I was seized by a cold feeling, a sinking sensation, in the pit of my stomach. She looked nothing like the sister I had lost nearly seven years before. Yes, the ears resembled hers; the nose that she so constantly and incessantly got teased about (diamond shaped with a bump on the ridge) and that stature that was uniquely hers. Yet I was convinced that it was her. Coincidentally, I had been reading a book about someone who had amnesia. Watching her, carrying an infant on her back, two toddlers walking on either side of her, a heavy majiras bag balanced on her head and two heavy plastic bags held on each hand, requiring so much of her strength that I could see her veins and ligaments straining to break free of the thin ashen skin covering her forearms. I was not aware that a tear was trickling down my face from the corner of my right eye. I had the sensation of a sharp object piercing my heart and I instinctively hunched over in pain. I watched as she struggled to cross the intersection until I couldn't watch anymore. With the motorists carelessly entering the road as she attempted to pass safely with the children, she made three earnest attempts. She tilted her head about, trying not to upset the load on her head as she scanned her surroundings for options. I saw my entry point and, ignoring my pain, I rushed across the street that separated us and took hold of two small hands. She threw me a grateful look as we made our way to the other side. It was clear that she was headed for the nearby taxi rank.
"Where are you headed?" I glibly asked to start a conversation.
"To the taxi rank. Thank you so much for your help." and she motioned for the children to let go so I could leave. She had not lost her impeccable way of speaking English.
"Are you in a hurry?" I probed, looking for something to delay her so we could talk. She gave me a pained look. I motioned to take the bag from her head and she seemed powerless to stop me. The minute I grabbed hold and pulled, as she leaned to help me, I was winded. The weight was enough for me to wonder if her neck has not sunk into her spine. Looking at her thin frame, I was not surprised at her strength because I have borne witness to it in the past, but I was overwhelmed by a deep sadness when I thought about the possibility that she may have led this kind of life for some time. Maybe even since she disappeared. "I won't keep you long" I hastened to add, seeing the indecision in her murky eyes; eyes that looked like they were constantly exposed to smoke. "I was actually going to eat but I was feeling lazy to sit by myself and eat. I often feel lost when I sit alone. If you are not hungry, you can have a snack or icecream!" and I made sure to be louder and interact with the tots to get them excited about it and help twist her arm. Beyond the mouth of the taxi rank, which is along the main road, is a food court. The food court is targeting the residents of a flatlet adjacent to it. A tall building of eight floors or more. The food court and flatlet are part of these new developments that are sprouting everywhere in our previously small and sleepy town. I gestured for her to hand me one of the heavy plastic bags she was holding - I winced from the pain of the strained bag digging into my hand - so she could grab one handle of the majiras bag while I grabbed the other and we hefted it the hundreds or so meters to the first fast food restaurant there. I picked the nearest empty table and we both let go of the heavy sac and it made a thudding sound and raised some dust as the floor was of dry cement. She made the kind of cough that comes out when there's a tickle in your throat. Yet another sign that it was her. My little sister had been highly allergic all her life. The most mundane thing like the changing of seasons could set her off.
I was petrified of approaching the ordering counter and leaving her there to get up and walk away while my back was turned. This, of course, was an irrational thought as hefting that bag to her head would have alerted anyone around the food court to her departure. I asked the children to come with me so they could choose the icecream flavour they want. As I made the order, I kept looking over my shoulder at her. I saw her get up from where she had seated and nearly leapt to her side but then I realised that she just wanted to adjust the strapper she was carrying the infant with. As I had turned and walked a few steps towards her, I pretended as though I was playing with the children by turning quickly back at them and making monster sounds. They giggled and ran around the little space where patrons queue to order. Thankfully, it was not that busy at the time. Just this one couple waiting for their takeaway order.
Back at our table, silence reigned as I searched my brain for a question that would sound acceptably curious. I wanted to ask her outright where she stayed but the way she was so edgy, I decided to take a round about way to it.
"So, where the taxi lets you off, is it far from your house?"
"No, it's not far." and she stopped there.
"Oh, okay. That's good then."
"So, where did you go to school?"
This question seemed to make her uncomfortable and her eyes started dancing about, evading my gaze. I hastened to add that I was just wondering because she looked familiar and I was trying to figure out where I knew her from. This produced a small smile but she still didn't answer.
"Okay then, how about you tell me where you grew up?" I tried another tactic but she still didn't answer. I made a small laugh and said that it seemed like a one-sided conversation.
"Okay, maybe my questions are making you uncomfortable because you know nothing about me, so I will share this info about myself first. I was born and raised in a village some thousand kilometres away from this place. When I was about to start high school, I came to stay with my mother in a suburb that's twenty minutes from here. My younger sister was already staying with our mother and going to the local primary there. I attended Sovereignty high. Do you know it?"
The whole time I spoke, she agitated her right leg. Something my sister used to do when she was distracting herself from pain. I wondered if this woman was in pain.
"Listen, I really have to go and..." she drifted off when she noticed one of the girls working at the food place bringing our order.
"Please don't go just yet. The food is here already. Look how the munchkins are excited about their treat." She reluctantly settled back down.
"Listen, I don't mean to be rude but my husband will worry if we take too long coming back." She pleaded with me with her eyes. I noticed that she said listen a lot and that made me think that she must always be having to ask people to listen to her. That made me so sad I had to swallow a lump in my throat so I could continue eating.
"You don't have to talk..., just listen." she nodded. Between mouthfuls I told this woman about my sister, hoping to spot some kind of recognition or trigger a buried memory.
As soon as I was done eating, I helped her carry her bags back to the taxi rank and I assisted her to get into a taxi that was headed to the nearest township from our town. The problem with this township is that it is sectioned and she took the main line. This meant that she either got off on the main road or had to take a local taxi when she got there.
I felt like crying. I was nowhere near figuring out who this woman was or where she lived now. I hoped for another chance meeting. This time around, I would just follow her and see where she goes.