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Breakfast Shift by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Commissioned as part of FCAC Writes: a collection of new work by writers from Melbourne’s West and beyond, published online. Curated by Bigoa Chuol.

Amber quickly rolls onto her side, untangles herself from the blankets, and shuts off the alarm. 4.35am. Her hot breath billows into steam in front of her, cutting through the cold air of her bedroom. She’ll turn the heating on just before she leaves for work, so Sage doesn’t have to get dressed for school in the chill.

There’s an eerie quiet, from exactly 2.58am to 5.02am weekdays, when the Flats stop fighting, and finally seem at ease. Mr Lapaglia upstairs quits moving his possessions around his cluttered apartment. The Deng’s brand new little baby, in the flat across the hall, hits deep sleep. The bus route that falls just out the front of The Flats falls silent. The aeroplanes that low-fly then swoop-lift, like Sage’s Pixar dragons, up out of Tullamarine and over the western suburbs are momentarily grounded. Amber lies still for a moment, in the winter silence.

The crack in the bedroom ceiling’s getting bigger. She can only just make it out the thin jagged line of it, but it definitely is. Started out just a whisper of a thing, three months or so back. She’d had to drag her desk chair over and check it wasn’t just a cobweb. When she ran her finger over the jagged join of it, she’d felt those anxious running thoughts. We only just got here. I can’t move Sage again. I just can’t. She can even walk to school from here. The crack was about two centimetres in length then. Now it’s almost six. Amber imagines it slowly widening, right this minute, as she lies on her bed watching. Imagines it branching out every which way: the ceiling straining, and crumbling white plaster powdering the entire room. Old Mr, Lapaglia, from flat number fourteen will suddenly falling through the roof and onto the bed next to her, his lined mouth forming a surprised oval, just like in the cartoons, as the hundreds of tin cans of out-of-date soup and baked beans, musty mountains of old clothes, and dusty towers of ancient Reader’s Digest magazines that line almost every space of his small two bedroom flat finally buckle the weight of the roof.

 

Readying for work is an automation. Bra. Pants. Dark blue slacks. Patterned blue blouse. Jacket. Socks. Slap of foundation, but only if she’s feeling grotty. Amber pulls her long auburn hair into a tight ponytail; winds the ponytail into a topknot, concealing the dyed bright purple ends. Gotten wise to the assumptions her piercings and hair colouring breed, amongst some of her hospital colleagues. George asked her, once, if she knew where he could find a good time. Big loud creepy bloke, George. Pushes beds up on the wards. Said it just like that, leaning over the break room table, as he shovelled leftover hospital mash into his mouth.

“Hey Amber, you live around here? Footscray? Know where my mate could find a good time tonight?” Looked her dead in the eye, in that way that’d made her know he was the friend, and she was the one supposed to provide services. Amber’s got a couple of mates that could’ve help him out, but there’s no way in hell she’ll be sending Faith or Rebel George as a client.

Amber’d kept buttering her dinner roll, asked George if he was talking about where he could play the pokies. She hasn’t seen George around much since then, thank fuck. Most of the day, she’s down in the Hells – not up on service. Amber’s kitchen co-worker Fatima says she overheard the Leading Hand say Amber never smiles, that she can’t be sent up on the wards too much, cause it makes patients uncomfortable.

“Why can’t you be like everyone else Amber, and try to assimilate?” Fatima had adjusted the forehead-edges of her hijab, thrown back her head, and laughed like she was the funniest person on earth. “It’s because of your antisocial customs. Try to blend in a bit more. People are scared of difference.” Amber’d cracked a smile. Because when Fatima’d started working in the Hells, the Leading Hands hadn’t wanted her up on the wards. Specially up in Palliative. Didn’t think the dying old people could handle her. That’s what they’d told Fatima. It’s just that a lot of old people are scared of difference. Then, after the first time Fatima’d done the rounds in Palliative, the nurses and the oldies’d started asking for her. Where’s that lovely girl? The Muslim one? Bloody ray of sunshine. Send her up again.

 

Amber squeezes some moisturiser onto her dry hands. The smell of the Hells follows you home. Boiled carrots and Bovril stock. Stale grease. The sour turn of sick people’s food waste, being trolleyed back down to the kitchen for wash up. Lemon-bleach from the end-of-shift floor wash. Stale bacon, if you’d worked the breakfast tray line. She’s never been one for perfume, but lately, Amber’s found herself gravitating toward scents. Coconut hand cream. Lavender shampoo.

In the small kitchenette of the flat, Amber opens a new packet of Weetbix, and plonks a dry cereal biscuit into a yellow bowl. All the good crockery – if you could even have called it that – was broken last move. She’d been skint; booked Man With A Van, and some skinny seventeen year old’d turned up with a bloody ute. Amber and him’d near buckled under the bulk of the fridge; torn a hole in the sofa bed when they tried to ease it up the stairs of the Flats. Had to do about twenty trips. Amber’d let Sage pack most of the kitchen wear. Sage had wrapped the bowls and plates carefully in newspaper, but didn’t pack them flush to the top of the cardboard boxes, and Amber’d been too busy zipping towels and sheets into those huge plaid two-dollar-shop bags to properly supervise. Sage’s little face’d crumbled, when they opened the boxes at the other end of the move, to find jagged ceramic pieces where the crockery had been packed.

“Nevermind,” Amber’d said, kissing the top of Sage’s tangled afrocurl. “That’s just moving house. There’s always a goddamn casualty.”

“But we don’t have money to buy new ones.” Sage’s shoulders had heaved up and down. Tears streamed down her face, and Amber’d known it wasn’t just about the plates.

“Not your worry sweetheart. Anyway, we’re fine at the moment. The move cost less than I thought.” Couple more years and Sage’ll be able to tell when she’s lying. Amber remembers that with her own Mum – the moment she learnt that parents weren’t infallible.

When Sage started crying about the dinnerware, Amber had stopped unpacking boxes and walked Sage the twenty five minutes into Footscray Savers. Folks always stare at them, along the street, but Sage doesn’t pay them any mind, and Amber knows they make an unlikely pair: the animated little black girl, and her white punk Mum.

She’d lingered in the book aisle, while Sage chose a new table setting. Amber wasn’t sold on sunflower yellow, but hadn’t had the heart to say no. Anyway, at eighty cents an item, the six plates and five bowls were the bargain of the lot.

 

Amber opens the near-empty fridge, pours a careful dribble of milk onto her cereal. The clock across their tiny loungeroom – their ­neat and compact living space, as it’d been advertised, in the rental window of Jas H. Steven’s Real Estate– ticks 5.05. Amber grabs her handbag, jacket and scarf from the chair near the door. Shrugs them, one by one, onto her narrow shoulders. She moves across the room to Sage’s bedroom doorway, and peers in at her sleeping child. Sage is a massive pile of curl and bedcovers. The bright flower-patterned doona Amber’s Mum gave her last birthday rising with each heavy breath.

“Love you Sagie,” she whispers, leaning against the doorway of the small, peach-walled room. “Have a good day at school.”

As if by incantation, the Flats start humming a welcome to the morning. Old Mr LaPaglia’s ugg boots shuffle overhead. Down on the street, Vincent Deng from next door is spluttering his stoic yellow taxi up for the morning. Mrs Randall from across the hall, has turned on Songs of Praise. The walls in The Flats are like broadsheet: thin, creased, quick to tear, and mostly just advertising.

Amber closes the door quietly behind her; turns the key in the lock. She’ll check in with Sage at 8.30, on her first break – remind her where her lunch is, to be sure she remembers her key and turns off the heating.

 

Metal bench is frosted up at the Droop Street bus stop, but Amber sits anyway, sliding her jacket tails under her. She pulls the rollie pouch from her hand bag, eases out a paper and pinches some tobacco to roll. Knows she should quit. Sage’s been nagging her about it even more of late, but most times it feels like it’s one of the last defiances there is. Like: it’s my body, and thank you very much, but I’ll pump it with carcinogens if I damn well want to. She lights the end of the cigarette, relaxes into the draw. The Route 83 comes belching down the street towards her, drunkenly low-lurching, like it’s just stumbled out of The Station Hotel. The bus rumbles to a stop, and Amber stubs the rollie out under the heel of her white work sandshoe. “Morning Huong! Bloody cold, isn’t it? How are you?” She digs frantically around in her bag for her Myki card.

“Good morning. Very cold. Yes. Not a worry. You just get on.” Huong waves her onto the vehicle. Amber’s hand locates the travel card, and she touches it onto the machine. The reader beeps.

“Shit. I thought I had money on this one—”

“Is okay. Get on!”

The bus is almost empty. Just a couple of old freshly dressed Ethiopian gents who look like they’re coming home from the coffee houses already: plastic containers of ful resting in their laps, sliced boiled egg pressing at the container top, glaring out against the rich rust-coloured stew.

Huong has the radio on loud this morning, tuned to talkback. Amber absentmindedly draws patterns in the freezing cold window condensation, as the host heats up.

I mean, just what is going on over there? In bloody Wuhan?

Amber recognises the smug, lazy pronunciation of bigot talkback king Alan Jones. “These people. They eat bloody chimpanzees, bats, and who else knows what. And then they’re surprised that it spawns this contagious disease. This disease that’s killing people. It’s ridiculous. It’s not on. Those wet markets oughta be shut down.”

Amber watches Huong’s face, in the rear view. He takes a hand off the wheel, runs it through his salt and pepper hair: mouth firm, eyes fixed on the road ahead of him. He suddenly looks up, eyes meet hers. Amber quickly looks away, wondering why he doesn’t shut the radio off.

 

The key’s jammed again, in the battered lock of Amber’s work locker. She slams the locker door. Opens it. Slams it again. Turns the key. It eases out this time, and she slips the keychain round her neck and tucks it underneath her work blouse. Walking past the kitchen administration office, she can see Noel, Marie, Alice and Drajika, the morning and evening Leading Hands, crowded around a laptop, their faces ashen with shock.

Inside the kitchen, the rest of the morning workers, ten of them or so, are milling around the breakfast plating stations. Fatima makes her way over to Amber, removes the strawberry lollipop from her mouth, and hugs a hello.

“Morning. Could you hear what was going on?”

“Back there?” Amber flicks her thumb in the direction of the office. “Nope. It looked serious though.”

“The breakfast line’s starting late.” Fatima fills Amber in. “Apparently Management’s coming down here.”

“What for?”

”Fuck knows.” Fatima hoists her bum up onto the long stainless steel tray-filling station; swings her skinny legs back and forth, rattles the Chupa Chup against her teeth.

“Hope none of us are being let go.” Those giant death-moths, flutter again, in Amber’s stomach.

“Off the table Fats!” Noel’s rebuke is sharp enough to make Fatima quick-skedaddle.

The four Leading Hands move towards them, a youngish blonde man in a charcoal suit now in tow.

“Right.” Noel sounds all meaning-business. Fatima and Amber exchange raised eyebrows. Their morning boss is usually a barrel of puns and joviality.

“Ladies, this is Martin Weaving. Head of Infection Control at the hospital. He’s just here to spend the morning with us, observing how we operate.”

Amber wonders if this is about Nicola’s hand. Nicola’s been off for a month now. Absentmindedly stuck her hand in the industrial dishwasher at the end of a shift, to grab a fork that was jamming it. Hadn’t remembered to press the red emergency stop button first. Machine’d crushed the middle finger of her right hand. Whole night crew said they’d heard the crunch, as metal splintered bone.

Martin steps forward. “Good morning.” His thin lips part to reveal perfectly straight, white teeth. Rich people teeth thinks Amber, suddenly conscious of her own slight overbite, “I know this isn’t normal procedure, but I’m just here to observe for the day. You don’t need to do anything differently. Just carry on the shift as if I’m not even here.”

 

Amber’s stationed on eggs. Fats is on the tray-lining station just before her. Her friend fits a plate in the tray, lines the tray with paper, and slides. Fits a plate in the tray, lines the tray with paper, slides. Fits, lines and slides. Fits. Lines. Slides. Amber keeps her eyes on the middle part of the menus, for ticked scrambled egg. Scoop, and she slides. Scoop, and she slides. No eggs, and she slides. Double scoop, and she slides. And she slides. And she slides.

 

“Trolley up! Number thirteen. ICU!” Noel throws a navy blue apron towards Amber. She freezes for a moment. It’s been months, since she was given intensive care. She fastens the apron around her waist, unplugs the meal trolley from the heating station and checks the undersides of a couple plates to make sure the food’s been heated properly, touching them fast to be sure she doesn’t burn her fingers. She carefully pushes the heavy taller-than-her cart into the lift.

The ICU is oddly quiet. Amber can’t even see a nurse at the nurses station. She swipes the kitchen security card. The heavy glass doors open. A young doctor rushes towards her.

“You shouldn’t be in here!”

Amber looks around, surprised. Three other doctors are clustered around the outside of one of the patient rooms, chatting animatedly, and peering in through the glass.

“Didn’t they tell you to not to come in here this morning? You shouldn’t be in here. The other ICU patients have been transferred to Wing B.” The doctor’s frantic now, pushing on Amber’s shoulder, shoving her off the ward. “You need a mask. You need a mask on to be in here.”

It’s then that Amber realises the whole team is masked up: as if they’re headed into surgery. And all the beds are empty. She looks from the rows of stripped empty beds, to her meal cart, then back at the doctor.

The huddle of doctors on the ward turn toward them, parting with the movement, and Amber sees the patient lying behind them – a thin, frail man with a ventilator inserted down his throat to help him breathe.

“What’s wrong with him?” She’s never usually that direct – particularly at work.

“These meals can’t be eaten, now that they’ve come in here.”

The young doctor puts one hand on the meal trolley, and helps her guide it back out the ICU doors.

“Can I take the meals to Wing B then? To the other patients?”

“Like I said, the food is a risk factor now. You’ll have to get the kitchen to make new ones.”
He says it like that like it’ll be the easiest thing in the world to do. The breakfast plating line’s been packed away. Down in the Hells, they’ll be on to lunch prep already.

“The meals are still hot. I can just wheel it over to where the patients are.”

“No.” He lowers his voice now.

“Well…the kitchen’s going to want to know why.”

“That’s… they just. They transferred Patient Zero here.” His lips purse, as if he’s afraid something dangerous might escape from them.

Amber stares back at him, perplexed.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll phone down and talk to them. When you go back with the meals, please leave the trolley outside the kitchen. Got it? Leave it outside.”

“Yep. You said that twice.”

 

Inside the lift, Amber glances at her watch. 8.33. Sage would have left the house for school already. She sighs. It’s not that Sage needs her turn-the-heater-off, make-sure-you-lock-the-door reminders, really. The kid’s well-capable, and their neighbours at the flats’ll see to anything she needs help with; watch out for her. It’s Amber, who needs to hear her daughter’s happy-go-luckiness, at the other end of the phone; to be pulled out of the kitchen filth and funk, and be reminded of the miracle that is life throwing the two of them together. Amber stares at her dishevelled reflection in the smeared lift mirror; smooths a stray hair back into the loosening topknot.

She parks the food trolley outside the kitchen doors, and walks slowly in. Fatima’s on salt, pepper and cutlery. Noel’s looking the other way, talking to a newbie about portioning jelly. Amber swerves, and walks over to her friend.

“We need a whole new cart of meals, for ICU.”

“What? Why? Didn’t they heat properly?” Fatima picks up a plastic bag with her gloved hand, slips a knife, fork, spoon, napkin, and tiny sachet of salt and pepper into it, and places it into a large half-filled plastic tub.

“There’s this sick guy in the ICU,” Amber keeps her voice at a low whisper. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but they’ve cleared out all the other patients, and they said I contaminated the meals, by taking them in there.”

“What the fuck?” Fatima stops the cutlery, turns to her. “Are you making this up?”

“No.” Amber looks to see if any of their colleagues are listening. “The doctor called him Patient Zero.

“Swear?”

“I swear.” Amber leans against the kitchen bench. “I’m totally creeped out.”

Fatima peels off her gloves, reaches into the front pocket of her apron, takes out her mobile phone, and types in her passcode. She taps at her phone for a moment, then looks up at Amber. “Patient Zero is a 2018 action horror film directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky and written by Mike Le,” she reads, with one eyebrow raised. “The plot involves a group of survivors who set out to find an antidote for a highly contagious virus that turns the infected into a ravenous but highly intelligent new species.”

“What? That makes no fucking sense. Here.” Amber takes the phone from her friend, brings up Google. “Patient Zero,” she looks up at Fatima, wide-eyed,Noun. Used to refer to the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related causes.” Amber hands the phone back to her friend. “Jeeez. I was in there. Without a mask on. The doctors all had protective gear. What the hell does he have? What does he have!?”

“Amber!” Noel’s bellowing in their direction now, the office cordless phone in his hand, a strange look on his face, as he beckons her over. “Amber, can you please leave the cutlery station? Right now. I need you in the office, please. Now.”

Amber looks at Fatima, face awash with fear.


About the Author

MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE
Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian born writer of Afro-Caribbean heritage, and Black British parentage. She is the author of ten books, including the Indie and ABIA award-winning short fiction collection Foreign Soil, the critically acclaimed memoir The Hate Race, the Premier’s Award-winning poetry collection Carrying The World, and the children’s picture book The Patchwork Bike, illustrated by Van T Rudd, which won the 2019 Boston Globe/ Horn Books Picture Book Prize.


FCAC Writes is supported by Malcolm Roberson Foundation.

IMAGE
1- Contains image provided by Maxine Beneba Clarke, and illustration by Nadia Lian. 

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