Sorting the newspapers grew monotonous.
My fingertips became blistered, sometimes
they bled. To address customers, my face
had cracked into a permanent leer. I felt like
a complete imbecile. I didn’t know what to
do with my money. I wasn’t like other girls.
I had no craving for make-up or designer
clothes. I thought of a floral bouquet to
honour Aunty’s memory, but the cost was
shockingly astronomical. I decided to save.
The money might be handy, should our
precarious world come tumbling down.
Mr Steinberg hadn’t thawed. He was less
formal now, but the permafrost in his soul
ran deep. He was always toting up figures
on his beaten-up calculator, then sighing
hard. Mr Steinberg rarely spoke more than
a dozen words. He still brought me reviving
coffee at the end of my shift. I liked him for
his serious, no-nonsense leadership.
I loathed the gangly paper boy. Once I
caught him ogling my backside. I thrust
my middle finger in the air.
The early mornings wore me down. I dreaded
the raucous cry of my alarm clock, which I
would thump to snooze. Every second of
shut-eye counted. The birds began to sing
as I rose. I envied their enthusiasm. I snuck
down the creaking staircase to make some
tea. Trying to be a quiet church mouse, I
powdered my face, and exited the door.
The hoar frost slapped me awake. Our
street was terribly ghostly. My heels
clattered on the kerbstones. When I
arrived, Mr Steinberg was yanking up
the shutters. He grunted a good morning.
A low sun struck the advertising placards.
Everything glittered. Today I would get paid.
My feet throbbed, from standing all day
long. Uncle suggested I soak them in a
bowl of steaming water. This made me feel
extremely ancient. It was the sort of thing
Aunty would have said. I swallowed hard,
and blocked off her memory. Nobody had
thought to make dinner. I wasn’t in the least
surprised. Uncle had been painting up the
corridor into a warm orange glow. He was
still tinkering with his paint brushes and pots.
I’d half expected to discover him sunk into
a drunken lethargy on my return, so this
industriousness was pleasing. I went into
the kitchen. We’d have couscous tonight.
As I mixed the fine grains, Uncle was crooning
to himself. It was some old, sentimental
lullaby. I could have sworn this was something
Mother had sung to me. Gradually, quite
certainly, Uncle was healing.
I rose before sunrise. I sorted mountains of
newspapers for the delivery boy. He was a
gangly lout who kept staring at me. I was glad
when he biked off, lugging an enormous load.
Customers trickled in. They bought sweets,
tobacco, even dirty magazines. Mr Steinberg
loomed over my shoulder, looking for faults.
He was especially concerned when I operated
the till. Maybe he thought I was a petty
criminal who’d slip the occasional fiver down
my blouse. It all made me nervous, and I
feared I might muck up when I gave out
change. Around midday Mr Steinberg brought
me a steaming mug of coffee. I slurped at the
bittersweet beverage, thankful. Mr Steinberg
wasn’t much of a talker. Making money was
clearly a sombre business for him. I wondered
if he had a wife tucked away over the shop.
I dared not ask. When it was time to go home,
I was washed out, but happy. I tripped along
the pavement, chewing an expired bar Mr
Steinberg had thrust in my hand, wondering
what my two boys were up to.
There was a card in the tobacconist’s window.
It said the owner needed help. The bell tinkled
invitingly as I went inside. The proprietor was
an old gentleman with spectacles and a
hooked nose. He asked my age brusquely.
I lied. I had simply no idea how to negotiate.
This was my first real interview. The man
made some enquiries about my available
hours. It meant starting early. I nodded my
head continuously and tried to mould a lame
smile. The wages were modest. Suddenly
the owner was pumping my hand. I flushed.
I was to start the next day. Mr Steinberg,
that was his name, fished out a neatly folded
shop coat. This would be my uniform. We
shook hands again. The deal was sealed.
Uncle had a novel idea. I was to get a job.
The options would be limited. I’d most likely
be a shop assistant, or a supermarket teller.
I’d need a resume. Uncle promised me that
we could patch together some convincing
lies. It was necessary to look the part. Uncle
would accompany me. We’d scout the
neighbourhood, call in on all the businesses,
ask if anyone needed help. The plan seemed
fool proof. I felt certain somebody would offer
me work. The prospect of some pennies
rolling in would be a welcome addition. I
couldn’t be sure of Uncle’s liquidity. I didn’t
think he was hard up, but it was difficult to be
sure. No one would believe that Uncle wished
to exploit me. I mulled it over, I dwelt on the
plan. It seemed entirely innocuous. I’d dress
smartly. I’d wear lipstick. I’d be amenable. I’d
land the job.
Uncle battered dust out of all the carpets
and painted our kitchen cabinets a bright
insect green. It was a staggering trans-
formation. Uncle even took to hobbling
around the block. He huffed monstrously and
sweated profusely. Sometimes I came along,
concerned at the beetroot rashes suffusing
Uncle’s face. I wondered if he might go the
whole hog and find paid employment. After
his exercise, Uncle invariably purchased our
online groceries and boiled the kettle. The
tea he made was black, bitter and scalding.
I always refused politely. I liked to watch as
Uncle sat in his puffy reclining chair, blowing
hard on the surface of his stewed tea.
Sometimes I forgot William even existed.
He spent long hours upstairs lying on his
bed, tinkering with his bloody gadgets, only
appearing for meals. It was hard to gauge if
he noticed the change in us. The night Uncle
miraculously shaved and put on a clean,
stiff-collared shirt, I expected William to
comment. But the only noise I heard was
my idiot brother chomping down his boiled
sauerkraut. Some humans, I decided, were
simply lost causes.
I was immensely surprised. I gazed out the
kitchenette window, my mouth hanging wide.
Uncle was outside in the tiny vegetable plot,
pottering around with a garden fork. It looked
like he was turning the soil, prior to planting
some seeds. This was a complete victory. I
brushed outside and hugged his enormous
frame. Natalie, by summer we’ll be pulling up
our own cabbages and swedes, Uncle
bragged joyfully. He was close to happiness.
There was still that lingering odour of whiskey,
but it wasn’t half as pronounced. By recent
standards, Uncle was entirely sober. I
marvelled at the power of our medication.
It was clearly a wonder drug. It had drawn
Uncle from the brink of ruin. Whatever
happened from now on, I promised to myself,
we must continue to pop our pills. That was
the paramount thing. In summer we would sit
together around the dining table, and smile
broadly, as we bit into Uncle’s perfect
The whole notion of school never materialised.
The principal wasn’t keen to have us back,
thinking William and I might be a disruptive
element. I can’t say I was fussed either way.
My head was too blurry for education. I felt
I was getting fat. My clothes were all
tightening. I wondered if the medication
caused weight gain. I scrolled through the
literature. Opinion was divided. There was
no way I intended to swell up like beached
whale. I put us all on a crash diet. Butter was
anathema, oily food was expelled from
the menu. William complained vociferously,
picking grumpily at his food with a bent fork.
There was no flavour in what we ate. My taste
buds had been tranquillised too. Uncle was
always ravenous. I served him gigantic
portions. We muddled by. The fog was
cushioning our world.
Days passed. I began to feel mellow. The
edge was taken off my grief. Uncle rallied
too. He slept less. He even spoke to me.
I caught him smirking at silly things.
I managed to re-establish a routine of
regular meals. This pleased William
immensely. Uncle and I sat together
at his laptop, choosing scrumptious
groceries. I vaguely wondered where
the money came from. But nothing
seemed to bother me much. I knew
the powerful drugs were distorting
my mind. Tricking me into a false
happiness. I hoped they’d never
wear off. Uncle spoke about resuming
school. Even this didn’t flap me. Uncle
called the principal. A meeting was
organised. Ordinarily I would have
freaked. Instead a numb smile settled
on my face.