Best-selling author of 'Money Power Love', 'The Little Voice' and 'Occupied'.

JOSS SHELDON

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4. CHARLIE

BUY Front Cover

“How could you?” Mama Charlie screamed.

She threw a mug at Papa Charlie, who ducked to avoid it. The mug smashed into the wall behind him, and broke into several little pieces. Its handle flew towards Charlie’s Brother, and its base rebounded into Papa Charlie’s nape.

“How could you? How could you? How could you?”

Papa Charlie rubbed the back of his neck; the only part of his head which was not covered in hair. His forehead was dominated by a pair of bushy eyebrows, which almost reached his scalp. His double chin was concealed by a beard, which was as coarse as wire. And his eyes were shaded by a set of pointy lashes.

“Those bastards have stolen our land, penned us in between their settlements, and installed aquifers which are sucking up our water.

“And what do you do to stop those mangy rats? Nothing! You go and build homes for them!

“Are you mad? Do you want us to suffer? Really! How could you?”

Mama Charlie, a stout woman who had wide shoulders and cobalt eyes, threw another mug at her husband’s feet.

Charlie pressed his teddy bear against his chubby cheek.

Papa Charlie held up a small sack of rice.

“We can eat tonight,” he said. “For the first time in four days! You want to know how I could do it? Well here’s your answer. If it saves us from starvation, I’ll do anything. Anything!!!”

A tear formed in the corner of Charlie’s Brother’s aquamarine eye. It rolled over his prominent cheekbone, and dropped onto his burgundy lip.

A piece of mug span around on the floor.

Mama Charlie panted like a dog.

“I don’t want you going back there tomorrow,” she whispered. “You’re selling us out for an onion peel!”

“I don’t have a choice,” Papa Charlie replied. “I feel like a slave, but I have to put food on our table. If I could work anywhere else, even for a quarter of the money, I would. But there aren’t any jobs. Half the village is unemployed.”

He shrugged.

Gunfire rang out in the distance.

Mama Charlie wagged her finger.

“What sort of future are you building for our children?” She wailed. “A future penned in by occupiers, without access to our fields? Without food, water or work? Is that what you want?

“Our own people will hate us. No-one likes a turncoat. We’ll be ostracised. We’ll be social outcasts. Pariahs! Just like the other mercenaries here. The natives will dump their garbage in front of our house, throw rotten fruit at us, and piss in our well!”

Papa Charlie winced.

Charlie’s Brother wailed.

Charlie patted his shiny black hair, and pinched his tiny round nose.

“What sort of future are you building for our children?”

Papa Charlie repositioned some items on the table.

“You’re right,” he mumbled. “We need to make plans for our children. They shouldn’t have to live like this.

“I’ll arrange for Charlie to go to Natale. He’ll be able to go to school there.”

Papa Charlie bit his lip.

“Education!” He concluded. “Education will save him from this mess.”

Mama Charlie bounded towards her husband and hugged him. She gripped him so tightly, it affected his circulation. His hands turned white and his eyes turned red.

Charlie rocked back and forth. His nervous twitch made his cheek pulsate and his eye blink. But he did not say a word.

 

* * *

 

Liberation was not the only settlement to overlook Valley Village. Four other settlements dominated the surrounding hills. New mobile homes appeared there almost every day.

Without access to their pastures, the villagers watched on as their animals all perished. They were not allowed to reach their farmland, which lay beyond the settlements. And they were not allowed to cross a road, which surrounded their valley.

A crew of locals were building that road.

Those villagers used dynamite to blast the hillside flat. The men drilled the rock, whilst the women cleared the dust. Then they spread sticky tar across the flattened space.

At the end of every day, the Protokians always lectured them.

“There is a house in the capital,” they said. “On the second floor is a long corridor. At the end of that corridor is a door. And behind that door is a wise man who makes decisions.

“His name is Atamow, and he wants you to be happy.

“He will bring about development. He will set up industries and bring progress. He will ensure that your hard work is rewarded.

“Just remember this: The supremacy of the Holies is absolute! All hail the Holy God! He’ll make you rich. He’ll make you happy. He’ll make you whole.”

The workers were never fully convinced. Some of them suffered from bad backs, whilst others got dust in their lungs. People died. Their fellow villagers called them ‘skivvies’, ‘sluts’ and ‘skanks’. But their jobs helped them to survive. Their work saved them from starvation.

That road was guarded by a Night Watchman, who was friends with Papa Charlie. He had found Papa Charlie his job. And so he was happy to turn a blind eye, when Charlie walked past with a bag of clothes on his back, a map in his trouser pocket, and a look of trepidation on his boyish face.

It was the midnight hour, and the moon was nowhere to be seen. Charlie wore a cloak of darkness as he descended down the other side of the hill.

Grass rustled in the breeze.

An owl hooted.

A wolf howled.

Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat.

The sound of Protokian machinegun fire burst in Charlie’s ears. He heard a bullet bounce off a rock to his right. He felt a bullet whizz above his head. And he saw a puff of dust in front of him.

He dived behind a boulder.

His heart pounded. Butterflies fluttered in his stomach, and his spine tingled. His hands shook.

He looked down and saw that he had wet his pants. His genitals felt warm, sticky and moist.

His nervous twitch went into overdrive. His left cheek pulsated as quickly as the machinegun fire. In and out. In and out. In and out.

His left eye opened and closed at a manic rate. His eyebrow vibrated.

He concentrated on his breathing.

He waited there for hours. He looked up at the stars, and down at the earth. He looked down towards Natale.

When his pulse had settled, he continued. He crawled on his belly to avoid detection. Soil stained his hands, stones tore his clothes, and thistles pricked his skin.

He slithered like a snake.

Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat. Rat-a-tat-tat.

Charlie paused. He pressed his body into the earth and closed his eyes.

A rabbit ran into its burrow.

A squirrel ran up a tree.

Charlie caught his breath, paused, and continued.

By the time he reached Natale, his shirt had disintegrated and his chest was covered in bruises. He was exhausted. So he rested his head on a donkey’s stomach, and fell asleep in a grassy field.

The stars faded and the sun rose.

A cockerel crowed.

A mouse squeaked.

A girlish voice rang out:

“What are you doing, silly?”

Ellie poked Charlie with a stick.

“Do you think you’re a donkey?” She asked. “Donkey boy! Eee-Or. Eee-or. Eee-or.”

Charlie rubbed his eyes.

“Are you a tree?” He replied. “Who pokes people with sticks?”

Ellie laughed.

“Why are you sleeping here?” She asked.

“I just arrived. I was so tired, I passed out.”

“You’re a refugee, aren’t you? I can take you to the refugee camp if you like. It’s not far from here.”

“Oh no, I’m not going there. I’m staying with my uncle. I just need to find his home.”

Charlie passed Ellie his map.

“I know where that is,” she said. “Follow me.”

 

* * *

 

“Sit down,” Uncle Charlie said.

Charlie sat down and looked at his uncle. He was a plump man, who had far too much hair. His mullet was greasy, yet also dull, whilst his chest hair was lustrous and dark. His facial hair was both black and grey. His back hair was as bushy as wool, and his toe hair was as thorny as wire.

“Now listen here,” he continued. “I’ve heard good things about you, so I’m prepared to give this a go. Yes. Yes. But make no mistake, I’m not your pa. You’re not my son. I’m a businessman, and if you’re going to survive you need to buy into that. I’m not going to coddle you. Understand?”

Charlie nodded.

“Yes sir,” he said.

Uncle Charlie beamed.

“‘Sir’,” he repeated. “I like that. You’ve got manners. Good. Good. Keep on calling me ‘sir’.”

Charlie straightened his back and looked into his uncle’s eyes.

“Yes sir, uncle sir, Uncle Charlie sir!”

Uncle Charlie scratched his head. He could not tell if his nephew was being polite or sarcastic.

“Good. Good,” he continued. “Very good.

“You know, I was about your age when I came over the hills? There wasn’t a single hair on my chin back then. My balls were still stuck in my crotch! Yes. Yes.

“Like you, I didn’t have a single penny to my name.

“And now look at me. I’m one of the most respected traders on the market! True. True.

“Outside my stall, I have open-topped tins full of pickles. I have white and yellow cauliflower, green leaves, gherkins, jalapenos, radishes, blood-red beetroot, and five different sorts of olives. Five different sorts! It’s a sight to behold. A real smorgasbord of colour! Good. Good.

“I have big sacks displaying every grain imaginable. Yes. Yes. I have wheat, popcorn, barley, quinoa, couscous, rye, millet, brown rice, white rice, wild rice, every sort of rice!

“Inside I have nuts. All the nuts! Peanuts, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans and pistachios. The lot! I have snack mix, Bombay mix, crisps, dried chillies, dried apricots, dried prunes, raisins, sunflower seeds, chickpeas and olive oil. Yes. Yes. Olive oil!!!”

Uncle Charlie grinned.

“Do you know that some traders only sell one product? Apples or satsumas or grapes. Just the one product, piled up on moveable wooden tables. Yes. Yes. But not me. Oh no. I sell hundreds. Hundreds!

“I’m one of the most respected traders on the market.

“I eat meat every day!”

Charlie looked up at his uncle in awe. He did not believe that anyone could afford to eat meat every day. Not even kings. The very thought of it made Charlie blush.

“Am I going to work with you on your stall, Uncle Charlie sir?” He asked.

Uncle Charlie paused.

“Ha! Ha! Ha!” He laughed. “Dear child, why would I need a boy like you on my stall? Ha! Ha! Ha!

“No. No. A market stall is no place for a child. Why you need to work your way up if you want to work on a market stall. You need to start at the bottom, as a trolley boy, just like I did. Yes. Yes. That’s a tip top plan. Good. Good. Very good.”

 

* * *

 

Charlie followed his uncle through the market. He had never been anywhere like it.

A labyrinth of narrow alleys with stone floors shot off in every direction. Slices of orange light peaked between buildings. Shoppers pushed between traders. Mice scurried between feet.

Charlie looked around. He saw two mothers and two sons, who were carrying two bags of shopping each. An Ugly Man, who was selling beautiful flowers. A Cobbler, who was fixing a broken shoe. And a Chandler, who was grinding coffee beans. The aroma made Charlie salivate.

A Toddler grabbed a strawberry from a table and put it in her mouth. The Toddler’s Mother was about to apologize, but she saw that the strawberry was a product of Protokia. So she gave the Strawberry Seller a condescending look, ruffled the Toddler’s hair, and walked away without paying.

Uncle Charlie led his nephew past a row of bird shops. Wire cages were stacked on top of each other. Pigeons, parrots, turkeys and budgies created a cacophony of chirps and tweets. A rooster sat above a cage full of hens, who declined the opportunity to escape through an open door. Two cats gazed up at them, purred, and waited patiently.

Old ladies sat cross-legged on the floor, behind piles of leafy greens. Like the other traders, they were all self-employed, although they had not produced their wares. Charlie glanced at them. Then he followed his uncle around a corner, into a hidden square.

He came face-to-face with a group of young boys, who stood next to a group of wooden trolleys.

One of those trollies was full of bananas. A Sooty Local pushed it away. The other trollies were much smaller. One had a wonky wheel, and another had a twisted handle. They all had wooden tops and metal bases. They all had seen better days.

“Here’s your new trolley,” Uncle Charlie said. He pointed at an oversized wheelbarrow. “And here is your new gang. Yes. Yes.”

Uncle Charlie turned to face the other boys.

“I want you to take care of this young whippersnapper, and show him the ropes. If you give him any problems, I’ll make sure the other traders never do business with you again. Yes. Yes. I have influence. I’m one of the most respected traders here!”

Uncle Charlie waved goodbye.

Charlie froze. Only his face moved. His cheek twitched and his eye vibrated.

He faced the other boys, who stood shoulder to shoulder, and stared straight back at him. A Shabby Local folded his arms. A Vain Local fingered his hair. And a Grubby Refugee looked Charlie up and down.

“Come with me,” Oliver said. “Let’s see if we can get us some work.”

Charlie looked back at that boy, who had wispy blonde hair and chubby cheeks. He glanced at the other boys, grabbed his rickety trolley, and followed Oliver out of the square.

They approached a Butcher’s stall.

A cow’s head hung from a hook. Its tongue hung out of its mouth. And some herbs hung from pieces of its carcass, near buckets which were full of hearts, stomachs and spleens. Near piles of chopped onion and chopped parsley. And near the Butcher himself.

The Butcher was a potty-mouthed, gun-toting, whiskey-swilling, card-playing, kangaroo-shaped oaf. He blew cigarette smoke over his meat, sliced off a sliver of beef, and put it into a mincer.

“Do you have anything you need to be delivered or collected?” Oliver asked. “We’ll do you a good deal.”

The Butcher sniggered.

“Does it look like I can afford to hire lackeys?” He replied.

He turned his mincer’s handle.

“I have to work as a history teacher because business is so slow here. Do you really think I’m going to waste my money on market rats like you?”

Oliver gave the Butcher an angry look, scrunched up his nose, and pushed his trolley away.

Charlie glared at the Butcher, turned, and followed his accomplice.

“Don’t worry about the knock-backs,” Oliver said. “You get used to it. We do enough business to survive.”

Charlie nodded. He followed Oliver down the path. But he lost sight of his new friend when a Junior Priest jumped out of nowhere.

“Donation! Donation!” He demanded. “Give me a donation! I’ll give you a blessing. The more you donate, the more blessed you’ll be. God is watching. Don’t invoke his wrath!”

The Junior Priest, who had long fingernails and short hair, rattled his money box in front of Charlie’s face.

“Donation! Donation!” He wailed.

Charlie froze. The world passed him by. People crowded him. Light blinded him. Noise deafened him.

Chickens clucked.

Oliver disappeared into the distance.

“Donation! Donation!”

The Junior Priest rattled his money box again.

“I, I, I,” Charlie stuttered. “I don’t have any money, sir. I’m new here. Please don’t hurt me.”

The Junior Priest gave Charlie an angry look, and then disappeared.

Charlie pushed his trolley past a woman who was selling multi-coloured cake. Past a child who was selling fruit salad. And past a man who was sitting by his stall, asleep, with his head drooped over his chest.

He pushed his trolley past Papa Tamsin, who was selling mouldy satsumas.

“This is my last day on the market,” he told an Apple Seller. “I can earn more by building roads. I’m going to be a contractor, so I’ll still be my own boss. I’ll be able to come and go as I please!”

Charlie kept walking. He looked in every direction, but he did not see Oliver anywhere.

A brave rooster jumped out of its cage and made a dash for freedom.

An eager Tea Boy rushed past, carrying a tray full of hot drinks.

The Medicine Man squatted down in front of Charlie.

“You look lost,” he said.

Charlie looked back at the Medicine Man. He felt a little scared.

“I felt lost when I first arrived here too,” the Medicine Man continued. “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”

The Medicine Man removed a set of cards from his pocket, split the pack, and showed Charlie the bottom card.

“Remember that card, but don’t tell me what it is. Okay?”

Charlie nodded.

The Medicine Man caught a glimpse of the card as he put the pack back together.

“Now shuffle the cards really well.”

Charlie shuffled the pack. He dropped the nine of hearts, picked it up, and continued shuffling.

“Now turn the cards over one at a time, and put them face-up on your trolley.”

Charlie did as he was told.

The Medicine Man shook his head each time a new card was revealed.

“Ah!” He finally proclaimed. “That’s the one! That’s your card!”

Charlie looked back at the Medicine Man with wonder in his eyes.

“That’s amazing, sir,” he said. “How did you do that?”

The Medicine Man chuckled.

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he said.

“Oh.”

“But I can tell you something a little birdy told me.”

The Medicine Man paused for effect.

Charlie waited for him to continue.

A cockroach crawled into a sack of rice.

“There’s a Confectioner down that alley, who has a bushy grey beard and a scar above one eye. I think he might need a trolley boy to help him.”

Charlie grinned.

“Thank-you sir,” he said.

He went to find the Confectioner. He pushed past dawdling shoppers and dithering old ladies. He weaved between traders and stalls.

Those stalls seemed to repeat themselves every twenty metres. Charlie passed fifteen perfume stalls, sixteen fruit stalls, and seventeen clothing stalls. The presence of so many similar kiosks meant shoppers could always find what they wanted. And the intense competition kept things affordable. All the traders sold enough to survive, but the low prices meant that no-one thrived. No-one was rich, but no-one was poor.

Charlie pushed past another five jewellery stalls, and another six crockery stalls, before he finally reached his destination. It was an Aladdin’s cave full of chocolate and candy.

The sweet and sickly smell of sugar hit Charlie’s nose straight away. A wall of colour bombarded his eyes. He could almost taste the sweets; the cola bottles, sour cherries and marshmallows; gummy bears, lollipops and jawbreakers.

A drop of saliva fell from his mouth. His eyes jumped out of his head. And his stomach rumbled.

“Do you need anything delivered or collected, sir?” He asked. “I’ll give you a good deal.”

The Confectioner looked Charlie up and down.

“You’ll give me whatever deal I like,” he said.

Charlie nodded. He did not say a word. He just gazed up at the Confectioner, who was missing all his teeth. He had wrinkled lips, which puckered into his mouth, and tiny eyes which stared at Arun.

“I have a delivery waiting for me at the bottom of the hill. Go down that alley there, turn right when you see a row of mannequins, and turn left when you see some Holy graffiti.

“When you get to the bottom of the market, you’ll see a man with a lazy eye and an over-active hand. Show him this receipt. Make sure to take at least seventeen boxes of sweets, then come straight back.

“I’ll be timing you.”

Charlie sprinted away. He swerved around corners, jinked between shoppers, and skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill. He loaded his trolley as quickly as he could, and pushed it straight back up to the Confectioner’s store.

“Six minutes, twenty three seconds,” the Confectioner said.

Charlie bent over, put his hands on his knees, and panted.

“Pretty good!” The Confectioner continued. “Pretty good indeed!”

He checked the seams of every box Charlie had delivered.

“You haven’t taken a single sweet, have you?”

Charlie shook his head. The thought had never even crossed his mind.

A chicken crossed the road, to get to the other side.

The Confectioner chewed some tobacco.

“The other trolley boys always fill their boots, but you’re different,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Charlie, sir.”

“Well, ‘Charlie Sir’, make sure to come back here at the same time next week. I could do with a trolley boy like you.”

He stuffed a coin and a cola cube into Charlie’s palm.

Charlie grinned.

He strolled along the alley, crammed with confidence, and touted for business at every stall he passed.

 

* * *

 

Charlie had been a trolley boy for over a month. He had earned himself a reputation, and built up a regular clientele.

Charlie helped traders to move stock. He helped bin men to move rubbish. And he was a firm favourite amongst Natale’s housewives. He took their orders every morning, and delivered their shopping each afternoon.

He brimmed with boyish pride.

“My cart is a Fastari!” He boasted to Oliver.

“That piece of old junk ain’t no Fastari,” Oliver replied. “Pfft! You’re blowing ducks! I’ve never heard so much nonsense in my life.”

Charlie tapped his nose.

“When I grow up I’m going to be rich like my uncle,” he said. “I’m going to earn so much money, I’ll be able to buy a real Fastari. But until then, this’ll have to do.”

“Well if that old rust bucket is a Fastari, then my cart is a Sheeporghini,” Oliver replied. “And everyone knows that Sheeporghinis are better than Fastaris.”

“What?” Charlie shouted back with fake horror. “That’s slander! Poppycock! Bunkum!

“My Fastari would beat you Sheeporghini over any distance, on any race track, on any day of the week.”

“Yeah?” Oliver replied. “Really? Okay, prove it then.”

“Alright, I will.

“The Poultry Man, the one who’s missing half an eyebrow, wants me to take his rubbish away. If you can make it to his stall before me, you can have the job.”

“You’re on,” Oliver replied.

He spat on his palm and stretched it out to shake hands with Charlie.

Charlie cringed. He slowly lifted his hand towards his mouth.

Oliver swung around and pushed his trolley away.

“Oi!” Charlie shouted. “Come back here, you cheeky rascal!”

He pushed his trolley ahead, and chased after Oliver.

They ran down alleys which were made of cracked concrete, passages which smelled of rotting fish, and paths which swerved one way and then the other. They skidded around corners, scaled steep inclines, and slid down rutted stairs. They whizzed past stalls which sold spices, stalls which sold clothes, and stalls which sold fabric by the metre.

They ran past a Tape Seller who sold traditional music, in an attempt to keep his people’s culture alive. His daughter, Jen, put a tape in a ghetto blaster. The sound of a folk song filled the air.

They ran past a poster which the Holy Defence League had glued to a wall. It said, ‘Gas the Godlies’.

And they ran past the Mad Lady, who was wagging her bony finger back and forth.

“You can run as fast as you like, but you can’t change your life’s direction,” she shouted. “You’re all owned by the bank. The seeds have already been sown!”

“Oh shut up,” Mama Ellie shouted back. “What do you know, you batty old witch?”

Charlie sprinted ahead. But no matter how fast he ran, he could not overtake Oliver. The paths were always too narrow.

So Oliver reached the Poultry Man’s stall before Charlie. He panted, turned around, and stuck out his chalky tongue.

Charlie shrugged.

“I’m here to take out your rubbish,” Oliver said.

“Good,” the Poultry Man replied. “Clean out the droppings from every cage, load them onto your cart, and take them all away. Don’t get any filth on my floor. And don’t complain about the smell. Shit stinks. Get over it.”

Oliver grimaced.

He turned and wagged his fist at Charlie.

Charlie covered his mouth and giggled.

 

* * *

 

Charlie and Oliver raced through Natale every day. Sometimes Charlie’s Fastari won their races, and sometimes Oliver’s Sheeporghini came out on top. But those boys always shook hands once they had passed the chequered flag. They never bore a grudge.

When they were not racing, they ogled the knickknacks on display in Natale’s market. The mandolins, skipping ropes, and blonde dolls. The toy guns, toy daggers, and toy soldiers.

They made their own toys by hand. They shaved stones in pencil sharpeners to make arrowheads. They made swords from sticks, and shields from pieces of wood. They used over-ripe fruit as grenades.

Then they ran around Natale and played their favourite game, ‘Occupiers and Natives’.

“I want to be the Protokians,” Oliver said. “The Protokians are strong. They have soldiers and tanks. They take anything they like.”

“That’s not fair,” Charlie replied. “You were the Protokians last time. I don’t want to be the Collisians again. They’re as weak as a broken vase. They bow down at the feet of the Protokians.”

They argued every time they played.

They also attended football matches, where they chanted as loudly as they could. They sneaked past the lingerie stall, where they gawked at ladies underwear. And they watched the weekly cock fights, where birds danced the tango; circling their opponents, and flapping their wings high above their heads.

But most of the time they spent at work. And when they worked, they raced.

One day, in the middle of spring, they raced towards the Water Pipe Seller. They sped down cobbled aisles, and sprinted up concrete tracks.

Oliver led the way, but Charlie was hot on his heels. They shot past a row of shoe stalls, turned into an alley full of hats, and snaked between a gaggle of fruit sellers.

The passageway widened. Charlie saw an opportunity to overtake. So he swung his cart out to the right and made his move.

He glanced at Oliver and ran past him. But, in doing so, he took his eye off the path. So he did not see an Old Lady, who was stepping out of a wool stall. He did not see the front corner of his cart crash into her hip.

Charlie turned his head when he felt the impact. He watched on in slow motion as his cart pushed through the Old Lady. As she flew back through the air and landed on one leg. As her knee buckled, her leg stumbled, and her elbow crashed onto the ground.

She lay on the floor, holding her crippled arm.

Charlie stopped, turned around, and looked on in pale-faced horror.

A Wool Seller, who had jug-like ears and orb-like eyes, ran out of his cluttered shop.

“Oi!” He yelled. “You little rascal. What on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Charlie froze.

The Old Lady groaned.

The Wool Seller grabbed Charlie’s ear.

“You’re coming with me,” he growled. “We’ll see what your uncle has to say about this!”

The Wool Seller stormed off, with Charlie’s ear between his fingers. Charlie scuttled along, bent over, facing the mucky ground.

They stepped over a row of turkeys, who lay on the floor, with their ankles tied together. They bumped into a man who was holding a pigeon by its feet. And they shoved past a woman who was carrying live chickens in a hessian sack.

They reached Uncle Charlie’s stall.

“What’s all this?” Uncle Charlie asked.

The Wool Seller gave Charlie a menacing look.

“This boy of yours has been assaulting old ladies,” he said.

Uncle Charlie took a step back. He looked horrified.

“Is that true?” He asked.

Charlie looked down at his feet.

“It was an accident, sir,” he replied.

“He wasn’t looking where he was going,” the Wool Trader interjected. “Accident or not, it could have been avoided.”

Uncle Charlie shook his head.

“Is that true?” He asked again.

Charlie squinted.

“Yes sir,” he replied. “Sorry sir. I was racing my friend, sir. His cart is a Sheeporghini. My cart is a Fastari. We were trying to win the Natale grand prix, and get to the Water Pipe seller first.”

Uncle Charlie turned red.

“Fastari?” He screamed. “Sheeporghini? You’re throwing cream into my eyes. Cream! Don’t you go spouting foreign words near me.

“This is an honourable community. Yes. Yes. People work hard here. They work honestly. They produce everything we need, and trade their produce on this market. We don’t need any imported muck in Collis.

“If God wanted us to have cars, they’d grow on trees. Yes. Yes.

“No sports car ever made anyone happy. No fancy gizmo ever brought people together. No gas chugging metal box ever helped people to find God. No. No.

“We don’t need any of that filth here. It’s just not respectable!”

Uncle Charlie turned to face the Wool Seller.

“Thank-you for bringing him to me,” he said. “I’ll make sure he learns his lesson. Yes. Yes.”

The Wool Seller embraced Uncle Charlie, turned around, and left.

Uncle Charlie slapped his nephew’s ear.

Charlie winced.

“What am I going to do with you?” Uncle Charlie asked himself. “You’ve done well as a trolley boy, I’ll give you that. You’ve earned some respect.

“But you’re just so ungodly. It’s bad. Bad. Very bad.”

Uncle Charlie tutted.

“Look, there are two types of people in Natale; the religious and the secular, the virtuous and the base, the godly and the ungodly.

“No-one likes a secularist. They’re just not respectable. No. No. Do you really want to be like those one-dollar whores? Do you really want to sell your soul to the devil for a few shiny trinkets?”

Uncle Charlie put his finger on his lip, looked up to the heavens, and tapped his foot.

“I think it’s time for you to start your education,” he said. “It’s time for you to go to school. Yes. Yes. School will save you. It’ll make you rich! It’ll be good. Good. Very good.”

Uncle Charlie rubbed his hands together.

Charlie pinched his chin.

A cat chased after a chicken.

 

* * *

 

Charlie followed his uncle into the temple. He had never been anywhere like it.

Its dome shaped roof was covered in gold, its marble steps were pearly white, and its turrets were as tall as the clouds. Every wall featured paintings of religious scenes, icons hid in every hollow, and patterned carpets covered every inch of the floor.

The gaudy mix of colours made Charlie feel dizzy.

“Come, come,” Uncle Charlie said. “And remember to honour the priest. He’s a learned man. A spiritual man. A man of god! Yes. Yes. A man of God! He’s respectable. Respectable!”

Charlie followed his uncle into a side room and sat down on the floor.

His uncle left.

Charlie looked at the other children. They were tidier than the trolley boys. Their clothes were new, their hair was tangle-free, and their fingernails were clean.

They waited in silence for several minutes.

Light spilled through a stained glass window.

A motorbike pulled up outside.

The other students shuffled their bottoms, pulled their shoulders back, and straightened their spines. Charlie copied them.

The Humpbacked Priest entered. He hobbled over to the donations box, emptied its contents into a brown leather bag, and put that bag in his pocket.

“Turn to page seventy six of the Godly bible,” he said. “Let’s read.”

The sound of page turning filled the room.

“Blah, blah, blah,” the children read. “Blah. Blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Charlie did not understand a word they were saying. He just sat there and pretended to read.

The Humpbacked Priest scowled at him.

Charlie twitched. His cheek vibrated and his eye blinked.

“Good,” the Humpbacked Priest concluded.

He sprinkled some petals into a font.

A Chubby Local lit some incense.

A Haunted Refugee said a prayer.

“Good,” the Humpbacked Priest repeated. “Let’s begin our lesson.”

He mopped his sweaty brow and stroked his crooked back.

“There once was a man who was generous and kind. As he was leaving for work, a monk came by and asked him for food.

“‘Give this monk something to eat,’ the kind man told his wife. ‘It’ll be a mitzvah. A good deed! Make sure his belly is full by the time he leaves’.

“But his wife was greedy. Oi vey! She wanted to hoard her food. That shiksa wanted to discourage the monk from returning.

“So she locked the monk in her basement, and kept him there whilst she ate all the food in her house. She only released the monk after many hours had passed.

“She thought she had gotten away with her sin. But she died that week, and came back as a ghost. She didn’t have any teeth, and her neck was too narrow to swallow food. That goy couldn’t eat! She was made to exist in a state of eternal hunger!”

The Humpbacked Priest stared at his pupils.

His pupils stared back at their teacher.

A moth flew into a window.

“What does this story mean?”

At first there was silence. No-one moved. Then, in amongst the sea of tiny faces, a Cherubic Boy tentatively raised his arm.

“Super!” The Humpbacked Priest said. “Go ahead.”

“It means we must be generous,” the Cherubic Boy replied.

“Yes. But who should we be generous to?”

The Cherubic Boy paused to think.

“Monks?” He asked.

“Yes. And?”

The Cherubic Boy shrugged.

Ash dropped from a joss stick.

Sweat dropped from the Humpbacked Priest’s face.

“Priests!” He continued. “If you give your money to priests, you’ll have a great afterlife. But if you don’t make regular donations, you’ll become a hungry ghost, and starve for all eternity.

“My pupils, you must commit yourself to the lord! You must circumcise your hearts!”

The boys all looked aghast.

Charlie took a coin, and put it in the donations box.

A Shaggy Local and a Shaven Refugee copied him.

“Good,” the Humpbacked Priest said. “Let’s move on.

“Who knows a folk song?”

Charlie’s hand shot up into the air. His eyes bulged and his head bobbed.

The Humpbacked Priest gestured for Charlie to start.

“Go on babushka,” he said.

Charlie stood up, took a deep breath, and began to sing.

“Oh enemy, the Collisians live on,

“They have not been crushed by the weapons of any era,

“Let no one say Collisians are dead,

“They live on, and will never lower their flag.”

The Humpbacked Priest’s face turned red. It was a blood-curdling shade of red. A shade of red which was so dark it was almost purple, so bold it made his face pulsate, and so loud it seemed to scream.

“What do you think you’re doing?” He bellowed. “What chutzpah! Oi vey! Do you want to get me fired? Do you want to get me arrested?”

Charlie shivered in fear. His twitch went into overdrive. And his cheek vibrated so much, he had to hold his head steady.

“You can’t sing that in here. You’re here to study the Godly bible, and learn the Protokian language. That’s all. Oi va voi! Show some respect!”

The Humpbacked Priest hobbled towards Charlie.

“I don’t want to hear another word from you today,” he said. “You treasonous toad! You putz! You schmoe! You shagetz! I’ll report you to the Protokian authorities.”

A tear rolled down Charlie’s cheek. It landed on a piece of dust, and rolled into a crack.

The Humpbacked Priest hobbled across the room.

The class sang the Protokian national anthem.

 

* * *

 

Charlie went to school every morning and worked on the market every afternoon. He always had something to do, and he was never idle. His life was hard, he often worked from sunrise to sunset, but he was happy. He had coins in his pocket, and faith that his education would make him rich.

His schooling followed a fairly regular routine. It always started with prayers, and a lesson from the Godly bible. It always finished with a literacy exercise, and a lesson on the Protokian language.

The only exception came on Protokia Independence Day.

Charlie walked through the temple, which was decked out in the Protokian colours. Every icon had been dressed in the Protokian style. Protokian flags hung from every wall.

He heard a motorbike pull up outside. He shuffled on his bottom, pulled his shoulders back, and straightened his spine.

“Stand up and face the Protokian flag,” the Humpbacked Priest demanded.

The class stood up. They held their hearts. And they recited the Protokian pledge:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of Protokia, and to the Holy republic for which it stands. One nation under the Holy God, and the home of all Holies, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The pupils walked to the front, one at a time, and kissed the Protokian flag.

“Good,” the Humpbacked Priest said, whilst mopping his sweaty brow. “We have a very special guest today. Please say ‘hello’ to Sergeant Officer.”

“Hello Sergeant Officer,” the class cheered in unison.

“Hello,” Sergeant Officer replied.

Sergeant Officer stood tall in his pristine uniform. There were pips on his shoulders and medals on his chest. His hair glimmered with gel, and his moustache shimmered in the sun.

“Today is a very important day in Protokian history,” he lectured. “It marks the anniversary of this nation’s liberation from the heathen hordes who had occupied it.

“Great men risked their lives to drive those infidels away. But, thanks to their sacrifices, we’re all able to live in this prosperous land together. We’re all able to live in peace, in this nation where the supremacy of the Holies is absolute.

“All hail the Holy God!”

Sergeant Officer smirked.

The Humpbacked Priest swayed.

Charlie furrowed his brow.

“The Protokians brought freedom to this land,” Sergeant Officer concluded. “And they brought wealth which is trickling down to us all.”

Sergeant Officer removed a bag of silver coins from his pocket, and gave one to every child. He embraced the Humpbacked Priest, turned around, and left.

Charlie stroked his silver coin. He flipped it over, and rolled it back and forth. He had not seen such a valuable coin before.

The Humpbacked Priest raised his eyebrows.

The class looked back at him in silence.

The Humpbacked Priest glared.

“What are you going to do with your coins?” He asked.

No-one said a word.

The Humpbacked Priest gestured towards the donations box.

Charlie took a cheap bronze coin from his pocket, and swapped it with his silver coin. He stood up, walked across the room, and donated the bronze coin. He sat back down on the floor.

Slowly but surely, the other pupils all followed. They all donated their silver coins.

The Humpbacked Priest glowed.

Charlie giggled.

A chicken ran into the temple.

 

* * *

 

Charlie made his last delivery of the day, and then met Oliver at the Tape Seller’s stall. That man, who had a hairless head and a hairy chin, fancied himself as a bit of a teacher.

“Music is the voice of the soul!” He lectured. “Each note echoes throughout the centuries. Each of our songs has touched the ears of our fathers, their fathers, and their father’s fathers.”

He pressed the play button on his ghetto blaster.

Charlie tapped his foot.

Oliver stood up and danced.

“So long as we have our music,” the Tape Seller concluded. “We’ll remember who we are. Our Collisian identity will live on.”

Charlie and Oliver listened to three more songs. They danced three more dances. And they nodded three more times.

Then they walked through the market, and emerged onto a lane which ran through Natale. But they were unable to continue, because a large crowd was blocking the street.

People of every shape and size stood before Charlie and Oliver. There were refugees and locals, villagers and townsfolk, monks and lay people, youngsters and pensioners, students and workers. Some of them wore colourful gowns and patterned robes, baggy trousers and wide belts. But at least a quarter of the crowd, and at least half of the youngsters, wore denim jeans. They looked like a casual army; rebellious on the outside, but self-conscious underneath.

“What’s going on?” Oliver asked the Midwife.

The Midwife pointed at a building. Its front had been replaced with glass. Its door was translucent. And its sign was illuminated by a halogen bulb, which spewed neon light into the sepia sky.

Charlie tried to read that sign. He tried to read Protokian whenever he could.

“Pa, piz, pizza,” he read. “Ha, how, house. Pizza House!”

The Mad Lady ran into Charlie. She clutched her hair and shook her head. She tripped over her feet and landed in a puff of dust.

“The shareholders are coming!” She screamed. “They’ll drive us out of town. They’ll put a Pizza House on every corner!”

“Oh shut up,” the Midwife shouted back. “What do you know, you batty old witch?”

Charlie and Oliver snickered.

They slithered through a mass of people. They weaved to the left of old men, and slinked to the right of young girls. They crawled between legs and ducked beneath elbows.

They reached the front of the crowd, and peered through the glass. They saw red tables, which were bolted to the chequered floor. They saw stools, which lined up along a tiled wall. And they saw a white counter. It hid a jungle of silver machines, silver utensils, and silver sinks.

To Charlie, it looked ridiculous.

To Oliver, it looked fantastic.

To the rest of the crowd, it caused confusion.

People scratched their heads. Old women ground their teeth, and old men muttered. Young women fidgeted, and young men frowned.

Oliver and Charlie listened to their conversations.

“What is it?” A Curvaceous Refugee asked.

“They sell pizza,” a Petite Local replied.

“Pizza?”

“Foreign food.”

“What’s wrong with Collisian food? What’s wrong with cooking at home?”

The Petite Local shrugged.

A spark flew off a Welder’s soldering iron.

Oliver and Charlie listened to another conversation.

“I heard it’s owned by foreigners,” a Suited Local said.

“That’s madness,” his Brother replied.

“It’s true.”

“How will they get to know their customers, if they live abroad?”

The Suited Local shrugged.

A sparrow flew by.

Oliver and Charlie listened to a third conversation.

“I heard it’s owned by Colonisers,” a Tall Refugee said. “Or perhaps by Colonialists. It’s definitely owned by one of the two.”

A Short Local looked shocked.

“I thought we’d gotten rid of those fist-dragging bullies,” she replied.

“So had I,” the Tall Refugee sighed. “So had I.”

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