The supermarket trolley was almost too much for the old lady to push up the incline but she persisted, knowing the effort was worth it when she reached the top.
When she had first seen the discarded trolley, Maisie could have no idea of the changes it would make to her life. It was rusty from too long left out in the rain and one of the wheels had a distinct wobble. The painted name of the supermarket was long since worn away. If they had recognised the battered wire frame, they would never have considered retrieving it. It was no more than skip fodder.
But for Maisie, the trolley was a whole new way of life. For a start, she could carry her life's possessions, instead of leaving oddments stored in her own secret places, like some ancient squirrel, garnering food for the winter. Her precious cargo of old clothes and a blanket lay buried in the trolley, assorted hardware piled on top. The whole was covered with a waterproof sheet, which doubled as her night shelter. She even carried a small camping stove, with a gas canister, to heat the occasional tin of soup or cook a hot meal, when she'd had a good day. Consequently, neither cold nor wet weather had claimed her throughout her many years trekking the roads of Cornwall.
She could scarcely remember her previous life, nor even her family. She no longer remembered how desperately she had sought freedom from the rat-race. For Maisie, life was a now long walk from one place to the next. Winters, she spent inland, away from the blustering gales that chilled the coastline of her chosen county. In summer, she sought the quiet beaches and cliff walks, where visitors eyed her with amusement, sometimes stopping to chat, occasionally sharing their picnics with the eccentric old woman. She became a talking point in their holiday memories. She smiled, as she fed their fantasies, giving them the quotes they wanted to hear, to be repeated at urban dinner parties.
"You have to be up by half past five in the summer, to see the dolphins," she'd instruct her audience. "They'll pass by on the North coast some days. On others, they choose the South. Wild creatures are dolphins. You never know what they'll do, where they'll be. You can't ever tame them. If you are early enough, they'll swim real close to the beaches. They know me now and are never too shy. Once the day gets going, there's too many people about. You don't often see the dolphins then."
The listeners smile and vow to get down to the beach every morning by five, just to catch a glimpse of the elusive creatures. She smiled at their enthusiasm. If they were in the area, the dolphins would appear at any time of day. But it was so much more romantic, made better telling, to get up at five. Maisie herself never rose before eight, even in summer. It made the days too long.
Sometimes, the tourists would press a few coins into her grubby hand, to buy food, they suggested. She was never too proud to accept. It was not charity ... after all, she'd earned it, telling them what they wanted to hear. She was a local character, fulfilling their illusions.
But no-one ever knew her deepest secret; could ever guess at the treasure that was hidden, deep inside the trolley. If she had chosen a different path, she could have been a rich woman. She could have a nice home to live in, fancy clothes, a car. But she'd made her choices. The price of such comfort had seemed too great.
Sitting on her favourite cliff-top, Maisie gazed at the beautiful April morning. The thrift gleamed pinkly on every South facing bank and wild garlic filled the air with its invasive scent. The chills of the winter were over and she could look forward to the pleasures of summer. She watched a couple of seals swimming lazily through the blue waters, leaving transient trails of foam as they dived for breakfast. She foraged in her trolley for the remains of yesterday's loaf. She chewed on its dryness, wondering whether she might treat herself to a jar of marmalade, a kind of celebration for the end of winter. Soon, she'd have to start planning her strategies for the approaching summer. She might meet up with some of the other wanderers. She never allowed herself or her friends to be called tramps. Once, they were known as travellers but that name had been hi-jacked by the younger occupants of endless old buses, caravans and untaxed vans.
"The time is here again," she muttered to a passing gull. "It's time, all right."
Maisie began to unpack her precious belongings from the trolley. She tossed some stale crumbs out towards the gull who swooped and dived, catching a piece of bread in its beak. She pulled out papers, press-cuttings, stored in plastic bags. A glance at them reminded her of past lives, past glories. She had no regrets. At last, her fumbling hands reached her goal. The once respectable summer dress was shaken, spread on the ground to air. It smelled of musty dampness, the result of a winter spent deep in the trolley. Lower down still was a fat roll, wrapped in a plastic shroud. Carefully, she pulled it out and selected one of the contents. The rest she carefully rolled up again. She re-packed her home. She poured a little water from the plastic bottle and scrubbed at her face. It made little difference but she felt better. Glancing round to ensure she was quite alone, she tugged off the two sweaters; the old blouse; the tee-shirt, whose once luminous letters read Welcome to Surf Kingdom.
She pulled on the dress, hopelessly trying to smooth the wrinkles. She sniffed. It still smelled of mildew but it would soon dry out in the sun. She and her precious trolley set out on her annual visit to one of the main towns. She went to a car park, where an old friend manned the payment box.
"Maisie, my lover. 'Tis 'andsome to see you again." The old Cornishman grinned his toothless welcome.
"You'll mind my things?" she asked.
"Where are you to, this time?" he asked.
"The High-Street. As usual. Different gallery." Confident that her worldly goods were in safe hands, she walked away, a roll of canvas beneath her arm.
The immaculately groomed woman behind the elegant table sniffed, as the apparition approached. The grime, the smell of decay offended her senses. She was used to breathing an atmosphere of expensive perfumes and after-shave. Stifling her prejudice, she smiled the official welcoming smile and half rose from her seat.
"Can I help you?" she asked in her cultured pearl voice.
"I might be helping you," Maisie retorted. "See this? A genuine Marjorie Brewster. You want to buy it?"
"I'll look, of course. If you'd care to put it on the table."
As Maisie stepped forward, the woman caught the full blast of life in the rough. She lifted a lace handkerchief to her nose, pretending to wipe it delicately. As she saw the painting, her eyes widened. It did indeed look like a Marjorie Brewster. The clarity of colour, the brushwork. Her heart began to beat faster. It could be worth a fortune.
"Where did you get it?" she asked casually, hoping her excitement was not showing.
"It's mine, all right. No need to panic." Maisie was used to the routine. An undiscovered Brewster always made the news. The last one had made several thousand and had even been on the television, or so some friends had told her. She'd been quite happy with the few hundred she'd got for it. Kept her for nearly a couple of years, that one had. Now it was time for a new injection of capital.
"I shall need to talk to my partner of course, but I think I can say we shall definitely be interested, if it is authentic." Her voice was showing signs of enthusiasm. Maisie picked up the signs. The woman was hooked.
"I can guarantee it's genuine. I know it isn't stolen. I want a thousand pounds. Take it or leave it." She watched the expressions cross the beautifully made-up face. Pure greed, cunning, doubt of authenticity, fear of being conned in some way; they were all there.
"A th..thousand pounds?" she stammered. Damn the old tramp. It must be stolen for her to ask that sort of money. Mind you, the insurance alone must pay a reward in excess of that amount if it was, indeed, stolen. But could she get away with it? Could she be fined for receiving?
"I'll take it," she decided suddenly. It was worth the risk. She would phone the police as soon as the old dear was out of the gallery. If no-one had reported it missing, she'd be home and dry.
"Cash. I want cash," Maisie demanded. "Now. Or I take it elsewhere." The pale blue eyes were uncompromising and the crimped mouth set in a firm line.
"OK," the woman said, "but you'll have to wait a while. I don't carry that sort of money in the till." Maisie nodded and sat on a spindly chair. Uncertainly, the woman glanced back at her bizarre visitor, wondering if she was being a gullible fool. She took the risk and opened the safe. Maisie was in exactly the same place when she returned.
"One thousand pounds, exactly. But please, you must tell me where you got the painting?"
"Some old junk stall." Maisie's voice forbade further questions. "Had a nice frame. Sold it for a fiver," she fibbed proudly.
The woman smiled feebly. Perhaps she'd heard all she wanted to hear. Say any more, and the old bat might change her mind. She handed the crisp notes over and took the canvas carefully to the light. Even if it turned out to be a fake, it was a beautiful piece of work. It was certainly worth trying in London.
"I'll be off then," Maisie said, waddling to the door. The discreet chime as she left echoed in her mind as she pottered back to the car park to be re-united with her beloved trolley. She ate fish and chips for lunch before she stowed her capital safely. This lot would last at least another year. She headed back to the places she liked best.
"There be dolphins," Marjorie Brewster murmured, gazing out to sea. "P'raps one day, I shall paint dolphins. But there's still enough original Brewsters in my roll, to last me a good few years yet. Maybe when I get really old, I might start painting again."