The Umbrella Lady

They say that sooner or later she talks to every person in the world.

So, in the autumn of 1931, with a blustery struggle across the channel, my travels began. I wanted to pay attention to everything as I travelled, to learn and absorb the sights and culture of places I had never seen. But so often I would find that my thoughts were drawn away from my sorrows, not by museums and churches, but by other people. As I walked along the streets I would watch them as they passed and wondered - were they as happy as I had been? Were they unhappy? Then they would walk past me, and were gone.

The first town I stayed at was Bayeux. As my train moved through the fields and towns of Normandy, the muted autumn colours of the scenery seemed like a living impressionist painting, unlike anything in England. Perhaps if I was in a more cheerful state of mind I would have enjoyed it more, but at least I was moving, and seeing new things, and already some tiny part of me knew that I was doing the right thing.

As the train pulled into the Gare de Bayeux, I saw an old woman walking under the trees by a field, in a cloud of falling autumn leaves. She was small, bent, with an umbrella held behind her back in the crooks of her elbows, as if in the hope it could straighten out the warp of years. Later that morning as I checked into my hotel I noticed her wander past outside on the road. I saw her again that afternoon, as if she spent all her life walking.

The next day I was resting on a bench not far from the cathedral, and I saw her come towards me. Her gait was awkward, as one would expect, but she was in no hurry, and when she reached me it seemed as if no time had passed.

"Please, sir, let me share your bench for a time. I must rest."

For some reason I had expected her speech to be thick with accent, if she spoke English at all. Yet she sounded as if she had lived surrounded by culture. I gestured to the bench beside me, smiling my acquiescence, and she sat down. After a minute or so, she began to gaze into the sky.

"The clouds today are eternal..."

I looked up. I saw long, thin, wavy clouds, soaring and yearning across the sky... The day was warm, with a gentle wind.

"Yes," I said, "it certainly is a lovely day."

I fancied I saw the tiniest flicker of resignation cross her face, and I wondered if she had wanted me to understand something more. After a moment, she turned to me with a vague smile.

"So, you're watching the world go by. It must be nice to be so free."

"Yes, I've retired, and I'm seeing something of the continent."

"But you're not bringing your wife with you?" she asked.

"No, she is no longer with us."

"Oh, I am sorry. Then travelling takes your mind away from the thoughts of her..."

I nodded. She paused for a moment then said,

"Many years ago, I lost my son. He was sixty-two years old, and he died from a heart attack."

"I'm very sorry."

"It was hard to see my child die before I did. Even so, he had a life that was longer than many others. I like to think it was a good life, perhaps a happy one. He was a professor of mathematics. But he never married. It was a long time ago."

"Well, I believe my wife and I were quite lucky. We were very happy, for a long time."

"Then it must have been especially hard for you to say goodbye."

"Yes," I murmured, "very hard."

"Do you remember the last few moments by her side?"

I could not bear to speak of them, even if it was rude. I could not bear even to think of them... But she did not wait to hear my reply.

"A moment of such meaning, to say goodbye to someone you have loved. So profound."

She turned, and looked me in the eye for a while.

"Do you find the years go by more quickly as you grow older?"

"Oh yes, certainly. I believe everybody does..."

"Yes. I'm sure you're right," she said. "They go more quickly, whether our life brings us suffering or joy. I sometimes wonder if it's because we no longer pay attention, because we've seen it all before, so we go to sleep, and don't notice the passing of the years..."

She stared into the distance for a minute or so. I tried to think of some way to reply. Then she rose slowly from the bench, smiling, and began to walk away.

Two days later, as I was paying my hotel account, the desk clerk said,

"Did you see the umbrella lady?"

"Who?"

"The old lady who carries an umbrella behind her back. They say that sooner or later she talks to every person in the world. You know, she was an old lady even when I was a boy!"

I saw the umbrella lady once more, as I made my way to the railway station. She smiled at me, but it was impossible to tell if she had remembered me.

June, 2012

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