It was a very minor act of random kindness. I could have done so much more. The reward was in one way equally small and yet in another way disproportionately generous.
It was a cold April morning. I was standing on the anonymous platform 6 of Derby station, along with a few dozen other reluctant commuters, awaiting our carriage south. My habit as I wait is to observe and assess these fellow travellers, whilst remaining as invisible as possible. To maintain an observational one-way mirror. They were the usual collection of wanna-be business executives, students and indeterminate journeymen and women.
On mornings like this, the height of our ambition is to get a seat, retreat within whatever personal space we can muster and let the train take the strain. My survival kit comprised a cup of coffee and a phone to hide behind. In the old days, I would have secreted myself behind a more helpfully sized newspaper.
As the train drew in, people coagulated to where the doors would station themselves.
An older couple were just behind me on the platform. Both stocky and grim in their grey coats. She looked austere; he had a more flexible and amicable face. She guarded their enormous brown suitcase – a relic from the age of steam and world tours. He was in a wheelchair.
My instinct was to help them on board. Hauling the luggage and husband up and onto the train would be a challenge too far, even for this redoubtable woman. But my assistance was unnecessary – the good staff of Derby railway station had the situation well under control. So I jumped up ahead of them and claimed my reserved seat at the back of the quiet coach.
A few moments later, the woman was stuffing the suitcase into the luggage rack just behind me and supporting her husband towards his seat. She scrutinised their tickets, checked the seat numbers and inserted him unceremoniously across the table from me – a seat which he more than filled. He shuffled towards the window as much as he could, refusing her suggestion that he remove his thick coat. She was holding his NHS metal crutches. I offered to put them up on the parcel shelf for them. They were very light. And that was it. My very minor act of random kindness.
Somehow she squeezed in next to him. There they sat, opposite me, jammed in so tightly they could surely hardly breathe, never mind move. Two rather large peas in a small pod. She shuffled and expanded and somehow he gave a little ground.
As the train headed south, I exchanged the minimum amount of small talk and disappeared into my phone and laptop. They only talked to each other when necessary. I overheard that they were getting off at Basingstoke. I resisted the fleeting temptation to ask why (why would anyone get off at Basingstoke?). I had work to do – no time for being interested in the mundane travel plans of strangers.
For their part, they were very careful not to put any of their bags or sandwiches across the imaginary middle line through our table. They treated myself and my laptop with a respect we hardly deserved, as if I was some sort of important businessman and it was likely to break at the merest touch. Other people’s humility can be very humbling.
I take the 7.50am from Derby for two reasons. Firstly it is offpeak and therefore cheaper. Secondly it goes straight through to Southampton, without the need to change at Birmingham. I am sure my fellow passengers had made the same calculation.
So we sighed with resignation when it was announced that two engines on our train were not working, and we could have to change to a new train at New Street. At least we weren’t on a plane with two engines not working. That would have been an altogether trickier problem to solve.
And so the older couple had to reverse their whole laborious operation. Again I wondered how much to help, but they seemed to have it all in hand and I didn’t want to offend their independence.
We were all once again deposited on the platform, back in position. The staff of Birmingham New Street were as good as those at Derby. The operation was repeated and we were soon all sat back in identical seats on an identical train. I smiled at the old man squeezed back into his seat. “I saw a bloke who looked just like you on the other train”, I joked. The escapade had fractured my insularity a little. For the reserved English, it usually takes some shared adversity to allow us to express out shared displeasure and comradery. Even his good wife looked a little less formidable. A woman across the aisle caught my eye and smiled warmly.
It might have been an ice-breaker, the harbinger of a wave of social interaction across the tables and aisles, rattling down the carriage domino fashion. Before we reached Leamington Spa, we could have been out of our seats, enjoying a wild street party, singing raucous songs like kids on coach trips.
But no. It was an all too brief cessation of silence and individualism. Things quickly returned to comfortable normality. I disappeared back into my laptop and phone, communicating only with virtual people in virtual places hundred of miles away. The three real people sat around our table didn’t converse any further.
As we approached Basingstoke and my older companions made ready to alight. She got up first, womanhandled the enormous suitcase into the doorway and lifted down her husband’s crutches. Then she came back for the man himself. As he stood up and eased down the aisle, he paused and spoke to me. “Thank you for helping me” he said quietly.
I think he touched my hand – I’m not really sure. Maybe it was just in my mind. It felt like he did. He had remembered a minor act of kindness almost two hours ago, and wanted to thank me for it. A man who relied on others constantly – especially his wife who faithfully enacted much greater acts of kindness every day.
And so, by a few words of unnecessary gratitude, this ordinary and humble old man did me a far greater act of kindness than I had ever done for him. And reminded me of the priceless value of genuine human interaction.
If you enjoyed this little story, please do me the minor kindness of letting me know. Thank you.