Seed of Doubt – Paul Soper

Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .

Alyssa’s ringtone – the result of a one-time, half-hearted desire to learn Spanish – awoke her from a deep sleep. Of all the Spanish songs in the world, why had she chosen an ABBA one? Making a mental note to change the damn thing as soon as possible, Alyssa retrieved her mobile from the other end of the mattress. She had fallen asleep playing games again.

Her father’s grinning face, craggy but dependable with a gap where his upper left canine should be, looked up at her from the screen of her Blackberry. He was standing under the old eucalyptus tree by the front veranda. Alyssa had taken this photo on her last day at the farm.

‘Lyssie. How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, good,’ Alyssa grunted. ‘Bit early, but.’

‘Early?’ He laughed. ‘It’s 9:30. I’ve been up weeding for hours.’

9:30! Alyssa rolled out of bed, setting the phone to loudspeaker as she began rifling through the clothes strewn across the floor for something presentable to wear. Preferably something clean that wouldn’t require ironing. How could she have forgotten to set her alarm?

‘Out partying last night or something?’ Dad asked.

‘Yeah, something . . . ’

An all-nighter with Angry Birds. A riot!

‘Well, it’s good you’re enjoying yourself,’ he said, ‘but take care, won’t you? I . . . well, I worry sometimes. I haven’t heard from you for a while . . . ’

‘Yeah. Sorry.’

Alyssa considered a red shirt. The sweat stains weren’t that noticeable, were they?

‘That’s OK. Have you found a . . . ?’

‘Nope. Nothing yet.’

She discarded the shirt. Getting dressed had never been this time-consuming on the farm.

‘That’s a shame,’ he continued. ‘I’m sure something will come up. And if it doesn’t, you know . . . ’

‘I saw Chrissie yesterday,’ Alyssa announced, desperate for something, anything, to stave off her father’s usual refrain that she should ‘come home, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about not liking the city.’

‘Chrissie?’

‘Yeah . . . Chrissie . . . ’

Why had she chosen Chrissie as a conversation starter?

‘And . . . er . . . how is she?’

‘Yeah, she’s good.’

Alyssa settled on a black, pin-striped shirt. That would look good coupled with a pair of jeans.

‘That’s . . . lovely. So, any interviews lined up for today?’

Alyssa considered her outfit, holding the shirt against her body and modelling it in the mirror she had propped up against the wall.

‘No,’ she lied.

And Dad returned to the usual refrain.

Maybe he was right, Alyssa thought. She left the dingy studio flat fifteen minutes later, now wearing a purple, flowery-patterned blouse. She had decided against the pin-striped shirt, having found a coffee stain on it on her way out the door. Alyssa couldn’t say she was thrilled with the new outfit, but given that she hadn’t worn the ghastly thing in the seven weeks she had been here, at least she could be sure it was clean. Dad would be happy with the choice, no doubt. He had presented her with the shirt as a ‘bon voyage’ gift before her move to the city, woefully out of touch with fashion as he was. But it was a nice gesture; a reminder that she would always have a home back on the farm.

Melbourne hadn’t quite lived up to her expectations. But the prospect of returning to the drudgery of life on the farm and with nothing to show for her time spent in the city – no gorgeous boyfriend, no glamorous job, not even a flat with hot water. Surely that was worse. Besides, if all went well, she would have a job by the end of the day. Chrissie promised she could pull some strings for her – if any store could really be set by what she said. Alyssa’s ‘best friend’ had been promising to meet up with her for weeks now, but until yesterday Chrissie managed to renege on every catch-up Alyssa organised.

Perhaps she was genuinely busy . . .

She seemed different, too. Less fun, somehow. Not at all like the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from their days back on the farm sneaking apples together. Was it really as long ago as four years? She at least seemed genuinely concerned for Alyssa when she learned she was struggling. And so came the job offer.

‘We have a super entry level position. We’re always on the lookout for new talent,’ Chrissie told her. ‘Come in tomorrow and I’ll facipulate,’ – whatever the hell that meant – ‘an interview for you. Just a back-of-the-envelope affair, yeah? Nothing to stress over. With a good word from me, you’ll be a shoe-in!’

Working alongside her best friend in an international corporation. It was a dream come true, wasn’t it? As long as Dad didn’t find out . . .

Banishing these thoughts from her mind, Alyssa concentrated on getting to the interview. Half an hour later she arrived by tram at the corners of High Street and St Kilda Road. The card Chrissie gave her yesterday cited the address as only a few buildings away. Alyssa made her way to the building, crossing the foyer and gazing at the plaque on the wall.

MONSANTO AUSTRALIA HEAD OFFICE, LEVEL 12.

She entered a lift, eyeing her reflection in the mirror as the lift made its ascent. If only she woke up earlier and took a shower, however icy. If she had even bothered to do something with her hair!

The doors opened to reveal a standard reception waiting area. Alyssa experienced that now familiar sense of déjà vu as she stepped out into it. After numerous job interviews over the last few weeks, these reception areas were all starting to meld into one.

‘Good morning. Can I help you?’ came the voice of the receptionist who clearly had woken up at a reasonable time. Her bleached blonde hair was perfectly straightened and she was plastered in what was surely enough foundation to paint all four walls of Alyssa’s flat. She was probably only in her early twenties, the same age as Alyssa. The make-up and her general well-groomed-ness gave her the appearance of someone much older. Someone in control of her destiny.

‘Um . . . I’m here for an interview, I guess . . . ’

The receptionist looked Alyssa up and down, a doubtful look flitting across her face.

‘Right,’ she said. ‘And, er, who was that with?’

Chrissie hadn’t given any names.

‘Well, I’m not sure.’

Alyssa started to blush. She always did in these situations. What was it about receptionists that so intimidated her?

‘Um . . . I’m here to see Chrissie?’

‘Chrissie who?’

‘Chrissie Sharrock . . . ’

‘Ah, Christina. Not a problem. I’ll give her a bell, shall I?’ She cast Alyssa another unconvinced look. ‘Who shall I say was asking?’

‘Alyssa.’

She slipped on a headset and dialled a number on the switchboard keypad.

‘Hey, Chrissie.’

So it was Chrissie now?

‘Yeah, I’ve got someone waiting for you in reception. Says her name’s Alyssa.’

She let out a laugh. Apparently Chrissie said something hysterical.

‘Yeah, little bit vanilla. OK, then. See you in a sec.’

She smiled again; that falsely sweet, condescending smile.

‘Christina will be with you shortly. In the meantime, feel free to take a seat.’

With a nod, Alyssa seated herself in one of the cream-coloured lounge chairs in the corner and settled in for the wait. She hated this. She was never quite sure what she was supposed to do. She began to pick at the dirt underneath her nails until she realised the receptionist was glaring at her. Apparently, the clicking noise this generated was offensive. With an apologetic smile, Alyssa turned her attention to the brochures. Marketing materials for Monsanto were scattered across the coffee table in front of her.

The first brochure detailed their collaboration with Seminis and some of the vegetable seeds they developed together in the US and were now, as Dad put it, ‘trying to force the unnatural, bloody things onto us!’ Alyssa felt her stomach drop as she thought of him. What was she even doing here?

But really, Dad was probably just being overly resistant to change. Lots of older people were. And there were benefits to the seeds. According to the brochures, these seeds had in-built pest control which meant better crop yield and better health for farmers who no longer needed to spend days on end spraying pesticides. Weren’t these good things?

But there was no convincing her Dad or the rest of the set-in-their-ways organic farmers back home. Chrissie advocated for the seeds the last time she visited the farm, shortly after securing her job at Monsanto. She even brought some with her, along with copies of Cleo magazine, the latest Rihanna single, and a bunch of exciting stories from her life in the city. Melbourne seemed so cool.

Chrissie had then gone on to plant some seeds in one of the fallow fields. Alyssa frowned as she recalled this inconsiderate action and its ensuing drama. Hadn’t the farmers made it clear they weren’t interested? But Chrissie had always been headstrong, always eager to prove a point, always doing exactly what she wanted. When they were younger Chrissie often shirked her responsibilities. She hated picking apples in the orchard or collecting the eggs from the hens or indeed, doing anything to help on the farm. Small wonder she left as soon as she finished school.

‘Let’s go do something fun,’ she would always say. And somehow Alyssa would find herself climbing the old eucalyptus tree, or swimming in the dam, or off on the bus to Tatura with her, her own responsibilities completely forgotten. They would end up in trouble later on, of course. Alyssa would promise to behave in future. She hated disappointing Dad, but the next day Chrissie would manage to convince her all over again. She was always leading her astray.

Like she was doing now?

‘Lyss!’

Chrissie was dressed in a striking red power suit, her hair done up in a professional looking bun. The image this created was a far-cry from the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from the farm: her natural curls hanging loose, forever dressed in those ridiculous overalls her parents made her wear, even when she was a teenager! But despite the radical change, she was still Chrissie, right? She too was wearing a generous amount of make-up. Apparently, Alyssa would need to invest in some make-up of her own if she got the job.

‘You made it, I’m so glad,’ Chrissie gabbled away, all smiles. ‘And don’t you look well. Love the blouse. It’s very . . . It’s lovely.’

Alyssa frowned. The Chrissie of old would have loathed the blouse as much as Alyssa, commiserating with her that she had to wear it – ‘but at least it’s not overalls!’ The snort of derision from the watching receptionist seemed to confirm that Chrissie’s praise of the blouse perhaps wasn’t completely truthful.

‘I’d actually forgotten you were coming,’ Chrissie continued. ‘What am I like? But don’t worry. We have an opening in our AP team. It’s a super position. Someone has to scan all the paper invoices that come in, and believe me, there are loads! So much for a paperless society, am I right?’ She let out a laugh reminiscent of the receptionist, and so uncharacteristically Chrissie.

‘Now, we already have someone doing the job but he’s a twat . . . T. W. A. T,’ she explained at the look of bewilderment on Alyssa’s face, ‘only works Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So we’ll need you on Mondays and Fridays. But come along to a meeting room and we’ll go through all this properly. Sarah,’ she addressed the receptionist, ‘alright if we use Meeting Room One?’

Sarah nodded her assent and Chrissie led Alyssa off down a corridor. Various glass framed posters advertising Monsanto products decorated its walls. Bolgard II Cotton, Roundup Ready Canola, and a whole range of vegetable seeds, including the tomato seeds Chrissie had planted.

They turned out alright really, indistinguishable from the normal tomatoes. But then some of their pollen carried into other fields and it became impossible to discern which were the ‘contaminated’ crops and which were not. There was a very poor harvest that year, so inflexible were the farmers in their refusal to sell anything potentially tainted. Worse had come the following year when the crops didn’t reproduce. Apparently Chrissie’s tomatoes didn’t and, having mixed with them, the existing ones no longer did either. So died a crop perfected through years of selective breeding.

‘So, how are things?’ Chrissie asked, dropping the airy tone and, as in that brief moment yesterday when she asked a similar question, sounding something like her old self.

‘OK, I guess.’

‘And have you . . . well, have you been in touch with anyone from . . . back home?’

‘Um . . . yeah. Dad.’

Chrissie’s interest in her old life surprised Alyssa. After the fallout from the tomatoes, Chrissie said some terrible things and so too had her parents, and a large majority of the other farmers. Both parties made it clear they were unwilling to forgive the other and the end result was that Chrissie hadn’t been welcomed back at the farm since. Her family as good as disowned her.

Was this, then, the future that awaited Alyssa if she too were to take a job at Monsanto? But it was only scanning, and she really did need the money. Surely they wouldn’t be able to find fault with that, right?

‘So, enjoying Melbourne?’

Chrissie interrupted Alyssa’s worrying, her voice returning to its affected tone.

‘What about the traffic? Those hook-turns are a nightmare, am I right? Oh, hello James.’

They bumped into a sharply dressed, attractive, young man.

‘Morning, Chrissie. How’s it going?’

‘Yeah, great. I’ve just got an interview with Alyssa here. She’s an old friend of mine from the f . . . from back home. James here works in our legal department.’

James nodded in greeting.

‘Got a big case on at the moment. Some organic farmer in WA – they always seem to be organic, don’t they – is trying to sue us for contaminating his crops.’ He rolled his eyes.

‘Like we need more bad publicity . . . ’

‘Don’t worry, Chrissie. This guy doesn’t have a case against us. We don’t even market our products in WA. Not yet, anyway. But somehow about seventy per cent of this idiot’s crops are roundup ready. Says he doesn’t know how they got there, blaming bees or something. Yeah, right.’

And with another roll of his eyes, he was off. Chrissie sighed.

‘Oh, for a Mills and Doom, am I right?’

‘Mm,’ Alyssa agreed, not entirely sure what this – or indeed, much of what Chrissie said – meant.

‘Mills and Doom?’ Chrissie prompted. ‘Office romance? Everyone knows they never work out.’

‘Yeah. . . ’

They continued down the corridor and reached the meeting room. Chrissie ushered Alyssa in and she seated herself at a round desk. Chrissie began asking questions she already knew the answer to like whether or not Alyssa had any experience working in an office environment or doing scanning, assuring her ‘not to worry’ that she didn’t, ‘we’ll soon get you up to speed.’ Alyssa let her waffle on, thinking of what James said. She couldn’t help but be on the side of the farmer in WA; her Dad certainly would be. Hadn’t she seen firsthand just how easily pollen could spread? It seemed the livelihood of more and more farmers was being threatened by this organisation.

The organisation she would soon be a part of.

‘So, don’t worry that you forgot your CV,’ Chrissie continued. ‘Just email it through and come in Friday. We’ll sort everything out then. Now, here is your contract.’

She presented Alyssa with a document titled ‘Accounts Payable Scanning Assistant’. Here, then, was the glamourous job she had been looking for. Chrissie turned to a page at the back.

‘If you could just sign here . . . ’

 * * *

Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .

‘Hey, Dad . . . no, I haven’t found anything yet . . . actually, can I call you back?’ she asked before he could launch into his refrain. ‘I need to . . . um . . . just gotta change my ringtone.’

Searching through the songs in her phone, Alyssa settled on the single Chrissie had brought her from Melbourne four years ago: Rihanna’s ‘Unfaithful’. It seemed a good choice. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe there was no shame in not liking the city but, as she looked at the packets of tomato seeds she received upon signing her Monsanto contract, Alyssa couldn’t be sure if she even liked herself anymore.

Paul Soper

Paul Soper has been writing all his life. He was part of the screenwriting collaboration for the short film La Basura, which was presented at the Pukañawi human rights film festival in Sucre, Bolivia, and is currently studying Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Paul enjoys writing in the urban fantasy genre and his current project is a speculative fiction novel.

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