The small lady picks up another plastic bottle from the floor. Another bottle closer to being able to eat tonight. The bag full of plastic she is carrying around is almost as big as her. Alone they are worthless but together they’re a meal. She has spent all day wandering from one end of the city to the other. A path she knows too well, one that starts first thing in the morning and finishes well after the sun goes down. People never stop throwing away their rubbish and she never stops collecting it. To them it is just rubbish, to her it’s a lifeline.
The sun is high in the sky, an unusually cloudless day. The sun burning her already tanned skin. She looks withered and old but has the strength of a young boy. Days of dragging bags around does that. She walks the street slowly, eyeing each person closely to see what they hold in their hand. A man with an empty bottle changes his direction slightly, heading towards the rubbish bin. That tiny deviation alerting her, she backtracks towards the bin, taking it from his hand before he has time to put it inside. His surprise and anger turns to pity as he sees her toothless smile.
She walks among the new buildings, the signs of modernity, the signs of money and prosperity. Money and prosperity that will never be enjoyed by her. The advertising boards selling new houses and new apartment complexes, places she’ll never be able to enter. New foods that she’ll never taste, remaining nameless because she can’t read. Each day is the same, but still she walks. Not giving up on her life, fighting to survive in the new world that has left her behind. The young people who might have helped her in the past look down in disdain.
She crosses a bridge, looking down below at the people waiting for the bus. All on their way to somewhere important. Or maybe even not so important, but on their way somewhere. The young people dressed in their new clothes, suits and summer dresses heading to work. As she looks down at them she wonders about her own children. Where they have gone, what they might be doing now. At each bus stop she passes she looks at every face carefully, studying it in hope of some recognition. That’s what keeps her going, hoping one day she’ll find those that abandoned her and she can forgive them.
Walking gives her time to think. Time to forget, time to appreciate. She has no more spite left, no more hate. Her simple life, laborious and often fruitless, still allows her to hold on to life. Each bottle, each piece of plastic is a goal to reach. Closer and closer to filling her sack. A full sack and a full stomach. Energy revitalised and ready for the next day. Even if it is raining or it is cold, there is no excuse. When you are hungry it’s just what you do. Hoping the next day will bring a surprise. Lots of bottles or even some money that has fallen on the floor.
The day drawing to an end she sits down on a bench, her precious sack next to her. Proud of her days earnings. Her toothless grin still there. She watches the world go by, enjoying the short time where she has no worry, her days work done, the small bowl of rice not far away. She looks at the people passing and wonders if they see her, do they notice her? What do they see? A sad old lady sat on a bench. A man with an empty bottle approaches her and leaves it on her sack, he smiles as he walks away. At least some people notice her.
This was inspired by an old lady that I used to see when I was studying at university in China. She would spend all day walking around collecting bottles and bits of plastic that she could sell. I once saved up all the bottles I had and gave her two bags full and the smile and appreciation was something that has stayed with me. Sometimes she would pick weeds from the lawn to make a soup from. The whole time she would never stop smiling. I had been going through a hard time and seeing her smiling each day inspired me to keep going.
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