I walk the streets most days. It’s not because I’m currently homeless (that may come). No, it’s just that I daren’t take the car to go shopping or deliver my son to school in case there’s no parking space left in my road by the time I get back.
Out on the streets, I’m constantly greeting and then re-greeting local people I know who are also building up their daily steps on their smart phones. These days, I give these neighbourhood acquaintances a quick smile and a rather old-fashioned ‘Good morning!’ and walk on. They seem happy enough. None of us is looking for a conversation.
This is not entirely the case with complete strangers, with whom I increasingly find myself having brief, but sometimes quite disconcerting, exchanges. The other day, I was half way home from the shops weighed down by a heavy bag of food, when I almost trod on an elderly man sitting on the pavement at my feet. He was in a tight, foetal huddle, his head buried between his knees. I navigated my way round him and continued on my way, glancing back every few yards to see if he was alive or dead. As I went on I began to feel guilty that I hadn’t asked if he needed help. By the time I was home I was feeling wretched, so I dumped my shopping and ran back the quarter of a mile to where I had seen him. I turned the last corner and there he was, up on his feet and jauntily striding towards me, seemingly as right as rain. It felt awkward to turn round there in front of him, so I continued walking, a bit out of breath. My back was aching after that heavy bag I’d been carrying and I had my left arm behind me, rubbing the base of my spine. Our eyes met as we passed. ‘You ok?’ I asked, ‘Oh yes, certainly!’ He beamed at me, then added, ‘Sorry to be staring at you.’ ‘No problem,’ I replied, but he went on, ‘I thought you might be an old soldier.’ ‘Gosh. Why?’ ‘You seemed to have only one arm.’ He strode on, leaving me non-plussed.
Even more disconcerting are the occasions when people stop me in the street and ask for directions. It’s nice finally to be doing something useful for the community, and there was a time when I would even approach people who looked as if they might be lost, and ask them if they needed help. However, it’s better not to ask. Why? Because I prove to be no help at all. ‘Oh dear, I am sorry, but I don’t know that street,’ I tell them. ‘You’d better ask someone else.’ However, a few yards on I suddenly realise that I do know that street, after all. But they’re already out of sight, heading in the wrong direction. I wander off, guilty and disconsolate.
Last week a young man was approaching me down a long suburban road. I could see him coming some way off, and as he got nearer it was clear he was limping and weary. When he got to me he halted and asked where he could get something to eat, a sandwich, perhaps or even just a bag of crisps. I had to think quite hard before I remembered there was a café about a mile away. I gave him complicated directions and he limped off. After a few minutes I stopped in my tracks. I had suddenly remembered that there was a lonely convenience store just round the next corner. Too late.
Next day a woman stopped me as I hurried my son to school, asking where she could find the address which she read out from a scrap of paper in her hand. It didn’t ring any bell. I googled it on my phone. It took ages to get a signal but when I finally located the address it looked to be quite close, but back down the road from which she’d come. She turned round and set off, and we raced to school. For some reason, the incident preyed on my mind all day and in the evening I looked the address up again. The result was horrifying. Maybe I’d misheard her, or maybe the scale of the map was wildly different from what I had imagined. Either way, the road I’d googled was in the next borough, a good 6 or 7 miles away.
The cumulative effect of these humiliating blunders has been to make me determined neither an asker nor an asked to be. But yesterday something very different happened. Something rather wonderful. I came out of the local park to find a woman standing in front of a sign on the wall and looking about her in some distress. I hesitated, of course, but then I plunged in and asked, ‘Can I help?’ ‘I’m so upset,’ she replied. ‘Well, yes, I can see that. What’s the matter?’ ‘Some tourists just asked me the way to Hogarth’s House…’ ‘Go on.’ ‘And I told them it was that way.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘ But this sign says it’s the other way.’
Did I feel as sympathetic, inside, as I seemed to be, on the outside? Or did I feel relief, with just a touch of schadenfreude?
No real need to ask.