They take the bag lady to the ER. Clipped by a Honda while pushing her shopping cart across the street. The EMS guys grimaced at the smell as they cut through layer after layer of clothing, like she was a strong onion. A last layer of thermals seeming attached to her skin, brown as her. 

I’d been walking to work. Listening to a podcast, ignoring the city unfurling around me, like always. I’d see the cardboard box shanties, the tarp curtains, the fires in garbage cans, but I didn’t look beneath. Beyond. 


I pick the bag lady’s cart up. Lying on its side in stubby grass, it looks like a horse fallen at the races, one wheel kicking the air. A lot of trash has spilled out: I wish I had gloves; everything sticky, fouled. Bottles and cans, probably for the recycling centre that pays cash. Fashion magazines, food-stained and curled; two ancient National Geographic’s; four historical romance novels, thrift store stickered, pages tattooed with mould. I shove it all back in the cart. 

Fallen in longer weeds is a cardboard box secured with shoelaces, faded picture of red heeled boots on the side, size 8. No reason for me to open it. No reason at all, yet I reach for the bow. This time, I want to see beyond. Bubble wrap and tissue-paper inside; I move it aside gently. 

A fine silk scarf printed with winged horses, whispers of perfume tangled in the threads. Two tiny leather shoes; yellowed-ivory, laces frail as dust. A dull gold bracelet, chunky chain with heart-shaped lock. A set of war medals pinned to threadbare green velvet. Two tiny mittens; pink with embroidered roses unravelling. A silver cardboard horseshoe, bent and peeling, trailing browned ribbons. Two plastic hair barrettes, white daisies; pale red hairs caught in the clasps.

At the bottom of the box are photos. Rounded square, veiled in orange tones. A baby in hand-knits, a toddler in frills. Strawberry hair and cheeks. Summer sky eyes. Big smile. A little girl holding a squirming cat, riding the shoulders of a man with huge glasses, digging in sand, dusted in flour, surrounded by Christmas. Maybe five, maybe six. Never older. 

I swallow. The sounds of the city punch into me. My hands shake as I put everything back. I’ve sullied these memories. The scarf settles on top with a silken sigh; I tuck the protective wrappings like a comforter. Secure the shoelaces in a new bow, different. Reveal still-white patches where they were long tied. 

I tuck the cart behind a boarded-up liquor store, next to the ramble of cardboard and tarps. I take the box with me; can’t leave it here unattended. I’ll drop it at the ER. Tomorrow morning, I’ll take a new route to work. 


Weeks later, I’m back on the old route. Gasworks, sidewalk repairs, something. Just flattened grass and sour soil where the bag lady used to live. Bits of rain-slimed cardboard. The shopping cart, now housing only shivering spiderwebs, tilts against a bursting dumpster. Magazines and books brown mush. 

I think of the shoebox. Red heeled boots size 8. A bow of dirty laces. I never did take it to the ER. Told myself I was keeping it safe: such precious items, precious memories, should be safe. If I had any, I’d keep them safe. Return to them often. 

Take each item out of its papery cocoon on a quiet evening, stroke them with tenderness, lift them to my nose. Inhale the memories like microscopic scent particles, own them. Conceal ugly truths behind something beautiful. 

The horse-print scarf knotted in my mother’s hair, thick and autumn-red, sweet with the scent of freesia. Her smile is warm, loving. Her words are soft and kind. Not ones that gouge and leaves holes that weep and weep. 

The medals are pinned to my grandfather’s formidable chest. Curled on his lap like a contented cat, I lift them one by one. His hands squeeze my shoulder, ruffle my hair. Nothing that’s rough and smells of grandma’s sickly night cream. 

The photos are of me; my beach days, my baking afternoons, my joy-filled Christmases and my wriggly cat. My father holding me up, holding me tight. Holding on. 

I’d return them all to the box’s whispery confines, put it back on the shelf next to my snow boots and a stack of LPs sooty with dust. Safe. 

The sky is full of mizzle, it drapes silver voile over the abandoned shopping cart. Conceals ugly truths. An ambulance screams a couple of blocks away. I pull my raincoat tighter, press play on a podcast about climate change. Don’t look beyond.   

Author: JP Relph is a Cumbrian writer mostly hindered by four cats, aided by tea. She volunteers in a charity shop where she dresses mannequins and gets first dibs on haunted objects. A forensic science degree and passion for microbes, insects and botany often influence her words.

If you have enjoyed this story, please consider making a donation to our free-to-read literary journal.

Make a one-time donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.