There are people who come into our lives who never realise how big a part they play; then, suddenly, they are gone, and you are left stunned with the shock ending: the disbelief that you have reached the last page so soon, when you thought there was so much more of the story to go.
This week, I went into the lounge on Cardiff railway station to await the 11.25am First Great Western train to London. I had not been there for some time and entered the lounge expecting to see Lena, who ran the morning shift. Lena, whose hair might be red or purple, depending on the time of year; who made your tea and coffee with the care of a nurse singling you out for special treatment.
She wasn’t there, and I did a double take at seeing Sue, normally on the afternoon shift.
“Did you hear about Lena?” she asked. I went cold. After being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the beginning of the summer, Lena had passed away after just thirteen weeks.
I was, and still am, in disbelief, and can’t stop crying every time I think of this extraordinary woman. She wasn’t just someone who served the tea and coffee (“Chocolaty bits?” she used to ask, when I had a rare Cappuccino – and I took them because she liked to surprise me with a different design on the froth); she knew the minutiae of my life and supported me through some very hard times. That’s an incredible feat when you see someone for no more than 20 minutes before the train arrives.
Each time I re-visited Cardiff when I was living mostly in Los Angeles for two and a half years, Lena was always excited to hear of my adventures. But she also knew how homesick I was and, on one return visit, she gave me a silver daffodil pendant to remind me of home when I was away. The last time I saw her, she gave me a satin pouch containing tweezers, scissors and other essentials for my travels. She never forgot my birthday and, every year, gave me a card.
She always spoke so lovingly of her partner Fred and her daughter in America. She proudly showed customers pictures of her beautiful grandchildren and the holidays she had taken to visit them. She was also very proud of her dog, whose pictures she showed me on her phone.
Lena raised a lot of money for charity, most notably with an annual “sponsored silence”. Those of us who knew her knew how tough that was – she acknowledged it herself. She was thrilled when she started working on a Dr Barnardo’s committee and made me laugh with her description of meetings where she had to ask people to stop talking in initials, insisting that they explain the abbreviations so that she could understand what on Earth it was they were talking about.
I have never met anyone who could be so cheerful from the crack of dawn, and no matter how sad or unhappy I was when I entered that lounge at whatever time, I always emerged with a smile on my face.
On one return visit from the US, I told Lena about a very close friend who had suddenly died there, and I was in pieces every time I arrived at the lounge. As Lena had followed my adventure from the start, she was genuinely saddened by my grief as I poured my heart out. She always asked about my mum. She always sympathised with whatever my latest drama was, no matter how big or small. She helped me with my bags. She gave me water for the train. She said how lovely it was to see me. She told me to look after myself.
Every Christmas in the lounge, she had a new toy that would sing, dance, or wriggle to music – all the things I never want until at least mid-day. But to Lena, every moment was one filled with joy and not to be missed.
I missed her birthday card this year. I will miss the Christmas toys. I will miss her constantly changing hair colours. I will miss her stories and the love that filled her eyes when she spoke of those closest to her. I will miss the chocolaty bits on my frothy coffee.
Most of all, I will miss a woman who never complained, who cast a light on everything and everyone around her, and whose death seems so, so unfair.
Lena, you were a dear friend and I trusted you with every aspect of my life. A credit to First Great Western, to Cardiff, and the charities for which you so tirelessly worked, you were one very special lady. And I thank you for having been a part of my life.
A bigger part than I think you ever knew.