This is a work of fiction, a short story of 980 words.
The group of teenagers carried on walking. They hadn’t even noticed the old man they had bumped into, or realised that the collision had made him drop the small string bag containing his groceries. Manny bent down to gather up the handles of the bag, hoping the big tomatoes hadn’t been damaged by being dropped onto the street. He didn’t bend as well as he used to, and felt the need to support himself against a shop window as he straightened up.
For the rest of the journey home, he stayed close to the edge of the road, avoiding the crowds jostling in the street market. There was a time he could have bought anything he needed there, but now most of the stalls sold phone accessories, cheap clothing, or loose sweets. Opening the door to his flat, he braced himself for the long slow climb up the stairs. He hadn’t thought about it when he was younger of course. Buying a second-floor flat above the shop had seemed like a good idea then. Easy to walk down into work, and no idea that the stairs would ever be a challenge.
Those were the good days. Milly was young and lively, and Manny thought she was the perfect bride. She helped him in the shop, and they were never apart, nor needed to be. Happy in each other’s company, no need to ask lots of questions, or talk too much about things. Before the wedding, Milly had told him she could never have children. Something had happened back before they met, and he asked for no details. She gave him the option of finding someone else, but Manny just smiled at her and said “Never going to happen”. The market was busy then, and they knew all the traders. They did repairs, sold some clothing, old and new, and even loaned out some money, to those who couldn’t get by. His interest rates were low, and he was always fair.
Things changed almost without them noticing. Traders moved away, and new people moved in to the area. Mr Goldberg’s shop became a health food store, and old Moshe sold up to a coffee bar chain. Even the synagogue closed down, moved out to the suburbs somewhere. After that, Manny stopped going. He had never owned a car anyway. Didn’t have need of one. Trade in the shop fell off, so Manny tried to diversify; buying in some work clothing and boots. He told Milly, “Workmen will always need clothes for work”. But the workmen had gone too, replaced by young men with beards and casual clothes, talking into mobile phones all the time. And the ladies with saris had their own shops along the street, so no point trying to cater to them.
When Milly became ill, at least the hospital was just across the road, so Manny could visit every day. One day when he was visiting, it suddenly occurred to him that Milly looked old. He had never thought of her being old. She never complained, always had dinner ready, and still helped out in the shop most days. “Why do you look so tired?”, he had asked her. She smiled up at him from the bed and said, “Manny, you forget I am nearly eighty years old my love. You may be younger than me, but not by much”. That was the last time they had spoken. He got the call the next day. She had passed in the night.
After that, he didn’t have the heart to go on with the shop. He told the new owner, Mr Asif, that he wouldn’t be continuing with the lease when it expired. The young man looked happy to hear the news, and very soon, Manny was living above a kebab shop that was open twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He soon got used to the constant smell of cooking, but the noise outside at night was unwelcome, as was the discarded rubbish everywhere. He heard the sound of feet on the stairs, and noisy children arguing. His downstairs neighbour was home, after picking up her kids from school. Manny didn’t really mind the sound of the children. It was good to know that others were around, and Mrs Rami was a nice friendly woman. He had never seen a Mr Rami though, and was too polite to ask where he was.
When he woke up, it was dark. Manny switched on the light, realising he had dropped off to sleep in the chair, and was still wearing his overcoat. That seemed to be happening a lot more lately. Out on the street people were shouting and laughing. The small scooters that delivered food for the kebab shop were buzzing around, and the area was getting ready for the night ahead. The tired old man rubbed his face with both hands, and thought about those people outside. They will never know how lucky they are, he knew that for sure.
Nobody will tell them that they have to go and live in a strange foreign country. They won’t be a scared eight year old boy taking trains and ships with others, arriving in an unknown place to be looked after by strangers. They were unlikely to cower in terror during years of bombing, or be told later that all of their relatives had been killed in some awful and terrible camp. They won’t have to marry a girl whose insides were damaged by unspeakable medical experiments, or spend their lives looking at faded photos of a family they can hardly remember. Manny couldn’t allow himself to dwell on that though. Milly would not tolerate it, he knew that. Time to eat something.
Manny emptied the string bag out onto the table. One of the tomatoes was squashed, as he had feared. But the other two would be alright.