Yesterday, as I was rushing home to do my other job – au pairing – thinking about the sausage and mash I was cooking for tea and the fact I needed to buy potatoes, I found myself navigating the most insane roadworks outside the tube station. The pavement had been completely dug up and the usual open-plan exit that led to the main road was a thin windy pathway crammed with rush-hour travellers.
As I navigated the chaos, someone caught my eye. A lady – probably in her seventies – with a white stick, struggling to work out the lay of the land. She was walking forward, the way the pavement used to go but kept encountering the barriers that the workmen had put up. People walked on by, oblivious.
I stopped and assessed the situation, double checked she was visually impaired and then walked up to her and said 'Are you trying to get somewhere?'
'Of course I'm trying to get somewhere,' she replied, a bit frostily, or maybe stressed out from what was going on.
And so I introduced myself and explained to her that the road had been dug up and the pavement configuration changed and asked if she'd like me to walk with her a while.
She graciously accepted.
So I offered her my arm. And she took my hand and we walked together. Me navigating the crowds. Trying to protect her from the people walking into her, oblivious of her white stick. Oblivious of the situation.
I got her across the road. She continued to hold my hand. I asked where she was going. It was about 10 minutes walk from the station. I asked if she wanted company as I was walking that way anyway (I wasn't – I was meant to be in Tesco, buying potatoes) and she seemed thrilled at the idea.
So we walked and talked. She told me she was a dancer. That she'd travelled the world dancing. As people continued to bash into us, she mentioned that this was probably better than Oxford Street right now and how she hadn't seen it in years. So I used my photographic memory to describe to her the new development down the Marble Arch end. The glass buildings, the new shops. How smart it all looks. She seemed over the moon. She spoke about the glass buildings in Berlin and said how amazing they were.
I asked her if she had danced in Berlin. She had.
I'm so glad that yesterday when I saw her outside the tube, I had the confidence to ask her if she was OK. Even if I did ask it in a stupid way. I am pleased that I managed to drag all my visually impaired awareness out of the depths of my brain to try and do the right thing. And I hope I made a difference.
Last week, someone did something very similar for me.
I was sat in my local hospital's outpatients department waiting for a check-up on my Crohn's. It was hot. It was busy. And the nurses were charging around stressed. Twenty minutes after my appointment should have been, and five minutes after I wondered if a nurse had mispronounced my name, I stopped a nurse and told her that I was deaf and wouldn't hear my name called if heard.
She rolled her eyes at me and said 'I will come and get you if you are called' and then stalked off.
'But you didn't ask my name…' I said, to her back, feeling tears of frustration welling up.
And then I felt a hand on my arm. It was the lady beside me. 'Tell me your name and I will tell you,' she said, slowly and clearly but in the most unpatronising way.
And that's what she did. And I could have hugged her.
She took all the stress of waiting in that hot, crowded waiting room around.
She stopped me feeling so alone.
It's amazing how one person can make such a difference when you're struggling. Can make everything seem so much better.
What the visually impaired lady I met yesterday doesn't know is, that's exactly what she did for me, too.
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