What is it about a lady in red that just captures the mind? That enchants and draws, yet spices the enthrallment with a bit of apprehension? Is it the sheer femininity of the dress coupled with the vivacity of the colour that draws one like a moth to a flame? Or the uniqueness of its wearer from the staple of girls in jeans? Or the motion, the shimmering and swaying, like poetry, caressing primal desires, arousing hidden longings… It may be neither, yet it is all of these things. Ah. Lady in red. Look my way.
I stood there watching her walk to her car, the staccato taps of her shoes on the tiles calling out every step; a percussion accompaniment to the graceful swaying of her dress that seemed to be in conversation with the wind. Her hair danced lightly around her bare shoulders, inviting one to let his gaze travel downwards, to the broad, black belt that cinched the dress around her waist to the lace edging that seemed to move in time with the slight tremors of her calves with every step she took. She stood out from the rest of the crowd, drawing appreciative glances from all that beheld her. Gentlemen slowing down to let her walk past them, ladies looking on with a twinge of envy in their eyes. She was the lady in red. And she was beautiful.
“She is, isn’t she?”
“Sorry?” I said, turning to face the voice that had spoken
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
The voice belonged to a man, an old man, about sixty years of age, with a grizzled beard that looked intent on consuming the rest of his face. Little wrinkles – laugh lines- ran from the edges of eyes that sparkled merrily. A tad too merrily, I thought.
“Yes, she is,’ I replied, turning back to look at the lady in red as she got into her car.
“Your girlfriend?” my fellow watcher inquired.
His voice, deep and musical, brought to mind Morgan Freeman, and I would not have been surprised to learn that at some point in his life he had been a singer, or something of the sort.
I didn’t answer his question, but just smiled. He looked at me, and smiled as well.
“Ah. One of those”
“One of what?”, I asked.
It was his turn not to answer, but just smile.
“You look like you have a moment to kill. Why don’t you join me for a cuppa, and let me tell you one of what?”
I am generally not one inclined to accepting invites from people for cuppas. I am, in fact, not a people person, finding the task of making small talk quite arduous, but something about the man made me curious as to what he had to say.
“Very well,” I said and as we turned to walk into Yaya, I took a moment to look at him. He stood at about 6 feet and with his receding but yet thick head of dark hair and bushy beard, his tweed coat with the elbow patches, corduroy pants and well-worn, dark brown boat shoes, he cut the image movie casting agents are wont to portray as the stereotypical English professor. The thick tome he held in his left hand, “The Divine Comedy” , didn’t do much to dispel the image.
“The seven levels of hell”, I said, shaking the hand that he had extended.
“Dante’s Inferno”, I said, pointing to the book.
“You’ve read it?” He said, a look of incredulity on his face. His raised eyebrows looked as if they were in pursuit of his hairline.
“Just started ‘Paradiso’. I said, pulling my own copy of the book from my bag.
“Macharia. Joel Macharia”
“Burgess. Jeeves Burgess.” He said, the incredulous look not yet leaving his face.
“My father was a Wodehouse fan,” he added on seeing the smile on my face.
“Alighieri, Wodehouse… Well.”
“I’d never have guessed.”
We got to coffee shop, and in typical fashion, I let him go in first. He stood at the door, and spying nowhere else to sit beside the booth by the door, led the way to it, me behind him. A waiter materialised at our table faster than I had ever the pleasure of experiencing, and while not one to subscribe to common theories, I could not help but wonder if the skin colour of my recently acquainted companion may have had anything to do with the improved service.
We both declined the menus and both asked for double lattes. The waiter, who had been smiling more broadly than I remember him to have been a few minutes before when I had been there with the lady in red, left to get our orders.
“You were telling me of your inability to guess something,” I said, taking my eyes of the retreating waiter’s back and onto Mr. Burgess.
“Ah, yes. I was actually surprised that you have read Wodehouse and Alighieri.”
“Why would you be? They are quite popular”
“Within certain circles, yes. ”
“And your presumption is that I do not fit these circles”
“Yes. No offense.”
“You cut the image of my typical student” So I was not far off the mark. “And getting them to read even the simplest of books is a task. Trying to get them to read and appreciate Inferno might result in them suggesting that I perform certain anatomical impossibilities, or something that might require the involvement of shoving and certain orifices.”
I smiled. I was beginning to see that I could actually get along with this fellow. Unfortunately, before I could reply , the waiter returned with our orders. The service had definitely improved in the span of quarter an hour. Or it may be in the span of a few skin shades. I chose not to pursue that train of thought. It was unbefitting of what seemed to be progressing into quite some good company.
He placed our lattes on the table and obsequiously bade us enjoy and walked off. I passed the sugar to Jeeves, and watched with fascination as he put in 6 teaspoons in. I was tempted to make a smart comment, but chose not to. Instead, I decided to follow up on what had brought us there in the first place.
“So what one of what were you talking about?”
For a long time he did not speak. He sat, stirring his latte, the clinking sound like a soundtrack to a sad and desolate train of thought. His eyes looked straight into mine, and in his, I saw not the merry twinkle that had been resident there before but sadness, sorrow and a tinge of regret.
“Macharia, was it?, “He asked.
“Yes, it was. And is, Mr. Burgess” I replied.
“Correct me at any point if I am wrong.”
“You are a young man.”He went on, displaying a rather firm grasp of the obvious.
“As of the last time, I checked, yes.
He smiled. “I see you have picked up a few things from Pelham.”
I smiled. Pelham was Wodehouse’s first name.
“What is it about a lady in red that just captures the mind? That enchants and draws, yet spices the enthrallment with a bit of apprehension? Is it the sheer femininity of the dress coupled with the vivacity of the colour that draws one like a moth to a flame? Or the uniqueness of its wearer from the staple of girls in jeans? Or the motion, the shimmering and swaying, like poetry, caressing primal desires, arousing hidden longings? ”
I looked at him, wondering what he was on about.
“I saw something in your eyes as you watched the lady in red walk away. ”
“And what might that be? Besides her reflection, that is?”
“Same thing that was in my eyes forty years ago.” He said that softly, looking at his cup, his voice cracking a little.
For a while afterward, he spoke not, and sat still, looking into his cup. When he looked up his eyes shone, not from joy or the mirth that I had seen previously, but from a thin film of tears that glazed his blue eyes. I tried looking away from them but they held mine, like hooks, filling me with an emotion I had previously not experienced; like looking into a bottomless pit; a sensation of falling yet not moving.
“I met her forty years ago. It was a cold Sunday morning, bright but cold. I sat in the park, on a bench, reading the charming tale of Oliver Twist. I looked up to let my imagination play a little and that’s when I saw her. She sat on a bench across the pond, dressed in a red dress that went to her ankles. She had a black shawl around her shoulders and the biting wind had forced her to pull it as tight as would go but even from where I sat, I could see that it was a futile attempt to keep the chill out. She was looking right at me, unblinking. I looked back at my book, but hard as I may have tried, I could not concentrate on the text that seemed to run all over the page. I looked up at her again, and still, she sat looking at me. We that there for what might have been ten minutes, looking at each other. The rest of the world seemed to recede into a haze, the sound of the city going about its Sunday business muted; nothing, for those ten minutes, existed for me aside from her. She had captured something in me; yet she had said nothing, done nothing. As we sat there, a young gentleman came walking along the path toward her, and she turned to look at him. I watched as she got up to meet him, and watched as they walked off together, feeling that I should I should at least find out her name. Yet, I would not move, could not move and I sat there watching as they walked on, further and further away. I tried to get back to my book, but I could not concentrate. The lady in red had taken over my every waking thought.
For days after that, I found it hard to think. I seemed to have been infected with a malady of thought – a malady in a red dress. I was twenty four, back then. An enterprising young lad in the middle of running his business. My life was filled day in day out with work upon work, party upon party; I was a firm believer of work hard, play hard. Slowly, the hectic nature of my life forced the thoughts of the lady in red into some unexplored recesses of my mind and, slowly but surely, I forgot about the lady in red. My Sundays in the park were free of her and in time I did not even remember that I had forgotten about her. But as the fates will have it, those old crones, I forget their names…”
“Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos” I said.
“Again, I would not have guessed. As the fates would have it, I was in the park, as was customary for me on Sundays, this time reading H. G. Wells ‘The Invisible Man’, when I looked up to imagine how it would be to be invisible, and who was I to behold but my fair lady in red. She sat on the same bench as before, dressed, yet again in red, but the weather, being kind had made it possible for her to be in her bare shoulders, and the dress not run far below her knees. She sat with her legs crossed, a book on her lap, the silver clasp on her sandals glinting merrily in the sun, her eyes looking straight at me. Her hair was held in a bun, and left her neck bare, on which, from this distance, I could just make out the glint of a thin chain. The memories of the torment that had been thoughts of her from the last time I saw her came rushing, and this caused me to immediately shut my book and get up, intent on getting out of the park as quickly as my feet could carry me. I was wary of women that I felt attracted to, possessed by this morbid fear of falling in love, and her bewitchment of me last time I had seen her fresh in my mind, I chose to run.”
He stopped to take a sip of his coffee, and I sat back, looking at him, in the midst of a sense of déjà vu. I knew exactly what he was talking about; my rather apprehensive approach to ladies a cause for bewilderment among my peers. I had nothing against ladies; in fact, I beheld them to be the fairest of God’s creatures, the most perfect form of art and therein the problem lay. I was a hopeless romantic, a believer in fairy tales and romance, and I knew that my capability for great love was unbridled, yet I would not let myself be drawn into it. It was one of those things I treated with care. A lot of care.
“I remember getting up and striding towards the park gate, ” he went on, “Intent on getting out and far, far away from there, but the closer I got to the gate, the shorter my stride my became, the weaker my resolve to put a good mile betwixt myself and this siren, for it was I took her to be at that point. I remember stopping in the middle of the path and asking myself, ‘Jeeves, what will it hurt to know her name?’ A lot, I should have known. I turned around, and walked back, willing myself forward till I found myself standing in front of her, looking into her face. She had caught my eye from across the pond, but from here, so close to her that I could smell her scent, she not only caught my eye but pocketed it and zipped the pocket shut. She was beautiful, Joel, I tell, you she was beautiful. Her eyes were like dark pools, drawing me to swim in their depths, her lips, full, her skin flawless, smooth, beckoning me to touch it. Her dainty hands, their fingers long and tapering, sat upon the book on her lap, which upon closer inspection, turned out to be Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’. I stood there, my Adams apple going up and down as though held on an elastic band, and when she reached out her hand and asked me to sit, my heart crashed against my teeth on its way out; had I not had my mouth shut, it may have ended up on her book, beating wildly, a situation I am sure would not have boded well for any romantic endeavour, for this is what I believe my intention had become, progressing from merely wishing to find out what her name was .