The Essential Worker
  Stories by Jane Turner Goldsmith
  1  Chicken
 Dumpster Zone
3  Roadkill
4  Floral Arrangements
5  Shiny Shoes
6  Temporary Repair Only
7  Steady White Light
  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2023 Fiction Issue


Essential Worker #1: Helen

So, the fringe was going to be a problem. Out of an abundance of caution, Treena’s text read, advising that the salon would be closed until this is over, hopefully just a few weeks.

Helen brushed the hair out of her eyes—she’d been on the cusp of making an appointment. Her hair fell in straight black cords to each side of her face, but that was alright. She could easily trim the length herself and even change the colour. (Burnt Siena was next.) But her fringe tickled her eyes at the best of times, so how long was Treena really going to be shut down? By the sounds of it, maybe a little longer than “a few weeks.” The Prime Minister—standing there in his dark suit, flanked at a good distance by another grandfatherly looking fellow—and speaking like they were at a funeral or about to announce a war, and telling us that we were going to be “locking down.” It was all a bit blown out of proportion, really. This wasn’t China. Or that other place, Iran, Iraq, one or the other. No way would Australia get to that point.

Well, anyway, she’d tried cutting the fringe herself, face all contorted in front of a blurry mirror, black mould eating away at the edges, time she got the landlord to replace it, but then, how was that going to happen when the shops were all going to shut? All the shops? Ah, but she was safe there—supermarkets would have to stay open. She’d be right, she was a supermarket assistant! Ha! Important, for once in her life. But the fringe. There was no way she could do a level cut, with blunt scissors, and you needed a spirit level or something. It was just going to have to look weird for a bit.

Then there was the text from George, right after the seven o’clock news: Effective today go to the Marshes store, start 9am. Arthur will update u. No Dear Helen, no best wishes, no luv George. Dickhead.

The Marshes. Right. How was she supposed to get there? It was an easy walk to the Dulwich Avenue Grocery, where she’d worked for seven years now, a smart suburban food providore with its continental butter at six dollars a pat and its after-work clientele brisking in at six pm, just on closing, when she should be clocking off. Except they always looked so imploringly at her and a couple of them she was even a bit fond of, in their tight skirts and linen blouses, racing in for polenta ragu or seafood risotto. From the dark suits’ announcement, those kinds of workers now weren’t going to be out working, so they wouldn’t be driving home from work, so they wouldn’t be dropping by.

Helen squinted into the mouldy mirror, trying to get her lipstick on without going over the edges. Leaning in closer, she knocked the toothbrush holder into the vanity set that held the useless horsehair brush and daisy comb, always getting in the way, she should get rid of it, but it was the only memento she actually cared about from her mum. Thanks George. No here’s the address, the bus route, the bus fare. She’d be out of credit on her MetroCard. What a pain to have to top up, find the right bus, a pain, even more than the fringe. And her runners, where were they since she’d given up exercise years ago? Tugging at the worn sole of one old shoe, all the stuff that needed throwing out, down it toppled. All a bit of a mess, frankly.

She’d been once to the Marshes store for an interview, seven years ago. Little continental deli-cum-store of essential supplies: toilet paper, olive oil, random fresh veggies that George’s mate grew in his back yard, nice tomatoes as far as she recalled, and the excess of the bulk food that George imported from Greece: rusks, mountain tea, orange and honey soap, dried fish, loukoumi. At that time George was just starting the Dulwich Avenue Grocery and they suddenly needed more cashiers there to serve the flocks of working professionals who were so busy and important they couldn’t cook. So they started her off at Dulwich, terrific, since she lived closer to that location. But now, the store must be about to go full-on Ready-to-Heat Home Cooked Providore—and George would be needing drivers and cooks, not fifty-something checkout operators like her with their back problems. He’d still need people to answer the phone and take orders.

Obviously, she didn’t have the right “telephone voice.”


Anyway. She’d be right. The Marshes store was one bus and one tram ride away. Alright in summer but come winter, if this wasn’t over, she’d be arriving home in the dark.

She had a job. (Casual, albeit. Why hadn’t she pushed?) But things would turn out okay. And Arthur, who she’d met just that once, he might be alright.

So here she was, the Marshes. No fanfare or farewell from Dulwich. Not that she’d really expected it.

“This is Chloe,” Arthur indicated with a nod. “You’ll be working together.”

Chloe’s hair was deathly blonde with green streaks, which was alright but pink would suit her better, given her skin, which was—Helen didn’t mean to be rude—pretty plastered over. Couldn’t they do any better for acne these days? Like No More Gaps that you plugged up the cracks with before you papered the entire wall. She didn’t want to judge, but Chloe was probably at least two decades younger than her but with an old look. Like she smoked too many cigarettes, not that Helen could talk. And didn’t exercise. Not that Helen could talk.

Chloe didn’t raise her eyes, staring instead at her bitten nails and looking like her piercings might be hurting. Helen would like to offer Chloe some advice about the nails, but perhaps she should wait a bit.

“We’re going to need tons of disinfectant,” Arthur said. “Everything has to be disinfected several times a day. The trolleys, the shopping baskets, all the shelving.”

Helen looked around the store. Compared to Dulwich Avenue, it was pretty dated: old tills, wooden counters, boxes everywhere. The whole place looked like it should be hosed down with disinfectant, one of those spraying machines with waving arms like she’d seen on TV in New York. The counters had grubby black rubber, no conveyor belts. And today, all was silent. No customers. They must have heeded the warning. Like the virus could be lurking in every corner of their usual worlds, at the ready to leap out with its nasty pink spikes. Helen didn’t really go for catastrophising in the general order of things, but it was definitely a weird thought. She wandered over to the cold section, spray and cloth in hand. Stalks of celery in re-purposed white yoghurt pots, blocks of haloumi, bunches of massively sized beetroot, that same continental butter—Ha! $3.65 a pat. Sprayed all the fixtures over, wiped it down. It was going to be a boooring day.

They wouldn’t normally be doing smoko together, but while there were no customers, maybe it would be a nice gesture. The workers at Dulwich Avenue, they—well, nobody smoked.

Helen reached for her handbag from under the counter and rummaged around for her smokes. Bummer, only two left. She moved towards Chloe’s checkout, waiting for her to look up. She still seemed pretty focussed on those nails. You just couldn’t read anything.

“What time is smoko?” Helen tried, her pack at the ready.

Chloe sniffed, rousing from her reverie, and glanced briefly in Helen’s direction.

“Dunno. I’m out of here. Got a sore throat.” As if to make sure Helen had caught on, she coughed (pathetically) into her shoulder and raised, finally, her large eyes. “I’m only part-time anyway. Can you tell Arthur?”

Chloe bent to retrieve her bag from under the checkout. As she pushed through the flapping macramé strands that kept the flies out, she said: “Watch out for the crazy woman who comes in with the chicken.”

Helen looked around for Arthur. He must be out the back, unloading stock. Maybe she’d tune in to the eleven o’clock news on her phone app. Someone on the tram was talking about “forthcoming economic recovery measures,” whatever that meant.

She slipped her phone back into her cardigan pocket as Arthur bustled by with a stack of empty cartons.

“Where’s Chloe?”

“She asked me to tell you she was going home. Something about a sore throat.”

Arthur gave a snort. “Lucky we’re not too busy. Right. Well. Things are going to be a bit different around here.” He said something else under his breath, but Helen thought it might not be her business.

“What shall I do now?” she asked. Actually, she hadn’t had her smoko. But never mind. Try to make a good impression.

“These chickens here,” Arthur said, pointing to the rotisserie cabinet. “Can you keep an eye on them? You just need to listen out for the timer bell. We might have to cut down on the amounts. But they’re the best buy in the neighbourhood. We should see some customers around lunch time.”

“Sure thing.” The chickens were starting to smell pretty good.

Helen coughed. Frowning, she raised her hands to her neck. Was that a sore throat? She cleared it, focussing on the tiniest sensation. A bit thickened? A little bit achy? Nah, it was nothing, she’d be right. She wasn’t in the risky age group. Fifties wasn’t that old. Not that old age group, where it could turn out pretty bad, as the TV kept showing. Those poor people on cruise ships, supposed to be enjoying their retirement. It was too cruel.

Helen listened for customers. Outside there was a little chapel, with a bell and candle holders and all. People came there first, then shopped. Sure enough, in hobbled what must be a regular, a slightly stooped man with peaked cap and walking stick.

“Good afternoon,” Helen said.

Kalispera,” the man whispered and dipped his head, but he didn’t really look at her.

“Arthur’s out the back.” Helen guessed—who the man was really wanting to see.

Within a few moments a woman clothed entirely in black entered.

Kalispera,” Helen tried. The woman smiled and exhaled a torrent of Greek, no doubt about the sorry state of affairs, and what the world was coming to and what were they to do.

Helen didn’t look a bit Greek. The freckles and snub nose were a giveaway, for sure. But never mind, she didn’t need Greek to serve the lady a chicken. There went the ting of the rotisserie bell.

Before long, a group of regulars had clustered, hugging, kissing, and murmuring in reverent tones as if they had just returned from a funeral with no wake.

Arthur appeared at her elbow, making her jump.

“A word?”

“Sure.” What had she done wrong this time?

“Just wanted to tell you, people are supposed to stay a metre and a half apart.” He spoke under his breath. “We’re going to have to do a sign and all that. Hand sanitiser, except it’s out of stock, can’t get any. Could you just tell them, please? That they’re supposed to stand apart? Gotta get this toilet paper out.” He turned towards a pallet load of toilet paper in bulk 40 packs, stacked metres high.

Seriously? Up to me to tell these people to stand apart?

But she nodded.

The gentleman with the peaked cap had loaded his groceries onto her checkout and was looking through her to the tobacco pouches, like, right through her, like she was completely invisible.

The bloody scanner wasn’t working so she ended up keying in several items. A loud thudding noise caught her attention, as the stack of toilet paper toppled over. Two of the women had loaded up their trollies and were arguing about who would take the last package. Arthur, help!

Just at that moment a woman with a scarf covering the bottom half of her face entered the store. It gave Helen a bit of a fright. Was that really necessary? It was starting to be a bit scary. Could you just catch the thing if you breathed over someone?

The woman now heading straight towards her didn’t look Greek either. The scarf was posh-looking and tartanny, like in those flight magazines, not that Helen flew much (and now wasn’t looking at all likely to), but Treena had them at her salon.

Before she could even spray down her counter, the woman was there, in her face, brandishing a white paper bag.

“Excuse me. I’d like to make a complaint.” She spoke in a plummy voice that was just not from this area. She must have got here on the free tram for Seniors—if she hadn’t driven down in some clapped out Mercedes. That’d be right.

From under her fringe, Helen peeked into the woman’s face. She had to look away. The woman had a real bossiness about her, but there was something else too, a bit of a tremble. A right princess, in any event. If Helen’s skin could look that good at—what, she must be late sixties—then Helen wanted to know the secret.

Helen peered into the bag. She would need gloves to extract the remainder of the chicken. Half a chicken. It had its drumsticks and a good part of the breast removed.

“What seems to be the problem?”

“It’s grey, can’t you see?” The scarf muffled the woman’s voice, but that was an English accent, for sure. Ah, so that was it. Fair skinned, peaches and cream, not raised under the harsh Aussie sun. Not a single wrinkle, not even around her eyes. Unfair.

Arthur was hovering again.

“Here, I’ll deal with this. You go manage that toilet paper crisis.”

Helen stepped aside. The chicken lady. Obviously not the first time.

She overheard a phrase or two. Difficult times or something. It might have been a plummy voice, but at the same time, it sounded a bit thin. Anyway, let Arthur deal with it.

Helen waited at the edge of the toilet paper scuffle.

“Excuse me,” she tried, her voice sounding pathetic.

Nobody took a scrap of notice. The same two women were still fighting over the last package.

“Excuse me. We should—” Helen coughed. “Let’s all, um, try to be fair. I don’t think we need to panic.”

One of the women turned and screamed at her, full in the face. Literally, screamed.

Helen froze an instant, her brain trying to draw on the store of experience that told you what to do in such situations but producing a blank.

She backed off to her checkout, nerves jangling.

The woman with the scarf was stamping out of the store. Heart still hammering, Helen watched her departing, with her white bag of chicken bones.

Arthur re-appeared with cardboard and marker pens.

“We have to make some signs. People just don’t get it. But it’s real, I tell you. Shops will have to shut. We’re not there yet. Most of them are going online—home deliveries, driveway collect. All that crap. We don’t even have a webpage.”

Helen touched her throat again. She took in a breath, wondering whether she should mention the toilet paper incident to Arthur.

“Can you stay back?” Arthur asked. “It’s just the chickens sell really well from five onwards. We close at seven.”

“Sure.” Helen breathed out slowly. There were hardly any buses at that time. “Um, I haven’t had my lunch break yet. Can I grab a quick smoko?”

“Sorry, yes. I’ll take over. Go, quickly. Take an iced coffee or something. Sorry, we’re just a bit understaffed without Chloe.”

“That’s alright.”

Squatting outside in an alcove set back from the road, Helen dragged on her cigarette. Was that just nicotine that was making her feel lightheaded? She rubbed her throat. Shit, she couldn’t afford to get sick, even if it wasn’t the virus. At least she had a job, if only a casual one. And there should be other supermarket jobs around if it came to…

She wasn’t going to think that way. She’d be right.

When she returned, Arthur must have headed off the toilet paper fight. The store was quiet again.

“A word?”

What now? She’d only taken ten minutes.

He was avoiding her eye. He busied himself unpacking the tins of dolmathes stacked at the end of her checkout.

“Just had a call from George. He says not to come in tomorrow.”

“Oh, right,” Helen said. Arthur still hadn’t looked at her. “Right.”

“Chloe can manage, with so few customers. Until we get ourselves organised.”

“She’s part-time though, isn’t she? Is tomorrow her day?”

“Yeah. No. Tomorrow’s not her day but she’s part-time contract. We have to get our value out of her.”

“Oh, okay. Right. I’ve never been offered a contract.” Her voice came out a bit thinner than she wanted. It was embarrassing with Arthur still acting like they were having a normal conversation, yet fiddling with his tins, which were already stacked, neat enough.

“Yeah, I dunno,” he finally said.

“So what do I do—come in the next day?”

“George says he’ll let you know.”

Helen’s hand flew to her throat again.

“Did I do okay today?”

“You did fine. Don’t take it, you know, personal, like. It’s this f —,” he glanced from side to side. “This bloody virus. Nobody knows…I might be next to go.”

Helen thought if she opened her mouth, no sound would come out. She looked around the deserted store and coughed, to be sure she still had a voice.

“Okay, well, if you’re sure there’s going to be customers for chickens tonight?”

“Hope so. But…might as well turn them off.”

“What happens if you don’t sell them?”

“Don’t tell anyone but we freeze them and sell them tomorrow. Or the next day. We got a reasonable freezer out the back.”

“There are plenty of people that I bet could use a chicken.”

“Yeah, sure. But I gotta follow instructions.”

“Want a smoke?”

“Yeah. No. Better get on.”


When Helen was in primary school, nobody went on about bullying. They just bullied. Nobody called it anything at all, not the teachers, not that you ever talked to teachers about anything other than why you hadn’t done your homework (because the power went off and you had to go to bed early, because maybe someone hadn’t paid the power bill, except you didn’t say that last bit to the teacher). Not the boys who lifted your skirt and jeered at the colour of your knickers, or who bashed you with their bags all the way home, three of them, and by the time you got home you had run out of crying so you didn’t even tell your mum. Not the girls, who, nudging each other and rolling their eyes, invited you to their group because you were supposedly smarty-pants-goody-two-shoes who would do all the work. The class queens, the ones who never invited you to their party because you wore ancient dresses. None of them understood it as bullying, not like kids do now.

Get over it, snowflakes. That’s what they all were now. She knew because her cousin’s kids whinged about bullying all the time, that the school did nothing, blah blah, so they stayed at home and didn’t go to school at all. There was a brilliant solution for you.

Get Over It.


Helen rented a flat in a block called Fern Court, a hardly noticed, dowdy little pocket folded into a really smart area. By the time she arrived home, after the mini rush for chickens at six, it was almost nine o’clock. She walked through to her small kitchen. Three eggs and half a tin of baked beans in the fridge. She wasn’t that hungry, not really.

She moved to the lounge and flicked the remote.

Health workers in China were getting infected. The doctor who discovered it had died.

There was the kindly grandfather talking again about “social distancing” and hand sanitising.

And the Prime Minister saying just wait, just wait, we are going to make announcements about economic relief. Because we have to go into lockdown now, phase three lockdowns and nobody can be out doing anything apart from going to work and only if you can’t work from home, only essential workers can be out. Or if you're going to your doctor's. Or if you're exercising (but only one hour a day).

 It was hard to settle after that. There was no-one to call, not anymore.


It felt weird in the morning not to rush. Topping up her MetroCard had been a complete waste. There was no more real coffee in the pantry. You couldn’t even go out for a coffee, that nice little tucked away café at the end of her street, it was shut. No takeaway even. Helen stared into her instant brew. McDonald’s would be the only bloody place you were going to be able to get a coffee from now on. At least there was one smoke left since Chloe hadn’t taken it.

Helen sat staring at the rambling passionfruit climber in her little back patio. How come that was looking so healthy and serene? She took a long, slow draw.

Her phone buzzed. It was Marius. The landlord.

Advising ALL tenants of Fern Court that rent is due AS NORMAL despite the current situation. Rumours of a rent freeze DOES NOT APPLY to tenants of Fern Court.

The rent was due next Thursday. Pay was Thursday too. At least that one would be a full pay.

The phone buzzed again. George. She half thought about letting it go.

“Helen? Can you come in today?”

“I thought you said you didn’t need me.”

“We need you.”

“Alright. Alright. But I have to catch a bus and a tram. It will take me an hour, an hour and a half, depending.”

“You come, please. Chloe can’t come in. She had to go for a test. Or she says.”

“So, you definitely mean the Marshes?”

“Yes, yes, the Marshes, you see Arthur there.”


“Thank you, goodbye.”

“Do I get paid the overtime? I’m going to need—”

“I gotta go. Check with Arthur.”


By the time she arrived at the Marshes it was 10.30 am. There were hardly any people on the tram, only health workers going down to the hospital. Essential workers, she thought, and it felt good. There are only a few of us. People were talking a bit excitedly about economic recovery measures, designed to keep people in work and prevent businesses from collapsing, and then another law about not being able to evict people for six months.

She was the only one who got off at her stop.

In the store there were no customers. All the stock had been put away. This was weird and then her throat tightened and felt sore. She picked up the disinfectant and started on her checkout. Arthur had loaded only three chickens on the rotisserie. They smelled good. She hadn’t eaten much last night and maybe she should do a bit of stockpiling too (not toilet paper — how demeaning, what she’d witnessed), but the chickens, perhaps, even a frozen one. She might ask Arthur.

The little Greek man didn’t show, and the group of mourners didn’t turn up either. A woman with her hair in a bun came in and squeezed all the avocados, every single one, and then left, without so much as a glance.

Arthur had made up a few signs: Please keep to a metre and a half apart. Please sanitise your hands and your trolley as you enter the store. Here to serve you safely.

It was all a bit much, really.

“So, what about Chloe?”

“Chloe has a sore throat and she’s not supposed to come to work which sucks because we’ve still got to pay her.”

Yes sure, that sucked. It sucked more to be a casual.

“If she has a test, she has to stay away until she gets the result. And we still have to pay her.”

Around twelve noon the woman with the tartanny scarf from yesterday entered, but today she was wearing a yellow silky looking thing. The scarf wasn’t completely necessary for today’s weather, but it did stand out and maybe that was the point. It made her look exotic, middle Eastern, like an Arabian princess. The princess didn’t appear at all embarrassed, not in the least, in her approach to Helen.

“A chicken, please.”

“Right, a chicken.”

The woman was purchasing nothing else. She opened her purse and—before spilling cash onto the counter—asked Helen to please sanitise. Then she counted out her fifty and twenty cent pieces. Six dollars…six fifty...six seventy…seven, seven dollars. “There.”

The woman had the kind of arched eyebrows that Helen would give half her weekly wage to possess. Slender, perfectly etched and just the right colour without even having to use a dye. And she used them to her total advantage. While her eyes were focussed on the coins and the chicken in the white bag (cuffed up and placed carefully into her ancient but nicely preserved string bag), she let the eyebrows do the talking. Not even the flicker of an exchange of eye contact, though Helen was waiting. The princess had a way of looking down her nose, too, similar to how those professional women looked, the ones who zipped in and out of the Dulwich Avenue store. This woman had all that, but she also had a kind of tremor at the same time, that meant it was all a lie. Helen could see straight through it.

“They smell good,” Helen said. “Tasty, I’ll bet.”

The princess said nothing, closed her purse (a little as she did her mouth) and looked directly at Helen for the tiniest microsecond—giving it all away again.

“Have a good day. See you again,” Helen didn’t quite mean to say.


Her dad always used to say make something better of yourself. He said it to all his kids, and it wasn’t clear who she was meant to be better than. Than him? Maybe, but to be fair, he hadn’t had too many chances. It wasn’t his fault that she was the eighth, and a decade after the supposed last child (or maybe it was his fault, but she didn’t blame him). From an early age, she could remember being referred to as The Accident; that is, until one of her older sisters said it “wasn’t really on.” And she became Helen again, and occasionally Hellie, which she hated, but it was better than Hell or, more randomly, Gumby, which some of the kids at school called her. No, not anyone’s fault there were so many siblings above her. You just got used to being invisible; it wasn’t so bad for the most part. You could get away with slipping home after school, taking to your room, getting your homework done and spending the rest of the night reading (after you’d done the dishes, if it was your turn). She was actually pretty good at school, at reading and writing. B+; not bad at all.

Not that anyone noticed.


On the news, they said, if you arrived from anywhere, you might have it already. People must be catching it on planes. Helen switched off the TV and turned up Vanessa really loud on Classic FM radio. It seemed incredible that Classic FM was going on, so normal, while the pillars holding up the entire world were all crashing down. Vanessa said things like “Hey, come with me on a little trip to Italy,” or the Steppes of Russia, or Outer Space, as if you really could go. Vanessa spoke with no ums or ahs, as if her life had no pauses or hesitations. When Vanessa joked that here was a chance, in lockdown, to sing your tits off, and not just in the shower, she let you believe that nobody was ever going to be bored, or scared, or alone.


Helen woke next morning with a sore throat. Seriously, this time, an actual sore throat and a little cough. A dry cough, like they said. Or maybe just a normal cough? Don’t panic. She’d be right. She wasn’t old old. Old enough, and a smoker, which was—well, wasn’t good. And a bit overweight. And, whoops, didn’t do much exercise. She would have to get A Test. Don’t panic. She texted Arthur, not wanting to call George, then the Coronavirus hotline number. The voice message told her she would need to go to her GP for a referral …et cetera, et cetera.


It was a huge hassle to get the test. When she turned up at her local clinic, the doctor shut the door in her face, literally slammed the door, yelling from behind it that hadn’t she seen all the signs, the (hastily written) warnings plastered onto all the doors? From her phone, banished outside the building, Helen emphasised her symptoms, said she had been working in a supermarket, as she was an essential worker, and her co-worker was off with a sore throat, and she’d heard on the radio about some outbreak in baggage handlers not far from the store. No, she couldn’t do a drive-by test without a car. In the end the receptionist must have felt sorry for her, because—embarrassingly, since Helen didn’t normally cry—she had started crying about how she wouldn’t be doing this lightly as a casual worker, like she had to miss days of work, and that meant missing pay, but that she absolutely wanted to do the right thing, and if she was infected, she wasn’t going to infect her customers. So, the doctor (another one) clothed in a white spacesuit met her outside the surgery and, from a distance, stuck a horrible probe down her throat, making her gag. Next the nose swab and then, no sympathy—just go home and isolate (that wouldn’t be hard) and wait for results.


Day 1 isolation

Sore throat worse. Was that a fever? Thermometer too old. Skin felt warm, couldn’t read the mercury line. You were supposed to have a raging fever. No food in the fridge. No time to shop after the test. No one who could drop off food, even if she asked, which she would never, because they’d all be too scared and there wasn’t really anyone, not anymore.

Day 2 isolation

All those memes about making sourdough or filming stupid cat videos. She could clean out her cupboards! Not while you were waiting for Covid-19 results. Three cans of tuna in the pantry. Arthur sent a text: Sorry to hear. But u r doing the right thing. Chloe is here.

Day 3 isolation

George sent a text: Don’t bother to come back.

Somehow, she would have to get more food. (She could call Dulwich Avenue. Nah, don’t want to bother them.)

Day 4 isolation

How long was the bloody test supposed to take? She called the surgery. Much scurrying and shuffling of papers. Eventually: We’ll call you back. The results should be here.


Her mother always used to say don’t get ahead of yourself.

There was a teacher, the music teacher, and she never addressed Helen directly, yet Helen felt that Mrs Dalton’s encouragements were for her alone. You can always sing if you can’t play Brahms, Mrs Dalton would say. If you couldn’t have a violin—which you could only borrow for one term on the school’s regional music program, and which, incredibly, Helen seemed to take to, such that she could even whine out Amazing Grace on it after two lessons, but which she had to give back at the end of the term, so that was the end of her career as a violinist—you could always sing.

One day she would go and sit in the huge concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic and listen to Brahms violin concerto in D major. Or it would be Beethoven’s Ninth, and she would just sing along under her breath. She would!

Except she might have left her run a bit late, now, with everything that was happening.


Helen looked up what she could about this new Jobkeeper payment. It didn’t look like she was eligible. The landlord texted with repeated reminders that the government non-eviction plan didn’t apply to the tenants of Fern Court. Bullshit, Marius.

But she felt a little weak, in case he was right.

Day 5 isolation

The surgery called; she had tested negative. The results had got lost. Not lost but someone had neglected to call earlier. Sincere apologies. She was free to go back to work.

She texted Arthur. Could he let George know? Arthur texted back. Chloe was off again. Because she was on Jobkeeper (which was a pretty bloody good deal if you were only part-time) it didn’t matter to Chloe whether Chloe came in or not, and nobody could tell if Chloe had actually had a test and, if so, whether Chloe was positive or negative and they weren’t allowed to ask, apparently. They were desperate for help, but it was up to George.

Day 6

George texted to ask if she could come in (please). The Dulwich Avenue Grocery was scaling down to frozen takeaway only and they needed all hands-on deck at the Marshes. Dickhead, Helen thought, but felt a bit sick in the stomach. Still, it was a good thing they needed her, after all. She was too embarrassed to drop in at the Dulwich Avenue Grocery, slinking instead into McDonalds for a hamburger, which didn’t even touch the sides.

The supermarket, see, was just like the jungle. The pecking order power started with the big bosses like George and trickled down to the middle guys like Arthur, who was actually a decent bloke and who gave her a free iced coffee for smoko, who reminded her of her brother, now sadly passed, who stared down those boys who bashed her with their bags, and then there were the low-lying checkout chicks like Helen—yes, proudly, she’d started in the days when she didn’t mind being called a chick, at least you were someone. And the pecking order was fine too, it was quite logical and made sense, no problems. But then the customers disturbed this natural hierarchy with their own pecking orders. Some of them misguidedly thought themselves at the top of the order. Like, who entitles you to load up the entire supply of the supermarket’s toilet paper, just because you are a regular, or you earn lots of money? No, not even that, just because you are a fucking customer and not a worker?

Well, you know mate, your shit is the same as anyone else’s! Smells the same, and no doubt you produce the same quantity.

Day 7

Helen leapt out of bed. The tram was full of health workers, all masked, all whispering. You should write your will she thought she heard, was that right? Couldn’t they speak up a bit so she could listen in and try to figure out what medical people were thinking, about how bad it was, and if you really should write your will or wear a mask and where the hell you would even get one.


At work things seemed a little busier. Which was good. Stock from the Dulwich Avenue store to put away. Lots of disinfecting, the shelves, the counter. Signage, positioning of the handpumps. Arthur was run off his feet. Going on about having to order Perspex barriers and sanitiser stands.

Just as Arthur was deciding how many chickens to skewer today, the woman with the scarf entered. She made eye contact and strode up to Helen’s counter (that Helen had just disinfected), depositing a white bag.

“I’d like to make a complaint about this chicken. Can I have a refund, please?”

“Grey, is it?” Helen kept her gaze.

“Could I have a look, please?” Peering into the bag, Helen could see, like last time, the breast had been peeled off, the two drumsticks excised. Just the wings and carcass remained, reflecting a little greyly against the foil insides of the bag.

Helen handed her back the bag. “I’m afraid we can’t offer a refund, Madam.”

The woman hardly blinked. “May I speak to the manager?”

“I’m afraid he’s busy, you see we’re—” Helen glanced up from under her fringe. She wasn’t going to get Arthur. She could handle it. The princess would figure it out. She started disinfecting her counter, avoiding further exchange. The woman was tensing up, but Helen wasn’t going to say another word.

“Well,” the woman said. “Well. It’s no use to me.” She dumped the bag on the counter.

What was Helen supposed to do with the perfectly good half-a-chicken? The bins were way out the back and she couldn’t leave her checkout, anyway.

She raised the package to her nose. It passed the sniff test. The date on the docket was only from yesterday. She’d just have to chuck it in the waste-paper bin for the time being.

As she watched the princess flounce off, a text message came through on her phone: Effective tomorrow your services no longer required due to store changes. George.

Helen slammed down the phone. She thought about dropping the F-bomb but the man in the peaked hat was unpacking the contents of his basket onto her counter. He did, this time, look at her when she threw the phone. Helen pressed the keys to unleash the cash register, the drawer opening with a loud ding.

Grabbing a ten-dollar note, Helen jammed the drawer closed and sprinted towards the exit, taking off down the street towards the tram stop. (Not that she could actually sprint. But as fast as she could.)

“Excuse me,” Helen cried out. “Excuse me. You! Woman with the scarf!

There was the princess, striding towards her tram stop.


The woman turned, eyes widening.

“Here!’ Helen held up the ten-dollar note like a trophy.

“Here, have the refund.” Panting hard, Helen reached for the woman’s pale hand. It felt lovely, so soft and cool.

“Have it. Take it.” Flicking her fringe aside, Helen looked right into the woman’s eyes. Observed her squirm and glance away, then return eye contact for the briefest, most complicit of moments.

Helen pressed the note into the woman’s soft hand. And held it there, her own hand a little puffy from the sudden exertion. Helen clasped it a second longer than might have been strictly necessary and felt the woman squeeze back, just the tiniest squeeze.

“Have it.”

The woman snatched the note and stuffed it into her bag. She lifted her chin in the direction of the tram just approaching.


Back at her checkout, Helen beamed at the queue of customers with their paper towels and tins of okra. They were all looking at her. She brushed her fringe out of her eyes and explained, calmly, that sorry, they might have to wait a little for service.

“Arthur!’ she yelled. “I’m off. I’m fired.”

Helen kicked off her work shoes, slipped her puffy feet into her runners, reached down for her handbag and grabbed the white bag out of the wastepaper bin. She charged towards the exit, past the continental butter at $3.65 a pat, breaking right through the macramé cords.

Stuff George. Stuff them all.

There was chicken for dinner, and she was ever essential.



  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2023

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