The kids fought over pushing it to the top of the hill, to their ‘launch pad’ above the shopping centre carpark. It was a Sunday afternoon and until the rush just before closing, the street and the carpark would remain fairly quiet. Just the odd car or clutch of cars coming and going. One kid would ride the back of the trolley, ‘steering’, the others riding in it, as it thundered towards doom. Some of the riders bore injuries from previous weekends’ test-flights. One had even been up in court for damaging shopping centre property.
Making a lot of racket, fighting over who would steer, they stopped silent when the girl with the ‘head dress’ came running out from the shopping centre. They knew her — she went to their school. She worked Saturdays and Sundays on the checkout. They saw her head-thing all ruffled, and tears flowing everywhere. What’s wrong with ya, girl? yelled one of the trolley girls. The ‘Islam’ girl ran past them and hid herself behind one of the parked cars.
The ‘crew’, as they called themselves, parked the trolley up on the kerb next to a gum tree, and went over to the girl, who had her head down as she tried to fix her scarf. What’s her problem?
They stand around and kick at the dirt and laugh, then hesitate, then say to her, What’s your problem? You’ve gotta stop crying so you can tell us what ya problem is.
One of the crew, who has been in the shopping centre ‘picking up’ a few snacks and stuff for them all, bursts out of the shop’s doors and runs across the car park towards them, yelling, Shit, you should have seen it. She lost it completely and ran out of the shop, just leaving the till-drawer open and everything!
Then Monica, because that was her name, pulled up short as she found her way between cars and saw who they were staring at. Shit! It’s ’er!
What happened? What did she do?
Fuck all, mate. This fat cow told her she was a freeloader and a darkie and a terrorist and she just started to cry and run out.
That all? No diff from school.
Nah, and nothing different from what you say all the time!
Yeah, but I’m in her class and entitled. And I’m a darkie as well! Well, a different kind, but to them white prick teachers, a darkie.
Geeze. Shame, eh. Hey girl, you gunna stop crying or what?
Then the girl, Mira, put her hand on the car-bonnet, lifted herself up, and dusted herself off.
You okay, sister? said one of the boys who was considerably younger than the rest. I reckon that mob have been giving you shit. You should give it right back to ’em.
Mira smiled, though she fought to keep control of her tears. Yeah, she said. I should have said something back.
Then Monica said, Nah, the bosses would have given ya the sack if you’d done that.
Might be better, said Mira. It’s horrible working in there.
Not much work in this town, girl; if you’ve got work, ya wanna keep it.
Amy, the second eldest of the crew, said, But she still shouldn’t take shit like that. If ya let ’em do that to ya, it’ll get worse and worse.
That’s true, said Monica. She was leaning against the roof of the car, contemplating it all, when some bastard bloke yelled out, Hey, get off my car you lot!
Okay, okay, mate, hold ya horses. We’re going.
And grouping around Mira as if protecting her, they shuffled her off to the trolley. One of the boys said, Hey look, some of the shop people are standing at the doors pointing out here.
They’re pointing at me, said Mira, If I don’t get back to my till, they’ll sack me, if they haven’t already.
Well, being seen with us aint gunna do you no favours, said Monica, as she pulled out packets of crisps and lollies and even a can of coke from beneath her jacket in full sight of the staff. One good thing about having big tits is that you can stack heaps beneath them! And all but Mira laughed, as she was walking back to the shop. But she glanced back over her shoulder and gave them all a nod and a smile which they knew meant thanks and sister and brother and a lot of other stuff no one else could ever translate, ever understand.
So ya didn’t lose ya job then? said Monica, her foot holding the trolley in place.
No, I am on first and last warning.
That’d be right. Want a whirl in the trolley?
Mira shook her head and crossed her arms and looked to the ground.
Yeah, I understand, said Monica, now pushing the trolley back and forth and keeping the rest of her body still as she could. I just do it for the kids. I mean there’s fuck-all… oops, sorry, shouldn’t use bad language around you.
It’s okay, I don’t mind.
I don’t mean no disrespect or nuthin’… just that my mother is always swearing and carrying on and it’s kind of rubbed off. Anyways, I just control the trolley for the kids because it’s dangerous and without me they’d do really crazy things. I mean, there’s stuff-all to do in this town and the weekends are long and hot and boring. You’re lucky to have a job, being still at school and all. Even if it’s with those racist pricks. Do you know they called the cops on my nephew for pinching a chocolate frog!
Yes, I heard about that. I asked them not to call the police but they told me to mind my business. I couldn’t do anything.
Of course you couldn’t, sister. Who can? Who gives a stuff? Anyways, the kids’ll be here soon, and we’ll be heading up and down the hill.
It’s dangerous. You could get hit by a car.
Yeah, a cop car. They come around and try to catch us and say the trolley is private property and say we could go to juvie for taking it off shop grounds and I just point at the dozen ladies pushing their trolleys down the street to their cars. What the… I say.
I’ve got to go now, I have to be in fifteen minutes before opening. Why are you here so early? I usually don’t see you guys till Sunday afternoons.
Stuff at home. Don’t want to be there. And the kids would start at dawn if I let ’em!
Okay, said Mira, looking back up from the ground and half at Monica’s face. They were the same height but Mira felt much smaller. She noticed 23 that Monica was staring hard at her and she wanted to pull her hijab further down, to cover her face. Okay, she said again, I’ve got to go… Monica.
You can call me, Mon, Mira. Hey, sister, why is it ya never speak to me at school?
And then Mira was turning towards the red brick warehouse-sized supermarket with its red-letter sign half falling off, and spew over the front doors from the night before, which the tall gangly dude from their same year – Craig Spillane – was starting to clean off, looking like he was going to puke all over the puke. He turned and went, Urrghh, and saw the girls and made a rude sign, then, half embarrassed, moved his hand in the air like a bird, pretending he hadn’t done anything at all.
That guy’s half-cocked, said Monica, putting her hand over her mouth in mock-shame but Mira had already vanished around the side under the bent palm tree, heading in through the loading bay to her day of judgement at the hands of the town’s public.
After she finished work, Mira liked to walk home along the river. Down from the shopping centre, down the small hill where the trolley gang did their stunts, past the fast-food place, cutting through an alleyway to the park, then to the riverbank and path, from where she’d watch the white swans do their circuits around a small island covered in a tangle of paperbarks with branches full of spoonbills and cormorants. The river was low and smelly, but she loved it. It was one of the redeeming features of the town, she told her younger brothers, who were constantly taunted at school about their sister wearing her hijab, and wanted to go down to the Muslim school in the city. But their father was a doctor at the hospital and they would be here for at least another year. Make the best of it, Mira told them – learn from the river. And there are some nice people as well. The boys, who were excellent players of Australian rules footy, and lauded by all for being so, nodded their heads, though they couldn’t make sense of what she was saying about the smelly old river.
Mira had watched the swans, then walked past the suspension bridge and past the ‘manmade’ nesting island, and was about halfway towards the town library when she heard a groaning down the bank, from the silty water’s edge. Up against a swamp sheoak, her sandshoes in black mud, was Monica, her head bleeding. A pair of coots were offshore in the shallow water, sailing towards her, then away, towards her, then away.
Hello, hello. Monica – Mon – are you okay?
Monica looked up, squinted, confused, and said, Who are you, what do ya want?
It’s me, Mira… are you okay? You look like you need help.
I don’t know, I just don’t know…
Let me climb down and help.
Mira slid down to Monica and gently asked her to look into her face. Monica, confused, said, What? Who are you? Why have you got a scarf on, it’s so bloody hot.
Now, said Mira, I want you to close your eyes, then open them and let me look.
Monica did as she was told, sinking further into the mud.
You’re concussed. You will need to go to the hospital. My father is working there this afternoon, he will help you. We must stop this bleeding. And then Mira removed her hijab, and wrapped it around Monica’s wounded head. She then helped Monica out of the mud and they both crawled back up the bank. When they reached the top, Monica said, The other kids are okay. I remember that. I was pushing the trolley back up the hill along the side of 25 the road. On my own, the lazy liddle buggers like to make me do that. And then something hit the trolley. A car maybe, and someone yelled. And then I went down, and then I was chasing the car screaming blue bloody murder, and then I was here.
Monica felt her head. Then she looked at Mira. Hey, Mira, you’re bloody beaudiful, you know.
I know, Mon, but don’t tell anyone, will you?
Just before Mira began her shift on Sunday, she wiped her till down with spray-cleaner and a cloth. She positioned herself in a comfortable but ready-to-serve way, took a breath, adjusted her crisp, clean hijab, and waited for the doors to open, and a few minutes later her first customer to come through with a litre of milk or a packet of toilet paper. That rush in to pick up an essential first thing.
Two other women were on the tills, which wasn’t usual for Sundays first thing. It was normally just two of them. They talked through Mira about the town netball team’s big win on Friday night. Mira felt she was being watched and was invisible at once. She knew both women, who were middle-aged, but neither had ever addressed more than a few words to her. Then a voice came from the one behind, and it went, We ’ear you were naked after work last week, luv…
Mira stood still.
Hey, Mira, luv, what’s this talk of you stripping off and flauntin’ yaself through town last week?
It went through the back of Mira’s head and straight across to the till she was facing where the other woman was twisted round to receive the conversation, or the dregs that made it through.
Yeah, the other one said, They’ll lock ya up for public nudity, and on a Sunday as well.
Yeah, Sunday’s a holy day in this country, luv, didn’t ya know that?
She wouldn’t, Ange, she couldn’t, could she, comin’ from one of those Mooslum countries?
Nah, she couldn’t. Bet ya dad the good doctor gave you what-for for strippin’ off.
Your dad, the doctor – or so he calls himself. Wouldn’t want his creepy hands on my body.
The women, on either side of Mira, roared with laughter, and then one said, Though maybe he prefers his own daughter.
The first person at Mira’s till was Monica. Behind her were her family and all the kids and her uncle, who had a reputation around town as a tough man. A shearer. A really tough man you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Even the cops said, Gidday, Merv to him. The two women on the tills knew him well. No one had heard or seen these people come into the shop, so attuned to their cause were they. Mira had blocked everything out, placed her senses in shutdown.
Hey, Mira, where are ya? You in there, sister? Just brought me family and mates along to introduce them to ya. You know, so the rest of these low-life that work here kind of know who ya are. You know, these good citizens who dob in a kid for a chocolate frog, hey uncle.
Uncle pushed forward, took a creme egg from the stand by the till, and said, I am buying this for my nephew. And then he took another one, and said, And this one, girl, is for you. Then he said, I don’t know if you eat these things…
Mira said, That’s really nice of you, and after she’d rung it up she gave it to Monica and said to Uncle, I hope you don’t mind if I give it to my best friend.
Uncle said, Nah, girl, I don’t mind at all. Well, you look after yerself… and you let Mon know if ya have any problems. This is an ugly town most of the time, but it can be okay as well. Why don’t you and ya family say hello next time me and my mob are having a picnic down the park. I’ve seen you down there.
Yes, I like it down there.
So do we. And then he turned to the other women, who were transfixed, and then he turned to the entire shop where the shelves were being topped up and the shift manager was hovering around, and other customers were standing unsure whether to queue at the tills or not, and he said, at the top of his voice, his arms around Monica who had stitches and a bandage on her forehead, her long black hair swept back as a declaration of control and presence, and said, Well… howz it gunna be, people? How is it gunna be around here? Hey?
And then Mon leant across the counter and squeezed Mira’s hand, and her whole family and all her friend and Uncle with the creme egg for his nephew filed through, and Mon called back, real loud over her shoulder, Got some trolley riding to do, sister! Have a good one!
John Kinsella’s most recent book of poetry is Drowning in Wheat: Selected Poems (Picador, 2016). His most recent book of short stories is Crow’s Breath from the Australian publisher Transit Lounge (2015). He is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University, and Professor of Literature and Sustainability at Curtin University, Western Australia.