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

Shiny Shoes

Essential Worker #5: Lilla

The boy’s eyes were slate grey, and at the very moment he’d thrown the first rock, she'd had a flash of something cruel and familiar. His eyes—with that opaque dead quality to them, empty pools, she’d seen eyes like that before. It was awful to think, but there you go, it would be hard to unthink it now.

It was the lack of light in them that she recalled now. Afterwards, it might have helped if she'd simply thought of him as some kind of automaton, detached from his actions. It might have helped her, in a small way, not to feel so responsible. Irrational as it was, she blamed herself, despite what Mrs Marchant told her, later. As if it were somehow still her fault that he had, once or twice already, trashed the classroom, even before roll call, on the days the support person wasn’t present. She’d had worse thrown at her: heavy sticky-tape dispensers, scissors, even tables. Her body assaulted, forearm wrenched to the point of nerve damage, even her stomach bitten, once.

But on that day, there’d been no roll call and hardly a need for one; there were only a dozen or so children present in the entire school. Lilla had five children from other classes clustered with her in the school’s new emergency pool-the-resources plan with its indefinite endpoint.

It was halfway into the morning session when she noticed the new school mum out in the car park area with her child. She couldn’t recall their names; the boy came so irregularly. Through the top row of windows from her classroom there was a clear visual line to the kiss and drop zone, but the mum would not have known anyone could observe her. Lilla hadn’t met her yet; usually the family support worker dropped the boy off.

The woman was taking a last drag on her cigarette, bonded to her phone, and facing away from her son who was squatting on the kerb, too close to the parked cars. He was spinning his hands into the reflection from the shiny surface, flicking his long slender fingers, like an orb weaver spinning a web. Lilla felt a flip in her heart observing him; he had the absorption of an artist. The woman looked emaciated (Lilla couldn’t help thinking), her slashed skinny jeans only accentuating this. She finished the cigarette and tossed the butt onto the ground, not even stamping it out. Pocketing her phone, she turned to the child and issued a short command, not audible to Lilla. The boy kept flicking and weaving his fingers, mesmerised by the reflections. The mother strode over and grasped him under one armpit, yanking him to his feet.

At the boy’s scream, Lilla sprinted to the door of her classroom, calling out to Lavinia to cover, before remembering that Lavinia wouldn’t be in today, nor Ali, nor Patricia. All the regular teachers, all the permanent staff aged over fifty (except for Mrs Marchant) were taking whatever leave they could muster: sick, carers, long service. The school was empty of children. Their parents, shuttered inside their homes, terrified by the news that teachers, children, door handles, gusts of wind, breaths of air, anything could transmit the infection. Only the kids of essential workers were at school today. And children like—oh, his name would come.

Lilla hesitated. She couldn’t leave the children just now—they were too short-staffed. She’d just have to wait for Ky—that was his name—to eventually come in, screaming and scratching and cartwheeling. No family support worker today, clearly. The mum would be going raving nuts trying to manage the boy at home; no wonder she was bringing him in. And that was good, it was safest.

Her thoughts turned to the unwashed oven tray sitting in the sink at home, glistening with burnt marinade. She pictured the unwashed pan, the wineglass with the spotty residue of a not-so-bad shiraz pooled in the bottom. Abandoned, testament to her failure of energy and the futile wish that someone—a sprite, an elf!—might, while she was at school, magically finish her dishes. It was going to be a long lockdown.

Lilla moved away from the window and over to where Steven from Grade Three was busy constructing an elaborate highway of interconnecting blocks on the floor. She squatted at his level. He was wearing school shoes, not runners, she noticed, and they were polished, his school uniform pressed and clean, shirt neatly tucked in. Who had time to polish school shoes these days?

“And how are you today, Steven?” she said, in a performance of normality, one eye on the door to her classroom. The protests from outside seemed to have diminished; perhaps the mum had changed her mind about school, and they’d gone home.

“I’m very well, thank you, Mrs D’Angelo,” the boy replied, serious face, surprising her with his memory of her surname (even if he couldn’t quite manage the “Ms”). Most children called her Lilla, it was just easiest.

She’d only met Steven once, yesterday.

“What do your parents do, Steven?” She was pretty certain it would be parents plural. Someone had to be polishing those shoes, while the other prepared his lunch.

“They work at the hospital. Mum is setting up a ‘clean’ wing.”

“Oh,” Lilla replied, surprised at the prompt, complete-sentence reply.

“Is that for—is that for the—?”

“For the covid cases,” Steven filled in. “They need to have what they call a ‘clean’ wing, heaps far away from the other wards, so all the other normal medical cases won’t get infected.” The boy brushed a stray strand of hair from his eyes and gave Lilla a shy glance. His eyes had a softness to them. Shiny eyes, honest.

“Right.” She felt destabilised, almost light-headed, thinking of clean wards. And then, best not to go there. “So, you know all about it.” She returned her glance to the door, but it remained closed.

“My dad is a paramedic. That’s like, you know, he’s an ambulance worker. He has to do long shifts, but then he has heaps of time off.”

“So he has time to polish your shoes?” She laughed.

“No. Mum does that.” Steven didn’t smile, but she detected a small flurry of pride.

“Ah, you got me there. Good on your mum, tell her from me!”


When she was a child, Lilla used to line up her shoes. She loved that she had shoes for different purposes: runners for running, ballet slippers for dance, Ugg boots for cold mornings, sturdy shoes for tree climbing, boots for mud and rain, and serious black lace-ups for school. She liked that you could display them neatly in pairs, so organised, a reminder that life had so many different experiences to offer. She realised now, and right now especially, that she’d been lucky to have different shoe experiences—even if she would have liked a sibling to fight over shoes or to compare them. Her dad used to polish her school shoes. He’d just get the job done, no fuss, take them away and bring them back all shiny. She loved the fact that shoes could always be made shiny.

Lilla wandered back to the high window and peered out. The woman and the boy were no longer there. She surveyed the scene in her classroom. The twins were in the games corner, playing snakes and ladders. Asrul was stretched out on a beanbag, reading. Jalen and Sahil were in the art corner, painting tiny red and yellow dots on a selection of smooth round rocks. Steven had started building an elaborate ring-road extension to the overhead pass. For half a second, she felt warm about the fact that these children, from other classes, were revelling in the environment she had created, before wondering whether she could afford to take a step outside to check on the whereabouts of Ky and his mother.

There wasn’t time.

The door burst open and the boy blasted in like a pebble from a slingshot. He landed in a pile on the coiled rug, shocked into a temporary silence, before rising and beginning a penetrating wail. The twins froze in the middle of their game. Steven scrambled to his feet and stood defensively in front of his highway. Asrul poked his fingers in his ears. “Stop him! Lilla, tell him to stop.”

“Little turd wouldn’t come.” The mother entered, glaring at Lilla. “Had to drag him.”

“It’s all right, he’s here now.” Lilla hastened to the child, unable to get purchase on any part of his body, as his arms flailed about wildly in the air. His body was tense as a board, while hands and arms flapped like a curling iron roof about to rip off in a cyclone. His howl grew to a primitive, wounded kind; she could discern no words.

The mother just needed to leave. The boy was keening now like a ghoul in the dessert and the twins were sheltering under the desk. Asrul had crept over to her, seeking her hand. The artists were standing like statues, paint brushes suspended in the air.

His eyes: dead. So lacking in light. It broke her heart. She tried to recall where she’d seen those eyes. Same dead quality, nothing left, all wrung out.

Lilla needed urgently to calm the boy, at the same time knew he would not accept physical touch. Slumped to the ground now, his cries became hoarse and gasping.

She looked for the mobile phone. It would be under the piles of paperwork.

“Steven, can you find me the phone? Or, better, can you please go find Mrs Marchant? Or…if she’s not there, find…”

“Anyone, Mrs D’Angelo?”

“Yes, just find someone.”

Steven ducked out, casting a regretful glance at his highway.

 “What do ya reckon?” The mother said. “Fucking nightmare at home.”

“Please, I think it’s better that you leave, Jaz.”


“Jez, sorry. We’ll take care of Ky. Please—just leave.”

Where was anyone? The classroom next to her was eerily silent this morning.

The woman took a step towards the door. “Yeah, well, good luck.” Her movement seemed to trigger a spear of panic in the boy’s prostrate form. He got to his feet in a nanosecond and rushed to his mother, who managed to skip through the door, slamming it firmly behind her. The boy launched himself at the door and bashed his fist at one of the glass panes.

Before Lilla could stop him, he hit the second pane. There was a cracking sound that she didn’t think possible, yet it cracked, and with a splintering sound. Lilla caught a half second image of Steven’s white face through the remaining unbroken pane of the door, and mouthed at him to run, get help. She snatched the quilt from the doll pram in the home corner and, holding it aloft, approached the boy, reminding herself to murmur, to keep calm, to breathe deeply, maybe she should sing, calmly, calmly, that’s it, Ky, nice and slow.

His hand was bloodied; she couldn’t even see how badly. He turned and charged towards the art corner at speed, towards the painted rocks. It all happened so quickly.

“No, Ky! Please sit down, lie down, keep calm, we’re going to help you.”

Lilla raised the volume of her directive to the other children. “Asrul! Jalen! Arden and Evie, behind me NOW! Stay behind me.” Too late. Ky picked up the first of the painted rocks and swivelled on his feet, unseeing, to launch it at the third pane of glass in the door. The children reached Lilla, arms around each other, huddling and crouching in a single ball behind her body.

“Please put it down, put it down now, leave the rock there. Please, Ky, take a deep breath, I’m sure we have fruit for recess, do you like fruit?

But the boy couldn’t see, couldn’t hear.

He raised the second rock and pitched it at the fan on the ceiling, took the next and aimed it at Steven’s highway. Crash! It all toppled down. Next, the big windows.

Surely someone could hear? But it was all happening too fast.

The third rock landed right on the big pane next to the corridor. Smash. Then the next, then the next. The children were still huddled behind her. There was nothing she could do.

Then he turned.

There were no more rocks.

He charged at Lilla. She fell backwards onto four children, all screaming. With his slashed, bloodied hands he grabbed at her throat. She remembered thinking her favourite top would be stained.

Then abruptly, the boy whimpered and flopped. Fell into the womb of her lap, so she could only cradle him and brush the fingers of his slashed hand. He exhaled a sigh and closed his eyes. She could no longer see the slate grey.

Then the green of the paramedics surging through the broken door of the classroom merged with the red and black and rock and glass and her own eyelids fell, heavy.


Asrul said at home when something happened, his grandmother made tea.

Steven had managed to find Mrs Marchant, who took over all the calls, and then the forms. There were a lot of forms. Mrs Marchant told Lilla to go home but she found she couldn’t move and said she would just stay in her classroom. She would lie on a beanbag with the children. All she needed was the cup of tea. As she took a sip, she had an irrelevant flash of the oven tray sitting in the sink at home.

From her position on the beanbag, she gazed across at a single jettisoned block from Steven’s highway, flipped on its side in the middle of the room, looking so out of place, as if it too knew it shouldn’t be there, flipped and alone.

A decision had to be made whether to call the other parents, but how could she reasonably drag them from the frontline to another scene of disaster? The children were all safe now, that’s what mattered, and Ky was safe for a temporary twelve hours, maybe twenty-four. The paramedic had taken Ky to the medical clinic up the road, accompanied by the Principal, to dress his hand and then deliver him to the police station where he would wait for—who knew for whom and for how long and for what imperfect outcome. She would rather not think about where Ky would end up tonight; her focus had become all blurred when she tried to fill out the forms and Mrs Marchant had to take over, getting Lilla to dictate the events, as if they had happened to someone else.

“No, it wasn’t your fault, dear,” Mrs Marchant had tried to reassure her, efficiently checking boxes and crossing through statements on the form. “But you will learn this as you get long in the tooth in the job like me. You just have to learn not to care so much.”

She had stared at the well-meaning woman. She just had to not care?


Twenty minutes to the afternoon bell.

She glanced over to where Steven had rebuilt his entire highway.

He said, he knew he was not supposed to have his mobile phone on him. But in the end, how lucky had that been? That his dad was in the area. He couldn’t find Mrs Marchant, Steven said, so he had gone down the corridor to find the Principal, but the lady on reception was in the sick bay, he thought, and the Principal’s door was shut. So, he’d just called his dad. Not everyone’s dad could arrive like that, he knew, he said, with a little puff of pride. He promised he wouldn’t normally have done it, except he could hear the yelling and the smashing, and he made the best decision, he said, that he could in the circumstances.

“It was a great decision, Steven, in the circumstances, you did a really great job.” Lilla still couldn’t move from her beanbag.

The boy didn’t reply straight away. He attached some under-supports to his high bridge, connecting it to the train station.

“There are some times,” he said, finally, “when you just can’t fix things.”

Lilla wanted to ruffle his hair, but you couldn’t.



  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2023

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