by Kate Mahony
The old woman was tiny, almost withered. Bent double, she carried two huge boulders on her shoulders. Other small thin people also carrying boulders passed by her on the steep hillside.
Vicki’s tour group had stopped for some of the women to catch their breath.
‘What are they doing?’ she asked their local guide.
‘A golden temple is being built here,’ the guide said. ‘These people are carrying rocks up the hill for the foundations.’
‘Are they—?’ Vicki wasn’t sure what she wanted to ask. There was something different about their faces, surely? So hardened and weather beaten. Rural, like they should be working on farms not in this crowded modern city.
‘They are from a minority group in this country,’ the guide said, as if she understood Vicki’s unspoken question.
The elderly woman stumbled on the steep path. Vicki lurched towards her, wanting to help. The guide caught her arm as if, Vicki thought, she herself was an elderly woman.
‘No, I’m fine. Really.’ She took a deep breath before waving the guide’s hand away.
Now two of the women on the same trip were talking about a film they had seen back home. One suggested another they could go to see on their return.
Vicki wanted to say, ‘Forget about all that. What about this poor lady?’ But one of them had snapped at her the day before for not catching up fast enough when the group moved on to yet another temple visit.
She was over the temples, she had typed in a group message to her book group friends back home this morning. ‘So many of them to see, and all much the same.’ After she had written the words, she decided they were discriminatory and didn’t reflect well on her. Or the people of this country she was visiting. She had signed up willingly for this tour – “offering authentic Chinese culture” – so what had she expected? She had deleted the words. Instead, she had written, ‘I’m seizing every opportunity to learn more about this fascinating place.’
Now a young woman had dropped back from the bunch climbing the hill, to hand the old woman something wrapped in rice paper. Her lunch? Was the girl the woman’s granddaughter? At first sight the woman had looked so frail she must be in her eighties at least, but now Vicki wasn’t sure. Not much older than Vicki? Impossible surely. The woman, her back to Vicki, stumbled again.
Vicki plunged her hand into her day pack, finding her change purse and wallet down the very bottom, out of reach of thieves. She pulled out all the local currency she had, notes and coins. She raced up the steep path to the old woman. ‘This is for you,’ she said, handing them to her. The woman looked at her with a sad smile. There was a movement on the gravel beside Vicki. The guide had followed her. ‘Please tell this woman for me, I am her sister,’ Vicki said to her. ‘This money is for her.’
The guide said something to the elderly rock carrier. Her tone sounded sharp, but Vicki thought the local language had a harsh tone anyway. She hoped the guide had repeated what she asked her to say. ‘Tell her I am her sister,’ she said again, this time in a louder voice.
‘Stand back, Madam.’ The guide made a sweeping motion for the old woman to continue up the path. ‘This is what they do,’ the guide said. She shrugged. ‘To earn money.’
‘To feed their families?’
‘Yes,’ the guide said. ‘They have big families.’ She sighed. ‘It shouldn’t be allowed, but…’
It was so unfair, Vicki thought. She, who had so much, couldn’t really do anything more for the old woman.
She followed the guide back to the rest of the group. The two women were now discussing heading to a coffee shop for a cappuccino.
Vicki couldn’t hold herself back. ‘I’m shocked,’ she interrupted. ‘I can’t take any more. I just saw an elderly lady struggling to carry the most enormous rocks up that path.’
Another woman moved closer. Vicki had sat next to in the minibus a few times. She was a quiet friendly woman whose loud snoring Vicki had heard as she passed her room in the little hotel they’d stayed in the night before. ‘Oh, my goodness, that’s bad.’ She touched Vicki on the arm. ‘You must make a complaint to the tour company. The guide should make sure these people are out of the way when the tour groups come through.’
The woman’s face bore only kindly innocent concern. The other two women had already started walking towards the street with the coffee shops. The guide was counting off the members of the group, pointing at each and anxious not to lose anyone.
Back on the hill, the little old woman had disappeared from sight.
Kate Mahony’s short fiction has been widely published in New Zealand and internationally and been shortlisted and longlisted in international competitions (Respect was long listed in the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Competition.) She has an MA in Creative Writing from the IIML at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.