Li stood on the kerb so no one could move in front of her and waited patiently for the bus. Small and slightly built she stood erect, determined to keep the place she had waited so long for. Once on board she took similar possession of a seat near the front for now, after many years, Li refused to give up anything which she believed to be rightly hers.
Others slouched and sprawled in their seats, but she remained upright and dignified unlike the new arrivals from her country. She saw them dressed in their cheap short skirts, walking on thin high heels like gawky, overly made-up amateur stilt-walkers, hanging on the arm of any man in need of anyone who pretended to like them. But Li had decided even before her own arrival that she would choose her own destiny.
“You must work hard to have a better life,” her mother used to say. “Marry a man who works hard, look after him and you’ll always have food and a home.”
Li had watched her mother, bony framed and with a pinched face, work from early morning till night. She cooked, cleaned, and looked after the children and her husband, only to take a morsel for herself. She never had any new clothes and felt she had to sacrifice her personal dreams and desires for the sake of her family.
“You mustn’t be greedy,” her mother had said. “You’ll receive your reward one day.” Li had waited but the day never seemed to arrive. She and her family continued to live in a small, cramped house with no prospect of a brighter future.
She had been lucky to find work at the clinic in the town five miles away. It was only basic care but she earned more than her friends and neighbours who eked out a living selling vegetables or cooking and cleaning for richer families.
It was at the clinic where she had met Jiang – a handsome orderly with the looks and boldness that Li had never before encountered. He had been to bigger towns and cities, he said, and was only biding his time before going to university in America. He had a rich uncle who was going to pay for Jiang’s tuition. Jiang wanted to be engineer for a big company and hoped to start his own business one day where people would work for him.
“Come with me,” he said to Li. “We’ll begin a new and better life together in America.” He was kind and very persuasive with an easy manner and Li had been completely drawn to him. Her mother had been taken by surprise but the joy in her eyes was enough for Li to know that she would be doing the right thing. From then on events had moved very fast.
Li pressed the bell for her stop. She got off in a quiet, unassuming area of the city and made her way towards a block of flats. She turned the corner and pressed the entry code to the flats. Her own flat had been empty and dirty when she had first moved in and it had taken years of scrimping and saving to turn it into a respectable home that she would be happy to return to. She had done as her mother had told her and had worked hard to have a better life. She boiled a kettle and remembered the last time she and Jiang had had tea together.
Circumstances had forced them to marry quickly but then there had been complications. She focussed all her energy and hopes on moving to America and prayed Jiang ’s uncle would soon give them money for their fare. “My uncle is very busy at the moment,” Jiang would say. “I don’t want to bother him. Don’t be so impatient. Just be quiet and wait.”
Li began to notice her husband returned home increasingly late at night and he was often drunk.
“I can spend my money in any way I choose,” he shouted when she asked him for money. “If you want any money then go back to work.”
The manager at the clinic had been very kind and had given Li her old job back. Through her friends and colleagues she learned about Jiang’s gambling and that there was not, and had never been, a rich uncle. She often worked late or stayed with friends to avoid the violent arguments and the two of them barely spoke to each other. One night she went home and as she made the tea she hit out at the squalor they lived in, at the disappointment and liar he had turned out to be, and at his fat unhealthy body.
That night she worked hard. She ran silently to take her neighbour’s old and battered handcart. It was difficult to lift him and he became heavier as the minutes passed. She worked feverishly in the hot and stale night, praying that the wheels would not choose this night of all nights, to fall off. In the quiet stillness she pushed the cart across the field and down the bank to the river.
Nobody had been surprised to learn that Jiang had disappeared. Everyone knew of his gambling and drinking and exactly why he had married Li. “You have a good job,” they said. “And you’re still quite young.” Li had been scared the police would arrest her but as the days and weeks went by nothing happened.
Nearly a year later she was promoted at the clinic and then when the call came for extra nurses, Li shed no tears when she said goodbye to leave for a cold and faraway place. At first she had missed her family and friends but she sent money regularly and paid for her mother to visit her in her new home.
Now, as she sat in her armchair cradling a cup of tea in her hands, she rested her feet on a foot stool and smiled quietly as looked around her. There was peace and space in her flat with more food and warmth then she had ever had before.
She had indeed worked hard for this better life.