Salma kept her head down, let the scarf fall across her face and focused on placing her feet one in front of the other on the littered pavement. Although it was fairly crowded, she never walked into anyone. They always side-stepped around her, going onto the road where necessary to avoid acknowledging she even existed. That suited her. Mostly. There was a part of her that craved human interaction, just somebody to find her eyes and say ‘hello’, or ‘I see you’, or ‘are you OK?’ But they were never going to do that, not in this part of the city.
She had walked this street of white faces in Nice for more than ten years, and aside from the grocer telling her how much money she owed, no-one had ever spoken to her. Not even once. At the beginning it had taken her a huge amount of courage to even step out of her front door. But when she had managed it and realised that people were always going to pretend she wasn’t there, it became a lot easier.
Her family was her affirmation, her raison d’etre, her everything. Every day when her son got back from school and her husband from work, her loneliness was forgotten, her empty life filled up again. She just had to survive those hours without them. She stopped and looked down – dog dirt was squelching beneath her shoe. There was nothing to be done but to walk gingerly on. Stopping and looking for grass would draw too much attention. Sweat prickled between her shoulder blades and her breathing quickened. She was nearly back, just two doors to go. She held onto a lamp-post and tried to rub off the dirt on the edge of a concrete slab. It wasn’t coming off. Her bag of fruit fell from her other hand and started rolling towards the road. She started grabbing at them.
“Here, let me help you.”
It was a white-skinned woman with a concerned face. Salma put her last apple into the bag, lowered her eyes again and walked round the stranger.
Just like everybody had always done to her.