Friday, 1 January 2016

Travel: Brussels - Deeper, Darker

She was crying as she walked, letting out huge sobs of pure sadness and despair as she trudged towards us with a cheap shopping bag in each hand, a grotty tissue clasped in her right one. She looked at the ground as she walked in a zigzag fashion up the street towards the Palace of Justice. She had a light frame, gaunt features and straggly hair but did not appear to be a homeless person, like the others we had seen all over Brussels. As she stumbled towards us I stopped dead in the street and watched her approach. The rest of my group were further down the street, admiring the view over the city and trying to spot the Atomium, which is visible from almost every piece of high ground.

Her cries and sobs didn't seem to be anything to do with the hill she climbed or the weight of her bags but seemed deeper and darker than that, like the pain you feel when you lose someone close to you or are driven to the dark depths of depression by something more hurting and oppressive than any physical pain. As she got closer I noticed that she was well dressed but her physical features; her hair, her face, her eyes, reflected a person who had gone past caring how she looked. Her well worn clothes were the only hint that not too long ago she must have been a proud and dignified lady. I wondered what had happened to change her into the wraith-like creature she had now become.

I felt numb. Should I help her or speak to her? Was there any point? Would she understand? Did she want help? I stood there as she walked past me, ignoring me and everyone else on the street and being ignored by others to such an extent that I wondered was she real or some character from my mind or the past, a banshee who had followed or appeared to me here, hundreds of miles from home. I reached my hand out a fraction to see would she react but she just continued on past me, sobbing uncontrollably. One of my travelling companions - Pete - was walking back up to me now, wondering why I was standing transfixed on the street, as he hadn't noticed this apparition of sadness, pity and despair, .
            'Did you see that lady?' I said to him, nodding up the street in the direction she had departed. 'She's crying.'
            'Oh,' he said, a look of genuine concern crossing his face, 'Is she alright?'
            'I'm not sure. Did you not see her?' I said, slightly aggravated, and annoyed with myself for doing nothing.
            'No, I wasn't minding to be honest,' he said. 'I'm sure she'll be OK ...' and with a shrug he headed down the street after the others.

She had disappeared over the top of the hill by now and no sign of her passing remained. Again I got the uneasy feeling that I was the only person who had seen the woman, even though I knew she was real, or at least thought I knew she was real at the time - if that makes sense.

A wave of emotions suddenly swamped me as guilt, sympathy, uselessness, empathy, helplessness and anger washed through my mind and left me feeling lost and alone. Perhaps this was how the woman had felt? By now the others were at the bottom of the hill. They hadn't seen the lady so I couldn't blame them for their lack of concern.

Slowly and deliberately, I placed one foot in front of the other and headed down the hill to catch up with them. Every now and again I looked behind, knowing I wouldn't see her but hoping I would. I never saw her again but her sorrow haunted me for days and nights afterwards.

To be honest, it still does.

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