The Comfort of Strangers

On Tuesday, Terry and I decided it was time to re-introduce Rubin to the outside world, by resuming his daily walk, which we’d temporarily halted after The Episode, thinking it might be best to try and keep him quiet for a couple of days (and ignoring the fact that Rubin was anything BUT “quiet” during this time). So we drove to a local park we’ve taken to visiting lately, and, of course, halfway there it started to rain.

“It might stop,” Terry said optimistically, so we drove on, and parked up next to the children’s play area of this park, which was empty but for one lone figure hanging out in a “bus shelter” style seating area, presumably in order to shelter from the rain, which had now turned into a downpour. We were just about to give up and go home when the figure in the shelter stood up. Terry just had time to utter the words, “Wow, that guy’s DRUNK!”, when the man abruptly fell over, going down like a tree being felled.

Now, from the way the guy had stood up, not to mention the manner in which he’d fallen, it was very, very obvious that his problem was what’s colloquially known around here as “the bevvy”, as opposed to anything more immediately life-threatening. Still, he was a human being falling over in a public place, so Terry and I were more than a little surprised when a couple of dog walkers, who’d appeared just in time to see him fall, passed close by the man’s prostrate form without so much as stopping to check he was OK.

Then two more people did exactly the same thing.

Huh.

Terry had just started to open his car door to go and help, when the man on the ground tried to sit up. I say “tried”: I have honestly never seen anyone quite as drunk as this in my entire life (and bear in mind, I was a student in Edinburgh for four years). He literally couldn’t stand, much less walk, so after crouching on the ground for a couple of minutes, during which we wondered what on earth to do (we weren’t sure how someone as drunk as this would react to an offer of assistance), he begun to crawl on hands and knees back towards his shelter. Only he couldn’t even crawl: he had to basically drag himself the few feet to the shelter, and, once there, he tried once again to stand up… and fell flat on his face into the mud.

At this point I must confess I started to wonder if we were on one of those TV shows where they secretly film you reacting to outrageous situations, because these falls were like textbook slapstick comedy: the kind of falls only a very, very drunk person, who can’t feel the ground hit him, would do. And having admitted to that, I’m also going to admit to a couple of other unpleasant truths about my initial reaction to all of this:

1. My first instinct was to snigger a little: drunk people are, after all, sometimes mildly amusing to watch.

2. My second instinct was to roll my eyes and engage in a little bit of tut-tutting. “It’s only three o’clock,” I said, self-righteously. “And it’s a children’s play park! Won’t someone think of the chhhiiiillldren?!”

Of course, there were no children in evidence at the time. There was, however, a very drunk adult who, having fallen face-first into the mud, had apparently given up on the idea of movement, and perhaps life, and was just lying there, motionless. Wordlessly, Terry got out of the car, and ran through the now-torrential rain to try and help him, while I sat there and wondered what the hell we were supposed to do now. We were in a totally deserted park, with the nearest house being a good half-mile away. Given that the man couldn’t even CRAWL, it seemed unlikely that Terry and I would be able to get him to our car (which was parked at some distance from the shelter), and even assuming that we could, I wasn’t at all confident that he’d get through the journey home (wherever that was) without throwing up all over us, which would’ve been exactly the kind of thing that happens to us.

Oh, and obviously neither of us had our phones with us. OF COURSE NOT.

Well, I sat in the passenger seat and watched through the pouring rain as Terry approached the man, and helped him back onto his bench. I waited. And waited. And waited. Terry and the man appeared to be deep in conversation: in fact, it all looked very cordial, which made me wonder just what on earth was going on. WAS the guy drunk? Was Terry trying to help him? Or were they just talking about, I don’t know, football, or some other kind of MAN thing? Who knew. (Clue: not me.) By now it was raining in that kind of way that will soak through your clothes in seconds. Not exactly relishing the thought of being soaked through in seconds, I didn’t want to get out of the car to find out what was happening, but I didn’t really want to just drive off for help and leave Terry in a deserted area with a  drunk guy either, so I decided to sit tight.

Finally, Terry returned and slid into the driver’s seat.

“Give me your phone,” he said. Er, DUH. “This is me you’re talking to,” I reminded him. “Obviously I’ve left my phone at home, where it can be of no possible use to anyone.” Terry opened up the glove box and searched through it in vain. “WHY DO WE NEVER HAVE PHONES WITH US?!” he said in frustration, before abruptly getting out of the car and running back to his new friend without so much as telling me what was going on. Or giving me time to present him with my “I will take the car and get help,” plan.

Gah.

With no other plan of action suggesting itself to me, I sat where I was, and watched as Terry once again approached the shelter and was greeted like an old friend by the man inside it. I watched them sit and talk, and then I watched the man lean forward and embrace Terry, several times. They appeared to be getting on like a house on fire. They also appeared to be drinking from a bottle of vodka: or at least, one of them did, and it’ll come as no surprise to you to discover that it was not Terry. Every few minutes, the rain seemed to get heavier. Finally, just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse… it got worse. And that was the moment Terry chose to leave the shelter, and return to the car.

“Yeah, he’s drunk,” he announced, getting in. “Are you absolutely SURE you don’t have your phone with you?”

I started to roll my eyes in response to this, but at that moment my rolling eye caught a welcome sight: a police car, heading towards us. “Wow, how did you do that without a phone?” I asked Terry, impressed.

He hadn’t. It seems that one of the people who’d simply walked past the man without stopping had, at least, had the decency to call the police and tell them where to find him. Terry got back out of the car again (by this point he was  soaked through anyway) and had a quick word with them, before leaving them to get on with it.

“That was so sad,” he said, when he finally got back. It turned out the man was an alcoholic whose partner had kicked him out, and who’d been sleeping rough for three days. He’d told Terry that dozens of people had just walked right by him before we’d turned up, and not one person had stopped to ask if he was OK. Not one.  “I think you’re the nicest person I’ve ever met,” he told Terry, tearfully. “In fact, I think you must be an angel.”

As Terry’s wife, I obviously have to agree with that assessment (maybe not the “angel” part: let’s not get carried away here.). I have to agree with Terry, too, though: it wasn’t comical, or even something to be sneered at – it was all just very, very sad. I hope the man managed to get some help.

EDIT: I just noticed that an awful lot of emails from readers have somehow ended up in my spam folder – huge apologies if you’ve emailed me and I haven’t replied: I’ve dug a few out of the spam folder tonight and will reply to them as soon as I can, but I suspect some older emails may have been lost, so if you think yours could be one of them, please re-send, and accept my apologies!

Also, I’ve had loads of emails and comments now about the links at the top of the page not working – again, I’m really sorry that this has been an issue for some of you: Terry has been really busy with work lately and hasn’t had time to look at it, but he will get to it as soon as he can!

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19 Comments

  • Christian says:

    That is sad, but well done for helping him :) Sometimes it's just the little things that restore your faith in humanity…

  • Caroline says:

    I just very nearly burst into tears at my desk reading that. How sad, for one thing, and also: how great is Terry?! He must have a trustworthy and calming way about him, as – as you say – you never know how people will react to proffered help, nor whether their reaction with change drastically at any moment. It takes skill to be able to interact with those under the influence of alcohol (or other drugs) without putting yourself in danger. (And I speak from the experience of too much volunteer work in homeless shelters during my student days…)

    I always think approaching people like this is a risky business, even if it is our duty as Decent Human Beings. Give the man a (virtual) medal!

    • Amber says:

      Terry is exactly like that: he will always, always try to help if he can, and he’s good at calming people down – probably because of all the practice he’s had with me :) I must admit, I was scared to approach the guy: I didn’t know whether he’d be aggressive, or whatever (although given that he couldn’t stand up, I guess there was very little danger!) and because I read too many books I always have this thought in the back of my head that “what if it’s a trick? What if he’s just pretending to be in trouble, so that when I go over he can jump up and mug me?” Terry is definitely the “people person” of the family…

  • Nina says:

    Wow, brave. As a girl alone, I would maybe not have approached him too closely, but reading this, my first thought was: call an ambulance. When I worked at a petrol station (in Germany you can buy alcohol there), there were lots of alcoholics around, most of them look totally “normal” – seeing them outside, I would’ve never known they had this kind of problem. It’s really sad that some people who have enough trouble anyway get this addiction. It’s great you could do something for him.

  • Glad you guys were able to help him. Terry has a real heart for helping others, doesn’t he. Give him a big hug from us, just for being such a fab human being. xx

  • Selina says:

    The world needs more people like you guys. And I'm really glad you did stop to help him – despite the fact that the circumstances made it pretty clear that he was drunk you can never be absolutely certain. The Multiple Sclerosis Society here in NZ gives its members cards which say "I have MS, if I am slurring my words or unable to walk properly it is not because I am drunk, it is because of my MS", and I've heard of MS sufferers who have been thrown out of places because they appeared drunk. A similar thing happens to diabetics when they become hypoglycaemic. Anyway, you obviously made that guys world just a little bit brighter.

    • Amber says:

      That's a really good point – it's so easy just to look at someone and think you know what's going on, which I must admit is exactly what I did at first sight. Even given that he was drunk, though, lying out in that kind of torrential rain for God knows how long could've been pretty bad…I was still surprised no one even gave him a quick "Are you OK?"

      • Caroline says:

        My Mum had a horrible experience with her arthiritis one Saturday when she was at her worst. She missed her footing and fell down in the street – a respectable, well-dressed, middle-class teacher – and couldn’t get back up because she’d injured her hip so badly. She ended up in tears, and NO-ONE stopped to pick her up – they all assumed she was drunk on a Saturday afternoon. It makes me feel sick and angry to think of my lovely Mum in that situation, and to recall how mortified she was, not because of the pain or embarrassment of falling, but to be thought of that way.

        Eventually one of the mums from her school found her and picked her up. Thank goodness.

  • Terry says:

    Thanks for the lovely comments Amber (and everyone else of course).

    I still vividly remember being taught the story of Kitty Genovese at Psychology at University. Back then I could not comprehend why no one helped her. That feeling of not wanting to intervene was something I had never experienced, now however, I realize we all get it, we just have to fight it.

    I have this guys name going around in my head all the time now, I really hope he can pick himself and get out of his current situation.

  • Diane says:

    Oh, that is sad. The poor man. I'm really moved that you and Terry cared, and treated him with such kindness. Although I would like to think I'd do the same thing, I think it takes bravery to stick around and try to relate to someone who's in such a bad way.

    And to me it doesn't matter if someone's on the floor 'cos of alcoholism or arthritis — they're a human being in need of help, end of story.

  • Rock Hyrax says:

    Sounds just like the parable of the good Samaritan!

    Given that you'd seen the man fail to coordinate his movements at all, I reckon you could conclude he was safe to approach. Otherwise, sadly it probably is safer to keep away and call the emergency services instead…

  • Roisin says:

    I can only echo everyone elses' comments regarding Terry's kindness. It always surprises me as well, how little people are willing to step in to help. I think I have one of those faces that make people with problems want to talk to me and there are times when it can be a bit of a drag or even a bit frightening but really, most people are genuine, no matter how troubled they are.

    Caroline's story about her mum made me think – I slipped over in Marylebone station once on my way home from work. I went down really heavily on the platform and it was scary because people were rushing for the train (the platform number was announced about 3 minutes before the train was due to leave) and I had bags and stuff and it was difficult to get up. Lying there with people stampeding around me was really scary and it was upsetting that so many people just stepped over me! Then two very nice men picked me up and got me and my bags onto the train, and it was so nice – a good reminder that not every stranger is a selfish bastard!

  • MallyMon says:

    A couple of years ago I called an ambulance for a man who was unconscious at the doorway of a pub at lunchtime. People were stepping over him as if he wasn’t even there until I arrived. I thought he was dead. The emergency services spoke to me as if I had made a hoax call and asked me to wait until the ambulance arrived, which I did. The man was just regaining consciousness as the ambulance pulled up. He was disgusted that an ambulance had been called and the paramedics were disgusted because the man had just been snorting some white powder or other which had blown his mind. All of them looked at me with disdain. I’d tried to help someone who I thought was in need but it didn’t seem like that. I’m happy to say that it won’t stop me from insisting on helping anyone I perceive as being in trouble in the future but I felt as if I’d done something very wrong that day.

    • Amber says:

      Oh, that’s just awful – and this is exactly the kind of thing that puts people off trying to help! I’m glad it didn’t put you off, though: amazing that people would just walk by someone who was actually unconscious!

  • Oh that's so sad.

    I have some experience with alcoholics but problems or no, it's jolly sad that he felt forced to sleep rough and endure the sort of treatment where people would pass him by without so much as a 'you ok there, chap?'. It makes me feel pretty disappointed in people and all the more impressed by Terry's behaviour.

    I really, really hope that that guy gets the help he needs to get his life back on track.

  • Nikki G says:

    The world needs more people like Terry that care for their fellow human beings. This story makes me happy. :)

  • Arlene says:

    Having a brother who is an alcoholic I always pray that if he is out and gets himself into a wonderstate that people such as Terry will see him right xx

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