The kindness of strangers…
I remember it was hot. Sticky, sweaty, made something as simple as walking seem a huge effort. Finding a way through thick, dense air was like trying to push your way onstage in the dark and you get caught up in the curtain. Thick deep velvet and weighing an impossible amount, hardly moving as you push against it, wrapping its folds around you, dragging you where it, not you, wants to go.
The steamy press was made worse by the noise, background thrumming of cars and lorries, punctuated by strident horns and shouting voices. Like so many children all tugging at your legs trying to grab your attention, pulling and shoving, insisting on your focus on them and only them, whilst the others are doing their version of the same dance but in opposite directions. Dust, gritty in the mouth, brittle on the eyelids. Hazy sunshine reflecting off the pavement in a hot fog shimmering with traffic fumes.
I was looking for a cash machine. My eyes raked the horizon across the street, like a battle captain preparing for engagement, checking off the potential targets and calculating range, swivel, elevation and recoil. It was going to be an effort dragging my heavy legs anywhere and the prospect of launching myself deeper into the noise and dust and heat as I crossed the road was not an inviting one. But it had to be done; I needed the cash to equip me for the morning’s battle, chasing down my visa at the embassy round the corner. It had been a long campaign but I was now into the final stage in a weeks-long quest. Like some medieval suitor being tasked with a thousand impossible things to do before he was granted the hand of the beautiful (though capricious and wilful) princess. And now the prize was almost in my grasp, the long-awaited piece of paper and stamp in my passport; just one more dragon to slay and I’d be on my way.
Across the street the shop-fronts were giving me their world-weary come-on, windows splashed with posters foretelling the end of the line, the imminent closure, the slashing of prices to levels below comprehension of anyone not nurtured in a resource-poor socialist state. And then I saw it; wedged between two such emporia was the squat form of the cash point, its red label waving like a small flag atop a distant mountain. I headed towards the kerb, ready to dive deep into the swirling traffic and surface on the other side, dripping but satisfied.
I waited for a large red bus to pass, its diesel fumes juddering out at me as it swept close by, the faces of the passengers lost in their own thoughts or else looking out distractedly at the labourers already out in the fields on this hot London morning. And then I saw her.
Bent forward as if fighting a strong wind, wrapped in far too many clothes for such an impossibly hot day, her brow furrowed in determined concentration as she sought an opening between vehicles wide enough to allow her safe passage. From time to time she would put out an exploratory foot, make a tentative step into the fast-flowing stream — and then jump back, recoiling from the touch as if allergic to the contact.
Her eyes had a look of fear bordering on terror at the challenge of confronting the traffic which seemed not only not to see her but to be deliberately swerving in her direction. As if goading her into taking a rash move which would signal her entry to a world of tortured metal, screeching tyres and her exit as an unconscious form draped across a bonnet or lying at the foot of a heavy truck looming over her with an expression of bewildered innocence. ’I just didn’t see her, she was so tiny, but then she suddenly rushed out into my path and I couldn’t do anything it was too fast, all over too quickly…….’
Her hands clasped a big shopping bag, crammed with assorted bulky items and weighing more than she could comfortably balance. Her body had a list like a large container ship whose cargo has shifted dangerously in a storm and now threatens to capsize it at any moment. The arrangement had been slung across her shoulder but had slipped down to a position where it now dangled between her legs in front of her making it difficult to get enough acceleration to permit at least first-stage entry to the traffic.
There was a traffic island halfway across the road, and I could see her eyes fixed on this goal, a safe landing stage for part one of her mammoth expedition. It beckoned her like an oasis, a resting place where she would be able to recuperate before setting out on the second leg of her incredible journey.
I watched, fascinated and forgetful of my own discomfort and annoyance at the hot summer city. Having seen her make two or three false passes (the last accompanied by a sneering blast on a horn as the truck nearly obliterated her like a testy swipe from a lion’s paw) I realized that this was one of those occasions when I needed to switch on my inner boy scout and come to her aid.
I felt a little strange as I made my move. After all, helping old ladies across the road was the stuff of 1950s books with an improving character message hidden beneath the lukewarm adventures. But the haunted look in her eyes was a Mayday message transmitted on all frequencies for immediate assistance and I found myself responding.
I moved along the kerb to where she was standing, and asked her (trying not to shout or scare her as I sought to make myself heard above the blaring orchestra of the street) if she needed help. Her response was to grab me tightly by the arm like a swimmer holding on to the life belt thrown almost too late. She clung on so hard that I could feel her (surprisingly strong) fingers digging into my elbow. It was clear to me that even with my aid the weight and uneven distribution of her shopping bag would be a problem, so I indicated that she should let me take it. The transfer brought further relief to her frightened eyes and I found myself wondering at how so frail a creature could carry so much cargo as it pulled my right shoulder down close to the point of dislocation. With her right arm locked in mine and her other waving in futile attempts to conduct and command the traffic we dived together into the stream.
And surfaced, breathless but exhilarated on the other side, our feet on the island, a safe passage half-way. She looked away from the traffic which had held her spellbound as we crossed and allowed a flicker of grateful thanks, an acknowledgement of the service which I was doing her, and then we swooped back into the surging water for the remainder of the journey.
Safe, finally, on the other side she retrieved her bag and I (disengaging my arm) at least some of the feeling in my shoulder. She smiled so sweetly and murmured a heartfelt ‘thank you’ once again as we parted company. The last I saw of her was a stooped but now slightly defiant creature, shuffling her way through the pavement crowds, weaving her way in between people and using the shopping bag as a surprisingly effective battering ram to prepare a path.
I turned in the other direction, feeling surprisingly good about myself. I felt absurdly proud of my good deed and made an internal vow to try and repeat the performance on a daily basis. Maybe make the world a better place through similar regular small acts of kindness. I even began to theorize around why it made me feel this way. Perhaps there really was some truth in the psychologist’s thinking about altruism, perhaps we are more than simple savages out to fight, claw, cheat and punch our way through the pack towards our goals. Maybe we do share a ‘theory of mind’ which allows us to empathize, to feel other’s pain and problems. Something which makes us able to offer help, to do small kindnesses. And maybe there’s a reflexive component to it all. That doing unto others as you would be done by you gives you a positive feeling about yourself. One which Nature will have reinforced by ensuring a suitable dose of reward chemicals — dopamine, serotonin or whatever — washes the brain in the immediate aftermath of such kindness?
There was almost a spring in my step as I approached the cash point and reached inside my jacket pocket for my wallet. Only to find it, like the sweet but troubled old lady, had disappeared.