Of Mice and Men

Mr Blue-Shirt’s phone rang as we started pulling the nets from the base of the olive tree whose ripe, glossy fruit we had just harvested along to the next one. I straightened out the expanses of green plastic mesh beneath the tree’s fruit-laden branches while he took the call.
Ciao, Francesco! Come stai? – Hi Francesco! How are you?”
Francesco is our farmer pal who owns the barn where Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop is taking shape. I imagined that, as usual, he wanted help with some agricultural machinery that had broken down.
“Yes, we started this morning. We’ve only done about five trees so far, though.”
This puzzled me slightly, but with the nets in place, I picked up my orange plastic hand rake and began combing it through the tree’s lower branches, the shiny black and purple beads pattering onto the net like big fat rain drops.
“Well, there are some that aren’t perfect, but it’s always like that. Why do you ask?”
I continued combing, but tuned in more to what Mr Blue-Shirt was saying.
“What, all of them? Oh no, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry.”
I stopped and caught Mr Blue-Shirt’s eye, a ‘what’s up?’ expression on my face. He pointed to the russet-coloured crate of fruit we had already gathered, then, in the universal gesture for ‘stop’, made a sawing action in front of his throat. I frowned at him in exaggerated bafflement and mouthed ‘Wot??’
“Yes, that would be great. Thanks,” he said. “A presto. Ciao. – See you shortly. Bye.” Mr Blue-Shirt rang off, stuffed his phone back into his pocket and sighed.
“Well? I said. “Why is Francesco so interested in our olives?”
“He and his dad have just started harvesting theirs, but the whole crop is ruined, he said.”
“No! How come?”
“They’re full of worms, apparently – so he wanted to know what ours are like.”
“We always find a few worms, but it’s never been a problem before.  In fact, last year Rodolfo made a point of saying how good our fruit was when we took it to him for pressing.”
“I know! But as Francesco’s trees aren’t very far from ours, he thinks ours might have a problem too. He’s on his way round to have a look.

Rovinate – come le nostre,” said Francesco, “Ruined – like ours.” He tossed the handful of olives he had been inspecting back into the crate and smiled ruefully. It had only taken him a few seconds to reach his diagnosis: the brown-edged puncture marks told him all he needed to know. To prove his point, he slit one open with his olive-stained thumbnail and pressed the juicy, pale green flesh away from the stone to reveal a tiny, biscuit-coloured worm wriggling about in the narrow tunnel it had burrowed into the fruit.
“See?” he said.
“But they’re not all like that,” said the incurably optimistic Mr Blue-Shirt.
“No, not all of them – but enough to mean your oil won’t be any good. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth harvesting the rest. Look…” Francesco stood up from the crate we were crouching around and walked over to the tree I’d spread the nets under and among whose silver-green leaves hung hundreds of sun-ripened olives that in the autumn sun looked like fairy lights made of jet. He gave the trunk a brief shake and a shower of fruit rained down onto the net.
“But I thought that just means the fruit is ripe,” I said.
Francesco shook his head. “Healthy fruit shouldn’t fall off that easily.”
We trailed behind him as he shook a couple more of the trees on our northern boundary and then a few along the eastern edge – and each time with the same result. By the time we had reached the far south-eastern corner even Mr Blue-Shirt was looking glum. There was no need to test the trees on the southern side: we’d got the message, so we trudged back across the garden to Francesco’s battered white jeep on the drive.
“Trust me,” he said, running a grubby hand through his wild mop of hair. “It’s not worth the effort.”
“We do; it’s just that…,” Mr Blue-Shirt tailed off with a dejected shrug.
“Yeah, I know. We feel the same about ours. Look, why don’t you take the ones you’ve picked down to Rodolfo this afternoon and see what he says. You never know, he might pay you something for them.”

Mr Blue-Shirt’s laboured footfall on the stairs up to my study told me it wasn’t good news.
“Well?” I said as he slumped into the armchair under the window.
He responded by tossing a couple of bank notes onto my desk.
“Thirty Euros? But we had over fifty kilos of fruit, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but because of the worms, he can only use it for the low-grade oil he sells at a discount. To be honest, after what Francesco said, I’m surprised he gave us anything at all.”
“Yeah, and I suppose thirty Euros is better than nothing – although it confirms what Francesco said about harvesting the rest: too much effort for too little return.”
“Yup! And pretty much what Rodolfo said too.”
“Did you ask him what we should do with the rest of the crop, though? Surely we won’t get rid of the worms if we don’t get rid of the fruit.”
“He said just leave it and let it fall off.”
“Really? What about eggs and larvae and so on?”
“He reckons they’ll all die off over winter, but we’ll need to spray the trees next July.”
“That makes sense: after they’ve bloomed and just as the fruit sets. What with though?”
“He didn’t say exactly. We can get it from him next summer, though. But that’s it for this year,” he said with a sigh.
“I know,” I said. “So disappointing, isn’t it.”
“Yes, very. And not just because of the oil.”
“Hardly! We’ve still got most of last year’s down in the cellar. But I know what you mean. It’s that connection with the culture and doing something that is so much part of the community.”
“Exactly,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “It’s as if we’re missing out on something.”

As we reluctantly gathered up all the olive harvesting stuff in the fading light, I felt another pang of disappointment. Further down the mist-filled valley I heard the unmistakable chatter of a battery-powered rake just like the one we have that Mr Blue-Shirt was carrying back to the shed almost unused. He was right: it felt as if we’d got some kind of injury that meant we couldn’t take part in the match but only watch from the side-lines. And that is no fun at all.

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