Peach Blossom Valley wasn’t exactly a valley as such but the residents thought it sounded more interesting than Peach Blossom Bay. We were very fortunate, in that the valley was nestled neatly between the Black Mountain which protected us from the harsh winds of winter and the sea which kept us cool in severe summers.
Before the spring tide came, we thought all was lost but now there was food a plenty. Sardines blocked drains as they made their way along the gutters and sometimes found their way into toilets. It wasn’t a plausible story at first but soon people of Peach Blossom Valley were drunk with euphoria, babbling with excitement and making up stories to get attention. Everyone had a better story than the next one.
Bluebottles floated freely in the gutters along the roadside as children scrambled to gather them up in buckets, unaware of the sting it could cause to an unspuspecting collector.
Some of our enterprising neighbours sought fame and fortune by trying to get into television with some of the most bizarre stories which could not be verified. A reality show was created showing an avalanche of sardines heading for the shore, clogging up the estuary and stranding on the embankment of Valley River. No financial compensation was negotiated, therefore none was forthcoming. Unfortunately, not all the residents understood this so many were unhappy about being “exploited.”
Sardines were found everywhere. There were sardines in trees, in caves, in dog bowls, at the car wash, in drains, in the park, on the farms, in stables, in barns, in attics and every other available conceivable space. We figured that people were trying to hide sardines everywhere they could but there were still people who were convinced that the sardines made their way out of the enormous shoal by themselves.
It was not only the human population that was interested in this multitude of sardines. Along with swarms of seagulls, crows, mice and an epidemic of cockroaches, came an uncontrollable fly population. Scientists from all corners of the world were intrigued, unsure of what would cause such an influx of unwanted guests. Everyone had a field day. Once a picturesque sleepy hollow and haven for artists, poets and writers now became a valley of filth, a garbage dump and breeding ground for disease.
Doctors came in droves hoping to make a quick buck but they were desperately disappointed to discover that the vallyites suffered nothing more than depression. They talked of a delayed reaction three years hence but no-one was interested. In the meantime, we did our best to handle what we could.
The vallyites bragged of no longer needing money for food. Curious out-of-towners came to gawk at us as if we were responsible for creating the piscean deluge. They didn’t have to drive far to attract any attention and we knew exactly why they had come. If they parked on a street corner, someone was likely to run over, offering to sell them sardines or alternately, a warm fish dish. Everyone had a new recipe but by far the most popular was pickled sardines. City dwellers had no clue about pickling sardines and they were only too happy to drive to Peach Blossom Valley to savour our famous cuisine.
Greedy Gretchen’s was doing a roaring trade in sardines and chips, rissoles and Paella. Yes, there was plenty and more.
“What happened to the beggar who used to sleep in the park?” one youngster was overheard asking his friend.
“Oh, you mean Jerry?” He sold a load of sardines to some bigwigs and made a killing. Gone to live further up the coast. I think he found a council house or something. Saw him last week. He’s found some friends too.”
“Well, I guess everyone’s found friends now, and maybe some long-lost family too. We’re all doing very well now. ”
I smiled as I thought of how just a short while ago, the stillness was shattered by the news of the impending excitement of abundance. We just couldn’t believe our good fortune. Instead of falling over each other with excitement, there was tension in the air, in case someone was playing a cruel prank. Everyone waited to see who would be gullible enough to believe that good fortune had miraculously come our way.
We were all skeptical and stayed put, waiting for confirmation but as soon as the first load of sardines was trucked in, stopping to offload at greedy Gretchen’s, we went to enquire. It was true. We watched as they hauled basked after basket of sardines from the truck. We’d never seen so much sardines, even at Greedy Gretchen’s. It was unbelievable.
“Did that come from the estuary?” We wanted to know, pointing at the haul.
“For sure,“said Louis. “Go see for yourself.”
Many went rushing to the estuary with shovels, buckets, tarpaulins and anything they could use to scoop up sardines. However, no-one was prepared for the magnitude of the shoals that arrived. On the first day, some children returned with plastic bags filled with sardines and tried to peddle it at the fish and chips shop but they were turned away.
If they didn’t attend Church, the children loved to go down to the estuary on a Sunday to catch silver fish in jars or angle from the rocks to catch the occassional minnows. Except on this bounteous occasion, something miraculous happened.
From the hill men watched with binoculars until they saw the water teeming with life near the shore. They could not contain themselves as they bounded down the dusty path whooping with joy towards the estuary, now almost boiling with the wiggling sardines. The children squealed with delight as they entered the swirling water, then retreated hastily, afraid the sardines might eat their toes.
Stray cats sat on the shore, as if lined up by a cat trainer to await the arrival of their free meal.
One of the younger kids ran back up the hill, with little arms rotating madly and dust clouds at his feet to report the exciting discovery to his parents. He bounded past his mother smoking in the doorway, and through the house like a wicked whirlwind to grab plastic bags from the bottom drawer of the kitchen cabinet, all the while shouting, “come see, come see all the fish in the sea!”
His mother smiled, thinking how cute he was. Just a moment ago, Marion and her neighbour, Jospehine, were moaning about their struggles to each other. Not only was she afraid that the rumour might be false but she had no inclination to have her lazy Sunday afternoon turned into a carnival by a capricious little child but as more children returned with the same news, she paused to think about the possibility that there might be some truth to the rumor.
Across the road, she could see the Florian children turning over their toy wheelbarrow which had been lying on the front lawn for as long as she could remember. The Jones kids too were looking for containers and the Jameson girls jumped onto their scooter, forgoing helmets, to make their way down the hill to join the excitement.
There were celebrations throughout the valley that afternoon. Parents were overjoyed. For the first time since the factory closed, people could eat a cooked meal.Freezers and cooking pots were stuffed with the sardines like they’d never seen before.
When the Wilkerson brothers finally closed the cannery in nineteen-seventy-two, the last forty people to be laid off had done so without any retrenchment pay. Originally the factory employed two-hundred and fifty people but steadily had to cut the numbers over the years as competition in the big city squeezed Wilkerson’s canning goods out of the market. There were no offers to purchase the business. The cost of transport would be too expensive.
In their heyday, Wilkerson’s boats would go out at four am each morning for the first catch and return by seven-thirty in time for the morning shift to clean, cook and can the goods. It was then that people complained about working too hard for little pay. Today, many long for even a little pay. How they wished they hadn’t complained.
Over-fishing had forced the shoals further back and over the years the boats would return later with smaller catches, until the business became unsustainable. In the later years, they would only return once a week with a catch or two. Personnel would sit idly waiting for work or instructions about what to do. As was to be expected, absenteeism increased, until people simply stayed away or were asked to stay away. The numbers dwindled as did the salaries.
Back in the present the sound of bickering could be heard. “We have to save some for tomorrow.”
“Why? There’s plenty at the mouth.”
“Yes, but remember how well we did when we worked at Wilkerson? We thought the good times would never come to an end, right?”
People who hadn’t seen the estuary, remained skeptical. Children urged parents to go look but they steadfastly refused until more and more sardines appeared. They stood with mouths agape as one truck after the other came trundling along Main Street, passing through the town without stopping to refuel. We found it strange. Someone mentioned that we should all grab our share before it was all gone.
Luis the Portuguese shopkeeper closed shop for the day and made his way towards the estuary with a wheelbarrow. Mr. Bini, the banker abandoned his family lunch to follow suit and shortly thereafter, Wayne, the postman too had found his old, rusty wheelbarrow in the shed. Mrs. Gallon who had inherited her husband’s hardware store when he died, was asked to open the store. Although it was not customary to trade on Sundays, she obliged. Soon the hardware store was out of wheelbarrows, nets and fishing gear, as people rushed to get their share of the sardines.
It was a comical sight seeing the stream of people wheeling their way in single file down to the estuary. From the hill one could see the red road winding its way like a ribbon from the top of Cowrie Shell Hill all along the river until it disappeared behind the bend. It was less than half a kilometer to the estuary but on a dry, hot day it could seem like an endless meandering dusty path. People returned with red dusty faces, red shoes and red sweaty bodies. It was a hard slog but worth it according to those who braved the dusty walk to gather their share of the plenty.
It wasn’t long before people forgot what hunger was and started complaining about sardines appearing in the shower and the kitchen sink. Another had put some sardines in his fish pond. He was awoken early the next morning by the sound of raucous birds competing with a group of cats for the sardines. They were strange birds - large white, black-chested birds he hadn’t seen before. They were Magpies, we later learnt, normally given to eating the chicks of other birds.
Exuberance had turned into insanity.
An enormous murder of crows had also descended on the valley, giving rise to superstition about them eating human flesh as if the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock had possessed someone. An exterminator found himself work before anyone could say, “Pest Control”.
How bizarre that just a few days’ ago people were on the brink of suicide and children with distended bellies were crying beside distraught parents. Now the abundance clouded their memory and people were happy once more. Laughter rang from the square where old men smoking repulsive pipes billowing smoke over everyone, talked about their changing fortunes and how they plan to put it to good use. Women were happy to serve them, scurrilling about in their long skirts, overlaid with long aprons, in comfortable crocs shouting to each other boisterously to get the next order ready.
In the square, someone talked about getting finance to reopen the canning factory. Another talked of starting a fish-drying business, while yet another enthused about his mother’s amazing pickled sardines.
“And don’t forget about pickled onions. They go well with sardines. And how about someone gets fish spice? The possibilities are endless, wouldn’t you say?”
Yes, people were eating their fill to make up for the lean months they had suffered and gave no thought for the morrow.
I didn’t bother to look around to recognize the voices. Eat, drink and be merry was the new maxim. People started acting like spoilt kids, wasting as much as they were eating. The Cleansing Department was challenged to keep up the collections. A dump site was opened over the hilll to lure scavengers away from the valley but the stench remained, hanging heavily over the sweet Peach Blossom Valley. The aroma of lavendar had given way to the pungent, sick, all-pervading odor of rotting sardines.
After the big haul, we became like fat lazy walruses lying on our backs in the sun, not caring if the world came to an end while we luxuriated in our bounty.
Sundays were for socializing, catching up with old acquaintances, after the drudgery of the week’s work.
In any case, we were not going to miss out watching the out-of-towners gawking at us as they passed through Peach Blossom Valley. Sunday was our best day. We would sit on the kerbside eating ice-cream in the hot dry sun, anticipating the arrival of the first car. Sometimes we would hurl our half-eaten ice-creams in their direction and they would feign being scared. It was always hilarious, no matter how many times we played this game. We’d become like children, even for just a few minutes, entertaining ourselves to relieve the boredom.
We knew they would ask for directions to the market and we would beg them to buy all the sardines they could in the hope that the stink of sardines gut would dissipate.
The smell of fish had become nauseating. We were wearing our scarves as nose guards to minimise the stench but it only lasted a minute or so before we were gagging again. Many were flagging down visitors for a lift out of the valley, just to escape the smell. It was in our clothes, our hair, our skin, our nightmares and worse still, it was constantly up our noses. We feared that we had lost our sense of smell for every thing else. There was just no relief.
Vendors of cheap perfume were making a killing as we sought to disguise the odor. Peddlers were everywhere touting their wares as “the best”, though it didn’t matter to us. We simply yearned for pleasant odors - anything other than sardines would do. Incense, formerly a “tool of the devil” made an appearance in every home, wafting through rooms where it mixed with the pungent smell of sardines. It made sense for old men to smoke their pipes as often as they did and for the women to allow it. Anything was better than the smell of sardines.
Many spoke of imagined wealth sprouting from the valley, fountains of marble and street lamps of gold. They enthused about never having to seek work again, worrying about food or children going hungry. There were schemes and dreams aplenty but three months after the plenty came washing over the town and down the streets, the government officials in their dark suits arrived to inspect the situation. Short rotund men stood around smoking fat cigars as they surveyed the town, pompously striding around trying their best to look intimidating. It appeared as if they were goose-stepping in slow motion.
We followed them to catch a whiff of their expensive cigar smoke but the more we stared at them, the less they noticed us. We hated their lack of respect, their air of self-importance and disdain for our little corner of heaven. As much as we hated the smell, we loved our valley which had become an enclave for eccentrics, poets, writers, tarot card readers and escapees of urban insanity, not forgetting those who loved to awaken to the sound of the sea or squawking birds which had returned en masse to feed off sardine entrails.
Competing with the birds, were stray cats which had made an uncanny appearance from nowhere. Not many people in the valley kept cats. There were maybe a few over the years but they had been neutered and passed on of natural causes. Vallyites associated cats with witches, so seeing such a large number of cats at once startled us. The nearest town was situated eighty kilometres away. Could they have smelled the sardines from so far away? Apparently so, if they were downwind from us. We still thought it was uncanny. We felt that everyone and everything including the cats were stalking the valley.
Health inspectors were concerned about the large numbers of flies arising from the offal. The more we cleaned the more we had to clean. Sellers of disinfectant too had their moment of glory as they plugged a gap in the market.
Our new lives revolved around sardines, more specifically, cleaning, cooking and storing sardines. We no longer needed to catch sardines. It had caught us - by surprise - and what a wonderful surprise it was. We could trade sardines for anything. No longer did we concern ourselves with the cost of anything as there was always the opportunity to barter.
Relatives came to visit in convoy all hoping to share in the bounty and we were happy to offload our excesses on them. Naturally, some expressed resentment at having to put up with relatives who previously wanted nothing to do with them and now turned up as if nothing had happened. For some, relationships blossomed while for others, old wounds were reopened.
We became nervous about the impending change which was hanging thick in the air. People stopped in mid-sentence when the dark suits walked by, expecting to hear something or be addressed directly.
There were questions in whispered tones. Were they considering reopening the canning factory? Would they employ us or would they bus labour in from other parts of the country? Should we ask them or wait until they send us letters?
We observed without seeing, pulling our jerseys tightly around our throats as if we were cold. The tension gave us goose bumps. We clenched our fists until our knuckles were white and our breathing stopped momentarily.
“Oh dear”, said Lawrence. “Will they be taking the plenty to sell it back to us? Likely, they will.” People were upset by this remark, saying that they wouldn’t be so cruel, but it wasn’t long before strange trucks in endless convoy came to gather the plenty to take it all away.
Joe’s fish-drying business came to a sudden halt when he was ordered to surrender his drying machines. Mrs. Ferreira had to cease pickling and many sidewalk fryers were prohibited from trading without licenses. Those hoping to generate an income from selling sardines in the city, were prohibited from boarding the train carrying sardines.
This was the beginning of the prohibition.
Fear mounted when guards were posted along Shore Road leading to the estuary, preventing us from gathering up the free food. No more were the children squealing with delight as they gathered up armfuls of sardines. No more were the people lying in the sun after happily eating their bellies full. No more were the faithful talking endlessly of the blessings from heaven which took their emptiness away. Now we could only watch from a distance as they hauled truckload after truckload away until nothing was left, and even then, they sent Scientists to study the empty sea to ensure that no eggs remained.
A silent fear descended on the town. People stared wordlessly as they watched the sardines disappearing in unmarked trucks slowly trundling along the red dusty road up the hill and through the town until the very last one was gone. With it went the stench, the smiles and the full bellies. Happiness gave way to depression, fear and hunger. As the stench dissipated, our fear grew in equal proportion.
The tension was palpable now that people were wondering how to acquire money to buy back their plenty or even just a small portion thereof to feed their families. The panic returned, the children were sad and parents were distraught once more.
A meeting was called in the town hall. Everyone was there including Gerry’s African Grey parrot -to record minutes? I am not sure since both it and Gerry disappeared soon after the meeting. There was concern about the emotional state of the children. The animals could be sacrificed, was the general consensus but debate raged on until nightfall as they considered the issues that arose from the “sardines from heaven”.
Should they revert to planting vegetables like they did before the drought ravaged the land? One needed inordinate amounts of patience and endurance to till the soil, plant the seeds then wait for germination. Insects would come to destroy the leaves and eat the roots. Would they have enough water to irrigate the land? There were so many questions which scared the people.
Just as suddenly as their fortune appeared it was taken from them. Wide-scale panic set in as people blamed the government for their woes and refused to see reason.
What happened to all the journalists, photographers and television people, everyone wondered. Now we needed them more than ever. If only we could attract attention to our plight, someone may want to resurrect the industries to provide work for the townsfolk. The young people were leaving to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Soon there would be no employable people left and the town would consist entirely of retired people.
The residents of Peach Blossom Valley were shocked to read about themselves in the newspapers which sported headlines about illegal fishing in our area. The old men drinking coffee in the square were heard calling to each other. The commotion brought everyone out of their houses, when one of the twelve-year old twins, Dickie Florian, came running up the road shouting, “ma!ma! We are in the newspaper!”
Mrs. Florian urged Mr. Florian to go down to the shop to buy a newspaper, and when others got the news, so did Mrs. Salojee, Mr. Rudy and Mrs. Ben. They confirmed that it was true, there was indeed news written about us being illegal fisherman.
“Illegal fisherman?” We were humiliated and shocked at once and Mr. Florian immediately called the newspaper to set the record straight. How dare they print this about us?
Within half an hour a journalist and photographer were despatched to interview Mr. Florian who was joined by not a few supporters from the square.
We gathered that a clampdown from government to preserve our marine resources prevented us from gathering up anymore sardines; or so we were made to believe. We were made to look like robbers and gangsters while no one bothered to report on the lack of employment opportunities or the starving people who once worked at the canning factory to sustain their needs. We were incensed at how we were being portrayed to the world.
Our happiness was momentary when we discovered that Dubai Television had been filming us remotely, badly editing the angle, illegal fisherman protesting. The entire interview by the Little Globe was now international news and being broadcast intermittently throughout the day and the weeks following the breaking news. Other broadcasters had got wind of the report and followed suit, broadcasting their own angles on the story.
I was the one who wrote to editors in an attempt to get the truth out but nothing came of it. None of my letters were printed nor acknowledged. One newspaper simply mentioned that residents of Peach Blossom Valley are not happy about becoming international newsmakers. When I phoned to secure an intereview I was rebuffed many times and eventually gave up. I resorted to social media which quickly found a following but after just one week the number of followers dwindled after consistent threats on my life were made. People became too scared to be associated with my name. I suspect Government was behind it. A website I had set up was hacked into and taken down. Every attempt I made to set up another was mysteriously blocked.
I became nervous after a message appeared on my computer which showed the IP address and read we are monitoring this computer for any illegal activities. My cell phone acquired a strange hissing sound every time I received a call which caused a splitting headache. I was forced to stop using it eventually when I was unable to make any calls to anyone despite having bought plenty of airtime.
The sardines that were freely available in the sea now belonged to government to do as they pleased with, while there was no compensation for us, the discoverers of the large shoal. It was reported that scientists had discovered an unusually large shoal of sardines off the west coast of the country. Nothing about the vallyites and their plight. We simply did not exist.
As naive as we were, the shock of the sabotage came at a very inopportune time. Nothing could have prepared us for these significant changes and when we tried to protest, we were threatened with having our town closed down and moved elsewhere, presumably, off the beaten track where we’d be worse off than before.
So we had no choice but to endure.