Whisper in the Language

Published on 25 March 2023 at 00:13

A book is a gift. It binds us together creating hubs of humanity. Undulating, changing, flexing like the sea.

A chance encounter and ‘thank you’ email thrust me suddenly into a world I knew nothing about. I only did what I think most other people would have done under the circumstances. An errant wallet, a dead battery and a desperation to travel home after a working day had left a tall man standing frustrated at his inability to do something so natural and simple; find his way home.

I passed him by, also in a hurry to reach my safe haven. A strong yank and spank in my chest made me catch my breath suddenly. The black cavity that was my chest at that time burned red like cinders in black wood. It warmed, warned, flashed into a fire of guilt that I had ignored another human being’s plight.

I stopped. If he was still standing there, I would help him. If he was no longer there, I would go home, thinking positive thoughts about him, willing him to reach his destination. As if my thoughts could flutter through time and space like cosmic moths to help him.

I turned around. And there he was, defeated, looking at his feet. Human beings do not find it easy to ask for help. There is always a suspicion that something else is wanted, a ruse, a lie. I walked up to him.

“I like your shoes”, I said.

He looked up. His brown eyes looked sore, as if he had been rubbing them (rubbing away the tears that shouldn’t show on a grown man). His long, straight nose scrunched up. For a second, I thought, ‘Do I smell?’ But of course I do, we all do. I let that silly thought go. His lips were dry and thin, as he looked at me, his teeth appeared, gathering his bottom lip in like sails on a small boat.

“My shoes?” he looked down at them as a small smile brushed his cheek.

“Where did you buy them?” I asked, feeling as if I was gaining traction.

“Um, Church’s, I think,” he replied, still standing there, rooted and yet exposed, like a winter tree.

“Nice. It’s getting late, are you on your way home, which way do you go?” I wanted to hear what his focus was. Would he ask?

“I wonder…?”

“Yes, you can ask me anything.” I was confident it would come now. In his answer he would gain the help he needed and I would become a hero.

“I was on my way home, but…….”

“You can ask?” I asked. Is there a rule against that structure? Like a double negative?

“I can’t find my wallet and my phone has died; I need to borrow £10 to get home. I hate to ask a complete stranger, but you’re the first person who has come up to me…?” he sucked in the air.

“Of course I can. Let me check, I rarely carry cash anymore, but we can go to the cash machine.” I said busily rummaging in my bag to withdraw my wallet and check it for the required piece of paper that would make his dream come true.

And there it was. I had the cash on me. I took out the crisp ten-pound note offering it to him.

He took it slowly, avoiding my hand. I noticed. My body slouched, disheartened, as red turns to brown.

“Thank you so much. How can I contact you to pay you back?”

“Don’t worry about that.” I brushed him off (I could avoid as well).

“No please, I would like to repay you and say thank you. Maybe I could buy you a drink?” He tried a smile.

Now it was my turn to look at my shoes.

“Give me an email address,” I replied, ready with my phone.

I tapped it in while he looked over my shoulder, checking, pointing out an incorrect letter.

I looked up at him. His thin lips seemed thicker now (maybe it was all that nervous chewing?), his smile fuller, warmer, pushing his face up into friendliness.

I sent a hello email to him and showed him.

“Thank you. I will be in touch.” Then he turned towards the tube entrance and walked away. Just before he disappeared completely, he turned and waved to me. I nodded in acknowledgement.  I stood a while wondering what had just happened. I felt bubbly and happy though.

The next morning I received an email from a Peter, Ah! For some reason ‘Peter’ did not seem to suit him. He was grateful for my help and wanted to arrange a time to meet for a drink.

  • Thursday evening?
  • Ahhhh! No, sorry, I can’t do Thursday, I have a class.
  • What kind of class?
  • A singing class.
  • What are you singing?
  • I’m working on my voice at the moment, so working on poetry performance. Particularly, Emily Dickinson.
  • Do you like poetry?
  • Yes, some. I like William Blake and the Romantic poets.
  • I’m reading Tomas Tranströmer at the moment. Beautiful poems.
  • I haven’t heard of Tomas Tranströmer, but I will investigate. Maybe we can meet over the weekend? Give me some time to read his poetry?
  • Saturday at 12:00?
  • That works for me.
  • Where?
  • Charing Cross, just outside the main station?
  • I’ll be there.

I popped into Waterstones after work to hunt for a copy of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. I found two books buried in the corner, out of place. I pulled out The Half-Finished Heaven, Selected Poems. It was a slim book, with the drawing of black and white sea bird. And I started reading. And read. And read. Until the end. I couldn’t put the book down. Yes, the poetry was beautiful, but it was so much more than that. I couldn’t wait until Sunday to express how it made me feel, what it did to me. This discovery that Peter had presented to me like a lily pad floating across space between us. I held the book close to me, as if it was a small creature that needed protection.

I sat. And thought about what the words, rhythm and sounds made me feel. Quietly spoken, every day imagery wrapped up in other-worldly leaves. I emailed Peter.

  • I am in awe. Thank you for sharing this with me. I bought The Half-Finished Heaven, Selected Poems. I see what you mean. Beautiful aesthetic imagery and yet so calm and thoughtful in his language. You can almost hear him whisper in the language.
  • I’m glad you enjoy his work. You know, your descriptions are evocative, like his poems. Whisper in the language. What a lovely response. Helps me understand my response better. I like his directness of connection, at least how I read him. And, now you have said it, the calmness. I’m really looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. We can discuss further.

The week crawled to Saturday, but eventually it arrived and I was standing outside Charing Cross station. There were a lot of people out and about, crashing into each other, stamping into existence. How humans crave to be known. Soon my eyes lost focus, the crowd blended into a kaleidoscopic haze. I liked it that way. I felt calmer. Then I saw Peter, only Peter walking towards me, smiling.

I kept still, unsure what we were going to do.  And then he was there, standing in front of me.

“Hello, how are you?” he asked as if we were old friends.

“I’m fine. Where do you want to go?”

“How about I say thank you with a cup of tea or coffee first? And then I thought we could go to the National Gallery?” he smiled, looking so different from the first time I’d seen him.

“Sounds great.”

We walked to a nearby café, finding a free table squashed into the corner of the window and wall. We ordered tea and some cake. While we waited for our order, I pulled out my copy of The Half-Finished Heaven.

“I really liked your description of his poetry. I felt kind of stuck when trying to explain its effect on me, but your description was eloquent and apt for his poetry. I was really impressed. Here was a complete stranger who helped me out when I needed it the most and who understands Tomas Tranströmer. How can that be?” Peter asked, all the while looking at me.

The tea and cake arrived.

“Serendipity, I guess?”

“Yes, serendipity indeed,” he said smiling.