Second Prize Story Winner
2021 Short Story Competition
By Mary Elsmore-Neilson
We see no-one and no-one sees us. Being invisible is our way. Our brown skins melt past, glide by on soft canvased feet, careful not to be noticed. We don’t want trouble. We walk, slowly, very slowly, especially an aching mother – weary after eight hours in the basement’s heat – or a worn-out hunched-over elder. We are the unseen as we carry heavy bags of budget toilet paper, baked beans, cheap thin white bread, yellow oil in plastic bottles, and brown bananas.
We look ahead, take one foot and place it in front of the other as we save on bus fares. Our head leads the way, eyes down, focused, deaf when kids call out “Witch”, “Fatbag”, “Gang member” or say, “There goes a faggot,” “a homo,” “a crazy.”
If our hair is grey, dark shadows circle our view and our skin drapes in gentle folds, around our silent clothes. Black, grey trackies, hoodies are easiest. Sometimes we are splashed by cars swishing past as they race home. We arrive home, later, sodden, laden.
‘Essential’, they told us.
“You are Essential Workers during lockdown. We have contracts with many of the Covid 19 quarantine hotels so half of you will be employed. Most of our serviced buildings are closed as the employees will work remotely. Strict conditions of mask-wearing and deep-cleansing of urinals and disposal units will be enforced as per government regulations. Training sessions will be each night this week and all weekend to bring you up to speed. If you feel unwell, do not come to work. We cannot afford an outbreak. Your wages will be docked accordingly. Each of you will be notified before the end of the week.” And, “Forms are available for government benefits which some of you need to apply for.”
We are family. We share blood. We play, work together. We share, squash, into garages, sheds, lounges, if lucky. Take turns to sleep in the car, it’s cold in winter and hot in summer as we have to keep the windows closed.
The fear, always the fear of being found out, fear of being attacked, fear of hunger, fear of being unwell, of having a sick child, of having our pay docked for late arrival or a doctor’s visit. The worst was, always another bill came; kids needing new shoes, the rent increases, and power bills. They all had their hand out. We all, had jobs, worked just to keep up. Now were times of big change.
Desi, the Bossman kept us together. When those upstairs had a problem they spoke to him. Desmond Adolphus Dekker, so named because his mama, accompanied by the stereogram, belted out “The Israelites’ during his birth, forty years ago. His arrival went public as her chocolate tones ripped out, engulfed us in the joy of her pain. We have never forgotten.
Singing as though he had an audience of millions, not just us in our concrete bunker, Desi’s job was to pull steaming trays from the belching sterilizer’s dragon-mouth. As they cooled, we stacked them high, raced each other to build shining towers. A tower that didn’t lean, or topple. Our gloves, big huggy things, took most of the heat. We ripped them off at day’s end, pleased to remove heaviness, feel skin breathe.
Collections was the job of Jack, who drove the truck, a big blue diesel thing and Blossom, whose blonde highlights, smart navy shirt and trousers blended into the world of suits. A runner with great legs, she jogged into lifts, went up inside glass-towers with her shoulder bag, running like she was in a hurry to get back to our basement inferno.
Office staff sometimes spotted her blue bag,
“Yay, pizzas for lunch.”
“Mate, you wouldn’t want to eat these!” Blossom yelled back.
Alice’s job was to empty the bloodied pads from the metal bins in the blue bags into the incinerator. Slow flames licked hesitantly, then hungrily gobbled up the blackened white fabric.
All that was left was the smell. The smell; we wore it home. It lingered, clung to our clothes, our hair. There are no words for that smell. We laughed and joshed at our ‘holocaust’. Our bad joke reminded us of those poor buggers in the war, their families, made us realize how lucky we were.
Mondays, we ate Alice’s fried chicken, Tuesdays, Blossom always got heaps of stir-fries from Karangahape Road’s best Chinese takeaways. Charlie, the old boy’s son, we guessed, was sweet on her, or she, him. Desi liked Kentucky Fried, so we licked our fingers clean on Wednesdays. Jack’s beaut boil-up was Thursday and Fridays Rosie did her coconut-rice Alaisa fa’apopo, and if she felt happy, her Paifala, half-moon-pies that were to die for.
Our weekly lunch roster, alphabetical order, covered someone off sick, so the next one stepped up or, there was ‘slushie’, the fund for our monthly takeaway treat or backup if someone missed.
Ten o’clock on the dot was morning tea – fifteen minutes. Kettle boiling, eight tea-bags stewing in the pot. By afternoon, topped up a few times, it was a real strong and milky brown pickme-up.
Sometimes we treated ourselves to a tin of condensed milk, two teaspoons per cup. That hot caramel sure slid down our throats, especially in winter. Twelve o’clock, the siren rang, thirty minutes for lunch. Then the fifteen-minute cuppa at three leaving an hour and a half until clock off.
Summer, we rolled up the garage door, stashed our seats in the morning sun. Jack studied the gallops. He was a dreamer, never talked of his losses, only the wins. They weren’t much. Hard on poor Sally being married to a gambling man, with all those kids to feed. Yet they still – childhood sweethearts, sat beside each other at primary school, then at college until Sally grew big with their first one – loved each other.
Desi strummed a few tunes, quietly, gently, on his ukelele, we knew he’d win “Stars in Our Eyes” one day. A real ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ looker with sideburns and the slicked over wave in his black hair. His soft brown eyes smiled at us, all crinkled up at the sides. Made us feel special. Alice was soft for him, we all were, but he was true to his one love Ria, who worked in K-mart where they got great buys with her staff discount.
Winter was tough, with cold, slippery concrete floors where the wind shrieked around the roller door edges, pushed rain underneath that swept in and chilled our feet. Gumboots were good, didn’t last long though, but the chill still crept inside, crawled up our legs. At least it got hot, warm, and steamy inside once Desi revved the furnace to boiling speed where the red thermometer pointed hard right.
The sniffles started, followed by the flu which knocked us down like skittles at the bowling alley. We bowled once a week as a team. Not bad, we often won Team of the Month Cup. Some weekends, wearing white t-shirts with the blue company logo, we went in the white company van to play against the out-of-towner company branches.
Then it stopped, everything changed. A foreign company took over. They wanted more efficiencies, said we weren’t quick enough. The sales team had bigger budgets, had to win more business while we tried to keep up. Desi carried the weight of it for all of us. He’d be in meetings after home-time working to get the best for us, out of not much. It seemed our pay packet was thinner than ever.
Laughter and our lunch roster dropped off. We still had jobs, so kept on. Desi got grey in his sideburns and hardly sang.
We’ll never forget the fourth week of lock-down. There wasn’t really enough of us to do the work properly. That rogue wind pushed through gaps, stole up on us as Desi heaved out a load of steaming trays. His gumboot shot out and the other one followed at a funny angle as he went down, down, face into the jaws of that old panting sterilizer’s mouth. We screamed. From Desi, nothing. No sound. He didn’t say a word as we pulled him out.
“The ambulance is coming,” we whispered as we poured cold water over him.
He groaned, the sound came out as dry as chalk. His lovely face swelled, the skin underneath the waxy top layer was very pale.
After that, months later, Desi came in most days with us, just sat quietly. He got a good few thousand compo payout. But what does that do? They took his voice, his face, everything, but his life. We look after him, but things were never really the same again.
Funny we all agreed, we felt we had been conned. We’d felt proud at first. Now we felt being Essential Workers had lost the shine. Really nothing changed just less money for less of us.