It was cold as usual, when Mark came out of the shop to where I was waiting for him, and since we hadn’t met for the whole day he gave me a quick peck on the cheek. One old lady that passed us by, beamed up in a smile, and with the attitude of a wink-wink nudge-nudge she confided in us that it was beautiful to see young people in love.
Not to let the chance for some praise and admiration slip me by, the old lady and I started a chat, which ended up with us sitting in a café where she told me about her life in South Africa, and then in India, and then in the US, and finally here. “I’ve come home to die in England,” she says. “All those other places, they’re fantastic and wonderful and all, but I want to die here.”
Not that she looked ready to drop at any time soon. What could she have been? It’s impolite to ask, so I never did, but I think she was in her mid seventies. Far to young to die in an age when people regularly live to ninety or a hundred. And with the advances going on in medicine, it will probably be the default before long to live beyond one hundred.
The woman had left England in the seventies to go and work as a nurse in Africa, for the Red Cross. The seventies were the times of the great famines, and the twenty-something girl had gone there to help long before Bob Geldof thought ‘we are the world’. In the nineties when Mandela walked out from Robben Island and South Africa finally abolished apartheid, she went to India to help in the slums there.
And then, tired of charity work under difficult circumstances, she accepted a nice job at a hospital in the USA. A reward. She had gone out to save the world, and having saved many people and seen many she hoped to save go, she wasn’t about to have anyone criticise her for thinking of her nest egg and retirement. And here she was, outside a second-hand shop in our town, commenting to a pair of strangers about how beautiful love is.
Here was this plain woman, who at one point maybe was quite pretty. She could have settled for a life as a wife and a mother, and she could have lived in a house identical to ours somewhere in this town. Instead she unfurled her simple blouse sleeve and showed a tattoo that an African witch doctor had made for her because she saved his children in the African bush of the 1980s, and it struck me that our love wasn’t half as exciting and real as hers.
Mark and I are common as muck. There are millions like us. Our quirk that supposedly give us some sort of status is that instead of doing like every other person our age do, finding a partner to love of the opposite sex, we found partners of the same gender. I don’t think that qualifies as a heroic love. But hers do.
My firm conviction is that humanity is defined by love. Our aspiration for love is confounded by our weaknesses – but it is what we are looking for. Friendship, companionship, trust, and love. To be the charitable stranger, to go out and make the world a better place. Mark and I haven’t done that, but this woman has.
So, for one hour the love generations gathered in a dingy little café over a mug of tea for me and Mark, and a steaming cup of coffee for this woman. To think what a chance for adventure a chance meeting can have in it. We’ve exchanged addresses, and one day we’re going to go over to her place and watch the photo albums of her life. In a way she feels a bit like Spence; there’s a depth to her that hides behind the plain face, and with a little digging there’s a whole epic arc deserving a book or a series of books.