She used to bring a small stool and sit down on the pavement for periods of time just watching life pass. Or she would stand by the stool and stare. I don’t know how long she stayed there because I was normally driving or cycling past, doing something ‘useful’. But she was out there most days, somewhere in the area. And sometimes she would still be in exactly the same position when I came back.
One afternoon I saw her sat by a driveway, watching a man wash his car. She appeared engrossed and he unbothered. There was no conversation. She didn’t sit in one of our attractive parks or wander about in the beauty of central Oxford but out here on a pavement in a suburban area with a housing estate, a couple of schools and some backwater roads. I never saw her by the shops.
We’re not talking here about just summer or only in daylight. She was out at any time and in any and all weathers. Someone gave her a thick coat once after watching her sit there in the freezing cold, day after day one January. She was established in these habits when I arrived in the neighbourhood and was still there on her stool, 5 years later.
She was Chinese but with a skin discoloration which looked like she’d tried creams or medication at one stage to become more ‘white’- but it could just have been an accident of birth. At the time that she wandered about the neighbourhood with her stool, her hair was long and untended. She would sometimes carry an umbrella but only to keep off the sun.
My teenage daughter’s school friends were frightened of her. They thought she should just stay at home and watch TV. On her own? All day? Her behaviour struck me as being remarkably rational.
Someone has now ‘done something’ about her. I understand that she’s been re-housed in some supportive accommodation. She now has a neat short bob haircut and no longer carries a stool. She no longer stands or sits for periods of time on the street. I only see her occasionally and say hello.
I hope she’s happy and that this move has been good for her. For myself, it feels like a loss. Was it just that she acted like an interesting local landmark? Or was it her stillness? In the midst of the busyness of life, someone simply sitting and observing was strangely affirming and comforting. Or was it the fact that she was ‘allowed’ to be there by everyone. It was ok to behave in a different manner. A sign that there is still room in our community for ‘the other’?
If only people like that knew how important they were. Especially to people like me.