She wrapped a rubber band around the stalks of the beetroots. Then, Margaret used her commercial secateurs to cut the leafy stems away from the bulbs. The pile of beetroot leaves at her feet was growing in a cardboard box, and she’d soon put it out front for sale.
Lately, when working at the cash register of the farm’s roadside stand, Margaret had been telling customers that the beetroot leaves could be used in tossed salad with pine nuts, or to wrap around quinoa filings.
‘My sister turned us all on to it. Likes to use everything she can from her veggies. Says beetroot leaves are the new ‘superfood’!’ Margaret would enthusiastically say and search if they knew the reference.
The stylish Sydney couples – people concerned about climate change and their food miles who drove Porsche SUVs – would try to smile. Always a bit distracted, but cordial. Like they were on too many Lexapro’s. Couples who collected ‘authentic’ tips. New foodie things to tell Birchgrove dinner party guests they’d learned from the ‘locals’ on their last weekend up in ‘the bush’ (which was really just Sydney’s back blocks now.)
Margaret just hoped it’d get them to also buy a mesh bag of homegrown carrots or a few more plastic punnets of $9 blueberries. The berries weren’t grown on the back paddock – but flown from Chile.
Like the berries’ origin, it was a bit of a porky. The story about the beetroot leaves, that is. Margaret made it up. Even tweaked it each time with some additional cookery tip allegedly by Denise ‘who makes a fabulous borscht – have you tried borscht?’.
She preferred to think of it as Marketing 101 by Margaret. Spin a yarn and give value to something that had none before. Leaves that would have been fed to the handsome lawyer neighbour’s hobby cows or chucked into the stand’s red wheelie bin; now selling for $1.50 a kilo. ‘Local, organic, new, healthy.’ Ka-ching.
Her sister had to pay her back somehow, Margaret thought. She and Denise hadn’t talked for going on eleven years. Ever since “Kevin 07”. ‘Stupid cow with her Socialist politics,’ Margaret muttered as she picked up the box of leaves to put on the display racks in the stand. Each rack was lined with fuzzy green faux grass. She tried getting rid of the plastic, but the trendies said it’s ‘retro feel reminds me of the old Italian fruiterer’s, darling, remember him?’.
Her farmer father had started the stand in the 70s when he noticed gleaming Commodores on the front road rather than just old cockies’ utes. He’d died of heart failure, trying to get a water pump to work, several years before what everyone in the family now called the Fall Out. It was their own piece of Home-and-Away drama.
Margaret pulled up the stand’s metal roller door and then tidied up the jars of honey near the cash register. She made sure they were catching the sun and glowing on cue. Point-of-sale was some 15% of her turnover.
Denise didn’t think like that when they’d worked the stand together, Margaret recalled. Some bullshit about ‘sharing our bounty and God will share with us’.
And the friggin St George Dragons’ shite. She’d had red-and-white footy junk tacked to every square inch of the joint. It was all shite that Margaret threw out after the Fall Out. That and Socialism and God-bothering, and all else Denise. ‘Good bloody riddance,’ she said to herself.
Jerry the Fat Postie bounced across the potholes of the gravel carpark on his little motorbike. Like a hi-viz beachball attached to a popsicle stick.
‘How ya goin, Marg. Gotta package for you to sign for. The usual,’ Jerry said and held out what looked like a shoebox wrapped in brown parcel paper.
‘Ta, Jerry. Grab yourself one of those strawberry flavoured milks you like from the fridge,’ Margaret said. She looked at the package and saw Denise’s handwriting in red texta.
‘Why can’t the woman just use a black texta like a normal human being,’ Margaret said and waved Jerry off when he turned to reply.
The packages had started to come a few years ago. Maybe, after that ginger headed Julia woman had got in. No notes, no explanation, no schedule, just the contents.
Gnomes. Large ones, medium ones, tiny ones. Garden gnomes. Made of cheap ceramic or plastic in some shithole in China. One after the other. A gnome invasion. Margaret had them lined up around the edges of the fruit stand carpark. A gnome guard of honour.
Some made Margaret think about their mum, who’d kept a few gnomes in the ‘house garden’, and cry at her death. There had been no doctor at the local hospital they’d raced to after a wire from a hay baler had snapped across her jugular.
Some made her laugh. Like a little one with a blue peaked cap, white beard and his middle finger stuck up in a big Fuck You to the world. Reminded her of Ben the Bikie, who’d fucked off years ago for Broken Hill, but Margaret still thought might come back.
After about five gnomes, each carefully packed in the Central Coast’s local newspaper, Margaret had found Denise on the Facebook. Margaret sank Shiraz’s on a cold winter night and sent Denise a Friend request. ‘It’s up to her now,’ she’d thought. She felt vindicated, pissed off and hungover when Denise had accepted by morning.
Now, Margaret could see her sister’s photos on FB. A nice cruise to Vanuatu with her partner, Paul, the hippy optometrist. ‘What the hell is a partner anyway? Is it like somebody you run a real estate agency with?,’ Margaret had thought. But she thought the photo of a happy Denise in front of a grazier’s sign that said ‘Me No Mo Buyem Bullock’ was funny. Denise made her cry; Denise made her laugh.
Or, there was the uni graduation of a pretty and smart niece. Margaret had used social media to figure out who was gonna go and then avoided the ceremony. But then she sent a beautiful fruit basket to the girl with a $200 tucked behind a ‘lucky banana for our new vet’.
Nobody griped about her not turning up. It was just the Fall Out. You didn’t have to like it or hate it. It was just there like the Harbour Bridge. It was big and solid and would last a lot longer than any people who might use it.
Or maybe it was more like the Korean DMZ. The Fall Out had its own set of strict rules. The sisters never directly spoke to each other, and never turned up to the same family event. They stalked each other’s posts and photos on Facebook, but to comment on one – even an innocent Like – would break an intricate ceasefire. It was okay to check in on each other or bitch about each other through the “neutral nieces”, but no more.
And then there were the sneaky parcels, smuggled by Aussie Post between the warring parties like Red Cross packages across enemy lines.
In one photo Margaret saw on Denise’s feed, Denise was wearing a red-and-white Dragons beany while pruning roses in her garden. She recalled burning all of Denise’s footy paraphernalia right after the Fall Out. On a January night when it was 40 degrees, the cicadas were screeching, and right after Denise had called for Paul to come ‘rescue me from Mad Margaret’. The illegal fire in the rusty old 40 litre oil barrel wretched a toxic smoke that Margaret found liberating at the time but it was kind of hard now to recall exactly why. No matter.
“Seeya later, Marg,” Jerry said and wiped pink milk from his bushy moustache with his orange fluoro sleeve.
“Hang on a sec, Jer. I got an outgoing too,” Margaret said and handed the postie a package addressed to Denise.
For the last few years, maybe since the Mad Monk she thought, Margaret would find St George Dragons items on the Internet. Key rings, scarves, a 12 month calendar filled with big Pasifika boys, a bar mat and the like. She would pack an item up in a fruit box, throw in a few apples or a cauliflower too, and send it to her sister. Each item got a little bigger or more expensive or had a secret meaning like the Dragons stubby holder she sent cos their father always hand one in his huge hands on Christmas holidays at the caravan park at Foster.
Last week, Margaret had bought a blank grey gnome on eBay. He was winking one eye and blowing a big kiss. In the old credenza with the chipped mirror in the hallway, where their dad’s John Deere cap still hung, Margaret had found some old school paints and a crusty brush. Under the bright light of one of the spotties in the packing shed on Friday night, after some turpentine and a few Shiraz’s, she’d carefully painted a rugby league uniform with a big red V on the cheeky gnome’s chest.