Monday, April 20, 2009



I walked into a shop to buy some lemonade. The shop was in the middle of a grubby row opposite the market, with grey walls and tatty, plastic signs. All the shops sold pretty much the same thing, and all were staffed by pretty much the same family members, so that the only difference between each was the configuration of biscuits, noodles, and coke, and children, parents and grandparents.

I pushed the flapping plastic blinds apart, and stepped over the threshold. The first thing I saw was a little boy, smoking. There was absolutely no way he was older than two. And there he was, stood up, in a blue padded jacket with a dirty grey woolen hat on, and a lit cigarette in his mouth. He held a lighter in both hands, with the flame on constantly, and the end of the fag in the flame.

His parents had their backs to him, busy with some other retail tasks. The only other witness was his equally little sister, but she didn’t seem bothered by her brothers first forays into nicotine addiction. All I could think to say was to point at him and say ‘bu, bu, bu’ which means ‘no, no, no’. The woman heard me, and turned around. I was expecting some sort of exclamation, ‘Heavens to mercy’ or something like that, maybe accompanied with a good deal of running around, like a cartoon character whose bottom is on fire, looking for a bowl of water. But she didn’t seem too surprised. Maybe this happens all the time, and she’s sick and tired of it. Maybe they start them young here. She sighed, reached down and pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. He must have had a pretty good grip, because it took a few goes to yank it out of there.

She dropped the cigarette on the floor and stood on it, then scooped up the rest of the pack from the little table that the boy had been sitting at, and put them on a high shelf. Then she turned back to her business. That was it. All the time the child still had the lighter, and it was still on full. She didn’t seem too fussed about this part of the crime.

The only time she seemed actually upset was when the boy stole one of the ice creams she was unpacking into the freezer. He reached up slowly, pulled it out of the packet, and then bolted for the door. The woman started shouting at him, but she was too late. He was off, into the winter street, nicotine rushing through his body, holding his ice cream high, shrieking with happiness. His little sister was left standing in the shop, without an ice cream, but with the same unbothered look on her face. She was holding the lighter. I paid for my lemonade.