On the way to town to buy birthday cards on Sunday afternoon, a man stopped us to ask if we were local and if so, where he could go for some lunch. Reliant on a walking frame he explained that he couldn’t go very far and that he wasn’t familiar with Birmingham, but that he happened to end up here as a result of a mix up with the trains. The question, it turns out, wasn’t really about lunch, but rather an excuse to start up a conversation. Step by painful step we continued in the same direction as him for some twenty minutes, covering just twenty metres in that time, but also more than twenty years of his memories. Love, loss, disability, loneliness, despair and the cost of living, but also his love of classics, philosophy, and memories of all the places he has called home over the fifty seasons he’s seen come and go.
Most of all, given the time of year, he spoke of the cruelty of winter, and Christmas. Who to spend it with when loved ones have died. What to do if your body is failing you. How he just wants to be with his tribe, to be looked after, and to feel like he belongs somewhere. The encounter was heartbreaking, because I can appreciate how desperate for human company someone must be to stop strangers on a street corner and share their life story with them. I know there must be thousands of people across the UK experiencing acute loneliness, and for whom winter is a bitter reminder of all they have lost over the years.
Eventually we turned off in different directions, him to a quiet pub on the edge of the city centre and us to town to brave the crowds and find cards for two upcoming fortieth birthdays. The encounter will stay with me though. There are no easy answers, but it seems that a little bit of conversation can go a long way.