The girl in the red shirt

I finished work yesterday evening and caught the free bus into the city, smiling to myself as I pictured Alun’s happy face and how great it would feel to hug him and hear about how his day went.

I got off at my usual stop and waited with about 35 impatient, tired workers to cross the road into the main Mall. There we were, all in our grey, black or navy-blue business attire. Like a little well-dressed army.

I guess that’s why she stood out. She was the only one in our weary group who wasn’t professionally dressed. She looked to be in her early 20’s and was instead wearing jeans and a bright red t-shirt. Her shirt was too big for her, which had the effect of making her look smaller than she was. She was a thin girl, with hair the colour of straw that fell gently down her back in a low ponytail. She had a tan and was wearing black jeans. I noticed a black guitar case slung over her shoulder with bright red, yellow and green stickers on it and wondered if she was a busker.

As I watched, though…I noticed this girl’s shoulders were slumped forward. As a breeze blew down St George’s terrace which ruffled our hair and lifted skirts of surprised ladies, the girl in the red shirt covered her face with her slender hands.

I thought she was rubbing her face because of tiredness. Maybe she was weary from playing and singing all day. But her hands did not come away from her face for a very long time. And her shoulders trembled. Only slightly, but enough to show this girl wasn’t rubbing her face…

…she was grieving.

I say grieving instead of crying because her entire body spoke of a grief that reaches your very bones. The grief of having someone you love taken away from you and knowing you will never see them again. The grief of loneliness, loss and despair. Her knees bent slightly – as if under the weight of great sadness, they could not support her. I couldn’t hear the sound of her crying on the busy city street, but I knew it was happening.

The green man flashed up on the ‘walk/dont walk’ sign, urging pedestrians to cross quickly and as I watched, businessmen and secretaries surged forward. No one took notice of this girl – some even rudely nudging her in an effort to get past. She was about 10 meters away from me otherwise I would have tried to protect her from being shoved by the inconsiderate. After a moment, her hands came away from her face. She seemed to shake something off and realise it was time to move forward. I still couldn’t quite see her face as I was still some distance behind her but I edged forward.

I dont know what I was trying to do, but I knew I had to get to her.

She judded forward – mostly pushed by others and began to cross the road.

My mind tried to come up with scenarios to explain the grieving – had she lost someone she loved? Was she on her way home from a Doctor’s appointment where she’d recieved terrible news? Had someone said something brutally hurtful to her earlier in the day which tore open deep wounds in her heart?

I had to hurry to reach her as her long legs and equally long strides moved her quite swiftly up the street, but within a few steps, she stopped once again to bury her face in her hands.

I walked up to her and gently touched her elbow, asking softly “Are you ok?”

Red-rimmed eyes and a beautiful face stained with copious tears smiled bravely at me “Yeah. I’m fine. Sorry”

“Is there…Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked, having no idea what I’d do if she requested something of me that I couldnt live up to – but feeling the strong urge to ask, anyway.

“No no” she smiled again through her tears “There’s nothing you can do”

I couldn’t help myself. I reached forward and gently squeezed her hand. She gently squeezed back and lowered her face as fresh tears came.

What do I offer on an occasion such as this? Would an offer of money right now be distasteful and really crass – or helpful? A cup of tea? That I will sit and listen if she wants to share her burden with a complete stranger? Dinner? But how will any of these help if she’s dying of a terrible disease or just lost her baby or a family member? Will an offer of a chat over a warm mug of hot chocolate help or just seem especially futile?

After a quick prayer and a deep breath, I spoke.

“Can I give you a hug?”

She didnt answer. But she stepped forward and we embraced. After a few moments, I released my arms because this is how long hugs usually last…but she didn’t let go, so I held on.

We remained that way for a long time.

When I eventually felt her arms releasing their hold, I let go, too.

“Thank you” she barely whispered the words, but I felt they came straight from her heart.

And before I knew how to respond, her long legs had taken her up the street and away from any further offers of help.

I watched her guitar case disappear into the distance.

I prayed for this stranger all the way home on the bus – that God would bring her peace, that God would comfort her heart, that God would protect her, bless her and strengthen her for whatever she faced.

I’m convinced I should have done more.

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