I was in a super market this afternoon. It's one I rarely visit. I don't like its lay out and it has a funny smell. The one upside is that it is an outlet for TicketsWest so sometimes I still go in.
When I do brave the strange aroma and the disappointing range of veg, I find myself scanning the faces and profiles of the other shoppers. I am searching for one woman in particular. I don't know her name, we only met the once, but I am on the look out all the time.
About two years ago I was cruising the aisles in the afore mentioned store. It had just been updated and I was hoping to be impressed. Nothing had changed. The produce was still poor quality, the range of products limited and the smell, if anything, seemed to be worse.
I wandered around, leaning wearily on the handle of the shopping cart, looking for things I knew I wouldn't find. In the canned goods aisle I felt a tugging at my coat. I turned, expecting to see a small child who'd mistaken me for its mother, or to discover that my jacket had snagged on a passing basket or shelf. Instead I saw a tiny old woman. She smiled and bowed 'hello'.
I wasn't sure of the correct etiquette. She was clearly Japanese, but I was English. Should I bow back, and if so, how low? While I was still pondering the question she tugged at my sleeve and pointed to a place above my head. I turned and followed the line of her extended finger. Apparently she wanted me to help her pick up something that was beyond her reach.
This happens to me all the time. I'm not excessively tall, but I'm above average height. And, unless I'm on an aeroplane, I tend to make eye contact with strangers and this seems to make me easy to approach.
I lifted up my arm and rested my hand on a random tin. "This?" I asked. "Or this?" I continued touching items on the shelf she pointed to until, at last, she nodded and her mouth gaped into a smile.
I handed her the item. There was much bowing and nodding but as I set my shopping trolley into motion, she hung on to my sleeve and pointed down the aisle. She clearly had more shopping to take care of.
I followed her round the shop for another quarter of an hour. The tip of her conical bamboo hat barely reached my shoulder and her worn, cotton espadrilles made no sound on the linoleum floor. She was swift and efficient. She knew exactly where to go and what she wanted. Her cart was soon full. Mine, on the other hand was empty, so when she indicated with a decisive nod of the head that she was done, I smiled, waved goodbye and hurried off.
I knew I wasn't going to do my 'big shop' that day, but the store is not so bad that I couldn't stock up on basics like eggs and milk and flour. When I reached the cash registers, the diminutive shopper had gone.
I went through the check out, (remembering that another reason I hate this place is that they still offer plastic bags) and set off outside to my car. I dumped the single bag of shopping on the back seat and closed the door. As I stepped back I tripped against something low and small. I turned round and there she was. She'd popped up out of nowhere, like a leprechaun or gnome.
The miniature lady pointed at her chest, then at her shopping and my car. I cocked my head on one side. I thought I knew what she meant, but I needed to be sure.
She pointed at me again, then mimed gripping a steering wheel and driving. She pointed at the bags of shopping in her heavily loaded cart and mimed staggering under the weight. I involuntarily glanced at my watch. This expedition had already taken twice as long as it should have done and I had other things to do. She saw that I was having doubts and held her hands out in front of her, palms inwards, just a few inches apart, indicating something short or small. The distance to her home, I guessed.
"O.K." I said. "Get in."
Of course, I couldn't day 'no'. This fragile woman, who spoke no English and looked as if she had only recently stepped off the boat, was unlikely to produce an axe or gun. But besides that, stirred something had stirred within me, and I knew just what it was.....
My grandmother lived until she was ninety seven and she only gave up cycling a few years before that. The roads around the house she had lived in for over seventy years (yes, seventy years, really) grew busy towards the end of her life. She had a few near misses and, I seem to remember, a fall.
There were two ways into town from where she lived. One took her along main roads and the notoriously busy and narrow Stone Bridge. The second was picturesque and ran along side one of the prettiest embankments in the world. The path by the river was, understandably, the one that she preferred.
Even so, in spite of the graceful swans gliding by on the fast waters and the flower beds full of colour almost all year round, there was a downside to this route. She had to get over Bedford's landmark suspension bridge and although it wasn't particularly high or very wide, it involved a considerable number of steps.
Grandma's bike was old and heavy, she was also old and no longer very strong. To get over the bridge she had to ask for assistance. And this is what I thought of when the tiny Asian woman pointed at me, herself and my car.
The teenagers my grandma asked for help where the sort other people steered away from altogether. In fact my grandfather (who died several years before she did), used to complain about them al the time. He was wary of the glowering youths who gathered on the bridge. He didn't trust them - what with all their chains and leather jackets, their safety pins and ripped up jeans. He eyed them cautiously and suspected they were up to no good.
My grandfather warned my grandma to avoid their type entirely. He assumed that one of day soon they would run off with her bike. It was hard to imagine what a group of punk rockers could possibly want with a cast iron, sit up and beg, nineteen forties ladies bicycle, but my grandfather wouldn't have put anything past them.
My rosy cheeked, white haired grandmother, on the other hand, walked right up to them, smiled sweetly and asked if they might lend a hand. She maintained that if she was polite and kind to them, they would act the same way towards her. It turned out she was right. She never had any trouble from them and they always helped her up the steps and to the other side.
I thought about all this as my trusting and grateful passenger pointed left and right. She really did live close by but it would have been a long and difficult journey for a small, elderly woman carrying a heavy load.
When we said goodbye she spent many minutes expressing her gratitude. Her words were in a language I had no knowledge of but the message in her eyes was articulate and easy to understand. I assured her that it had been my pleasure.It was the least that i could do. She was probably someones' grandma, so how could I ever have refused?
Bedford Suspension Bridge. Not huge but difficult to cross if you are an octogenarian carrying a cumbersome bike.
The Stone Bridge back in 1916 (when my grandma was six). It wasn't such a bad bridge to cycle over all the way back then....