The mid-term break will mean different things to different children. Some boys and girls are being brought on a little holiday by their parents. Others are up the town causing mayhem and getting ASBOs because their parents have forgotten all about the mid-term break.
Years ago, in my country childhood, the mid-term break meant one thing only: spud-picking. Nowadays most large scale potato picking is done by the Internet. But there was a time when fields were filled with stooping human beings who had to bend over, grab a British Queen and stuff her unceremoniously into a bag. They had to fill that bag about 30 times and empty it into a crate. And for that crate you were paid £9. This was when £9 could buy more than something vaguely involving ciabatta, so spud-picking was a highly sought-after role. The drills were crowded with men, women and children stooping, scrabbling, filling, emptying and smoking.
Smoking. You wouldn’t see this kind of smoking in a black-and-white existentialist French film. They didn’t smoke slim Gaulois; these were the hard-core brands – Sweet Afton, Carrolls, Major and the odd Silk Cut for the kiddies. The cigarettes were not held delicately between the index and middle fingers in the manner of a louche theatrical agent wearing a velvet smoking jacket. No, the smokes were crushed between thumb and forefinger by the smoker, who clearly intended to suck the very marrow out of them.
After a six days of drills, it took a further week to straighten your back out – but at least it was proper work. Unlike the summer before. In the Spring of 1994, Scully arrived in our yard. Scully – not to be confused with the auburn-haired sexy FBI agent in the X-Files – was a bald sweary man who grew cauliflowers and broccolli. He was interested in renting land from my father.
In the yard, Scully stayed in his jeep and my father stood a few feet away. As they negotiated over the rent, I listened in from an upstairs window, fascinated by the differing styles. Scully was direct and abrupt. My father preferred the more circuitous route of haggling, whereby he would ignore the original offer and come out with an apparently unrelated statement to buy him some time as he did the sums in his head.
“I’ll give you Wan-Twenty an acre for it Patsy” said Scully, testing the water.
“Wan-Twenty begor, Tell me who’s building that big house over in Coachford.”
“Wan of the Kellys – married a girl from Carlow – he’s working below in Pfizer’s” said Scully.
“She came a long way from Carlow. What is she doing?”
“A nurse above in the Regional”
“A nurse – handy, [Pause] You’ll do better than 120, will you? Sure I’ll have nothing out of that.”
“Arra feck sake Patsy” said Scully biting into a Rothmans “Wan Thirty so”
“Wan Thirty – begor”
A car drove past on the road and beeped. My father waved involuntarily.
“Who’s that?” he said.
“Young Sinead McCarthy. The guard’s daughter” came the increasingly impatient reply
“Sinead McCarthy driving a car, janey we’re all getting old – You’ll go to Wan-Fifty I suppose Matt will you?”
“Arraghh go way to feck Patsy. Fine so, I don’t have all day for this craic.”
They spoke for a few more minutes and when my father arrived back in, I pressed him for news.
– Scully’s taking the field alright – for broccoli.
– And did you ask him about a job for me?
– He’ll give you a start anyway – he’ll pick you up here in the morning.
At half-eight the following morning, I was in Scully’s jeep, hurtling down a rough lane. The track widened out into a field of recently planted cauliflower. A flock of pigeons flew up as we skidded to a stop.
“Look at them hoors ating the young plants” said Scully (although the word he used was far worse than hoor)
“Bastards they are” I said, although the word I used was far worse than bastard.
He paused and looked at me – [Shite] I thought, [I’ve gone too far.]
“Bastards is right” he agreed. I was relieved. We seemed to have bonded.
We got out and stood looking at the fields. The pigeons landed again twenty yards away. One appeared to give Scully the finger.
“Them feckers will ruin this crop. Five fields of caulifilower and they’ll eat every fecking last one of them. And they take no notice of the banger, they’re too cute for that.”
Just then the gas banger went off with a gunshot-like sound. I jumped. A nearby pigeon, nonchalantly raised an eyebrow and continued eating. At this point I began to wonder what we were doing here. I doubted Scully needed someone to talk to, someone who shared his belief that pigeons were bastards. The true purpose was soon revealed.
“See all those fields – what you’ll do now is keep walking through these fields all day waving your arms at the pigeons to move them on. Never let the feckers settle.Do that for a week and we’ll see how they like it.”
I stared at him. The question “So you want me to be a human scarecrow?” was frozen on my lips.
Without a further word he got into the jeep and sped off. There was no one left except me and the pigeons. My first day at work as a pigeon-frightener passed slowly. As did the following weeks. Each day I arrived vaguely expecting some sort of surprise party, or a man to jump out of a tree saying “I’m Mike Murphy from RTE” but there was nothing. Maybe this WAS my job, although it was proving to be a difficult sell to the lads in Dripsey who, on seeing me approach, would run around waving their arms shouting “Caw! Caw!”.
“Bastards” I thought, preferring the company of pigeons at this stage.
As time went on, I got used to my easygoing outdoor existence. I made a little shelter under a whitethorn tree complete with the passenger seat of an old Fiat Merifiori. I read every book I could lay my hands on. Although the intellectual weight of the books declined over time. The Fall of Yugoslavia and The Unbearable Lightness of Being were gradually replaced with A Matter of Medicine – A tale of a lantern-jawed doctor who was married to his work and a doe-eyed nurse who taught him how to love again.
It was while I was reading this page-turner that Scully pulled up in his jeep out of nowhere. There was no time to pretend I was working. A pigeon sauntered past a few feet away. Sitting outside with the birds of the air resting nearby I must have looked like a latter day Francis of Assissi.
But Scully was in a good mood. The unusual experiment had worked – the crop had been saved and I was actually disappointed when he told me that this week – week six – was my last.
It took rather longer than six weeks for me to lose my new nickname – Worzel Gummidge.