This was my thought as I left for work that morning.
‘If there is not enough good in the world, you can’t bemoan it, or despair, instead you have to try to do something about it. You have to increase the amount of good there is.’
There was a reason that I thought this. But it is not one that I can elaborate upon. The day before I had received some extremely shocking, painful news that left me very concerned for people I care about. I had done what little I could, had got angry, shed a few tears, gone into a type of resourceful shock that is familiar to me. A place from which I can find solutions, actions, before (perhaps instead of) processing the emotional impact of things.
At work, apart from this worry sitting on my shoulders like a pair of remorseless Buzzards, it was a normal day, I was ploughing through my inbox, but then, at about 11.30 a friend tweeted me, it was an aside to say that a man I barely knew at all, a man who only existed on the very fringes of my own existence, had died.
That man was named Horace White, and he was a person whom I saw occasionally pushing his trolley along the streets of East Finchley, where he lived. The only words he ever said to me, that I recall, were ‘best of luck’, the greeting and parting wish he gave to all he met.
He died, aged 54, two days ago. People, young people mainly, would sometimes mock him, taunt him with the name ‘Stanley’, which he hated and which would lead him to erupt into harmless but profane outbursts, I have seen this happen on a bus, and been partly concerned and then politely amused.
He would spend time sitting outside McDonalds and Barclays on Finchley High St, drawing colourful pictures with his crayons and giving them to those who asked for them. I read one story on his tribute Facebook page that he used to keep all of his crayon drawings in his suitcase but then one night left it outside the Post Office, the bomb squad were called and blew it up.
There were some tears in my eyes as I watched a video on youtube of him saying ‘best of luck’ to the camera. He seemed confused, lost, gentle, kind. Childlike. Even in the other unpleasant videos on the site in which he was provoked into shouting, there was no threat to his behaviour, it was childish, a tantrum.
And some of the tears were for The Situation I was worrying about, which – in a way that I couldn’t explain well even if I felt able to write freely about it – correlated with this man’s death.
I don’t mean to be frustratingly enigmatic, but I feel that even without the specifics what I have to write, to put out from within me to here, still holds true, has meaning.
At lunchtime I bought some Monkfish (special offer, for dinner that evening) from a supermarket and then I found myself wandering to Tavistock Square, where I stood before the statue of Gandhi looking at the messages and objects people had left there in the alcove beneath where he sits.
The pain of The Situation was raw, raw and confusing enough to me that I wished I believed in the God’s of man, but I don’t. I looked at the quote from the bible that someone had placed in the shrine, Matthew something or other, I looked at another quote, it was a Hindi quote about the universe coming from the deathless self. I saw a pack of self-help cards that someone had left, seemingly for someone in need to take.
None of these objects were of any use to me, but the motive behind them was. That people genuinely want to help others, that matters. That reached me.
I cannot tell you what my expression was as I walked on from Gandhi’s statue. I was absorbed in thoughts of what I could possibly do to help the people involved most directly in The Situation. I was wondering about the phone calls I should make, of what I should say, what I could do…
And then a voice called out to me. Quietly.
It was a man, a homeless man, his trolley and his possessions scattered about him on his bench. He was grimy and his fingernails were horribly long, he had a white and ginger beard, he may have been in his 50s, or his 40s, perhaps even, like me, in his 30s.
He pointed at my supermarket bag.
‘Can I have a sandwich?’
‘I don’t have any sandwiches, this is fish’ I explained.
We looked at each other.
‘Do you want some money for a sandwich?’ I said, reaching into my pocket for some change. I was being dismissive.
‘I can’t walk anywhere’, he said to me, and he lifted up his trouser leg to show the sores on his leg.
‘I’ll get you a sandwich’, I resolved, ‘what do you like?’
‘Anything’, he said.
So I walked back the way I had come, I looked at some options, trying to decide upon what would be the most robust and well balanced option, eventually settling on a large roast beef and salad bloomer on brown bread. It may have been my own hunger dictating the choice.
I walked back to him with the sandwich, and he asked me to open it for him (his hands clumsy and dirty, his extremely long fingernails handicapping him) I did so and he took it gratefully.
‘God bless you’, he said.
I stood in front of him.
‘Do you have anyone looking after you?’
‘No, not really’
‘Do you visit the NHS?’ my question came out clumsily, but he answered it with a ‘no’.
I stood there for a moment longer, wondering what I should do. And in the end I just walked off, leaving him eating the sandwich.
I walked off because I am not a saint, I am not even a good person. I am just a normal, lost person, like all of us, and I was still hungry, and I had phone calls to make, and I did not have the time to spare in my lunch break to do any more than give a man a sandwich.
All of us is lost because not one of us has any idea truly of why we exist, we come into the world full of bright possibility and hope, and then the whittling away at our innocence begins, the strange chaos of events, of other people’s pain and sadness and confusion and love and joy and cruelty touches us in ways we can’t ever know or forget, but underneath the isolation we strive to fashion for ourselves, the ‘I’, to protect us from the confusion of others, we are all connected in ways we can’t even see, by a filament of being.
What was the story that led this man to be homeless on this bench, what cruelty, or love, or chaos had he known? What cruelty or love or chaos has led me to be where I am? What cruelty, love and chaos am I responsible for?
I phoned the person who had contacted me the previous day hoping that I could help them with The Situation. They were far closer to it than me, and more terribly upset. As the phone rang I could see the chap eating the sandwich, he seemed happy enough, and I felt heartened a little by that simple fact.
When I got through and I spoke to them, I tried to offer love and support and whatever practical help I could. I think I may have done some little good.
We, all of us, affect all those around us. We all of us make a difference to people’s lives, even if we aren’t aware of it. This is a platitude, yes, but it is true.
Horace White simply used to say ‘best of luck’ to the people he saw. That is not much, you might think, but it is infinitely more than silence.