Fiction Contemporary Sad

My name is Zeva. And I am reminded of it every day.


At the superstore, the cashier scans through my allowance and double-takes the chocolate that I put in a special request for. She bounces it up and down to feel its weight. It’s a 500g bar, barely weighing anything. It’s nothing compared to the others’ shopping, but it’s everything to me. My heart almost stops when she pushes my chocolate aside without scanning it and totals the rest of my bill.

“That’ll be 42,” she says with a straight steady stare. Her face is hard, with dark eyebrows in a fuzzy line across her forehead. My mouth feels dry.

“I wanted that,” I gesture to the gold foil just visible behind her flabby arm; "you haven’t added the chocolate."

Her eyes drop to my flannel shirt. Searching.

“I can’t authorise that item," she explains, as the help finishes loading my shopping into the brown paper bags.

“I’m within my rights.”

“Not without an ID you’re not.”

I recoil and remember that I left my badge at home. A two-mile trek.

“You can look it up," I interject, “it should be on the System.”

The cashier sighs and glares with annoyance at my shopping. She’s holding my receipt. My credit has already been cashed.

“Sorry, you’ll have to come back next week.”

I bit down on my lip. I feel my face flaming from the glares.

“Next, please”.

And just like that, the chocolate bar, the modest of all the luxuries on the shelves is taken away. The help strolls past me with the treasure tightly protected in her fist. I watch her return it to the top shelf, the bar dropping neatly in its slot. The help straightens the yellow price tag and marches back, smiling straight through me at the next shopper, who is boasting a shiny ID badge and a broad breezy smile. Her ID reads “Aileen”.

“Good morning, Aileen…how are you today Aileen…would you like us to pack in separate totes…how about a discount today on confectionary?”

Aileen says yes to the help but no to the discount on the confectionary. 

“We have enough of that already," she laughs, “it’ll rot the childrens’ teeth”.

I pick up my shopping from the floor they’ve been deposited to and I walk out with my fight diminished.

The sun is aggressive against my face. The bags feel heavy, despite containing the exact same items I’m used to carrying two miles back home.

I turn the corner on Convenience Street and the shadow of the superstore falls over me. I feel both grateful and sad as I hide, waiting for my bitterness to pass. I lower the shopping to the pavement just as two well-dressed women with prams wander past me chatting about baby’s formula. One of them is carrying a tote bag with some cloth, wool and linen shirts folded perfectly inside.

I want to kick her shopping into the gutter. I want to trample all over her white wool and checked cloth and linen shirts.

They pause at the end of the road and stop chatting. The one with the tote bag turns back and catches me staring from the shadows.

“You shouldn’t be standing there like that," she shouts with such bravado, “not if you know what’s good for you.” Her tone boasts superiority. 

They both eye my brown paper bags on the pavement. 

They know me immediately.

And they know what I am.

I wait until they cross the road, before stooping down to lift my load and I hoist it over my shoulders for the hike home.


My mum asks for the receipt as I stagger through the door and push the shopping onto the counter. I’m drenched in sweat.

It’s a habit she can’t quite break; she already knows exactly what and how much I’ve brought. It’s the same. It’s always the same. Perhaps she hopes that one day we’ll get lucky, and she’ll open the bags and find a collection of unauthorised produce. Perhaps she expects me to turn into a thief or a revolutionist and bring home a bounty.

“Where is it then?” Her eyes flash back and forth over the ink on the slip of paper, not finding what she’s looking for. She’s asking about the chocolate; the chocolate I requested in advance, in exchange for my normal and more affordable allowance of a one-litre bottle of Coke.

I peel off my flannel shirt and groan when several threads from the sleeve catch. The shirt is begging for disposal, I cannot count how many times I’ve sewn in a new square of fabric. 

“I forgot my ID.”

My mother raises her eyebrows at me. She stops fishing in the paper bags.

“You…forgot?” Her mouth is open in confusion.

An explanation seems futile at this point, but I’ve learnt it’s now one of the only opportunities I possess, to stand up for myself and make a mark in a world that has assigned me irrelevant.

“The cashier could have authorised it, but she didn’t. She could have just looked at the System, but she didn’t. She chose not to.”

Mum makes a show of looking thoughtful, as though weighing up the likelihood of my encounter. But she doubted me before I even opened my mouth.

“But you know Super hasn’t got the upgraded system yet.” She reprimands, with a soft sigh, and her hands recommence diving in and out of the bags, retrieving and sorting the supply until everything is standing to attention and has been accounted for in line with what the receipt says. I wonder if she would commend or disown me if one day, she did find something unexpected in those bags. “You know they’re still working from the Stone Age.”

“But they have upgraded," I argue, dumping my flannel in the wash basket. A button bounces across the concrete, racing towards the floor drain, towards both freedom and oblivion; “I read about it in the paper. It’s been running for two weeks now. Like I said, she just chose not to process."

My mum sighs down at the grocery display, a line of canned, vacuum-sealed and boxed goods which look as bruised and tired from the transit as I feel.

“They’ll be having us wear these goddamn IDs till the day we die”; she sighs miserably and gathers the first section – dried goods in flimsy plastic sacks - into her arms to deposit them into the assigned crate by the back wall; “system or not.”

When I don’t respond, she peers back at me sternly.

“Zeva, you’re gotta start wearing your ID badge. You can’t walk around like this. You’ll get yourself arrested. This isn’t a game. You know that.”

We hold each other’s stare until my mother’s strength gives out and she makes it to the crate in just enough time to prevent an unimaginable situation – dropping and bursting the sacks which contain our household’s entire dried food allowance for the next week.

It's an unimaginable situation because since the start of the New Quota our fresh produce allowance has been suspended. Without the flimsy sacks of rice, our family of five would be living on cans of fruit and vegetable puree and vacuum-packed milk, with the addition of an unplanned baby to feed.

My mum is visually relieved as she straightens from her squat.

"Please Zeva," she presses. "Don’t leave the house again without it."


Later in the evening, as I am flicking through the one hundred and sixteenth edition of the free recipe booklet every Super customer receives, on a mission to find out how to make a chocolate cake, without the chocolate, my Mum enters my bedroom door uninvited. When I don’t greet her, her shadow changes position and falls directly in the way of my bedside lamp until I am forced to stop what I am doing to engage with her.

“What is it?” I ask, my finger paused over the recipe I am deciphering. It asks for cacao powder. I don’t remember the last time we were privy enough to own a tin of cacao powder. 

I am irritated by my mother’s approach. And the way she drifts around the house like a mute inspector. I don’t intend to be hostile towards her, because I know it is not entirely her fault – this situation, the cards we’ve been dealt – but many times she teases the tension out of me. It’s the way my mum is - the way she knows exactly who and what we are but has resolved to just settling with it. We’ve never spoken directly about it as a family. It’s an unwritten rule at our dinner table and an unspoken declaration as we go about our day-to-day activities living in The Valley, under the profile of Mount Garber, citizens of a homogeneous community that nobody chose to be born into.

My mum is holding something against her side. She shuffles aside to allow the lamp’s light to illuminate the room and leans against my bedside table.

“Tomorrow you need to go back to Central," she speaks down to me, “I want you to run an errand.”

The recipe for the cake says the cacao powder is a “healthy” alternative to regular chocolate. But I don’t want healthy; I think; I want decadence, I crave decadence. I have just one request. For once, I just want a simple pleasure…

“Tomorrow?" I repeat her words aloud to check my understanding, “you want me to run an errand tomorrow?”

Tomorrow is a Friday. It’s been a family agreement ever since I was thirteen that I don’t do chores on a Friday. And tomorrow is also my birthday. Which is why I want a cake. A simple pleasure for a special occasion.

Mum is holding a lanyard.

“I found your ID," she notions to the square attached to the clip and cord. My name is laminated on that kind of indestructible plastic they use to make our identification passes now that their predecessors - credit and debit cards - are defunct; “you’ll need it to enter the Town Hall”. She drops my ID in the direction of my bedside table.

And in rapid succession, a sure way of preventing me from interjecting or arguing, my mother explains the baby needs registering urgently, before the end of the working week to avoid prosecution.

The baby, conveniently still named so because no name has yet been chosen for her, is my older sister’s offspring. The same sister who, still lives with us up until her recent imprisonment, despite being almost thirty, works a measly admin job and shacked up with her colleague for fun one night and added to our unfortunate household, not only another mouth to feed but more aggravation and angst than one person should be permitted to cause.

“Zeva, wear your ID tomorrow,” Mum insists. I don’t need the reminder but Mum decides to twist the knife anyway “ I already have one child in jail, I can’t afford to have another.”

I feel my hands begin to sweat and my insides tighten.

“I have plans tomorrow,” I take my turn to speak, to stand up for myself; “And I have done everything I am required to do this week. You know tomorrow is my day off, you know. Why can’t I just have one day? I just want…”

“Want what?” Mum suddenly roars, throwing her arms down in fists. She lunges at me in a moment of insanity but manages to recoil back to standing straight. I notice her hands are clenched. She’s never hit me before, “don’t you think we all want something, Zeva? Don’t you think we all want something that we can’t have? I’m sorry to break it to you, but that’s just the way the whole world works.”

No, not the whole world. Just our world.

That’s the way it is for us.

We don’t get what we want because of who we are.

Mum tells me to grow up, do my familiar duty as the only mature and able person to travel to Central and register my niece in her incarcerated mother’s place. She snatches the recipe booklet from me and stamps out of the room.

I shake with anger and self-pity as I think about sleeping so deeply that I never wake up again. As I turn over on my bed, wiping my drenched face, my eyes catch the lamp.

Somehow the lanyard didn’t land on the table. It is tangled around the lampshade hanging down suggestively in the space below.

I fall asleep to the image of the lanyard noose swinging through my dreams. A very revealing picture of my reality - the constricting nature of my identity as a “Z".

We are “Z”s. We are second-class citizens and we exist in a society created for the “A”’s in the world.

A world accommodating those born into rights, access and privilege, who sits far higher up on the pecking order than we do.

In this life, there are only two options.

And I, along with the rest in The Valley, an assigned home for all Z’s living in Mount Garber, have been dealt the lesser hand.


Baby is suckling her third feed of the morning. I feel nauseous and anxious whilst pushing the pram into Central, knowing the kind of negative attention that the sight of a” Z” baby - another “strenuous” addition to the population - would bring. The lanyard rubs against my neck, itchy and heavy on another hot day.

Baby kicks her naked feet at me for more. She is fat, overfed by a grandmother who is trying to right all the wrongs. My mother is taking away from the rest of us so that Baby can have all the extra rations, compensation for her absent mother.

My sister has been in jail for almost five weeks. Perhaps she doesn't know about the favours her daughter has inherited in her place. But perhaps she doesn’t care -because she didn’t have access to family planning and prison is the only way she can get out of her responsibility to rear another Z, destined for mundaneness.

My sister probably won’t be there when we tell Baby why she can’t go to the schools on the hills, or have an executive job, or take a trip out of Mount Garber or even have a damn cake to celebrate her own damn birthday without putting in a damn request first for something as trivial and available as chocolate.

No, that familiar duty would probably fall on me - again.

I am the oldest child in my household. My mother, Zora and my dead father, Zek created me, especially for that privilege. To build up my innocent siblings with the facade that we were somebodies; that we were happy and had everything we need and wanted, and then watch the light fade from their eyes when they became of age and we enforced the truth of this horrible existence.

No, I’ll be damned if I ever had to do that again, suppress another dream, compile to another “that’s just the way the cookie crumbles” narrative.

You’re a Z. You’re a second class citizen. And you’ll never amount to anything else...

“Miss?” I am daydreaming in the queue to the registrars. The glass screen slides open. A dark-haired woman blinks at me. I realise I’m crying again, “are you okay?” Her ID badge says “Angela”. Her flushed face reads concern but she doesn’t really care about me.

Baby is whimpering, legs and arms splayed. Helpless. Dependent on someone to feed her until she grows, love her until she knows and encourage her until she flys.

I reach in to comfort her and she grasps my finger. The clerk instructs me to step forward as I hold up my lanyard to the glass. Her eyes registers my name like a scanner on a barcode.

“What can we do for you today, Z?”

I’m sorry; I whisper to my niece’s calming coos. The baby is a drain on our limited resources but she also deserves better. Not because she is better but because there is better.

It’s too late for me; I realise sadly; I am Known. I am on the System. They know me by my tag, the noose around my neck. But Baby’s status is still pending….

I know exactly what I need to do.

“I need some help,” I tell the stiffened clerk “I didn’t know what to do, so I came here, I know it’s a safe place.” I gesture to Baby. She babbles, smiling now, with a light in her eyes. “The baby - I found her in the street. I think - I think she’s been abandoned.”

The clerk looks surprised. What respectable mother from Central would abandon her child? But she succumbers to my lie. She promises me the System will take good care of Baby and perhaps find her a loving respectable family to belong to.

“You did the right thing, Z”; her tone reinforces her superiority.

Did I?

I watch them cart Baby away. I hope one day she’ll be an executive and visit another island and maybe, just maybe remember my face and come back to liberate her people.

I confirm my name to the clerk for the sake of raising an incident report. She types away at her computer, finding me in a list of a hundred Zevas.

“Wow," she laughs, tapping on her monitor, "apparently it’s your birthday today!”

And with an almost knowing exclamation, she gushes; "So tell me: did you get a cake?"

October 08, 2021 19:08

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