Once, in public, I saw somebody…
People-watching is one of my favourite things. I love to sit in a comfortable place and just observe whoever wanders by. The busier the place, the better.
Recently I was in the city centre. I found myself a suitable vantage point and, having some free time, stopped and watched.
I saw a group of young professionals, laughing and talking together, looking sharp in their business suits, flashy shoes and pristine briefcases. They animated, and one was waving the Financial Times to punctuate and emphasise his points in conversation. Another couple appeared to be dating, and were standing back from the group, arms loosely around each other’s waists.
There were lots of people laden with one or two or more bags, purposefully striding through the pedestrian precinct, marching in time to the beat of their iPods, gazing ahead without really seeing anything around them other than the clearest path to get to their next destination.
Coming out of a shop, there was a mum with two small children and another in a pushchair. She had loads of bags hanging off the handles of the pushchair, and looked harried and angry. She was yelling at one of the toddlers as it tried to run off, and the older child ran after it, grabbed its hand roughly and made it be still and wait. The door of the shop was heavy, and caught on the wheels of the pushchair. An elderly man noticed, and, stepping up, grabbed the door and pulled it clear, allowing the woman to get out and get to her children. She thanked him, hurriedly, still in a fluster. He watched her for a moment, smiled at the children and then carried on his way.
Two old ladies pushed their shopping bags on wheels along, making a racket, chatting animatedly together.
A fat, middle aged man in a mobility scooter negotiated a pathway between shoppers, his basket on the front full of bags, and a small boy perched on one knee watched and hung on, grinning, as they shared the ride.
A group of girls in school uniforms shrieked and laughed at nothing in particular, sharing their gossip in the shrill tones of the young and brazen.
The Happy Hot-Dog Man pushed his cart up and down, stopping to ply his wares and chat to whomsoever he met. He has a smile for everyone.
Street vendors called the prices of their wares – baseball caps, jewellery, socialist doctrine, henna tattooes…
The cacophony of humanity in such a small space, all gathered together, was overwhelming. So many faces zipping along, they barely had time to register as people who had their own lives, their own stories, before they were gone.
And then I saw her.
It was as though someone had switched to a zoom lens in my mind.
Between the legs of passing shoppers, I could see a disused office doorway, and at first noticing the filthy blue of the sleeping bag she sat wrapped in, in glimpses between their ankles, I then became able to see the rest of her.
Huddled against this cold corner, the woman had her head bowed, arms wrapped tightly around her. Her blonde hair hung rank and unbrushed. Her face was blank. Set. It was the face of someone who has nothing left in life but to simply keep going for the sake of it.
She was absolutely still.
I looked back at the busy shoppers; at their eyes. They hadn’t seen her. Or if they had, their eyes slid over her and onto the next part of the scene, as if she belonged to it as much as the wall she leaned on.
I looked closer at the woman. She could’ve been anywhere from 35-55 and had the look of someone who’s been living hard for a long time. Her skin was grey and held no lustre. Her eyes were sunken in tired pits. The arms she held around herself were thin, and the sweater encasing them bore signs of long wear. She still didn’t move.
I wondered idly what her story was. How come she’d ended up there, by herself, ignored, in a doorway in the city centre. What thoughts filled her head as she stared? Whose daughter was she? Whose sister? Whose friend?
Where were those people now?
My heart twisted grimly and a still, small voice whispered within me “Go on then…”
I got down carefully and walked to a nearby shop, buying a sandwich, fruit juice, cake and a chocolate bar.
Walking back across the precinct, with the busy-ness and affluence around me, I felt dizzy, awkward, worried.
I stood close to her and stopped, hoping she’d look up. Her eyes flicked to my shoes, toes pointed towards her. Then up to my face, finally connecting. Hers were blue, but washed out, like the rest of her. Resignation and unwashedness emanated from her body, filling the space between us.
“I, uh, … I thought you might like…I mean…I saw you there and…well…I got you some food. I hope that’s okay. It’s only a sandwich…”
I thrust the bag out at her, almost accusingly – how dare her poverty and apathy and clear outcastness make me so inept? How could I be so rattled? What was WRONG with me? Why did I feel like I was intruding on her space, or offering judgement with her meal?
Her eyes filled with tears as she reached eagerly for the bag. She looked at me full in the eyes “Thank you so much – thank you – God bless you.”
“Er, no problem. Um, I gotta go now, er, take care.”
Pathetic. Running away from discomfort. I didn’t even bother to exchange names. ‘Take care’? Who was I kidding? How can a homeless person take care? Was I going to invite her home and look after her myself? Suggest she find somewhere better to stay (not that I knew anywhere to recommend)? Find her a job? Try to befriend her?
I walked away quickly, partly glad the uncomfortable encounter was over, partly angry as hell that no-one else had noticed her, and mostly with a heavy, heavy heart because I had offered so little, but appeared to be the only one who’d offered anything.
In point of people offering what they can – I’m still running to raise money for Cancer Research, and I’m still not that close to my target yet. It’s all ground to a halt just past halfway. If you feel like throwing me a bone and making me think it truly IS going to be possible to achieve the fundraising, please contribute a few quid!
I’ve been training (quite) hard, and ran another non-stop 8k the other night. I’m still not all that fast, but I’ll get the course done no problem, and there’s still another week to practice.
I have a BRAND NEW BLOG! Shared with Ten Things co-host, Zoe, we now share our poetry over at the Well Tempered Bards. Come and check us out 😀
The job’s going well – this week I’ve been driving the MASSIVE vans. And am now feeling pretty competent with them. Not to mention with the technical aspects of the clinics, of operating the machinery to take the retinal images, and the dealing with the patients. It’s gorgeous and I’m still thrilled to be there.
Remember creepy baby-doll Syph? Remember what a nightmare she was? Well she left me, and went to AMERICA! Where she’s been raising merry hell flirting with footballers, stealing condoms and breaking into the boys’ loos!
Come back on Saturday for Ten Things of Thankful – we are a growing community of Thankful People – if you join us, you’ll get the warmest welcome and undoubtedly discover something utterly wonderful. We’re here all weekend, so come back on Sunday, too. Or either. We’re not picky.