I looked up. She had on a black t-shirt bearing the logo of a local private institution of higher learning, and motioned to the empty table next to mine.
“It’s not taken,” I told her. She pointed to the table and then herself, and I got her message. “Er, okay, I’ll try,” I responded, despite not feeling particularly confident. She smiled and rejoined the snaking queue that was moving at a snail’s pace, as my lunch partner returned with a tray of gloriously greasy food and fizzy drinks, and I wondered for the umpteenth time why do I even bothered coming here.
There was no doubt that the fast food joint was doing a brisk business; it was chocked full of patrons and almost all of the tables were fully occupied. Behind me, children gleefully yelled their heads off in the playroom while up front, cashiers furiously rang up the cash registers as their colleagues in the kitchen tried to keep up with the demand by churning out food at record speed amid a cacophony of banging pots and pans.
So the last thing I wanted to do on a beautiful Sunday afternoon was to stay longer than I should at a place as noisy and crowded as this, just to hold a table for a total stranger. Of course, the queue the girl was in also had to be the Slowest Line in the Universe, and she only managed to rejoin us at the next table almost a good quarter of an hour later, just as my lunch partner and I polished off the last of our french fries.
The girl indicated her thanks with a quiet nod of her head. My lunch partner was, however, sufficiently curious to direct a random comment about the weather to her. The truth of it dawned on us when the girl responded by making sweeping motions with her hand at her ear; humbled, we nodded and then avoided looking at each other after that, out of fear of awkwardness.
Later, as we got up to leave, the girl and I exchanged waves of goodbye. She gave me a brilliant smile that left me with an overwhelming sense of contentment for the rest of the day – it could have been the feel-good factor from that random act of kindness, or the sudden and immense gratitude of being blessed with all five senses – but it was certainly one that lingered long after, topping even the earlier triumph of scoring 26 books at the world’s biggest book sale.