People

An open letter to the three women I saw crying in public

“I felt completely helpless and yet entirely responsible. But I did nothing.”

To the three women I haven’t been able to forget,

I hope you’re well. You don’t know me. In fact, I don’t know you. We’ve never met and we probably never will. And yet, the fleeting moment that I shared with each of you brings a tightening sensation to my throat whenever I recall it; a sensation of hot, shame-filled nausea that makes me wince. 

You see, I saw you crying.

I saw you, with your head in your hands. You were sat on a doorstep, your back bent forwards and convulsing. The door to the flat behind you was wide open and through it I could see and hear children (yours?), running and screaming, being children. I saw you too, alone and looking lost in Hyde Park, post-Paul Simon on a hot summer evening. And I saw you, dragging a cumbersome suitcase across the road. From a distance the sight was nothing remarkable, but as you got closer, I saw the tears - fresh, untamable rivers that hurtled down your cheeks.

I looked away. I didn’t want you to feel embarrassed or vulnerable at my noticing you. I didn’t even feel sad for you at first, more intrigued. What had happened inside that flat? Had you lost your friends or had a fight? Where were you going? But once I’d asked all those questions, instinct took over. I started to wonder if you were safe – if they were tears of relief or of fear and dread. I felt completely helpless and yet entirely responsible. But I did nothing.

“It’s like a small cut on your finger that you forget about until you squeeze a lemon”

Something broke in me when I saw you all: not my heart, but something like it. I didn’t just feel it then, but 10 minutes later, a day, two days, a week, even now. It goes unnoticed until I’m washing the dishes, or wiping off my makeup, or staring through whatever Netflix show is on a screen – it’s like a small cut on your finger that you forget about until you squeeze a lemon. But whatever it is, it’s not broken because of you, it’s broken because of me. In the time it took for me to look back at you I made the choice not to stop and help, but to put my left foot forward, then my right, over and over until it was too late to turn back.

I was complicit in our species’ preoccupation with ‘don’t rock the boat’. Don’t get involved, don’t talk to strangers, don’t meddle in things you don’t understand. In one of the busiest cities in the world, we can go a whole day without talking to anyone. We put our headphones in and close ourselves off from the world – even when we see someone is suffering.

Ever since that first step I’ve been asking myself why I didn’t do anything. My natural instinct was to stop, take out my f**king earphones and ask if you were OK. But I felt torn: between what I wanted to do and what I’ve been told I shouldn’t. Would I be putting myself in danger by approaching your doorstep? Or even worse, you? Would you tell me to f**k off, leave you alone, mind my own business? Maybe. But the possibility of the alternative happening is, I now realise, more important. You might have have appreciated my ear, or my shoulder. You could have felt comforted and safe with a stranger. Above all, you would not have felt invisible in one of the loneliest cities on the planet.

“Next time, it will be different. Next time I won’t look away.”

What I’m trying to say is that next time, it will be different. Next time I won’t look away. Next time, I’ll take a moment to stop what I’m doing and check someone else is OK. Hand them a tissue, or buy them a bottle of water. Check they aren’t lost and that they aren’t alone. Even just a smile if I can sense they aren’t in the mood for a chat – and let’s be honest, not many of us are.

But it’ll also be different next time because I hope it won’t be any of you. I hope you’re OK – more than that, I hope you’re happy. That you went back inside and there was someone to help; that you found your friends; that you were going somewhere safe with that suitcase. I often imagine what you might be up to: taking pride in your work, drinking and laughing with friends, getting ready for a date or just being. But if you’re not, I hope someone else reads this and sits up. Takes note. I hope that if there is a next time, you find yourself looking up at someone who wants to help. Trust me, we’re out there.

All my love,

M x

Images: Unsplash