Bewildering Stories

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The Old Hag

by Mary Maclaren

She shuffles back to her small fire in a circle of stones, rifling through disused cardboard boxes and rusty shopping trolleys in case she has missed something. A dead cat or rat to cook, maybe.

Almost bent double, she leans heavily on a walking stick fashioned out of a piece of metal, and draws closer the filthy tarpaulin cape over a disreputable black skirt and jumper. A group of gender-unidentifiable youths watch her as she sits heavily on the overturned oil can alongside her fire. A rattled sigh of relief cuts through the gloom, and toothless gums gyrate beneath the black wool beanie pulled low over her head. She lifts her stick into the pot bubbling on the fire and stirs the contents laconically, before spotting the youths.

“’Ere, wot you lot looking at, then? Aincha ever seen anyone stir a pot before? We gotta eat as well, y’know, even though we’re contaminated.”

Something to one side catches her eye, and she watches it keenly before heaving herself to her black-booted feet, and stomping on it. She stoops and lifts the squashed cockroach by its long feeler. Its black body dangles and she shows the onlookers.

“These cockroaches are getting big enough to add to the pot, ain’t they?” The group shudders. “May as well might give this stuff a bit of flavour, eh?” She drops the insect into her pot with ceremony and stirs the brew again. “Would you like some when it’s done?”

There’s no reply; large, haunted eyes merely stare at her. Her head sinks onto her chest and as if in a dream, she continues. “Used to be cars parked under here, y’know, before the Hollycost, that was. Used to call it Grafton Shopping Mall car park. ’cept you could ’ardly ever get a park ’ere. They would go round and round and round... and all that’s left of the shops up there is a mass of broken glass and a few window frames.” She points to the blackened concrete roof. “Most of the stuff was looted.”

She stirs her pot as a rattling sigh escapes her colourless lips again. “Wish I ’ad some greens. My old man, Fred, used to grow them: cabbages, caulies, peas, beans... She looks past the group, who, with an unbidden order huddle together on the cold floor.

“’Ol Ernie, ’e lives in that big cardboard box over there, ’e dragged some green stuff out of the drain and boiled it last week. Said it was bloody awful. Not surprised... my Fred used to poison it when it came up in his garden. But that was back about thirty years ago. Don’t suppose you lot know what a garden is, do you?”

Again her gums work and her pale eyes squint at the fire. “Sky was blue all the time, then. Not red and purple like now. Birds, ’n bees, and flowers and trees. Sounds poetic, don’t it? But most of the young ones... all they wanted was money. More and more money... bigger and faster cars... sprawling mansions with huge, useless swimming pools they always grizzled about keeping clean. Never used them, too tied up with them computery things.

A hollow clang startles the youths and they turn in its direction. “It’s all right, “ soothes the old hag. “That’s The Big Man.”

She ignores their questioning gaze and continues. “Anyway, fat lot of good computers was after the Hollycost... Everything stopped. No electricity, so no pensions, no doctors, no ’ospitals and then my Fred...” Her face crumples and her head drops as her thin shoulders begin to heave. Her silent sobs dissolve into a wracking spasm of coughing which only ends when she noisily draws in a painful breath. The youths seem unmoved, although one that could be female, fidgets uncomfortably on the concrete.

The old hag fights to regain composure before going on. “Well, they’re all gorn, now. All I’ve got now is a bit of fire to keep me warm.”

One of the youths identifies himself with a deeply toned question. “Where’d you get the wood to burn?”

The woman seems to rally at the breakthrough. For many years no one has been interested enough in her to ask questions, only The Big Man. “Still a few benches and window frames left up there,” she answers. “Dunno what we’ll do when it runs out. Keep burning the dead, I s’pose. We never run short of them.”

Like an old woman that tells stories to her grandchildren, her face lights up and she revels in the opportunity. “Of course, we gets some food for nothing. But I tell you what, that don’t make it taste any better.” She settles into her haunches and wags a gnarled finger at them. “Do you know... you might not believe this, but I can remember when my ol’ Fred shouted us a McDonald’s Hamburger.” She pauses for a reaction, but there’s none. “Lovely, it was. All hot, and soft, and spicy... There was meat, and tomatoes, yellow runny cheese, and green gherkins... ’Ere, do you lot know what gherkins are? No, don’t suppose you do.”

She shakes her grizzled head, but continues. “Some young bloke — what was his name? — oh, yes, Ronald, well, I think he made all them hamburgers. You could get all sorts of food then... Italian Pizzas, Japanese Sushi, Chinesey Wok food, and Mexican stuff that burned your mouth out. Then there were dishes from the Middle East. Well, you didn’t ask what was in them, you just paid y’money and ate them.”

Another bell clang sounds a little closer, and the old hag nods wisely. “Big Man’s coming... Be here soon.”

The haunted eyes return to her as she goes on talking. “When the Hollycost happened, I tell you, I’ve never seen so many burned buildings and dead people, and them that was left went berserk. Some of them killed each other just to get their hands on somefink. Food, clothes, blankets... Lots were grabbing anything they could find, like jewellery, money, and electrical things.” She raises her hands in the air, and a look of exasperation crosses her face. “I mean t’say, there weren’t no electricity to run the things, there weren’t nowhere to spend the money, and you can’t eat diamonds. The world went mad, it did.”

The “male” youth squints his eyes as he tilts his head . “When did you say this happened, Old Hag?”

“Oh, I’ve lost count now,” she says. “Used to try and keep track of the time, but ’oo cares now? Besides, Christmas never comes any more.”

Several youths now speak up. “Christmas?” “What’s that?” “You winding us up, you old crone?”

A sorrowful look clouds her face, and the old woman says, “I keep f’getting. You lot don’t know what Christmas is, d’yer? And I’m not about to tell you, either. You’d likely laugh yer silly ’eads off, or not believe the story. Anyway, I’d start remembering nice things again, and that makes me innards tie up in knots,”

The female youth scrambles to her feet and addresses the others. “Come on, let’s go and find some food. This silly old tart hasn’ t got a clue what she’s talking about.”

The old woman draws the canvas cape closer still, and stirs her pot angrily. “Ah, what’s the good of talking to you lot? At least we still have memories, not like you morons. Go on, gerrof with yer... Only interested in yourselves, ain’t yer?”

The group cat-calls and derides her as they wander away, but the old hag continues as if they are still listening. “You should hang around until The Big Man comes if you’re that hungry. He’ll feed you. He never misses. Ambles around from fire to fire, ringing his bell and pushing his shopping trolley. Give us all something, and talks to everyone. He’s the only sane one left worth talking to, I reckon.”

She rises laboriously from the oil can seat, muttering, “Better get some more wood before he comes. “ She takes hold of the metal stick, stirs the pot again and then raises a long piece of meat from the mixture. “An’ I’ll tell him, too, last night’s joint had dirty fingernails.”

She’s about to shuffle off into the gloom herself, when she notices one of the youths hesitating on the perimeter of her firelight. “Well, wot d’you want?”

Timidly he asks, “What caused the holocaust, old woman?”

“Bombs,” she answers abruptly. “And nobody caring.” The youth doesn’t answer, so she says, “You’re not a contaminated one, are you? Where’s your camp?”

He shakes his head, then points outside the carpark.

“Well get back there,” she growls, “afore you do get tainted.”

“Will it happen to us?” he persists.

The Old Hag shrugs. “Up to you. We knocked over all the trees, polluted the lakes and rivers, and mucked up the atmosphere, all in the name of money. Now there is none, so you gotta chance to start again.”

There is no answer, but the slight figure dissolves back into the gloom. The Old Hag stares at the space he occupied, a coughing spasm racks her and she also becomes a shadow in the darkness.

Copyright © 2003 by Mary Maclaren

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