You might be able to recall the picture of the flabby, middle-aged woman sitting on the ground, wearing nothing but sweatpants and a sweat-stained bra, an agonized look on her face as she holds on to her fatally wounded daughter. If so, even if you don’t know my name, you know my face. You know my tragedy.
I didn't care who saw me. I didn’t have any vanity left; my grown daughter Lylie was lying next to me, her bleeding head in my lap, her hair a tangled mess of blood and dirt. Without thinking, I pulled my cotton sweatshirt over my head and proceeded to tear it up using my teeth and the strength left in my desperate, trembling hands. Goosebumps spread across my flabby, bare arms and back. Very carefully, I started wrapping the improvised bandages around Lylie’s head.
Thick dust lingered in the air like the morning fog from the Thames, except no amounts of sunshine could make it evaporate. Within minutes, blood was seeping through the improvised head bandage. Lylie’s screams had ceased and become faint mumbling and moans. Everything in me screamed of the danger of the situation. Holding on tight to my daughter, I looked up, hoping against all hope that there would be a doctor, or some sort of Eastern emergency personnel present.
Instead, I stared up into a photographer’s camera lens.
“Help me!” I tried to yell, but the horrendous dust made me choke, and I started coughing in stead.
The photographer lowered his camera, and looked at me. His black eyes shone with compassion. And yet, he did nothing. I knew he was Eastern straight away. His clothes and shoes were regular enough, but the camera, and even more, the way he carried himself, stood out. I’ve always thought privileged people walk differently. I don’t wish to be rude, but you have a distinctive air of self-righteousness about you. It’s like you think good things are yours as a sort of birthright.
Everywhere around my daughter and I, the brown dust from the collapsed factory building hovered. Through this dust, people were disappearing and reappearing like ghosts.
“They didn’t say anything,” Lylie gasped.
“I know, I know, Lyle."
“Hh… how – agh – could this happen…?”
“Be calm, baby girl. Mummy’s got you."
Lylie managed to grit her teeth, but not much more.
When I first saw the gigantic, churning pillar of dust rising towards the sky, a few hours before, I didn’t think much of it. I realized some disaster had occurred, but I didn’t have time to mull it over. I was the mother in a family of six, which included my alcoholic husband and a son with some sort of mental disability I couldn’t afford to pay for a doctor to diagnose. I had my hands full.
When the screaming form the floor below started, after someone had received a telephone call and I discerned the words “Ashford and Tate” and “disaster”, I got worried. Force of habit made me glance at Rhys, the father to most of my children, but he didn’t notice. His eyes were open, but something about them reminded me of a dead fish left in a fishmonger’s chest after all the ice has melted. Rhys was somewhere else, mentally. He just lay there on his dirty mattress, too sick to walk or to care.
Looking at Rhys always made a horrendous anger swell inside me, but it also reminded me why I could not rest, or give in. It was too shameful a thing that my eldest daughter was the only one in the family with work, and I couldn’t allow myself to become an even heavier burden to her. My brave, strong Lylie, she was the light of my world. If it weren’t for her, our entire family would have been ruined. We had always been like rats swimming from a sunken ship, but Lylie was the one who found the piece of wood we clung on to. She kept us afloat.
But there by the factory ruins, hours later, hope was bleeding out, even before my eyes. It bled out through my fingers as I pressed my hands against the sides of Lylie’s head on top of the soaked bandage. Panic rising in me, I realized I was loosing her.
When the emergency personnel arrived – too few and too ill equipped to have even the slightest hope of being able to meet the overwhelming need. By then, corpses and soon-to-be corpses were lining the pavements, and there was a growing crowd of sobbing and screaming relatives and friends. By some miracle, Lylie was among the first twenty who were rushed to the makeshift hospital inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. There, her head was patched up; she received blood and – despite my screams of protest – lost her legs. There was no avoiding it, I had known that ever since I saw my daughter being half carried, half pulled out from the collapsed building, her legs dragging after her in a funny angle. After the operation, a doctor with an Indian accent told me Lylie had been lucky.
I was awake almost until dawn, curled up on the rug on the floor next to my daughter’s hospital bed. Lylie was still unconscious, machines beeping around her. The sound of screaming, mainly from victims’ loved ones and not the victims themselves, echoed off the cathedral walls. Now again there were flashes of light; Eastern journalists and photographers present to document the disaster.
For a time, I sat with my fingers in my ears, trying to block it all out, while staring at the ceiling, which seemed higher than the sky where it soared above me. The magnificence of the cathedral took my breath away. It was utterly unfathomable that there were once people in this land capable of constructing buildings like this.
It wasn’t something I thought about often, but the notion always became more intrusive when I was surrounded by awe-inspiring architecture, and that horrendous night was no different. I recalled what I had learned during my few years of school: that our ancestors became lazy, resting on their former victories and choosing to live wasteful and unsustainable lives, caring nothing for further innovation and development, or for the fact that society and market forces was developing and changing. And develop and change, they did. The East developed with lightning speed.
It strikes me as bizarre to think that the world once looked like a mirror opposite of what it does now. The poor and suffering whom the rich wished to think as little as possible about mostly used to live in the East. The West was once a glorious empire. In some distant past, our lives used to matter.
At some point before dawn, Pip showed up. The terror and fear I was feeling burst out of me like an attack from a mistreated street dog someone tried to pet.
“You’ve left Rhys and Ridley alone, you stupid girl?!” I hissed at her, though my concern for Lylie had actually made me forget all about Rhys and the other children. “Philippa Jane Clarke, are you positively mad?!”
“They’re not alone,” answered Pip, with the sort of mature calm one wouldn’t expect to find in an eleven-year-old. “Mrs Eavesbrook’s there.” Pip looked at me, eyes grave. I could tell from the dark rings around them that she hadn’t slept. “Will Lylie be okay?” she asked.
“They took her legs,” I said.
“They amputated her legs. Sawed them clean off.”
Pip went pale. Suddenly I saw a glimmer of the child she actually was, or should have been. I wanted to hug her, but my arms were too heavy to move.
“They had to,” I added, trying to sound more comforting. “They couldn’t fix them. A piece of a wall fell on them. They looked … it was …”
Tears ran down Pip’s face.
“I know,” she whispered. “The newspaper said so.”
She opened her shoulder bag and took out a crumbled copy of The Guardian. The title read: “Ashford Factory Collapse: Hundreds killed.” I let out a gasp of disgust as I realized I was on the cover. In a flash, I remembered the black-eyed Eastern man with the camera. The sight of the picture horrified me. I looked as ugly as a haggard old witch, and absolutely devastated. Lylie’s head bandage was bleeding through my hands.
“You were on the news, too,” Pip said. “The picture is everywhere.”
For several minutes, I could barely breathe. I fixed my eyes on Lylie’s head where it rested in a crisp white pillow. Her head was wrapped in actual bandages now.
“Why did they let them work there?” Pip asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The article says the building had been deemed unfit as a factory. And yet it kept going; new floors and yet more new floors being built. The rules and the regulations were ignored entirely.”
“Deemed unfit?” I said, opening the newspaper. “Where does it say that?”
Pip pointed it out to me. My eyes skimmed over the sentences, and I realized she was right.
“’Cause we’re rats,” I muttered, cold anger flooding my veins.
“To the people of the East, we’re like rats. If we die in a disaster like this, they don’t care. They’ll feel sorry about it for a while – my goodness, I hope my ugly crying face haunts their dreams! – but they won’t actually do anything about it. They love their precious, wealthy lifestyle too much, and their cheap things from foreign factories. The rich business owners, they know that even if a factory collapses, they’ll find new workers. Oh they’ll plead and apologize after this one, but just you wait. There will be no change, because there are always more rats. We have nowhere else to go.”
“The Easterners could help us,” Pip said.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to smile, and not protest. Pip still had an ember of childish innocence burning in her, and I didn't want it to die.
“Yes, Pippa,” I answered. “If they wanted to, they could.”