William had become a real slob. He’d

lie on his bed playing computer games

when it was broad daylight. He even

closed his bedroom curtains at noon.

I could hear his squeals of digital delight

from downstairs, when I was washing up

the dishes. It was so unhealthy, cooped

up all day, goggling at a small screen.

I asked William if he’d like to go to the

park and play some ball. He sneered.

No way Nat, that stuff is for babies, he

barked dismissively. I’d have to make

the trip sound more enticing. I promised

him an ice cream. Greed flickered in

William’s eyes. I had scored a victory.


The earthy taste of lentils lingered

on my tongue. It was dire. William

had taken a couple of mouthfuls

with his nose turned up, then pushed

away his bowl. Nat, this stuff is totally

ghastly, he complained vigorously. I

cleared away the uneaten food. I’d

have to find a more palatable way to

relieve our hunger. The charity shop

had included a half packet of instant

coffee in their parcel. I’d never drunk

the stuff. I boiled the kettle and poured

out a full mug. I felt reckless. It was nutty

and sludgy and corrosive and bitter. I

remembered how Mother had been

seriously addicted, downing cup after

cup. I smiled to myself. These difficult

times had matured me. I wasn’t the

dizzy girl I’d been. I was reflective.

I was resourceful. I would get the job



Once home, William and I unpacked

a bizarre assortment of food. There

were mostly tins, lentils and peaches,

diced tomatoes and beetroot. William

pulled any ugly face. Also a pack of

stale rolls and some plain biscuits,

half a carton of eggs, powdered milk

and some dish-washing liquid. We

didn’t own a single cookbook. I’d

need to look up some simple recipes

on the internet. I scanned my phone.

William was eyeballing the biscuits.

I couldn’t imagine he’d take much

pleasure in a tomato and lentil stew.

Nevertheless I opened two tins and

set to work. The smell was disgusting.

William kicked the skirting board and

slunk away. I noticed that the biscuits

were missing.


The decrepit lady in the St Vincent de

Paul cast her eyes over my face and

body. It felt like she was exploring me

for protruding ribs, and other indications

of starvation. She clutched a tiny

notebook, in which she recorded my

name and circumstances. She asked

weird questions. Did I like liver, would

my brother object to tinned beetroot?

She simply couldn’t get over the fact

that our Mother was in hospital. I was

getting impatient. Eventually she

hemmed, and pulled out a rubber stamp.

My request for emergency food aid had

been granted. I was told to wait near the

front desk. I felt exposed. Then a

triangular grinning woman emerged from

a hidden side door, laden with heavy

white plastic bags. I spied a box of

cornflakes and a roll of toilet paper.

This was humiliating. I mumbled an

embarrassed thank you. The door bell

tinkled as I fled. It was like mocking

laughter. I didn’t look back. I knew my

face was bright crimson. William would

be waiting down the street.


In the crockery cupboard, I found two

small green ceramic bowls. I cracked a

single egg into each one, and whisked

energetically. There was salt to add,

and a few grains of powdered milk.

The resulting mix didn’t look like it’d

sustain a starving mouse. I didn’t know

how I was going to palm this off on

William. He’d be outraged. We had

bread. An airy white loaf that turned to

stodge when you chewed too hard.

I toyed with the idea of retrieving the

soup cans from the bin, but we weren’t

that hard up, at least not yet. Once it

was light, I’d go to the charity shop

and beg for a handout. That’d give us

three days of decent food. I didn’t dare

look too far ahead.


Mrs Eames was consoling. She said

we’d appeal the decision. It’s ludicrous,

expecting you to both live on such a

piddling amount, she raged. I knew this

mood. Mrs Eames meant business.

Meanwhile, I wasn’t to worry, because

Mrs Eames would tide us over with food,

and anything else we needed. She

grabbed my hand, and yanked me into

her kitchen. High above the sink was a

cupboard. I’d never noticed it before.

Mrs Eames rummaged noisily inside.

She’s pulled out four old cans of oxtail

soup. These will do nicely for starters,

she exclaimed, pleased with her

ingenuity. The labels were peeling off

the tins, the metal was grubby, rusty.

Mrs Eames clearly had no qualms

regarding expiry dates. I thanked her.

But I’d be tossing these into our recycle

bin. I wondered how many eggs were left

in our fridge.


I performed numerous calculations.

I tried to stretch the money inventively.

But it was like juggling disappearing

coins. After the rent was taken off,

there was this miserable sum, barely

enough for a mean tray of eggs, and

maybe a carton of milk. I felt like I was

going to explode. I didn’t want to busk

on the street. I couldn’t demean myself.

I thought of making a cardboard placard,

and begging for coins. I’d bring William.

We’d cut a sorry sight. Passers-by would

be moved. Our collection tin would fill

rapidly. The image lingered appealingly

for a while. Then I put on my boots. I

simply had to see Mrs Eames.


When we returned home, there was a

letter sitting on the mat. I recognised

the lavish blue crest. It was from the

welfare department. Any communication

from them always made me shiver. I tore

open the envelope and scanned the

neatly printed page. Our meagre

allowance was to be axed in half. I felt

beads of perspiration forming on my

forehead. The final paragraph was about

an appeal process. But it made no sense

at all. I thought of phoning and pleading.

Of composing an email begging for

reconsideration. But I knew they were

inhuman. I was just a number in their

crazy system. I didn’t know how I’d

break this to William. That there’d be

fewer provisions on the table.


William slurped his shake. Mrs Eames

cast him a dirty look. Really young

William, your manners need an overhaul,

she said, faintly amused. I sipped my

drink, lips lightly pursed, ladylike. I

couldn’t bear the grossness of boys.

The restaurant hummed with happy

people. Piped music tinkled in the

background. Mrs Eames had become

our surrogate mother. I was pleased.

She was wrapped in her unnecessary

winter coat, clearly relishing our outing.

She was wrinkled as a weathered apple.

I loved her.


Mrs Eames forced us to kiss and make

up. William pulled a hideous face, like

he’d drunk a tumbler of dirty dishwater.

I thought he was going to retch. I felt

humiliated. Mrs Eames went into the

kitchen, and took down the offending

roster. She scrunched it in her leathery,

veined hand, and it was history. I was

suddenly glad. Now let’s go out, and

celebrate your peace, with a couple of

chocolate milkshakes, Mrs Eames said.

This was welcome. William was palpably

thrilled. His face shone like a beacon.

He bounced out the front door, all of his

terrible psychological wounds

miraculously healed.