The Kindness of Strangers

February 4, 2016 by Ray Morgan

The Kindness of Strangers

As a writer, small interactions with people you don't know can be a goldmine. I went into a shop today and as I was leaving, a tiny elderly woman, stooped and shuffling, tried to get through the door. I held it open for her, and she twinkled. She tried to bend down to pick up a newspaper, but I got it for her, and she was so grateful I wanted to burst into tears right there in the doorway. She told me I'd done my good deed for the day, and ambled off, smiling. I smiled too.

When you communicate with strangers, something interesting happens. It's fleeting, no matter how meaningful, and then it's gone. My lovely Grandad died at Christmas. On the day of the funeral, we went past some roadworks on a country lane. As our car drove along behind the hearse, a workman stood at the side of the road and took off his yellow hard hat, in respect. We all bawled. It was such a tiny moment; the kindness of a stranger, but it meant the world. We drove on, and he would have got on with whatever he was doing, and that was that. The moment had gone, but I won't ever forget it.

Sometimes I see people on the street who look a bit vulnerable. I worry about them. I can be on a bus and see someone who looks different, troubled, or just a bit like people might take the mickey out of them, and I sort of fall in love with them for about ten minutes, fretting about their lives, hoping they're okay. Sometimes someone smiles at you when you're walking along; nothing meant by it other than just to say hello. A smile in return, and then they're gone, off into their own world, just like you. I also love noticing awesome strangers. Someone wearing a brilliant hat that you wouldn't dare to don, or an elderly person rocking sweet style.

You can go into a shop and chat to the person behind the till and pass the time of day. I get this from my Grandma. She'd tell a person in a shop her life story. I'm not quite that level but I do love a bit of till-chat. I think it's because I used to work in shops. If an afternoon dragged, a sweet old person might cheer things up for you. I remember a really fun, loud woman used to come into the bookshop I worked in, and I'd get so excited when she came to the counter. It would lift my day. Amazingly, when I got together with my partner, it turned out this excellent customer was an old friend of hers. I also remember seeing a cool woman from my station in the bookshop who always had a cool shopping trolley and chic hair. Years later, I would end up becoming introduced to her too and now class her as one of my dearest friends.

Leigh is like that; chance encounters with someone often end up being not-so-chance when you swiftly realise that everyone here knows pretty much everyone else. It's great - I grew up here, live here (after briefly leaving for London but coming back to its estuary charm), and even work here now. It's not tiny, but somehow it feels tight-knit. There is such a sense of community. My partner is reading the local history book Jocelyne's Beach, and reads passages out to me. It seems that Leigh has always been like it - always a fierce sense of community and togetherness. How incredible that even to this day we have that.

Next time you have a small interaction with a stranger in this town, chances are that they're probably not a stranger at all - they might know someone you went to school with. They could have been there when you signed the petition to save Leigh Library. You may have danced together at Leigh Folk Festival, and not even noticed each other. Communities are like that. We should feel lucky that our town is brimming with it; it's part of what keeps Leigh special.