She had been there for hours, holding that ragged cardboard sign torn from the top of a box, a jagged edge where it used to belong. Just standing there, waiting, leaning hard against the metal barrier outside the arrivals gate as though without it she might fall and if that happened she might not get up again.
I watched her. It broke up the monotony of my new job, serving coffee to harried, hurried people who simply did not want to be where they were, had better things to do than come and collect a loved one from the airport, or the ones who were stuck because of delays and were depressed because the only thing they wanted was to take their loved ones home. Whatever their story, it all came down to the same thing; misery. And I learned during that first day they liked to take that misery out on me.
So I watched the old lady instead, smiling and nodding and agreeing with the sad, mad people around me ordering lattes and cappuccinos and thinking that made them sophisticated, but not really paying them any attention.
She barely moved, and I was sure I could see her ankles swelling, actually feel them in her ever-tightening sandals, and I wished to God she would take a break and have a sit down, order a coffee, have a muffin. But she didn’t. She just stood there, swaying ever so slightly. I wondered, every now and then, whether she might not have nodded off, whether she might not have died and no one had noticed. But every time I began to worry another plane landed and another load of dishevelled, tired, glad to be home passengers streamed out of the big open doorway and into the arrivals hall. The old lady’s head would snap up, she’d hold her sign a little higher, she’d stand a little taller and wait for someone to recognise her. No one did. Not one person all day acknowledged her presence. Except me, I guess. But I wasn’t the one she was waiting for, was I?
When my interminable shift was finally over I bought a coffee from myself. It wasn’t for me, I couldn’t even bear the thought of the stuff after serving it up all day. It was for her. But before I could make my way over to her, my boss stopped me. “Where are you going with that?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the cardboard cup in my hands.
“It’s okay,” I said, “I paid for it.”
“That’s not what I asked,” he said, tapping the top of my cup with his forefinger. He waited for my answer, what I thought was a smirk appearing on his face that made me want to throw the bloody coffee all over him. I didn’t. I counted to ten (quickly, since he was waiting) and told him, “I was taking it to that woman. She’s been there all day, not eaten or drunk anything. I thought she might want it.”
The boss nodded, the smirk definitely there now. “I thought so. I knew you were a little bleeding heart the moment I saw you.” He laughed, once, loudly and strangely and slapped me on the shoulder so that a drop of coffee flew from the opening in the lid and landed on the floor between us.
I had no response to what he’d said. I had no idea whether he meant it good or bad. I guessed bad so I stared at the drop of coffee and thought about wiping it away but didn’t. The boss turned around, went back to the counter to finish cashing up; “She won’t take it, you know. We’ve all tried.”
“How do you mean?” I asked knowing full well that no one else from the coffee shop had been anywhere near her that day.
With a clattering of coins and a frustrated grimace, an air of someone who’d said the said words many times before, he told me. “It’s not just today. It’s not just you. Every day she turns up, holds that sign, waits for Christ knows who. Every single day. And she won’t take anything off you, even when it’s free. Sad, but there you go.” He shrugged, went back to his counting.
I didn’t think he really though it was sad. I got the feeling that he thought it was a bit funny – ha ha, not strange, although perhaps that too. And I thought I would give her the coffee anyway, partly for my own peace of mind, but partly to prove him wrong. Only when I looked back to where she was she was gone.
The next morning I arrived in a dismal mood. I’d spent the evening distracted, worrying about the old lady and getting nowhere with it and now I had to stand behind the counter all day worrying about her at work too. I hoped she wasn’t there. You have no idea how much I hoped that the boss had been winding me up. But she was and he wasn’t and it pained me to see her.
That was the day that I properly looked at her sign, faded and dog-eared and obviously very old. RICHARD – WELCOME HOME! – THE ANSWER’S YES! it said. Oh God, my heart just shattered for her, right there, and I almost wept into some stranger’s latte. And I raged at this Richard who had never come home, my anger so fierce that it scared me and I had to take a break, go outside to cool down. How dare he? How dare he not return to her? Someone that loyal, that much in love… I couldn’t stand it.
I had to do something. Something to help her.
But I couldn’t. In the end I helped myself and quit so I wouldn’t have to see her again. And just like that it was over. For me. But I have no doubt that she’s still waiting.