Once upon a time in a land far, far closer to home than we’d like to admit there were three neighbourhoods. If you visited and became acquainted with their residents over time then you would find both decent and offensive characters in each neighbourhood. You would find people both bursting with life and others that have had the life sucked out of them by vile and hurtful words. You would find both the generous and the greedy, the arrogant and the down-to-earth and the caring and the cruel in each of the three districts. In equal measure.
What you would also find, and it would only need a brief, cursory visit to discover, was that irrespective of the character of its residents and despite their close proximity these three particular neighbourhoods were of varying and vastly differing fortunes.
One was dirt poor. Its houses were ramshackle and its roads were muddy, pot-holed tracks. The sewage system regularly blocked up and overflowed in heavy rain, and the water from the pipes only came out of the taps intermittently, often being a dirty brown colour and unfit for use. True, the kids played out on the roads and there was a distinct sense of community about the place, with a thriving music scene and a bustling, chaotic marketplace, but there were also many dangers lurking amongst its streets. Disease and crime were prevalent, and many of the residents struggled with ill health.
The second neighbourhood, sharing a three mile border with the first, was of comparatively better health. It had street lights illuminating its roads at night and clear, clean water that came out of its taps. Its solid homes were of a modest size, most with a small garden consisting of a lawn, a shed and a cheaply constructed patio. Its residents were perhaps less community minded, most finding their own entertainment within the confines of their small plot of land, but you would see a steady stream of determined joggers and cyclists out exercising in their lycra and sports kit. And generally they were friendly if they passed each other in the street. There would be no luxury vehicles or swimming pools to be found, but you would probably stumble across the odd hot tub nestling amongst the shrubs in the gardens.
The third neighbourhood was the envy of them all. It shared a border with the second district and it was filled with grand, shapely homes with sweeping, gravelled driveways and large gardens full of thriving, luscious plants. Expensive cars sat outside the buildings, visible only through the ornate iron gates at the end of the long, curved driveways. Many had tennis courts and swimming pools and pristine croquet lawns on their property, all protected by robust security systems and tall, imposing walls. A private hospital catered for the needs of the residents, though the most common issue was mental health, a sign that perhaps all was not well under the shiny surface of the third neighbourhood.
Now the second neighbourhood, the one of modest wealth, happened to include a river that twisted its way through it. This river watered the fertile fields around it and made for perfect conditions for cultivating crops. Long ago some of its residents had realised that strawberries were the ideal crop to grow in its productive fields. Over time they had turned it into a fairly successful and efficient business, and the owner of the business was able to relocate to the wealthy district with its expansive homes and irrigated lawns. Regarding the business, the residents thought that the menial task of picking and processing the strawberries was beneath them. They wouldn’t do it. And so every year at harvest time they would seek out the uneducated, untrained people in the poor district and offer them employment in the fields.
With money and good jobs scarce in their own overpopulated neighbourhood these poor residents readily accepted the work. They didn’t need huge encouragement but to entice them over they were assured of a good wage, workers rights, adequate work clothes and comfortable residence in the modest homes of the second neighbourhood while they laboured in the fields.
Upon reaching their temporary homes the poor people had their first indication that the working conditions weren’t perhaps what they had been promised. Instead of being housed in the modest homes of the second neighbourhood they were directed towards the decaying caravans and plastic portaloos at the bottom of the fields. Furthermore, their foreman was an energetic, assertive man with dangerous glint in his eye that was at odds with his ready smile. He told the workers that the cost of the rent, though minimal, would be taken from their wage bill. The workers gathered together in a huddle and discussed the matter amongst themselves. Murmurings of discontent and unease were heard, though no loud anger or shouts of indignation. The elder leaders amongst them suggested caution and patience. They all needed the money.
They strode out into the fields and toiled all week in the hot, burning sun. They picked strawberries from seven in the morning until seven at night. Each evening they retired back to their caravans, falling bone-weary onto their beds, many nursing acute back pains and smarting blisters that had appeared on their hands. They questioned the foreman about the protective gloves they were promised, and they were assured that the gloves had been ordered but were unfortunately delayed in the post.
At the end of the week they were visited by the foreman who informed them that, though he knew they were working hard, they weren’t quite picking the strawberries quickly enough. Rates were down and if they didn’t pick up the pace then regrettably the cost would come out of their wages. Again the workers gathered together in a huddle and discussed the matter amongst themselves. This time the voices were marginally louder and more indignant, particularly amongst the younger members, though they didn’t lean into outright rebellion and rage. Some of the weaker members, however, were ready to take their wages and go back home. They knew they would struggle if they had to work at a quicker pace in the merciless heat. It was agreed that the weakest workers, for the sake of their health, should take what they had earned and return to their neighbourhood.
They promptly went to the foreman and told him of their wish. Irritable and now exasperated, he informed them that if they left before the end of the harvest then according to the contract they wouldn’t get a single penny of their wages. They either work the entire harvest and get paid or leave early and empty handed. The workers discussed this new development amongst themselves long into the night. The group was becoming increasingly split between the prudent and circumspect elders and the rash, indignant and more volatile youngsters. They were unable to agree on a course of action; the older members said that the weaker workers should just leave, and then the others would all give them a portion of their wages at the end of the harvest. The young hotheads said that they should all go on strike and demand their wages now. In the end, to pacify both groups, the weaker workers said they would stay and try to work at a quicker pace. It was agreed by all that they would follow this honourable but potentially debilitating course of action.
The following day they trudged out to the fields and began the monotonous task of picking the sweet strawberries off the stalks. Within a couple of hours and despite their courageous efforts the productivity and the pace of the weaker workers visibly dropped. The foreman was swift to notice, and in a blunt and unfeeling manner he told all of the pickers that a portion of their daily wage would have to be deducted as a result of production being down. The workers looked at each other in worry, disbelief and anger, but continued to quietly pick the strawberries.
That night they gathered together to discuss the matter. Harsh and furious words were heard and many divisive and accusatory opinions were shared. The younger workers were seething with anger at their mistreatment and their lack of action in response, while the elders continued to talk caution and patience and perhaps looking for a legal way of fighting their cause, exploring the possibility of a lawyer or a charity that could help them. The younger workers were emphatic in their disagreement, clamouring for the group to stand up and fight, and threatening to do so at the next injustice visited upon them.
The following day they all dragged themselves out to the fields sullen and grim-faced. Silently working their way along the lines of plants they cast mutinous and resentful glances towards the foreman. Unconcerned; either merrily unaware or in full knowledge of their agitated state but believing he was in full control of this pitiful group of powerless peasants the foreman stood by his truck watching them. Not long into the day he spotted one of the weaker workers slip a strawberry into their mouth, most likely doing it for much needed sustenance, or possibly in quiet defiance of the foreman.
He strode over clutching his heavy spade. Standing behind the woman he swung the spade violently in the direction of her hand. She screamed in pain as it shattered the bones and knocked her to the ground. He hit her again in the stomach and then on the top of her leg. She was on the ground writhing and moaning in pain. He raised the spade high in the air aiming for her back as she lay curled up on the ground.
As he was about to bring the spade down a worker grasped the spades shaft in his hand. The foreman swivelled around, glaring threateningly at the culprit. The young worker stared straight back, anger and murderous intent filling his face, his other fist clenched down by his side. The foreman spat out foul threats of severe violence and terrible retribution. The worker was unmoved. Two others joined him and they surrounded the foreman, staring at him in menacing silence. All at once they swung at him, punching him to the ground and stamping on his face. They gave him such a severe beating that he whimpered and wailed in agony, begging for them to stop. They took a crate of strawberries and forced them down his throat, making him retch and gag as the strawberries smeared across his face. Then, belatedly coming to their senses and realising what they had done, they turned and fled into the undergrowth, aiming to make their way back to the relative safety of their own neighbourhood.
Over in the wealthy district a middle-aged couple were playing tennis on their estate. Their gardener was pruning the shrubs to the left of the court as they traded shots over the net. When they had finished they sat down under the cool shade of a beech tree. Foremost on their mind was the disturbance in the neighbouring district that had occurred the previous day. Reaching for a strawberry the man dipped it in the cream and then popped it into his mouth. It was a terrible business, he concluded, and right under their noses too. The pickers were clearly driven to violence by the bullying and the abuse but in his eyes it still didn’t justify their actions. They should have gone to the police, whereas now they were the ones rightly in trouble with the law. His wife, being of a more liberal mind, disagreed. The foreman deserved what he got. The important thing, she argued, was that the industry was properly regulated and enforced. Biting into a strawberry she pondered the idea of starting a campaign amongst her neighbours to highlight the working conditions of the pickers, possibly creating a social media page to generate interest and provide information, with a badge people could put on their profile. Or have a tennis tournament fundraiser and get her friend the actor involved for some publicity. Yes, she thought, she’d start this afternoon.
Author Notes: This isn't a final draft, so any feedback or constructive criticism is welcome!