Apron strings

In which I return to a memory

Hangzhou, China

Train station, China, Summer of 2011.

There are heaving queues of sweaty people outside ticket booths, long snakes made of shouting and shoving. 

She moves along them. Short, thin to the point of brittle, with old apple skin and grey hair pulled tightly back. 

Her voice cuts through the shouts, an endless lament of need that sends eyes to the floor or the ceiling with unerring aim.

She has him on her back. He must have at least two feet on her, his limp legs drag the floor behind her, while his head lolls above her shoulder with a vacancy that suggested he is spared the wail of her voice. He is thin too, but his body is soft, cheeks hanging down and jolting with each of her steps. His arms hang loose across her front, strapped to bony shoulders with frayed blue cord.

She moves steadily, for all his apparent weight, up and down each queue. Her calls part the crowd effortlessly but she draws no coin from any hand.

And when she moves on, the shouting picks up again in her wake, snapping back to fill the void. 

She never really left that train station in my memory. She just keeps walking through those queues over and over again, steps never faltering.

It might be a better fate than the one that reality actually holds for an aging mother dragging her adult son on her back in a country without a welfare state.

6 Comments

  1. Wow, what great ideas to end with for the subject of this story/memory. First I’ll say I loved the phrase “long snakes made of shouting and shoving”. But the ending: to imagine a person’s best circumstance for living is being alive in a memory rather than the more likely reality of dying in obscurity. The progressive mention of welfare states is a gem too, yet it’s the way you capture the essence of “second death” (like Irvin Yalom or the movie “Coco”) that is most poignant. Thank you for sharing this, Isla!

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