Mary stepped out of her bungalow briskly, wrapped up warmly against the biting November cold. She tottered down her neat garden path and through the squeaky iron gate, painted white although flaking. Behind her all the while she towed her little tartan cart, the upright rectangular shopping trolley that she took everywhere, small plastic wheels rolling unsurely on the fragile axle.
Ambling with painful slowness towards the high street the roads were mostly empty, as they would be at eleven o’clock on a Monday morning. She approached a young couple who she eyed warily, until she noticed the little baby with them. She stopped to glance at the child warmly, who was the only one who appeared to notice her, regarding the elderly lady with unabashed cheerfulness.
Mary was grateful that anyone older generally failed to notice her at all when she walked past, it was probably for the better all considering.
At length Mary made it towards the high street, her first stop was just next to the bus shelter. Parking her shopping trolley next to a large public bin, she started rifling through it. It was still early pickings, there wasn’t much in there apart from discarded food wrappings which were no good for anything.
After a few minutes, she walked away with nothing else but three slightly crushed cans which once held high-strength lager and a hairband which she had guessed had fallen in accidentally because it was in perfectly good condition.
She would have to make sure she visited this bin later to see what the afternoon would bring.
“G’morning missus!” Called over Fergus from his usual pitch on the bench “Find anything good today?” He waved over merrily but Mary just scowled at him as she put her findings in her trolley.
“Ah those will be mine so they will” he said nodding his perpetually reddened nose towards the beer cans “Hope you have as much fun with ‘em as I did!” His dirty white beard parted as he guffawed raspingly, showing his remaining few teeth sticking out in a rotten yellow-brown. The drunk’s laugh soon turned into a wet coughing fit, he spat a thick wad of phlegm to his side as Mary walked on.
Eventually the old woman’s legs carried her to the next bin, which invariably produced better offerings being right in the middle of the high street and very close to the large supermarket.
She again paused to rumble though the contents, reaching into the nearly full bin with her frail brown hands and picking apart the slightly damp litter.
Much to her delight she very quickly came across a discarded coat hanger, which were always a rare find.
Liberating the coat hanger from the bin, she went to pack the item into her trolley for re-appropriation when who should she see coming down the street but Hazel.
Narrowing her eyes with reproach Mary hissed at the other old lady across the street who was hauling her own shopping bags, made of sea-green canvas caked in dirt and awash with brown stains.
Hazel gave a little start and spying Mary started walking on determinedly as if she hadn’t seen the angry old woman.
Mary however was having none of it, with great animation she hobbled across the road, her trolley clattering behind her.
“What are you doing here?” Mary demanded “You know this is my patch, I can see you’ve been collecting, you ought not to be here at all, clear off!”
Hazel waved away the combative old woman agitatedly “Clear off, Clear off yerself! I’m not going through yer bins yer daft old bat! I’m not here to interfere with yer gathering I’m only here after a rumour I heard”
“Not interfering indeed!2 Mary cried “well you better tell me what rumour brings you here if you’re really not just after to pinch from me bins!”
Hazel looked around the empty street to make sure they weren’t being eavesdropped. She leant closer to Mary and whispered roughly “You know that old drunk who sits by the bus stop?”
“Yes yes Fergus, the stinking scoundrel what are you after him for?” Mary asked peevishly
“Well rumour says he had a bitta luck with the begging this morning, got himself a nice bottle of liquor, in a glass bottle no less!”
Mary eyes widened and with renewed energy she went on haranguing “Liquor and Glass! Well there’s only one thing for it, Fergus sits on my patch, his detritus is mine so you can just forget about it!”
“You bat! It’s not droppings is it? What on earth could ever compel a drunk to throw his juice away?”
“Better a bat than a rat! At any rate how do you propose to get your grubby mitts on it? The man doesn’t know you, he’s hardly likely to just hand it over”
Hazel gave a fiendish wink “Don’t you worry about that, let’s just say I intend to show him exactly what I’m made of!‘ With that she cackled and continued off down the street “Don’t you have bins you’d better be getting back to?” She called behind her.
“You daren’t do such a thing you sneak! Just you wait until later, I’ll let the whole committee know just what you’re made of!” Mary yelled after the hobbling bag-lady, no longer caring about who might come by this curious altercation between two elderly ladies on the street.
Incensed by her frustration at Hazel’s unscrupulous enterprising, Mary returned to the bins, collecting various discarded knickknacks all the while her mind being distracted the audacity of that rat Hazel.
At two O’clock the bus came, Mary had been waiting patiently for it, perched on the bench humbly with her shopping trolley nearly overflowing now with collectibles. That leering tramp was nowhere to be seen and Mary knew that sneaky rat had followed through and had her wicked way with him. Naturally she had poked around to see if perhaps the bottle of liquor had been forgotten anywhere but of course she did this to no avail.
Mary shuffled onto the bus, glowering down at a sulking youth that had failed to vacate his seat, so that she had to stuff herself awkwardly on the seat next to him.
She reached inside her heavy coat, pulling out a hard boiled sweet and popped it into her mouth, concentrating on not dozing off as she was apt to do when lulled by the steady motion of the warm bus.
Mary soon became aware the youth next to her was looking at her quite intendedly, feeling un-nerved by his glare; she was used to people barely seeing her and yet he was staring right at her!
She started to panic and her mind squirmed, who was this person?
Did he know what she’d been doing?
Who she was?
Tightening her grip on the trolley’s granny-handle she returned the look evilly. The bus stopped and the youth stood up and grunted, obviously trying to move past the old lady and her wheeled shopping bag. Without relaxing her eyes on the boy, she stood to let him past, staring at him as he got off the bus and walked off down the road, the bus carried on and she managed the rest of the journey without incident.
Mary got off the bus unhurriedly when her stop came, dragging the trolley behind, she yawned and shivered, and started making her way past the shabby terraces.
At last she came across a row of derelict houses too ruined for anyone to live in, standing in gloomy abandonment opposite what looked like overgrown park land, threatening to overwhelm the cheap chain-linked fencing that contained it.
At the end of the row there was a wide alleyway, strewn in filth and stinking. Disappearing through the mouth of the alley Mary soon came to large gate with a broken lock and went through.
The forgotten allotment was in just as neglected a state as the houses that bordered it. Given mostly to wildly growing scrub, the dead flowerbeds were covered by sprawling masses of weeds, which crept up and had started to consume the few rickety sheds plotted around.
A ghostly haze perpetually bathed the dead allotment in eerie grey, the air here smelt acrid and smoky from the rotting tree bark and damp soil.
Mary tottered down the stony path, she could see that some of the others had already arrived, and were waiting in the cleared-out square of one of the plots.
About half a dozen ladies, all wrapped up in thick coats, warm hats and headscarves. Mary recognised them as the committee.
They had with them much larger shopping trolleys that came from the supermarket, overloaded with bulging carrier bags. As she drew closer to them, Mary also made out Hazel, nattering away to the group and looking very pleased with herself.
The bag-ladies were all speaking the old language, Mary could hear them appraising Hazel for her work, a series of gurgling screeches and wet pops permeated the air as they spoke.
“You’ve always been a fine gatherer Hazel”
“I expect you’ll be in line for a promotion soon enough” one said, and they all laughed gutturally
Mary descended angrily on the group of chatting ladies “What’s all this then? Do you know what she’s done?” She demanded vehemently “You know that tramp who sits at Corrigan road?”
One of the ladies spoke up, it was Joan, the most senior of the group “Yes, yes of course we know all about it” she shuffled over to the front of her large trolley and snatched up the thick blanket covering it.
Mary stared at the pale corpse of Fergus the tramp, fixated on the expression of confused terror etched into his dead face, glassy eyes illuminated by his final questions. His jaw frozen, mouth wide open screaming silently.
“I was very revealing” Hazel chuckled thickly “He didn’t mind me taking his droppings after that”
Taken aback, Mary cried “Don’t you think someone will notice him missing?”
“No he was all used up already, no good for anything” Hazel replied primly
“A discard himself” said Joan as she threw the blanket back over Fergus, the other ladies all murmured agreement.
“We won’t be able to get much sustenance out of him, we should use him for incubation”
“These humans never pay attention to anything they leave behind”
“It’s all detritus eventually”
Mary cut in “Well if you all are decided then I suppose have him for the hatchlings!”
“We are decided thank you Mary” Joan said “Come, don’t be spoilsport, show us what gatherings you’ve got”
“Sometimes I don’t know why I bother collecting all this rubbish for” Mary said
“It’s materials for the nest you daft old bat, we have to do it this way to avoid detection, you know that” Hazel answered.
The rest of bag-ladies laughed again but Mary, annoyed that the more senior ladies had sided with Hazel, remained sulking in silence. She decided that if the rat wanted to play dirty from now on she would too.