From time to time, I’ve introduced Femme Fatales readers to members of the Hope Town Writers Circle, the group I belong to in the Bahamas that meets weekly to share our writing: poems, essays, travelogues and novels in progress.
Several weeks ago, Valerie Healy, a visitor from England, read this piece to the group. It moved me so deeply that I asked her permission to share it with you.
The duty free area at Heathrow airport was, for once, not too busy.
Maurice had gone to buy a newspaper. I persuaded myself I needed a new mascara. Josh was with me and together we ambled around the tightly arranged display stands. I was continuously telling Josh what we're going to do, how long we'll be here ... that Dad has gone for a newspaper ... how we'll get breakfast very soon ... how we'll walk to the plane and then go up in the sky. The more information he has the less he'll panic or become anxious. If he knows what's ahead of him he'll be reassured and calm.
I was vaguely aware of her. She was looking at the make up counter just a few yards from me. Why would she bother I thought, all covered up like that? I though no more of her as the assistant enquired did I want the dark brown, the glossy black, or the matt black mascara? And did I know which mascara 'wand' I fancied? There was a new one with curved bristles which would give me instantly long lashes. Or the one covered in goo that would make my lashes look thick, luscious and impressive. "You too can look like her!" shouted the ad, showing the beaming smile of the movie star advertising their product. Hmmm ... decisions, decisions. Or I could just be realistic and buy my usual mascara and look like, well, me.
I glanced up, Josh, no longer beside me. He had noticed the strange figure at the next counter and sauntered over.
At 6 foot 2, Josh towered over her 5 foot frame. He stood staring at the back of her head for thirty seconds, about a foot away from her. She continued perusing the makeup colours, oblivious to him. I realised I was holding my breath. Then very, very, slowly he started to walk around her in a circle, never taking his eyes from her, saying nothing.
Aha, look, there were eyes behind that mesh mask!
So he slowly stepped forward, bent down and started to scan the mask. He was eyeball to eyeball with her.
He finally said one word, "Why?"
I moved. Would he try to remove her headgear? My brain scrambled to remember if it was a crime in her culture to touch her. Did she even speak English?
I walked over and began to offer my usual explanation. "Good morning! This is Josh and he would like to say hello to you!"
As he has been taught to do, Josh extended his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Joshua. What's your name?"
I didn't catch her answer.
Josh asked her again "Why?"
She took his hands in hers and I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, "I am from another country, Joshua, and I wear this. I must wear this. This is what we wear."
I explained that Josh was curious. And she nodded gently. Even from my distance I could see her eyes were gorgeously made up with vibrant blues and dramatic sweeping eyeliner. We said our goodbyes.
We walked away with Josh looking over his shoulder at her. She gave him a little wave.
I thought how well she conducted herself. She didn't walk away, nor was she offended by his behavior. She took time to try and explain to him why she was dressed as she was.
Such a lovely woman, I thought.
A gracious woman.
And I was grateful to her for her kindness.
Valerie Healy was born in Ireland and graduated from the University of Cork in 1980 with a degree in Medieval and Modern History and Greek and Roman Civilization. In 1981 she married Maurice, a dental surgeon, and moved to the U.K. where their three sons were born. “We live in Norfolk,” Valerie told me, “on three acres where Maurice loves to cut his own wood and we keep some sheep and chickens - mainly for Josh! He lives to feed them and spends ages watching them over the fence.”
Josh is 26 with a learning disability, yet he desperately wants to be sociable and engage with people. He has limited communication skills so tends to repeat the same words and sentences. “But he's mobile,” Valerie added, “and we're so grateful for that blessing. He travels with us to Maine every summer where we have a home.”