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

Steady White Light

Essential Worker #7: "Joe"

The bicycle wobbles; Ishak is used to the stability of three wheels. But more than that, the worn straps strain and gouge into his shoulders, leaving reddish-blue marks he has tried to wash off, thinking they were stains from his new T-shirt. Especially with the bottles of Coke, the carry bag is so heavy it pulls his neck and clavicle into unnatural tension. He has tried rubbing on aloe but it does nothing.

Ishak’s usual patch is west of Central Market, but he swipes for an order in the city centre so he can ride past the Midnight Pharmacy. He has often thought about stopping, but how could he explain, without undressing, then and there? There’s probably a medication he could buy off the shelf, but he wouldn’t be able to read the active component. He doesn’t know the word for “pulled muscle,” only “hurt” or “pain,” and those words don’t carry enough distinction. Ishak pauses a moment in the car park behind the pharmacy, rubbing his sore shoulders. He won’t go in. The pharmacist might recognise him or place him somehow.

He collects an order that will make the detour worth it, accepts one at Hackney and sets off, trying to keep to the far left of the road.

The pickup is a pizza restaurant in the East End; it’s over-busy with patrons and there’s a commotion when he arrives. The manager storms to the entrance where the delivery drivers are huddling. “EasyEats, Menulog, GET OUT NOW!” Something like KEEP YOUR DISTANCE that he doesn’t understand; at least, he understands the words but not why the man is shouting them. They are eventually let back in, one at a time, and Ishak collects his order. Pizza is at least lighter than beef curry. He flexes his shoulder blades and pushes off.

There’s a huge moon tonight, a supermoon, and the breeze is cool on his skin. It’s not too bad, riding under the cloak of night, skirting past the citizens at play. Until they slough off to their cosy homes, or slump, passed out on park benches, moved on by police or picked up by paramedics. By about five in the morning, in the space between night and dawn, they are just about all gone; merged into the backdrop. His favourite time, the in-between zone, the rose light of gradual dawn—but it’s a few hours to go before then.

He’s had plenty of work; people eat all night long. But the summer festival is finishing now, and Barry says there is going to be a lockdown. He’s going to need him “double time” as EasyEats orders are going to go “through the roof.” Ishak thought double time meant double pay, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

Ishak pedals towards Botanic Park under the lightest licking of warm rain. A sheen spreads on the road before him. In the periphery of his vision, whirring past the Garden of Unearthly Delights, are swinging carousels and rainbow lights, glowing fire pits and crackling coal. Paper lanterns hang suspended like golden bubbles in the filmy dark. To his left float the rhythms of world music, the festival winding up for the night, a mix of brazen and soulful, and wafts of muffled laughter, cheers and shouting. The sky flaring up suddenly white and bright throws him off balance. He veers into the gutter and hears the crunch of spokes against it; that will be a flat tyre. The blooming red explosions and loud crack of fireworks send tremors through his body. There’s a crushed possum on the road as he falls forward. So many animals he has seen dead on the roads. Cats mainly, but also little possums.

Ishak manages to straighten and glances behind. A flash of red and blue. The brief stop-start blare of a siren and he is caught like a rabbit in a pool of white headlight.

There are two officers, a man and a woman. It is the woman who speaks.

“We’re just checking that you are riding legally and safely.”

Ishak nods but doesn’t reply. He can’t look at the officer.

“Do you speak English?”

He nods.

The female officer steps forward and the male officer hangs back, looking away. “Where’s your helmet?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ll be very sorry when you get hit and have a head injury.”

Ishak looks down. He feels pressure rising in his chest but he dare not cough. Approvedproperly adjustedsecurely fastened…he hears the officer say to her partner.

“Do you have some form of ID, please?”

He had apprehended the question. We need to check this guy out. Always check, see if there’s a warrant.


“What’s your name?”

This is what he won’t tell the officers: Barry pays him in cash. Barry gave him a phone because, Barry says, he wants him to do other things, drop off parcels, deliver envelopes, “that sort of thing.” The phone is old and has a cracked screen, but it does the job, mostly. Ishak’s phone name is Joe. He can show the cops his EasyEats messages with “Hi Joe’ but no, he doesn’t have ID.

“So, no…driver’s licence? Who do you work for?” The female officer slaps his backpack. The vibration shudders all the way to his ribcage. “There’s no logo.”

The male officer is looking away, along the road at the river of white and red.

He offers his phone. The female officer glances at it, dismissively.

“Okay, Joe. You’ve got to wear a helmet. It’s the law. And at night, you must have a flashing or steady white light. We could fine you, but we’ll just give you a caution for now.”

Should we check out his bike? He hears the young male officer ask.

We need to get to another tasking. There’s three more in the system.

Okay, mate,” she says. “You can’t ride your bike now, not unless you have a helmet and a light.” Come on she says to the male officer.

“To be safe, you should also wear highly visible clothing,” the male officer says. Doesn’t your company supply brand clothing or a high-vis vest?”

“It is too warm tonight,” Ishak says. “I sweat.”

He watches the female officer walk back to the flashing car but does not feel relief. The male officer is still standing there. Ishak rolls his bike along the footpath; aware they will be observing to see that he doesn’t ride it away. The wheel is bent from the gutter collision. He can’t suppress a cough now, the force of the convulsion rising through his chest. The bicycle falls heavily on the ground.

“Are you all right, sir?” the male officer asks. Ishak can’t reply until the cough passes. He nods and reaches for his bottle, tucked into a pocket of his backpack, and takes a swig of water. A pain shoots through his hips.

“That cough sounds bad. You should…see a doctor.”

We need to get on, Paul, he hears.

“Would you like me to check your bike, sir? Just to make sure it is safe.”

No, Ishak doesn’t want him to check the bike. He wants them both to leave.

It won’t take long…

The officer helps Ishak pick up the bike. He walks around it, checking the dented spokes, tyres, pedals, chain guard.

There’s a stab of pain through his ribs. It feels as if one might crack.

“You should have a rear light too. Flashing or steady.”

“See the reflector,” Ishak points.

“Yes. But there’s no rear light. And the front light is not working.”

“I think it just need a charge.”

“It needs to work if you are riding at night.”

“I’m sorry.” Ishak doesn’t need lights to see ahead. His night vision is acute as an owl’s; he knows how to move soundlessly through a forest.

He closes his eyes as the officers drive away in their patrol car. His ribs hurt. His knees hurt. His shoulders hurt.

At last, he is free to cough. For a moment after his fit, he feels lightheaded and disoriented; partly also from relief. His delivery will be twenty minutes late now. He can’t work out the exact algorithm, but he knows he won’t get any more orders tonight. He shifts his bike from the pavement to the grass at the edge of the park. From his backpack he pulls out the Gregory’s street directory that Barry gave him. Its corners are all curled and eaten away but it’s useful to him in a way that the phone maps aren’t. Barry has circled the most important landmarks and he can always orient himself from these. He will deliver the order, late. He won’t read the bad ratings. But then, he knows a place he can sleep until eight am when he can return to his bed.

His bed. It’s a good location, west of the city, near Central Market and the mosque. Maxine rents it out nights to an international student while Ishak works. The student is from India; Ishak is not sure where exactly in India, as they don’t cross paths. The Indian student must get out during the day, all day, when Ishak sleeps, those are the rules, just like Ishak can’t be there during the night. No one asked Ishak to sign anything, no one wanted his ID. The place is fine. He mentioned the dripping taps, but Maxine said there was nothing to fix and no fixing anything anyway, not for the price. She was surprised when he offered to take a look. Ishak hadn’t known the words for O-ring or jumper valve, but Maxine agreed to drive him to the hardware store. He fixed it in ten minutes. Maxine’s mouth dropped open and he could tell she was impressed. Now she asks him to take a look when the fuses blow or there’s a broken light switch. It’s so hard to get a reliable tradie these days. Maxine has never asked him what his trade is. He gets the impression she doesn’t want to change her perception of him in any way. That’s okay. He keeps the bathroom clean and hardly uses the kitchen. Pays the rent on time, not like the student, and always pays cash. Maxine says if there’s a lockdown Ishak can keep his bed during the day if he needs to. The student can just live at the uni or in his car, she said, and not to worry; she can just kick the student out. If there’s a lockdown; don’t worry, Ishak can stay.

If there is a lockdown, he’ll get plenty of night work. If Barry is right. He’d better find a way to charge the bike light and find himself a helmet. Maybe Barry might have more of the other work for him too if there’s a lockdown. It’s not the work and not the bed that are the problem with the lockdown.

His back is killing him and tomorrow night he will be too stiff to ride, but he knows somewhere he can sleep for a bit now.



  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2023

NEXT  >> 

Back to top