It was dole day in Belgo when the pick-up truck pulled up out the front of the store- time for the weekly government payment that kept food in peoples’ mouths and was the only means of support for the Cookatja in this place where unemployment was the rule and there were no exceptions. Everyone was there.
Dole day was the only thing that was going to happen all week, it was an occasion.
For women the fashion was floral dresses- all faded stains and billowy comfort. The men wore ragged trousers, generally held up with second hand twine. In the shade of one of the settlement's few trees they sat as one big group, bony and crossed legged, waiting for the security screen to go up and the store to open.
They didn't notice the flies.
Inside the store, on the other side of the cage, the woman who single handedly ran the place was swatting at them. Mavis was fifty seven, and her experience of life had gifted her with a dour face and a compulsive need to wear mascara, even out here where it itched and became so sticky that the flies sometimes got trapped in it. The Cookatja laughed at her, but the biggest cause of friction between her and them was her quaint insistence on doing everything by the clock.
To the locals, whose concept of time was guided by the occasional glance up at the sun, it seemed like a strange and completely unnecessary habit.
Mavis opened the store opened at 11.00AM, precisely.
Father Smith hopped out of the tray and sauntered up to the cage.
"How are you Mavis?" he said in the priestly way he had.
Belgo was a place that lent itself to silences, but Mavis had taken it a step further. Instead of answering she glanced at her watch, then sighed, then gestured towards the place where her customers were waiting. Both her face and the expression on it could be described as withered and haggard.
"That bad eh?"
"We got a letter from the Watson's people last week" Mavis rasped, she was a heavy smoker and sounded like it. "Did you know that we're their biggest customers in the state?"
"I didn't know that" the priest answered, though he might have guessed it.
When he first arrived in Belgo, 30 years earlier, there had been no such thing as obesity. Now car accidents, petrol sniffing and alcohol were problems that stopped a lot of the Cookatja from getting much past the age of 25, but of those who had Amos was the only one he knew of that wasn’t bloated by sugar. Nearly all of them became diabetic in the end.
In terms of life expectancy the Cookatja wouldn't have been much worse off if they were living in Sierra Leone.
"Well", Mavis went on, "they're cutting out the cheesecakes for the next year or so. They're replacing them with some other thing, but you can be sure it's not going to be good. They live for their cheesecakes here".
Mavis stopped talking and expressed her disgust by glaring at the people sitting under the tree with a tired frown and inflamed, hopeless eyes. Right on cue some of them began screeching at her.
"Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaavis. Maaaaaaaavis" they teased in the droning tone they had worked out annoyed her most. "Hey Mavis" someone yelled "it's 11, what you doing girl?" There was an eruption of unfriendly cackling. Mavis sighed and looked at her watch again. She clearly wasn't aware that yesterday's mascara was still visible on her face, as were last night's tear stains. Father Smith thought it would be easier not to notice.
"10:58" she hissed viciously, all too aware that no one wanted to hear what she had to say, "look at these people. It's no wonder they're in such a mess. They can't even tell the time".
Getting into the store felt like a scene from a prison movie. There was harsh sunlight, hot barbed wire and the slow shuffle of grim faces in a line. No one in Belgo had ever worn shoes, although in the past there had never been rusty nails and broken grass to contend with either. By the side of the cage, in a liter strewn patch of dust, a bunch of tiny kids played at chasing each other around a burning tire.
Inside it was the women who took charge. Just as it had been in the desert, here they were the ones who gathered the food. The men, who had been hunters and now lacked any clear role, wandered in too, but they seemed to shrink and grow paler in the air conditioning. The smell of plastic and the bright artificial colors made them uneasy.
For the women shopping was a competitive game, all about skillful maneuvering and quick hands. Before, out in the desert, overeating had been an impossibility. There was never enough fat or sugar to go around, and lizard bones were gnawed. Even now, in this time when outwardly everything had changed, many of the basic patterns remained the same. These were people who couldn't see the point of celery.
The BBQ flavored chips were scooped up in five minutes, the same time it took for the shelf of Coke bottles to vanish. Candy snakes, with their sweet taste and amusing resemblance to real desert food were the favorite sweet, the least being any kind of chocolate which had the serious disadvantage of attracting thousands of ants the moment it was opened.
Of all the white man's plentiful weirdness, from helicopters to electricity, from TV to Jesus, it was the deep freeze section that the Cookatja had the most difficulty understanding.
Further south it might have been easier for the locals to adapt to, but here none of them had ever even seen frost, and the icy mass of frozen food frightened them at first. The way the frozen Kangaroo tails transformed from what looked like solid pieces of wood to soggy strings of bleeding meat when taken out into the sun seemed somehow unfair and was completely surprising. That boxes of Grandfather Watson's Country Cooked Bavarian Cheese had ever been shipped to these people could have only been a clerical error, and the way it caught on broke every rule in the book.
Eaten straight from the freezer it was solid and chocolaty and delicious. The Cookatja found that the crumbs made it seem filling and substantial in a way that an ice cream could never be. Those who were old enough to remember the original Little Brothers of Mary would look at the blue cake boxes with a little guilt, knowing that those priests would have considered it to be a venal sin at least.
And aside from its delicious taste the strange and wonderful thing about the cheesecakes was that the ants wouldn't touch it.
In the deep freeze section, between the pile of frozen kangaroo tails and the pile of fish (a slightly piggy swamp dwelling species with the fitting name of sooty grunter), there was usually a stack of them.
But not today.
Father Smith could have done his shopping at a quieter time, but dole day at the store was the main social event of the Belgo week, and he wouldn't have felt right if he wasn't there. Today, like everyone else in the store, he found himself gravitating to the frozen goods section where a crowd had gathered to make soft questioning sounds and crane their necks to try and see whatever was happening in the middle. When they saw the priest coming they made way for him.
At the center of the circle, Edna Bullock, matriarch, mother of ten and woman of formidable carriage, was holding a thin red and white box with the top torn off it. The box clearly did not contain a Country Cooked Bavarian Cheese. She gave Father Smith an evil look when he came through, as though she suspected him of being involved in whatever was upsetting her. Without a word she handed him a small purple card she’d tipped out of it. He felt the eyes of the crowd on him as he silently read.
'Hi!’ read the card. ‘The team at Watson’s knows that you’ve come to trust us to provide that quality cheesecake taste every time. Thanks! We’ve heard that you need a more convenient cheesecake, one that is tailored to meet the needs of your busy lives in the modern world, and we’ve listened! Say hello to Grandfather Watson’s Country Cooked Bavarian Cheese- fun size! Now you can have the cheesecake goodness you deserve without having to put up with the inconvenience of finding the space to store it in your freezer. Just take the convenient cheesecake wafer out of the packet, pop it in the microwave for two minutes, and there you are.
All the tasty goodness you’ve come to expect, with none of the bulkiness!
From the whole Watson’s Cheesecake family, Bon Appetite'.
Father Smith looked up at the circle of expectant faces.
It tastes like paper" said Edna, chewing on a piece of microwavable cheesecake wafer and not enjoying it at all.
"I'm sure it's just a mistake" Father Smith said in Cookatja.
In spite of telling the few people from the outside world she still occasionally spoke with how she loathed everything about Belgo and the people who lived there, Mavis, through lack of any other regular contact with her fellow human beings, followed the local gossip as closely as should could with just English. She was standing alone at the register and enjoying the excitement greatly.
"They've changed it" she called out, worried that if she didn't contribute something she'd miss out on all the fun. "From now on this is it. No more cheesecakes, just that cardboard stuff".
It took the crowd a moment of hushed consultation to make sense of what she said.
Sitting on top of the stack of fun sized cheesecake, between the teetering pile of sooty grunter and frozen kangaroo tails, was the last box of Grandfather's Watson's Country Cooked Bavarian Cheese in Belgo. Mavis had retrieved it that morning from behind a stack of tined peas where it had fallen a year before.
Edna moved quickly, she let the bottles of Coke she was carrying under her arm fall to the floor and lunged for the blue box. If she had have been a second or two quicker she would have got it, but as it happened someone else had the same idea.
Angie Kanga was probably the oldest woman in Belgo. As shriveled as Edna was vast, mother to at least as many children and equally known for her bad temper when things didn't go her way, she was not a woman to be trifled with. She had dug her fingers into one side of the box and was holding on tight.
"Edna, you fat bitch" she snarled in her own language, "I had it first, give it back".
"Yeah Edna", someone from the crowd chimed it, "give it back you fat bitch".
"Ladies", interjected Father Smith with concern, recognizing the danger of the situation.
At her end Edna was squeezing the box tightly enough that some of cheesy goodness could be seen oozing out the corners.
The crowd pushed in to get a better look. If it was going to come to a brawl no one wanted to miss out on the action. Angie was not the type to give up easily, so there was a murmur of surprise when she let it go.
The tension evaporated in a moment. There was shopping to be done and the supply of nachos was limited. Everyone started to drift away, a little disappointed they weren't going to get to see the two women fight after all.
But Angie was just waiting for Edna to turn around before making her move.
Seeing her chance she seized an almost but not quite frozen kangaroo tail from the pile and swung for all she was worth at the back of Edna's head. The blow connected with her temple, a hard projectile squelch of freshly defrosted kangaroo slime that left her stunned and knocked her bodily into an unsteady wire stand packed with bottles of tomato sauce. The bottles smashed onto the ground with a spectacular crash that brought everyone in the supermarket to a stop.
For a moment the supermarket was united in stunned, enormous silence. People blinked in disbelief as they watched the formidable Edna floundering groggily in a spreading glass strewn sea of tomato sauce. Then Mavis, who had woken that morning with a feeling she would have been better not getting out of bed, hit the security alarm.
Although Mavis was fond of threatening people with its supposedly awesome power, in the five years since it had been installed the security alarm had never been used. No one in the supermarket had ever heard anything like it. The sound was warbling sonic shriek that bounced madly between the concrete wall and ceiling in dizzying waves.
The kids put their hands over their ears and screamed, the adults who hadn't already dropped their shopping let it go and looked at each other in confused terror. Even Mavis seemed to realize she had taken things too far and pushed at the red button a few times in the futile hope that would switch it off.
Outside, the gate, that in defiance of all logic, had been designed to immediately slam shut in the case of the alarm being set off, was grinding down, inch by painstaking inch.
Someone yelled, just barely audible above the racket, "it's burning down!"
There was a stampede.
No one saw who knocked the first shelf over, probably it was just an accident. For the first few seconds it looked as though it was just going to wobble rather than tip all the way, but then it went, a roaring waterfall of tinned goods and toilet paper and washing detergent that crashed into the next shelf and set the whole lot of them tumbling as though they'd been set up for that purpose. They became an exploding set of dominoes that swept across the store leaving scenes from an earthquake and a sticky indeterminate liquid consisting mostly of tomato sauce and discount lemonade spreading over the floor.
Edna was seen clambering to safety over the pile of frozen grunter, her dress clinging and awful and soaked right through with tomato sauce. Angie was right behind her, her speed, like her swinging ability, completely unhindered by her seventy something years. In the rush to escape someone knocked the register off the counter as they vaulted over it, scattering two dollar coins everywhere into the goo. No one even looked back.
As soon as the shelves had started to go Mavis had wisely got out of way by locking herself in her office. Now, peering out at the destruction through the little square of window in the door, she felt strangely calm. In the office the alarm's racket wasn't so bad, no worse than a bad headache.
Ideally she would have liked to work in her office all the time. There was a computer on the desk, a poster of a cat on the wall and the rattle and hum of the air conditioner was charmingly eccentric.
Her life experience had not left her a complete stranger to disaster.
Mavis opened the third shelf down in her desk, the type with a layer of cheap plastic that looks a little like polished wood and always ends up peeling off to reveal the splintery balsa underneath, and took out a half full bottle of vodka.
Cleaning up could wait.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9