Sophie glanced around in all directions but could see only millions of heads of wheat dancing in the breeze, competing to interrupt the pale blue morning sky. She checked again over her shoulder and squatted down, dropping her sickle into the dry earth. She hoisted her stained and fading trouser leg up and fumbled at the sock on her left foot. She tugged a black metallic tube out. Giddy with excitement, she reached into her right sock and pulled out her Samsung phone. She scanned all around again and listened out, but could hear only the whooshing of the crops and the distant roar of the A road a mile and a half away.
Her hands were shaking as she slotted the white charging point of the tube-shaped battery-powered phone charger into the phone.
“Come on, come on, come on,” she whispered to herself through gritted teeth.
The screen on the phone remained in moribund black for a few seconds until a faint white battery icon appeared. ‘0%. Charging’ it said underneath. Success.
Sophie clawed an opening into the earth with her sickle and then tugged a few clumps out with her hand until a wide enough hole appeared. She wrapped the phone and charger in a plastic bag, tucked them inside the hole and smeared the soil back over the top. She brushed with her fingers to flatten the ground and try to make sure it didn’t stand out too much from the surrounding soil.
She sighed when she saw that despite her best efforts, she had left a patch with a much darker shade than the surroundings that had been lightly scorched by the dry summer. She stepped backward five paces and marked an ‘X’ on the ground.
Then she turned and ran all the way until the sea of wheat came to an abrupt end.
“Hey Soph!” said Jordan, “Donny was looking for you.”
Claudia tittered as Sophie’s cheeks turned a stony white.
“Funny man!” Claudia said. “We still haven’t seen the tractor at all again today yet.”
“I wonder what he gets up to?” Sophie said.
“Something better then this, obviously,” said Jordan, glancing down to his sickle and reaching to squeeze his sore right bicep.
“How many sacks are we on now?” asked Sophie. She turned to look at the three half-filled straw sacks encircled by piles of empty sacks being buffeted by the breeze. She regretted asking the question.
“Er, not nearly enough,” said Jordan. “Come and help us pack this lot up, and I can take a couple of sacks to the storehouse. Oh and if you can possibly help it ladies, no more toilet breaks please.”
“Aye aye captain!” Sophie said, figuring she should best play along to better disguise the true reason for sneaking off among the rows of wheat. Claudia gave a half-smile but Jordan did not look amused. He reached to push his sleeves up then wiped a drop of sweat from his brow.
Sophie reached for one of the half-full sacks and dragged it towards the uneven pile of freshly cut wheat. She knelt down and clutched as much wheat as she could with both hands before shoving it in the sack.
“Have you seen how the other groups are doing?” asked Sophie.
“I don’t want to even think about it,” said Jordan, who was furiously filling a sack of his own. “I mean, with George – ” He let the sentence end there, as he didn’t want to elaborate on his sense of frustration at seeing Donny chalk up the scores at the end of every day with George, who played rugby for Bath University, grinning with his arm around Belinda, who always looked just as made up as at the start of the day. Jordan also didn’t want to air his frustration at George also being allowed to have Alan on his team, while he had to work with two girls.
Donny had said he would change the teams if they were unfair, but adjudicating that fell on his shoulders, of course.
Jordan had looked on scornfully a couple of evenings ago as Donny congratulated George and his lover for their tremendous yield of 24 sacks for the day. Donny walked slowly past Jordan, Sophie and Claudia, wondering whether to berate or encourage them for their 11 sackloads. Jordan, red in the face, had been about to open his mouth when Donny said, all of a sudden: “And not only have you won at a canter, but in a fair contest too. Yeah, these teams are fair.” The farmer from hell could also read minds, it seemed.
Donny turned back to the winners.
“So, George, are you taking the phone charger tonight?”
“I think I’ll let Belinda have it again,” he said, squeezing her shoulder.
Sophie looked down at the concrete floor of the granary in disappointment. She badly wanted to write to her sister before her birthday on Thursday, and she had been without any battery on her phone for two weeks now.
Sophie had been in good spirits when she signed up online to spend her summer at the Abergyl Organic Collective. Over the last academic year, her posh friend from university had spent several evenings, as they sat together on bean bags and sipped herbal tea, raving about her time on an organic banana farm in Borneo, about how great it was to connect to nature and everyone was super friendly and you got to spend your evenings chatting under the stars with lovely guys. Seeing as Sophie couldn’t afford the airfare to anywhere quite as exotic as Borneo, she decided to go to Wales.
The collective had an extremely basic website, which seemed really trendy. There was a bold chunk of text in the middle boasting about how the place was ‘Completely free from all modern technological distractions, giving you a 100% natural experience.’ The thought hadn’t occurred to her at the time that this meant that the 50-acre farm was completely devoid of mechanical farm equipment. The lack of WiFi was something she could accept – she had packed her Kindle and she could always use the 3G on her phone for emails and Facebook, she reckoned. She hadn’t counted altogether on Donny, the farmer, not providing a single socket in the farmhands’ quarters and controlling access to the one universal phone charger he kept in his own house as a means to reward whoever he saw fit – i.e. usually George and Belinda.
Donny the farmer was welcoming at first, his stubbly face cracking into a wide grin as he treated everyone to drinks on the first night, cracking joke after joke and praising them for coming. A good number of idealistic young heads had nodded along when he said “Whatever you do in life, whatever you achieve or fail to achieve, you can say, proudly, that one summer you came and tried to make a difference.” He had a certain swagger when he patrolled around in his red wellies. You never knew from looking at him what kind of mood he was in though – it could change in an instant for no apparent reason.
He struck fear into the workers – all students from middle-ranking universities like Sophie – by the constant prospect of turning up at unpredictable moments to berate them. “Who’s the clumsy arsehole who spilled three cans of weed killer today?” he shouted when bursting into the quarters at two in the morning one night. “Come on, come on, own up or nobody gets to charge their phone for the next fortnight?” On one of the first days of the harvest, he called Jordan a “lazy scrawny piece of shit” and ordered him to go and sleep with the pigs, before running after him, laughing and saying he was only joking. “But if I catch any of you slacking, I will do it, you know!” he added.
There were some other incentives Donny provided, as well, for his favourites. George and Belinda were allowed to use a spare bedroom in his farmhouse on evenings when George had been particularly productive on the fields. A girl in the third of three harvesting teams had also been invited in to use Donny’s shower, instead of the rusted contraption behind some bricks in the corner of the yard that delivered a trickle of cold water they always had to queue up for. This favour was only granted when Donny complimented her on the fantastic job she had done on cleaning the tables.
Sophie didn’t like to think she was addicted to her phone, but after a long spell without any battery on it, it became all she thought about. She had put it on battery-saver mode when arriving at the start of July and managed to keep it going until the end of the month with a strict routine of checking emails and Facebook just once a day. After it died, she had waited three long weeks until George had one evening nominated her to use the charger he had won the right to use for the evening. That was a massive surprise to her as she had hardly talked to the guy, although he had actually allowed her to use the charger just to spite Belinda, whom he had argued with earlier that day.
Sophie’s heart had raced as she knocked on Donny’s door to pick up her phone that night. She walked to the side of the barn and turned it on, along with the mobile data. ‘Ping!’ it sounded as ‘You have a message’ was displayed, which quickly turned to ‘2 messages, 3 messages, 12 messages’. There were 47 in total. One of her friends from university had split up with her boyfriend, another had fallen madly in love with an Italian guy on holiday in Rhodes while a third friend was stressing like mad while working for a solicitors’ firm.
Sophie typed out her replies. She wanted to call everyone but resisted the urge. She didn’t want to create any more jealousies among her colleagues who were still without phone access. She did find time the following day to call her parents and sister though. She put on a brave face when they asked her how things were going on the farm. It was an interesting experience, she said, the work was hard, but most of the people were nice – that was a slight exaggeration, although a sizeable minority were pleasant. The food was ok and they had some fun, which was all true, and every Friday and Saturday night, Donny left them with as much homemade cider as they could drink – something that was greeted with approval from Sophie’s friends. Soon enough, a couple of weeks before harvest, Sophie’s phone battery ran empty again.
Some friends had asked her if she was going to stay to the end, which had taken her by surprise – seeing as they were working towards the harvest the whole time, it hadn’t occurred to her to drop out. A few of the farmhands had left – three didn’t survive the first week without their home comforts, and another four had baulked after the first few days of hard graft at harvest time.
In theory anyone could leave at any time, but it was clear that Donny didn’t approve. You had to explain yourself to him first, as he kept all purses and wallets in his farmhouse for safekeeping. He made a big thing about leaving references on the volunteers’ social media pages, where friends and potential future employees could read them. The first person to drop out at the start of the summer was a silent guy called Mike, and the following day, Donny left his laptop on the dining table at lunch for all to see, with Mike’s LinkedIn profile open. A curt reference was on display: “Mike said he was going to work hard on my farm but he was a complete waste of space. His social skills are so poor even the cows ran away from him.”
Even leaving the farm on a Sunday was something Donny clearly frowned upon. It was a good 45-minute drive to the nearest town, where Donny promised he would take all the farmhands for a massive night out at the end of the harvest. Jordan had developed a couple of holes in his boots just before the start of the harvest and asked Donny for permission to hitch a lift to the town for replacements. “No need, I’m sure I’ve got some for you,” Donny promised, before producing a ragged old pair four sizes too big. When Jordan asked again, Donny asked if Jordan had heard of negative ions, explaining that they are some kind of wonderful bundles of energy that you can flood your body with while walking barefoot to live a happy life. “It could be worth trying, if you want to be a happier person?” Donny had suggested. When Jordan had insisted that only comfortable boots would stop him feeling miserable every day on the fields, Donny sighed and escorted him in person to the nearest outdoor gear shop, even shadowing him inside to help him choose.
Sophie, Claudia and Jordan had hacked the way across to the furthest edge of the field, and could see George and Belinda smiling with their giant yield of the day in the neighbouring field. Sophie was waiting for an opportunity to sneak and retrieve the phone along with the battery-powered charger. She had stolen the charger having seen it half-hidden under a rock between the barn and the shower. She felt bad at first, as she had never stolen anything before, but she was desperate to talk to her sister on her birthday and catch up with her friends. So she took it. There was an every man for himself spirit in the camp, and Sophie reasoned that while she had played no part in creating that, she would get left behind if she didn’t go along with it. She resolved to do some good – in the hope it might counteract the crime of stealing in some way – by sharing her phone with Jordan, who had been without battery all summer. He had told her after a few drinks the past weekend that he had an ill father and while he refused to reveal any further details, she sensed he had something serious. It would be nice for him to call.
“Seriously, I just can’t help wondering what Donny gets up to all day. He must have some kind of secret hobby,” said Claudia.
“What like child abduction, that kind of thing?” Sophie said.
“Hmm sounds a bit too tame for him,” joked Claudia. “What about kidnapping family pets and torturing them, that’s probably more his cup of tea.”
“It’s golf,” said Jordan.
“Jesus, how did you know that?” asked Claudia.
“I saw when he drove me to buy shoes. He had a parking permit for Celtic Manor golf club that had been renewed in May. Got to cost a fortune, that does.”
Sophie’s first instinct was to shake her head or express her disbelief by swearing, but instead she swiped ferociously at the wheat. They had reached the end of the field for now.
Sophie put her sickle down, and Claudia and Jordan both tossed theirs on the springy layer of corn.
“Hey look, Golden Balls and the Plastic Cow have sneaked off somewhere,” Claudia said, pointing to the adjacent field. She was stubbornly using her nicknames for George and Belinda that had failed to catch on, probably because most people were too depressed by their presence on the farm to even joke about them.
“I need the loo again, sorry,” said Sophie.
“I’ll come with you Soph,” said Claudia.
Sophie’s mind raced to try to think of a way to lose Claudia so she could retrieve her phone and the stolen charger without being seen.
“Are you sure you want to do it au natural in the field instead of going back to the quarters?” Sophie asked.
“Ah come on, it’s so damn far, I don’t want to even think about that stinky portacabin. I’m sure Donny probably approves – returning nutrients to the earth, saving money on fertiliser and all that…”
Sophie smiled as she thought how nice it would be to hear her sister’s voice tonight. Then for the first time she pictured how joyful Jordan’s smile would be when she surprised him by lending him her phone.
She thought of just running into the wheat with no explanation. In no time she’d be out of sight of Claudia, who carried an extra stone or two, then she could track down her fully-charged phone.
A deep shout from the next field made them both turn their heads.
George was shouting. Then came the sound of a struggle of sorts. Belinda was screaming at him. Were the king and queen of the farm possibly fighting in public? Sophie rubbed her hands together in glee at the prospect.
Then there were some swooshing noises, sounds of an object being struck and anguished howls floating around the wheat field. Sophie sensed something seriously wrong was occurring and rushed back.
Soon she could see Belinda trying to grab at George’s shirt, while he shook her off with ease. He was holding his sickle, and at his feet lay Jordan, writhing in agony with his grey T-shirt slashed with big bloody stripes across his chest.
“He bit me, he bit me, he bit me!” George was shouting into the air, perhaps at the millions heads of wheat. “First this pathetic little thief tried to steal our sack of wheat, then he bit me!”