Concrete Corridors

CONCRETE CORRIDORS

The train came to a stop and Maria held her breath and made herself as small as possible so that other passengers could dismount around her. She slowly edged her way into the middle of the carriage and grabbed the vertical hand rail for support. New passengers blended with old passengers and the silent reverie of morning remained undisturbed and muted. There was little sympathy at such an early hour of the morning. Compassion and kindness was displaced by urgency and haste, requirements to be punctual and precise. Details missed. People forgotten and faded. The doors closed and the huddled group of individuals returned to ignoring where they were and why. The words returned in print or tunes or minds and life drifted despite its confined and concrete course. She watched the cables pass on the other side of the glass and tried to ignore the newspaper that was inches from her face. She could smell the ink and paper and it reminded her of art classes at school, of her carefully crafted sculptures and youth and freedom. The train jolted to a sudden stop and she fell forwards into the newspaper amid exasperated tuts and sighs. The man reading the paper looked down on her and shook his head. He pointed at the rails above and resumed reading. Maria looked at him and felt an overpowering urge to knee him in his groin, but she resisted and grabbed the rail before the train took off again. The man turned a page and pressed the paper in her face but she pushed her hand into the pages and pulled it down. ‘Do you mind?’ She said and stared at him as hard as she could.

‘What?’ He replied.

‘Do you mind?’ She said again.

‘About what?’ He asked.

‘Your paper. You keep pushing it in my face.’ He looked at her as if to say, ‘so?’ They stood staring at one another as the train moved through the tunnel. Each of them irritated and angry. ‘It’s really annoying.’ She said.

‘Well…So are you.’

Maria was taken aback. Momentarily caught off guard and shaken. What? How is this…How am I…What…What are you…But the man was already reading again and she knew there was no point in trying to talk to him any further. She looked at him and wondered who he was. Where he came from and what aspects of his past made him so unpleasant. She wondered whether he had kids. A wife. A stable life. Whether he liked his job. Whether he liked his life. Whether he liked anything. But it didn’t matter. It didn’t change anything. He could tell that she was still watching him so he folded the paper in half and turned around.  She noticed he had something strange in his hair at the back of his head and a dirty white stain on his shoulder. Looking closer she realised it was bird poop. She smiled and turned away to look for something else. The carriage was soundless bar some muffled music and nobody spoke or shifted. All eyes were on the floor or lost their focus on items that couldn’t speak or question.

Maria held onto the rail and looked around the carriage. Though she had travelled on the underground many times before, she was not prepared for this exact existence, these routines and rails and linear repetition. This was something altogether very different. It was only the third day of her new job and already the doubt was spreading. She had never believed the rumours of suffocation and sorrow so tangible on trains and tracks. She never really thought it possible. At least not in her life. And yet there she was within it. Part of it. Taking her place among them and wondering how she got there. Running things over in her head. The last few years. The move from Guildford to London. The friends she missed. Her family back home in Spain. The room she rented in Acton. Last night in the Red Lion and the guy who asked for her number. The fact she gave it to him and wanted him to call. It was all she had to keep her company, despite the presence of hundreds of other humans and their hopes and dreams and dangers. A woman pushed her way into the aisle and stood on someone’s foot before deciding where to stop between the seats. She brushed her suit jacket down and looked at the seated individuals to try and assess who might be closer to their destination. A man opposite her was making the same calculations and tucked his newspaper under his arm in preperation of his own attack. Their eyes met. She straightened her back. He stiffened. She looked harder and he eventually looked away. She’d won. She was happy and proceeded to assess as the person on whom she’d tread continued to look up at her, waiting for an apology, but it didn’t come.

Having moved to London to complete a degree and find work that might provide for a better future, Maria studied hard and successfully achieved a distinction. Throughout this time she landed jobs in various restaurants and cafés but she was tired of waiting on people. She wanted a proper job. Something that would prove her degree was worth it and all that money had not been wasted. She was the first in her family to go to University and was commended for her effort and determination. She remembered the pride shown by her relatives as they sat in the crowd, watching her walk across the stage in the traditional gown and hat. They smiled and cried and cheered as she shook hands with the Chancellor and waved at them. Years of hard work rewarded. It was a special moment, one that she would never forget, but now that it was over, she wondered when something similar would happen again. Weeks passed. Months. Then finally she found this new job and it wasn’t until she got there that she realised it was in a call centre. It was a travel agency, but it was still a call centre. A sales job. Exactly the kind of thing she hated. A position based on profit. Upselling and lying and cheating. Bullying clients with tales of missed opportunities and regret. Price rises and fixed rates and cunning cost cuts and fraudulent discounts. But she needed a job. She needed money.

Maria noticed a small child dressed in a school uniform pressed up against the glass at the end of the row. He was surrounded by sombre people twice his size, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was looking beyond the windows. His eyes were dark and distant. He wasn’t bothered by any of it. He was somewhere else and Maria wondered where that was, whether that was the trick of how to get through this. A man leaned against the vertical railing she was holding onto, and the weight of his body pushed against her hand. He didn’t seem to notice, or care, and so she pulled her hand forcefully free and hit the woman behind with her elbow. ‘Sorry.’ Maria said, and looked back at the man who had still not moved. Looking for any available support she realised she was too far from the hand rails above so she spread her feet as best as she could and tried to fix them into positions which would provide her with the best balance between the bumps and blows. The train moved slightly and she leaned with it trying to force herself to focus on that something else she hadn’t yet identified.

It was her first time in among desks and vending machines and chocolate biscuits and gossip, but despite the initial novelty, there was something familiar about it all. She spent the morning learning about systems and software and company policies and practice and the afternoon shadowing those already well-rehearsed and ready. They took calls and pretended to care about their clients as Maria sat beside them and tried to understand. They worked around the numbers and lied about the costs as they added to their profit and commission. It was a new experience. Offices always seemed to be where the better jobs were, at least that was what she previously thought, but now she wasn’t so sure. It all seemed to be the same. The train stopped again and the man beside her spun around to make his way towards the open doors and hit her in the chest with his rucksack. She lifted her hand and pressed it down hard between her breasts. She closed her eyes and breathed. The sound of clothes scraping and bags being pushed and pulled filled the acrid air around her. Her head was sore and there was a distinct pounding in her chest. She felt her veins throbbing. The doors closed and she opened her eyes and took hold of the railing again now the man was gone. It was hot and uncomfortable. No matter how many passengers disembarked their numbers were soon replaced and people came and went and took their places beside each other. There was surprisingly little conversation or care taken in those that shared such confined spaces. She recognised an old man from yesterday morning and wondered whether they would ever exchange pleasantries. She wondered whether anyone did. It seemed odd to think that this was probably the closest most people permitted other individuals to get, apart from friends or family or lovers, but there was no love here. There was discomfort and resentment. Defeated acceptance and disgust. There was fatigue, age and boredom. And despite the very many of them trapped together, loneliness. They lived like cattle, confined by barriers built by human hands, staring out at all the beauty beyond their reach and dreaming of a better, different life. Raising their young and preparing them to one day take their place on the pavement of the platform. Through the same doors. On the same train. In the same carriage. Beside the same people. Together again. Maria felt overwhelmingly sad and wondered why she ever wanted this. She wondered why she left her parents’ house in Cadiz by the sand and sea and sun. She wondered why she sought to replace it with concrete feet and tunnels and maps and lines and timetables and delays and defeated days before they had even begun. Maria thought about everything she gave up and whether it was worth it. She looked at the boy and then outside the window. The cables continued to pass.

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Potatoes and Peas

Potatoes and Peas

The alarm went off and I woke up.

I was tired and sleepy and slow.

My back and bones hurt.

I got in my chair and went to the kitchen.

I filled the kettle with water.

It was heavy and hard to hold.

I put it down and pushed the button.

The light turned on and it was orange.

I waited and looked in the garden.

I saw birds and cats and birds.

I like birds and cats and dogs.

They are nice and soft and friendly.

The orange light went out.

I put the water in my mug.

I opened the fridge and got the milk.

I made my tea and took it to the table.

I turned the television on and waited.

Bob the Sponge was laughing.

He is yellow and funny.

Patrick is his friend and he is funny too.

They are both funny.

The door opened and Claire came in.

‘Hello.’ She said.

‘Hello.’ I said.

She put her bag on the chair.

‘How are you today James?’

‘Good.’ I smiled.

She looked around the kitchen.

‘You forgot to put the milk back.’ She said.

‘Sorry.’ I said.

‘That’s okay, just try and remember.’

‘Okay.’

She put her gloves on.

She had a purple jumper.

I like purple.

‘How did you sleep?’

‘Good.’

She looked pretty.

She got some water and washed my face.

The water was hot.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Hot.’

‘Sorry.’

‘It’s okay.’

We went to the bathroom and Claire took my shirt off.

She washed under my arms.

The sponge was soft and yellow.

It tickled and I laughed.

She was nice and I liked her.

‘What are your plans for today?’

‘Morrisons. Potatoes and peas.’

‘Is that for your dinner?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Sounds nice.’

She finished and put a clean shirt on me.

It smelt like flowers.

‘Fank you.’

‘You’re welcome, but tomorrow, a proper bath.’

‘I don’t like baths.’

‘You need to James. You’ll feel better and clean.’

‘But…’

‘No buts. First thing tomorrow we’ll have a bath.’

‘…I…’

‘If you have a bath then maybe I’ll bring you some cakes.’

‘I like cakes.’

‘Maybe I’ll bring the Mr Kipling ones, the Lemon Slices.’

‘Lemon Slices?’

‘Yeah, but only if you have a bath.’

‘O…okay.’

‘You promise?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Come on, do you promise?’

‘I promise.’

‘Great. Now have you washed your teeth?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Let me see.’

‘Aaaahhhhh.’

‘They don’t look clean to me. Let’s wash them again.’

‘Okay.’

Her teeth were very shiny.

My teeth were clean but they were not shiny.

My mouth tasted of mint.

We went to the kitchen and my tea was cold.

Claire started writing in her pad.

The pen was blue and Barclay’s.

The ink was dark and black.

Her hands were small and she had a lot of rings.

I liked her rings.

They were gold and silver and bright and pretty.

‘I like your rings.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Can I have one?’

‘I can’t James. My husband gave them to me.’

‘Oh.’

‘Sorry. But when you get a girlfriend you can give each other rings.’

‘Will you be my girlfriend?’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why?’

‘I’m married.’

‘Will you marry me?’

‘I’m already married, James.’

‘Okay.’

‘I’m too old for you anyway.’

‘You are pretty and purple.’

‘Thank you. But you can find a nicer and younger girlfriend.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. Maybe you can find one in Morrisons.’

‘Morrisons? How much?’

‘No, not like that. You can’t buy one. I mean, you might meet one in Morrisons.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah, you just have to keep looking.’

‘Keep looking?’

‘Yeah, like this.’

She made a funny face.

She was funny and I laughed.

‘Now, have you been to the toilet?’

‘No.’

‘Do you need to go?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Do you want some help?’

‘Yes please.’

Claire helped me pee and poo and put me in my chair again.

The bathroom was cold and I was cold.

‘You have to remember to ask John to close your windows at night.’

Claire closed the window.

I don’t like winter because it is cold.

But I like Christmas and Santa and presents and Chocolate.

Everybody is kind and nice.

We went to the Kitchen.

The Kitchen was warm.

‘Are you going shopping straight away?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Are you going to buy Christmas presents?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Are you going to buy me one?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I’m just joking. Don’t waste your money on me. Buy something nice for yourself.’

‘For me?’

‘Yes. A nice jumper.’

‘Okay.’

‘Now, shall we put your jacket on?’

‘Yeah.’

Claire helped me put my jacket and hat and gloves on.

They were red and I liked red.

Claire didn’t have a hat.

She had big earrings.

They were purple too.

Purple like her jumper.

‘Did you remember to charge your wheelchair?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okay, shall we check to make sure?’

‘Yeah.’

‘We don’t want you to get stuck again do we?’

‘No.’

‘And what happens if you do get stuck?’

‘Use phone.’

‘To call who?’

‘You or John or number in pocket.’

‘That’s right. Good.’

We went to the door and I went first.

Claire shouted. ‘James.’

I turned around and looked at Claire.

‘Did you forget something?’

‘No.’

‘Are you going to lock the door?’

‘Yeah.’

I locked the door.

Claire smiled and I smiled too.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’

‘Bye.’

‘Remember we’re having a bath tomorrow. Cakes and Kipling.’

‘Cakes.’

‘But only if you have a bath.’

‘Okay.’

‘Have a good day. Oh, and make sure to watch out for any future girlfriends.’

‘Fank you.’

‘Bye.’

‘Bye.’

The sun was very bright.

The day was nice and people smiled.

My chair was big and fast.

I liked to go fast.

I got to Morrisons and went inside.

Morrisons used to be Safeway.

It was green and white but now it is yellow and black.

I like green and white and yellow.

I don’t like black.

Black is sad.

A lot of people were shopping.

I was shopping too.

There were a lot of ladies but they all had rings on.

The potatoes were on special offer.

I took two bags and put them on my legs.

The peas were in aisle 12.

I went to aisle 12 to get the peas.

A girl ran out and I hit her with my chair.

I couldn’t stop and she started crying and I felt bad and sad and sorry.

She was hurt and I was sorry.

‘Sorry’ I said.

She started crying and a lady came.

‘Wha’ da hell yoo doin’?’

The lady started shouting.

‘Sorry.’

‘Wha d’yoo do?’

‘Sorry?’

‘You all right Sharice?’

She pulled the girl.

‘You hit her?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Watch where yoo’z goin’ innit.’

‘Sorry.’

‘You got a problem man? You listenin’? I’m talkin’ t’yoo!’

She kept shouting and people were staring.

She got louder and I felt sad and bad and scared.

‘Wha’s wrong wiv yoo man?’

‘Sorry.’

‘Yoo slow or sumfin’?’

Then a man came.

‘Calm down’, he said.

‘Shut up. Waz it gotta do wiv yoo blud?‘

‘It was an accident.’

‘He ran over Sharice, ya get me.’

‘By accident.’

‘Piss off. Manz wants a slap innit.’

‘No’ –

‘Gettin all feisty and shit.’

’I don’t want any trouble.’

‘Good. Fuckin’ fool.’

The lady pulled the girl away.

‘Come on Sharice.’

The girl was not crying anymore.

She smiled at me.

I smiled back.

They disappeared and I felt better.

‘You all right?’ The man asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘Ignore her. You need help with anything?’

‘Peas.’

‘Fresh peas or canned peas.’

‘Peas in tin please.’

The man walked with me and we found the peas.

They were in aisle 16 not 12.

The peas had moved.

I didn’t know but now I do.

Aisle 16.

‘Fank you.’ I said.

‘No worries. Have a good day.’

‘Bye.’

I paid for my potatoes and peas and went up the hill.

I went to the Red Lion and Pineapple.

I liked the Red Lion and Pineapple because the people were nice.

I had a Coke and sat in the garden.

The Coke was cold but the sun was hot.

My head was hot and my hat was hot.

I finished my Coke and went down the hill.

At home I watched a man make Spaghetti Bolognese.

Spaghetti Bolognese is from Italy.

My mum made the best spaghetti Bolognese.

But she is dead and I can’t make it.

I miss her.

I miss her dippers and beans.

They were nice.

And her chips and fish.

My mum was a nice cook.

She was my mum.

I loved her.

Daddy was nice too.

He liked horses and dogs.

I liked him.

He was funny and silly.

But he is gone now.

I don’t know where.

I wish he would come back.

I miss him.

I miss my mum and dad.

It was five o’clock and John came in.

‘Hello.’ I said.

‘Hello, Jaymz.’

John was big and Polish.

His voice was funny but he was nice.

He was big and nice and Polish.

‘Yoo hav goood daye?’

‘Yeah. I went shopping.’

Reelly?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Vat buye?’

‘Potatoes and Peas.’

‘Yoo layke potatoz and peez?’

‘Yeah.’

‘We eet toogeder yess?’

‘Please.’

‘Goood. Okaye. Beefor I kook, yoo need toylet?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Okaye.’

John put his gloves on and helped me in the toilet.

He was strong and big.

He opened the window and it was dark.

The night was black and cold.

He whistled and I whistled and we whistled together.

He put me in my chair and made our dinner.

He makes good potatoes and peas.

We talked and he washed the dishes.

His mother is Polish and lives in Poland.

Poland is in Europe and Europe is big.

Her name is Zosia.

John says she is a good cook.

She likes potatoes too.

We all like potatoes.

And peas.

Potatoes and peas.

Tomorrow I will buy some more and we will eat together.

Eat and talk.

I like talking to John.

He is my friend.

I like Claire too.

She is my other friend.

They are both my friends.

I like them very much.

They make me happy.

 

Tesco Towns and Hand Me Downs

TESCO TOWNS AND HAND ME DOWNS

I open the cupboard and check how much food we’ve got left. Two tins of ravioli, one of sweetcorn, three potatoes and seven tea bags. Mike’s trying to get the kids ready for school and I rinse the kettle out and try and get rid of all the lime scale by shaking it about and swirling the water around inside it. I pour the water out into the sink, fill it again and place it back down on the base and flick the switch. I can hear Lisa complaining about the stiffness of her shirt and how it grates the skin on her neck and wrists, but there’s not much we can do about it since the washing machine powder finished last week. I take the used tea bags out of the little bowl and place them in the mugs. As I pour the boiled water in I watch as it barely changes colour. I’m pretty sure we won’t be able to get any more tea out of these ones, but I take them out and leave them in the little bowl just in case. I put some bread in the toaster and wait. I can’t remember the last time I had a good cup of coffee. Everything is so expensive now, but I guess when you haven’t got any money everything is too expensive. Luckily Mike’s got an interview today and I’m going to the food bank to try and get some more supplies. This is the last time they’ll help us so I’m hoping they give us as much as possible, God knows we need it. Since Dad got laid off last year there’s no one left I can ask to help us out. I already owe my brother money, and now that he’s finding it harder to cope with their new kid, I’m expecting him to ask me for some of it back. But there’s nothing I can do, if Mike doesn’t get this job, I don’t know how we’re going to survive.

I pour the powdered milk into a couple of glasses and stir it out into the water. If someone had told me when I was younger that things would be this hard, I’d have doubted their honesty, but living like this, going through the same things every day with only hope to keep it all together, I guess they were right, and I wish to God they weren’t. Mike enters the kitchen with Lisa and Ben and they sit at the table so that we can eat what breakfast there is and try and pretend that things aren’t that bad. I hand the kids their milk and crackers and watch as they eat slowly whilst staring at the table. They don’t say anything. They don’t have to. I look at Mike and he tries to smile but I know he’s scared. He’s nervous about the interview and so I place his tea in front of him and move behind and rest my hands on his shoulders. I can feel the tension and I close my eyes and wish that somehow I could make things better for all of us. I wish that by some sudden luck we could get a break. That we could just have a couple of months without having to worry about our inability to provide. Mike took it the hardest. After he lost his job he tried to occupy his time by doing things around the house, and initially it was good for him and us. But as the money dried, so did the capability to decorate and improve. Soon he was hard pressed in his head and though he never told me, I know he felt like a failure. I tried to ease his pain with words and the few things I had to offer, but his distant stares continued to worry me. ‘How you feeling?’ I ask him.

‘Okay.’ He answers and sips at his tea.

‘You’ll be great. Come on, trust me.’ I can sense his doubt but am unsure how to silence it.

‘I’ve got a good feeling about this one. It’s perfect for you. They’d be crazy not to employ you.’

‘We’ll see.’

‘Just be confident and smile.’

‘As easy as that.’

‘No, it’s not, but you can do it. I have faith in you.’ I lean in and kiss him on his cheek. ‘I love you.’ He turns his head and looks up at me and for the first time this morning his stress slackens.

‘I love you too.’ His hand reaches down and squeezes mine. ‘We’ll be okay.’

‘I know.’ I kiss him again and stroke his face. ‘We’ll be fine.’

‘Right, are you kids ready to go?’ He asks and finishes his tea.

‘But I’m still eating.’ Ben says.

‘Well hurry up because Daddy has an important interview to get to.’ I say.

‘What kind’ve interview?’ Lisa asks.

‘A job interview.’

‘Really? That’s brill.’

‘Maybe. Now come on, we really do have to get moving.’ He gathers the used glasses and plates and places them beside the sink. ‘Do you have everything for school?’

‘Yeah.’ Both Ben and Lisa answer in unison.

‘You got your homework and everything?’

‘Yeah.’ They smile at each other. I look at them and marvel at how fortunate we’ve been with both of them. Even though their lives have changed immeasurably over the last year or so, they’ve never complained. They’ve never thrown strops or had tantrums or screamed and shouted at us. They’re great kids. Perhaps they know more than me and Mike give them credit for, but hopefully things will get better soon. I know they will. They have to.

Mike and the kids are all lined up in the hallway and I hold on to Ivy as I kiss and wish them all a nice day. I hug and hold Mike tight. ‘You’ll be great. I promise.’

‘Thanks.’ He opens the door and Ben and Lisa begin to walk out into the front garden. ‘If I can, I’ll try and ring the house and let you know how it went.’

‘Okay.’

‘Say bye to mummy.’

‘Bye mummy.’ Ben says.

‘Bye mummy.’ Lisa repeats, and I watch them turn left and disappear behind the hedge. I stand in the doorway and close my eyes. I feel the breeze against my face and I stay there for a few seconds, breathing slowly and trying not to think about anything at all. Ivy pulls at my shirt and I open my eyes and go back inside the house. It’s quiet and I feel a little odd and uneasy. Normally I take the kids to school while Mike looks at the job ads in the papers before heading down the jobcentre, and it’s weird to be in the house when it’s so empty. I guess as a parent you often seek out those seconds of stillness and calm, but without the little laughter and voices, it’s unsettling and strange. I don’t know how I’d cope without them now, and that’s what makes it worse. The disappointment that we’re not giving them the life we always wanted them to have. That we’re failing in the only thing we ever really cared about. That we’re bad parents and don’t deserve kids like them. I know we bathe and clothe and feed them and somehow still manage to keep this roof over their heads, but it’s not enough. I want to see them smile at the sight of a gift again. I want to see them bounce around with joyful anticipation of a trip to the fun fair or cinema or bowling or all the other days out we can’t afford anymore. I want to see them happy. That’s all I want. That’s all we ever wanted.

I finish washing the dishes and place Ivy in her little cot whilst I get ready to go to the food bank. As much as I dislike going there, it has to be done, and I won’t let Mike go. I know how much it would affect him. I don’t care much for the reasons why these places have opened up around the country, I just know that without them thing’s would be that much harder. The Government will do whatever it wants and my priority is my kids. I try to save my voice for them. I push the pram out the door and lock it tight. It only takes a few minutes’ walk for Ivy to fall asleep and as I pass the other houses I can’t help but notice the little changes that have taken place over the summer. No. 57 has been repainted some sort of cream colour and it looks nice and new. No. 63 has an array of plants still flowering along its window sills in ceramic pots on either side of the entrance. I think they’re citrus plants of some sort. Mini orange plants perhaps. No. 69 has had a new driveway put down and no. 71 has been boarded up. Probably squatters or fear of squatters. I reach the end of our road and turn left towards the high street. It’s still early and the roads are busy with people on their way to work and the pavements are packed with feet pressing on towards buses and trains and travel. I walk beside them and try and smile, but they don’t notice and I don’t blame them.

I finally get to the food bank and despite the early hour, there’s already a queue. I know that this is the only one in the area so it doesn’t surprise me. ‘Good morning.’ I say to the man in front. He turns and looks at me and Ivy.

‘It’s taken me two hours to get here.’ He says. ‘Walked all the way from Southall.’

‘Really?’ I don’t know what else to say. I check on Ivy and she’s still sleeping.

‘Haven’t got a damn thing in the cupboard.’ He says.

‘No, we’re pretty much out too.’

‘You don’t have a fag by any chance do you?’

‘No, sorry, I don’t smoke.’

‘That’s all right.’ He looks at Ivy. ‘How old is she?’

‘Nine months.’

‘She’s beautiful.’ He leans down and I smell a faint whiff of Alcohol on him.

‘Thank you.’ The queue moves slightly and we inch forward.

‘Did you have to come far?’ He asks.

‘No, not really. We live in Hanwell, so about forty minutes, I think.’

‘Did you walk?’

‘Yeah.’

‘With the pram?’

‘No other option.’

‘Yeah, seems to be lack of ‘em right now.’ He bends down to pick a cigarette butt up from the ground and he proceeds to straighten it out with his fingers. ‘The bastards cut me off. Just like that. Took away all my benefits and now I got nothing. But they don’t care.’ He lights the cigarette, or what’s left of it. ‘What about you?’

‘Got kids to feed and no work…so…you know…’

‘Yeah. You do the best you can.’ The queue moves again and we edge closer to the door. ‘It’s a bloody disgrace.’

‘What is?’ I ask.

‘This.’ He points at all of us in the queue. Shaking his head his eyes drop the ground. ‘Like we’re in the third world.’

‘Yeah. But it’s something at least.’

‘Maybe.’ He looks past the person in front towards the entrance. ‘Doesn’t make it any better though. It’s not right.’

‘No, but I’m just grateful for whatever they can give us. I don’t know what we’d do without it.’

‘Yeah, but it shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to do this.’ He’s at the front of the queue and looks into the shop. ‘Do you want to go in front of me?’

‘No, thank you, it’s okay.’

‘Please. It’s okay. You got kids and I don’t. It’s all right. Honest.’

‘I…’

‘Please.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay…thank you.’ I move in front of him and Ivy wakes up. She starts crying and the man bends down beside the pram and lets Ivy wrap her little hands around his finger.

‘What’s the matter, huh? It’s all right. No need to cry.’ He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his hand. Ivy stares at his closed fist. ‘What have we got here?’ He opens his hand up to reveal a set of keys. Ivy lets go of his finger and reaches out, but before he hands them over he fumbles and separates a sole key ring from the bunch. I watch as Ivy takes the key ring from his extended fingers. She smiles and begins to giggle at the shiny piece of plastic. The man smiles too and looks up at me. ‘She likes it.’

A voice from inside the shop calls out for me to enter. ‘Okay, give that back to the nice gentleman now.’

‘It’s okay.’

‘No. We can’t take it.’

‘Go ahead. Keep it. It’s just a key ring.’

‘But’ –

‘Please.’

‘Thank you.’

‘My pleasure.’ He smiles at Ivy again. ‘I’ll see you in there.’

‘Okay.’ I begin to enter the shop and then pause for a moment. I turn to see him watching us. ‘Thanks.’ I say and he nods his head and looks back down to the ground.

Inside, the shelves are already almost empty. I slowly scan the labelled trays and reach in to pick out what I can. I manage to find some tea, sugar, a couple of cans of soup, some cans of tomatoes and beans and peas, some jars of sauce and jam, two bags of pasta and one of rice, a packet of biscuits and wafer chocolate bars. I reach for a carton of long life milk and at the back of the shelf I spot a small jar of own brand coffee granules. I can’t believe it. I pick it up and check the date. Still good. I place it in my box and look around. Already I’m thinking about what I can cook for Mike and the kids. I see their faces when I give them a chocolate for dessert and it makes me feel good. I pick up a couple of cup a soups and pot noodles and then two tins of canned fruit and a packet of jelly cubes. Finally I take some rice pudding, a Fray Bentos chicken and mushroom pie and a bag of potatoes. All in all it’s a successful visit and I feel immensely grateful that some people still care enough to donate and help us out, even if it isn’t the government. Last time they stuck a sign in the window to say that they were out of food and we waited around until a van appeared out of nowhere with a fresh donation of supplies. Someone up there still tries to give us a chance.

A young lady helps me bag up my items and I see the man walk into the shop. We smile at each other and he proceeds to look around. ‘I think I might have something for you.’ The girl says and looks under the counter. I keep packing the bags until she re-appears with a pack of washable nappies. ‘Here.’ She says and hands them to me.

‘Thank you.’ I say.

‘Do you have any washing powder or liquid or anything?’

‘Not really – but it’s okay – I can’t possibly’ – but before I can finish she pulls out a box of powder and puts them in a bag. I look at her and try to guess how old she is. The one thing I’ve learnt from all this and all the volunteers and their help is that kindness has no boundaries. ‘Thank you.’ She smiles and seems embarrassed.

‘You got everything?’ She asks.

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Oh, wait.’ She disappears again and this time walks around the counter and bends down next to Livy.

‘Hello.’ She says and waves. ‘This is for you.’ From behind her back she reveals a tiny teddy bear. ‘Go on, take it.’ Ivy reaches out and pulls the teddy towards her. The girl smiles and strokes Ivy’s face. I see a glimpse of sadness in her eyes for a split second and then she shoots up and returns to her post behind the counter. I’m momentarily caught somewhere in between all this but I snap out of it and thank her once again. She tells me it’s nothing and it’s not her I should thank, but I do so once again and turn to leave. I see the man looking at the bottom of a tin and I say farewell and wish him luck. He offers me his best and we both say we hope to not have to meet again under these circumstances. For some reason I have a feeling we won’t. I don’t know why, but I sense a change of fortune. It might be nothing more than hope but I know that things will change. Eventually, they always do. I’ll wait for Mike and make him coffee. I’ll offer him a biscuit and listen to how his interview went. Then he’ll pick up the kids and I’ll cook dinner. Tonight I’ll make the pie and mash and beans and we’ll sit and eat together. Tomorrow, we’ll start again. I leave the shop and look up at the sky. There’s not a cloud above