The orchards were a mass of green, studded with replete oranges. The aroma of warm citrus surrounded me as I plucked fruit and dropped them into my basket.
“It’s – a – lovely - day.” Chip paused next to me, reaching clumsily for an orange. “I’m - so – happy – working - here.”
“I agree.” I paused for a moment to make eye contact with him. Chip was in his thirties, slow in speech, and had a look of permanent surprise etched into podgy features. “It’s great to be working in the sun, isn’t it?”
His lips lifted into a grimacing smile. “It – is - great.”
“Kendal,” Max, the farm manager interrupted our conversation. “Stacey’s gone home sick. Would you mind spending a day in the packing shed? Janine and Louise are there at the moment.”
“No problem.” I touched Chip on the arm. “I’ll catch you later, maybe at lunch break.”
The packing shed was a large wooden structure with sun streaming through side windows. Max led me to a conveyor belt in the centre of the room. “By the time the oranges reach here, the machinery has sorted them into size. Your job is to grade them into good and bad. Good ones go in this container and bad ones in that container.”
“What defines them as good or bad?”
Max laughed and pulled a couple from the crates. “Good ones have unblemished skins. Bad ones are those with brown or black spots and smudges.”
“What happens to the bad ones?”
“They go for juicing or canning. The insides are normally fine but customers don’t like fruit that looks bad.”
As I started sorting, Janine flashed me a smile. “I’m glad he sent you to help us. I thought we might end up with Chip.”
Louise joined in. “What a dork! Have you seen how slow he is?”
“Yeah. I pick ten to every one of his oranges.”
Louise imitated his slow stuttering speech. “Good – this – side. Bad – that – side.”
Janine cackled with laughter as anger rose within me.
“He’s got a good heart. Why don’t you just leave him be?”
“Because he’s annoying and bad at everything he does. He always picks the least oranges and takes forever to get his words out.”
“That’s no reason to mock him.”
The girls changed the subject, but as I sorted the oranges, I kept thinking of Chip; of his sweet nature and longing to be accepted as part of the group. By the time the conveyor clanked to a halt for lunch break, I had an idea.
“Janine, Louise, I want to show you something.” I grabbed a couple of oranges and took them over to the kitchen area. “Tell me which one’s good and which one’s bad.”
Loiuse rolled her eyes as though I’d lost my sanity. “The one with brown spots is bad. You know that as well as I do.”
“Watch here.” I put the oranges on a cutting board and sliced a thin piece out of the centre of both. Then I held up golden circles of translucent citrus. “See how the sun shines through them?”
Janine nodded. “And so?”
“Can you tell the difference?”
The girls squinted at the orange slices, amber and gold rays daubing their features with warmth.
“They look the same.” admitted Janine.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you about Chip. His outside may be a bit rough and damaged, but inside he’s good and sweet.”
They were silent for a long moment before Louise nodded. “Ok. Point taken, but don’t expect us to become best friends with him.”
Just then, Chip ambled into the packing shed. “Hey – Kendal. Here – I – am.”
“You’re just in time, Chip. I’m cutting up some oranges to have with lunch.” I sliced the rest of the fruit and purposely mixed good and bad on the plate before reaching out a hand. “Let’s go sit in the sun.”
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