The cobbled streets bloat, filled with petrol fumes, birds’ droppings, and old receipts discarded by office workers returning home. A clock chimes seven times.
A woman’s footsteps break into the expiring notes. Hugging the grocery’s last quarter chicken under her right arm and a bagful of ungraded midterms under her left, she passes three young men lounging against the Tourists’ Information Centre. Cigarettes hang from their lips. Two bicycles stripped of chains and tyres totter against the wall in the parking lot. The pavement’s hardness reverberates in her knees.
In the square, servers in Uncle Frank’s burger van compile today’s last kebabs. The men are hairy and greasy-armed and speak some Middle Eastern language. They serve ever-hungry students dashing to class, harried employees attempting three-minute lunches, and romantic couples who tour town on motorcycles. Bicycle, Toyota, or Porsche, they will all stop at Uncle Frank’s.
She pauses at a bench to rest.
Right across the street, lights go out in the old bookshop, which smells of damp dust and sweat-stained cushions. Last month she brought Ana to visit, who discovered an 1813 pocket-sized King Lear. Whirling around in her excitement, she swung her backpack into a shelf laden with books. Five dislodged and fell on her; the scent of centenarian pages bloomed in the stiff air. Smiling, the woman remembers how the bookshop lady gasped and charged them on the spot for all five. She had purchased them for Ana – my gift to you, she said – and parted ways, only to double back for her forgotten school texts. On her way back to C&C’s she saw Ana’s books on this same bench, piled crooked against the wind.
After that she wondered about teaching senior lit seminars, marking eighty sets of multiple-choice questions, handing out detention slips in exchange for looks of sheer hatred.
She jolts out of her reverie. A young child has walked up to the bookshop – how young – six? seven? – his head doesn’t reach halfway up the windows. His skin is almost paper white, and his hair too – it makes the dry leaves matted in it stand out in relief. Staring into the smudged glass, he tugs at his knee-length shirt. Flakes of some strange substance fall down his legs and settle at his bare feet. He peers through each pane he can reach, reflection skipping from one to another. And then he turns around, sees her. It unravels into an eternity of pause – the child, hand on the bookshop, gaze resting on her, eyes void of surprise, void of expectancy, eyes of an infant or old man.
Then the bookshop lady steps out, locks the small door, drags down the shutters. “I told you to go away!” She flicks her wrist at him. Pressing her handbag to her bosom, she crosses the road to tell the burdened woman with a laugh, “I don’t know where he comes from. Just started peering into C&C’s Bookshop on Tuesday, silent as a ghost. Almost frightened the life out of one of my customers! It’s bad business. Why doesn’t the town council deal with these.” She walks toward Uncle Frank’s, tidying her bun. The woman watches her skirt swing lightly from side to side with each step.
The child wanders back to the shutters, looking after the lady who relates her tale to Uncle Frank’s van with the same inflection and pauses. As she leaves, hands warmed by a kebab, the lady thinks about immigrants and homelessness, wishing the government would sweep them all away and put them in a bag somewhere.
The woman stands, irresolute, gazing at the child. Laundry waits on her bed and stained plates in the sink. She must replace her ruined umbrella – but only after paying this month’s rent.
She starts at the shout. One of Uncle Frank’s men leans out over the counter, rapping the side of the van. The child turns. The man points at something his coworker lays on the counter – a collapsed Goliath burger, wrapped in tissue.
“You, boy. Come. Come!” the first man bellows, waving the burger. “Food, yes? Ummm. Eat.”
The child walks unhurriedly across the street and takes the Goliath, then turns into the nearest side road.
The van-rapper drags a stained white sleeve across his forehead, smearing more oil on it. Time to wash the bowls, containers, and knives, pull up the counter, pack up leftover meat and onions for tomorrow.
His cousin clicks the fluorescent light off in the van, and they pull themselves onto the seats. Their legs are singing from standing so long. He grasps the wheel with slick fingers. What is that woman doing by the bench? Every evening she crosses the square from the schools, walking as one driven by the same demon of urgency and exhaustion they know so well. But today she stands, coat swaying in the wind, staring at them. Carrying armloads of things, hair blowing in a frenzy around her face. She’s trying to catch the chest sickness, his cousin says in their language. People like her can afford to. The engine gags, then runs smoothly.
As the van rolls past, the driver glimpses her face – still, almost expressionless. A “thank you” forms inside her and presses against her lips, but she says nothing. Instead she stands for a long time looking into Uncle Frank’s vacant lot on the square, where the child reached up to the counter. Slowly she turns, and walks home.