Her dreary-looking outfit did nothing to conceal her bleak and depressing demeanour. Anyone who looked at her would have thought she carried the world’s burdens on her shoulders.
Quietly, she sat on one of the chairs and waited patiently, like the rest of us, for her number to be flashed on the digital screen.
I was rattled. I knew I had seen her somewhere before — a younger, happier version. There was no way I could be wrong. Like an arrow released from its bow, the buried and forgotten memories pierced my heart with an unknown intensity.
It had to be Mary Anne, my best friend in secondary school. Then again, this person looked old, much too old to be 29. Anyway, I summoned enough courage and went towards her. Hearing my footsteps, she looked up slowly. The flash of recognition in her eyes told me I was not wrong.
“It is you, Mary Anne Danker, is it not?”
She nodded her head silently as if embarrassed.
“Hello, John? You are looking good.”
Her remarks reminded me of how beautiful she had been once. Mary Anne had been the school beauty. Everyone had admired her for her looks, her brains and her beautiful character.
Many had said, rather enviously, that God had worked overtime with her – making her one of his masterpieces.
One day, Mary Anne had stopped coming to school. Devastated, I had gone to her house, only to find it all locked up. Checks with neighbours proved futile. No one knew where the Danker family had gone and why they had left so suddenly.
Taking a seat next to her, I wondered what had happened to the ravishing beauty I had once known.
“Why did you leave so suddenly, Mary Anne? Why?”
She looked at me nervously, clasping and unclasping her hands in her lap. I could sense that she was rather reluctant to talk, reluctant to expose a part of her life which had probably caused her a great deal of pain and suffering. A prolonged silence ensued. Finally, she inhaled deeply and started telling me her story.
Her mother had been diagnosed with endstage cancer and there was nothing the doctors could do. They said that she had only three months to live. Her father thought it best to return to their hometown, to let her live in peace in the surroundings she had grown up in.
Her father, devastated by his wife’s death, started to neglect his own health and three months later, he too died of a broken heart, leaving Mary Anne in the care of relatives.
Tears rolled down Mary Anne’s cheeks as she related the difficult years with her aunt.
The old widow treated her badly, forcing Mary Anne to quit school and to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. The cruel old lady often beat her, and her cousins, jealous of her beauty, were more vicious than their mother.
Now that the aunt was old and suffering from cancer, her five children had deserted her when they realised that she needed special care. Despite her aunt’s ghastly treatment of her, Mary Anne felt sorry for her.
“I cannot leave her. She has no one else,” she said. “I have promised to take care of her till the end of her life.”
I looked at Mary Anne and saw her goodness. Instead of seeing a gaunt and weary figure, I saw an amazingly beautiful human being.
My heart went out to her. Just then her number was flashed on the screen. She got up and collected the medicine which, I understood, was for her aunt. Never had I felt so helpless and wretched. Her story reminded me of something my late grandfather used to say,
“Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.”
Before leaving, Mary Anne turned and smiled sadly at me. I never saw her again after that.