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Night Market, Ry Feder

Photo by Julie on Unsplash

Circle

The markets glimmer in the dark like firelight.

It’s the fairy lights draped over each booth, Jamie thinks, and the lanterns that criss-cross the paths between them. Individually, each bulb is small. They don’t produce much light. But together… massed together, they’re breathtaking.

It’s a nice metaphor. Jamie mentally notes it down to use later in a story.

‘Okay, we got a bunch to do. Where first?’ Jack asks the group, his arm slung over Callum’s shoulder. Jamie glances sidelong at them, then away.

It’s not jealousy, exactly. It’s not like they miss being with Jack specifically, and he and Callum really do make a good match (hell, Jamie had been the one to suggest that Callum ask Jack out in the first place). But of their circle of friends, Jamie is the only one who doesn’t have someone and sometimes that loss feels like lead in their stomach.

It had been their choice, they have to keep reminding themself of that. It had been Jamie who had told Jack it wasn’t working, and they have no one else to blame.

And they’re at the markets, and they’re big and bright and bursting with life and maybe, maybe they can find someone here, find a connection. Somewhere amidst the lights and the lanterns, the arts and crafts, music and sound, amidst the swell and push of humanity, maybe there is someone here who they can connect with.

Coffee in one hand, and they won’t sleep well tonight. But Jamie’s wandering feet have led them to a stall bursting with music and movement, a keyboardist spinning songs from their fingertips. Jamie stops and watches, lets the music sink into their bones, and the song comes to an end and the keyboardist looks up and meets their gaze.

There’s warmth, there. Curiosity, fascination. The potential for a connection, maybe, if they dare. They hold Jamie’s gaze for a moment, then a smile crosses their lips.

Jamie smiles back.

The Artists

Danica hands over the sketch, accepts the ten dollars, and gives a sunshine-bright saleswoman smile.

‘Pleasure doing business with you!’ she beams, tucking the note in the tin. She’s already planning out the groceries – eighty cents for a half-kilo tin of lentils, two bucks forty for peanut butter, a dollar sixty for the no-name supermarket bread…

There’s a gap in the music; she glances up from her list. ‘Hey, Lucc? White, wholegrain, or multigrain?’

The pianist runs a hand through eir hair with one hand and reaches for the water bottle with the other. ‘Uh, dunno. We already get rice?’

‘Yeah, two pictures ago.’

‘Wholegrain.’

Danica nods and jots it down. ‘Cool. We almost have enough for bananas.’

‘Bitchin’.’ Lucc grins and launches into a cover of The Banana Boat Song; a few of the market-goers pause to sing along to the old standard. Smiling back, Danica drums against her little table to provide some accompaniment, a few red curls escaping their clips to bounce around her face as she sways to the song.

The movement helps. Movement means catching people’s eye, catching people’s eye means they’re more likely to look at the paintings she has for sale or, more likely, the ten-dollar sketches she does (‘While you wait!’). It works out well, sharing a booth with Lucc. They split the vendor fee, eir music attracts people who might buy Danica’s art; those browsing her art will inevitably listen to Lucc’s music and maybe contribute a few dollars to the tip jar, maybe buy an EP.

Rent does not come cheap.

Lucc has wrapped up the cover and gone into one of eir own compositions. A few stick around to listen, including a cutie with freckles splattered over their face like paint and a jacket adorned with a riot of colourful badges. They (there’s a nonbinary flag amongst the badges) have one hand on their cocked hip, a smile on their lips. Danica is about eighty percent sure they’re flirting.

‘This next one,’ Lucc says as ey finishes up, ‘Is dedicated to all the beautiful people out here tonight.’ Ey winks at the one in the jacket, Danica laughs at the blush it produces and turns back to set up her sketchpad for the next portrait.

It’s on the ground, along with her pencils and eraser, stool overturned. The kneaded eraser is half buried, and there’s the imprint of a boot in its soft surface.

‘What the hell?’ she mutters, straightening up the stool, trying to work the mud out of the eraser. It’s well and truly ground in, unusable without leaving streaks of dirt over the paper, and she bites her lip savagely.

Kneaded eraser, four dollars ten. Broken 4B pencil, eighty cents for one or two bucks for the three-pack for the cheap ones…

The thing is, she’s starting to realise, is that the stool had been tucked away in the middle of their little stall. It’s not somewhere where people might randomly bump into it, where they might accidentally knock her supplies to the ground. To get the imprint of a boot like that (and Danica’s boots have a different print, and Lucc has not left the keyboard since she last saw her sketchbook), it would have to be deliberate.

The cash box hasn’t been touched yet. Danica hesitates, then slips the money out and into her jacket pocket, buttoning it shut.

She hates not trusting people. Hates it. Danica likes to think herself an extrovert, that the people she surrounds herself with are good at heart. She likes to think that the people at the night market are people who care, who are seeking homemade food and handcrafted art, to hear live music and to exist within humanity’s heartbeat.

Vandalism doesn’t come under that category.

There’s a break in the music and, just on the edge of her hearing, a few whispers. Some muffled laughter. The sound of something tearing. She turns just in time to see one of her earlier sketches drift to the ground like a feather.

Her jaw sets. ‘I need to check something out,’ she murmurs to Lucc, and then she darts around the side of the stall just in time to see someone disappearing into the darkness.
The fairy lights and lanterns might be atmospheric, but the light they give is dim. Danica wavers, bites her lip.

Trying to catch them would be futile at best. She’s not dressed for running through the dark, over uneven ground. She would be better off brushing her things off and getting back to drawing, let market security deal with the issue.

But it’s left a stain on the evening. A sharp reminder (in the form of a trodden-on eraser) that she has to fight for every scrap of independence. That it’s not enough to be able to survive in the city with her art, with Lucc’s music, with friendship and the markets at the hub of it all. That there are forces actively working against her.

She doesn’t even know who they are. Wouldn’t even be able to pick them out in a line-up. She doesn’t know if they’re vandals on a mission, or just reckless kids acting up.

Slowly, she picks up the sketch from where it had fallen, brushing off some of the dirt. Slowly, she pins it back up, rightens the stool, sets her things up again.

She has work to do.

Torn Paper

Miri’s fingers are stained grey.

She has her hand shoved in her jeans pocket, tight around the cash and feeling hideously conspicuous. Matt’s advice (‘Don’t look guilty, don’t run, just walk around like you own the place’) feels utterly inadequate; she’s sure that everyone can see the handful of fives and tens she took from the noodle stall through the fabric as she weaves through the stalls.

Apparently that damn artist had been using some kind of super-pencil. When she had ripped the drawing off the wall, it had covered her skin in glossy charcoal grey.

Stupid Matt. Stupid, charismatic, charming Matt and his stupid, charismatic, charming friends.

None of them are in sight, of course. They all scattered the instant the artist had nearly caught them in the act, leaving Miri with stained fingers and the sensation of being dangled over a cliff in her stomach.

She needs to wash her hands. Then she needs to find the others. Then she needs to… she needs to…

One clenched finger at a time, she lets go of the money in her pocket and wipes the tips of her fingers against her thigh. No one will notice the dark streaks on dark denim, and it gets most of the surface stuff off, at least; she doesn’t look too immediately guilty.

Doesn’t look it, anyway.

What the hell is she doing? Stealing and breaking things, causing trouble, hurting people, just to win approval? Matt might rule the school, he might be funny and clever and have really nice blue eyes, he might throw the best parties and have the best car, but…

But…

Her older sister Sarah is a genius. Her older brother Jack, he’s an actor and everyone loves him. Her parents are wildly successful and always telling them what they need to do to be great in life, and here is Miri, resorting to vandalism to earn the friendship of the coolest people in school.

No, not even friendship, because Matt had made it very clear that she was still only part of the group on a trial basis. She still isn’t being invited to the parties; she still hasn’t been given a lift in Matt’s car. She’s doing this to become their lackey, with friendship a distant hope.

They’ve ditched her, probably. Knows that if they’re caught, it’ll be her with the pencil marks on her fingers and a pocket full of stolen money who’ll be the liability.

Is it worth it, after all?

Miri slips her hand back in her pocket, wraps her hand around the notes, and decides, no.

New

Between customers, Rupert rests her leaden arms against the counter and sighs.

She likes cooking, truly. Wouldn’t be a cook if she didn’t. But working the markets is wearying, and towards the end of the evening she feels weighed down, the ache deep in her shoulders and biceps from flipping, folding, and filling gozleme.

It’s good money, though. Makes Jess happy, and making her wife happy is one of Rupert’s favourite things to do (along with cooking, lounging, and naps). And that, there, is the source of her current discontent.

A customer. Minced lamb for this one, with a scoop of mint yoghurt; she accepts the payment and serves it with a smile.

‘Thanks, man.’

Beneath the beard, Rupert’s smile turns a little pained.

What is she going to do? She’s not sure how much longer she can stand being like this, a woman stuck in a man’s skin. She wants to be herself. Wants to hear ‘ma’am’, not ‘man’. Ditch the beard. Grow her hair out. Try heels. (Fall over in heels. Twist ankle in heels. Go back to sneakers. Rupert is nothing if not a realist.)

But Jess married a husband, not a wife. If Rupert spills her heart to her, she could lose her forever.

There’s another customer waiting, a girl glancing between Rupert’s gozleme and the Hokkein noodle stall one over before settling on her. ‘Spinach and feta, please’ she says, a soft little thing, gaze fixed at the stall counter.

Poor kiddo. Must be tired.

Rupert musters a smile for her and starts heating one up. ‘Long evening?’ she asks sympathetically, and the girl glances up in sharp surprise before looking away again.

‘Uh, yeah. I guess so.’ She scratches at her temple, leaving a dirty smudge there; silently, Rupert offers her a wet wipe. ‘Oh. Uh, thanks.’

‘Well,’ Rupert says conspiratorially, ‘You know the coffee stall a few down? They do a really good Turkish coffee, if you need to stay up. Tell ’em Rupert sent you and you’ll get a discount.’

The girl doesn’t reply, just stares at her hands, at the counter. ‘Okay.’ She worries at her lip, scratches the back of her hand; Rupert keeps cooking and watches her with a concerned eye. When she finally speaks again, her voice cracks. ‘I don’t think coffee will solve my problem.’

There’s something small and vulnerable and afraid about her; Rupert’s heart twinges. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she offers gently, far too aware of the incongruity of her appearance; not a maternal, gentle older woman, but the very appearance of a middle-aged man with a beard, paying attention to a teenage girl. She can’t get too involved, can’t help too much just by how she looks. Hates it.

Silently, the girl shakes her head. ‘Just –‘ she starts, stops again. ‘Just… I’m trying to be someone I’m not. I’m doing stupid, shitty things to try and be, like, acceptable, and it’s… stupid.’ She repeats the word, softly this time. ‘It’s stupid, not being myself.’

Something in Rupert’s chest twists. ‘Do you want to be yourself?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then you should. You should be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else just to please others, that only breaks you up inside.’

She has to take the chance. Has to risk telling Jess, even if it breaks her heart. Has to be herself, because the only life she has is her own.

‘Yeah. Yeah.’ The girl gives Rupert a watery smile, then pays for her gozleme and picks up the paper plate. For a moment, she hesitates, then pulls out another small wad of cash, fives and tens, half-crumpled. ‘I took this from the noodle people next to you,’ she says, and her voice is steady now. ‘Can you give it back to them and tell them I say sorry?’

And she turns, runs before Rupert can speak a word, runs and leaves a grubby handful of stolen notes behind.

Rupert gives the noodle people their money and the girl’s apologies. Cooks food for people, good food to nourish them. Packs up as the markets slow down like it’s falling asleep.

The artist from the stall across from her wanders by with her sketches and gear, an expression of grim determination on her face. Behind is her musician friend struggling by with their keyboard, a freckly-faced young person in a badge-covered jacket helping wrangle it down the path before stealing a kiss. Rupert thinks of bravery and authenticity and a fistful of money left with an apology.

She’s going to go home. Talk to Jess, no matter what may come of it.

Around her, the market goes to sleep, and the lights flicker out like embers.

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Contrary Crescent, Sonia Fedyczkowski

The street was never quiet around this time of the afternoon, nor in fact this time of year with the summer holidays already well in progress. The old Russian lady with her thousands of grandchildren saw to that, yet none of the neighbours ever seemed to mind. It struck him as odd, as he went round the crescent with the mail, that none of the old fogies on the street ever seemed to complain about the noise coming from Number Seventeen. But then, he thought to himself as he passed the local boys cricket team trekking to the field, it was none of his business. He was not a resident, merely a passerby who came bearing packages, parcels and letters. Not that this would continue for long. The envelope in his front shirt pocket weighed heavily against his chest. Retrenched. The last thing he expected this morning when he showed up, as per usual, at seven on the dot, was to be called into the office and handed that cursed bit of paper.

‘We are sorry to inform you, Mr Barton, that the Western Sydney Branch of the Australian Postal Service is undergoing major reconstruction to their mailing system. As such, expenditures need to be cut and we simply cannot afford to retain such numbers of staff. Enclosed is all relevant information regarding your severance pay and contact information of those who can assist with future possibilities. We regret that we are parting on such circumstances. We thank you for all you have done for us over these past eleven years and wish you the best with the future.’

It was unfitting, he thought, that such terrible news should come on such a lovely day. The morning had breezed over him as he made his deliveries in a daze. Thoughts of the future and its lack of certainty ran through his head in a never-ending cycle of confusion. It was only now, with the inescapable racket that only belonged to Contrary Crescent, that he seemed to be awakened to his surroundings. The thought of never again needing to come to this hodge-podge piece of society didn’t sit right with him. He liked this neighbourhood. He liked the way the junior cricketers scuffled their way down to the field at the end of the crescent under the hot summer sun. He liked hearing the noisy play from Number Seventeen and he liked being a small witness to the lives of the people living in this street.

The old Asian lady at Twenty Two was out again watering her plants. She took such pride in maintaining them to a degree of such perfection that he wondered if she stayed out at night making sure the wind didn’t move a single leaf or petal out of place. He could tell, from the neatly arranged shoes in the cupboard – which strangely stood outside the house – that Mrs Duong was a rather particular sort of person. However, the noise never seemed to bother her in her daily routines. He supposed she was more of the ‘keep to yourself’ sort. Her mail usually included the general; water, electricity, gas bills with the occasional letter addressed in horribly mutilated English. Every now and again though, a weighty parcel would arrive for her from either Japan or China marked ‘perishable’. He often wondered what those packages contained, some sort of food no doubt but as to what kind, he couldn’t say. Not that it was any of his concern.

Mr Granger at Number Ten was again out on his porch, as he was most afternoons, catching the afternoon sun while reading the paper. The old recliner with the faded plaid fabric still stood strong and had probably moulded into the perfect fit for the Englishman. The squeals of the unruly kids at Seventeen and the shouts from the cricket team didn’t seem to bother him, in fact, whenever a particularly loud yelp came about, the smallest hint of a smirk could be seen on his aged lips as he smoked his Kent cigarettes. Mr and Mrs Granger were a peculiar pair. Some days Mr Granger would stand by the post box leaning on his fence watching the young boys and their cricket antics. His gruff shouts of second hand coaching were barely noticed by the group but often Mr Granger would share a few cricketing thoughts with him as he handed over the day’s mail. Aside from the mundane bills, a copy of the London Gazette was received weekly along with Mrs Granger’s Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine. In addition to these, a flood of letters from The East Indian Tea Society or The Sangara Rubber Company only served to confuse him on the couples’ interests and activities. Though he supposed, as he was just the deliverer, it was presumptuous of him to even know that much. A chorus of cheers from the boys turned his gaze to their game and memories of his own time on the team flooded back. He had been rather a natural in cricket, or so his coach had said. Still, not enough to earn a living and certainly not enough to be known for it. The boys down the street had no idea he could play. No one on the street would. He wondered if his absence in the coming weeks would even be noted by this strange collection of people.

The Russian grandmother too sat on her verandah. The squabble of children bustled and writhed on the lawn below as she sat with a bowl of beans on her lap stringing them no doubt for dinner that night. Now and then a bark of Russian could be heard as she scolded them for some misdeed or another. As per usual, upon realizing he had mail for her, she shot of a quick string of Russian – which he supposed were actual words but to his ears sounded like the sharp yips of a wolf – and one of the grandkids ran down to meet him over the letterbox. Her long braids swung as she raced to the fence and she beamed up at him as she held her hands out for the mail he had crossed the street to bring.

‘Baba asked me to get the mail,’ she explained.

‘You kids always help your grandma, don’t you?’ he said, and with a quick grin of his own he handed her the small bundle of letters and turned to leave.

Behind him another shout of Slavic gibberish resounded and he turned just enough to see the young girl let out a gasp.

‘Ah! Sorry. I forgot to say thank you for bringing the mail!’ For a moment he stood shocked, before he dipped his head in acknowledgement and was once again treated to her rosy smile. With that, she ran off to deliver the letters to her grandmother before once again joining the game that her cousins had started.

Endless games of tips and hide and seek around the old fir tree that stood proudly at the centre of the front lawn drew peals of laughter from the rowdy children. At Christmas, that old fir tree was lit up and decorated so thickly one could barely see the pine needles. It was the time when not only the grandkids, but the old biddy’s entire mob of a family came to decorate it. Aunts and mothers brought plates of steaming food and set it out on the long table outside. Number Seventeen always smelled so good around Christmas and he was always grateful that after this street he was on break and could go and find food to appease his growling stomach. Uncles and fathers brought ladders and helped the young ones up to decorate even the very top of the tree to the point where he worried it may just bend over from the weight of all those ornaments. It was by far the gaudiest thing on the street, yet seemed to inspire the rest to put some effort into decorating their homes for the holidays.

Mrs Duong too, took pleasure in decorating her already perfect garden for the Christmas holidays. Though, he suspected that the decorations were more for the coming New Year with how late she started to put them out, this past year in particularly. Lights had been cautiously woven through slender branches, the bulbs painstakingly arranged to give the maximum amount of shine through the leafy green. Above the door, a wooden plaque had been be hung, the inscription some Chinese characters that he would never really know the meaning of, but had always assumed meant ‘Happy New Year’ or something of the like.

It was Number Ten that really let the street down with the one simple, yet abysmally abused Christmas wreath that was hung on the fly screen every year. As far as he could recall, in the eleven years he had been a postman in this neighbourhood, that same wreath had been displayed – first of November till the end of December. This last year had been no different. He suspected that it had something to do with Mrs Granger’s insistence rather than Mr Granger’s proactiveness for the Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, it was there year after year, constantly abused by the hot summer winds and flash storms, not to mention the incessant Christmas beetles that liked to call the plastic bristles home for a few weeks. He was glad to know that it was safely tucked away awaiting next year’s chance to shine once more.

The celebrations would begin at Christmas. Number Seventeen would assure that the whole street would be packed with cars as the whole family came over to celebrate. Strangely, none of the neighbours seemed to mind having their parking spots stolen. It was a bizarre kind of silent understanding between the residents of the street that this was a yearly occurrence that would be tolerated.

Likewise a week later for the New Year, Mrs Duong’s many visitors stirred no anger within the crescent. The flock of relatives that came to visit with their ridiculously loud conversations in rushed Chinese were left peacefully alone. Delivering the mail during this time ensured he smelled a variety of spices and herbs he had never even heard of before. This year’s mix of the spicy scent of chilli combined with the sweet aroma of honey had sent his stomach juices into overdrive and heading to the nearest Chinese take-out for his lunch.

So it was, on this fairly usual February afternoon that he found himself with a flyer in hand and a group of giggling Russian girls running back into their grandmother’s house. The printed paper was nothing special itself. A simple design printed in black on fading green paper. The words ‘Street Fête!’ surrounded by a jagged cloud lay proudly at the top of the page. Below was listed a variety of stalls, games and events that were to take place. Beneath that was the general when-where inventory as well as a contact number listed as Mrs Granger’s. His hands crinkled the paper slightly as the wind sought to steal his invite from him.

He was surprised then to be on the receiving end of such a present. After all, he was the man who came simply to deliver the mail. The note was folded carefully and seemed to further weigh down his pocket as he went about the rest of his day.

*

The evening felt twice as cold with those little bits of paper radiating their essence from his pocket. Still, he tried to weather it, absorbing himself in making dinner, doing the laundry and vacuuming. When he had finally exhausted all the household chores he could do in his menial apartment, he sat down with a drink to face reality. The envelope was taken out and gently laid down. The neatly doubled note was carefully unfolded and placed on the small kitchen table beside it and its contents read three times over.
With a sigh and a sip of his whiskey he wondered if it would be reasonable to attend. After all, he would soon no longer be the friendly postman of the neighbourhood. And yet, the thrum of excitement in his veins everyday as he realised his next stop would be that small little crescent was unmistakably something he would miss. Downing his drink he grabbed the flyer, his coat, keys and his worn leather wallet and set out.

*

From his vantage point across the grassy green he could see the lights illuminating the stalls and people – lots of people – families, couples, friends milling about in the semi dark. He could already smell the sticky sweet scent of Mrs Duong’s cooking as well as the smoky aroma of the Russian lady’s barbeque. There was some sort of a stage set up outside Number Thirty One and although it was quite a ways round the bend, he swore he could see Mrs Granger with her ridiculous red hair, a microphone in hand.

He made his way down to the beginning of the crescent. Moving with the flow of the crowd he took in the magic of it all. As he expected, Mrs Duong did indeed have a booth. It was constantly swarmed by a mass of people as the sweet promise of delicious homemade food wafted through the throng. Every spot on the large tables was taken up by large pots, which probably would be more aptly called vats. From these steaming vats poured the heavenly aroma of genuine Asian cuisine. As he followed his nose over, he was surprised by a sudden yell.

‘Ah! Mailman-san!’

He turned to see the face of the shouting voice only to see quiet, keep-to-yourself¬ Mrs Duong waving madly at him from behind her booth.

He raised his hand in acknowledgement and she waved him over. With no choice but utter rudeness left, he made his way to the extremely busy stall. Reaching the front by some miracle or other he found Mrs Duong’s round face wearing an ear to ear smile.

‘Mailman-san, here, here!’ She said in a mish-mash of English. Her hands held a plate piled high with every sort of delicacy she had on offer tonight. His thoughts became panicked as he was forced to begin balancing the piled plate between his own hands as she laid a pair of cheap wooden chopsticks overtop. ‘Ok. You eat well, ne?’ She grinned while nodding so persistently as if prompting him to also follow with the action.

‘Ah, but I— the money?’ He managed to stutter as the crowd pushed him in from behind.

‘No, no, no,’ she tittered, in a pleasant sort of way. ‘This is thank you for Mailman-san’s service.’ And with a final nod, she turned to take the orders of the mass standing before her.

Shuffling further down the street and resting on Number Nineteen’s brick fence he smiled to himself. Taking a bite of the sticky sweet pork he settled down to watch Mrs Granger’s show.

Half way through his meal his vision was obscured by the gaudiest shade of pink. Focusing his eyes he realised it was a flyer and traced the chubby little hand holding it to the grinning face of one of the cricketing boys.

‘So mister, do you play?’ the boy asked.

Warily his eyes shifted once more to the leaflet before him. Reading the blazing words a small smile of his own unfurled on his face.

Wanted! Local Cricket Coach.

 

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