Someone smiled at me today and nearly broke my heart. As we walked through the park I saw her perched, almost primly, on a bench sitting in solitary state. Her body language said it all. “I’m sorry I’m in your space. I’ll do my best not to intrude in your happy life.” She was eating a sandwich and had a carton of orange juice and an apple. As she feasted she did not gaze about her at the trees and flowers, but concentrated her thoughts and attention on her food as if it were the most important thing in the world. Right then it was because at least it gave her a purpose, an activity that she shared with every other human being on the planet. No she wasn’t destitute or a rough sleeper she was just alone. She was of indeterminate age, she was smartly dressed, she had a book beside her, she was totally aware of her surroundings, aware that for the majority of individuals in that busy park she was invisible.
Ian and I were having a few precious days away visiting one of the seaside towns on the south coast. Many of which give the impression that they are God’s waiting room. Since we arrived I have been people watching; one of my favourite pastimes. People are so fearfully and wonderfully made, unique, not only visually but in character and actions on a one to one basis, get them in a herd however, and all this can change.
Our hotel is filled with couples who have stayed together through the tests of time getting past the season when the children have left home or they have retired and found themselves married to a stranger.
It’s common to mock these older couples who can often finish each other’s sentences, sit in companionable silence for hour’s might even have the same stride pattern or wear similar sweaters. What hideous crimes indeed. Other accusations are that they use up the Nation’s resources ‘fat pensions’, clogging NHS services, living in houses that should be released for families. But their body language speaks a wealth of communication; love, friendship, loyalty, trust, encouragement, sympathy, empathy, amusement, fun; there is nothing quite so nice as an unspoken shared joke, all those qualities we want in a relationship but often fail to find.
Their detractors forget that these “Golden-oldies” have paid their dues, and that one day they themselves will come to this very place that they now decry.
I appreciate that some of them can come the old soldier or the prima donna but the majority, like my father-in-law, one of Monty’s Desert rats, just keep on going doing the best they can. He is a living story book, don’t ask about his health ask about El Alamein, his Polish, Free French, Greek, Australian and New Zealand comrades in arms, or the Coronation, Sputnik, the first landing on the moon, the day JFK was shot and with great perception and humour he’ll tell you about being 20 years old and in Iraq in 1940, using his tea to wet his shaving brush because water was scarce in the Eastern desert, meeting his future wife in Italy and walking along a beach chaperoned by her sister and mother. In his wardrobe is a shoe box filled with dozens of photographs taken as he and his fellow soldiers travelled across Palestine and Egypt, there’s a little diary too filled with all the minutia and inconsequential details of what it was really like to be a soldier, not ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or John Wayne coming over the hill, but hard rations, hard tack biscuits and a tin of corned beef between two, and two pints of water for drinking and his ablutions, driving all night in the cool of the desert and sleeping under his lorry in the heat of the day oh, and despite the chaperone, he still managed to get close enough to catch flu from Noemi. You could ask him too how he managed to bring up six children on a fraction of what we are paid now.
As we enter the dining room the tables are set for pairs or groups but there are also the tables that are set for a single person, male as well as female. They sit silently eating their meal the only conversation being with the waiter or waitress. Some enter the room their heads held high assuming a confident, couldn’t care less pose but, it is a hard act to maintain and when they leave they move like a gentle wind whispering through the grass, barely noticeable.
Maybe their spouse has passed on, maybe they are divorced, maybe they had been a carer, maybe they had been traded in for a younger model there are many possible reasons for their isolation.
Once my lady in the park had held down a job contributing to the running of some business or organization and paid her way, in tax and national insurance plus the VAT on every purchase, contributing to the wellbeing of the nation. She may have been a dinner lady, nurse, teacher or hotel manager. Her existence once was noted if she didn’t turn up it left a space and caused comment. Her life is a story book too! Did she stay up all night to listen to the World Heavyweight Championship when Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston or meet her friends in the coffee bar to worry about the end of the world with the Bay of Pigs face off?
If she had been a rough sleeper it is probable that someone compelled by compassion or conscience, during their long day would have stopped to bring a word of encouragement or possibly to buy them a hot drink or sandwich acknowledging that they are alive and despite their situation warranted notice. The lonely however, and there are many, fly under the compassion radar, and in this day and age when it’s off with the old relationship on with the new, there will be many, many more as the years pass.
It is unlikely that my lady would spend the rest of her day on that bench. She would probably wander down to the sea shore she might even sit on the sand reading her book, surrounded by families and couples enjoying the same space but completely excluded, surrounded by the shouts and laughter of others but never joining in. Whilst for most the sunshine and the locality would lift their spirits, creating happy memories for them to look back on one day, for the solitary man or woman the warmth of the sun cannot overcome the chill of loneliness.
I saw her even before we came abreast of her bench and as we passed I caught her eye and smiled – her response was tentative, unsure, but finally bursting forth a lovely smile, but I had seen that aching loneliness in her eyes and my heart broke.