LIFE IN LONDON #02

I had spent the morning travelling to a GP clinic for the pleasure of obtaining a tuberculosis immunisation. I needed the shot for work, and hadn’t received it prior, despite my working in health in Australia, because in most first-world countries TB isn’t a particularly common disease. In fact, if I was working outside of London, just a few kilometres out, I wouldn’t need the shot either. It’s only here, in Central London, that tuberculosis is prevalent enough to warrant protection against it. I’m not sure what that says about the health conditions of Central London, but I’m choosing not to think about it too hard in case I ditch health altogether and go work in a supermarket.

(Actually, I’ve worked in a supermarket — I’d probably be more likely to catch something there. Between the customers and handling money, it’s basically a petri-dish of communicable diseases. Thank god the days are gone when I have to accept sweaty money pulled from an obese woman’s cleavage. Now I just shower the obese woman. Maybe a supermarket isn’t that bad? Moving on…)

The TB immunisation is unique in that it’s not injected deep into the muscle like most vaccines, but is delivered just under the skin. Long story short, I now have a cute little bubble of inactive tuberculosis in my upper arm. The doctor told me that this cute little bubble will decay into a sore, and not to worry when this happens. He said some people see the red swollen skin and leaking pus and think something’s gone wrong. I said this was a fair reaction to purulent muck leaking from an injection site. He said it was completely normal and could take six months to heal. So I have that to look forward to.

After leaving the clinic I walked to the closest township (my exercise has increased dramatically without access to a car. It’s amazing how having no other option can really motivate you to walk). My new room more closely resembles a cheap hotel bedroom than a warm familiar place in which I can tuck myself away, and this is solely because it’s without ornamentation. While I remain unreasonably proud that I moved overseas with nothing more than a fourteen kilogram bag, it did leave little space for personal items. I decided I needed to put something on the very white walls so headed to a store to print some photos. There was an hour wait while the photos were printed so I bought a sandwich from a supermarket and went for a wander around a nearby park.

It’s important to note that I had headphones on and was listening to a podcast while taking my meal and stroll. And not little earbuds that could be hidden in ears and under hair, but big proper headphones, the sort that engulf your entire ears and block out all other sounds.

The reason I point this out is because, whilst leaning against an outside table-tennis table in the park and enjoying the sun, I realised someone was talking to me. There was a black blur at the edge of my vision that was vaguely human shaped, and I could just make out the murmur of words outside the noise vacuum of my headphones. I turned and found a short squat middle-aged woman talking to me. Apparently unperturbed by my back being to her or the presence of my headphones, she happily nattered away, needing very little prompting to keep the one-sided conversation going.

I slipped my headphones around my neck and faced her, and discovered that she was talking to me about immigration. Let me give you some more information about my new friend and see if you can guess what her opinion was on this delicate topic.

My new friend was in need of a shower. Her black hair looked like something that had been pulled out of a clogged drain pipe and her clothes were of the caliber most people would delegate to rags. In fact, it looked like her clothes had been used as rags for many months, but then, desperate for an outfit, she decided to reverse her decision and upgrade them back to clothes before leaving the house.

My new friend was also in need of teeth. To give her credit, she did have a full set along the bottom, although they were black and a little worn. But where her top set should have been was nothing but pink gum. It was grotesquely mesmerising to watch her talk.

What she wasn’t in need of was a drink. I was happy to see she was remaining well hydrated, and happier still to see that inside the brown paper bag clutched in her fist was a 500ml bottle of Guinness. She was Irish, so I feel she’s entitled to this one. The woman was clearly a patriot. And for an adorable little touch, she was drinking her beer with a straw. Maybe lacking upper teeth makes drinking from a bottle a messy process.

Have you guessed what her opinion was on the complicated and human issue of immigration? That’s right, contestants, she was against it!

This woman’s opening statement in an attempt to broker conversation with a young man she didn’t know was racist comments. Isn’t that an incredible topic to use to break the ice? You have to admire her confidence.

My immediate thought was: “I don’t want to talk to you.” Followed quickly by: “I definitely don’t want to talk to you about immigration.” But I had twenty minutes to kill and rather than give in to the instinct to mutter something about buses to catch and making a get away, I decided to commit to having a conversation with this person. In my work, conversations with people outside the normal sphere of society are common, and given that I will be commencing work again soon, I saw it as a good easing in process. She was also a woman lonely and desperate enough for interaction that she approached a stranger wearing headphones for a talk. The least I could do would be to give her that. It would cost me nothing but time, and being currently unemployed, time is one thing I have in abundance.

Firstly, I had to change the topic away from immigration. While I was happy to converse with my new friend, I didn’t need to sit through her biased and ill-informed opinions on this topic, and didn’t think she’d appreciate my conflicting views, so I said, “It’s a complicated issue,” and then commented on her accent and asked how long she’d been in London.

By the end of our conversation I learnt these facts:

  • She’d been in London for thirty years. No, forty years. No, wait, thirty years (she was a bit unsure at first).
  • She was married to a dope addict.
  • She believed dope to be as addictive as hard drugs, and that it was a habit that could severely affect the people living with the addict. I was glad we’d found something we could agree on.
  • Her husband was currently in a jail, although she wasn’t sure which jail.
  • She was in the park today waiting until two o’clock when she could enquire after which jail her husband had recently been taken to.
  • She was a Catholic (she was Irish, so this wasn’t exactly surprising).
  • She was in the habit of swearing profusely, then apologising profusely for her swearing, before immediately swearing profusely once again. And then apologising profusely.

My watch ticked over to two o’clock which meant my photos were ready to be picked up. I looked at my new friend and said simply: “I have to go.” I wished her well with her hunt through the penitentiary system for her husband, and she spilled religious blessing upon me as I walked away, to which I replied: “You too!”

I gave her a wave and she smiled a half-toothed smile, and we parted ways.

Despite the obvious unpleasant aspects of talking to her, her body odour being just one, I don’t regret making the effort to converse. One thing working in health, and even in a supermarket, has taught me is how to talk to people. And more than that: how to empathise with them. A small dose of genuine empathy from me could change this woman’s day, and give me an insight into a life I’ve never, thankfully, had to live. A show of empathy is like a ticket into a deeper part of a person, where they keep the small truths and vulnerabilities they usually mask over. It’s easy to think that this woman was undeserving of empathy, that she is the product of life choices she’s made and is living the consequences of her actions, but this isn’t true. She is a person, and one who has had to face choices I’ve never had to think about. And while I wouldn’t want to maintain an ongoing relationship with her (as a drinking buddy, I’m pretty sure she could drink me under the table), I don’t mind sacrificing twenty minutes of my day to hear a slice of her story.

Anyway, that’s the tale of how I made my first friend in London. It can only go up from here.

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One comment

  1. sue robb · September 25, 2015

    Love your views on empathy – my locum work has introduced me to the methadone program on mass. The big thing I noticed straight away was the respect and empathy all the staff showed their clients. One staff member said to me that you have to admire that fact that the clients are trying to change their lives. And one client commented to me how he appreciates the respect he’s given. You’re right- you can change people’s day with empathy

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