell-bent on killing us. Foot flat down, he took the rattling van to its limits, riding bumper to bumper, overtaking like a lunatic, whooping and hollering. As soon as we got into a built-up area he would honk the horn at anything resembling a female, making lewd gestures as we sped by.
When I got home, I had a long soak in the bath, dreading tomorrow. But there was no way out of it. I needed the job. I needed the money.
Next day was the same - the long drive, the semi-comatose gang, Deano. It was hard to believe someone so limited could like the sound of his own voice so much.
‘Sunk sixteen pints of cider last night, boys.’
I switched off.
When we arrived the gang-master told us we’d be ‘bagging up.’ Again, I had no idea what he was talking about. On a concreted area outside some farm buildings, we set about transferring yesterday’s harvest from trailers to brown sacks. Dimitri and I were allocated the least physical work: tying the sacks with thin metal wires. But the strain of all that twisting, turning and stacking soon took its toll. To make matters worse, the numbers of bags needing securing were increasing faster than we could get to them. After a couple of hours, unfastened bags were piled up everywhere.
Deano marched over.
‘You fuckin’ useless pair of cunts!’ he shouted. ‘All you’ve gotta do is tie these fuckers up.’
Grabbing a handful of wires, he shoved me aside and started fastening bags. No sooner had he fastened one and stacked it, he was onto the next.
‘Look and learn,’ he told us. ‘This is a piece of piss. Now you try.’
Deano’s hulking, sweaty body smelt rank, like bleach or something. On grabbing a bag, I inadvertently made contact with one of his wet, milky arms. It made my shudder.
‘That’s it,’ he said, almost humanly, seeing my renewed efforts. ‘You two had better get your thumbs out of your arses. We can’t afford to carry no one.’
For a few minutes, he stood watching over us. Then he crept up behind me and slashed my forearm with one of the wires. In shock, I recoiled. The fresh cut seeped blood like an egg yolk breached by a knife. I’ve still got scars on my forearms – because that wasn’t the last time he did it.
During a break, we sat on some wooden pallets. It was muggy and close. As I put a plaster on my arm, someone stepped in front of me, blocking out the sun.
‘So, Storky, you got into the swing of things yet?’
Deano’s voice seemed softer. I mistook it for a belated apology.
‘‘Cos I ain’t fuckin’ around when I told you we can’t be carrying no one. If you don’t shape up, you’ll be out.’
It didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
‘What‘re you doing here anyway? This is man’s work, not little boys.’
‘I’m going to college in September,’ I replied. ‘I’m hoping to save up some money.’
‘Ooh.’ He shook his head. ‘Fuckin’ poncey college boy, that’s all we need! At least comrade cherry-popper over there knows how to put in a shift.’
Scowling, Deano walked off.
Each day was as long and miserable as the next. Picked up at five, starting work at seven, not getting home until eight or nine in the evening, covered in shit and aches and pains.
Towards the end of the second week, the heavens opened. Rain was the best thing to happen all summer. Wet soil stopped work.
The gang-master decided to wait it out, and started allocating middling tasks. Deano and some older men were told to go and pick potatoes by hand. I was told to sweep out one of the farm buildings.
‘This little fucker has got the life of Riley,’ moaned Deano. ‘How come he gets all the cushy jobs, eh?’
He glared at me. I quickly looked away.
‘It’s gotta be done,’ said the gang-master. ‘And anyway, you’d be the first to complain if I asked you to sweep up.’
When I’d finished sweeping, I poked my head outside. It was still raining, and there was no sign of the rest of the gang. Taking a newspaper from someone’s bag, I sat myself down and waited.
Half an hour later, I heard footsteps, and saw Deano rushing over. For protection against the rain, he was wearing a plastic rubbish bag with holes cut out for his head and arms. Plainly agitated, dripping wet, he steamed into the farm building.
‘Look at you, you little bastard! Feet up, all warm and cosy, reading the fuckin’ paper!’
For some reason I thought he was joking, and shrugged and smiled.
‘It’s a piss-take,’ he said. ‘And you’re a piss-taking cunt!’
He ripped off the plastic bag, his hands twitching, fit to strike out. He lurched forward. It was scary. Thankfully, the van pulled up outside. But for that one moment, Deano had an even more horrible look in his eyes than I’d seen before, like someone deranged or madly drunk. Muttering under his breath, he smiled at me - strangely, disconcertingly - then turned and walked out.
One afternoon we were raided by Immigration Officers. Half a dozen men dashed across the field like some crack SWAT team. Only instead of guns they held up pieces of paper. It didn’t have quite the same effect.
As I was being questioned, a commotion broke out, and Dimitri sprinted off. One of the Immigration Officers chased him down. I remember the look of resignation on Dimitri’s face when he was led away, tears streaming down his cheeks. He told me he was sending money home to his family. His pay packet was literally feeding them, and keeping a roof over their heads. What were my problems compared to his?
We never saw Dimitri again. Apparently, he hadn’t the appropriate papers to be working here. At the time I didn’t realize what it would mean for me. Now I was the only one Deano could pick on.
That week, we moved to another field. A nightmare field. More stones than potatoes. We needed four men removing things from the belt. They took it in turns. The first thing Deano did when he climbed aboard was spit on my shoe. As the engine restarted, I tried to concentrate on my work, keeping a corner of my eye fixed firmly on him.
A little later, however, caught in a void of complete and utter boredom, something slimy was wiped across my cheek.
Deano burst out laughing.
‘What was that?’ I shouted.
‘Don’t worry,’ he replied. ‘Just something I scraped off the end of my cock.’
On the way home that night, I sat directly behind the gang-master, Deano next to him, something stupid exiting his mouth every other second.
‘Going down the Mill tonight,’ he said to the gang-master.
‘Yeah. Gonna get me end away again. Tugged this cracker last week…she knew her onions, I can tell you. Gave me a blowy for about two hours.’
‘Surely you’d have shot your bolt long before two hours were up,’ said the gang-master.
‘What’d you take me for? I never cum before I’ve got inside.’
‘But the good ‘un’s know what to do to yer, Deano.’
‘So, it’s happened to you, has it?’ Deano sniggered. ‘Bloody wars, boys.’ He turned in his seat, flashing the rest of the gang a demented grin. ‘Old matey boy here, only goes and shoots his load before he’s got inside the pussy hole.’
His laughter annoyed the gang-master.
‘Oh shut up, for fuck’s sake, Dean! I’d be surprised if you knew the pussy from the piss hole.’
‘I’ve known you for the best part of fifteen years, and I’ve never seen you with a woman. You still live with your mum, for Chrissakes.’
Everybody laughed. It felt good to see Deano put in his place for once. Better still, he didn’t say another word for the rest of the journey.
The summer was drawing to a close. It felt beyond miraculous that I’d got anywhere close to seeing it through. We moved on to another nightmare field – stones, stones and more stones. In wilting heat, progress was slow. In the midst of the rattling noise, the dust swirling against broken rays of sun, I looked up for a moment, at the other men with sweat dripping from their dirt-caked brows, bodies bent at crooked, unnatural angles, and felt a deep sense of sympathy and sorrow. I wondered what their dreams had been when they were children, when they were my age. How had they envisioned their lives working out? Rock stars? Millionaires? Footballers? Maybe even a cushy office job – surely not this. It was as if I was looking at the worst thing any person could imagine for themselves. It was a very sad sight.
That afternoon, the going was only getting worse when I heard a scream and shouts of ‘stop the engine.’
We all jumped off the trailer. A gang member called Billy was trapped underneath, pinned to the soft, muddy floor. The gang-master was kneeling beside him, searching for some way to free him, muttering, ‘Oh shit, oh shit.’
It was then Deano appeared.
‘Don’t fuckin’ move him!’ he shouted.
I looked at Billy, grimacing through the pain. Everybody was at a loss. Everybody except Deano. I can clearly picture him grabbing this and that, and ordering the men around. Most took the weight of the trailer, while two got either side of Billy, ready to pull him to one side. On the count of three, and in a split second, he was freed. Miraculously, he only suffered minor injuries.
In the field afterwards, everyone crowded around Deano.
‘Well done, Dean,’ said the gang-master. ‘I don’t know what we’d have done without you, mate. You saved ole Billy’s life.’
‘Ah, fuck off, you daft cunt.’
‘Nah, come on, Dean. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before, seen legs and arms ripped off, men cut in two. If you hadn’t kept your head, we -’
‘Shut it.’ Deano waved the gang-master’s words away. ‘He can buy me a pint down the Mill later. Then we’ll be quits.’
Lighting a cigarette, he stood there as everyone congratulated him, with this modest, almost shy expression on his face, like he didn’t know how to take a compliment, a simple expression of human gratitude. At that moment, he looked almost charming.
During my last week, thoughts of college life, of what the future held were so sweet, getting into a smelly transit van at five in the morning didn’t seem all that bad. I had done what needed to be done. I had my money saved. And although I was loath to admit it – I felt proud of myself. It was as if I’d been through some unedifying experience, and come out the other side all the stronger.
It rained for the majority of the week. Like a reward from above.
Late one morning, I was sweeping out the largest farm building. The doors banging open and shut didn’t alarm me. A strong breeze had been doing that for the last hour. It was only when I felt a hand on my shoulder that I realized I wasn’t alone.
Deano had sneaked in.
All I remember with any clarity is his glowering blue eyes as he grabbed my head, and forced his mouth over mine. I was completely overpowered. He threw me to the ground and jumped on top of me. With his knees across my chest, he pinned me down, trapping both my arms. I kicked out my legs. I struggled. But he was far too strong. Then he elbowed me in the nose. My eyes filled with water. My vision blurred. All I could see were the outlines of things. A second blow knocked me out or senseless.
When I came to I could taste blood, and still feel the weight of his body and his rank smell all over me. Then his penis jabbed into my face, searching out my mouth. In frustration, he hit me again, pulled me over onto my front, wrenching my tracksuit bottoms down from the waist. I tried to seize up, to make it impossible, but he had his hand on the back of my neck, forcing my face into the dirt. When he ripped into me that initial pain turned everything off. It was as if I was watching it happen to somebody else.
Cold. Numb. I could hear the pitter-patter of rain, as Deano shunted himself up inside of me, grunting and moaning, twisting me this way and that.
When finished, he pushed his face against mine, licked my cheek and whispered, ‘If you tell anybody about this, I’ll fucking kill you.’
He stood up. His body cast a dark shadow over mine. And for some reason, having him staring down like that, when I was so broken and humiliated, felt more of a violation than what he’d just done to me. Too scared to move or look round, the next thing I heard was him zipping up his trousers. Then he spat on me and walked out.