There’s a sadness within her. It steals across her face when she thinks that no one’s looking, like a cloud across the sun. Then, as quickly as it appears, it’s gone, making you doubt you’d seen it at all. But I see it. I see it because it echoes my own agony and it calls to me like a mournful song.
Three months now, I have been visiting her school and watching as the students hang upon her every word. In Brazil, many girls don’t get the chance for a decent education, so what Maria does is life changing. The ramshackle building is a temple for these girls as they worship at the altar of education with Maria as their guide. And it’s not just their lives she is changing. She couldn’t know, but seeing her every day brings sunshine back into my life after years of nothing but black storm clouds. Clouds so dense I’d fled the country in an attempt to escape them. Visiting the school and seeing all those bright young faces was excruciating, but it was worth it. Because I’d met Maria.
My desire to drive away her sadness as she banished mine drove me to ask her on a date and now, as I mount the steps of the closest thing Rocinha has to a cocktail bar, I falter. How can I hope to rebuild someone else when I am nothing but a pile of rubble myself? But she’s already there. Perched at the bar in a floral dress, white blonde hair falls over her eyes as she sees me and a delicate hand rushes to return it to order. My heart gallops ahead of me, eager to begin and it sighs contentedly when we brush cheeks politely. I make a paltry effort to stifle its hunger but my disobedient eyes have already drunk in her bare shoulders and alabaster skin. She is a dove amongst starlings. We sit and as we begin to make small talk, I notice her hands fluttering like hummingbirds around her face. She is nervous. That knowledge, that her emotions are so in tune with mine, endears her to me further. I want to soothe her fears so I take her to the place where she is in control.
“St Margaret’s seems like a good place to teach; do you enjoy it?” I am immediately rewarded as her mouth bursts into a radiant smile.
“It’s wonderful,” she exclaims, “I’ve never had such a fulfilling job. The children are just model students, so eager to learn.”
“Have you been there long?”
“About two years now but did something similar in Costa Rica before this. It is such a humbling experience, I feel like I’m making a real difference.” Even in my short visits to the school I know this is true. The beaming faces and adoring looks tell me everything of these girls’ hearts. They belong to Maria. I think of another little girl’s heart but veer my thoughts away sharply. Not tonight.
“What made you decide to do it?” She doesn’t answer immediately, she’s wrestling with her demons. I want to slay those demons for her and beg her silently to let me.
“Ok, Darren, I’m going to be honest with you. I know we’ve just met but there’s something you have to know about me. If it’s too much for you, I understand, but I need to get it out the way.” This is it. My heart is in my mouth at her forthrightness but I wait as she takes a deep breath to steel herself for the telling. Her next words come out in a rush, falling from her mouth like a waterfall.
“I left London seven years ago when my daughter was killed,” the words hit me like a slap in the face, “I was married but we did not survive the grief, so I left. I was lost and I needed a purpose to be able to live again so I found girls who I can actually help. It’s like a punishment and reward all rolled into one.” She finishes wanly. Her eyes search mine to find how her words have hit: they are like darts to my core. It makes sense now, how I felt her pain as my own. But how could she spend her life devoted to the one thing she no longer has? She is a better person than me.
She is still watching. Waiting. I need to reply but my mind is elsewhere, replaying flashes of terror; a tiny body, devastatingly still on the frosty ground. I want to tell her my own torment but I know I cannot.
“I’m so sorry, it must be so hard.” I choke out, knowing the truth of my words.
“The girls make it easier. It’s been seven years now, I’m learning to live with it.” Seven years? I fall silent, locked in my own memories from seven years previous.
“I’m sorry to unload on you like this, Darren. I know it’s a lot to take in.” My mind is still lost. White blonde hair flashing across my windscreen.
“How did your daughter die?” I blurt out. She pales at my question and I’m not sure if she will answer. Part of me hopes she will not.
“It… it was a hit and run. We never found out who it was.” I feel sick. Fate is a cruel, cruel mistress. The unforgettable crunching sound of a body hitting metal. The nauseating moment of realisation. The panic.
“Where?” I whisper. I can see her confusion. I know I must leave but I can’t, not until I know.
“We lived in Barnet. Look, if this is too much for you, I understand.”
She’s trying to comfort me. I shake my head in horror... A quiet street. Running late. I force myself to meet her gaze, causing her blue eyes to widen, so like her daughter’s as she stepped in front of my car.
And she sees.