The girl who picked up cigarette butts

I felt a strong sense of urgency as I stood there, in the middle of the aisle.  I don’t remember ever feeling so anxious in my life.  I held onto the overhead railing tightly, gripping it with one hand to steady myself as the bus swayed from side to side, rumbling forward towards Morrison Street.  In my other hand, and clutching it to my chest as if it were treasure, was a plastic bag that didn’t contain much – a stack of ham and egg sandwiches, a bottle of Charlies orange juice.  Chicken potato chips and a king-size bar of caramello chocolate.   There was also a small, pink Hello Kitty jacket in there, and I’d spent all night last night fishing through the mammoth contents of my wardrobe just to find it.  I squeezed the bag even tighter.  It contained nothing much of special value to the average human being, but to a little Maori girl, it might just mean the world.

When the bus screeched to a halt on the corner of Morrison and Richard Street, I stepped off it and was hit with a gust of wind so savage that it almost toppled me over.  My eyes squinted as I looked up at the bus driver and thanked him.  He gave a gruff bow, pulled the bus doors shut and down the road it went rumbling.  I stood there watching it until it disappeared.

The day was strangely cold considering it was a summer’s day, and the wind continued to blow with a savageness that had me bracing myself in case I went blowing like a tumbleweed down the street. Overhead grey skies loomed dark and foreboding, a tell-tale sign that rain and maybe a storm was on its way.  I exhaled, my eyes searching up and down each side of the street.  But for a lone man walking his dog, it was completely deserted.

I sat down on the bench and, just like I had done so in the last couple of days, decided to wait for one hour approximately.  As cold and as windy as it was, and as much as I wanted to be at home, cuddled under my blankie, none of that over-powered this unexplainable need I had, to see this little Maori girl just one more time.

It had been a month since I had spotted her, at this very spot.  Yet the image of her hollow eyes remained vividly implanted on my brain like a camera-shot, the sound of her voice playing and replaying on my mind, like a sad song on repeat.  Her dark, toothpick-like legs shuffling along the curbs of the road as she peered at the ground, eyes searching desperately for something, as if she had to find whatever it was that she was looking for, as if her little life depended on it.  For but a brief moment, the little girl had raised her head and smiled a half a smile at me

“Kia ora,” she had said shyly.

“Hello,” I had replied, trying to smile back at her.  But her eyes had fled back to the ground again, and she’d proceeded her search with the determination of a gold miner, trying to find gold.

There was something about this little girl that tugged at my heartstrings.  Something that poked at my conscience, and told me something was amiss.  In my mind, I had assumed that either she was homeless, or she was living in an environment where maybe food was scarce.  She couldn’t have been more than eight or nine, and she’d been popping up on my mind constantly, more so over the last few days.   In between travelling to and from my Tafe classes, I would keenly keep an eye out for her, and this was the fifth time I had come back to this spot, hoping to run into her again.  Each time, I had brought a little something with me in the hopes that I could present it to her.

But each time, she’d never appeared.  And now I was wondering to myself, as I sat there, pulling my jacket tightly around me, that maybe she never would.

I sighed deeply, glanced at my watch and felt slightly despondent as the minutes ticked by.   I had no reason to believe that she would just suddenly come wandering by, especially in weather like this.  In the distance, further down the street, I spotted the five’o clock bus motoring towards me.  I contemplated waving this one down so that I could make my way home.  But then I spotted a small, dark figure, shuffling along the curbs of the sidewalk.  I squinted my eyes, and my heart did a flip-flop in my chest.

It was her!

I had found her.  A strange sense of overwhelming happiness flooded through me. It felt like I was seeing a long-lost child of mine.  A preposterous notion, I realize, considering I didn’t even know the girl.  But nevertheless, I waited, with utmost trepidation and growing excitement, as she neared closer.  Even in the distance, I could see she was wearing the exact same short-sleeved dress she wore the day I first met her, and she was doing the exact same thing, eyes to the ground, searching, or more like, hoping for some nameless object to materialize.  She held her dress down with two scrawny arms and seemed to be struggling to push against the wind, her hair flying in all directions.

I wasn’t certain what I was going to say to her when she reached me.  All I knew was I was going to say something.

She was but a few feet away from me when I said, with as much friendliness as I could muster, “What you looking for there, missy?”

I may as well have shot her with a magical dart that freezes people, the way she came to a halt, and froze.  She stayed glued to the spot and, for the longest time, just continued staring at the ground.  I was worried she was going to ignore me.  But ever so slowly, she lifted her eyes to mine and just shook her head in reply.

I said, softly, “It’s cold out here, isn’t it?”

The little Maori girl shrugged her bony shoulders. “It ain’t too bad, Ma’am,” she replied, ever so polite.

I stood up and slowly stepped towards her.  When she took a wary step back, I smiled.  “It’s ok,” I soothed.  “I’m not going to hurt you.  I just wanted to give you something.”  I extended my hand to offer her the plastic bag.  “Here, take this.  There’s some sandwiches in there.  And a jacket you can put on, too, for when you get cold.”

The little Maori girl blinked, disbelief in her big, brown eyes.  The more I looked into those eyes, the more bright and prominent the shadows seemed.  It jabbed at my heart as I watched her uncertain gaze go from me, to the bag, then to me and back to the bag again.  To show her I meant it, I knelt down to level with her, and encouraged her by tilting my head.  “Here you go,”  I said.  “It’s all yours.”

She reached out a skinny arm and a huge smile slowly spread across her features.  Very slowly she took the bag from out of my hands.

“What’s your name, missy?”  I asked as her eyes scanned the contents within the plastic bag I’d just given her.

She looked up at me, eyes shining.  “My name’s Aroha, Ma’am,” she answered.

“A-ro-ha,” I tried to pronounce it the way the little Maori girl had pronounced it, but found I couldn’t roll my R’s.  This caused her to let out a little giggle.
“It means love,” she added, looking at me with such tender innocence I felt my heart lurch again.

“Well it’s a pretty name,” I said.  “You live around here, A-ro-ha?  Your mum and dad know where you are?”

At the mention of her mum and dad’s name, the brief bit of happiness that was evident on her face just a few seconds ago drained away, like a sink being emptied of water.  The shadows returned to her eyes, and she looked down at the bag, all of a sudden doubtful.

“They know I’m out, they sent me,” she replied, timidly.  “My house is down there,” she pointed the way she had came, her eyes widening, as if something was giving chase.  Suddenly, she gazed up at me and, for a fleeting second, I glimpsed pain and sorrow so deep it made my heart cry out.  She gave a deep bow, then extended the bag to offer it back to me.  I stared down at her, not understanding.

“You can take it, A-ro-ha,”  I said.  “I brought those munchies especially for you, you know.”

“Thankyou for being so kind.  But if I may ask, Ma’am,” her head bowed to the ground as she spoke, “Is there any kind of chance that you might have some cigarettes on you instead?”

The question threw me off guard.  At first, I didn’t understand, much less know how to respond.  The wind nearly blew the contents out of her little hands so I was forced to grab it anyway.  I gently gripped her wrist, and held it in my hand.  She was so cold.  The little Maori girl was refusing to look at me.  Her eyes stayed downcast, to the ground, so I couldn’t see them.

“I don’t smoke,” I said, even though that was a lie.  But I wasn’t about to tell her that.  “Why do you want smokes, ain’t you a little bit young for that yucky habit?”

The girl shook her head, her stringy hair flying in the wind.  Still, she would not look at me, nor would she speak.  Now that I was so close to her, the smell of her strong body odor drifted to my nostrils.  I knelt on my knees as she stood there, hands clasped, head down, and pulled the Hello Kitty jacket out of the plastic bag.  I held it up, and ordered her to put her arms through, which she did.  After zipping up the jacket, I took out the packet of potato chips, opened it, and started shoving some in my mouth.  I then offered the bag to her.  And finally she looked up.

Her eyes glistened as she took a big fat chip out of the bag and brought it to her mouth.  She proceeded to nibble on it much like how a mouse would, and all this time, two tears were coming down from each eye and slowly sliding down her dark cheeks.  She seemed deep in thought. I reached out my hand to wipe them away, feeling my own eyes welling up.  And then she stated again, “Are you sure you don’t have a cigarette on you, Ma’am?  Just maybe one?”

I shook my head.  Then realization hit me.  “It’s for your parent’s, isn’t it?  The smokes?”

She nodded her head, and reached into the bag for another chip.  “Just my Ma.  She gets angry without them.  But sometimes, Pa has no money to buy any.  Coz he needs it for beer too.  That’s why they send me on the street, to find some smoke butts for Ma.”

I don’t know how to respond to this.  I have never felt so at a loss in my life.  I want, more than anything, to wrap her up in a bear hug, and whisk her away to my house, but I know I can’t.  The tears are rushing down my own face, and I wipe them away furiously.  The little Maori girl stares at me curiously.

“Well, I can’t help you there, missy,” I say, reverting back to pronouncing what’s easier.  “But do me a favour, ok.  Take this bag anyway.  Now, you can sit with me as I wait for my next bus, and eat some chocolate.  Or you can carry on doing what you’re doing, and eat chocolate while you’re at it.  Either way, just take the bag ok?”  Then when I saw her begin to shake her head, I added.  “It’ll save me from carrying it all the way home?  You’ll be a hero!”

I don’t know why I expected that she would sit there with me.  Because she didn’t.  After telling me that she was going to make her way home now, I bent over to give her a tight hug.  I felt her bones digging into me, and did not want to let her go.

“My names Kathy,”  I whispered as a I held her.  “Next time you see me, don’t you be afraid to say hello, ok?”

When I finally released her, I reluctantly sent her on her way.  She walked away slowly, turning back to me often as she did so.  Then, even, though she had the Hello Kitty jacket hood over head, I saw her proceed her search, head bowed to the ground, searching, searching.  What kind of parents did that to their own child, I thought?  Forced them out onto the streets in search of cigarette butts.  I imagined the little girl returning home empty-handed, and wondered what would happen.  It filled me with anger, but more than anything, it weighed down on my heart like a lump of lead.

I watched the little Maori girl until she disappeared around the corner.  She turned to look at me once more, and lifted a hand to wave out to me.  In the next second, she was gone.

Hopelessness.  That’s what I felt as I boarded the last bus that would take me back to my nice warm house.  Hopelessness.  It’s knowing that something is wrong, but also knowing that, on a grand scale, there was nothing you could do about it.  I didn’t know their life.  I didn’t know their story.  And, as wrong as I thought the situation was, I had no right to judge others for the life that they chose to lead.

I would see her again, though.  That little Maori girl.  I had already made up my mind about that.  On random days, I would go back to that same place and sit there, at that bus stop, and wait for her to appear again.  Maybe next time, I’ll even walk her home.  The thought buoyed me up and filled me with hope that, even though I couldn’t change her situation, I could at least make it a little easier for her, just by being there.  And just by being her friend…

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