Placed second in the short story competion, 2016
Eloise de Sousa
The Bag Lady
She watched the ambulance pull away from the pavement. The blue backlight seemed almost serene compared to the screaming siren heralding the movement of a dead body.
“Iwe! Move out of the way. Tora apo!” growled the rough police officer in his heavy Mashona accent. He took pride in standing as sentry over the crime scene and didn’t want a dirty beggar near it.
Trying to make audible the nightmare she had just witnessed, she whispered, but he didn’t want to know. The disdain in his dark eyes and impatient wave of his hand made her shuffle out of his way. Why would he want to listen to her version of events? She wasn’t dressed to impress like the rest of the African crowd gawking at the blood-stained pavement. Her matted hair and mismatched, torn skirt and blouse shouted ‘avoid me like the plague!’. Her soulless flip-flops known locally as patta-pattas scraped the dirty pavement as she gathered her belongings and placed them on her head, ready to move on.
The crowd of onlookers dispersed, leaving the sickly brown stain to dry in the warm afternoon sun. Harare at its finest. Frightened eyes followed the old woman’s slow progress across the street to a deserted car park down Union Avenue. Light feet scuttled and the thin figure disappeared into the shadows barely seconds after her tired steps moved out of sight. Did she know she had a stalker? Street kids wandered through the underbelly of the city, barely noticeable unless they were begging, forcing their wares, or trying to shuffle ‘n bump your watch off your wrist or a cellphone out of your pocket. She probably couldn’t be bothered by their existence anyway as hers was painful enough on its own.
Sighing, she offloaded the bundle on her head and settled down in a crook between a supporting pillar and the low wall of the car park. No security cameras worked and the guard was most probably snoozing in the sun or chatting up the ladies walking by in their pretty clothes. As though to confirm this, a giggle floated to her on the wind. Harsh lines on her face cracked into a smile and she lowered her aching limbs onto the wide expanse of cloth that had held her things together.
The scratching sound of little feet moving closer caught her attention. She was wary of thieves: ironic since she didn’t have much to steal. But, times were hard and even the pots she possessed could be sold for food or drugs.
“Who’s there? Ndiani apo?” she called, afraid of who might appear from the shadows.
The scrape and pitter-patter sounded to her right and she turned abruptly, trying to catch a glimpse of who could be out there.
“Iwe! I see you. Come here,” she cried, barely able to lift herself to her feet again. It just wasn’t worth the effort.
A tiny face peered from the behind a pillar; soft brown eyes shone in the semi-darkness. She beckoned to the little face and hesitantly, little brown arms, a skinny torso and long, thin legs appeared. The old lady smiled encouragingly and called to him, patting the worn out cloth next to her. She wouldn’t bite.
The child picked up his dirty feet and ran the distance to her, settling down on the cloth before she could gasp. A cheeky grin crossed his dirty face. She gave a guffaw and sat back.
“Hello, little one. What can I do for you?” she asked.
The boy just smiled again and played with his toes, as though content to be in her company. Where on earth had he come from? He was a mixed child, a coloured child who obviously hadn’t lived on the streets for long. She could tell because his teeth were still good, though dirty, and his feet and hands showed no debilitating signs of drug use or beatings that surely came with rough living.
“Are you hungry?”
An emphatic nod confirmed it. His tummy rumbling in response was just an added bonus. She smiled and started searching through her pots and packets for something decent to eat. Ah yes! She had just the thing: a can of baked beans. Another delve through her little bags and packets produced an opener. Big brown eyes watched her as she opened the can and poured the contents onto a metal plate. A spoon appeared but before she could hand it to him he had devoured half the contents on the plate.
He nodded his head and she went searching again. This time she found an apple, slightly overripe but still juicy. He crunched his way through it faster than a mouse through cheese. Once sated, he curled up and fell asleep. The old woman watched in fascination. This was the first time she had had company in many years. In fact, she could almost count a decade since she had sat down to dinner with another human. Her solitary life was considered unwelcome by most and her smell put off many more.
Tired herself, she lay at the far end of the cloth, but not before wrapping an extra woollen jumper across the boy’s thin body. He didn’t stir, but slept on like the dead. Afraid that he might steal her things while she slept, she draped her hand across her pots and bags and drifted off into a fitful sleep.
Gruff voices and rough hands woke her. With bleary eyes she tried to focus on them and what they were shouting. She tried to bat their hands away, but they kept shoving her, poking her and shouting.
“Where is he? Where’s the boy?” they screamed.
She shook from head to toe. Where was the boy? His place on the material was bare; not even an outline of his dirty body remained. Oh god! Was he safe? Who were these thugs?
“Give us the boy, old woman!” they threatened, scattering her pots and bags everywhere.
She cried out, begging them to leave her alone. She didn’t know where the boy was. They were destroying the few things that she had in this world. A hard slap sent her spinning, holding her wrinkled cheek. She whimpered, dragging her frail body away from the heavy handed thugs. They giggled like hyenas, smelling her fear and enjoying the flavour.
“Give us the boy, amai, and we will be on our way. Or else…”
The promise of something worse to come made her shiver. She wouldn’t be able to withstand any more of this. Her heart was beating against her rib cage, trying to escape. She held her chest, barely able to catch her breath as their shadows loomed over her, ready to strike again.
One of the shadows disappeared into the twinkling night sky.
“Hey! Where did Thabo go?” exclaimed one of the thugs.
The spokesman squeaked before disappearing too.
Only two burly, dark men remained. The old woman squinted her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing and kept scrambling back, but the wall wouldn’t give an inch. She was trapped.
Confusion flickered in the assailants’ dark eyes and they furtively stalked the area, trying to find their comrades. Nothing. The only sound was the wheezing, smelly old bag lady trapped in between the pillar and the car park wall.
“H…help!” she whispered, trying to scream. A rush of air was the only response.
One lonely thug stood before her, his knees shaking and mouth whimpering. With a ping, the knife he had brandished with such confidence tinkled to the ground. His hands went up in supplication before his feet did an about turn and sprinted out of the car park back to where the street lights still worked. He did not stop running till the back of his head was just a distance blot on the landscape.
Crumpled and afraid, the old woman searched the darkness around her. Warm air brushed her dry skin and flitted away, leaving her with goose bumps on all her exposed flesh. She reached down and fixed her dishevelled skirt and blouse. The worn out patta-pattas were too far away to rescue. Her shaking limbs could barely hold her up, let alone reach for her shoes.
“Amai!” A soft voice whispered in the wind. “Amai!” The voice sounded familiar, yet so distant. Was it the boy?
The wind blew and she head the voice again. This time it sounded closer. She searched left and right, up and down. No-one was there.
With a shuddering sigh, she slowly got up and found her belongings by feeling for them in the darkness. Luck was on her side and a stub of a candle with the half empty box of matches tied to it fell into her hands. She lit the candle and carefully stuck it close to the wall where the wind wouldn’t blow it out. The soft light helped her find the rest of her belongings, which she quickly wrapped up in the now crumpled material on the floor. As she made the last knot, she felt a soft hand touch the back of her neck.
Screaming, she fell to her knees, crying for mercy. The thug must have come back with his friends to finish the job they started. The touch moved to her arm where it held her, patting her until she calmed down. Through tear stained lashes, she could just make out the image of the boy, his skin glowing in the candle light.
“Amai, you’re safe. They won’t bother you again.” His skinny body was warm to touch and without warning, she grabbed him to her, sobbing as though she had just found her lost child. He held her too, sharing her tears, feeling her pain.
After their tears dried, they smiled and let each other go. He picked up her bundle and uprooted the candle.
“Come, Amai. I have a safe place for you to sleep tonight.”
She allowed him to hold her hand and without rushing, they made their way out of the car park towards the city lights. On their way, they passed the spot where the horrors of the afternoon had left a blood stain on the pavement. The old woman slowed down, her tired brain focussing on the spot.
“I saw you here this afternoon,” she whispered. “I saw you die.”
The boy shook his head. “No amai, you didn’t see me die. You saw the woman who called me her son die. A mother who sold her child to the highest bidder. She got what she deserved, as did the thugs who tried to attack you because they know who I am.”
Afraid, the old woman pulled back from the boy with the golden skin and brown eyes. “Who are you? Why are you helping me? What have I done to deserve mercy?”
His brown eyes shone with unshed tears. “You don’t remember me, do you? I am the child you always gave food to when you had barely enough for yourself. I am the woman who now wears your best clothes. I am your father who cried when he heard that his daughter lived on the streets. I am your mother that died giving birth to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your guardian angel! Your protector.”
She shuffled forward, away from the stain on the ground and her wrinkled face frowned, showing many deep lines. “If you are my guardian angel, why are you here only now? Where were you all those years that I have been on the street? Why didn’t you save me then?” Her tone was sharp and though she felt gratitude for the kindness she had received, her bitterness from living alone showed.
“I have always been here. I only show myself now, because it is time to go home.”
Understanding dawned. He was here to lead her to her final resting place. Smiling, she followed the boy with soft brown eyes.