Five-minute Memoir: Zoya Pirzad recalls a mysterious red lady


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The Independent Culture

The first time I remember seeing her, was my first day of school. Clutching my mother's hand, anguished and frightened of going to an unknown place to meet unknown people, I saw her sitting on the stone bench next to our neighbourhood's pharmacy. With wrinkled face and unkempt blonde hair, she was gazing at something in front of her. She wore a red skirt, a red blouse and red shoes.

I squeezed my mother's hand. "Who is she?" I asked. "Why are her clothes all red?" My mother threw a quick glance at the tiny old lady. "You have seen her before. Don't you remember? She always sits there. Now, don't think about her. Think about the new friends you'll find at school." All that day, instead of paying attention to my classmates, my teachers and the whole new phenomenon named school, I thought about the tiny old lady.

For years, I saw her almost every day; on the way to primary school with my mother, on the way to high school without my mother. She always wore red. I named her The Red Lady.

I soon learnt that the whole city of Tehran called her The Red Lady. There were different stories about her. She was Hungarian or Polish or perhaps Russian, she had come to Iran during the Second World War, she had been a dancer, a singer or an aristocrat, she had fallen in love with an Iranian soldier, a general in the army, or perhaps a member of the Iranian royal family. Then this mysterious lover had disappeared and she had gone nutty. Had he dumped her? Had he died? Nobody knew. People said she was still waiting for her loved one. Why was she wearing red? Nobody knew. "Oh, she is just a mad woman," everybody said.

It was May. The huge honeysuckle bush next to the pharmacy had filled the whole neighbourhood with the bitter-sweet smell of its flowers. I was 16 and in love for the first time. He went to the nearby boys' high school. He had long hair, wore black turtlenecks and to me, he looked like Paul McCartney. Every day, on our way to or from our schools, all we did was gaze at each other for a minute or two. The rest of this love affair took place in my mind, and on that May morning, I hadn't seen him for a couple of days.

Is he ill? Has he had an accident? Is he dead? Weaving all sorts of melodramas in my mind, my vision got blurred with tears and I bumped into The Red Lady sitting on the stone bench. She had a red shawl wrapped around her shoulders and a small branch of honeysuckle in her hand. "Oh, I'm so sorry," I said and quickly wiped off my tears. "You just missed him, and don't worry, he's OK," she said. It was the first time we had exchanged words. It was the first time I was seeing her from so close. I stared at the small black mole under her left eye. How did she know?

I got my first love letter from 'Paul McCartney boy' through The Red Lady. More letters, from him to me and from me to him followed in the same manner until finally, the Paul boy and I started to talk. During our long walks, we sometimes saw The Red Lady. We smiled or waved at her and she smiled and waved back. We never talked to her. We were young and in love. We didn't have time for old people.

In May of the next year, the Paul boy left Iran for good. In my small, cluttered room, I read and reread his letters of yesteryear and cried. On my tiny record player, I played and replayed "Yesterday" and cried.

One day, my mourning period not yet over, as soon as my mother knocked on my door and said, "Will you go to the drug store to buy..." I said, "YES!". My mother wanted to bring me back to her reality; I wanted to share my reality with someone.

The Red Lady was sitting on the stone bench. Behind her, the honeysuckle bush was in full bloom. She looked at me, didn't smile and tapped on the bench. I sat next to her and talked and cried. She didn't say a word. She let me talk and cry and when I got up to go she turned around, clipped a small branch of honeysuckle with only one flower, gave it to me and said, "He won't come back but you will fall in love again". I smelt the honeysuckle then stared at the small black mole under her left eye and shook my head. I didn't believe her. Of course, he would come back. Of course, she was talking nonsense. Of course, I was wrong.

Now, after so many months of May, wherever in the world I happen to be, the smell of honeysuckle brings back bitter-sweet memories and one regret. Why didn't I get to know my Red Lady?

After writing the above, out of curiosity, I searched for the Paul boy on Facebook. He is there and his profile photo is one of Paul McCartney, in black turtleneck and long hair. How does he look now? I do not know. I do not want to know.

'Things We Left Unsaid' by Zoya Pirzad is published in paperback by Oneworld on 1 May