I’m being haunted by a man I met at Christmas. I’ll call him Edward, even though you and I both know that’s not his real name. I met him the day after Christmas, when Husby and I were helping to serve food at the Community Cafe (where the homeless and lonely can go for some food and companionship, and at Christmas, for sweets and games and a beautifully decorated place which is just for them.)
Edward was quiet. He’d been sitting and chatting earnestly with one of the volunteers at another table. I was minding a tableful of bawdy, lively blokes, and once Husby had them all involved in a raucous game of Jenga, over dessert, I grabbed a platter full of cakes and started making the rounds of the room.
Edward looked quietly delighted with his piece of cake, yet when (after having been around the room once and stopped to replenish my tray with fresh offerings filled with sugar and cream) I offered him a second piece, he declined, very politely, though his eyes were filled with longing.
The cakes were so popular that I think I went around the room three or four times, checking that everyone had all they wanted. There were boxes and boxes of cakes to be used, and I’d been told to encourage people to indulge “after all, it’s FOR them – it would be such a shame for anything to go to waste!”. Edward steadfastly refused more, though he looked increasingly wistful each time he said no.
Eventually I wore him down with logic and insistence. He had another piece, and enjoyed it just as much as the first.
Later, I made a point of going to sit and talk with him, because he had captured my imagination, and I wanted to know more about this quiet, unassuming man, who wore his loneliness like his faded but neat (and mercifully not smelly (not the case for all of the guests!!)) clothes. What brings a polite, middle-aged man, with shoulder-length silver hair and a high-vis jacket to a free lunch where he then refuses the cake?
I learned, and learned hard.
Edward told me that he goes to the church which takes place in the building when it’s not being used for the cafe. He said he thought the people there probably didn’t like him very much, because he talks excessively, and he hates doing that, but just can’t bring himself to stop – it’s the first time (the only time?) he has contact each week with another human who is genuinely interested in HIM. So he talks their ear off. He’s aware of it, and so to avoid being an irritation, he tries to talk to a new person each week, just so the same person doesn’t have to put up with him repeatedly.
He writes long letters to his brother, pouring his heart and soul onto the page as an outlet – a release for all the thoughts which are stuck in his head with no-one to listen to them. He thinks his brother doesn’t like him, and probably doesn’t even read the letters, because the written responses (when they come) are perfunctory, and not in any way tied to the things Edward told him.
At home, Edward’s room is black with mould. There’s damp, but the landlord won’t fix it. There are mice, too, and the whole house is a mess. The other people who live there aren’t very nice, or don’t speak English. He’s tried making friends with a couple of the foreign ones, but they don’t seem that willing to include him. Or able, because of the communication gap, but sometimes Edward gets a smile from one of them as they pass in the hallways. Some days he just stays in bed because it’s too cold to get up, and there’s nothing to do.
Edward started telling me he should go. He told me he’d eaten enough sandwiches and cake to last him the rest of the day, and probably the day after, as well. Which was a good thing, because what he had at home wasn’t nearly as nice. Or as much.
A volunteer came round and offered Edward a bag of food to take away with him. He demurred, saying that he couldn’t possibly – he’d had plenty, but thank you so much for the offer. The volunteer insisted and eventually convinced Edward to take the food.
“I almost wish I hadn’t come here today” he told me, with a wry tone of voice “it’s been so lovely, and so warm, and so nice to speak to people that I HATE the thought of going home. Going back to that place is so much harder, having been somewhere like here.”
Edward was eventually prevailed upon to take some sandwiches with him, for his evening meal. He told me he’d probably have half tonight, and then half tomorrow, to spread it out.
And then he thanked me for taking the time to talk with him, and left, bound for a dwelling and an existence so awful he would almost rather stay in it than experience the pain of juxtaposition against a few hours of ‘good’ living.
Now he won’t leave my thoughts. He’s there almost every day, with his sad eyes and his longing, his desperate need for connection, his shunnedness, and his desire not to be an imposition.
He fuels my desire to HELP, because this world has so many Edwards in it. So many more than we know.
They all need help, and really, the world is full of lonely or sad people, and the number who are in awful situations just feels overwhelming. How can I do anything about that? I’m reminded of the story of the boy and the beach full of stranded starfish.
I might not be able to save the world, or even really change it much, but each time I see someone I can act towards with compassion, I see Edward’s face, and for his sake, I think “I CAN at least help THIS one”