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. There was nobody about, just him and me.

“Alles okay?” 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 a wardrobe to cover my face and howl, when I heard that he had died, two weeks after Dad’s funeral. Our St Leonard of Cohen.

Shakily restored to his own feet, the man immediately turned to pick up his empty bottle and popped it in the open mouth of the brown bottle sorting station. They have three colours and beer bottles commonly have worn whited shoulders from rubbing companionably up against each other on all those trips back to the brewery and the store. Och, Germany: you slay me. It’s like a magical land in which everyone behaves the way I’ve always done: we’re all in this together. I had just passed a crossing where another crash heralded a tipping bicycle, whose basket was filled with neatly sorted bottles, possibly heading for this same recycle station. They started to bounce and break all over the cobblestones. Before I could react a dozen people had swooped in to help, propping their own bikes and stooping like long-legged birds.

I asked the elderly man, “Sind Sie verletzt?” Are you hurt? 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 me 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 as I watched. The light was just so. I found a stinking dog shit smear on the back of my hand, and made a face and started wiping it off on the grass, still talking. On the far side of the square a street dweller pulled from his breast pocket a little packet of paper handkerchiefs and drew out a fresh one and offered it to me. He bowed. 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 running counter-clockwise, passing the leashes over one another’s hands. They kept trying to untangle the beasts but the dogs running clockwise sniffing one another’s butts had passed into 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 stepping onto the pavement with her friend stopped her body in front of him, forming a kindly barrier. She stood mashing her feet and chatting to him, distracting him and making it a game, then stepped aside without a word when his mother had caught up with him and he was safe.

This communal parenting moves me to tears. I told my friend and we both laughed with joy. I described to him the two dogs blurring themselves into a wreath on the cobbles, their owners do-sie-doing above. It was dark when I put my phone back in my bag and walked uphill past the man who was still standing by his bench, with his beer, gazing up into the trees. He had on a leather hat with a feather to 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 to 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 crowded with bottles hand over my heart which was cluttered with a jar of honey, a bottle of biodegradable cleaning spray and a heavy bottle of milk; the other, free hand was splayed to keep hold of a second jar and a second bottle and I pressed the glass into my heart and we smiled at each other, at the end of an autumn day so beautiful it would make you want to resurrect belief of some kind in some kind of deity.

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