“Excuse me” wheezed a tired voice as I passed the bus stop.
It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon on a gloriously sunny Summer day. Birds were out, the sky was clear, and it was pleasantly warm. Not like Britain at all, then.
Silently, I braced myself for the inevitable request for some spare change. We were just down the road from the only shops in the area. I’d lost count of the number of people who’d shuffled along the main road out of the nearest town, heading this way. There weren’t many options there as it was, and this was the last place people with nowhere to go had before they ended up in the countryside proper. They almost always asked for money to get the bus back to town, assuming they weren’t just passed out on the bench.
In fact, I’d seen more loiterers at this bus stop than passengers recently.
Perhaps living in the city had hardened me. I was still adjusting to my new, more sociable environment; I still had more than a little cynicism to shed.
He pointed a can of something strong in my general direction. It was missing a ring pull.
“Do you think you could help me with this?”
Several years ago, I went through a phase of carrying a lighter with me. I never smoked, but it was handy on more than one occasion. Nowadays, in a similar vein, I carry a small multi-tool on a keyring. It was a Christmas present from a friend several years ago. I dug it out again before a recent trip abroad, where it quickly proved how useful it could actually be. I’ve kept it handy since. The curse of being a former Scout – I took the “Be prepared” mantra a little too seriously sometimes.
In a flash, I was mumbling about having something “that’ll do the trick” and fishing in my pocket. The fact that I could be useful instantly overriding any kind of initial misgivings I had about the man’s potential character.
In truth, I think he was as surprised as I was. He mumbled something I took as a joke, if only because of the gleeful giggle that followed it.
I was too busy jabbing the small blade through the weak spot in the aluminium to really listen. Especially as I also had to try and bend the opening back through a jet of foam.
As I triumphantly handed the can back, he took my hand.
I think he tried to shake it. Unfortunately, as he went to do so, he realised I still had the small knife in my right hand while I handed him the can with my left.
So he took my left hand in his right and wobbled it a little, aloft. It was similar to how boxing referees declare the winner of a fight.
It went on a touch too long, too. The awkward move giving me time to notice the lack of other cans, the smell of alcohol on his breath, and how spectacularly he’d misjudged his appreciative gesture.
The glazed look as he thanked me, a little too sincerely perhaps, confirmed how drunk he was.
We parted ways as I tried my best to wipe off the remainder of the beverage from my keys and hands before it got sticky.
A couple of hours later, I found myself passing the bus stop again, this time on the other side of the road. The man was still there, looking at the pavement.
To look at him now, you’d have just thought he was waiting for a bus, even though several must have gone by since our earlier exchange. He was clean shaven, his jacket and jeans apparently untouched by the jet from the can as I’d opened it. He just looked like anyone else. Nobody walking past him for the first time now would have any idea about what had happened.
He seemed to sense my presence, looked up, and smiled. I waved in passing.
I suddenly found myself saddened by the whole incident. Had I just been an unwitting enabler to an alcoholic; my desire to be useful outweighing any thought of what might be the right thing to do by him? Had I been the only kind of human contact he’d had all day, besides the person who’d sold him the can?
I wondered what the series of events had been that lead up to our meeting.
Maybe I was just the latest in a long line of people who’d had to stab open a can for him.
Maybe he’d just lost his job or been kicked out of the house. Maybe he’d won the Lottery and celebrations had got a little out of hand. Maybe he didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe he was conducting a little social experiment.
I’d never find out. I haven’t seen him since.
But I’ve always remembered that look in his eye as he ‘shook’ my hand. A genuinely thankful look for whatever dubious, small kindness it was I’d paid him.