It’s another lovely, sunny day in London and I’m planning to go out and enjoy it. Hopefully, it will help shake the sadness I feel this morning. It is a sadness of helplessness and a definite awareness of my own futility. This sadness is always with me, I suppose, but I’m particularly aware of it today.
A little background: Since I’ve yet to join the ranks of the rest of you in the grownup world, I usually enlist others to take care of my dirty work. Specifically, I’m one of those lazy guys who pays people to clean my flat and occasionally do my laundry. I can’t really afford either of these luxuries, and often I have to scrap cash together or not eat for a week to pay for everything. But let me tell you, it’s worth it. Truth be told, I still do most of my own washing but taking stuff to the local laundry/dry cleaners often beats spending time trying to work out if this colour can go in the wash with that one and then finding out I left a pen in my favourite jeans, and having a cleaner certainly beats crawling along my bathroom floor scrubbing lord-knows-what with a ratty sponge that hasn’t been cleaned itself in months.
Other people do a better job cleaning my flat and doing my wash than I do, and that makes my life easier. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what money is for. Some of my friends often make fun of me for this, but it sure beats having wrinkled, smelly clothes.
When I lived in Surrey, there was a particular laundry where I would take my shirts every couple of weeks or so. Every other Saturday, with an obscenely overstuffed laundry bag, I went shuffling in, accidentally knocking over little kids and generally being a clumsy nuisance.
Every time, I was greeted by a smiling, extremely pleasant 50ish woman who always appeared happy to see me. I didn’t know much about her other than her name, Mary. She knew I worked with computers, and she knew I lived alone (I shudder to think what else she knows about me just by smelling my clothes). She was the one with the unfortunate job of having to actually clean my clothes, but she shouldered the responsibility with a great deal of humour, poking fun at me for my goofy boxer shorts, my inability to find matching socks and the annoying habit of not turning anything right-side out before throwing it in the hamper.
Basically, she served a purpose as a home-away-from-home mum, except she didn’t get tired of my stories and she never let me borrow money.
I love meeting people like Mary. I have no real connection with her, and I only saw her every two weeks on a purely professional basis. But for about 10 minutes every two weeks, I knew I’d get a smile of recognition and a sincere, “How are you, David?” She was not a friend, an associate or an acquaintance, even; she was just one of those people I knew. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot more people that you simply know than are your friends, so you should learn to appreciate their presence almost as much as your friends’.
I knew very little about her life, and she knew very little about mine (other than the fact that I have goofy boxer shorts, anyway). But what we did know is that we liked each other, and that was enough to last us a couple of weeks.
Mary always had what I assumed to be a grandson (if it’s her son, I hope she never reads this, or I’ll be really embarrassed) hanging around the shop, and the tyke always greeted me with a “Hi, David!” He and I often pretended to shoot at each other with our fingers while I was waiting for my clothes. He’s a funny kid, and one time, when he offered me one of his chips, I was in a good mood all day. They were two happy people, and seeing them always made an otherwise mundane task something to look forward to.
I moved out of Surrey a year ago, but whenever I happen to be visiting the area I try to drop in just to say hello. Yesterday, the kid was at the door, playing with some toy he got from a Happy Meal, and he gave me a jovial high-five as I walked in. I proceeded to the counter and blurted out a boisterous “Hiya!” to my former bi-weekly comrade.
She turned around, and my jaw dropped. The left side of her face was in shambles. Her left eye was bruised, bloodied, swollen shut and pitch black. Her cheek was beet red, puffed up and out-of-place. It looked like the brakes had gone out in her car and she had to stop it with her face. She gave me a weary smile, and I noticed one of her teeth had been chipped. The chip might not have happened in the last year, but I’d never noticed it before.
The “Hi, David” didn’t have its usual vigour. She looked tired, spent and, well, she looked beaten. I guess I had interrupted her staring-into-space-thinking-about-heaven-knows-what, because my presence served as a dream-snapper reminding her, oh yes, I work here, and this is the guy I’m always happy to see. But even then, all she could manage was a mumbling, head-down, “Good to see you, David, how are you? Everything fine?”
She responded to my queries with a weak smile. “I’m OK. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” She clearly didn’t want to talk about it – at least, not with me – and I didn’t dare pry any further. So I just gave her a sad smile, said it was good to see her and paused only to give a muted high-five to the kid on the way out.
Mary’s pretty much all I’ve thought about since. Should I do something? Could I do something? Do I go back there, storm in and demand to see who perpetuated this? Is it any of my business? Surely there has to be a friend of hers somewhere who could say something? Isn’t there?
This sweet woman is just someone I used to run into once every two weeks, and I have no idea what her home life is like or who she lives with. I can’t even imagine her face in the anguish it must have been in when whatever happened to her, happened. She’s just one of those people I know, and that’s all there is to it. I can’t make her happier, I can’t help her, I can’t do anything. I just have to live with knowing that something unspeakable, something horrible, something unknowable is occurring, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about. I just have to live with it.
I know this blog is supposed to be about my life, stories where I get egg on my face and end up humiliated. I’ve got plenty of those to go around, don’t worry. But today, knowing something terrible is happening to someone I know and knowing I cannot in any way stop it, I feel like a complete loser. I feel helpless, I feel futile, I feel impotent. There might be other people I know that are suffering, friends even, and there isn’t anything I can do about that either. But right now, I know something awful has happened. And it is horrible. Gut-wrenching. Agonizing.