Sunday, 31 July 2016

I have always depended on the insights of strangers

The worst bit of walking back from my Sunday morning badminton class is that most of the walk’s uphill. That’s painful after an hour’s drilling by an admittedly fine, but demanding, coach followed by a second hour’s play.

It’s particularly painful when I reach the station. Cutting through it is my most direct route home, but it means climbing a double flight of stairs. Tedious in the extreme when your legs are already stiffening up nicely.

Today I’d got to the top, with some relief, when I saw a little old lady about to struggle down with a suitcase she was having trouble managing.

My first thought was, “normally, I’d help. That’s the kind of person I see myself as. Who cares if I have to come back up the stairs again afterwards?”

My second thought was even more galling: “little old lady? She’s probably only a few years older than I am. What’s a little old man doing offering a little old lady help?”

That settled it for me.

“Can I help you with that?” I asked.

It took three times of asking but in the end she heard me.

“Oh, thanks,” she eventually said, “but it’s heavy, you know.”

Her case was about the size of the backpack I use to carry my kit to work. That’s a lot heavier than I like, since I insist on carrying two laptops, but it’s still perfectly bearable. Her suitcase was pretty much in a day’s work, literally, for me.

As we walked downstairs, she must have caught sight of my sweat-stained shirt and my racket bag, and asked, “are you a tennis player?”

“No,” I said, “badminton.”

“Oh,” she said, pleased, “so am I.”

She paused and thought again.

“Well, I used to be.” That gave me just a couple of seconds to feel superior before she went on, “I used to play for Yorkshire.”

She played for her county?

“Oh, well, you know…” I started mumbling, planning on telling her that I never came even remotely close to that level.

Great game!
See the player on this side of the net? That isn't me
The one on the other side isn't me either
“I’m from Sheffield,” she cut me off.

“Lovely city!” I said, and meant it. It also struck me as a better subject

“Yes,” she went on, twisting the knife, “my son played for England.”

We were at the bottom of the stairs by then. I showed her the way to the taxi rank, we smiled and said our goodbyes, and hurried back up and on my way.

People often ask me why I talk to strangers. I think it’s for the kind of experience I had this morning. It teaches you about yourself – like looking into a mirror, but one that gives you back an unvarnished, brutally true assessment of what you are and what you do. Like, not as young as you thought, nor as good at badminton.

Chastening. But I’m sure it’s good for the soul.

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