From Dimitrina Petrova
It was in a tunnel that I first became aware of Maria’s presence. It was dark and there were enormous chrysanthemums everywhere, and the sound of guitars in the distance. The tunnel was formed by lines of boys and girls, twenty or thirty of us, holding hands up to make an archway. One boy or girl walked through, choosing a partner and thus de-coupling a couple, then the new couple walking under clasped hands to take their place at the back of the tunnel, as its last segment. The abandoned partner went to the front, entered the tunnel, walked through, chose another partner, de-coupling a couple, and led them to the back, holding hands, while the new abandoned partner went to the front of the tunnel, walked in, and so on. No it was not monotonous. We were 15, and hearts were beating fast – will he choose me? This was a flirtation game. He chooses her, she chooses him back when her turn comes, the message is clear. Or she chooses someone else to make him jealous, but then he too chooses another and she is in agony.
So it was in a tunnel, in a lovely village, Surnevo perhaps, or was it a different name, with those unbelievable chrysanthemums in late September, bigger than a child’s head, in a dozen of bright colours, in every front garden. This is where I became aware of Maria, during one of those autumn spells of agricultural work to which we were taken by our school, the English language school of Burgas. She was that other girl whom he kept choosing in the tunnel, time and again, to my despair. He was my current teenage infatuation but of course he knew nothing about my feelings and never noticed me once, in the darkness. He was choosing the glowing Maria, all the time, every evening. I don’t remember his name. I was falling in love secretly at least once a week in those years, so no wonder time and self-importance have erased everything except that he was, naturally, divinely handsome, tall, with dark hair, and telling the best jokes.
What else? The roosters crowing at sunrise, the crisp and cool air after rain, the autumn skies, and yes, she was a beauty, my adversary, the winner, and she possessed the most gorgeous hair, and walked like a princess, tall and proud on thin adolescent legs. Maybe we spoke, maybe not. My memory wouldn’t divulge any more details. I can’t even say for sure that this is when we actually met. It is only this awareness of her brilliant presence, of her glowing existence. She went on to graduate with a gold medal from high school.
I never heard of her again, for four decades within which my life ran its course. But then we met again, just a few years ago, this time for real, and did speak and speak and I re-discovered the buried treasure from childhood. We had so much to talk about. Starting from a similar background, we had wound up at the same final destination, and built lives here, in London. That felt like happiness. She had invented a way to build a unique career, and she kept building her company with that brilliance she always had about her. Not in the sense of “brilliant!” that is the everyday cliché uttered by the British (including us, I am afraid) a hundred times a day in the most trivial of situations (“Would you please pass me the butter? Brilliant, thanks.” “You are giving me a doctor appointment for June 15th next year? Or brilliant, huge thanks!”). No! She was brilliant in the true original sense: far better than “good”, better than “excellent”, genuinely exceptional.
We started meeting from time to time, for delightful walks, to appreciate how lucky we were to be living in a big secret garden called England, and to sit for a cup of tea and scones in one of the welcoming shops of the National Trust. One doesn’t make friends at my age, not me for sure, but we became friends in no time. It was always a pleasure to discuss with her and Andrey this subject or that, and there was never enough time, so bye-bye now and back to our relentless schedules, until next Sunday. Yes, always intending to meet a week later but it was more like several weeks each time, in the grip of demanding jobs and perpetual travel. There was never enough time.
Oh, the day I learned she had cancer! She dismissed it cheerfully: “I had a small health problem here, sorry I wasn’t available for a while, when are we going for a walk?” And then all these months, for over two years, I was watching her fight the disease, with such determination, courage and grace.
The fact that she lost is life changing for me: if anyone could possibly overcome stage 4 lung carcinoma, it should have been her. She was brilliant every step of the battle. But if she lost, then no one could have won. Her dying forced me to rethink my own possible responses, when my time comes.
Maria! You have remained an enigma, but whatever you felt inside, you remained, to the end, defined by these two words that flashed in my mind every time I saw you: your courage and your grace.
I missed your funeral, and at some level, as you know, I didn’t. The very hour you were laid to rest in London, we were having a glass of red wine on the 18th floor of a Hong Kong hotel. It was 9 p.m. We were looking at the beautiful harbour and the futuristic skyline of Hong Kong Island across the stretch of South China Sea. You had already been there while still alive, but I was there for the first time and no one had warned me about the beauty of the place. As such, I was crying. But you were happy by my side just out of the window, in the air, with your undefeated smile; and with your unique voice you were discussing feng shui and ways to build high rises so as not to upset dragons, as the ridges of the mountains were the dragon spine, and the dragon needed to pass through the buildings in order to drink from the sea. “Always remember to leave a hole for the dragon in whatever you are building”, you said and laughed.
Good bye now, Maria. See you in a bit. I will recognise your face glowing in the star dust, at the end of the tunnel, and may I be blessed to walk into it with a piece of your courage and your grace.