24 September 2009

The Begger and The Ring

A while back I did something. Yes indeed "something" transpired worthy of a blog entry. I did something and I'm not entirely sure whether to be proud or ashamed of my actions. This thing that I did certainly goes against one of my own personal principles on one level and yet the very symbolic action of breaking one of my own guidelines somehow makes it seem even more egregious. What is it I hear you cry, well let me first fill you in on a little bit of background information that you may not be aware of.

My marriage broke down and died. My wife left me, taking my children with her and for what was the first time in fourteen years I was truly alone. Now this is a pretty harrowing experience and to be honest greater men than I have fallen further apart than I did in similar situations. I was pretty much distraught most of the time though while at work I managed to hold myself together (barely) this was far more than I could say for my time outside of work. Anyway that little bit of background will put my actions into a context I hope you can understand.

Now as many of you know I travel extensively by train every day and there was once a portion of my daily grind that was particularly unpleasant. On the way home on the first leg of my journey is a train ride form Croydon up to "Real London". Now for some reason this route has attracted an disproportional number of 'train beggars'. You may have encountered them yourself. These guys (and even sometimes gals) wander from carriage to carriage asking if anyone has any spare change (whatever that is). But over my time using this route I've noticed that for some reason they all seem to have fine tuned their personal patois until they are all following similar themes, themes which are probably based on some secret success formula arrived at through the evolution of generations of beggars pleas (who knows).

They nearly all start with something like "I'm sorry to bother you ladies and gentlemen…" followed by something like "I was wondering if anyone could spare even a small amount of change" and usually ending with something like "… I'm just trying to get enough money together for a room at a hostel tonight"… etc etc etc. Well now some of the time I'm sure this is true but most of the time I'm sure it isn't however I would imagine "… I'm just trying to get enough money together for some Special Brew and some smack" probably doesn't generate as much sympathy and therefore cash, which is why as a general rule I never supply even "a small amount of change". Now I'm sure some of you may condemn me for my lack of charity but my views on social breakdown are both convincing and complex (too complex to discuss now but I’ll get back to you later on that one).

But anyway back to the day in question when I heard the (in)famous line "I'm sorry to bother you ladies and gentlemen…" from behind me and down the carriage, but this time the line was delivered with such an obviously un-faked and quite severe speech impediment that I listened intently all the way through, rather than my normal reaction which is to turn off my ears.

Now when this poor chap had finished his delivery he started to move down the line. I still hadn't seen him yet but it sounded like he wasn't having very much luck… and then he was at my side. I looked up to see a man that can only be described as a tragically wretched person. He was on crutches and had obviously suffered some terribly debilitating illness or disease that had left him a shambling wreck. His face was dirty, his hair long and unkempt His speech was hard to fathom and took great effort on his part to deliver, but his need was obvious and great, so I decided to go against my normal instincts and personal rules.

I reach out my hand and caught him by the arm as he shuffled down the train with what seemed the air of a man who fully expected to receive nothing from those sitting around him. I then removed my wedding ring from where it has sat on my hand for many years (much to the utter surprise of those sitting near me) and pressed it into his dirty palm and closed his fingers up around it for fear of it falling from his unsteady grip. His eyes showed some confusion. I told him I had no spare change (a lie the guilt of which still crosses my mind almost every day) but that he could take this (the ring). I wished for it to bring him more luck and happiness than it had brought me and he thanked me, still a little confused and then moved on. Oddly he seemed to forget the other passengers in the carriage some of which may very well have been prepared to give him some small amount of coin but he moved onto the next carriage.

As my stop approached a thought struck me, I wondered if he might think that it was some cruel prank, a trick to make him seem foolish. I mean who in their right mind would give a gold ring to a beggar after all, unless it was an evil joke. I rose and moved down the train after him to make sure he didn't toss it aside. As I entered into the next carriage I saw him. He was standing with his back to me, in the doorway huddled in the corner. As I approached him I could see he was examining the ring while trying to keep it safe in his shaky grime covered hands. I reached out and touched him on the shoulder once more and he turned towards me and I saw his face was streaked with still flowing tears. A smile lit his face when he saw me and I told him the ring wasn't worth much but was real gold. He managed to mouth a 'thank you' through his tears and I had to turn away before they overtook me too. I left the train which had now reached my stop and I forced myself to not look back.

I'm not sure if what I did will in the end make any difference to his predicament (I doubt it very much in fact) but for the brief moment when he turned to me with tears and a smile I like to think that his life was lightened just a little and that maybe a small amount of hope and faith in human kind was returned to him.

For me there is still confusion. This act of uncharacteristic charity did not un-break my heart, the life that I had become accustomed to was still ruined and can never be repaired (replaced maybe), but the encounter with the begging man on the train did do one thing for me. It reminded me to be humble and thankful for those things I do have and to not linger on the things that I have lost.

For no matter how dire my (or your) life may seem from time to time, it could be much, much worse.

As someone once said "There, but for the grace of God, go I."