The Americans call it a truck farm. The British, a market garden. Either way, it’s a large sprawling field or two consisting of rows and rows of different vegetables, in theory being grown for sale at the local market. I always did wonder why the Americans call it a truck farm, and tried to visualise small trucks emerging from the tilled earth with little wing mirrors for shoots…
Anyway, this one was big – ten acres or so. It sloped down to the river and along its shore, the only patch of naturally fertile soil on a huge but otherwise barren piece of land. We grew every vegetable known to the Western market, and each had its season, its time for planting and its time for plucking. A hot summer would be coming and the underground root cave, a storage place especially dug in the ground to keep root vegetables cool throughout the year, was now being stocked with its annual supply of potatoes.
Potatoes, as you may know, are tricky blighters to unleash from their sticky moorings under the mud, and we would have to kneel down and, with our little forked picks, dig them out one by one. We would stash them on a sheet of black plastic which would then be tipped into sacks and mounted on the back of a small open truck – the small kind of truck that the Americans and the Brits call trucks. (Ah, now I know why it’s a ‘truck farm’!)
A burly big-hearted American called Pranesh was responsible for overseeing this work, where about 30 of us market gardeners, shivering in our heavy, full-bodied overalls, laboured to harvest fresh vegetables through all weathers.
Whenever any one of us was too cold to bear it any longer, we would run across the lumpy field to where a huge bonfire was kept burning, and there we would pack our retrieved spuds into foil and stick them into the embers. And while waiting for them to cook, we’d go dancing around the fire like a bunch of stereotypical native American Indians.
After all, how else are you going to keep warm in minus zero degrees?
Despite having to negotiate our cumbersome, quilted, zipped-up overalls, there were still times when we had to use the loo. Peeing in the buff was not encouraged, nor was it a very attractive proposition under the circumstances, and besides, small cabins we’d now call port-a-loos but then known as outhouses had been provided. They were periodically situated along the bleak tract of knobbly land, atop the lanes that ran beside the vegetable furrows. They were dinky little affairs: wooden seat, a big bucket filled with lime and a scoop to sprinkle it down the hole after business had been completed. They were prefabricated, made entirely of sturdy pine, so stood mounted precariously on small blocks to keep them level, and each one had a pretty little cut-out in the heavy door of a sun or a moon or a few stars, just to keep the air circulating and to provide a cheerful moment in a rather bleak occupation under bleak conditions.
After each row had been rid of its potatoes and the black plastic sheets were transferred to the next row, the full truck, now heavy under the weight of perhaps 20 sacks of muddy tubers, would back up the adjacent track to shunt along the tops of the lanes, and empty itself out in preparation for our next row’s load.
On this occasion, Pranesh, truck driver and bearer of heavy potato sacks, backed up in reverse, the four-wheel drive growled painfully as it laboured against the sticky mud, and before he knew what had happened, he had struck an outhouse head on. It wobbled on its breeze block mounts and then down it fell on its back, kerplonk.
Such a thing hadn’t happened before and this was a moment of priceless hilarious distraction, an excuse for all of us from across the field to gather round in anticipation, to laugh and sigh at the sight of the felled shithouse, and muse about how we could all lever it back up again.
Much discussion took place. We gazed at it lying now, like a coffin fit for a very fat man, and while two of the stronger guys prepared to push from behind, we strutted around and then back again, looking for other suitable access points. We quickly realised its short edges were too narrow to fit more than two men and its weight too heavy to be lifted by fewer than two. Off the elected lifters went in search of strategic tools that might help with the job instead, while we were all on hand to support whatever action was decided upon, with Pranesh, of course, in charge of operations.
And as our excited voices died down, and those of us remaining now stood in solemn contemplation of the problem, we suddenly became aware of a small, high, singular cry…
Help! it called.
Help! it called again.
For a moment we looked sharply at each other. Was someone among us playing a game?
And then it dawned on us… There was someone inside!
Pranesh prised open the lid of the coffin-loo and gazed over the rim…and gingerly we all followed suit. There, in full toilet-seat position, shivering with her overalls around her ankles, was fellow potato picker Yoko, a diminutive Japanese girl, who up till then had been too shy to let her plight be known.
We lifted her out. We pulled up her clothing. We covered her in jackets. We cried, we laughed, we hugged her. We said sorry….
And she gazed at us all in sweet trusting bemusement that made me, anyway, feel a bit shamefaced.
So boisterous we had been in our unrestrained hilarity, it had not occurred to anyone that someone might be inside.