It would have been difficult to say what had attracted Ana’s eye to this particular flash of colour in an undulating sea of colour. The endless Heap: a stinking, steaming, smoking kaleidoscope of the fragments of a million lives, was nothing if not colour. A riot of colour, a roar of colour; an attack that mugged the eyes leaving them confused, hurt and poorer for the experience. But all those colours were as grey as the defeated faces that sifted through the rubbish day by day by day, somehow extracting a meagre living from all that was wasted. But this thing, whatever it was, had remained vibrant: crimson trimmed with gold that had not yet been stained black with the grime, the filth, the soot.
The rubbish piles were so huge that to an eight year old girl they seemed like the mountains that were supposed to soar up to the sky in places that were green and blue and the air didn’t taste of stale eggs and make you cough. A man with a funny voice had told stories about those mountains around the fire one night in the yard. Somewhere north, he had said, beyond the city and the Sheds and the Heap. Ana’s education had been restricted to pretending to read the swollen, smelly books she sometimes found, but she was no fool. There was nothing north of here but more of here. On and on it must go, forever. The world, one great stinking, diseased dump that would kill you in countless different ways. Lockjaw, rubbish-slides; shit, even a graze could kill you. One scuffed knee and a few days later your leg would be inflamed and oozing pus, a few more and the men from the neighbourhood would be carrying you down to the Red Cross clinic at the bottom of High Street so they could remove it or you; she’d seen it happen more than once. It was impossible to think about a world beyond the Sheds or the Heap. Besides, who had time when there were small mouths to feed? And yet that flash of colour that drew her eye amid an infinite universe of flashes of colour; that colour that refused to fade or become sullied by the filth and the shit around it. Surely that had to mean something?
Ana looked around her, sure that someone else must have noticed such a treasure. There were other Collectors nearby but their heads were bowed meek by the weight of their own concerns. Ana climbed higher to get a closer look. She felt the surface beneath her shift slightly. She was standing on lumps of charred rubble, probably left from the war that was still etched on to the old ones’ faces, but they could be no more than a lily pad delicately floating on the surface of this festering pond. Whatever was underneath could be far less stable, it only took one wrong foot and she would fall through into one of the deep cavities where the fires smouldered as though a dragon slept down there. She would slowly roast to death, her screams floating up to those above. No-one would bat an eyelid. They might peer over the hole and give thanks it wasn’t them, but there would be no firemen to rescue her like they had in the Compound. She moved on quickly leaping nimbly onto a thick mattress, stained black, and then onto a pile of what looked like rotten wood shavings. She lurched forward as the shavings gave way and her leg slipped through into something soft and wet. The weight on her back shifted, threatening to awaken. She dragged herself carefully out. She could smell her leg already. A sick dread plopped into her stomach as she realised she would have to bathe at the tap later. There was always someone watching. Ana shuddered. She reminded herself to be thankful that it was no worse than it was.
The fall made her more determined that her effort wouldn’t be wasted. She carried on, stepping carefully, testing each foothold as she climbed. Getting closer she could see the item was a piece of cloth, covering something else. The crimson was more crimson than anything she had seen; the decadent gold trim was fit for an emperor. Ana looked below her at the people collecting. No-one looked back. She reached down and touched it. It was as soft as it looked and dry despite the morning’s drizzle. She took her hand away; it felt obscene to touch something so pretty, so pleasing with her rough, filthy fingers. Her hand hovered. She touched it again. This time she giggled aloud. She prodded it gently. Beneath the cloth something gave. It was soft but hard, like flesh. She withdrew her hand. The smile on her face waned. She looked below her again, then back at the cloth. She saw herself, lying on her pallet in the hut, unable to sleep as she listened to Ezy’s laboured breathing; wondering, wondering. She had to see. She reached out and with a trembling hand she gently pulled at the cloth. The rubbish fell away revealing a stiff leg, an arm; a waxen face. It was an immaculate doll with yellow hair and pink skin wearing an exquisite dress of blood and gold. She wondered who had lost such a doll, who could possibly be so careless? She imagined a little girl who lived in the Compound with so many dolls that hadn’t even missed this one that she’d casually throw away or lost. Or had she grown up? Or was she incapable of such a thing, the privilege removed by a disease of excess rather than want? She gently brushed away flecks of filth from its golden hair then adjusted the sling that held the sleeping child to her back, ready to climb back down. She gently placed the doll back on the rubbish, face up so her sightless eyes could view the shifting grey sky over London.