A three hour coach ride passes so much better when you find yourself seated next to someone interesting to chat to.
My neighbour yesterday was, it emerged, travelling to London for a brief, bittersweet half day with her daughter. It was the girl’s birthday. She’d booked herself into a posh hotel in the West End. They were to have champagne, then lunch somewhere luxurious. The daughter would unwrap her presents then – ‘a comfort sack’ with such items as a thick duvet, pillow and covers, hand warmers, hot chocolate mix… Tomorrow the young lady will take all her spoils and return to Greece, where she works for the UN, caring for the refugees.
“It’s so desperately cold there, Mum,” she’d told her mother. “Just so desperate”.
I wondered how it felt for that young woman to move between those two quite different worlds – her opulent English lifestyle and the squalor and tragedy of the transit camps. How must the smells, the sounds, the sickness and pain feel to someone who has grown up in such a different culture? How, indeed, must it feel for the inhabitants of the camps, wrenched from their lives in such violence and terror?
“And you?” my neighbour enquired. “Why are you going to London?”
“Oh,” I said, with a slight smile, “I’m probably going to enjoy a few hours in the British Museum. And I might be meeting a friend.”
Well it was a long journey, so gradually my story came out too. If we did meet, it would be no less shocking and difficult a transition for my friend than her daughter’s move to Greece had been.
Just as the refugee camps would seem overwhelmingly disgusting and sickening to us – their sights, smells and emotional charge far beyond what we feel able to cope with – so our world is, for people like my friend. For him, and so many other super-sensitive people who live with autistic spectrum perception in its many and amazing forms, our world – in all its raw, visceral physicality can be almost too much to cope with. Their senses are easily overwhelmed by what, to us, would seem trivial. Their anxiety never sleeps. Their fears grapple constantly at their throats with sharp, threatening fingers. Small wonder so many would prefer to remain in the insular, relatively safe surroundings of the worlds they have built for themselves. Why – given the choice – would they venture out into the uncertainties of our unfamiliar and terrifying world?
The answer is the same as for the young lady working for the UN – compassion, humanity, generosity of spirit. They want to help us. They want to build bridges. They want to reach into our world and show us their perspectives. If they manage it, we will be so much richer for it, but if they don’t, we have no right to criticise them. Every single day, they struggle to do what they can to reach into our world. And there will be days they just can’t.
When I reached London, he was still at home, holed up in an agony of indecision. If he managed a meeting, it would be the first for many years. The least I could do was to make it as easy as possible for him.
‘No rush,’ I messaged. ‘I’ll head for the museum. Text me later if you feel able to meet somewhere.’
An hour later I was a stranger wandering in the world of the Abyssinians: huge bas-reliefs of Kings and courtiers. ‘Spirit helpers’ with the heads of eagles and small handbags held objects like oversized pine cones against the backs of the humans’ heads. Why? Pineal gland connection perhaps? What was in the bags? What favoured realm had these beings descended from, to help their human counterparts?
Then my phone pinged.
‘I’m going to come. I’m in central London. Shall I meet you at the British Museum or elsewhere?’
‘The museum’s crammed with people,’ I told him, when I’d had a moment. ‘Let’s meet in one of the squares nearby.’
On my way out I paused to stare in awe once again at the Rosetta stone, that magical jigsaw piece that had given the modern world a way into the world of other races at other times. For me, at that moment, the stone became a talisman, allowing my world and my friend’s to come together for a short while.
Bloomsbury, like much of London, has many lovely, peaceful squares – small oases of calm and greenery amidst the hubbub of traffic and commerce. I selected a calm, pleasant open space where I felt he’d be most comfortable, sat on a bench and waited. I sat at one end and placed my bags beside me, knowing he’d need more body space than most would consider normal for lifelong friends. I remained seated when he arrived. No exclamation of delight, no bear hugs or grasping of hands.
“Alright?” he said simply.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “And well done.”
Old friends. Old friends. Sat on a park bench like bookends.
Paul Simon’s song echoed in my mind from another of my distant worlds.
I’d written much of what I wanted to say on paper. He finds the written word easier to handle than speech – less unpredictable. So for the first few minutes he sat and read in silence. Then we talked. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead; body language and facial expression are confusing for him, so it’s easier if he cuts them out. Still there were deep discussions and moments of humour, with both of us laughing out loud. There were connections and shared memories of times when we’d spent so many days and hours together. It was wonderful.
And because I know he finds transitions difficult, I made the decision on when to leave. Or perhaps the weather did, as the rain that had been threatening all afternoon eventually began to fall.
Neither of us said, “See you soon.” Who knows? And what does it matter? Our worlds had come together for that short while without any explosions or disasters and we are closer for that experience.