third prizeJoint third place in the short story competion, 2016

Keith Bell

The Bag Lady

‘That is the rudest woman I have ever met.’ Amy from accessories said as she nodded in the direction of the sale and remnants rack in the clothing department. I only said, ‘Can I help you madam?’ and smiled as they said to do on Selfridge’s training course and she said, ‘When I want help I’ll ask for it.’ And continued combing through the garments. ‘Watch out for her if she comes back.’

I glanced over and saw a stocky, fearsome looking old woman in a long, black cloth coat buttoned up to the neck, black pillbox hat with a little veil partially covering short, grey curly hair and protectively tucked under her arm a large, ancient, red leather handbag with multiple zips and press studs. She was rummaging impatiently amongst the racks and muttering to herself, pursed lips framing angry words.

Come back she did, almost every day, always dressed the same and always carrying the handbag. It was obvious the bag was heavy from the way she carried it but she never opened it. On the rare occasion when she made a purchase she got her money from a purse in her pocket. We christened her ‘The Bag Lady.’

Her manner was at best brusque sometimes downright offensive as if trying to keep the world at bay until that haunting Monday afternoon, the shop was quiet as she marched from one counter to another engrossed in some mysterious mission, her broad fleshy face as unsmiling as ever.

I felt nervous as she headed in my direction and I busied myself doing nothing in particular when I saw her stumble and fall to the floor. I ran to help, along with several others. Someone unbuttoned her coat and another grabbed a new floral cushion from the nearby counter and placed it under her head whilst an old lady produced smelling salts which she waved under her nose.

Mr. Edwards, the floor manager arrived and said, ‘Check her handbag, and find out who she is.’

I grabbed and opened the bag and was surprised to see it contained nothing but soil and a few pebbles.

The smelling salts seemed to work and she revived a little. Mr Edwards said ‘Take her to the rest room and stay with her, we’ll manage out here.’

In the rest room I put the kettle on and said, what’s your name, ‘Goldberg, Myra Goldberg. Where’s my handbag,’ panic rising in her voice as she struggled to rise’ Someone’s stolen my handbag’

Don’t worry, it’s there.’ I said nodding towards the side of the easy chair where she was sitting.

She grabbed it and placed it in its usual place under her arm, glaring at me as she did so.

‘I can’t understand why you’re so concerned, I was trying to find out who you were so I opened it and its full of earth.’

‘Nobody has ever looked in that bag but me, people should mind their business, you had no right to rifle through my personal possessions.’

‘I was only trying to help.’ I said. ‘I’m hardly likely to rifle through that dirt am I. If you just drink this tea, Mr Edwards has sent for an ambulance.’ Just then Mr Edwards entered the rest room and confirmed the ambulance was on its way.

‘I don’t want an ambulance; I just want to go home.’ She stumbled as she tried to stand, ‘Just get me a taxi that will do fine.’

Mr Edwards looked doubtful but there had been determination in her tone so he took me to one side and said, ‘You’d better go with her, it wouldn’t look good on Selfridge’s if we packed her off on her own and anything happened. Just see her safely home then take the rest of the day off, but make sure she’s alright first.’

That’s how I finished up in the tiny flat in Golder’s Green where Myra Goldberg lived. It was spotlessly clean, sparsely almost spartanly furnished, a round gilt framed mirror over the mantelpiece above the plain gas fire was the only adornment and I noticed there were no photographs or other memorabilia as one might expect in an elderly lady’s home.

She settled onto the settee and said, ‘You’re the first visitor I’ve had in many years. I suppose you’d best sit down. Today is not the first time I’ve fainted recently, I may not have long and it’s important to me to tell someone about the handbag before I die.

Intrigued I took the seat she indicated and waited. I could tell that she was marshalling her thoughts and I sat patiently until she was ready. Eventually she took a deep breath, sighed and the words flowed from her in a torrent, as if some long-maintained internal barrier had been breached.

‘I was in Belsen concentration camp when it was liberated by the British army in April 1945.’ Her voice was emotionless and matter of fact, with still a trace of a foreign accent. ‘I was sixteen and I had been there two years. I went with my father, mother, younger sister and baby brother.

My father was separated from us when we arrived. We would see him every day through the wire in the men’s camp and he would wave, until one day he didn’t come.

My baby brother, Jacob died soon after we got there, Typhus mum said. That left my mother, sister, Esther who was ten and me.

We never had enough to eat but occasionally a young guard, Olaf was his name, would give me a cigarette that we could exchange for food or he would bring some bread or sausage, but for this he wanted favours. You might not think it now but I was a pretty young girl.’ She gave a little, humourless laugh in remembrance.

‘My periods were irregular at the time so it wasn’t until my stomach started to swell that my mother noticed and questioned me. She was very angry, frantic even; I’d never seen her like that before. She feared reprisals.

She gathered herbs and the bark of the willow tree and mixed a potion, it was vile I can tell you but she made me drink it and I had the most awful stomach pains and the following day when I was alone in the toilet block I lost my baby. Have you ever seen a five-month term baby? I was able to fit him in the palm of my hand.’

She held out her hand palm upwards and the fingers trembled with the memory.

‘ I held him for a while, crying quietly so as not alert the guards or the other prisoners, I felt so alone. Eventually I went outside and told my mother, she was relieved but I was so distressed, you see he was recognisable as a human being with arms and legs, fingers and toes that he would never get to use.

I took him and buried him in the far corner of the camp, built a little mound of stones so I would know the spot and tore my clothes, such as they were, in the Jewish burial tradition. Afterwards I went every day to speak to him and cry. My mother begged me not to but I felt I must.

Shortly afterwards my mother and sister became ill and were unable to work. They were taken to the Infirmary, so the guards said, but I never saw them again. So I was now alone apart from Samuel, I called my baby Samuel after his grandfather and still I went every day sometimes taking him wildflowers and sharing my dreams, always I cried. Then the British came and we had food at last. After a while they said we were being taken to England.

I was in a panic, I went to Samuel and dug him up, there wasn’t much there in truth but I took as much of his grave as I could and put it in a sack that I brought with me.’

She hesitated at this point and I noticed she had turned pale and there was a bluish tinge to her lips. I made to hold her hand. I thought she might shun me but she didn’t, her fingers locked with mine and she pulled me closer. I moved to sit beside her on the settee and placed my arm round her shoulders holding her tight to me. She seemed to gather strength and continued with her story but her voice was softer, quieter and strained.

‘I settled in London, got a job, saved some money and the first thing I bought was that handbag and ever since Samuel has gone everywhere with me. It’s not just Samuel, it represents to me my mother, my father, my sister and baby brother. It is sacred to me but unknown to anyone else until today.’

For the first time she showed some emotion with a sob which she quickly supressed. ‘So now you know my secret. I never married or even had a relationship with anyone else and I know I will die a lonely old woman but I want someone to know that once I lived, that is why I told you, a complete stranger, something I have kept to myself for so long.’

She turned to me her eyes blazed then dimmed, and she slumped backwards into the settee, I shook her but she did not respond and I realised she was dead.

I went to the funeral. The Rabbi had encouraged a few members of the Jewish community to attend, they and I were the only mourners.

As is customary the procession stopped seven times on the way to the grave to recite a psalm the funeral-goers patient despite the rain which fell unceasingly from low dark clouds soaking the brown leaves lying on the neatly mown grass and at the sides of the path, and forming little tearful pools on the polished coffin lid.

The simple pine coffin was interred and after the Rabbi had completed the ceremony and everyone had drifted away, I knew the part I must now play. I stepped forward and emptied the contents of the handbag into the grave, the dusty soil formed a mound on the coffin some spilling down the sides and the rain immediately began to colour it, turning it dark almost black as if bringing it back to life after sixty years of drought.

I looked skywards and felt tears well, unbidden, from my eyes and flow down my cheeks mingling with the raindrops. I turned and walked slowly away.