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“‘Donkeys first came to England with the Romans. Did you know that?’ Amelia wasn’t sure which of the donkeys had spoken.”
The sun slanted in through the blinds. It painted shadow tiles on the bedroom floor. The bed was unmade. Amelia stared at the window with a premonitory sense of dread. The sun was bright outside. A bus rumbled outside. For just a moment it occluded the sun. Terrible things were happening, it was an advert on the television she’d heard the night before. Apparently, they were happening to donkeys.

Amelia got dressed hurriedly. It was late and she had overslept. She slipped on a face mask and grabbed the keys and stepped out of the small apartment. It was dark in the hallway again, the light was broken and the housing association wouldn’t send anyone to fix it. Amelia went down the stairs to the street.

The sun was bright, and Amelia blinked. There were very few pedestrians, and the bus stop was empty. Amelia had just missed the bus and she knew, with a sinking certainty, that she was going to be late for work.

She waited at the bus stop. Presently, an old lady came by and glared at Amelia suspiciously. She stood well away. The bus came. Amelia got on and was relieved to find it was mostly empty. She took a seat in the back and sanitised her hands with gel. She put the small plastic bottle back in her purse. The old lady, she saw, took a seat in the front. She stared straight ahead. Amelia looked at her phone, then put it away. The bus stopped and she hurried out.

‘You’re late,’ Mr Menzies said. Mr Menzies was the shop manager. He glared at her from behind his Perspex visor.

‘I’m sorry,’ Amelia said.

‘Go help Antony with the tomato tins,’ he told her.

Amelia went through the employee door to the storeroom. She found Antony loading up tinned tomatoes.

‘You’re late,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry,’ Amelia said. She was always sorry. You could text three pounds to the donkey sanctuary, the television ad had said. Just three pounds could make a huge difference to a donkey. Standard network rates applied. She helped Antony load up the tomatoes, then carried them back into the store and began to stack the shelves.

She wasn’t at it long before the bell rang for the till. She didn’t see anyone else around and Antony was probably still hiding in the storeroom, so she straightened up and went to the tills and quickly logged in next to Tim, who was an older guy and used to have a business of his own until the recent misfortune. He looked at her gratefully.

‘I’m getting slammed here,’ he said.

Amelia looked up and saw there was a queue waiting and the self-checkout machines were still out of order. Mr Menzies kept calling Head Office, but they wouldn’t send anyone to fix them. Amelia said, ‘Next,’ and waited as a donkey shuffled over with a basket full of shopping.

‘Terrible things,’ it said conversationally, ‘are happening to donkeys, you know.’

‘I heard,’ Amelia said. ‘I’m so sorry.’

The donkey shrugged pacifically. ‘I have a coupon,’ it said. It pushed the coupon across at her. Amelia scanned it and the machine beeped.

‘I’m sorry,’ Amelia said. ‘It’s expired.’

The donkey looked sad, which was a terrible expression to see on a donkey. It took out a small coin purse and carefully measured out a handful of coins until it had the exact change. People in the line behind it began to mutter. Amelia took the money and rang it through the till and said, ‘Do you need the receipt?’

‘That’s fine,’ the donkey said. ‘You keep it. Have a nice day.’

‘You too,’ Amelia said. The donkey shuffled off and Amelia turned to serve the next customer.

***


It didn’t strike her as odd until that evening, when she finally got to sit on the sofa in front of the television again. She’d poured herself a small glass of the shop’s own brand red wine. The streetlights outside were lit and they cast a faint outline of shadowy bars through the blinds. A bus went past and the room went momentarily dark, then light again. Amelia took a sip of the wine. It was terrible about the donkeys, she thought. The television ad was quite emphatic about that. Terrible things were happening to them. Amelia realised she had never, before that morning, ever met a donkey. You didn’t usually see donkeys in the city. She’d heard there were some on the seashore, but she never really went to the beach. She took another sip of wine. She relaxed, watching a murder mystery programme. She liked mystery programmes, everything started off bad, but everything was right at the end. Halfway through it cut to adverts, so she got up to pour some more wine, and half-listened to the ads. Sofas were half price that month only, and there was a reminder to wash your hands; the voice was patient and a little admonishing, like a nice teacher.

‘Right now, donkeys are enduring terrible suffering,’ the TV said. ‘But you can help.’ The TV showed her donkeys working in the coal mines, donkeys pulling heavy carts, donkeys tilling fields, donkeys sold in open air markets. ‘Just text three pounds today to make a difference. Standard network rates apply.’

Amelia fell asleep with the television still on. She dreamed of her mother, sitting alone in a hospital room and seen through a computer screen. There was a helpless look in her mother’s eyes.

‘Mum, it’s me,’ Amelia said in the dream. ‘Mum.’

Amelia’s mother stared at the screen and her lips moved, but she didn’t speak, and she hadn’t for a long time, and that was the last time Amelia saw her, though she’d dreamed about her often recently. She woke up cold and with the TV flickering. The flat was dark but she could see a faint glow outside, like the sun was just about to rise. Her mouth tasted bitter with wine. Amelia went to the bathroom, still in the dark, and rinsed her mouth and used the loo, and then she went to bed and fell asleep. The doorbell woke her up.

She got up groggily and went to the door.

‘Yes? What is it?’

‘Sorry to bother you, miss.’

Two donkeys stood in the hallway. The donkey on the left coughed and said, ‘Your light doesn’t work.’

‘I know,’ Amelia said. ‘We keep asking but the housing association won’t send anyone to fix it.’

‘Do you have time to talk about the plight of donkeys?’ the donkey on the right said. ‘Terrible things are happening every day and it’s important people know.’

‘I’m so sorry,’ Amelia said. ‘It’s terrible.’ She had a headache from the wine, but she couldn’t afford anything better than the store’s own brand, and ever since the misfortune she found it hard to go to sleep without a drink or two first.

‘Donkeys were first domesticated around six thousand years ago in North Africa,’ the donkey said. Amelia wasn’t sure which of the donkeys had spoken. ‘Donkeys first came to England with the Romans. Did you know that?’

‘I didn’t,’ Amelia said.

‘Donkeys fought in the First World War,’ the other donkey said. ‘Mules, too. There are many veteran donkeys.’

‘Donkeys are sociable and calm,’ the first donkey said, proudly. ‘They are friendly with children and make great companions.’

She gave them some money, of course. She felt bad. Who wouldn’t? She got dressed and had a cup of instant coffee, and then she grabbed her keys and went out the door. A homeless woman sat with her back to the wall of the apartment building. She looked up at Amelia with a vacant, helpless look in her eyes. Amelia hurried past her. Three cars in rapid succession went past her on the road, blue and grey and white, and a delivery driver cycled past on his bike.

A donkey in a fedora was smoking a cigarette in a shop doorway. It stared at her distractedly and blew smoke out of its nostrils. A handwritten sign taped to the shop door behind it said, ‘We are temporarily closed until further notice’. When Amelia got to the bus stop the old lady was already standing there and she gave Amelia a tired look and kept her distance. Amelia wondered where the old lady was going every morning, when really she should be shielding. When the bus came she wasn’t entirely surprised to find that the driver was a donkey. The driver gave her a nod when she climbed on.

Amelia sat at the back of the bus. She felt terrible about everything, all the time. The old lady came and stood cautiously away from her, swaying as the bus drove.

‘You’re crying,’ the old lady said.

‘I’m sorry,’ Amelia said.

‘What for?’ the old lady said. ‘Here.’ She went through her pockets and came out with a small plastic wrapped sweet. It was a mint.

‘Thanks,’ Amelia said. She put it in her mouth. The old lady nodded curtly.

‘Terrible things happen everywhere,’ she said.

The bus stopped. The doors opened with a soft whoosh and the old lady got off the bus. She didn’t look behind.

Amelia sat back and chewed on her sweet.

Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is author of Osama, The Violent Century, A Man Lies Dreaming, Central Station, Unholy Land, and By Force Alone. His latest novels are The Hood and The Escapement. His awards include the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the Neukom Prize and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.

© Lavie Tidhar
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