JACQUI AND THE G. M. BEANSTALK.
My dad Robert has grey hair, a nose like a cudgel from falling off the tractor and a mouth as wide as a shed door. He’s always loved to joke and laugh. But ever since this drought set in, the only thing that can bring a smile onto his face is playing the poker machines at the Station Hotel.
Poker machines work like this: a player feeds dollar coins into a slot and hits certain buttons. Reels on the front rotate. If you’re lucky enough to hit a jackpot, lights blaze, music plays, and coins tumble out. Only last year Fred Stint from our next-door farm hit a jackpot. Fred bought a new 4X4 and his kids got new bikes, roller-blades, iPods, computers, mobile phones, TV and DVDs. Then Fred flew the family to Disneyland. Now everyone touches the Stints for luck.
But my dad’s a born loser. All he can say when Mum tackles him is, ‘Poker machines give me hope. Don’t know where I’d be without hope.’
My mum has brown eyes, black curly hair, and really strong hands from cooking, washing, feeding chooks, digging in our veggie patch and milking cows. Everyone says I look like her.
Anyway, what changed things around here started when our long-range weather forecaster claimed this drought was about to break. Soon as Dad heard this he said, ‘Jacqui, I can’t go to the grain-store in case I get tempted to play the pokies.’ His eyes all washed out from staring into a cloudless horizon, he added, ‘I’m sending you instead. We’ve got exactly one hundred dollars left. I’ll give you half, a fifty dollar note, to buy one sack of seed. But be careful not to risk it, promise?’
Of course, I promised.
When I got to the grain-store, Mr Kenneth the owner was talking to a customer. I didn’t mind as it gave me time to check out his shelves.
Suddenly someone tapped me on my shoulder. I swung around to see a short tubby man with sparkling blue eyes, bright red cheeks and a moustache that stretched from ear to ear. His suit and cap were made from some glittery stuff. His shirt buttons looked like diamonds. Even the air around him seemed to fizzle and spark. He looked real out of place in a grain-store, I can tell you.
‘Hiya Jacqui,’ he cried. How come he knew my name? I swear I’d never seen him before. ‘How are you?’
‘Er… fine,’ I mumbled. I’m not used to talking to strangers and I could feel my face flush.
‘How are things with Robert?’
I tried not to picture Dad’s worried face. ‘Great,’ I lied.
‘Tom Simpson, at your service.’ He held out his hand. ‘Well, well young Jacqui. Last time I saw your dad, he was keen to try out my Genetically Modified wheat. Our product is guaranteed to grow with a minimum of water and repel all galahs and cockatoos.’
My eyes widened. How come he knew all our seeds got eaten by birds? Still, I wasn’t going to be suckered in. Wasn’t it up to me to spend Dad’s cash wisely? I said, ‘What’s so different about them?’
He straightened his shoulders and announced to the whole store, ‘Their genes have been altered so the plants will grow faster and higher than naturally propagated seeds and they need less water.’
If the other shoppers just stared, I did too. I wasn’t sure what ‘propagated’ meant. But what I did know was that Dad had no money to ship in water. ‘How much for one sack?’ I cautiously asked.
I frowned. How come he knew exactly what was in my purse?
Maybe I should have thought things through. Gone a bit slower. But wasn’t Tom an old friend of Dad’s? What if this GM seed was really as good as he claimed? Wouldn’t Dad be furious if I didn’t take up his offer?
‘I’ll take it.’ I handed him my fifty-dollar note.
Tom’s moustache quivered slightly. ‘These aren’t just ordinary seeds,’ he said. ‘Expect some surprises.’
I just shrugged. Things were so bad I figured any surprise couldn’t make things worse.
How wrong I was.
What I didn’t expect was Dad going spare. When he read GENETICALLY MODIFIED WHEAT-SEED, he yelled:
‘Not only will I never touch anything scientists have tampered with, Jacqui, you have blown the last of our money.’
‘But Tom… he said this was what you were after.’
Dad’s answer was to slit open the sack and empty its contents onto the dusty earth on the other side of my window. Then he grounded me. Not that there’s anywhere to go around here except barren paddocks. But he was making a point. ‘If Jacqui can’t learn to be reliable,’ he grumbled to Mum, ‘I don’t know what.’
Things went on like this for days, everyone miserable, no-one really talking until the weather forecast turned out to be right and the drought finally broke. Then we were too busy sand-banking the creek to worry about seeds, GM or otherwise.
You know the saying ‘troubles never come singly’? That same week, my two goldfish died and I opened my window and emptied their tank-water over those GM seeds. A few days after it stopped raining, I noticed those seeds starting to sprout. Soon thick stalks rose up. Then I was more upset than ever. I mean, that Tom Simpson had really conned me. No way could those plants be wheat. What they looked like were beanstalks. It wasn’t until much later that I wondered if mixing the GM seeds with fish poo hadn’t influenced those plants in some weird way.
That afternoon after the school bus dropped me off, I saw thick tree-trunks where there were never any before. I figured it had to be those seeds. As I always leave my bike by the gate, I cycled back up our drive. As I got nearer, I watched those trunks grow. Now I could see they were outside my bedroom window and tall enough to hit some rain-clouds. Their stalks were as thick and strong as a five-hundred-year-old ghost-gum.
I jumped off my bike and ran inside. Mum was in the kitchen, cooking tea.
‘Where‘s Dad?’ I yelled. I found him in our sitting room staring at our TV that now only showed fuzzy lines. Seems those seeds had also messed up our reception. I yelled, ‘Dad come and look!’
All he did was shake his head. When nothing could move him, I ran back outside. Watching that beanstalk shoot up was like viewing a film where the camera takes one shot every twenty-four hours before they’re put together. Only this was real!
By now those trunks had grown branches and the branches were sprouting leaves and coming together as a very thick ladder. I stepped onto the first rung and started climbing. The higher I climbed, the more those stalks shot up, sprouting more branches and leaves to form a vegetable staircase.
Soon I was up so high I didn’t dare look down. Instead, something inside me said, ‘Keep climbing.” I was way above the first cloud layer. From the ground, those clouds looked like wet wool, but from up here they were more like fresh layers of snow.
As those stalks kept shooting up, I realised that I was coming to yet another layer of clouds. On the other side was a landscape about as different from our farm as possible. Instead of flat reddish paddocks covered in salt-bush, I saw grassy meadows edged with wild roses, gentle green hills and a river flanked by willow trees bending their branches into the water.
Back home whenever it gets extra hot we get mirages —tricks of light and vision. Was this a mirage? If I stepped off the beanstalk would I fall right through those clouds? If those GM seeds could grow fast enough to bring me here, what else could they do? I reached out to test how strong the ground was. When it felt firm enough to stand on, I took a deep breath and, still hanging onto the ladder, stepped onto it.
Nothing bad happened, so I headed into that lush meadow. My feet sank into soft grass dotted with wildflowers. At the far end of was a gigantic stone castle with battlements, the kind I’d only ever seen in story picture-books. A prickle ran down my spine. There was something awesome about that castle, the way those stone walls pushed all light away from it. What kind of creature lived there? Though I love watching DVDs about monsters and aliens, meeting one in the flesh was just too scary. So instead of taking the long gravel drive that led to a pair of massive wooden doors, I crept along the grass up to a window and peered inside.
Was I glad I did! In there was a monster about as tall and wide as a five-story building. Dressed in red and purple, arms and legs like marble columns, his head was green, he had funny yellow eyes, and a nose and ears like sparkplugs. So it took me a long moment before I realised that he probably wouldn’t notice if I slid in beside him. That was because every wall was lined with nickel-plated poker machines. And this giant was shovelling coins into every one. He just couldn’t lose. Lights blazed, loud music played and bucket-loads of gold coins kept tumbling out.
I sat back and thought. It seemed to me that this giant had so much gold, if I took some home it wouldn’t really matter.
By now the light was starting to fade. I crept around to the main door and watched to see what would happen next. My tummy said it was dinnertime. Surely the giant must also get hungry. Right then, as if on cue, he rubbed his belly and got to his feet. Every movement sent shock-waves through his castle. But instead of leaving, he stomped up and down. The ground trembled under him as he shouted:
‘Fee, fo, fi, fum,
I couldn’t stop trembling. What if the giant came outside and found me? What would happen to me then?
To my relief, he lumbered towards a tall wide door and disappeared behind it. I waited before climbing through a window into the room and creeping inside. Nestled on the floor beside a machine was a mound of gold coins. My heart thumped so fiercely I was sure the giant must hear it. After filling my jeans’ pockets, I turned my jacket into a bag that I also stuffed with coins.
Still hardly daring to breathe, heart galloping, I crept outside and headed back through the meadow. I’d taken some terrible risks. What if the beanstalk was no longer there? What if I got stuck up here with no way of getting home? What if the giant missed his coins and came after me?
Thankfully, the beanstalk was right where I’d left it. If anything, the trunks seemed thicker and stronger, the branches intertwining more closely than when I’d last seen them. Carefully, I crept back down. I knew one slip would kill me, and it was much harder climbing down with full pockets and carrying that heavy bag. Besides, the night was pitch-dark, there was no moon, hardly any stars, and I could barely see the next rung.
It felt lots easier when I came to the first set of clouds. Then it was only by remembering not to look down in case I got dizzy that I managed to crawl back onto the ground.
Back home I couldn’t wait to tell Dad there were heaps more dollars in the giant’s castle. I found him right where I’d left him, slouched in front of the fuzzy TV. It took me ages to convince him that my coins were real two-dollars with Queen Elizabeth on one side, and the Aboriginal Elder and Southern Cross on the other.
I carefully described the giant and his castle. Dad kept insisting that taking the giant’s money was stealing and he didn’t want any part of it.
Then Mum came in and listened to my story. Of course, she backed Dad, saying, ‘Jacqui, we haven’t brought you up to steal from anyone. Not even an unpleasant giant.’
‘But he’s got so much, he wouldn’t notice us taking some,’ I pleaded. ‘It’ll get us out of our mess. Besides,’ I cleverly added, ‘I’m not climbing that beanstalk by myself to return those dollars. It’s much too dangerous.’
Mum hates me risk-taking and I knew she felt that we couldn’t keep the giant’s gold.
That night I hardly slept. My body was tired but my mind wouldn’t stop buzzing. Would that beanstalk still be there? What about those clouds? What if I got up in the morning and they’d all disappeared?
I was up at first light. Nothing had changed. There was the beanstalk, there was that thick layer of cloud. But in a gap between those clouds, the sun shone brighter than ever. If we were going to climb that beanstalk, we had to do it before those clouds disappeared.
We set off finding footholds between the branches and intertwined leaves. This being a remarkable beanstalk, it was already sprouting beans. Every so often we’d stop to eat one or two. Their changed genes allowed them to taste like anything we fancied. So on the way up, I had scrambled eggs on toast and a chocolate milkshake. Dad’s beans tasted like buttered toast covered in marmalade and good strong coffee.
This time the climb went slower because we were carrying every bag we owned. So up, up until we reached the second layer of cloud, there was that gentle green country that reminded me of the story-picture books I used to love when I was little.
I led Dad towards the giant’s castle. But as we got close, I knew we were in trouble. Seems the giant was missing those coins. Seems he also suspected who had taken them. Stomping up and down, making the ground beneath his feet shake, he shouted:
‘Fee fi, fo, fum,
Be she alive or be she dead,
I’ll use her bones to make my bread…’
I was also doing lots of shaking. How come he knew I’d stolen his money? What had I led Dad into? What should we do now?
The sensible thing would have been to go home. Only this time Dad dug in his heels. Maybe it was seeing those neat piles of gold coins going to waste. Or maybe the giant’s song got on his nerves.
‘No one in his right mind uses blood to make bread…’ he muttered. And, ‘What right does he have to make fun of girls?’
Dad’s really into girl-rights.
He insisted on waiting for the giant to leave so we could help ourselves to more coins. We had to hang around for ages before the giant went off to get his breakfast. This time his tummy’s rumbling told me how hungry he was and how angry. What if this giant meant what he sang? What if he ate people he caught trying to steal his coins? If he saw us, for sure we’d end up filling his belly.
Still … something about that giant’s negative attitude made Dad real stubborn. So he signalled to me to climb in after him and we started filling our pockets and bags with every gold coin we could reach. Only then did it strike me that this was a waste of time. Amongst the giant’s magic coin-creating pokies was one small enough to carry home.
That’s exactly what I did. I picked up that tiny machine and we set off to where we’d left that beanstalk. We were nearly halfway down, well below the first cloud-layer, when a siren went off. Seems that tiny poker machine was the giant’s alarm.
I got such a fright! Only by clinging onto the stalks by a cat’s whisker did I save myself. Dad nearly fell off, too. He just managed to hang on by one arm. But the worst thing was — all our pockets and bags we’d so carefully filled with coins split open and they scattered far and wide.
No time to worry about our lost fortune. What we hadn’t expected was that the giant would get angry enough to follow us. We’d just made it to the ground when I glanced up. What did I see but two gigantic boots coming down the beanstalk.
Was I scared! Thankfully Dad had the presence of mind to rush into his shed and grab his chainsaw. There was a terrible moment when he realised the chainsaw was out of fuel. I knew Dad kept cans of petrol in the shed furthest from our house. I ran to that shed, praying that he’d left the door unlocked. Thankfully he had. Inside I grabbed the first can I saw and ran back to where Dad, mouth open in dismay, was watching those giant boots descending the beanstalk.
Seeing me, he gave a sudden start, grabbed the can, poured petrol into the chainsaw’s tank and opened the throttle. Then he attacked the stalks from one side while I used the axe on the other.
It took us some time to chop that beanstalk down. To our relief, soon as he felt the stalks quiver, the giant changed direction. Shouting,
Fee, fo, fi,.,
I smell the brains of a girlie thief,
Be she alive or be she dead,
I’ll use her brains to make my bread…’,
he went straight back up the beanstalk to his castle.
‘We never wanted to hurt him,’ Dad said afterwards. ‘Even monsters deserve to live. Besides…’ he guiltily added, ‘we did steal his gold. Haven’t I always taught you that crime doesn’t pay?’
So he waited until he was quite sure that the giant was back where he belonged before he finished cutting down the rest of that beanstalk.
That would have been that except for the giant’s little poker machine. I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I figured it was only an alarm and probably wouldn’t have delivered any jackpots after all. Every so often though, I still find a single gold coin hidden inside the stalks of wheat from where it had fallen out of our pockets when we’d been on the beanstalk.
At least we still had those fifty dollars Dad managed to hang onto. Plus the five hundred from my first visit to the giant’s castle. As there was no way I could return that money, and I felt bad about taking it because that made me a thief, I gave it to “Hungry Kids Charity,” only keeping enough to buy another sack of seed to plant all our paddocks. And with all those beanstalk logs, we had enough wood and cut-offs to burn in our fireplace for the next twenty or thirty years. But I suppose the best thing that came out of it was Dad promising Mum that he would give up playing the pokies forever. As he said to all our neighbours and anyone else: ‘Gambling’s a mug’s game.’