Ever wanted to apologise for something but don’t know where to start? In a regular series where our writers atone for their past sins, Annie Caulfield wants to say sorry to herself.
I want to apologise to all the people I have passed in the street, day after day, and never had a conversation with. Well, some of them anyway. Perhaps not the people with axes in night-time alleys. I would also like to say sorry to myself because before this Christmas Eve my wariness of strangers may have caused me to miss out on some great moments.
I have lived in London all my adult life, so of course I’m wary. A stranger might be dangerous, rude or just horrifically boring. People in cities are busy; I’m often very busy and can’t be just chatting for the sake of it. It’s better not to make eye contact on the tube, or start a debate at the bus stop and definitely best not to ask men you don’t know in the street what they are doing for Christmas.
The thing is, something happened to me on this last cold and rainy Christmas Eve to make me rethink the rules. It was an incident with a touch of an O Henry short story about it. An incident of fleeting connection between strangers, that at least one of them will remember forever.
At the top of Kings Road a man in a wheelchair, probably in his mid-30s, has been selling The Big Issue every day for months. Being a mean, cynical Londoner I have to confess that I even doubted the wheelchair. But still, hard enough to sit out there in all weathers, so over the months I had bought from him, offhandedly, without more connection than a “hello” and a “thank you”.
As I went out this Christmas Eve to do last-minute shopping, I decided to be festive and give him 10 pounds without asking for change. He wasn’t in his usual place. I found him sheltering from the filthy weather in the entrance to an arcade of designer shops.
“The man did something I really didn’t expect. He looked right at me with a big, warm smile. It was as if his whole being lit up.”
He said “thank you” twice when I told him not to give me change, although I noticed he didn’t make eye contact. He had a strong accent but he’d been in London long enough to know how we are. Then, and I promise there was no Yule breakfast of mulled wine involved, I felt concerned for him. I asked, “Do you have somewhere to go tomorrow?”
Steady, I wasn’t going to ask him to celebrate Christmas in a tiny flat with my partner and me. I knew of a place near World’s End that made a great effort to feed and shelter people over the holidays. All I was planning to do was offer benevolence at the end of a bargepole.
The man did something I really didn’t expect. He looked right at me with a big, warm smile. It was as if his whole being lit up. He was surprised, pleased… He said, “This time tomorrow I will be on a flight home to Romania. By tomorrow night I will be with my children.”
He told me more about the children, his wife, how it had been eight months since he’d seen them. He was planning to get the last tube to the airport that night and wait for his plane. I gave him another 10 pounds for coffee and snacks through the wait. If I’d been richer maybe I’d have given him the money to get a taxi in the morning. And if you’d seen his face as he talked about going home, you’d have reached in your pockets too.
I wished him luck and walked away feeling so Christmassy and connected to the world. And very sorry that I’d never had the good grace to start a conversation with him before.
Since then I’ve been talking to strangers with fairly interesting results. My don’t look then in the eye, don’t get involved philosophy was a shrewd enough city survival strategy, but it made me miss out on a lot of people and I’m sorry about that. Of course, the next person I decide to talk to properly will be nasty, crazy or as cynical and suspicious as the old me. But I won’t be sorry I tried.
Sadly, Annie died in November, 2016. Please consider donating to the Macmillan tribute fund set up by her sister Jo Caulfield in Annie’s name. https://macmillan.tributefunds.com/annie-caulfield3021 Views