I think I first noticed the man because he looked uncannily like a school teacher I’d had a positive relationship with. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I went to the supermarket, the man was always there. I’d say inside my head, ‘Good morning “Mr Collingwood”’ in that distinct rhythm we are all taught to address teachers by as school children.
Sometimes I’d meet ‘Mr Collingwood’ in one of the aisles; on other visits I’d see him, almost hunkered down, in the far corner of the car park, close to the railway line – my favourite parking spot.
When someone looks familiar, I think we signal something to the other person – perhaps we radiate a connection in the unconscious that they respond to.
Over the warm summer months it felt comfortable striking up a non-verbal, nodding acquaintance. When you see someone often enough on a regular route or passage, you begin to notice things about them. What I observed about ‘Mr Collingwood’ was that despite his slender frame he was always eating, but there were only ever two things he consumed: a large baguette pulled straight from the bread rack, cellophane wrapper rolled a little way down as he consumed it; or a family size bag of salt and vinegar chipsticks. Both the baguette and the chipsticks were eaten in a very similar manner – thumbs to the back of the packaging and fingers to the front. He would tilt his head down to a fixed position and then the packaging was raised close to his mouth as the food from within was consumed. It took a few observations before I was certain, but it became clear that bread was eaten inside the supermarket yet the salt and vinegar snacks were only ever eaten outside. In fact, the more often I saw him with the savoury snacks, the more I noticed he ate the sticks in a manner reminiscent of a horse with a nose bag, munching up the hay.
I’m not that certain how many times I actually saw ‘Mr Collingwood’ and I’m not sure how quickly I realised he had mental health issues, but we were exchanging a few words by the time the clocks went back in autumn. We never went beyond an ‘It’s warm today …’, ‘For the time of year …’ type of conversation, but it seemed appropriate, safe, friendly – respectful, even.
Shortly before Christmas, on my journey to the supermarket I was overtaken by a police car. At the roundabout, which is the entry road to the store, I could see, close to my parking spot, another police car. The traffic quickly began to back up at the railway crossing and it was clear that a late middle age man, stripped to the waist, was in major distress in the middle of the track. Those with mental health problems need to be treated sensitively and it is incumbent upon police officers to respond in such a manner. Being the first at a scene like this you’d hope the officers had extensive training in how to calm a situation and deal with the distress. But how can this really be expected of a service that was created for very different purposes? I took a look at the officers. They were young and I’m certain trying to do their best, but watching the scene from the car park it was apparent that every time a uniformed figure approached and shouted out to the half-naked figure, a wave of distress racked the figure’s body. He repeatedly raised his hand then smashed his fists on his body like a man boxing an internal shadow he was trying to rid himself of. I looked around for ‘Mr Collingwood’ and my heart leapt; for a moment I didn’t catch my breath and then a tear pricked my eye. It was poor ‘Mr Collingwood’ who was on the railway line. I pushed myself forward for a few metres and talked to the female officer closest to me.
‘I wonder if I can help?’ I asked.
‘No sir, we have to keep you back this side of the line,’ she replied.
‘I know this man a little; I’m a psychotherapist.’
What the hell am I saying!! This isn’t my line of work anymore. I’ve not worked in a hospital department since 2004.
‘We have called for an appropriate medical professional sir, if you could just stand back please.’ And I watched as three other officers tried to herd ‘Mr Collingwood’ like a farm animal.
I’ve not seen him since at the supermarket; I miss our nods and acknowledgements of the simple things we’ve noticed of the day. I hope you are well ‘Mr Collingwood’, I hope you are well.
Duncan suggests …
… talking to people in the world as we pass through. Little acknowledgements or kind words can be important connections for us all.
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