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The kindness of strangers

Those two litttle words (or one if you spell it ‘thankyou’) aren’t that hard to say, writes Patrick Horton.

Cartoon: Mikaela Bartels
Cartoon: Mikaela Bartels
Cartoon: Mikaela Bartels

Two lessons: strangers can sometimes be kind, and saying “thank you” is not hard. One time I helped a man push his car 200 metres uphill, and he barely acknowledged my existence. Another time I helped an old man in a broken wheelchair make it to the hospital, also uphill. Once my use was expended, he shrugged me off like I was the one that stank of shit. I’m sure this happens all the time; compassion and neighbour-loving are the foundations of most conceptions of morality, and humans are generally ungrateful and self-entitled beings. Sometimes, though, when you go above-and-beyond, you want to be thanked. You want that pat on the shoulder.

A week ago I was walking my girlfriend to the train station. From around the corner we heard banging, and when we got there we saw a middle aged Chinese couple scurrying around frantically, apparently trying to gain access to the station’s solitary toilet cubicle. She was yelling and clutching her stomach; he was holding her and looking concerned. Seeing us, the woman cried out asking if we knew how to open the restroom door. I told them it’s closed at night, and thinking this was just a case of Number One’s offered directions to a nearby patch of scrub where she might subtly pop a squat. The couple ran off as the train arrived and I saw my lady off.

Homeward bound I came across the couple again, even more helpless than before. My first thought was to offer the woman my bathroom. My second thought was that that’s a very strange thing to offer a stranger. My third thought was that they might be frightened by such an uncouth suggestion from a bearded man with no shoes – the egg would be on my face. I looked into her eyes. I saw the desperation, the torment within. “Would you like to use my bathroom? I live round the corner”, I said. “Yes please!” – and we were on our way. Post-haste we limped-jogged-skipped, me attempting to make conversation, her clutching her abdomen, him helping her walk, looking gaunt. Pleasantries were not on the agenda.

Nearly there, I tried to explain the situation: shitty student house, messy bathroom with no light, candles usually suffice, etc., but the language barrier and notable urgency of the situation made this difficult. Once inside I ran ahead, and in the bathroom illuminated only by the fluorescent tubes of the kitchen I tried to light a match for a candle – alas! A party had been thrown the night before and the flaccid, sodden matchbox fell apart in my hands like wet leaves. With no time to find a lighter, I made way for the poor woman. I leaped from the bathroom to the kitchen in the same moment her bottom hit the seat. Before you could say “extra mayonnaise, thanks!” the not-inconspicuous effects of an upset stomach assaulted the porcelain and seemed to echo around the entire house. I became instantly uncomfortable.

With the bathroom door still wide open to provide light from the kitchen, the woman’s husband stood to attention outside to provide protection and moral support. I busied myself in the kitchen, rummaging in the fridge drawer, rearranging vegetables and beers for several minutes, just hoping it would end. But the bowels would not stop churning and she continued to splat, triggering a flashback to when I shat myself on a 20 hour train ride in India after some funky chaat. The kitchen was no longer safe. Politely excusing myself with an awkward, undignified smile to the husband, I darted to the living room, distracting myself with a picture book about the universe. Planets materialize, stars collapse, a squirt and a groan of pain comes from down the hall. A black hole absorbs a galaxy, a meteoroid is destroyed as it enters the atmosphere, a wince is barely audible over a fart and a dribble.

The universe forms, destroys itself, the moaning stops, and finally she emerges, timid. I did my best to be civil, offering water, tea, fruit – it’s important to keep hydrated when you’ve got the shits! – but the pair were too polite (and probably ashamed) to take me up on it.

She hurriedly explained that their son will pick them up now, could I please text him my address? I obliged, continued offering hydration and sustenance to no avail. Very quickly they withdrew themselves from my household, a kilo or two lighter and looking at the ground. Twenty minutes later I was taking out the garbage and they were sitting there in the gutter, still waiting. I offer and awkward wave and a shrug, but I’m already forgotten.

And not a word of thanks.


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