Sunday, 13 December 2015

Two Strangers on a Cold Winter Night

It was a cold winter night. I felt the chilly wind on my exposed palms, reminding me that I should have worn gloves. The atmosphere smelled of pines and frozen vegetation, with a tinge metallic scent added to the mix. I sat on a park bench with my elbow resting on the iron arm rest, engaged deep in aimless thought. Behind me, a melody of children’s voices sang through the air, as they skid to and fro in the skating rink. I could hear a faint sound of carols nearby, perhaps seeking donations for a good cause. It was a time of celebration. Happiness reigned supreme. I felt at peace, my senses imbibing the joy from all around.

            I often sat at this bench late in the evening. My constant companion, an old pine tree, stood by my side, unflinching. I wondered whether it experienced this joyful atmosphere or was it unaffected. Did it perhaps live through each freezing winter only in anticipation of the next Christmas cheer or was it unaware of the festival altogether? A fleeting thought. It was of little consequence, but it did help me feel closer to my companion.
            After about forty-five minutes with my own musings, I felt it was time to leave. As I was about to rise, a most magnificent scent pervaded my nostrils. It was a carefully crafted combination of cinnamon and sandalwood, most likely a designer perfume. Definitely feminine, I could tell.

“Hello there!” I said to the woman who had just joined me on the bench.

“Hello.” She responded, rather plainly. I wasn’t a man to force a conversation, but a response so plain in an atmosphere so joyful seemed very much out of place. I felt a strong need for justification.

“Why such a gloomy response? It’s Christmas time!” I probed, half expecting a rude retort.

“I’m sorry. I would like to be left alone.” She countered, bringing any hope of further conversation to an unequivocal halt.

“My apologies madam. I simply fail to understand how one can be so low-spirited on a joyous occasion such as this.” I yearned for a justification. “If something’s the matter, it’s easier to talk to a stranger about it, or so I have heard.”

“My husband and I, we used to come skate here.” Came her response, unexpectedly.

Immediately, I understood the situation, and felt it inappropriate to probe any further. I thought it right to leave however, her scent urged me to remain.

Another thirty minutes went by. Neither of us spoke a word. I felt her presence akin to my constant companion, the pine tree, but somehow different still. The presence of another heartbeat on the same bench lent me more contentment than the company of just the nearby vegetation. Human beings are social animals. We have been a social species even before the advent of intelligence or language. Nothing convinced me of the fact more than my half hour silence simply being in the presence of this magnificently scented woman.

“I lost him a few years ago… my husband. Car crash.” Said the woman, pulling me out of the depths of my own musings. “We came down here each year to skate and sing Christmas carols. It was our favorite time of the year.” She continued, as I listened intently.

The human mind is terribly complex. It baffled me how the mind could take the atmosphere of happiness and cheer, and associate it with death and melancholy. Two people may look at the same event but experience completely contrasting emotions. It dawned on me that it was our mind that designed our reality. No matter how joyous the external stimuli, it was our mind that governed how we felt.

“I hadn’t seen this place in years. I was too afraid to face it. I couldn’t bring myself to step in here.” She said, her voice heavy, trying to hold back her tears.

“I understand what you might be feeling. I’m sorry.” I said, because that was what people said in these situations. Did I fully comprehend what she was going through? Not in the slightest. I had never experienced such grief. However, an illusion of empathy for another human being tends to provide a very real sense of comfort.

“I’m sorry if this… this is asking a lot b-b… but could I please hold your hand? I was wrong to think I could endure this all by myself. I just want to feel the warmth for a few minutes.” She said, her voice letting through a few sniffs and sobs intermittently.

I obliged and she squeezed my palm tightly. The surface of her palm felt cold and wet. She had probably wiped a tear or two with it. The sounds of skaters behind us had died down. The only sounds that remained were carols being sung somewhere in the distance and the rustling of the pine tree, my constant companion. My palm was as cold as hers, but a few minutes later, both our palms felt warmer. Our social roots express themselves in the strangest of ways. The simple touch of our palms created a warming effect, indicating that the contact was welcome.

I felt a slight sense of guilt, as my mind found it appropriate to muse at the woman’s grief. I gripped her palm tighter, wordlessly assuring her that she could count on me for support. “I can sit with you for as long as you need me to.”

“Thank you.” Her response was simple. Yet, as the two words left the tip of her lips, they fell onto my ears bearing an overwhelming amount of gratitude.

We sat for another hour and a half, maybe more. My palm still rested firmly in hers, radiating warmth. We sat there, two strangers in a big city, unconnected in any way, but who found comfort in the palms of one another on this cold winter night.

“Will we ever see each other again?” she asked with anticipation.

“You might madam, but I certainly won’t.”
“What do you mean?”

“Well madam, I am blind.”

I felt her palm grip mine even tighter.

“I understand.” She said, neither with sympathy nor pity. This time I could tell, it was genuine empathy.

The car crash that took her husband from her, took something more.