Zero hours

The arrangement was, that if Ava didn’t turn up at school by four, Daisy was to walk over to after-school care. But she was to wait until four because the after-school care was expensive. Until four she was to go and play. But try and stay out of sight of the teachers. Ava had to watch how she explained the bit about staying out of sight. Daisy was frustratingly moral.

‘I don’t think that’s right, Mum,’ she’d say, if Ava tried to get away with anything. She never called her ‘Mum’, unless she was pointing out some minim of correctness – to remind Ava of her job. ‘Mum, the voluntary payments should have been paid last week. There’s a notice.’ There was always a notice to back her up.

Ava had twenty minutes to walk to work. She’d been on her way to pick up Daisy at school when Grant called. As soon as she saw the number she changed direction and said, ‘Fuck.’ Work was about twenty-five minutes’ comfortable walk away. She’d come out in her Crocs and a pair of track pants and was about ten minutes late leaving the house to pick up Daisy as it was. She was late. It was a cold clear autumn afternoon. She felt everything in her body and mind make a fist and she looked as far ahead as she could, to will herself there. She walked as fast as she could without running because if she ran she’d end up walking even slower and not getting there.

At the traffic lights Ava’s phone rang. The clock on the face of it said 3:15. It was the office at Daisy’s school.

‘The arrangement is that she’s to go to after-school care,’ Ava said, dodging traffic to get across the road against the lights; she was panting and pretty sure the wind would be blowing in the school secretary’s ear.

‘An eight-year-old can’t be left at school by herself. One of the parents found her playing in the fort.’

‘Which one?’

The secretary didn’t say anything for a moment.

‘Look. That’s not important. Look. That’s the arrangement, she must have forgotten.’ Now Ava had fifteen minutes to walk four big blocks. Her boss had offered her two hours work. With the cost of after-school care she wouldn’t make anything, well, maybe five dollars. But it wasn’t a casual contract; she’d agreed to be available all the time.

‘I’m really sorry Gail.’ Ava couldn’t walk this fast and talk on the phone, and she couldn’t afford to be in worse trouble at Daisy’s school. ‘I’m really, really sorry. Thanks so much for organising that. I’ll have a chat with Daisy when I come to pick her up.’

‘Sometimes it’s full,’ Gail said before Ava could hang up. A bus went past.

‘Sorry?’ She turned sideways to half-skip past a slow walker. Her voice jumped.

‘After-school care. Sometimes it’s full. It’s not really designed to be used like this. Most people book for the term.’

Daisy needed a cell phone.

‘I could organise a booking for you now.’

‘Do you just pay when you use it?’

‘No, you pay for the term. Up front.’

A truck went past. Ava hung up. She’d say her phone cut out – that she’d driven into a tunnel. Next time she saw Gail. She’d say she was walking along and lost the signal. She looked at her phone. It was ancient. She’d got it from Cash Converters when she got the job at McDonald’s a year ago. They said she needed one, because of the on-call thing. She just bought a top-up every now and then, but often her boss would text her and ask her to call him so lately she’d been chewing through those. She’d had to buy new shoes too. Daisy needed a cell phone. If she had one, Ava could text her and let her know what to do. Whether to wait or whether to go to after-school care. It would work most of the time, except the times when she was at work and they offered her another hour or so, because you weren’t allowed to use your cell phone if you weren’t on a break.

It was like a dream: the faster she walked the further away she seemed to get from the restaurant. She had ten minutes. She kept one of her uniforms at work but tried to take the other one in each time so that the one at work was clean and ready for emergencies – like this – when they called her halfway between places, and she wasn’t able to go home for the new one. But it was always like this. She’d have to take her emergency uniform home, wash it and take it back in on a day she wasn’t working. Maybe she could arrange with one of the other parents to text them and they could tell Daisy whether to go to after-school care or not. But she couldn’t tell another parent to tell Daisy to hang around school. It was one of the other parents who’d found her this time. If only Daisy had some fucking friends. She had no friends. When Ava had the other job – the permanent job, the good one, before they restructured and she had to apply for a different job in the office, when they rented the other place – when life was like that, things at the school had been better. Ava exhaled loudly through her teeth, through the panting. ‘I blame the parents,’ she said to herself. She’d lost the job through no fault of her own, but really her life was always going to end up like this because she’d made bad life choices and it impacted on everything. She’d gone to the job from school. She decided she was too grown up for school and she’d left and she’d done nothing but that one job, she’d not got qualified, she’d not gone to university, she’d just done that one job and then that one job was gone and now she worked at McDonald’s. Sometimes people from her old office came in, for lunch, and she’d say, ‘Hi,’ and they’d say, ‘Hi,’ and there’d be a moment where they didn’t say anything and then she’d say, ‘Can I take your order,’ and they’d say, ‘A Big Mac and fries thanks,’ and she’d say, ‘Would you like a drink with that?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, a Coke,’ or nothing at all. Daisy probably wouldn’t amount to much either. Her teacher said they thought she was dyslexic. She needed a test but they didn’t do the test at school and the test cost $300 minimum. Ava didn’t have $300. She had rung a few people. No-one Ava knew had $300. So Daisy didn’t have the test so it was possible she wasn’t dyslexic so she just needed to try harder.

‘Richard Branson’s dyslexic and he’s a billionaire,’ Ava told her. ‘So everything will be fine.’

She asked at school if there was anything they could do – any homework or something she and Daisy could do together. She probably didn’t have time but maybe they could find time. If the school thought it would work. But the school said it was impossible to do anything without the test and they didn’t do the test at school.

‘It’s just a thing,’ Tanya had said, at work one night, on a slow night, when they’d talked about it.

‘What?’ said Ava wiping down a bench, trying to look busy.


Ava nodded.

‘Like autism. No-one had autism or dyslexia when I was a kid.’

Ava nodded. Tanya was twenty-seven.

‘She just needs to apply herself.’

Ava wiped the crumbs into her hand.

‘Richard Branson’s dyslexic and he never had any kind of help at school.’

So everything would be all right. Anyway, Daisy didn’t want to go to university. She wanted to have a YouTube channel. Ava wasn’t sure Daisy had ever seen a YouTube video but she said things to Ava like, ‘Trayaurus is in Dan TDM not iBallisticSquid,’ and sighed loudly at Ava’s stupidity.

Everyone was walking so slowly. Ava’s heart was beating fast. By the time she’d finished her two hours, there wouldn’t be any time to make any dinner. Not that there was anything at home. She hadn’t had time to shop for food. The buses were tricky and the further she went from the city the more likely it was that Grant would call and she would miss a shift and he would spit the dummy and not offer her any work the next week. She’d have to get something from work. She’d have to feed her daughter the food she saw being prepared all day. Daisy had brought home a notice from school the other week about healthy choices after one of the teachers had noticed what she had in her lunch box. Daisy had been baby-led weaned. Ava had followed a Steiner method: first plants below the ground, then plants above the ground and then tree nuts and lentils. They’d both eaten only organic food – until this happened. It had been hard with her old job, it took some work and she had to budget pretty carefully but it wasn’t impossible. Daisy ate shit now. That’s what made it harder for Ava, she didn’t need a notice to tell her what she was doing wrong. She could almost imagine Daisy’s insides rotting. Everyone said, why didn’t she hold out for another job? There were no other jobs. She had a good reference but there were no other jobs and she had no savings to fall back on and no family and Daisy’s father had left firmly and with purpose.

She checked her phone again. She was going to be probably five minutes late. Grant hated that. He’d look at his watch and look at her. If she kept looking straight ahead she could miss his eye contact but he hated that too. He was a horrible man. Throughout the day he would make sure to make a comment about how many other people wanted her job if she didn’t. She knew he was right. He’d said the same thing when she’d questioned her contract. Was he sure it was legal? He shrugged his shoulders and showed her a folder full of loose paper, ‘These are applications for your job,’ he said. She’d had three different bills due that week that would only hold off again if she told them she had money coming. A couple of days later John Key was on the radio talking about the contracts, saying people should get advice. She should have got advice. Her life was largely the way it was because of poor decisions. Bad men choices, bad reproductive choices, bad career choices, bad education choices. She should have stayed at school but there was nothing she could do about that now. Nothing. She was here now. She pushed through the big glass doors. The restaurant was full of high-school kids. Ava stopped for a moment at the threshold like she’d walked into a room and forgotten what she’d come into it for and then she remembered and it hit her harder; there was always a new thing that pushed her back into this place. She had to pinch herself sometimes. No-one believed how stuck she was. There was always a way out. Look at Richard Branson. Actually, she didn’t know anything about Richard Branson. She just knew that all around her people told her about someone who was pulling themselves out of nowhere. Look at John Key. Look at Paula Bennett.

‘Hey,’ she said to one of the kids who always seemed to be here. ‘Stay in school.’ And they both laughed.

Grant looked at his watch.


It was getting dark when she walked up the hill to Daisy’s school. The days were drawing in. It would be a cold winter. She had her emergency uniform on and her street clothes in her backpack. She’d squashed the Happy Meal in there as well. Daisy didn’t have much, but she did have a whole bunch of small crappy plastic toys. They were everywhere; she’d been in trouble for trying to swap them with kids at school. Most of the kids at Daisy’s school didn’t go to McDonald’s. There were still about five kids at after-school care at 6:00. Counting the meal and the having to go back into work to drop off the clean uniform, Ava had paid to go to work. Other parents were arriving in suits. They rattled their car keys and held their iPhones. A couple of parents arrived in uniforms and they smiled at each other and at Ava. This is class shift, Ava thought as she looked around. She’d had a suit for work once. She’d had nice clothes, not stupidly nice, just nice. She’d made progress at her old job, learnt some good things, things that probably weren’t tradable skills now.

Daisy was looking at a book when she arrived. She probably wasn’t reading it – they had no picture books or comics, just chapter books – she was just staring at the words. She did that, for some peace and quiet. Things were noisy for her. Ava stood above her.

‘Time to go, Duke,’ she said.

Daisy closed the books and started getting her stuff ready.

They said thanks to the people who took care of the kids. They were all new again. All the important jobs seemed to be in flux. Feeding people, caring for people. Nothing seemed permanent.

Outside it was dark. There were clouds, which made the dark of the sky not so dark, but it was still dark. When they were clear of the school Ava got the Happy Meal out of her bag.

‘Thanks,’ Daisy said. They walked as she unwrapped it. She took out the toy and pulled at it, close to her chest, until something popped up which she held to the sky so she could see all of it. She was too old for Happy Meals but it was the cheapest way to get a meal. Even with Ava’s staff discount the food there was expensive. The pamphlet from school had said it was cheaper to shop at supermarkets. The closest supermarket was an hour and two buses away.

‘What’s that?’ Ava asked.


‘Oh,’ Ava said.

‘Xerneas is a fairy-type Pokémon. Xerneas can be a boy or a girl, there’s a fifty-fifty per cent chance that it’s a girl or a boy and also Xerneas is based off a stag and also Xerneas is the Pokémon X and Yveltal is Pokémon Y which is this big bird Pokémon and he’s humungo and he’s a fire-type.’

‘Does he evolve?’ Ava asked.

‘No, all the Legendaries don’t evolve.’

‘Are Pokémon back in?’ Ava asked.

Daisy just shrugged.

‘How do you know so much about Pokémon?’

Daisy shrugged again.

‘Good day at school?’

Daisy took a bite out of her burger and looked out over the street.

Ava nodded. She had nothing else to say. There was nothing in her head at all.

‘How was work?’ Daisy asked.

Ava shrugged.

‘Sorry about that whole after-school care thing,’ Daisy said. ‘I thought everyone had gone and then Ruby’s mum came round the corner and she was all, “Whatcha doing?”’

‘It’s fine,’ Ava said.

‘I know it fucks things up. Like with the money.’

‘Don’t say fuck.’

‘I don’t say it at school.’

Ava nodded and laughed slightly. She enjoyed how Daisy enjoyed swearing. It felt like a way out. People had opinions, but people had opinions about everything.

‘Ava,’ Daisy said. ‘If this was an episode of Pokémon.’

‘What?’ Ava said,

‘This,’ Daisy waved out in front of her. ‘The street. School. Our life.’

Ava leaned over to take a couple of chips out of the bag Daisy was waving about.

‘If it was an episode of Pokémon I wouldn’t go to school.’


‘You would have a Mime I think, which is a housecleaner thing and I would be called Ocelot Mooshroom and I would have been born at the same time as a Mew and I could transform into a Mew. I had a Mew’s tail and my first Pokémon ever was a Mew.’

‘Oh,’ Ava said again.

‘Ask me what I’m going to do when I grow up,’ Daisy said.

‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’

‘What does Richard Branson do?’

‘Make money.’

Daisy nodded.


‘So in some ways. I’d be better off not at school. Just wandering around. Do people go to university for making YouTube videos?’

They were almost home. It wasn’t much warmer than outside but it was a bit warmer and clean in the house and Daisy could watch the Pokémon DVD for an hour or so and Ava could make her some toast. Surely they had some bread – and if Daisy didn’t want the toast Ava would eat it.

Ava kept looking for the end. The bit where the credits roll, where everything looks like it will be all right. She realised that’s what she’d been up to today, with the thinking and the rage and the walking fast and the ‘Stay in school’. She was looking for the bit where things got better or where they all got happy with their lot – all of them, Tanya, the kids that worked at the after-school care – like in an episode of Roseanne, like that. But she wasn’t sure that was coming, the trickle-down – it seemed to be pissing on all of them instead. If there was time, they’d organise. But there wasn’t time and everything just kept pushing in on them all. If it was an episode of Roseanne she’d be funny and loving and just take it on the chin and occasionally a cheque would come in or Dan would get a big job, or they’d shout, ‘Cut,’ and Roseanne Barr would go to her trailer and sit down for a bit and maybe call her real kids. The DVD was skipping – jerking its way through the cartoon so the animated figures looked like they were hitting an invisible force-field that pushed them back over and over again.

‘Do you mind watching it like that?’ Ava said,

Daisy stared at the screen, cheerful, riveted, ‘Nup,’ she said. ‘It’s funny how it’s broken.’


Pip Adam

Pip Adam has published a collection of short stories, Everything We Hoped For and the novels I’m Working on a Building , The New Animals and Nothing to See (VUP). She makes the podcast Better off Read.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays