kindness of strangers

pedalling home

pedalling home
Written by Cathoel Jorss,

Pedalling home along a tree-lined street which is set aside for bicycles, I heard a crash. A man reaching up to put his brown wine bottle in the brown glass bin had tipped forward and toppled like a tree – at first I thought he must be drunk. He actually flung his legs up in the fall and took a few tips to settle, like a rocking horse set rocking. I had jammed on my brakes. “Alles okay?” There was nobody about, just him and me. I leaned my bike and ran over. He was getting up painfully slowly and had that embarrassed expression that usually indicates want of serious injury. “Die Kante…” he explained as I reached him, the curbside had a camber… Falls, as we know, can be deadly in the elderly and I remember that Leonard Cohen had a serious fall, as so many older people do, in the days before his death. I remember locking myself in the bathroom to cover my face and howl, when I heard that he had died. Our St Leonard of Cohen.

The man turned to pick up his empty bottle and popped it in the open mouth of the brown bottle sorting station. Och, Germany: you slay me. It is like a magical land in which everyone behaves the way I always have: as though we’re all in this together. I had just passed a crossing where another crash heralded a tipping bicycle – its basket was filled with neatly sorted bottles, possibly heading for this same recycle station, and they started to bounce and break all over the cobblestones. As I stood and watched I had seen a half dozen people propping their own bikes and coming in to help, all of them stooping and swooping together like long-legged birds, like the punks and ratty festival goers who interrupt the music twice a day to earnestly clean up the grounds back at Meredith Festival, in Victoria, in Australia.

I asked the elderly man, “Sind Sie verletzt?” Are you injured? He passed a hand uncertainly over the crown of his head, showing me where there might be an injury, and in response to this mute plea for mothering I passed my own hand very softly over the tender scalp, as downy as a baby’s but for the sparse, short, grey, bristling old hairs. “How are you getting home?” I asked him, “you’re not driving, are you?” We stood there assuring each other. I told him the skin on his head was not broken. He told he he would be sure to be careful getting home. “Just be tender with yourself,” I told him, as I should rather more often tell myself.

Last night I had chatted on the phone for a long while with my dear friend, on a park bench under a stand of trees which were shedding their golden leaves. The light was just so. I found a stinking smear on the back of my hand from the bench, and made a face and started wiping it off on the collected leaves, squatting. On the far side of the square a street dwelling man pulled from his breast pocket a little packet of paper handkerchiefs and drew out a fresh one and offered it to me. I crossed over there and took it, still talking, thanking him. During the phone call I watched two dog owners whose dogs – one large, one small – had woven an enthusiastic wreath almost running counter-clockwise passing the leashes over one another’s hands, trying to untangle the beasts: I saw them laughing when they couldn’t keep up, for the dogs running clockwise in the centre had passed into almost a blur. I saw a toddler pitched forward and running on the balls of his feet as he approached the road – there were no cars coming and his mother looked on unworried from a few paces behind but nonetheless a young girl who was stepping onto the pavement with her friend stopped her body in front of him, forming a kindly barrier, mashing her feet, making it into a game, and then stepped aside without a word when his mother had caught up with him and he was safe again.

When my friend and I had finished talking and had made each other laugh I put my phone back in my bag and walked past the man, still standing by his bench, with his beer, gazing up into the trees. He had on a leather hat and a feather in its brim and standing by him was a trussed wheelbarrow loaded with his things. I had gathered all my groceries in two hands and clutched them against my chest to stop them falling. “Thanks again,” I said, “for the handkerchief,” and the man said, ascending to the familiar or affectionate you, “You’re very welcome,” and I said, matching his informality, “That was love of you,” das war lieb von dir, and he bowed and pressed his hand upon his heart, and I pressed my hand over my heart which was cluttered with a jar of honey, a bottle of biodegradable cleaner spray and a heavy bottle of milk; my free hand was splayed to keep hold of a second jar and a second bottle and we smiled at each other, over my products and our hearts, at the end of an autumn day so beautiful it would make you want to resurrect belief in some kind of deity.

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