At first the woman set herself up in the little tree-lined park, just to the left of the entrance, on the grass and among the trees.
She set out her little desk and stool, and carefully pulled out a scrapbook – the kind you can buy at the supermarket, a shallow plastic tub which had once contained cream cheese and which she filled with clear water from her drinking bottle, two small square-tipped paintbrushes, and a small tub of red paint.
Over the course of a week, between two and three o’clock, every time someone entered or left the park through its sunlit entrance, the woman bent her silver hair towards the scrapbook, and carefully painted a love heart with one of the square-tipped brushes.
The hearts were of varying sizes – no smaller than the woman’s thumbnail and some that could barely fit onto her palm. They were scattered all over the page – some were well-shaped, others were uneven – too patchy, too thick, and, where the bristles had strayed too far, too splotchy. Some looked more like ticks or crosses than hearts, but there altogether on the page, all in different sizes, all in the same shade of red, they all looked like hearts, and somehow they all looked as though they belonged on the page.
When the page was full, she turned it over to the next page and started again.
One love heart painting at a time.
At the end of the week, the woman moved her desk and chair outside the park, and across the road where there was a little strip of shops and cafes and the friendly shade of some liquid amber saplings. There, she continued to paint the love hearts – one for every person who walked past the large pot filled with a rambunctious lavender plant as the sun soaked through the cafe windows.
People occasionally stopped to watch, curious murmurs humming and fading. Children watched fascinated as the different shaped love hearts seemed to fall out of the woman’s brush. Shop owners mentioned her with equal parts doubt and curiosity, but as she wasn’t in anyone’s way and wasn’t asking for money, the woman was left to paint her love hearts.
At the end of another week, the woman moved again. This time, to the busy train station.
People who regularly visited the little strip of shops and cafes looked around with that vague feeling that someone or something was different. Or missing. But without knowing what it was. They felt oddly disappointed when they realised the heart-painting lady was gone.
At the train station, the woman placed herself and her desk at the side of a walkway connecting the two platforms. Now, she carefully painted a heart for every person who stepped into the puddle of sunlight which lit up a section of walkway. People, commuters and passengers mostly veered obliviously around her. Some ventured towards her, curious about the repeated red marks on the page.
Then on the fourth day, it happened.
The commuter was preoccupied. He was doing his best to juggle his work and family and he felt frankly as if he was caught in a rip. There was a way out, but he didn’t know what it was or how to get there. He arched his taut back and shoulders as he strode between the slow passengers. In his hand, his phone buzzed furiously and his head jerked down to look down at it, his heartbeat instinctively racheting – his boss would already be at work now – but he was up to date on deadlines and–
The commuter slammed into an unexpected obstacle, which sent him twisting and lurching and sprawling like an ungainly drunk. He sat down on the ground hard. His phone flew out of his hand.
He sat there, eyes wide, mouth gasping, uncomprehending. A couple of helpful strong hands heaved him off the ground and he shook his head and shifted from foot to foot trying to find his balance. Someone handed him his phone as a rectangle of smashed glass.
A semi-circle of people had gathered. But, he realised painfully slowly, they were staring at an old woman. Sitting at a table. With paint and paintbrushes. Painting ticks or the letter V. IOr something.
She didn’t look up.
He stared at her. He’d crashed into her table. Who put a table on a walkway, for god’s sake!
He stared at her silently. His hand clenched his phone and he felt a sting on his palm. His mouth parted. He wanted to yell. He really did. He was trying to do everything. Be everything and it wasn’t ever enough. Now he didn’t even have the voice to yell, scream, whatever.
He took a step forward and people in the semi-circle darted looks to him before looking back at the old woman. He followed their stares. There, on the old woman’s page of red ticks was a large splotch of red. A smear which looked nothing like a tick. Obviously caused when he had accidentally bumped into her table.
Just above his knee, his thigh bloomed painfully at the point of contact. His phone chose that moment to stab his hand again.
Silence reigned. Even down on the platforms.
Then, the semi-circle of people murmured.
The old woman picked up her square-tipped paintbrush again, dipped it in the red pot and carefully painted the splotch into a very large heart. It was much bigger than all the other hearts on the page. It somehow fitted on the page easily and all the other hearts co-existed around it.
The murmurs grew into a ripple of smiles, and people straightened and stared at him brilliantly. As though he was somehow responsible for it all.
Someone clapped him on the back. “The largest heart in the book!” they said heartily as though he’d won some prize.
It shouldn’t have made a single smidgen of difference. But it did.
All through that day, in his dirty clothes, during his forced lunchtime hunt for a new phone, and the unregretful informing of his boss that he was injured – he waved his glass-splintered hand around – and couldn’t do the late papers, and even when he got home early and planted undemanding kisses on his bewildered family’s heads… there was a silly, happy glow inside him.
The largest heart in the book.
It was his.
The next day, dressed in non-commuter clothes, he went back to the platform with a bunch of roses, in hues of gold and rose. But the old woman who painted the red love-hearts was gone.
No matter. He left the roses by the walkway, in the puddle of sunlight, untied. One for anyone who wanted one.
The largest heart in the book was his.
Backstory: The painting came first for this one. It was my usual case of using leftover paints and I liked the love hearts effect enough to play with it in photoshop. I loved this final image. The story took the longest time to come together, but I do like this version. I hope you do too.
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